edited by Birger Hjørland and Claudio Gnoli



by Natália Bolfarini Tognoli and José Augusto Chaves Guimarães

Table of contents:
1. Introduction
2. The history of provenance as an organizing principle
3. Some Terminological Issues: Principle of Provenance, Respect des Fonds, Original Order or Record Group?
4. Interpretations of provenance in the archival domain
5. Different Perspectives of Provenance in Different Domains
6. Some Recommendations and Conclusions

The principle of provenance is considered a milestone in archival practice and theory, once its establishment fomented the scientificity of the archival discipline. This article presents a brief history of the principle in the archival domain and its correlated concepts and how it has been recently addressed by other disciplines and applied to different domains, especially knowledge organization (KO).

[top of entry]

1. Introduction

Provenance is a complex concept that for many years have been a focus of archival science. This article presents the concept of provenance and how it has been interpreted and used. It presents a brief history of the principle in the archival domain and its correlated concepts and how it has been recently addressed by other disciplines and applied to different domains, especially → knowledge organization (KO). It also discusses different points of view on provenance based on archival science theoretical landmarks, and how it can be represented to guarantee authenticity and reliability of data in complex and interconnected systems.

[top of entry]

2. The history of provenance as an organizing principle

The principle of provenance is one of the most important milestones in archival practice and theory, once its establishment fomented the scientificity of archival discipline in the Nineteenth century. Since then, the organization of archival knowledge (classification and description) is based on provenance and context of a documental set. But what is meant by provenance?

The International Council on Archives (2007) has defined provenance as

the relationships between records and the organizations or individuals that created, accumulated and/or maintained and use them in the conduct of personal or corporate activity. Provenance is also the relationship between records and the functions which generated the need of the records.

Such relationships were gradually refined over the years and from different experiences between the European archives and their classification and ordering systems. As stated by Brenneke (1968) the theoretical origin of the principle goes back to the work of Ernst Spiess, Von Archiven, from 1777, according to which it was necessary to hear the voice of the documents to know how they should be arranged and what sort of order they had in them. It was an inductive method where, in the end, each fond would determine its content and method of organization. “Such method, to which the future belonged, emerges here for the first time as a lightning bolt: it is from this point onwards that the principle of provenance will be born” (Brenneke 1968, 78).

The opening of the archives to the citizen and historical research — that started in France with the creation of the Archives Nationales, in 1794 — and the discovery of primary sources made the Nineteenth century a landmark for both history and the so-called auxiliary sciences, with special emphasis to archival science.

The historical tendency imposed in the archives contributed to an internal reordering of documents that had roots in historical thought. Thus between 1830 and 1850, from the traditional arsenal of power, the archives become laboratories of history, with all the consequences that this entails, especially in what concerns its "artificial" formation. In 1819, searching for solutions to reorganize the archives disarticulated thanks to artificial criteria such as themes, the Berlin Academy of Science recommended the Prussian government to not fragment its various archives and to keep separate records from different regions or organisms.

However, it was only in 1841, through a service instruction (Instructions pour mise en ordre le classement des archives départamentales et communales), that the principle of provenance started to take shape and to be delineated theoretically from the concept of fonds, defined by Natalis de Wailly. The French bureaucrat and head of the administrative section of the departmental archives of the Ministry of Interior announced the principle of respect des fonds in a service instruction, approved by minister Duchatel on April 24, which proposed “to gather together by fonds, that is to unite all the deeds (i.e., all the documents) which come from a body, an establishment, a family, or an individual, and to arrange the different fonds according to a certain order” (Duchein 1983, 64).

According to the principle of respect des fonds all records which originated with any particular institution were to be grouped together and were to be considered the fonds of that particular institution; records within fonds were to be arranged by subject-matter groups, and each group was to be assigned a definite place in relation to other groups; items within the subject-matter groups were to be arranged as circumstances might dictate, either chronologically, geographically, or alphabetically (Schellenberg 2003, 170).

The principle of respect des fonds determined the provenance at the macro level, taking into account only the nature of the institutions which created the records, not giving importance to the administrative units or to the original order of creation and accumulation of records, as it was stated later, by the principle of provenance (Provenienzprinzip) and by the principal of original order (Registraturprinzip). In 1881, the Prussia State Archives issued a regulation establishing a new system to the organization of records. In the document drawn up by the then state archivist Max Lehmann and approved by the director of the archive, Heinrich von Sybel the Provenienzprinzip is enunciated — based on the principle of respect des fond — according to which public records should be grouped following the administrative units that create them (rather than according to the nature of the institutions that create them as in France). The main divisions within the state archives were to be formed by separating records originating with the various administrative units of the government (Schellenberg 2003, 175).

