Debate: The majority of users don’t care about provenance. They just want access to information.

I’m writing something today and in the course of doing so, I plan on making the claim that most archivists recognize that the majority (I would say the vast majority, but let’s just say majority for now) of users of archival materials do not care about provenance. That is to say, they do not care who the original aggregator of an archival grouping was or why the grouping was created. They do not care that the materials have been preserved in original order (or who imposed the order the materials are in) or that no materials from other sources have been intermingled with those in the grouping.

My contention is that most users want access to information. If they are interested in learning about X (whether it is their great-great-grandfather, their house, women’s suffrage, the Monongahela River, or the evolution of the concept of academic freedom) they want to find all the materials that pertain to X. The majority of them do not care in what record group, collection  or series those materials are located. If the archivist brought out a box labeled “all the materials on X,” assembled from all over the archives with no indication of where it came from, the user would be thrilled, not disappointed.

Is context sometimes interesting? Probably occasionally, but I would guess rarely. And I would guess only if it adds information that the user needs–such as probable date for an undated letter.

So, comrades, do you think that’s an accurate claim to make? Do you think the majority of users don’t care about provenance? Do you think some users (such as “serious scholars”) care more than others? I have heard it said that even our beloved historians don’t care as much about context as they once did. Is that true, in your experience?

The floor is open for debate: Provenance, who cares?



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40 thoughts on “Debate: The majority of users don’t care about provenance. They just want access to information.”

  1. I’ll start by saying my opinion is skewed by working in a University Archives. Other archivists in other settings with other types of researchers probably have vastly different experiences. But, having worked with over 200 freshmen on archival research projects this past Spring, I can say that *they* certainly prefer the “all stuff on topic X” method of research. Our artificial, subject file collection was their primary research resource. They were able to quickly find a cache of photocopied records on their chosen topic without having to dig through (somewhat intimidating) boxes. And, to be honest, it made our work in the reference room easier because we didn’t have to haul out boxes upon boxes for all 200 students!

    That said, we do have a number of researchers who rely on provenance to find the likely location of the materials they need (“I know that the Physical Education Department was the most likely to be discussing Topic X, so I’ll start by looking at the Department Chair’s records”). Once they *find* the information, provenance might not matter to them any more. And if we magically had everything described in detail at the item level, maybe they wouldn’t be concerned with provenance at all. But until that day comes (and we’re all ducking to avoid the flying pigs), I think that provenance still has an important place in the research process for many.

  2. Perhaps the vast majority don’t care — but the real question is, have you committed a “sin” of omission if you 1. don’t provide it at all and you know what it is or 2. don’t provide sufficient information for those who DO care to find out?

    Yes, we’re all overworked, blah, blah, blah. But think about it—to know and NOT provide the information might very well be worse.

  3. Sure, most people don’t care about provenance, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to think about how to make provenance meaningful to them.

    Many if not most of our users don’t even really care about the things as records of the past. For example, my primary use of digitized prints and photographs (and what I think a lot of people use them for) is as a pool of images to accentuate presentations. In this case, I might just want a picture of a crowd that looks old. In that situation not only is provenance irrelevant, but so is nearly all of the metadata. For that matter, nearly everything about the photo (who is in it, where it was taken, why it was taken, what it documents) is irrelevant to me.

    With that said, I think libraries, archives and museums need to try and think about how we can make provenance meaningful. For example, when you look at this view of a selection of the paintings from the Kress collection and you click over to the scatter plot view all the sudden provenance information about what Kress paid for the art becomes a way to explore the collection. In the process, the figure of Kress becomes central to understanding why these paintings are here and not others. You start to think about the collection instead of simply thinking about the paintings. (For some more of a walk through there jump to the end of this deck of slides.).

    This is all to say that most people don’t care about provenance, in part because they don’t know why they should. Ultimately provenance information lets us contextualize things. If we want cultural heritage collections to be something more than big buckets of photos that people use as their desktop backgrounds or download to make a slide deck more punchy we need to be doing work to contextualize and connect objects. I think more and more that we want to have the kind of Wikipedia hole thing happen where you enter at one point and end up somewhere else and learn a ton in the process, and in that case, provenance info is a rich, and frequently untapped resource, for contextualizing these materials.

