The Death of the Fonds and the Resurrection of Provenance: Archival Context in Space and Time

  • Laura Millar


While the concepts of the fonds, respect des fonds, and provenance were initially useful in Canada to offset ad hoc approaches to arrangement and description, the intellectual reality of provenance and the physical reality of the records have become so intertwined over time that the essential distinction between the creator and the created has been lost. The Rules for Archival Description, for example, establishes an approach to the fonds that does not allow for the description of virtual bodies of records, accumulated over time and scattered over space. To reassess the concept of provenance, the author examines the use of the term in archaeology and museology. Adapting these definitions to the archival context, the author argues that archivists should describe the records that remain and explain the history of the creator, their records and how they came to be in that institution. Archivists should expand the existing elements in RAD "for immediate source of acquisition" and "custodial history" and focus on a new vision, not of respect des fonds, but of respect de provenance, which would encompass creator history, records history, and custodial history. Archival descriptions should encompass all these elements, so that archivists offer the broadest possible contextualization of records and, at the same time, become more accountable for their own actions and more transparent about the management of the records in their care. Archivists should abandon the concept of the fonds, since that idea labels records as something they cannot be, ignoring the reality of their existence over time and space.

Author Biography

Laura Millar
Laura Millar divides her time among three careers: in archives, as an archival and information management consultant and educator; in publishing, as a writer, editor, and instructor; and in distance education, as a curriculum developer, instructional designer, and course author. She received her M.A.S. in Archival Studies from the University of British Columbia in 1984 and her Ph.D. in Archival Studies from the University of London in 1996. She is the author of a number of books and articles on various topics in archives, publishing and distance education. She is presently consulting with the International Records Management Trust and the World Bank on the development and delivery of a Global Forum on Evidence-Based Governance, part of a multi-year project to integrate records management into global strategies for good governance, economic development, and poverty reduction. When she is not working internationally, she teaches archival studies, writing, editing, and pursues a range of research interests.
How to Cite
Millar, Laura. 2002. “The Death of the Fonds and the Resurrection of Provenance: Archival Context in Space and Time”. Archivaria 53 (May), 1-15.