Monday, January 24, 2011

Lincoln document at NARA altered by researcher

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, "National Archives Discovers Date Change on Lincoln Record," 25 January 2011.

Archivists devote a lot of attention to ensuring that researchers don't take records out of our facilities, but we don't always think about what they might be bringing in to our repositories. However, as recent events in the United States and the United Kingdom reveal, theft merely one of a host of malicious threats to the documentary record: fraudulent alteration and augmentation can be every bit as damaging.

Earlier today, the U.S National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) revealed that a researcher clandestinely changed the date on a 14 April 1864 pardon issued by President Abraham Lincoln by changing the "4" in "1864" to a "5" -- and thus giving the misleading impression that signing the pardon was one of Lincoln's last official acts. (Lincoln was shot at approximately 10:13 PM on 14 April 1865 and died nine hours later.)

Researcher Thomas Lowry snuck a pen into NARA's research room and the altered the date [images here] in an effort to bolster his scholarly reputation, and it worked: his "discovery" of the pardon garnered a substantial amount of media attention, resulted in the exhibition of the pardon in the rotunda of NARA's Archives I facility in Washington, DC, and helped to propel sales of his book.

Kudos to Trevor Plante, the eagle-eyed NARA archivist who suspected that something was amiss, contacted NARA's Office of the Inspector General, and did the historical research that confirmed his suspicions, and to NARA's Office of the Inspector General, which investigated the matter and secured Lowry's confession. Lowry's misdeed came to light well after the statute of limitations on prosecution expired, but he has been banned from NARA. Moreover, his scholarly reputation -- which is obviously of great importance to him -- is ruined.

NARA is not the only institution that has had to deal with a researcher seeking to alter the documentary record: in 2008, the National Archives of the United Kingdom discovered that researcher Martin Allen had clandestinely inserted 29 forged documents into 12 separate files documenting the activities of British secret agents during the Second World War. Allen, who used a laser printer to produce the forged records, then cited them in his books, which claimed, among other things, that the Duke of Windsor was a traitor, that Winston Churchill had ordered British agents to murder Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, and that the British had entered into clandestine peace negotiations with the Nazis. Much to the dismay of many historians and archivists, the Crown Prosecution Service ultimately determined that prosecuting Allen, whose health was fragile, would not serve the national interest.

Let's start taking a closer look at the writing implements and research materials that our users bring to our research rooms -- doing so protects our researchers, protects us, and, most importantly, protects our records.

(A big tip o' the hat goes to Richard Pearce-Moses for alerting me to today's NARA story.)

1 comment:

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