  4. It’s come up on Twitter from a few different people that users want/assume authority and reliability of the materials, but that the mere presence of the document in an archives is enough (for most) to assure those qualities. In other words, it is what it purports to be because we have accessioned it. Which, I think, archivists would agree is not necessarily true. We can vouch that this is what we received, but we cannot vouch for the accuracy of the content, or the reliability of the document. One reason you want to preserve provenance is so that the user can question the extent to which the document serves as evidence and of what. But how many users want to do that? So perhaps the informational value vs. evidential value debate comes into play here as well.

  5. Isn’t some of it the old issue of “what they think they want” versus “what they really want”? A researcher might think she only wants all of the material on x, but what would really turn out to be most interesting or revealing is the material in the next folder in a collection. That isn’t going to be the case in all situations, and not all researchers will have the time or interest to dig into that material. But I do think that one of the big advantages of provenance is that it encourages those kind of serendipitous finds.

  6. I too think I am a bit jaded from working at a University Archive. We have a few of scenarios that pan out;

    1. Student X is trying to find information and has no idea how to search our records and is frustrated that we do not do subject searches for our material.

    2. Student X has found some records that they want to view and does not understand how provenance works and is unable to use it to find other materials.

    3. Student X knows how archives work and is completely self sufficient.

    When we take the time to explain provenance and original order most students grasp it and use it to their advantage. Mind you, there are some who really don’t get it and continue to be frustrated, but I think a lot of it has to do with the approach in gaining understanding. The major downside is we spend a lot of time teaching archival use and practice and most of these researchers do not return to the archive (they had to do it for one class).

    We have lots of visual aids and flow-charts/maps that show how to do archival searches and a really keen reference staff. Perhaps we’re just lucky.

  7. I would agree in the abstract that they generally don’t care about provenance, but I would add the exception “unless you don’t have what they’re looking for.” And then they start to care, because it gives them clues of where else they might want to look. The same is true for context. They don’t care how the records are arranged, only that they’re not missing something on account of looking in the wrong place. But I do agree with your statement about “everything on X.” Arrangement is useful to them because we can’t do that.

    Context is extremely useful to me as an archivist, though, as it is for serious biographers and historians. But we don’t get too many of those, and when we do, they’re often already familiar with the context. Don’t know if that helps.

  8. Ah, as usual, “it depends.” Interesting question, thanks for throwing it open to debate.

    Historians, especially those who study government actions, do care about such things. So, too, do people studying public policy, management science, leadership, and so forth. Why? There is evidence of how executives learned, developed their thinking, and operated in provenance.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an “aha” moment within Fedland based on starting research by looking at a post-decisional record and then tracing back the thinking that led to it. The trigger isn’t always evident in the final product. And it doesn’t necessarily stem from internal correspondence.

    Sometimes you can see not just the evidence of institutional executive action but learn something about the man (or woman) himself (herself). In human terms. In such instances, a trail indicating provenance does matter. Moreover, the association of items becomes critically important. (In paper based files, you can see the progression in dated and undated items filed together.)

    In paper records, the news clippings an executive read and marked up or annotated and gave his secretary to file may be associated with memoranda s/he read and directives s/he later issued. Nowadays, it might be something s/he referenced in email via hyperlink (dead links a potential headache for future historians). Or downloaded and saved as a pdf (an article or blog post or whatever). My point is, to understand the man or woman, you need to be able to trace how he or she developed his or her thinking. Provenance enables you to trace how records were handled at the creation point.

    I’ve seen surprisingly evocative insights into what executives cared about, as human beings, in such materials. Important, because the higher up you are in rank, the more likely you are to be opaque and to wear a mask. Finding evidence of the dropping of a mask and glimpses into an official’s heart and mind can be insightful, hence precious. What s/he reads and files, actively, in addition to what s/he merely receives passively, helps you understand why things played out as they did.

