Archives, architecture, data, provenance

From the Society of American Archivists:

Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

I once heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about an archive that required that a mummified bird that had been found in a box of documents remain there, because it was part of the original collection and consequently had to be preserved.  The story mightn’t be true, but I like it because it reminds us of a central tenet of archival management – that the original organization of things is paramount.

This comes up because I was talking about ideal sources in my (mostly) senior seminar the other day.  My students have a final paper due in the form of a proposal, for which they’ll have to include a detailed discussion of the types of sources  that will best enable them to answer their historical question, where those sources can be found, and how they’ll be used.  I asked my students to quickly describe their ideal sources – not the ones they knew exist, but the ones they hope exist.  A surprising number went straight for digitized sources they were comfortable with – the Virtual Jamestown Project, 19th century American newspapers, or the LOC’s American Memory collection.  After four years at Davidson, these students were so used to the readily available digitized sources, that they hadn’t even stopped to consider what ideal sources would look like.  In light of this self-selection, we got to talking about how digital collections are put together, and then about how physical collections are put together.  While many had used brick-and-mortar archives, and all had used digital ones, few had any idea of the information architecture of either.

The exchange convinced me that any historical methods class I teach in future must include a discussion of archival planning – of both the principles that help shape, for instance, Catherine Mulholland’s collection of her (much maligned) grandfather’s papers, and those that shape Gale’s ever expanding collections.  The former is intended to aggrandize a player in California’s water wars, the later to make sources available and to make money.  Neither of these are inherently bad, but they do shape the archives that are created.  Perhaps one of my favorite examples of the uneven development of digital archives comes from Dublin.  The major nationalist newspapers of the 19th century have long had online presences, not so much for the Unionist newspaper, which still languishes only in microfilm form in the Irish National Library, since fewer scholars, genealogists or interested novices are that interested in the musings of a paper which basically spoke for the English ascendancy in Ireland.

I love the opportunities that digital archives provide us, but I think that I also need to start explicitly teaching best practices for the creation of those archives, and spend time cultivating a critical eye towards their utility.  A student might be forgiven for, for example, focusing on sources that are readily available, but without understanding the structural conditions that underlie that availability, they miss something important about historical research and about digital culture today.

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