Fonds versus Function: The Evolving Nature of Provenance and Original Order

For almost two centuries, the concepts of provenance and original order have been the hallmarks of archival thought and philosophy. These concepts date back to 1841, when the French historian, librarian and archivist Natalis de Wailly called on archivists to “respect des fonds.”[1] When translated from the French, respect des fonds means “respect for the collection.” As expressed by de Wailly and many others since the nineteenth century, respect for an archival collection emphasized respect for the individual, family or organization responsible for the creation of an archival source. The origin of this source became its provenance; a term which has been subsequently used by other disciplines such as archaeology, art history, and museology. A concomitant respect was reserved for how an archival source was originally conceived and organized by its creator. This was a collection’s original order; the order by which a creator decided to catalog their own materials. This ordering was deemed to be logical and conclusive by the archivist.

These two principles were subsumed into the idea of the fonds. More broadly construed, the fonds can be understood as a dual-ordered principle containing a certain kind of religiosity. For instance, traditional archivists would forever hallow the revelation of the archive, or how an archival unit or collection was revealed to them from the moment it came into their care. This professional calling, almost religious in its construction, meant that preservation was the archivist’s sole responsibility. In other words, collections were meant to stay fixed in their original form without being altered, rearranged or reinterpreted. In short, archives were never meant to be remade, according to the classicists of the profession.

Over time, however, the principles of provenance and original order have changed. In some cases they have been done away with entirely. But we can see how these concepts grounded the archive and led to the idea of recorded fixity, so crucial to the modernist-positivist stance on archival custody. This stance, if we recall, asserted that archives were these “building blocks” of historical narrative that lead to an elusive yet absolute value. Namely, the “evidentiary” value as articulated by T. R. Schellenberg. For instance, when considered in their aggregate or final archival form, records were believed to embody objective truth. Thereafter, nonintervention and preservation became the clarion calls of the profession. But if records are to be preserved in their original form, in accordance with the ideas of provenance and original order, then there can be no room for reappraisal.

With the especial intervention of postmodernism into the archival profession, archives have been subjected to criticism and the possibility of reappraisal. For instance, textual criticism released records from their ideological moorings and the considerably laissez-faire attitude which predominated during the modernist period. As Heather MacNeil writes: “[t]his scholarship argues in various ways that cultural texts – whether literary, artistic, or architectural – are not fixed or stabilized at one moment in time; rather, they are in a continuous state of becoming, as they are resituated and recontextualized in different environments and by different authorities.”[2] As MacNeil aptly demonstrates, archives are invariably cultural texts. Historically, however, archives escaped this appellation because they were presumed to have reached an apotheosis of meaning. Collections that were aggregated and well- defined, whether having originated from an individual, family or organization, were deemed absolute and unimpeachable. Indeed, in the modern tradition of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, provenance and original order were used as justifications to protect the concept of evidentiary value.

The fonds has been the standard guiding principle for the arrangement of archival collections for many years. Arrangement, for just as long, has been a singularly significant act; an act with considerable socio-historical import. For example, as archivists took collections into their custody, each collection’s relative value went unquestioned. This was part and parcel of modern archival theory and praxis. Collections were considered to have an objective meaning that was unique in their particular historicity, and this objective meaning was meant to be preserved in perpetuity. But MacNeil shows how objective archival arrangement is a flawed starting point. For instance, the irony of arrangement is that the historical use of purportedly “evidential” archives relies on a certain degree of subjectivity. Indeed, no custodian or researcher is purely objective when using an archive. Even as archives are consulted for objective purposes, like writing a sanctioned state history, for example, their original order is slowly altered through the transference of custodial environments. MacNeil says: “[t]he orders given to the records by their various custodians – or at least what survives of these various orders – are as relevant to the present meaning and authenticity of the archive as the order given to the records by its creator.”[3]  This fact completely undermines the concept of original order.

MacNeil’s article is helpful in illustrating the point that archives do not have fixed meanings. Instead, archives accrue meaning depending on who is using them, whether that person is a researcher or a custodian. This phenomenon also underscores the postmodern idea of différance as articulated by Jacques Derrida; the important postmodern figure cited by many post-custodians, namely Terry Cook. Différance, for example, asserts that cultural texts only have meaning when individual readers come into contact with them. This idea applies to archives as well. Indeed, in order to truly guarantee preservation, archives must continually be used or activated. When archives are thusly activated, they invariably adopt new meanings through the process of being “resituated” and “recontextualized.” This is an important analysis, and it should be a clear objective for archival studies in the twenty-first century. Still, provenance and original order have historically codified archival schemas of arrangement which have privileged singular narrative representations. Out of the fonds, archivists have circumscribed historical narratives in a single act; the act of appraisal. Although archival collections may gradually lose their original meanings through the subjective nature of human activity, cultural hegemony can be sustained through certain normative and institutional fonds.