    You are right, of course, that not everyone who uses records needs such information. My point is that some do. And what such researchers learn can be very important for continual learning in Fedland.

  9. It is true that many users do not care about provenance. But as archivists, what we need to help the general public realize is that a certain amount of information literacy, including the ideas of provenance and context, is required to understand archives, just as it is required to understand the all sources of information. Archives do not simply contain “information” and archival documents do not necessarily contain “facts.” Historians and other academic researchers know this very well, but the general public must be educated in this regard, at least a little bit. Yes, we would love if all the information we are seeking is quickly and easily available, and that it is reliable and authentic. Yes, the internet has provided easy access to untold amounts of information, much of which can be trusted…but much of which cannot. Users must have some understanding of why context and provenance are important in “reading” information. The amount of provenancial or contextual information that users of archives need is dependent on what it is they are looking for, of course, and it is the reference archivist’s job to assess this need. As for the describing archivist, s/he must provide as much contextual information as is possible for those users who have a high need for it, while at the same time balancing this with resource constraints. But provenance must be provided, whether or not most users want it.

  10. After reading the comments (so far) it appears that I am in the minority. The most common questions I am asked at archive show and tells are “Where did this come from?” or “Who did it belong to?” Perhaps that is because I work for a community archive that collects archives produced by women and women’s interest groups. Women’s role in history has been overlooked and many of my users are of a similar opinion. Their interest in provenance might be powered by that.

    A popular collection in our archive is the badge collection. They were commonly sold to raise money to fund a campaign as well as raising awareness of a particular issue. It helps to let the researcher know that information so they can question the design of particular badges.

    Of course, I still get researchers that come in and just want access to the information. I have worked in university and local authority archives and many users fitted into that mould. Perhaps stakeholders in a community archive feel more of a connection to the records hence their interest in provenance. Academic or family history researchers are there to get the information to add to their existing body of research. In that context it’s the information that matters, not where it came from.

  11. Meh. We archivists, in our efforts to digitize stuff, are largely to blame for delivering disembodied information to users. So we should stop? No. Another problem is that many of these questions are not archival research questions, requiring provenance, but simply library reference or research questions. Somewhere we have the answer, but that doesn’t make it archival research – except maybe for reference archivists doing the research. In the ye olde days folks tried to break up materials and classify by single subject, aka a library or museum classification scheme. You think you have a backlog now, try to catalog archives to a library or museum level of granularity. So we blithely press on delivering the magic of disembodied information to the user. I’d rather be a magician than a scribe.

  12. To be clear, I’m not questioning whether or provenance is important, or whether we as archivists should/do think it’s important. I take those as a given, unless someone wants to debate that. The question is whether or not the majority of users think it is. I’m not saying I don’t think it is, and in fact, that’s part of what I’ll be writing about in the essay I’m supposed to be working on instead of engaging in this lively debate.

  13. As a non-archivist in charge of many archive collections, I’d say that some users care, some don’t, but that it is important that we know and can explain the origins of material.
    Historians (including students) care deeply about the meaning and origins of archival documents. Many other users just want the information, picture or whatever they want. However, to use archives for anything other than decoration, a sense of their origins is essential. Part of our role is about information literacy, to encourage users not to take material at face value but to think about its original purpose.

  14. As an Archivist, I’ve been fortunate to work in a wide variety of situations. Over the eight years I’ve done this work, I’d say that 90% of the researchers I’ve worked with didn’t care where the information they were looking for came from. However, *I’ve* been able to provide better service to these researchers by understanding the collections, knowing the provenance of the material pulled and how materials within the various collections inter-relate. While it’s not my job to DO the research, I do believe it’s my responsibly to help someone seeking information to understand the context in which the material is in the collection in the first place. It might not matter to their research, or it may provide a clue that will help them move their research forward.

    This debate is oddly reminiscent of the debate in Genealogy (I’m also a Professional Genealogist) about the volume of ‘bad’ data being disseminated by well-meaning family historians who simply want to find more cousins or their connection to Napoleon or Henry VIII or Genghis Khan; doesn’t matter how they get there as long as they do. So they fill in squares in a software program without concern for WHERE they got the information and then upload it where others can grab it and re-copy it. No source citations; garbage in, garbage out.

