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.


Eastwood on Appraisal

In Currents of Archival Thinking, Terry Eastwood delineates the history of archival appraisal in a similar fashion to how Blouin (1999) and Hohmann (2016) described the historical arc of the profession. Eastwood gives an overview of the very stark paradigm shift that occurred as traditional positivism and essentialism yielded to postmodernism. As Eastwood explains, over time the profession’s most respected figures gradually moved away from viewing history and truth as uniform and objective to understanding these concepts as being much more relative and destabilized in meaning.

Eastwood goes back further in time than Blouin or Hohmann by exploring the nineteenth-century of archives. He demonstrates how records were couched in terms relating to natural law. Like Blouin, who mentioned that archivists have traditionally been neutral agents of nation-states complicit in perpetuating established powers, Eastwood demonstrates that records were assumed to have more authority the higher up they were on the hierarchical ladder. For example, organizational records were seen to be more “authentic” than private papers. Public archives were deemed more important than private ones. So, there was a natural order to records that very much mimicked the hierarchical orders of society.

Eastwood also discusses the rampant growth of records and how this changed the practice of archival science. If the postwar era of Jenkinson’s time was the first moment of fragmentation in documentary history, the next moment of major disruption, according to Eastwood, occurred during the advent of the welfare state. The first fragmentation occurred as a result of increased efforts to secure national security by figuring out how to optimally mobilize industrial resources and manpower, which created reams of records usually in the form of memos and correspondences. The second fragmentation occurred due to government intervention into just about all areas of human activity, creating paper trails for all citizens. Finally, this emphasis on human activity forced archivists into realizing that all records are products of human activity, and that the use of records will change because human activity is a mutable thing. This observation made it imperative for archivists to get a hold of records basically from the moment of their creation in order to understand and describe their original purposes, because provenance itself changed meaning. Instead of having a fixed meaning as being the result of some original and special dispensation, provenance itself  became “mutable and multifaceted”

Eastwood demonstrates his allegiance to postmodernism by stating that archives are not sources of truth, that they only have meaning relative to the user or reader of the archives. In this way, archives represent “traces of thought, expression, and activity.” Eastwood would immediately have archivists give up any conception of records serving as evidence of reality (being of “evidentiary value”), and instead have archivists focus on contextualizing memories that are triggered when readers select and use the archives.

Considering Web Classification

For those with a more traditional background in library science, or simply with experience in cataloging departments, I think it may be too easy to feel that cataloging has to be a manual process, controlled by the human cataloger. This may be the case with books, because they have physical dimensions and cataloging-in-publication data which needs to be entered into a cataloging system, either through the process of copy cataloging or original cataloging. Moreover, some libraries may take the liberty to add subject headings to cataloging records that meet the criteria of their own hand-selected collections. However, web resources are a different beast. Classifying web resources can seem like a daunting task because there is such a proliferation of content on the Web, including not just static webpages, but blogs, wiki’s, and videos. The discussion of cataloging web resources once revolved around deciding how to classify just webpages, but now it is a question of classifying web content, which relies increasingly on metadata standards like Dublin Core. The Dublin Core Initiative measures not only standard bibliographic attributes, but those unique to the Web, such as creator(s), format, type of resource, etc.

I think for awhile now we have seen a move away from Library of Congress classification (LCC) or Dewey Decimal classification (DDC), especially in regards to classifying the semantic web. In fact, I have not seen any earnest discussion of applying these classification schemas to web resources. The two projects that had earnestly tried to apply LCC or DDC were the CyberStacks Project out of Iowa State University and OCLC’s NetFirst. These projects seem all but dead now. I think the reason is that applying the alphanumeric codes of LCC and DDC is a process which relies on human matching of subject disciplines, which is just too much of a Sisyphean task when it comes to Web resources. In other words, it is still too difficult for artificial intelligence and machine learning to pin down subject disciplines based on keyword analysis. That being said, we are not without commercialized computer resources to aid in the classification of web resources. There are automated tools which index just about anything they are programmed to index, like web-based keywords or metatags.

These tools make the bibliographic management of the web possible. Bibliometric mapping of the Web can produce large databases of indexed material, which puts the Internet in the cross-hairs of catalogers. So ideally, the best “system” to classify Web materials is to use the many tools that are available to digital librarians which allow for taking bibliographic snapshots of the Web, such as webcrawlers designed for the purpose.

As far as the ephemeral nature of the Web goes, I do not think LIS professionals need to concern themselves too much with cataloging Web material that eventually disappears due to link rot. Canonical webpages – or webpages of content that are sponsored – will provide enough material for catalogers to work on. I see this as being no different than cataloging books that have gone through the publication process. There has always been a certain authority that measures bibliographic worth. Of course, I am aware of the implications of leaving out self-created folk content. But the original purpose of cataloging was to capture the whole of knowledge as nearest as possible, and there is enough information out there to catalog, in print form and on the Web, in order to accomplish this objective.

At any rate, indexing the semantic web through the use of automated products produces large and numerous digital libraries. My ideal system for classifying web resources would be, for starters, a greater emphasis on this endeavor. But also the application of useful digital tools to aid the cataloger in matching content to knowledge base.

The Infinite Archive

Eric Ketelaar’s paper, Archives as Spaces of Memory, struck me as an important contribution to the paradigmatic postmodern literature on archives. Ketelaar’s paper is divided into two main sections. In the first section, he discusses the differences between legal records and archival records. This discussion is framed by an interesting contextual history of the Nuremberg trials. The second section of Ketelaar’s paper focuses on the concept of Archives 2.0, in which the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as “annotation systems, wikis, clusters of blogs, social network visualisations, social recommender systems, and new ways of visualising conversations…” (18) can enliven the use and impact of archives on society. Throughout the paper, Ketelaar’s thesis remains clear. He argues that archival records – when opened up to a community for participatory interaction – can strengthen communal bonds which invariably heal societies that have undergone a traumatic experience or sequence of traumas.

