Even at the dawn of the digital age, Canadians are least impressed by Internet sites and most trusting of museums when judging the reliability of information about the country's past.
In responding to a nationwide survey of more than 2,300 Canadians — commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies and carried out by the firm Leger Marketing — 84 per cent expressed either "very strong" or "somewhat strong" levels of trust in the way museums present historical eras, issues, people and events.
At the bottom of the ranking — behind museums, books, teachers and direct witnesses of the past — were Internet sources of historical content.
About 52 per cent of respondents said they trust websites when it comes to information about the past, and only five per cent conveyed a "very strong" faith in online sources.
By contrast, museums held the "very strong" trust of 25 per cent of those surveyed.
A little more than three-quarters of all respondents (75.6 per cent) considered history books somewhat or very trustworthy. Witnesses to history — such as Second World War soldiers recalling that era — were deemed reliable by 73 per cent, and history teachers earned the approval of 71 per cent of respondents.
ACS executive director Jack Jedwab said he believes respondents were expressing a belief that museums "have the best vetting process" for historical information placed in public exhibitions.
"People understand they've got more on the line, and are more objective" in presenting history to Canadians, he added. "They're going to do several checks and reviews of the accuracy of what they're presenting. I think people intuitively understand that."
At the same time, said Jedwab, Canadians seem to be raising questions about how "rigorous the process of fact-checking is" with historical content on the Internet.
The survey results appear to pose a conundrum for history institutions — including museums themselves, which are funded largely by governments — because they have been investing heavily in creating online content, developing mobile apps and otherwise exploiting digital technologies to reach more people and to give greater exposure to their collections and exhibitions.
"There's a big challenge, here, no question about it," said Jedwab. "Because on the other hand, the Internet is also the source where people can access historical information quickly and at the lowest possible cost."
Overall, he suggests, the survey results reflect a kind of "scrutiny scale" at work when people judge various sources of historical content.
"I think people are looking at that and saying, well, at the top of the scale — the most scrutinized — are museums, and at the bottom of the scale, the least scrutinized, is all of that information appearing on the Internet — even though that's where we're continually being directed to and where we're (publicly) investing."
A total of 2,345 Canadians were surveyed online in September and October. Results reflect a potential margin of error of two per cent, 19 times out of 20.