As you begin to read the professional archival literature, you will see this word repeatedly: provenance. What does it mean? And why do archivists refer it so much? One of the fundamental differences in archives and libraries is that archivists preserve the original order of the records, while librarians arrange collections by subject. A typical issue in an archives run by volunteers or part-time archivists is that they “rearrange” the materials to help answer reference questions.

However, by rearranging materials, especially pulling records from one department and mixing them with records from another department, the person has changed the context of the records. Steven L. Hensen, an SAA Fellow,  wrote: “[Provenance] holds 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.” [Hensen, Steven L., The First Shall Be First: APPM and Its Impacts on American Archival Description. Archivaria 35 (Spring 1993), p. 64–70.]

1959 Pressly Rendition RG13-07

Artist’s rendition of the Pressly Administration Building included in a 1959 capital campaign brochure. (From the collection of The Westminster Schools Archives, Atlanta, Georgia.)

Often it is difficult and is always time-consuming to try to put items back in their proper location within the collection, so the best practice is to leave the items in the order in which you receive them from a department. Your intellectual, or subject, access will be through your finding aids (which will soon be another blog post). For example, records of a capital campaign may be spread across Development, Communications, and the President’s departments, but the records need to stay within each department’s records, not mixed into an artificial collection pulled from several departments.

Here are the definitions you need to learn from A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology by Richard Pearce-Moses:

Provenance: n. (provenancial, adj.) ~ 1. The origin or source of something. – 2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.

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.

Related to provenance is “functional provenance” and “provenance access,” defined as:

Functional provenance: n. ~ The origin of a group of materials as determined by the activities that produce the materials (the function), rather than organizational unit.

Functional provenance allows for intellectual control of multiprovenance series that result from administrative or political change. The concept ensures that, with a transfer of functions from one authority to another, relevant records or copies thereof are transferred to ensure administrative continuity.

Provenance access: n. ~ A technique of locating relevant materials based on characteristics of the origins of the materials (the provenance).

Provenance access complements subject access. For example, reviewing a repository’s collections, listed by provenance, can often be a useful means of locating materials relevant to a query. For example, a researcher studying Phoenix in the 19th century might start with the papers of the George Luhrs and Dwight Heard because of their prominence as civic leaders. That researcher might reject the papers of city archaeologist Odd Halseth, because his work related to pre-Columbian cultures.

Here are some simple do’s and don’ts:


  • Keep the original order of the records intact. Even if you don’t immediately see the logic behind the filing system, resist the urge to “make it better.”
  • Create a Reference Guide for often-requested subjects. This reference guide will become your subject access to multiple points in your collection. If your library subscribes to the service, you can create a LibGuide, such as this one that I have created on Primary Sources.


  • Rearrange records after you have received them. The order in which the records arrive will give you some insight into the workflow and organization of the department. Often faculty or staff may request records based on how the information was first organized.
  • Mix records from one department with another department. For example, don’t take all the records from the President’s office on a specific fundraising campaign and put it together with the Development’s records on the same campaign. Some of the records may not necessarily indicate which department created that particular document, so it is important to leave it in the department in which it was created.

To obtain a PDF of the 2005 edition of the Glossary, click here.


One response to “Provenance

  1. Pingback: Finding Aids | The School Archivist·

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