Respect des Fonds and Original Order, breaking it and keeping it?

The digital world has been a marvelous invention and has proven itself, regardless of the atavistic and anachronistic voices that are still sometimes heard. In the realm of the archives, most archivists are attempting and grappling with the plethora of issues that have arisen from the new technologies, both good and bad. For archivists, an area that will prove to be both challenging and enriching is how to address two very important principles in this new environment, Respect des Fonds and Original Order.

Before I continue on this subject, let us look at the definitions and etymologies of these fundamental archival axioms (for further reading on this topic, see my previous blog on the History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice). Respect des Fonds was developed between 1839 and 1841 by the French National Archives (known as the Archives Nationale). In principle, Respect des Fonds kept records together in the archives under the agency that originated them, and no longer scattered them among preconceived a-priori subject classes (the use of a-priori subject classes was devised by librarians).  However, within each fond (record group) records were arranged according to subject class (this form of segregation goes on at some archives, with the subject classes used as series arrangement levels). The internal rearrangement was usually intended for scholarly research.

The Prussian State Archives, who took the principle of Respect des Fonds but applied a further arrangement schema, Original Order, carried out the evolution and slight modification of this principle. In Original Order the internal structure of the fond is respected and a-priori subject classes are not used.  (In the United States the principle of Provenance has been used interchangeably with both Original Order and Respect des Fonds). One of the primary reasons for the difference between the Prussian and French models was ontological. The Prussians viewed records primarily for administrative and operational purposes, while the French believed they should always view them from research needs.

All archivists have respected these principles, and in the case of Respect des Fonds are followed but I will venture to say that the strict Original Order of the Fond has been overlooked or modified. This is not some nefarious conspiracy carried out by archivists but has more to do with practicality, precedent, research value and I dare say institutional culture and tradition. While in paper form both principles have been followed with some modifications, what will be the consequences in the digital world? Will the flexibility of the digital form allow us to follow a strict interpretation of both principles or can we folllow some hybrid form? I cannot foresee or discuss the possibilities that may arise at other archival repositories. I can however comment on what we will attempt to do at Youngstown State University.

Here at YSU we will be experimenting on how to keep both Original Order (within the Fonds) and Respect des Fonds but also break it as well…sort of. In a very short time we will commence the scanning of a large collection (Lloyd Collection) of unprocessed materials (I know the first gasps that are coming from everyone is how will you do that with out processing first, the answer to that is part of this experiment is to create a mock born digital collection and therefore help us to address born digital collections as well). These materials will be scanned in their Original Order and Respect des Fonds. There will be no a-priori series (description level of arrangement) created and then used to segregate the collection internally but we will use series  as a search mechanism. The structure will be kept in its order by using DSpace Institutional Repository Software and its segregating Community, Sub-Community and Collection level descriptions. The difference will be the use of the series field as a way to describe each meta-record to other similar meta-records and to create a series description meta-record that will be able to be used as a bibliographic record as well. By arranging the collection in this manner, we hope to service both the needs of the researcher and remain faithful to archival principles.

We obviously do not know the end results of this project but we hope to discover new ways of processing, arranging and describing even if they are completely different from any preconceived notions we may have. Stay tuned.