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Provenance and original order

Remember, archives are collections of related records, the interpretation of which requires context.

Provenance and original order are important because:

  • they help to preserve contextual information about archives
  • they can help us to decide whether records are authentic and reliable
  • they can help us to find further records which are relevant to our research

Provenance

Provenance relates to the creator of a record and its history of ownership. Archivists avoid putting items together in the catalogue which are from different sources. Archival catalogues tend to include a description of the provenance of the collection.

You will often see a series of correspondence within collections of personal papers. These letters, postcards and telegrams would have been sent to that person from numerous writers. In this case, they share a provenance because they were all collected by the same person in the course of his business.

Provenance is one of the reasons that archives can’t be borrowed. Ideally, it should be possible to trace the ownership and custody (physical possession rather than ownership) of an archive since its creation. Knowing the owners/custodians allows you to judge whether anybody has altered it in any way, meaning that it is easier to tell if it is authentic.

Being owned by or in the custody of a repository is a good provenance because of the careful oversight of readers. The fact that access is only allowed under supervision makes it very unlikely that the document has been tampered with.

Original order

Original order simply means keeping things in the order which the person or institution whose archive they were originally kept them. This is important because certain records may have been kept together for a reason, even if it is not immediately obvious to you what that reason was.

Returning to the example of a series of correspondence, letters are usually kept with a different file for each person who wrote the letters. Within each file they are often in chronological order, starting with the earliest and finishing with the most recent.

Occasionally they don’t follow that order. This might be because the person whose letters they were sorted them by subject. If anybody rearranged those letters into chronological order, the contextual information provided by the original order would be lost.

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