papers delivered at the 2014 AHA conference.

AHA 2014 Roundtable Digital Historiography and the Archives

Table of Contents:

Digital Historiography and the Archives, 2014 AHA Conference, Washington, DC, Friday, 3 January 2014

Part 1: Katharina Hering, Joshua Sternfeld, Kate Theimer, and Michael J. Kramer, “Introduction”

Part 2: Joshua Sternfeld, “Historical Understanding in the Quantum Age”

Part 3: Katharina Hering, “Contextualizing digital collections based on the principle of provenance and the tradition of source criticism”

Part 4: Kate Theimer, “A Distinction worth Exploring: ‘Archives’ and ‘Digital Historical Representations’”

Part 5: Michael J. Kramer, “Going Meta on Metadata”

Katharina Hering, “Contextualizing digital collections based on the principle of provenance and the tradition of source criticism”

khering23@gmail.com

[The following remarks have been slightly revised from the original presentation. I worked on this paper as an independent researcher, and it is not related to my position with the NEJL.] 

Traditionally, the archival concept of provenance refers “to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection,” and the principle of provenance suggests that records originating from the same source should be kept together, and not interfiled with records from other sources to preserve their context. (See the definition of provenance in SAA’s online glossary of archival and records terminology.) In her article, “The Death of the Fonds and the Resurrection of Provenance: Archival Context in Space and Time,” (Archivaria 53, Spring 2002:1-15) the Canadian archivist Laura Millar emphasizes the importance of recognizing provenance as the key element of archival arrangement and description. At the same time, Millar argues for an expanded understanding of provenance as a combination of creator history, records history, and custodial history. Her broadened concept of archival provenance is based on a comparative analysis of the concepts of provenance in museology, archaeology, and in archives, all of which have slightly different traditions and meanings. She further argues that a respect de provenance offers a much more useful and realistic basis for a broader contextualization of records than the principle of the respect des fonds (see the definition of fonds in SAA’s online glossary of archival and records terminology), which has traditionally shaped descriptive practice in government archives.

While emphasizing the importance of provenance as a key archival principle, Millar – among others — acknowledges that there is a discrepancy between aspiration and practice: While most archivists agree that providing information about the provenance of collections is critical, this understanding is not always reflected by archival practices. Frequently, the fields in archival finding aids or catalog records, where information about provenance is supplied, remain sparse, or empty. Sometimes, this may reflect that this information is not available, and sometimes existing information may not have gotten transferred from institutional documentation to finding aids.  (* Touching on a related aspect of this issue was a discussion on Archives Next as to whether users care about provenance.)

[Depending on the content and cataloging standard used, the relevant fields differ. In APPM, which was replaced by DACS, there existed a field for information about provenance. In DACS, the relevant fields to include information about provenance are administrative/biographical history; custodial history, and immediate source of acquisition, in ISAD (G), the field for custodial history is called archival history. Related and relevant MARC fields are 541, 545 and 561. Provenance is not one of the 15 elements of the simple Dublin Core metadata element set, but part of the qualified Dublin Core set. Thanks to Kate Theimer for suggesting the clarification regarding the relevant fields.]

The lack of information about the provenance of collections, or items, is exacerbated in digital archives and collections, or, to use Joshua Sternfeld’s term, collections of digital historical representations. As Joshua Sternfeld has highlighted, items that become part of digital collections frequently get detached from their original collections, and in that process, existing information about the original provenance of the item of can easily get lost. Also, just as in many physical archives, the contextual information about the provenance of digital objects in born digital collections may not get collected in the first place. Supplying information about provenance in digital archives is also more complicated due to the massive scale of many collections (as J.S. has outlined), and due to the fact that one has to distinguish between the provenance of the original record, item, or collection, and the provenance of the digital historical representation, or collection of digital historical representations. Thus, digital collections often require additional more than one layer of information about provenance.

The reasons for the lack of adequate contextual information about provenance of digital historical representations are complex – there may be technical, conceptual, institutional, and economical.  These significant challenges, however, do not diminish the need and ethical obligation (Jane Zhang presented a paper on Archival Context, Digital Content, and the Ethics of Digital Archival Representation,” which she mentioned in a contribution to the discussion about provenance on Archives Next) for providing adequate contextual information about items, collections, or digital historical representations. I believe that the tradition of source criticism in historical theory and methodology complements the archival principle of provenance, while underscoring the importance of adequate contextualization of records, collections, and digital historical representations.