Still in the regulation, the principle Registraturprinzip is announced, according to which the records of every agency should be maintained in the archival institution in the order given them by the registry office and should not be reorganized by subject-matter groups. The registry offices are government administrative units responsible for controlling the incoming and outcoming records made or received by an entity. According to Schellenberg (2003, 66) these offices were established to handle the documentary work with the expansion of government activities after the establishment of the modern kingdoms. Nowadays they are responsible to receive, record, distribute, and archive the official mailing, and receive different names and attributions according to the country.

Later, due to its extension to other countries, especially to Netherlands, the Registraturprinzip came to be called the principle of respect for the original order. It is important to say that the principle of provenance is not an isolated construction, as a solution to a specific problem. Instead, the principle is constituted from the experiences of several countries, with the objective of facing similar problems, but of different realities. However, we should consider the importance of the French, German and Dutch authors to the theoretical construction of the principle. As highlighted by Nesmith (2015, 87) in his entry about the principle of provenance in the Encyclopedia of Archival Science,

German archivist-historians refined the principle in two ways — emphasizing the importance of the relationship of a fonds to its specific administrative creator (which they called the provenienzprinzip) and preserving the original order of the records within fonds (the registraturprinzip). Dutch archivists made a pivotal contribution to consolidation of the principle of provenance in 1898 with the publication under the auspices of the Netherlands Association of Archivists of The Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives.

Still according to Nesmith (2015), the Manual not only accepted the French emphasis on the origin of fonds and the two German components of the principle of provenance but influenced all the theory and practice of all major Western countries, which started to apply the principle of provenance to the arrangement of their archives. The Dutch Manual gave the final sanction to this theory, and the change in theory brought about a change in the character of archives institutions and of the work of archivists (Posner 1940).

It can be concluded from this brief historical review that the principle of provenance is like the Rosetta Stone to the development of archival theory. Its construction was crucial to understanding the nature of records and archives, mainly after the French Revolution, when the meaning of documents and of its institutions were to be redefined. The constantly discussions about the principle nowadays only reinforce its importance to archival studies.

[top of entry]

3. Some terminological issues: principle of provenance, respect des fonds, original order or record group?

In archival theory, the principle of provenance still does not correspond to a single term or a single definition, as pointed out by Martín-Pozuelo (1996). The scarce normalization terminology remains one of the problems of archival science, which leads to a lack of consensus about the division on two principles (provenance and original order). For some authors (Schellenberg 1965; Evans 1991) maintaining the original order is another principle, whereas for others it represents an extension or a second degree of provenance (Carucci 1990; Brenneke 1968).

The principle of provenance assumes different conceptual and terminological meanings in different countries, revealing different theoretical concepts and, often, unfolding in other sub-principles depending on the context. According to Horsman (1994), the archival terminology about the principle of provenance is a Babel Tower.

In Horsman's point of view, the principle of provenance is the only principle of archival theory acting as two dimensions: an external- which means to respect the archive as it was produced by a person, group or entity as a whole — called respect des fonds, and an internal — respecting the original order given to the records by its creators. Both applications should act as an inseparable whole.

Considering that the epistemological status of a particular area is also conditional to quality and clarity of their terminology, Tognoli et al. (2016) analyzed the definitions and translations equivalents in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and English in International Council on Archives (ICA) Multilingual Archival Terminology [1] regarding archival principles, with emphasis on provenance. The results have shown a clear confusion between provenance, respect des fonds and original order.

In some European countries, especially Italy and France, it is possible to perceive degrees of provenance, regarding the producer entity or concerning the original order that was given by the records creator. In the Brazilian archival tradition, the principle of provenance is clearly separated from the principle of original order. The first one is understood as a basic principle of archival science, according to which the record produced by a collective entity, person or family must not be mixed with others of another producing entity. For the principle of original order, the Brazilian terminology understands that the archive must keep the arrangement given by the collective entity, person or family that produced it (Bellotto 2004).

In Canada, the Rules for Archival Description - RAD (2008, xxiii) define respect des fonds as a principle composed of two parts, provenance and original order:

The principle of provenance means that the records created, accumulated and/or maintained by an individual or organization must be represented together, distinguishable from the records of any other creator. The principle of original order means that the order of the records established by the creator should be maintained by physical and/or intellectual means whenever possible to preserve existing relationships between records and the evidential value inherent in this order.

In the United States archival tradition, the principle of respect des fonds is also the base of arrangement for records, but the fonds were replaced by the record groups, defined as a hierarchical division that is sometimes equivalent to provenance, representing all the records of an agency and its subordinate division. However, a large agency with a lot of records may have its records subdivided in several record groups by treating the records of different divisions as separate collections rather than as a series (Pearse-Moses 2005).

