Tuesday, June 16, 2015

From the Archives — Provenance

The Mojave Desert Archives is the memory of the Mojave Desert community and the MDHCA organization.

by Chris Ervin, Archivist
Mojave Desert Archives

In my last column I described how an archivist is a flavor of librarian. The archivist’s practice differs from librarians in that we specialize in the cataloging, retrieval, and preservation of unpublished, rather than published materials. For librarians, there is a prescribed manner for making books and periodicals easy to find, usually by subject, author, title, and date. But, when it comes to cataloging personal papers, manuscripts, family photographs, and official records, the process for an archivist to make sense of these materials is not so cut and dry—especially if they arrive in a jumble.

During my graduate studies I was astounded to learn that even among archival professionals, standards for organizing historical materials have only just been institutionalized in the last twenty or so years. Archivists have also been late to the party when it comes to adopting computers to help them in their work. Fortunately, that is all changing with younger archivists who are coming into the profession technically savvy and unafraid to challenge the status quo. I’m a bit of an anomaly as my age bracket (58) puts me more in the dinosaur camp, but my 32 years as an information technology professional evens the playing field when it comes to adopting and applying new technologies to archival practice.

When it comes to organizing archival materials—unpublished stuff having long term value to researchers—there are a few important guiding principles; provenance and original order. Basically, the principle of provenance requires the archivist to determine who created the materials. That sounds simple, but sometimes needs to be sorted out. Provenance also requires the archivist to document the ownership of and any changes to the materials from the time the creator created them to the time they ended up on the archivist’s doorstep.

This “chain of title” may not be so easy to determine if the materials are really old, yet can directly impact the authenticity of a record. Here’s where that’s a problem; if a document cannot be determined to be genuine, a cautious researcher may not want to risk her reputation by including potentially false data in a publication. Just ask the editors of Stern who published the fake Hitler Diaries back in 1983. Therefore it is the archivist’s job to not only organize unpublished materials in such a way that they are easy to find, but also to document the authenticity of the materials so historians can count on them to be a true representation of the past.

In my next column, I’ll continue this “how archival materials are organized” discussion by describing how the principle of original order helps archivists maintain the authenticity of the record as well as making them easy to find—not just by researchers, but also for the archivist who has to be able to quickly retrieve those materials from the back room.