Debate: The majority of users don’t care about provenance. They just want access to information.

I’m writing something today and in the course of doing so, I plan on making the claim that most archivists recognize that the majority (I would say the vast majority, but let’s just say majority for now) of users of archival materials do not care about provenance. That is to say, they do not care who the original aggregator of an archival grouping was or why the grouping was created. They do not care that the materials have been preserved in original order (or who imposed the order the materials are in) or that no materials from other sources have been intermingled with those in the grouping.

My contention is that most users want access to information. If they are interested in learning about X (whether it is their great-great-grandfather, their house, women’s suffrage, the Monongahela River, or the evolution of the concept of academic freedom) they want to find all the materials that pertain to X. The majority of them do not care in what record group, collection  or series those materials are located. If the archivist brought out a box labeled “all the materials on X,” assembled from all over the archives with no indication of where it came from, the user would be thrilled, not disappointed.

Is context sometimes interesting? Probably occasionally, but I would guess rarely. And I would guess only if it adds information that the user needs–such as probable date for an undated letter.

So, comrades, do you think that’s an accurate claim to make? Do you think the majority of users don’t care about provenance? Do you think some users (such as “serious scholars”) care more than others? I have heard it said that even our beloved historians don’t care as much about context as they once did. Is that true, in your experience?

The floor is open for debate: Provenance, who cares?



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