When discussing the Nuremberg trials, Ketelaar argued that the law itself, even the successful service of justice through and by the law, is not enough to bring closure to the victims of an atrocity. He quotes Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda who says: “the past for victims and survivors, and their families, is ‘unfinished business’: they go on searching for meaning how the humiliations, the cruelties, the systematic destruction could have come about” (13). In other words, when the trial is over, the perpetrators of a crime are dealt with accordingly by the justice system, but the memory of what happened – the trauma – continues to affect the victims. The courts, however, are impartial and unemotional, and as far as they are concerned, when guilt has been proven and criminals are indicted, there is nothing left for them to do. Indeed, legal records in a trial are meant to be used by the prosecutors to serve an objective, finite end. Once the case is closed, the records are sealed away. As Ketelaar writes, “[t]he law aspires to a degree of finality, that neither History nor Memory does” (11).

Ketelaar’s conception of the “infinite archive” suggests that records are meant to be used ad infinitum for purposes that are restorative and creative. He says that “[a] record is never finished, never complete, the record is ‘always in a process of becoming” (12). This is the main difference between the two record groups as discussed by Ketelaar. He would likely maintain that legal records are these stale things which, while they are very important in their own right and can certainly be archived, they are not infinitely archival. According to Ketelaar, archives can heal trauma(s) because the records contained within have the power to serve what he refers to as “memory-justice” (13). Indeed, archival records, unlike law records, can be used or “activated” by the victims of history. They can be tapped for their healing powers by victimized or marginalized groups of people. Legal records cannot.

I think this is an important consideration. Knowing that archival records can be used as therapeutic resources, it becomes imperative to discover new and effective ways of providing access to archives. This is why Ketelaar shifts in his discussion to talk about Archives 2.0. By now, it is obvious that new media and social networking have produced novel ways of engaging in cultural modes of thought and creation. Ketelaar brings up some important concepts in this section such as “parallel provenance” and “co-creatorship.” In terms of archives, these concepts support the Records Continuum Model of Frank Upward. Ketelaar writes, “the social and cultural phenomenon of co-creatorship entails a shift of the traditional paradigm of the organic nature of records and the principle of provenance” (15). Participatory archives is important, then, for the reasons mentioned above. Releasing the fixity of archives allows for the process of re-creation and reconciliation, which is vital for the health of society. As emotional fixity can result in depression and dissociation from society, participatory archives can only be a good thing. Still, there are problems inherent in releasing archives for public use and activation. For instance, Archives 2.0 increases the problem of ensuring data protection, consent, and privacy. Ketelaar does admit that “[t]his needs a new generation of access policies, tools and practices, less collection driven, but directed towards archives as social spaces and records as social entities” (18). So despite the altruism Ketelaar exhibits in his call to release the archives, one can sense that new traumas could emerge in these social spaces.

Beginning thoughts on IR systems

Following the logic of Zavalina and Vassilieva in Understanding the Information Needs of Large-Scale Digital Library Users (2014), I think information retrieval (IR) systems should be informed by the information-seeking behaviors of the user community. This ensures that the IR system is designed with the users in mind and that the main purpose of the system is to help users acquire their informational needs. As a principle of design, this is also necessary if the system is to have a democratizing effect. You want to have an IR system that empowers the user, allowing them to easily navigate the interface and satisfy their needs through an intuitive and smart system. This seems pretty much like the ideal.

But saying an IR system should be “informed” by user behavior is different from saying that an IR system should “adapt” to user behavior. The former presupposes that the IR system designers understand and can predict the searching habits of individuals. They would then try to accommodate a wide range of user search styles through the implementation of useful tools, like relevance rankings or context help. Adapting a system around users, however, means that the IR system you would get would look like something akin to Google, where popularity and site traffic dictate what will be optimized.

Of course, it is no secret among LIS professionals that search skills among the general population suffer from a lack of information literacy and specific knowledge of IR systems and how the system retrieves user inputted keywords. Khapre and Basha in A Theoretical Paradigm of Information Retrieval in Information Science and Computer Science (2012) mentioned the principle of least effort. While the idea inherent in the principle of least effort is from the design perspective meant to optimize retrieval based on limited user knowledge, the phenomenon of least effort in information-seeking behavior is still problematic. In a matching program, where a user comes up with a query which is analyzed and matched to a document by organized keywords, broad and unfocused keywords will yield fuzzy search results.

Therefore an IR system cannot adapt to users without sacrificing its functionality for precision. An IR system must be able to handle very specific intellectual queries at a very granular level. I think this question poses a central dilemma in the field of information retrieval and access. Indeed, there is a lot of cognitive dissonance between “man and machine,” as it were. User expectations are way too high. People have become spoiled with the ease of performing Google searches and obtaining instant results to whatever research requirements they have. But I think it is important to realize that IR systems are sophisticated tools that require a sophisticated understanding of how to use them. In Khapre and Basha’s article, they pointed out that technology can change our thoughts and, importantly, that “technology is making it difficult for users to recognize that it is external, known only to the simple “interface value””. This concept of interface value is an important one in human-computer interaction, because users have expectations of the IR system which they take at “interface value.” But they are completely ignorant of the internal coding of the IR system, which is considerably complex and based on algorithmic science that usually escapes the end user’s interest or opportunity for study.