The record group is the primary unit for archival arrangement and description, serving to reinforce the archival concern to provenance. According to Trace (2015, 314) the concept feeds into the notion that here are certain contexts that must be captured to ensure that bodies of records can serve as evidence of their creator's functions and activities.

According to Scott (1966, 493), &ldquot;the concept of group provides the required administrative context for archives and is used as a basis for (a) the descriptive inventory, (b) the physical arrangement of archives (i.e., the so-called shelf group), and (c) the numerical control of archives&rdquot;.

The principle of provenance has been differently developed from one country to another, because of their different administrative cultures. Despite a terminological or conceptual confusion presented in archival literature, it is possible to say that archival documents (or records) are the products of activities developed by a person or entity in the execution of a function. Therefore, to understand this process means to comprehend the network of relations between objects (records, archival documents), agents (creators — individuals or institutions) and functions (the necessary actions to the accomplishment of an attribution within the scope of an administrative structure), as determinative elements to recognize the archival bond. That is why a record can never be conceived as an isolated element especially because the recognition of the provenance of a record allows it to be used as an evidence of activities.

Consequently, to appreciate a document, it is essential to know exactly where it was created, in the framework of what process, to what end, for whom, when and how it was received by the addressee, and how it came into our hands. Such knowledge is possible only to the degree to which the whole of the documents which accompany it have been kept intact, quite separate from and without confusion with documents of different origins (Duchein 1983, 67).

In other words, to appreciate a document by analyzing its provenance means recognizing its context of production. Such quest for the contextual elements, as discussed by Guimarães and Tognoli (2015), can be considered a special dimension of domain analysis.

It is important to recognize that the enunciation of the principle of provenance and the concept of fonds brought new perspectives for the work of the modern archivist, who became free from further interpretations, since the relationship that the document establishes with its producer stays as the major and most significant way to analyze it, under archival procedures.

[top of entry]

4. Interpretations of provenance in the archival domain

Today it is possible to say that the principle of provenance is worldwide accepted as the basis for archival knowledge organization (being fundamental to arranging and describing archival documents by respecting their own raison d'etre). However, in the last thirty years, the application of the principle has been constantly reviewed and discussed in the archival literature because of the increase of information and communication technology responsible for changing the way records are created and used.

Considering such landscape, this section provides a set of definitions of “provenance” in archival science from different theoretical perspectives (as physical and conceptual construct, as social-historical context, and as the creator and records history) which encompass the principle in the twentieth century, in order to introduce the views of some landmarks of archival literature.

In the late 1980s, the archivist Hugh Taylor announced a paradigm shift in archival field inviting the discipline to rethink its theoretical basis and traditional practices aiming to survive in this new context of knowledge production. Consequently, the most important milestone of Archival science, the provenance, had to be reviewed.

Although its importance and precision have never been contested we could say that, facing new perspectives of creating, organizing and representing processes, the principle also goes through changes that should be considered in the moment of archival knowledge organization.

In modern bureaucracies, it is common for the same records to be created, accumulated, and used by numerous, different, successor or parallel agencies. Records emanate from business activities and in turn are used to support and carry out other business activities. This reality has led numerous archivists to suggest that the multi-faceted aspects of provenance are eroded when archival practice dictates the creation of fonds-level description and credits the creation of the records (and thus provenance) to one, and only one, individual or organization” (Duffy and Harris 2002, 268).

Therefore, there is a need to connect the record to all its contexts by focusing on all the relations that were established between it and the entities that use it in such a way that the network between objects, agents and functions must be represented entirely. This conception enlarges significantly the notion of context of a record, going much beyond the mere conception of physical production in order to reach other instances, as the user, for example.

Although the rediscovery of provenance can be considered a recent debate, it origins date back 50 years ago, when Peter Scott (1966) defended, in a seminal article entitled "The Record Group Concept: a case for abandonment", the idea that provenance should encompass more than just the physical arrangement of the fond, by reaching the representation of the many-to-many relationships of records.

According to Cunningham (2016) while all archivists agree that provenance is a defining feature of archives, the reality of provenance is poorly understood, once is based on a simplistic assumption that there is a mere one-to-one relationship between a given provenance entity and a given body of archives. Still, according to the author, the responsible for such a narrow view of provenance is the Dutch trio of archivists, Muller, Feith and Fruin whose "rigid adoption of the rules for arrangement and description led archivists to believe stubbornly that a given body of archives could only ever have one provenance — a belief that simply does not reflect reality” (Cunningham 2016, 50). In 1966, Scott suggested to Australian archivists to abandon the record group as the locus of intellectual control, advocating in favor of function-based series as a mean to controlling records. “An obvious solution is to abandon the record group as the primary category of classification and to base the physical arrangement of archives on the records series as an independent element not bound to the administrative context” (Scott 1966, 497). To Scott, this approach is the most efficient way to record the so complex nature of provenance.

