Origins + other discussions of Provenance

I started with a key reading on provenance, Jennifer Douglas’s chapter “Origins: Evolving Ideas About the Principle of Provenance.” She structures this chapter in three parts, following the progression of concepts of provenance in archival theory.

Douglas begins with the origins of Provenance an organizing principle, competing with alternative systems of organization such as subject-based classifications. An interesting point (for me and my endeavours with RDM) is that these classification schemes were seen as supporting scholars and researchers in their work (she has a quote from Ernst Posner on this). Yet provenance would go on to supplant them as the organizing principle in archives.

Douglas presents a detailed narrative of the early works on provenance outlining early steps with the Archives Nationales in France, the Prussian Provenienzprinzip and Registraturprinzip, and the Dutch Manual by Muller, Feith and Fruin. My takeaway here, is exemplified by this quote on the fonds or archief:

Thus, each archief is “always the reflection of the functions” of the body that creates it, and possesses, therefore, “its own personality, its individuality” (Muller, Feith, and Fruin 2003, 19). (quoted in Douglas, 2010, p. 27)

Douglas notes the predominant ‘organic’ metaphor of this portrayal of archives, but I think there is also something relating back to design and ‘form follows function’ (or maybe this would be more accurate as ‘relating forward to,’ since this concept in architecture wouldn’t become prevalent until the 20th century, and really solidifies with modernism). But perhaps it’s more the obverse – function can be inferred from form, therefore maintaining form (the original system of organization) is key to the inferences necessary for research and scholarship.

This leads right into the next section in which Douglas describes Provenance as a physical and intellectual construct. Referencing Yeo, she notes that the two are often confused or collapsed, since physical arrangement was the activity that enables the intellectual constructs of provenance. This largely centres around debates around the fonds, if it is primarily a physical construct, or if it is conceptual (and then how to address it as a conceptual entity). Discussing the Dordrecht example of attempting to re-enact an ‘ideal order,’ she describes:

Horsman’s example highlights the disjunction that can exist between a logical order based on administrative structure and the physical order that records assume over time. Recognition of this disjunction has caused archivists to reenvision the archival fonds or aggregation as a conceptual rather than physical entity. (Douglas, 2010, p. 30)

This disjunction, the layering of multiple orders, is the same thing that Kirschenbaum is grappling with, the layers that he draws from Thibodeau (physical, logical, conceptual). I think within the realm of the digital this disjunction is even more clear, it should be easier to see the fonds as conceptual, and as multi-faceted, rhizomatic, networks of networks.

Which leads into the final section on Provenance as Sociohistorical Context. The main idea here is that there are many ways to slice context – and slice it you must. This coincides with post-custodial concepts, driving archivists to let others in or loosen the reins on their closed systems. This also implies shifting power and authority in defining what context is important for interpreting or reading a document. Concepts of societal provenance also push the boundaries of archives, and start to bleed into (or converge with) media studies and cultural studies, wrapping up context and interpretation. I can’t quite pinpoint it yet, but there is something here that seems complementary to the concept of web spheres in web archiving and internet studies.

I also went to one of the class lectures on arrangement and description in February, and it was really illuminating, to complement this conceptual reading of provenance with the practical work of arrangement and description. Provenance underlies the practical and intellectual considerations of defining and managing hierarchical levels of context to aid in interpretation and reading of documents. It reminded me of a recent conversation with my dad where he was maligning Google Maps for their lack of labels or other markers of information (that he considers to be important) at certain levels of zoom. Archives similarly argue that the item can’t be understood on its own, you need to be able to zoom out from it or zoom into it.

All of this is to say that a trustworthy reading/interpretation of a particular document relies on these levels of context preserved through provenance. Pointing something like a search engine at the problem will provide access to an individual item or level out of order, and this order of provenance is essential – it is not an order defined by abstract/ideal classification or chronology, but by layered organic context. I guess the bigger argument (that I’m still missing some pieces to connect) is that this order is more trustworthy or leads to more authentic readings and interpretation. Therefore, without provenance we might provide the user with ‘the thing’ (the data?) but would be missing everything else they would need to know to properly interpret what that thing.

Douglas, J. (2010). Origins: Evolving Ideas About the Principle of Provenance. In T. Eastwood & H. MacNeil (Eds.), Currents of archival thinking (pp. 23–43). Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited.

Thibodeau, K. (2002) “Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years” – referenced in Kirschenbaum, M. G. (2012). Mechanisms: new media and the forensic imagination. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press.