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Authenticity and reliability

Authenticity

A record is authentic if it is what it appears to be. If you can prove that a record was created by a certain person during the course of their work, it is likely to be authentic.

We have all heard of ‘fake’ paintings. The same principle applies to archives but records which are not authentic are not normally meant to deceive or defraud people in the same way. Just as we copy documents on a computer or photocopier, people used to copy them by hand. A copy of a lease, for example, is not authentic as a lease, but it is authentic as a copy of a lease. If it was carefully made, it may still be reliable.

Reliability

Some authentic records might not be reliable. In most cases, records were created for a different purpose to that which researchers use them for. It can be good to reflect on the original purpose of a record and consider whether you believe it to be a true record of the events it describes. Questions you might want to think about include:

  • Does this record contradict something I’ve read elsewhere?
  • Was the record created long after the events it describes?
  • Did the creator of this record have anything to gain from creating a false record?
  • Was the creator of this record biased?
  • Could the record have been altered after it was made?

Do I trust this record?

Deciding whether or not to trust a record can be difficult, which is one reason that different people will often describe historical events in very different ways. When using archives, people need to interpret records and make such decisions as part of their own research.

A record may be authentic or reliable without being both, in which case you will often have to decide whether to trust it or not. Here are some challenging examples:

  • Records such as leases were routinely copied so that both the landlord and the tenant could have a copy. Such copies are often marked with the word ‘copy’, begging the question ‘where is the original?’.
  • A ‘certified copy’ is a copy which somebody (usually a legal professional) has added their signature or seal to in order to prove that the information it contains is identical to the original record. They can be made much later than the events they describe. Such documents are not authentic but might be considered as reliable as the original document. If they are certified by the correct person you might decide that the record can be trusted.

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