The description system of the Australian National Archives since the publication of Scott's articles about the abandonment of the record group concept, in 1964, ignores the record group concept of describing records series as the primary level of classification, and the item, as the secondary level. According to Scott there are some problems presented in the application of the record group concept to archives (i.e. when the record group is created from records which have been transferred from another agency, there is a risk of losing the creation original order. A parallel situation can occur when similar series are created by different agencies in the same organization, and that can only be solved with the application of the series as a primary category.

Scott's ideas about multiple provenance echoes today in the essays of the postmodern archival science approach represented by David Bearman (1999), Terry Cook (1993), Tom Nesmith (2015), Laura Millar (2002), Peter Horsman (1994), Eric Ketelaar (2000), Sue McKemmish (1998) and others. From these authors' perspectives, the principle of provenance assumes multiple characters in a context of contemporary production, where a record is created with the purpose of supporting various activities, through various moments of creation, in different entities. In this context, the rediscovery of provenance, as mentioned before, is recognized and widely accepted by the postmodern approach in Canada by the end of the 1980s.

In the classification system usually adopted by archival science, the fonds are the broadest and most essential units of record, followed by the record series and the item. However, over the last decades, the application of the record group concept on archival description faced a practical problem that derives, as pointed out by Cook (1993, 24) “from viewing it exclusively as a physical entity rather than as a conceptual principle”. This view reflects, according to Bearman (1999) a record-oriented, descriptive cataloging tradition, as opposed to the context-oriented life-cycle data management approach.

In other words, it is essential that the archivist focus on the context rather than in the record, in order to understand the provenance as a virtual and dynamic principle that rules the practical activities and the establishment of physical series.

According to McKemmish (1998, 192) "the physical reconstruction of the fonds in a record group, while providing one view of what is a multiple reality, obscures or obliterates other views”. As the author understands the record as a continuum, to establish a one and only creator or fond would be too limiting.

Although Duchein cannot be properly considered an author of the postmodern approach, in the article “Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des Fonds in Archival Science”, the author says that the principle of provenance "like many principles, however, is easier to state than to define and easier to define than to put into practice" (Duchein 1983, 64). According to this article, five problems can occur when applying the principle:

  1. The definition of fonds according to the hierarchy of creating agencies: when most of agencies have a complex functional organization making difficult to establish a single division;
  2. The changes of jurisdiction of archival creating agencies: when some jurisdictions are abolished, created or mixed;
  3. The extent of the meaning of provenance of a fond: which agencies should the archivist consider to name the fond, the creator or the receiver? How does he decide?
  4. The tension between open and closed fonds: in modern administration it is difficult to say when exactly an agency stops existing or when its name is changed or placed in the administrative system;
  5. The relation between respect des fonds and respect for the original internal arrangement: should the archivist consider them as two different principles or two levels of the same principle? Should the archivist trust that the agencies are in fact respecting their principle of original order in arranging their archives?

The author gives us answers and possible solutions to all of these questions, but we do not intend to discuss them in this article.

Duchein's article is also one of the important works responsible for the revival of the principle of provenance in the English-speaking archival community. The concept of archival fonds and the principle of respect des fonds, as discussed by Duchein and other Canadian archival scholars, became the theoretical foundation for the Canadian standardization of archival description (Nesmith 2015, 290).

The Canadian rediscovery of respect des fonds explores the boundary and structures of archival fonds. It reiterates the importance of fonds as the highest level of archival control and develops strategies to deal with the complexity of modern bureaucracies. The structure view of the archival fonds, that is, the study of its external and internal dimension, highlights the organic connection of authorities, functions, activities and records — the essence of the principle of respect des fonds. This journey of rediscovery also examined a notion of archival fonds capable of expressing a multiple, dynamic, interconnection between records and their creators (Nesmith 2015, 290).

Douglas (2017), in the article "Origins and Beyond: The Ongoing Evolution of Archival Ideas about Provenance", presents three distinctive ways the principle is understood in archival theory: as an organizing principle, as a physical and conceptual construct, and as a social-historical context. The first one is linked to the original meaning of the principle, in the nineteenth century, as a basis to the arrangement and description; the second refers to the rediscovery of the principle by Canadian and Australian archivists, who observed a multiple and multi-faceted provenance due to the changes in records digitally created and; the last one is related to the importance of knowing the record creation history as well as its use and accumulation histories in order to define all its contexts.