    While original order and provenance might not matter to the user, it does matter. I don’t necessarily care where Klimt’s “Der Kuss” has been prior to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, but I’m thinking it’s provenance is important to its value, both intrinsic and pecuniary.

  15. I mean “records of the same provenance should not be mixed with those of a different provenance, and the archivist should maintain the original order in which the records were created and kept.” (See second citation, here: I am not (at least I don’t think I am) commenting on the resulting effect that has had on archival description, per the third citation on that page (“†121 (Henson 1993, p. 67): APPM recognizes the primacy of provenance in archival description. This principle holds that that significance of archival materials is heavily dependent on the context of their creation, and that the arrangement and description of these materials should be directly related to their original purpose and function.”)

  16. My follow-up answer is that about half of my users want disembodied information, and the others want some version/variety of an original document as evidence of something. In the latter instance, they don’t care from which box I withdrew the record, but they do care how it was created. I always give them that information pre-emptively, as an explanation of what they’re looking at. But if I didn’t, then they would ask. And if I weren’t here to ask, then they would have to appeal to the arrangement of the collection to explain it. So they don’t know that it’s important until they don’t have it.

  17. Of course, as soon as I’d posted, I’d another thought in answer to the question — “Provenance, who cares?”

    The Lawyers.

    (And this in keeping with the definition that Kate has provided…)

  18. In working with institutional records, I find that staff are often very interested in provenance. They are often looking for documents or files created by a particular individual or unit as background information for performing current work. They often have a specific document in mind or know that a file maintained by, say, upper-level management is not going to have the amount of detail they need. Historians and other researchers who are looking at topics about which they will likely spend significant portions of their careers writing are also generally interested in provenance. On the other hand, researchers working on short-term projects, undergraduates, History Day participants, and the “curious public” often don’t care and are only concerned with accessing the relevant documents. Sometimes they are even confused and/or annoyed by the fact that they need to look at several different collections, some of which only have a folder or two on a given topic.

  19. I think it’s been hinted at several times already, but I think this is dependent on the type of institution. As a corporate/research archive, my institution attracts a lot of experienced researchers/biographers/historians who do seem to care about provenance. For them, preservation of the original arrangement can provide insight into the collector’s/creator’s thought processes. On the other hand, we do also attract *some* novice researchers who are more interested in family history than anything else, and I’m sure they don’t concern themselves much with the provenance of a collection (of course there was one individual who found a microfilmed copy of an ancestor’s journals in our collection- she was very surprised to find them after being told by an aunt that the family had no documents or artifacts from this individual- she was even more surprised to find out that the donor of the item was this same aunt, and that the aunt still had the originals…)

  20. While I agree that a majority of my institution’s users are more concerned with finding subject related information and can attest to other comments of users requesting “everything on a subject”, the public and academic librarians I know tend to reiterate the poor information literacy skills of most their patrons as well. Anyone working with undergraduate students probably has encountered the student more interested in finding a source, any source, that can be easily cited to meet the requirements of the assignment rather than evaluating whether the source is credible, current, or even exhaustive on the subject matter at hand. If the information can’t be found with a basic Internet search, that’s when users tend to ask for assistance. Many users are simply unfamiliar with a library catalog and don’t realize that subject headings can link together books or articles. For archives and special collections, most users probably don’t realize our use of provenance and original order as foundational markers for organization and use.
    As other comments have noted, our role should be to educate our users on how to access the collections. It may not be as easy to grasp for users who are more used to keyword searching methods, but I believe that noting the provenance and retaining original order (when such an order does exist) has value for the use of the collection. Not everyone will value or need this type of information and, in my opinion, that is okay.
    For the in-depth researcher though, they might very well need this information. One of my colleagues is working with a collection related to conspiracy theories that was created by two researchers over the years regarding this event. Being a conspiracy collection, many of the documents have potentially questionable accuracy. A question came in asking whether we could authenticate a document they could see online. After some discussion, we agreed that all we could really say in this case was that the copy was an accurate reproduction of what was in the collection but that we couldn’t say more as to origins or factual accuracy of the record as the original creators of this collection did not create notes as to where the originals were located while they created the copies that make up the collection.
    To put it shortly, provenance may not be looked for by the majority of users, but provenance does set apart archives from libraries (organized mostly by subject) and it does provide a value for some.

