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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Trusting records: the evolution of legal, historical, and diplomatic methods of assessing the trustworthiness of records from antiquity to the digital age MacNeil, Heather Marie


A trustworthy record is one that is both an accurate statement of facts and a genuine manifestation of those facts. Record trustworthiness thus has two qualitative dimensions: reliability and authenticity. Reliability means that the record is capable of standing for the facts to which it attests, while authenticity means that the record is what it claims to be. The trustworthiness of records as evidence is of particular interest to legal and historical practitioners who need to ensure that records are trustworthy so that justice may be realized or the past understood. Traditionally, the disciplines of law and history have relied on the guarantee of trustworthiness inherent in the circumstances surrounding the creation and maintenance of records. For records created by bureaucracies, that trustworthiness has been ensured and protected through the mechanisms of authority and delegation, and through procedural controls exercised over record-writers and record-keepers. As bureaucracies rely increasingly on new information and communication technologies to create and maintain their records, the question that presents itself is whether these traditional mechanisms and controls are adequate to the task of verifying the degree of reliability and authenticity of electronic records, whose most salient feature is the ease with which they can be invisibly altered and manipulated. This study explores the evolution of means of assessing the trustworthiness of records as evidence from antiquity to the digital age, and from the perspectives of law and history; and examines recent efforts undertaken by researchers in the field of archival science to develop methods for ensuring the trustworthiness of electronic records specifically, based on a contemporary adaptation of diplomatics. Diplomatics emerged in the seventeenth century as a body of concepts and principles for determining the authenticity of medieval documents. The exploration reveals the extent to which legal, historical, and diplomatic methods operate within a framework of inferences, generalizations and probabilities; the degree to which those methods are rooted in observational principles; and the continuing validity of a best evidence principle for assessing record trustworthiness. The study concludes that, while the technological means of assessing and ensuring record trustworthiness have changed fundamentally over time, the underlying principles have remained remarkably consistent.

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