In addition to all these contexts, it is also important to consider the concept of societal provenance, given by Nesmith, which is based on the idea that the societal dimensions of record creation and archiving should have a bigger impact in archival theory and practice.

The provenance of a given record or body of records consists of the societal and technical processes of the records' inscription, transmission, contextualization, and interpretation, which account for its existence, characteristics, and continuing history (Nesmith 1999, 146).

This notion of societal provenance asks archivists to recognize that record creators do not act alone, since they are members of a society, making and archiving records in social settings, and for social purposes. In this sense, the societal dimension infuses all the layers of provenance (Nesmith 2007).

Looking beyond the narrow view of provenance as a mere principle for arrangement and description, it is important to dive in deeper waters in order to understand it in a more complex context that tells us much more about the societal environment where records are created and used than about its creator only.

Following Nesmith's ideas, Laura Millar (2002) proposes what she has called the “death of the fonds and the resurrection of provenance”, advocating for the abolition of the concept of fonds, and defending what she called “respect de provenance”, a concept encompassing three related components of provenance: (a) creator history — a history that should focus on the creator, not the records. “The emphasis needs to be placed on who, not what. This is our existing archival provenance, enhanced to accommodate organizational and functional changes over time. The creator would not be defined in a single word or phrase” (Millar 2002, 12); (b) records history — story of the physical management and movement of the records over time. The record-keeping history would be the story of the archives themselves and; (c) custodian history — the explanation of the transfer ow ownership or custody of the records from the creator or custodian to the archival institution (Millar 2002, 13).

The postmodern archival ideas about multiple provenance support some other interesting notions on the concept in archival literature. According to Douglas (2017), the previous studies of Nordland (2004), Wurl (2005), and Bastian (2006) have examined the various impacts of collectivities in records creations and provenance. Although this paper aims to discuss the provenance as a fundamental concept to archival organization, it is important to mention its use also as a means of retrieval of information from archival records. The authors Bearman and Lytle (1985) view provenance as a method of archival retrieval, based on principles of archives administration and reference practices of archivists.

Subject retrieval in the provenance method proceeds by linking subject queries with provenance information contained in administrative histories or biographies, thereby producing leads to files which are searched by using their internal structures. Information in the pure or theoretically defined provenance method derives only from what is known about the file — the activities of the creating person or organization and the structure or organizing principles of the file itself (Lytle 1980, 64).

Another conception of provenance is proposed by Guimarães and Tognoli (2015) who consider provenance as a specific approach of domain analysis in archival context. According to the authors, "the base for this discussion is the concept of fond, which is based on a network of structures, functions and activities of the producing entity that will give origin to the archival bond of the documentary set" (Guimarães and Tognoli 2015, 567).

The mentioned approach arises from the fact that provenance studies have specific procedures that comprise: (a) the study of the structure of the entity or person that created the record; and (b) the study of the functions of the mentioned entity or person. According to them "after those two complimentary procedures it is therefore possible to determine the fonds or records groups, as well as the arrangement and classification schemes" (Guimarães and Tognoli 2015, 567).

[top of entry]

5. Different perspectives of provenance in different domains

Recently the concept of provenance has been addressed by many other disciplines (such as law, library and information science (LIS), computer science and visual analytics) and applied to different domains (cloud-based storage; preservation of digital records; digital evidence; digital humanities; e-science; open data; knowledge organization and indexing), as we can observe in Lemieux's and the imProvenance Group publication on provenance entitled “Building trust in information: perspectives on the frontiers of provenance", issued in 2016, aiming to respond what has prompted this rising interest in the concept of provenance by all of these domains. The Group organized a workshop to discuss the different concepts and uses of provenance from a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective.

The aim was to create cross-disciplinary bridges of understanding with a view to arriving at a deeper and clearer perspective on the different facets of provenance and how traditional definitions and applications may be enriched and expanded via a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary synthesis" (Lemieux and the imProvenance Group 2016, 4).

Although the disciplines have different points of view about the concept of provenance, a common purpose was identified among them: the role of provenance in the determination of trust, especially due to the increasing use of information and communication technology.

In the domain of law, the provenance of how a piece of evidence came into the hands of investigative authorities is a fundamental aspect of the admissibility and weight to be given to such evidence (Cohen 2010). This approach helps to understand the concepts of reliable and non-reliable evidences in law procedures.