  21. As indicated in my tweets on this, I’m not an archivist; but a practicing Records Manager, so my perspective on provenance is somewhat different. With that said, I’m wondering if you were questioning the value that “users” (presumably meaning historians, students, researchers, etc.) place on provenance as means to facilitate their access to information (as a finding aide so to speak), or as a means to establish authenticity (or both).
    Most of the comments I see so far speak primarily to the “finding aide” and contextual richness values. However a few touch on the evidenciary value of provence, which is more where we RMers come from. From this perspective it more about about establishing and documenting as evidence of authenticity. As one commenter says, “who cares — the lawyers do”. I also relate to the comment about the Geneology research that is prevalent in certain tools that allow users to draw conclusions about ancestry with almost no provence attached to pieces of information.

    My bottom line answer would be, if archivist and Records Managers both do not provide (and maybe even insist on) provenence, then why would we think that users will believe that our collections of information are what they purport to be? Should they just trust the collectors — i.e, take our word for it as the experts?

  22. Looking at this conversation, I suppose it might be worth considering a distinction between providing discovery and access to relevant materials, and actually managing the archives themselves.

  23. There have been several comments about how users care about provenance because that’s how they can find things. But, for those of you who posted those comments, is that just because that’s the way we, as archivists, have organized them? If we organized every single thing in the archives alphabetically or by date, would they still care about provenance? Do what extent do those users feel that there is an intrinsic value in preserving the provenance? Some commenters have said that some researchers do value being able to see the materials in their original context, and I have no doubt that some do value that, but I am still not convinced that that’a majority view for users.

    And, of course, as been stated above, users with different purposes will care about different things, and collections of different types will attract users of different types, and so the points of view of different archivists will vary. Which is why I asked the question.

  24. To borrow from Jean Baudrillard, it sounds like the argument I’m hearing is that “researchers believe in history, but not historicity.” Yes, we have plenty of researchers who are simply searching for one piece of information, and this is the part of the interaction that we tend to share with them as reference archivists. But intellectually honest researchers also care about how they know that this information is true, and provenance is an enormous part of that discerning.

  25. Fortunately, we don’t have to sacrifice provenance and original order to provide access anymore! For the value of valuing provenance, though, try a couple of test cases:

    Case 1) User wants a photograph of Mr. X. Easy to find in the collection where the “archivist” cut all photographs of people pictured together in half and filed each piece under the name of the person depicted to improve access. So… you’ve satisfied the researcher by getting the photo of Mr. X, but you have destroyed the fact that Mr. X is depicted with Ms. Y! Score 1 for access, but minus a billion for history… OK, this is an extreme case, but it is, in fact, a real one!

    2) A series of reports on various topics in a field of study. When the data is new and fresh, the researcher wants access to the information contained in a specific report. As the reports age, the series–collectively, if left intact–becomes a gold mine of information about the development of ideas and trends in the field of study. Each individual report, with its out-of-date content, is not highly desired, but together they have immense value. This value is lost if the archivist, to improve access, re-files the reports to improve topical access.

  26. I have two observations about this question, provoked by experiences on the day you posted it:
    Firstly, although when I did work in a public archive the majority of users did simply ask for “everything on” the subject of their enquiry, there are times when provenance matters above all else. Yesterday, I was helping a researcher who wants to write a biography about a man who was a celebrity in his lifetime but his papers have disappeared; yesterday’s discovery was the Auction Catalogue of part of his collection, so our next step will be to attempt to trace its dispersal from the handwritten notes of purchasers and bids – provenance in reverse. Provenance matters intensely here.
    Secondly, teaching postgraduate archive students who had been given an assignment of locating Diocesan archives using online catalogues, it was clear that they were hampered by the ease of simple text searching. Their searches generated thousands of hits with little order to them. I had to point out how to use advanced search menus to select archival levels and so identify the archives “of” an organisation rather than documents merely “about” them. So, what is my point here? That archive institutions tend to “dumb down” their public interface to the lowest common denominator – “I want to see everything you’ve got” rather than to educate about provenance.
    It is like a family historian who makes an alphabetical list of ancestors rather than a structured family tree: bewildering nonsense.

