RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description

This talk, which formed part of a panel about archival description, was delivered at the 2016 Radcliffe Workshop on Technology & Archival Processing, held on April 4–5, 2016, in Cambridge, MA. The panel, moderated by Jennifer Weintraub, also featured Anne Wootton and Kari Smith.


With a title like this, I want to start by first explaining my role as digital archivist within the Princeton University Archives. The ‘digital’ in my title is entirely misleading. For starters, I concern myself not with all digital archives, just those that are born-digital, referring to records created and used on computing devices. This excludes materials digitized for preservation or access, a topic already ably addressed today. The ‘digital’ in my title also obscures the fact that I still retain responsibilities for paper records. That said, I do not solely describe collections for the Princeton University Archives. I have also had the chance to assist in the appraisal and acquisition of archival records, most recently through the Archiving Student Activism at Princeton (ASAP) initiative. So, my subsequent critique of provenance draws on my understanding and application of the principle in both an analog and digital worlds, from appraisal through access.

My critique of this principle also stems from my shared role in partnering with community activists and archivists to establish A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, an independent, community-based archive that collects stories, memories, and accounts of police violence as experienced or observed by citizens in Cleveland, Ohio. My role in the archive has been strikingly similar to my role at Princeton: I’ve drawn on my technical skills in both positions to preserve and provide access to born-digital archival material, which has included the task of thinking about and doing the archival description of materials in both repositories. However unlike in Princeton, I have no role in appraisal with the police violence archive, as that is the exclusive role of the archive’s citizen archivists.

Photograph of Occupy Nassau protest at Princeton University, taken November 18, 2015.

From the intersection of these two experiences, I have come to understand that provenance, which is perhaps the most sacred principle in the archival field and the principle that most shapes archival description in the United States, is at once a relic of the colonial and imperial era in which it emerged and also an insufficient principle to address the technical challenges of born-digital archival records and the social challenges of creating a radically inclusive historical record. The goal of my talk is twofold: 1) to highlight the severe shortcomings of provenance as it pertains to the aforementioned challenges and 2) to advocate for the imagining of a new principle to guide archival thinking generally and archival description specifically.

With that said, the argument I am advancing about the shortcomings of provenance falls within a long line of critiques from archivists and scholars, so my case is not presented from an extant ether, but it grounds itself among the literature from thinkers such as Helen Samuels, Jeannette Bastian, Richard Cox, David Bearman, Heather MacNeil, Terry Cook, Wendy Duff, Verne Harris, Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, Cheryl Beredo, Bertram Lyons, Jefferson Bailey, and Mark Matienzo, just to name a few. But I hope to make a nuanced argument that builds upon the work of these thinkers and, as my colleague Maureen Callahan suggested yesterday, speak to my professional experiences as it relates to this argument. Lastly, I should clarify that I am not, necessarily, calling for an abandonment of provenance, though that may well be an outcome. I am, instead, calling for the emergence of a new principle — one free from colonialist and imperialist ambitions — that faces forward to the future of the archive as a space with the capacity both to preserve and provide access to born-digital records over time and with the consciousness to recognize the inequality, violence, and injustice of modernity and ensure that the communities most directly impacted by them have equal access to archival processes, of which description is just a part.


The principle of provenance, which regrettably gained not one mention yesterday, is the formative foundation of archival records and their description within the Western world. As an idea, the principle asserts that, in order to preserve context, records of different origins, or provenance, must not be mixed with those of other origins. The concept’s history, as the Canadian archivists well know, is debatable, but the French archivist Natalis de Wailly gave a new name to the idea in 1841 with his introduction of the term respect des fonds. The ideas of provenance and respect des fonds, which some use interchangeably, spread to American archivists at the beginning of the 20th century as the American archival profession began to separate itself from historians and librarians.