Source criticism has been an integral part of historical theory and method since the concept was introduced by Prussian historian and philosopher Johann Gustav Droysen, and later developed by Ernst Bernheim. Droysen in his Outline of the Principles of History (1st German edition in 1867, first English ed. In 1893) defined the task of criticism as to “determine what relation the materials still before us bears to the acts of will whereof it testifies.” Droysen distinguished various elements of criticism: criticism determines the genuineness of a source, it addresses the development from earlier and later forms of the materials, it criticizes the validity of the information and the source, and the correctness of the information. It also includes the critical analysis of the information in the source itself: which events and developments does it reflect, how was the description influenced by its contemporary context, who was the author, how did it relate to other sources of the time? (Droysen, Outline, paragraph 26-36) Droysen emphasized that the outcome of the critical analysis was not the exact fact, but rather the ability to place “the materials in such a condition as renders possible a relatively safe and correct judgment.” Historian and philosopher Ernst Bernheim later expanded and specified Droysen’s theory (Lehrbuch der historischen Methode, 1st German ed. 1889 – Bernheim’s Lehrbuch was never translated into English). Especially relevant is Bernheim’s distinction between internal and external source criticism – the critical analysis of the content of the source v. the analysis of the creation context or provenance of the source. Based on Laura Millar’s definition of provenance, one could also understand external source criticism – when applied to individual records as well as collections — as the investigation of creator history, records history, and custodial history.

Certainly, the tradition of source criticism has to be situated in its time and historical context in the late 19th century, and the notion of a “source” itself can be rather problematic, as Michael Kramer highlights in his perceptive criticism of the essentialist connotation of a “source” as something that can be exploited by the historian (see M.K.’s later remarks). Still, the tradition of source criticism and the archival tradition and concept of provenance complement another in highlighting the importance of collecting and providing contextual information for sources or collections. Combined with a broadened understanding of provenance, the tradition of source criticism can support archivists, historians, librarians, digital humanists, and others with developing a set of questions and a vocabulary that can aid the analysis and description of digital collections, or digital historical representations alike. Source criticism — in a reformed, modern version, which was developed and theorized by the late Swiss historian Peter Haber (see: Peter Haber, Digital Past, München: Oldenbourg 2011, among other publications) as well as provenance are important elements of the critical digital historiography that Joshua Sternfeld has outlined.

But how can such an ambitious goal, backed up by archival and historical theory, be implemented? What are the challenges at specific institutions? What are possible practical approaches for archivists, historians, librarians, and others to collaborate to collect and provide adequate, critical, contextual information about digital historical representations? How can the contextual information that historians gather in the course of their research make their way into archival finding aids or catalog records? How can the contextual knowledge about collections that archivists have gathered help historians with developing source critical analyses? And what can researchers and archivists do if they find that digital historical representations lack adequate contextual information? How can source criticism lead to resource and database criticism? How can information professionals, including archivists, and researchers, including historians, voice their concerns when faced with a lack of contextual information provided by big commercial databases, such as JSTOR, Ancestry.com, EBSCO, and, of course, Google, over which they have no control? Could collaborative teams of history liaison librarians, archivists, and historians, develop portals that help with supplying contextual information about the provenance of specific collections made available by commercial databases that allow a critical, informed, use of these resources?

Table of Contents:

Digital Historiography and the Archives, 2014 AHA Conference, Washington, DC, Friday, 3 January 2014

Part 1: Katharina Hering, Joshua Sternfeld, Kate Theimer, and Michael J. Kramer, “Introduction”

Part 2: Joshua Sternfeld, “Historical Understanding in the Quantum Age”

Part 3: Katharina Hering, “Contextualizing digital collections based on the principle of provenance and the tradition of source criticism”

Part 4: Kate Theimer, “A Distinction worth Exploring: ‘Archives’ and ‘Digital Historical Representations’”

Part 5: Michael J. Kramer, “Going Meta on Metadata”