  27. I’m not sure I have anything much to add to what has been already said but as I’m asking Kate for a faviour thought I ought to pay it back.

    From my own experience it depends who the researcher is and why they want the information. For example the majority of users in the the local government archives service I use to work in were of the ‘tell me everything you have about X’ persuasion without any real understanding of why provenance would matter to them.

    My parents however who are well-practiced genealogists wouldn’t dream of adding a person to our family tree unless they could prove the relationship and therefore for them knowing where the records come from and whether they can trust the information within them is important.

    The curators at the historic house where I now work want to know they can trust the source when I give them information about the provenance of the object they are researching, or to know whether the inventory I provide is dated and what happened to the objects after that point, and whether the letter purorting to be from a specific member of the family really are.

    In both these instances provenance is recognised to be important and valuable. I think it can be argued that for many users there is a belief that the records is valid and correct because the archive holds it but provenance is not questioned and the weight given to that source is therefore not done in any discerning manner.

  28. I think researchers care about provenance to the extent that it’s useful to them. Provenance is most often useful to researchers in two activities: finding materials, and interpreting them. As others have discussed above, the former use is not as central in the current technological environment as it once was, and the latter requires interrogating the historical record in a way that goes beyond the informational needs (or desires) of many of today’s researchers. So yes, the percentage of researchers who care about provenance today is probably smaller than it was, say, 10 or 20 years ago.

    However, here’s the rub: when provenance is important to a researcher’s work — and here I’m referring primarily to its use for interpretive purposes — it is critical. When someone is truly engaged in trying to understand the people, organizations and events behind an archival item, that is, using it as evidence of activity, thoughts, etc., knowing its provenance can make all the difference. Provenance can, of course, be used to verify authenticity, but it can also inform shades of meaning and interpretation. MK discussed this above with reference to federal archives, but it applies to any archives. Put bluntly, any researcher who is interested in interrogating the historical record will need to be interested in provenance. The fact that most researchers will not be doing this kind of work in no way means we as a profession should not be enabling or encouraging it.

    I think this trend may change in the next decade or two, however, as more born digital materials become accessible through archives, and as a generation of researchers who have grown up learning to be skeptical of digital information begins to work with them. I predict that a generation raised knowing that anything they see on the Internet may well be Photoshopped or otherwise fabricated will be significantly more interested in the interpretive value of provenance than today’s typical researchers. I wonder, however, if they will bring this same perspective to working with analog/paper materials also, or if their inclination to interrogate will end at the screen. Someone is probably already studying this, and if not, well, there’s probably a dissertation or at least a thesis in there.

  29. Do the majority of researchers/users care about provenance? Who cares if they don’t? Everyone finds information differently and I’d argue that maintaining provenance creates the best conditions for discovery and supercedes the whims and idiosyncracies of user behavior and needs. The utility of it to archivists and users who do care about it is too great to even bother with those who don’t care or think about it.

  30. From Peter Foden

    >>That archive institutions tend to “dumb down” their public interface to the lowest common denominator – “I want to see everything you’ve got” rather than to educate about provenance.

    Seconded. I’d also be interested to know the extent to which web “archives”–and I use that term loosely–exacerbate some users’ disregard for provenance. For me, it’s not just that patrons need to know that Office X or Department Y created this set of documents. While that’s important, it’s not the end goal. As an information professional, it’s about stressing that information (including creation, usage, management, storage, and retrieval) is inherently a socio-cultural process, so removing any information from that process greatly diminishes its significance. Some web archives (and traditional ones, too) tend to promote “fact aggregation” as opposed to “fact interpretation.” Surely, not all users of archives will be interested in the interpretation side. The challenge is to provide them with enough education in a reasonable time and space so that they can make judicious choices about the information they seek.

