Blog Post

On verification and authenticity


As an archivist (and archival educator-in-training), something that comes up a lot in discussions of digital preservation is authenticity. How can archivists, patrons, and other stakeholders be certain that a digital document is authentic, trusted, verified? This is obviously a fertile topic for debate, and one that has been covered extensively in the archival (and other) literature as technology and training have developed.

One thing, however, that is not usually questioned so much: the idea that paper-based older materials are understood to be authentic. This week, the Archivist of the United States and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the information that a well-known researcher had deliberately changed the date on a Lincoln document, and then published his "finding" that he had discovered perhaps the last document that Lincoln signed before heading off to Ford's Theater on that fateful April night. (See

What to make of this? Does this finding have implications for digital/digitized historical records? By creating a digital surrogate of some records, could this situation be avoided in the future-- or is it more likely that the digital record could be altered in a similar fashion?


1 comment


Seems the potential cuts both ways. If it becomes standard practice for an archival institution to have tightly controlled digital copies of its hard-copy materials, these could serve a similar function to Basler's "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln" in the NARA story but, of course, with the added advantage that (presumably?) the digitization process unlike transcription processes would not be suspected of introducing error to the copy if done internally. But, of course, as you note, once a digital copy is out in public all sort of chicanery and creative adaptation can take place but that risk vs. making content more widely available to those without the resources or credentials to access original copies seems worth it. So, I guess a larger question is: what do 21st-century 'investigative archivists' need to know in order to verify authenticity, particularly if the hard-copy source document were no longer extant?  I had never heard that term investigative archivist before. Is that a common term? A redundant term?