According to Lemieux and the imProvenance Group (2016, 6) "provenance as a means of assigning attribution is not only important in terms of establishing the degree of trust that can be placed in information, but also in terms of assigning rights, such as intellectual properties rights".

In the computer science domain, provenance has been defined in the W3 Prov-dictionary (World Wide Web Consortium 2013) as the "pedigree" of a data, which means the description of people, institutions, entities, and activities involved in producing, influencing, or delivering a piece of data or a thing.

The concept of provenance to the domain of Visual Analytics, as the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces, is explored by Jankun-Kelly (2011) in a similar basis to the computer science domain. It comprises the information about entities, activities, and people involved in producing a piece of data or a thing, which can be used to form assessment about its quality, reliability or trustworthiness.

In LIS, provenance enables to understand semantic changes to classification and ordering of ontological things over time, as pointed out by Tennis (2013). In information retrieval the provenance is also one of the key access points in libraries. Tennis (2016) argues that in the field of KO the concepts of ontogeny (a term borrowed from biology to discuss about the history of a concept through revisions on indexing languages) and provenance are related.

If provenance is defined as the chronology of custody and context (in the physical world often signaled by physical location) of some material, then we can see how revisions of indexing languages could change the context of a concept. With the change in context, the concept may change its meaning, and it is the meaning of the concept, in relation to other concepts and the documents they index that we care about in knowledge organization (Tennis 2016, 94).

The principle of provenance is essential to guarantee the trust of a record, once it consists on the record's identity from the establishment of its creator. In this sense, it is not true to state that the documentary organization in LIS only occurs in a piece-to-piece basis because the concepts of book series and journal collections (as a starting point for the organization of collections) are provenance-oriented. In those cases, the editor, the title of the series and the journal title can be considered as fonds that ought to be respected by recognizing — and representing — the original organic relationship between the records that compose them: the books or the journal issues.

The preservation of digital objects is a challenge which requires solid information on provenance to ensure their reliability and authenticity as records (Lemieux 2015). Metadata models and standards must address provenance as a guiding concept to respect and pursuit to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of digital objects. According to Dappert and Enders (2010), provenance information is one of the administrative metadata (along with descriptive metadata, structural metadata and technical metadata) usually referred as preservation metadata. The authors define provenance as “information about who has cared for the digital object and what preservation actions have been performed on it, as well as rights and permission information that specifies” (Dappert and Enders 2010, 6).

Michetti (2016) pointed out the importance of provenance to digital preservation and trust, defining the concept as a crucial factor of evaluation when assessing the credibility of records on the Internet. In the digital domain, as in the traditional one, keeping objects along with the context that provides meaning to them is the main goal of archival studies. “In addition, provenance of digital objects is itself a digital object that also requires preservation. Both provenance and provenance of provenance are fundamental aspects in any preservation model, theory and practice” (Michetti 2016, 61).

In 2004, The Dublin Core Collection Description Working Group defined provenance as a term for metadata schemes as “a statement of any changes in ownership and custody of the resource since its creation that are significant for its authenticity, integrity and interpretation”, still according to the DCMI working draft, “the statement my include a description of any changes successive custodians made to the resource.” The DCMI term is related to the International Standard for Archival Description - ISAD(G) elements “archival history” and “immediate source of description”, which provide information on the history of described units (fonds, groups, items) and about the source of acquisition.

Provenance is a concept also discussed in the museum domain. Since the 1970s, after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention, researchers and museum professionals have focused on the importance of studying provenance within the museum context. In this domain, provenance can be understood to be the history and circumstances of an object's ownership or possession and, in order to determine it, some key elements must be identified such as the place and time of an object's origin through a maker, patron, or culture or from the time of an object's discovery at a findspot, through any subsequent points of rest and transactions, reaching the place and time of that same object's current or last known owner or possessor (White 2017).

The museum point of view about provenance as the history of an object's ownership or possession is also shared by the studies on rare books. According to Reed (2017, 3766) “a rare book's provenance is the history of its ownership, often elaborating its associations with libraries, private owners, or collections”. Still according to the author, “in its broad contemporary sense, provenance concerns the original owners and all subsequent persons and institutions that acquired books by purchase, gift, inheritance, or legacy up to the present”.

All the different approaches brought together here are far from exhausting the discussions about the principle of provenance and its possible application to the archival field. Yet, they are far from exhausting the discussions to the knowledge organization field. If we consider the constantly changes in the creation, organization and use of records we can say that provenance is an ever-evolving concept.

[top of entry]

6. Some recommendations and conclusions

When the concept of provenance emerged in archival science context, in the Nineteenth century, it had a pragmatic goal: to organize the set of records whose organic relationships with its creators had been destroyed due to a thematic classification. Such approach led the archivists to apply it as a physical organizing principle, concerned on regrouping the records belonging to the same fond.