  31. For those of you not on the A&A list, this response was posted there:

    Dear Colleagues,

    I have a conference paper (“Archival Context, Digital Content, and the Ethics of Digital Archival Representation”) scheduled to be presented at 2nd Milwaukee Conference on the Ethics of Information Organization (, June 15 – 16, 2012, Milwaukee, WI). The paper is based on the findings of a recent study designed to investigate the typological patterns of how archivists organize and present archival collections that are digitized partially or entirely and the major approaches adopted by them to incorporate digital object metadata into digital archival description. I’ve included part of the abstract here for some of you who may find it relating to the topic under discussion:

    “The findings of the study raise some ethical concerns about how digital archival materials are organized, described and made available for use on the Web. Archivists have a fundamental obligation to preserve and protect the authenticity and integrity of records in their holdings and at the same time have the responsibility to promote the use of records as a fundamental purpose of the keeping of archives (SAA Code of Ethics for Archivists 2005 V & VI). Is it an ethical practice that digital content in digital archives is deeply embedded in its contextual structure and generally underrepresented in digital archival systems? Is it ethical for archivists to detach digital items from their archival context in order to make them more “digital friendly” and more accessible to meet changing use expectations? Is it ethical to distinguish between context-based scholarly use and content-based public use of digital archival materials and produce parallel representation systems to meet different use needs? Do archivists have obligations (and is it technically feasible) to bring the two representation systems together so that the context and content of digital archives can be better represented and archival materials ‘can be located and used by anyone, for any purpose, while still remaining authentic evidence of the work and life of the creator’? (Laura Millar, Archives: Principles and Practices 2010, 157) This paper discusses the findings of the study and their ethical implications relating to digital archival description and representation.”

    Also related to the topic under discussion is the recent Call for Papers from the 2nd International Workshop on Semantic Digital Archives ( The workshop is looking for new approaches, “e.g., there might be promising combinations of pertinence and provenance models since those are traditionally the prevailing knowledge organization principles of the library and archiving community, respectively” ( Hope you find this information useful.

    Jane Zhang, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor
    School of Library and Information Science
    Catholic University of America

  32. And here’s another response from the list that wasn’t posted here:

    [At the risk of stating the obvious…]

    User studies show that it’s not really black-and-white. Many researchers
    often prefer to do research on topics or subjects (think of students),
    but many others also search for names (think of geneologists), or know
    how to navigate our provenance hierarchies (think of experienced
    professors). And lots of researchers prefer different research
    strategies for different purposes, of course.

    In 2009 I synthesized a lot of user studies with researchers in archives
    in “The Metadata IS the Interface.”
    ( The
    survey of researchers we are conducting for ArchiveGrid will hopefully
    update some of this feedback for archivists and librarians.

    And yes, professional imperatives for managing collections are sometimes
    different than professional imperatives for providing discovery and
    access to collections.

    Jennifer Schaffner
    Program Officer
    OCLC Research Library Partnership

  33. Most users won’t need provenance. I think a very high percentage of users will be very happy with the well indexed census, military, immigration, etc. “roll.” One can’t help but be enthralled by the great work done by But for legal, evidential, citation and other historical needs, then provenance is a necessity. So- it depends. Given that Archivist Ferrerio has stated that he may not be convinced of the necessity of “Record Groups,” this is an important discussion- I’ll throw it out on the NARA ICN.

  34. @Jim – while it is true that David referred to Record Groups in his November appearancve at Catholic University, he followed up on it at the January 2012 researcher forum:

    “There is no truth to the rumor that the National Archives is planning to abandon the key principle governing the arrangement and description of archival records: the record group. Archivist of the United States David Ferriero stated that the rumor resulted from statements he made in response to a question during his lecture, “Learning from the Past: The Role of the National Archives,” as part of Catholic University’s School of Library and Information Science Colloquium Series on November 3, 2011. While he acknowledged that the “archival processing routines” that NARA uses “made sense at the time” and for the agencies whose records they were, he doesn’t believe that researchers should have to know record groups to find records on a given topic in an era of electronic research. He expressed in his talk that it’s time to “rethink basic archival process routines” to make it easier for researchers to find the records themselves—“it’s a huge challenge.” The Archivist then encouraged attendees to listen to his lecture at (minute 43:00) and decide for themselves what he said.”