Canadian archivist Shelley Sweeney offers a vivid explanation of provenance as “a railroad train that picks up and discharges passengers at stations as it rumbles along its circumscribed path through the countryside,” which implies that provenance is, at times, a blunt, unforgiving, and impatient object that has a predetermined if not precarious path. In any case, at its most basic level, provenance thrives with the presence of a clear creator or ownership of records and with a hierarchical relationship between entities, both of which reflect the bureaucratic and corporate needs of the Western colonial, capitalist, and imperialist regimes in which archivists have most adhered to the principle. This principle, again, is the central organizing unit for description in most archival repositories and archivists must comes to terms with the ways in which we incorporate the privilege, power, and patriarchy of provenance into our everyday practices.

It bears mentioning that provenance emerged as a concept in the West at a time when most people were structurally if not legally excluded from ownership; ownership of their own bodies, minds, labor, property, and records. Its application in archives, which is close to 200 years old, reflects the limitation of state regimes in the West to recognize fully the human rights of indigenous Americans, black people, women, and gender non-conforming people. Provenance’s early 20th-century rise in the United States coincides with the rise of anti-black racism and state violence domestically and the increase of imperialism in Latin America, the Pacific, and Asia, the latter of which Cheryl Beredo covers in her excellent work Import of the Archive. As such, the concept that the fonds of one creator should not be mixed with the fonds of another creator is, in theory and in practice, a legacy of colonialism. Moreover, one can imagine the ease of determining a clear creator or owner when just a sliver of Western society had 1) the legal privilege to create and own, and 2) the legal protection of that privilege.

Over the last century, the patriarchal origins of provenance penetrated the language of archival description. Archivists convey provenance information in various parts of a finding aid, which is the final product of archival description. The biographical note is one such part of the finding aid that contains provenance information. In this note, archivists often write massive memorials and monuments to wealthy, white, cisgendered and heterosexual men, including selective details about the creator that have minimal bearing on the records, and instead serve to valorize and venerate white western masculinity. Our collection management tools reflect this patriarchal path: parent components, child components, sibling components, and spawning are but a few examples in the widely adopted software ArchivesSpace. These practices and this language are remnants of a colonized mode of thinking about the world through the gaze of great white men, whose complexities and contradictions previously could only be explored in the archives by similarly complicated and great white men.

John Foster Dulles Papers, Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

I conclude my brief account of provenance not with answers but with questions. To the disenfranchised, marginalized, and colonized, what is the idea of provenance? For one who legally cannot own her body, what does it mean to own records? Why does the archival community revolve around just one 175-year-old principle that emerged in an exclusively analog world at a time when archive-making and empire-building were the exclusive rights of white wealthy Western men? How does a reflection on the contextual origins of provenance as an idea explain who is present, absent, loud, and silent in the archives, and how does the digital deluge accentuate that absence? How might one interpret these silences and absences not as sudden surprises but as predictable products of archival processes and principles rooted in colonialism, anti-black racism, sexism, homophobism, transphobism, and classism? Most importantly, how can archivists revisit this core principle to learn of its limitations and envision a post-colonial archive free of these oppressive forces and equipped to meet the challenges of contemporary born-digital archival records? The wide growth and adoption of digital technologies afford archivists and theorists an opportunity to introduce a new foundational archival principle. It’s critical we seize this moment, both for its technical and social possibilities.

From a technical view, progress over the last two decades in information technology problematizes, in theory and in practice, the principle of provenance, as the fonds of one creator are increasingly less distinct from the fonds of other creators. Google Drive, Dropbox, and other commercial collaboration tools complicate conventional ideas of custody and property by enabling and encouraging shared stewardship of files and folders. Who, in a legal or archival sense, owns a shared document or folder that lives on a remote server owned by a third-party service provider? Can two distinct persons or corporate bodies both lay claim to custody, and if so, does that conflict with the principle that the fonds of one creator be separate from the fonds of another? Because of this shared and often complex stewardship, a new foundational archival principle would account for this reality, which will certainly increase with time. Practically, users of born-digital archival records should expect archival description that visualizes, manipulates, or otherwise makes available the structured information about a folder’s or document’s sharing permissions. From our description, users should be able to obtain at least the following three facts: 1) the person(s) who had access to a particular file or folder, 2) their level of access, and 3) the log of changes to these access permissions. This information, which I argue is critical to capturing the context of born-digital records, resides within the filesystem(s) and thus can be extracted programmatically without human intervention or error, but its inclusion within archival descriptive stretches the limits of our understanding of provenance.