The view of provenance as a static concept within the principle of respect des fonds lasted until the end of the Twentieth century. When information and communication technologies changed the way records were created and used, the basilar principle of archival knowledge organization had to be reviewed. In such context, archivists from many parts of the world responded to the call of rethinking provenance as an intellectual construct.

The rediscovery of provenance was the answer given by Australian and Canadian archivists, enabling the creation of reliable records in dynamic and virtual record creation systems in digital environment, with no rigid structures and multiple provenances. Such records, as a consequence, started to be considered as evidence of activities (which is the whole purpose of an archival document or record).

The evolution of the concept of provenance by reaching new domains (knowledge organization, computer science, law, LIS, etc.) brings challenging perspectives for the archival domain in the sense to face all the record contexts where authenticity and reliability must be guaranteed.

Different disciplines, with different approaches of provenance are building their own concepts with one very similar goal — to determine trust in digital environment. Hence, the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary dialogue and interaction are necessary and must be encouraged.

This scenario also brings new challenges for knowledge organization in the sense to investigate the presence and the impact of provenance in KO procedures, tools and products.

[top of entry]


1. “From 2010, the International Council on Archives (ICA) embraced the challenge of creating an archival terminology database, resulting in the identification of 320 terms in English. This initiative provided elements so that a group of scholars and practitioners worked with the definitions of these terms as well as their terminology correspondent and definitions in fifteen other languages, resulting in the 2013 edition of the Multilingual Archival Terminology, available with an interactive function, in which the base offers the opportunity to add languages, terms and definitions” (Tognoli et al. 2016, 118).

[top of entry]


Bastian, Jeannette Allis. 2006. "Reading Colonnial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation". Archival Science 6, no. 3-4: 267-284.

Bearman, David and Richard Lytle. 1985. “The Power of the Principle of Provenance”. Archivaria 21: 14-27.

Bearman, David. 1999. "Documenting Documentation". Archivaria 34: 33-49.

Brenneke, Adolf. 1968. Archivistica: contributo alla teoria ed alla storia archivistica europea. Milano: Giuffrè.

Canadian Committee on Archival Description. 2008. Rules for Archival Description. 2nd ed. Bureau of Canadian Archivists, Ottawa.

Carucci, Paola. 1990. Le fonti archivistiche: ordinamento e conservazione. Roma: La Nuova Italia Scientifica.

Cohen, Fred. 2010. Digital Forensics Evidence Examination. 2nd ed. Livermore: Fed Cohen & Associates.

Cook, Terry. 1993. "The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post-Custodial Era: Theory, Problems and Solutions". Archivaria 35: 24-37.

Cunningham, Adrian. 2016. "Describing Archives in Context: Peter J Scott and the Australian 'Series' System". In Building Trust in Information: Perspectives on the Frontiers of Provenance, ed. Lemieux, Victoria. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 49-57.

Dappert, Angela and Markus Enders. 2010. “Digital Preservation Metadata Standards”. Information Standards Quarterly 22, no 2: 4-13. https://www.loc.gov/standards/premis/FE_Dappert_Enders_MetadataStds_isqv22no2.pdf.

Douglas, Jennifer. 2017. "Origins and Beyond: The Ongoing Evolution of Archival Ideas About Provenance". In Currents of Archival Thinking, eds. Eastwood, Terry and Heather MacNeil. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2nd edition, 25-52.

Dublin Core Collection Description Working Group. 2004. Dublin Core Collection Description Proposed Term: Provenance. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI). http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/metadata/dcmi/collection-provenance/2004-02-10/.

Duchein, Michel. 1983. "Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des Fonds in Archival Science". Archivaria 16: 64-82.

Duff, Wendy and Verne Harris. 2002. "Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings". Archival Science 2, no. 3: 263-285.

Evans, Frank B. 1991. “Records and Administrative Processes: Retrospects and Prospects.” Janus, no. 1: 29-37.

Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves and Natalia Bolfarini Tognoli. 2015. "Provenance as a Domain Analysis Approach in Archival Knowledge Organization". Knowledge Organization 42, no.8: 562-569.

Horsman, Peter.1994. "Taming the Elephant: An Orthodox Approach to the Principle of Provenance". In The Principle of Provenance: Report from the First Stockholm Conference on the Archival of Principle of Provenance, eds. Abukhanfusa, Kerstin and Jan Sydbeck. Stockholm: Swedish National Archives, 51-63.