  35. First, thank you all for the enlightening discussion. Second, I am a patron, not an archivist. I am a genealogist. When starting in research I did not understand either the accessability or the interpretive value of provenance. I deffinately fit in the “just give me box X” category. Then I found out that not all records are created equal and need to be used differently based on that provenance. However, I am still not an archivist and some of the organizational use of provenance makes my brain hurt. I have not gone to school for this type of thing and what I have picked up has not been deep or comprehensive yet.

    That being said, it took me years of “research” before I learned that I needed to know and understand the provenance of the records I used in order to use them appropriately. I would pose the likelihood that many, if not most, of those who do not “want” the provenance, simply have no training to tell them otherwise. Admittedly, if someone truly only wants something for the sake of a cool image on their desktop, they really don’t care about the provenance. However, most of the rest of the people searching for some document or information are looking for it to learn something real. They all need to understand what they are looking at in its original context if they are going to learn what that document really has to offer them. I wish that the first few times that I – like an uneducated and obnoxious patron – asked for everything on “topic X,” that the archivist had taken a few moments to point out the importance of understanding the provenance. When I was first starting, the only time I ever had someone at an archive try to explain provenance data to me, it was strickty in terms of the finding aid aspect, not in that it has intrinsic importance and value to the use of those document once/if I found them. I am not suggesting that archivists should spend lots of time with each patron to teach all of the use of that kind of information. But to assume that someone does not want to know simply because they don’t specifically ask for it, would be a sad mistake. They very well may have no idea that they can even find out that information or that it has any value to their research efforts. Most people interested in good research enough to come into an archive rather than simply pulling stuff from the Internet likely care if their research is good or not. Help them know.

    On the flip side, I also believe that making records cataloged or indexed in more lame-man’s terms (ie by topic or whatever) is of value as a means to get someone into the records, especially if they do not understand archival methods or the complete collection of your records yet. It seems like utilizing some amount of that kind of organization when it is possible within your particular archive’s constraints would be worth the offering. But making things easier to find for someone like me is never worth loosing or dismissing the priceless provenance of those records.

    Thank you all for providing such a great service to the world’s knowledge base!

  36. “If we organized every single thing in the archives alphabetically or by date, would they still care about provenance?”

    Funny you should mention this. I work in a small college archives (name withheld to protect the … innocent) that, for some reason in the 1950s, was re-organized in this way. Collections, as archivists define them, were broken apart, and items were physically and intellectually organized by subject and format. If someone wants material about one of the college founders, those items will be in separate filing cabinets under “diaries,” “correspondence,” “newspaper clippings,” etc. Yes, that means we have item-level cataloging for our archives, and I will never be able to retire the card catalog. It also means we’re going to have two separate organizational systems because I will not be continuing this seven-part coded classification scheme.

    So, to the point: Since last August when I arrived, we’ve had about a dozen off-campus researchers and about the same number of campus-based users (plus all the small reference requests we get on a daily basis). Not one researcher has asked where a document came from or how we got it. It’s a good thing, since there are very few cases where I can answer the question, but based on this small amount of anecdotal evidence, I sadly have to go down the they-don’t-care path.

    I’ve been debating whether to reunite items that can be traced back to a single creator as a collection. In a few cases, we have documentation that will let me do that, so my recently ingrained professional training is screaming for me to do it. But, if as we’re debating here, most patrons don’t really care, the corporate-world-ROI-trained part of my brain says doing that is just to satisfy the way it’s “supposed” to be done.

    This debate clearly doesn’t help my quest to make our archives accessible to more people, but it does give me another way to frame it while I try to figure out the solution.

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