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  • The Ambiguous Origins of the Archival Principle of “Provenance”
  • Shelley Sweeney

Like many principles… [provenance] is easier to state than to define and easier to define than to put into practice.

—Michel Duchein1

Broadly speaking, the word “provenance,” whether used by a rare book librarian, an archaeologist, an art curator, or an archivist, refers to the origins of an information-bearing entity or artifact.2 But there the consensus ends. On close examination, the application of the term turns out to be significantly different depending on the field.

With regard to books, The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science defines provenance as “information concerning the transmission or ownership, as of a book.”3 Harrod’s Librarians’ Glossary and Reference Book adds: “A special binding, bookplate, or inscription may indicate previous owners, collections, or libraries through which a particular book has passed.”4 The intent of capturing such information is to provide proof of a continuous chain of custody and therefore authenticity of the work—that the edition of x is what it purports to be. Another probably more common reason for securing such information is to highlight the prestige of the copy in hand by enumerating illustrious past owners. Even so, capturing the provenance for rare books is not always considered noteworthy. The authors of the manual Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books) enjoin catalogers to “make a local note to describe details of an item’s provenance, if considered important.”5 They do observe, however, that the names of former owners and other “individuals of interest” and their approximate dates should be added whenever possible. John Carter and Nicolas Barker in the ABC for Book Collectors state that “the generally laudable attention paid to provenance… is occasionally pushed to a length which, if not in itself slightly ridiculous, has in recent years begun to be indiscriminate.”6 While the provenance of a rare book may assist in determining an acquisition, it almost never is used for retrieval. [End Page 193]

In the museum field of archaeology, provenance (or provenience) is “the place where an object was found or recovered in modern times; the findspot.”7 This is vital for determining authenticity and dating the remains in hand as well as the objects associated with it. When an item from a dig is written up, the findspot must be recorded in order to obtain maximum information from the artifact.

In contrast to librarianship and archaeology, in the archival field provenance is the basis not only for establishing authenticity and sometimes for dating records but also for their acquisition, appraisal, arrangement and description, and retrieval. Thus, what constitutes provenance is critically important to the archivist. Yet this important concept, developing over centuries of practice, has never been defined clearly. Its origins are ambiguous, and over the years the principle has been introduced, reintroduced, applied in part, applied in full, studied, and debated without end.8 While archival theorists continue to disagree about what constitutes the principle of provenance and how it should be applied, they concur that provenance (whatever the word may mean) is a necessary theoretical construct for the functions of archival practice.

With the goal of clarifying the debate and relating usage in the archival to that in the other fields, this essay presents the current definition of provenance in the archival context, considers the somewhat murky origins and subsequent history of the concept, and touches lightly on the contemporary state of archival understanding of the principle and the direction in which the debate is heading.

The Definition of Provenance in the Archival Context

The Dictionary of Archival Terminology of the International Council on Archives states that the principle of provenance means that records of the same origin (or provenance) must not be “intermingled” with those of any other provenance. Provenance is defined as being the “agency, institution, organization or individual that created, accumulated and maintained records… in the conduct of its business prior to their transfer to a records centre/archives.”9

The whole of the records created and accumulated by an agency, institution, organization, or individual is known as the fonds of that creator. Many writers refer to the principle of respect des fonds—respecting...


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