A safer approach to archival appraisal, arrangement and description can be found in the functional approach to archives. This approach is central to a post-custodial vision of archival care. For example, functional analysis treats records as distinct entities, stripping them of their ontological wholeness as presumed by modern archival theory. MacNeil concluded her article with a nod to functional analysis by stating: “…while an understanding of the functions records fulfilled in their original environment informs our understanding of how to treat them over the long term, such understanding should also remind us that the records no longer fulfill those functions.”[4] Here, MacNeil is saying that archives serve an originary function which is unique to the individual or entity responsible for the creation of that archive. For example, a personal letter may possess an emotional salience that only the author can understand. Likewise, a business contract may signal an obligation which is only applicable between two persons. When items like these are archived, however, they acquire cultural meanings which supersede the strictly personal meanings that were attached to the archive’s originary function. In other words, when time disassociates the archive from its creator, usually through the process of the creator’s own mortality, the archive undergoes a change. This change is not insubstantial. Indeed, either an archive can retain its original meanings by being sealed away after the creator’s death, or an archive can assume new meanings through the activations of a wider public.

The functional approach to archival management is promising because it holds the entities that create records at a critical distance. For example, archivists who subscribe to institutional functional analysis will research the institutions that fall under their scope. As Marcus C. Robyns’ explains: “…the archivist first determines what the institution does and how it does it. He or she then identifies and decides the relative value of the institution’s key functions and from this analysis resolves the location and relative value of the records that document these functions.”[5] Before, as archivists worked from the dual-ordered principle of the fonds, relative value was largely ignored in favor of evidentiary value. But functional analysis isolates the relative importance of an institution’s functional activities. From this starting point, records can be carefully selected for archival appraisal.

In institutional functional analysis, respect for provenance is still adhered to as records are linked to their creators. But instead of being described as part of a larger contingent of records, functional archives are considered worthy of description all the way down to the item level. In other words, singular archival records can acquire a life of their own in terms of context and representation. This is an important development because it allows for an archive to showcase other historical actors; not just a series’ owner like a government office or a “distinguished” donor.

One may wonder how the functional approach can commence when it’s point of departure for arrangement and description is item-level analysis. After all, it is well-known in the profession that describing archives at the item level is grossly impractical in terms of staff time and resources. This reality was overwhelmingly demonstrated by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner in their seminal article More Product, Less Process.[6] But functional analysis is misunderstood if one believes that the functional approach necessarily means dissecting every sheath of paper that enters into an archive. Instead, functional analysis is a forward-thinking strategy. For instance, after writing and revising institutional or administrative histories, archivists can determine which of the functions of an institution will be more likely to produce valuable archives. This was the process undertaken by Robyns and Jason Woolman at the Central Upper Peninsula and Norther Michigan University (NMU) Archives. After identifying various administrative functions that fit into the overarching mission of the larger academic institution, retention schedules were created to help guide the selection of records with relative importance. However, the authors of the NMU study warn that effective functional analysis requires cooperation and good working relations between archivists and the creating entities within their scope. This dynamic is not always guaranteed. Still, the functional approach to archives is a method that helps ensure meaningful collections. Through functional analysis, new meanings can take shape as well as new revelations that were previously hidden in the initial reveal of the fonds.

While functional archives certainly present a promising alternative to the dogmatism inherent in the modern view of the fonds, there are legal issues that arise in terms of access. For example, Steven Bingo illustrates that archival donors seldom wish for their collections to become destabilized in meaning. By way of Helen Nissenbuam, Bingo writes: “[c]ontextual integrity… is violated when information divulged within one context is recast in another context, particularly of how the information is allowed to flow in radically different ways.”[7] This idea of contextual integrity can problematize the creation of a postmodern, functional and interactive archive. Indeed, the concept of provenance often revolves around aspects of donor privacy, such as confidentiality and agreements to donor rights. In short, there are moral and legal parameters to allowing the context of an archive to change. Bingo offers some helpful suggestions for mitigating donor risk while at the same time enhancing collection value. Fruitful conversations can come from donor/archivist collaborations, where the donor can be apprised of provenance and functional analysis, and the archivist can determine how to best provide prudent access. But privacy and access are issues which will continue to be of paramount importance for archivists, especially as the profession moves away from modern theories of appraisal, arrangement and description.


Bingo, Steven. “Of Provenance and Privacy: Using Contextual Integrity to Define Third Party Privacy.” The American Archivist Vol. 74 (Fall/Winter 2011): 507.

Greene, Mark A. and Dennis Meissner. “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing.” The American Archivist 68, (Fall/Winter 2005): 208-263.

MacNeil, Heather. “Archivalterity: Rethinking Original Order.” Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 66, Fall (2008): 1-24.

Millar, Laura A. Archives Principles and Practices. Chicago, IL.: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2017.

Robyns, Marcus C., and Jason Woolman. “Institutional Functional Analysis at Northern Michigan University: A New Process of Appraisal and Arrangement of Archival Records.” The American Archivist 74, (Spring/Summer 2011): 241-256.

Internal Citations

[1] Laura A. Millar, Archives Principles and Practices (Chicago, IL: ALA Neal-Schuman. 2017), 45.

[2] Heather MacNeil, “Archivalterity: Rethinking Original Order,” Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, Vol. 66 (Fall 2008): 2.

[3] MacNeil, “Archivalterity,” 17.

[4] MacNeil, “Archivalterity,” 21.

[5] Marcus C. Robyns and Jason Woolman, “Institutional Functional Analysis at Northern Michigan University: A New Process of Appraisal and Arrangement of Archival Records,” The American Archivist, Vol. 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 244.

[6] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist, Vol. 68 (Fall/Winter 2005): 208-263.

[7] Steven Bingo, “Of Provenance and Privacy: Using Contextual Integrity to Define Third-Party Privacy,” The American Archivist, Vol. 74 (Fall/Winter 2011): 507.


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