Provenance of the fonds

Looking back on things can sometimes reveal hidden treasures. Not that everything that ever happened is recorded.  But stories of endeavour and accomplishment are always scintillating. No doubt one day someone will ask, “How did they manage to do it?”  We take so much of our present for granted as though it were customary, expected and unusual. But it never is. There’s a lot going on in the present that is just as intriguing; that is, if we can bring ourselves to slow down long enough to take a look at it.

Take for example the events this morning on my habitual tricycling exercise around the block; viz., primarily back and forth on Spring Street along the Mississippi River, then up the hill along Johanna Street which curves about the perimeter of the enclave. Foremost was the encounter I had with a woman whom I instantly recognized because she was wearing the most preposterous sunhat (which she excused because it is indeed so large and all-encompassing – though for her protection against the rays).  The hat reminds me of something you’d see in a cartoon on a prudish garden lady. In fact this is precisely how I would characterize her. Whenever I have seen her previously – on her residential property across the street from our apartment building – she is always tending her equally outlandish garden (with its pots, windmills and other endless accessories loaded everywhere) wearing yet another one of her extraordinary hats.

But what I discovered this morning as I interrupted my cycle to stop to chat with her along  the sidewalk is that she’s from Pennsylvania and like most Americans I know she is not reluctant to make known her private thoughts including in particular political introspection.  This of course instantly meant a review of Trump.  She rolled her eyes and acknowledged the outcome of the upcoming November election will reflect internationally upon the face of the United States of America.

The woman abbreviated her dislike of Trump by noting that his supporters are not only the usual CNN idiots advertised with their tattoos and lip embellishments but also thinking individuals. Pointedly – and much to my continuing disappointment upon the investigation – she had no idea why they would, other than to accommodate people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham who just want to keep their job and who could care less about the fortunes of the United States of America. In fairness to them I confessed that if my job were at stake I am not sure I’d behave much better.

But now onto another venture. Previously I had crossed paths with an electrified model of a Volvo SUV.  It approached me noiselessly.  We both stopped to consider the state of the universe which for the female passenger meant awaiting the report of her physician regarding her wonky knee.  She said she wished to avoid surgery which is an expected observation especially because she knows that I am recovering from my own knee surgery and haven’t anywhere near the appearance of being restored to full health (though I hasten to add my lingering immobility is more a product of my arthritic broken ribs but we didn’t entertain that diversion today). These people live in the apartment directly below our own.  He like I is an affirmed motor vehicle fan to the point of similar obsession – you know, things like keeping the vehicle clean, obviously relishing driving it; and an unmistakeable pride of ownership.  A shallow preoccupation, certainly, but nonetheless irrefutable.  In fact he is not unlike two other members of our cavernous clan who also unrepentantly invade the scope of vehicular materialism. And, yes, once again I am bound to observe my own parallel enactment of the less than flattering persuasion.

The curious relief I felt today arose from an email I received from the University of New Brunswick (archives & special collections). Apart from introducing me to the meaning of “fonds” (which by the way is a singular noun, not a plural) and encouraging my investigation of my parental and hereditary past, the brief insight invoked expansion of my current evolution because one of the books by Dr. James K. Chapman was called “Life on the River” in his case the St. John River, New Brunswick along which my father’s family lived.  Naturally I could not ignore the serendipitous similarity to my present circumstances – which, lest you’ve forgotten, are engaged paramountly overlooking the upriver flow of the Mississippi River located a mere sparrow’s saunter across the open fields adjoining the balcony of our apartment.

In keeping with the elemental nature of this diary of mine it merits attention that today we’re having what qualifies as the start of a heat wave.  Temperatures have already reached 31°C and are expected to continue for the next several days at least. The heightened stimulus of heat may encourage the growth of whatever it is that the farmer has planted in the nearby field.  We – and our neighbour next door – are anxious to discover the answer. Meanwhile we gratify life’s bounty by delighting in the sight of flat-bottomed boats on the river.


In archival science, a fonds is a group of documents that share the same origin and that have occurred naturally as an outgrowth of the daily workings of an agency, individual, or organization. An example of a fonds could be the writings of a poet that were never published or the records of an institution during a specific period.

Fonds are a part of a hierarchical level of description system in an archive that begins with fonds at the top. Subsequent levels become more descriptive and narrower as one goes down the hierarchy. The level descriptions go from fonds to series to file and then item level. Between the fonds and series level there is sometimes a sub-fonds or sous-fonds level, and between the series and file level there is sometimes a sub-series level.

Historical origins

In the archival science field, it is widely agreed upon that the term fonds originated in French archival practice shortly after the French Revolution as Natalis de Wailly, head of the Administrative Section of the Archives Nationales of France, wrote Circular no. 14, which laid out the idea of fonds as keeping records of the same origin together because prior to this announcement records were classified arbitrarily and inconsistently.

In the same Circular no. 14, Wailly also coined the idea of respect des fonds which meant that archivists should leave the arrangement of fondsas it was originated by the person or agency who created the records. However, Luciana Duranti has found evidence of the idea originating in Naples and other places prior to Wailly’s Circular no. 14 in 1814. Regardless of origin, respect des fonds spread rapidly across Europe after the publication of the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, which is commonly referred to as the Dutch Manual, in 1898 and the First International Congress of Archivists in 1910.

Fonds and provenance

The term fonds as created by Wailly was not as precise as it should have been and left a lot of room for interpretation of fonds. Due to this, Prussian archivists issued regulations for the arrangement of archives in 1881. These regulations provided a clearer image of fonds as public records that “should be grouped according to their origins in public administrative bodies”, and this principle was termed Provenienzprinzip, or, as it is more commonly known as today among the English speaking world, provenance. Provenance is the belief that archivists should keep a group of records obtained as a unit in itself and not merge it with other documents. Provenance also is sometimes referred to as custodial history as it takes in account the different people or organizations that held these records prior to the archive obtaining them and the way they organized them. Respect des fonds is often confused as being the same as provenance, but the two ideas, although closely related, are distinct in that provenance refers to maintaining works by specific people or organizations as separate from others, while respect des fonds adds to this by also maintaining or recreating the original order of the creator. The ideas of respect des fonds and fonds transformed the archival world, and are still in use today.