Monday, January 7, 2013

Why document?

There's been a lot of discussion of late about documentation for A&S projects and it's got me a bit upset.  The debate has been running for awhile but it seems to have come to a head recently as the kingdom I live in has recently reworked it's A&S judging forms and given a greater weight to documentation in the scoring, so that it now accounts for 30% of the total score rather than 20% under the old system.

I stepped up as MOAS (minister of art and sciences for the non-SCA folks out there, basically the arts and education coordinator) for my local group a year ago. In that role, I have to run and help judge competitions as well as teach classes and help coordinate some kind of educational program for the barony.  For the previous two years I was heavily involved in competitions and displays, first as Baronial A&S Champion and then just because it was fun and I had built up a lot of momentum the year before.  There is no way to do any of these things without some form of documentation for your work.  There just isn't.  I cannot asses the work of another artisan as a judge* if I do not know what that work is supposed to be, where they got the inspiration for it, and at least something about how they made it.  I cannot teach a class about a subject that pertains to the middle ages without doing some kind of research and documenting that subject matter, that's sort of the point of teaching the class in the first place.  As a competitor, I do myself a disservice if I don't provide at least some basic documentation as I am not providing the judges with information about my work, my skill level, and the processes I used.  I have seen artisans judged on aspects of their display rather on the piece they had actually created because they failed to provide documentation and judged more harshly than they would otherwise have been because the judges did not know they were new to the art.

Good documentation does not and should not have to be a 75 page dissertation.  With very few exceptions, three written pages and a handful of pictures should be enough to explain what you made, why you made it, and how you did it, and give a little bit of the historical context of the thing in question.  Show me, the judge or curious passer-by, that you know where this thing fits into the wider world and give me the information I need to evaluate your work.  If it's a perfect replica of a thing in a museum, give me a enough information so that I can see that.  Otherwise how will I know?  That is all that is needed for this 30% boost in your score.

Novice competitions that require no documentation do no one any good.  They only serve to reinforce the idea that documentation is hard and scary and bad, and that A&S competitions are run and judged by mean, scary people who value academic attachments over the craft itself.  That's not the case at all.  The documentation is what allows us to asses all the other criteria we use for evaluating a thing and an artisans development; craftsmanship,  historical accuracy,  complexity and even aesthetic value.  Documentation is about showing your work, not about writing a thesis, and showing what you have learned in the process of making the thing you are sharing.  I have seen more new artisans come away from such competitions frustrated and hurt because their entries were improperly judged, not out of malice or cruelty but because of misunderstanding resulting from lack of documentation in the last year than I care to count.  I for one will not do that to any artisan, particularly a novice artisan, and would rather sit them down with a notepad and have them write out at least some basic information about the entry when they drop it off than have them leave something without any supporting documentation at all.  It isn't difficult, it won't get them full marks, but it will get them past the idea that documentation is a dirty word and a beyond their capabilities.

*I should note that I personally don't judge very often, save at local events when absolutely necessary, as I am not a member of one of the A&S orders or have any other particular qualifications to do so.  I do however talk a lot of my local members down after bad judging experiences and talk to a lot of judges at local event, universities, and any other event where I can or where I have members of my group competing or displaying. I have also been judged both kindly and less so, and solicited feedback from many of my own judges, which is always a good thing to do.


  1. I think that a simple documentation form might be in order. Just something like "What is the object? What time period is the object from? What culture is the object from? What materials were used originally and what materials were used to recreate the object? If there is any differences in materials, please explain why. A picture of the original object or inspiration object or a brief description."

    Most documentation I've done has only been a page without pictures. However, pictures go a LONG way to helping to explain what the heck it is you are attempting to do.

    1. Have you seen Karen Lasdatter's EZDoc forms? You can access them here - It's a form that guides you through creating documentation, asking the basic who, what, where, when, why and how questions and then spitting out a nice PDF. It makes things a whole lot easier for the documentation-phobic.

  2. Lady Oda,
    This is a wonderfully written message. With your permission I would like to forward it to my local group.

    Lady Murienne

    1. Please feel free to forward it as you see fit! If it will help someone get out at least a 3x5 card and some pictures or go look at Karen Larsdatter's forms I've done my job!

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly, and I think one possible solution would be to have copies of Karen Larsdatter's easy documentation forms available at the competition. I've also thought over the possibility of having drop-in documentation tutorials/help at something like Kingdom A&S and/or University - I know that Belphoebe teaches an excellent documentation class, but maybe if we had more willing helpers on the ground?

    -Beatriz Aluares de la Oya

    1. I think drop-in help would be a great idea! I've thought about doing that locally, but doing that at a large scale event might actually work better as folks would get to work with someone they don't see every week and maybe less intimated by. I teach a class here too at least once a year and have been working on re-doing it so it's less about documentation and more about project management, with an eye towards having everything you need to do the documentation ready to go. Sort of documentation in disguise. Talking to people over the last year, I think disorganization from the start is a big part of the problem and that might help.

      The more people who care and who are willing to say something the better for all of us.

  4. Exactly. How should the judge know that you used period materials that you crafted through multiple stages if you don't tell them and you don't show that this was the process. That inspiration picture is worth tons. Do you want me to guess and base it off my faulty memory either a picture I saw ten years ago (or one I may never have seen) or just be able to look at the one you used and compare.

    Back in 2009 as a response to much the same issue I wrote out a Basic Documentation Recipe card that I tend to hand out as often as possible. (Hi, you might know someone that could find this useful or could help me improve the recipe.)

    My apprentice hosts a copy of my thoughts on it and a link to a PDF that can be printed out.

    I have to say, I love Karen's take on this as it cuts out even more of the "how do I format this" questions.

    Sigrid Briansdotter