From a social view, this expansion in digital technologies disrupts theoretical and practical applications of provenance for two separate but related reasons. First, we occupy a moment in history in which the largest percentage of the world’s population ever possesses the power and potential to author and create documentation about their lived experiences. Emanating from the first, the second disruption is that this increasing agency gives people and communities a chance to name themselves, a process essential to establishing provenance that was previously reserved for the archive and the bureaucratic and corporate entities that rely on it. How can the archivist, for instance, distinguish the fonds of two creators without the authority first to name them? If the state, vis-à-vis the archive and related authority holders, relinquishes control over naming, does the archive become an unsorted mess of ambiguous avatars, a challenge Meredith Evans noted yesterday regarding the Documenting Ferguson repository and a challenge replicated in the police violence archive in Cleveland? Because of these two social disruptions of provenance, a new foundational archival principle would account for this liberation. Practically, users should see names not from an authorized source or agency but names asserted by people, organizations, and communities responsible for the shared creation, stewardship, and custody of records. Users should not, as my Princeton colleague Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez pointed out, see archival description that normalizes the violence archivists can legitimize through processes of naming and unnaming and gendering and degendering, but instead users should expect archival description that reflects the autonomous naming decisions of people and communities, including and especially if they wish to withhold their names. Naming creators in our description according to one’s self-assertion is crucial to preserving the context of born-digital archival records, yet it too runs counter to how archivists conceive and practice provenance.

Historical Subject Files finding aid and Latinx Collective Records finding aid. Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Critics of this call for a new foundational archival principle to guide archival practice and description will note the potential pitfalls about anonymity, lost authority, and how the two might conspire to impale the credibility of collections and the trustworthiness of the archives at large. As seen in the description of records within the Documenting Ferguson and Preserve the Baltimore Uprising repositories, this concern is not unfounded. Yet, journalists regularly report on evidence obtained from confidential sources, especially when that source occupies a vulnerable or precarious position and the revelation of their identity poses a risk to their wellbeing. Why should the evidence in archives be judged by a different standard? What’s more, we archivists must resist our colonial inclinations and realize that not all who are named are truthful and not all who are unnamed are deceitful. In repressive regimes, the litmus test for truth-value cannot be one’s willingness to go on the record. In fact, the opposite is needed: these regimes require spaces for the unsayable to be said, without fear of retaliation or reprisal.

As stated earlier, this new way of conceiving archives and archival description wouldn’t necessarily extinguish the principle of provenance. Destroying one colonial relic to replace it with another gains us nothing. Rather, this new archival principle would be one possible way to do and describe archives. This plea is a call for construction, and if destruction is but one small outcome, so it is. Also, I have neglected to provide any specific principle that I myself would assert for consideration. This is intentional. The truly transformative principle that is needed for archival practice and archival description cannot come from one person or from one invite-only forum, but such a principle necessarily must develop organically, slowly, and anti-oppressively with a radical cross-section of academic, disciplinary, racial, ethnic, gender, cultural and class backgrounds represented. In this sense, a new foundational archival principle, should it be worth anything, must be developed beyond the bounds of the archival profession.

My combined experiences at the Princeton University Archives and with A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland show that the descriptive challenges facing born-digital archival records is not technical or social, but both technical and social. Considering one without the other obscures how humans use information technology, which is to achieve both technical and social ends. In many ways, provenance as a theory or practice is poorly positioned to address either challenge, and so I dare us to think boldly, radically, and creatively about how to do and describe archives differently. Our future, and soon our past, will depend on it.

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