International Council on Archives (ICA). 2007. ISDF: International Standard for Describing Functions. Developed by the Committee on Best Practices and Standards. International Council on Archives, Paris.

International Council on Archives (ICA). 2015. Multilingual Archival Terminology. http://www.ciscra.org/mat/.

Jankun-Kelly, T.J. 2011. "The Case for Visual Analytics Provenance Cases". In Workshop on Analytic Provenance: Process + Interaction + Insight. China. Ketelaar, Eric. 2000. “Archivistics Research Saving the Profession”. The American Archivist 63: 322-340.

Lemieux and the imProvenance Group. 2016. "Provenance: Past, Present and Future in Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Perspective". In Building Trust in Information, ed. Lemieux, Victoria. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 3-45.

Lytle, Richard H.1980. "Intellectual Access to Archives: I. Provenance and Content Indexing Methods of Subject Retrieval". American Archivist 43, no. 1: 64-7.

Martín-Pozuelo, Marí Paz Campillo. 1996. La Construcción Teórica en Archivística: el Principio de Procedencia. Madrid: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Boletín Oficial del Estado.

McKemmish, Sue. 1998. "Are Records Ever Actual?" In The Records Continuum, eds. McKemmish, Sue and Michael Piggot. Clayton: Ancora Press.

Michetti, Giovanni. 2016. “Provenance: and Archival Perspective”. In Building Trust in Information, ed. Lemieux, Victoria. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 59-68.

Millar, Laura. 2012. "The Death of the Fonds and the Resurrection of Provenance: Archival Context in Space and Time". Archivaria 53: 02-15.

Nesmith, Tom. 1999. "Still Fuzzy, but More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the “Ghosts” of Archival Theory". Archivaria 47:136-150.

Nesmith, Tom. 2007. "The Concept of Societal Provenance and Records of Nineteenh-Century Aboriginal-European Relations in Western Canada: Implications for Archival Theory and Practice". Archival Science 6, no. 3: 351-360.

Nesmith, Tom. 2015. "Principle of Provenance". In Encyclopedia of Archival Science, eds. Duranti, Luciana and Patricia C. Franks. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefiled, 284-288.

Nordland, Lori Podolvski. 2004. "The Concept of 'Secondary Provenance': Re-interpreting Ac ko mok ki's Map as Evolving Text". Archivaria 58: 147-159.

Pearce-Moses, Richard. 2005. A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Chicago: The Society of American Archivists.

Posner, Ernst.1940. “Some Aspects of Archival Development Since The French Revolution”. The American Archivist 3, no. 3: 159-172.

Reed, Marcia. 2017. “Provenance of Rare Books”. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, eds. McDonald, John D and Michael Levine-Clark. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 3766-3773.

Schellenberg, Theodor Roosevelt. 1965. The Management of Archives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schellenberg, Theodor Roosevelt. 2003. Modern Archives: Principles & Techniques. (Reissue) Chicago: Society of American Archivists.

Scott, Peter.1966. "The Record Group Concept: A Case for Abandonment". American Archivist 29, no. 4: 493-504.

Tennis, Joseph Timothy. 2016."Conceptual Provenance in Indexing Languages". In Building Trust in Information, ed. Lemieux, Victoria. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 93-99.

Tognoli, Natália Bolfarini et al. 2016. "The Terminological Dimension of Provenance Description in the Multilingual Archival Terminology - ICA: Some Translation Problems". AIDA informazioni 34, no. 1-2: 117-125.

Trace, Ciaran. 2015. “Record Group”. In Encyclopedia of Archival Science, eds. Duranti, Luciana and Patricia C. Franks. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefiled, 312-315.

White, Layna. 2017. “Provenance of Museum Objects”. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, eds. McDonald, John D and Michael Levine-Clark. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 3756-3765.

World Wide Web Consortium. 2013. PROV-O: the PROV Ontology. https://www.w3.org/TR/provdictionary.

Wurl, Joel. 2005. "Ethnicity as Provenance: in Search of Values and Principles for Documenting the Immigrant Experience". Archival Issues 29, no. 1: 65-76.

[top of entry]


Visited Hit Counter by Digits times since first publication.

Version 1.0; published 2018-11-07, last edited 2019-12-03
Article category: Core concepts in KO

This article (version 1.0) is also published in Knowledge Organization. How to cite it: Tognoli, Natália Bolfarini and Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves. 2019. “Provenance as a knowledge organization principle”. Knowledge Organization 46, no. 7: 558-68. Also available in ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization, ed. Birger Hjørland, coed. Claudio Gnoli, http://www.isko.org/cyclo/provenance

©2018 ISKO. All rights reserved.