12. Provenance and Original Order

In accepting records for an archive the archivist’s first priority is to identify the person or organization that produced the records and determined their content…the principle of “Provenance.” The second principle of the archivist is that of “Original Order.” (301)

An electronic archive meeting the standard model of an Open Archival Information System (OAIS) is an archive consisting of an organization of people and systems that has accepted the responsibility to preserve information and make it available long term for a Designated Community. The term ‘Open’ in OAIS is used to imply that the standard is developed in open forums, and it does not imply that access to the archive is unrestricted.

The deposit of digital information for long term retention in an OAIS is done by a process called “Ingest.” The Ingest process has a defined Archival Information Package (AIP) consisting of the Content Information and the associated Preservation Description Information (PDI), both of which are to be preserved in the OAIS.  A producer, the person or group depositing the information to the archive, must supply the archivist with the PDI information which is necessary for adequate preservation of the Content Information and which is described in the CCSDS standard as Provenance, Reference, Fixity, and Context information.

Since the deposited information is to be available for use long after the producer and archivist are gone, it is important that it be described in sufficient detail to be “independently understandable” by the archive’s designated user community. This means that the deposited information has been sufficiently documented to allow the information to be understood and used without having to resort to special resources not widely available, including named individuals. Note the following definitions from the CCSDS standard below:

  • Provenance Information: The information that documents the history of the Content Information. This information tells the origin or source of the Content Information, any changes that may have taken place since it was originated, and who has had custody of it since it was originated. Examples of Provenance Information are the principal investigator who recorded the data, and the information concerning its storage, handling, and migration.
  • Reference Information: The information that identifies, and if necessary describes, one or more mechanisms used to provide assigned identifiers for the Content Information. It also provides identifiers that allow outside systems to refer, unambiguously, to a particular Content Information. An example of Reference Information is an ISBN.
  • Fixity Information: The information which documents the authentication mechanisms and provides authentication keys to ensure that the Content Information object has not been altered in an undocumented manner. An example is a Cyclical Redundancy Check (CRC) code for a file.
  • Content Data Object: The Data Object that together with associated Representation Information is the original target of preservation.
  • Content Information: The set of information that is the original target of preservation. It is an Information Object comprised of its Content Data Object and its Representation Information. An example of Content Information could be a single table of numbers representing, and understandable as, temperatures, but excluding the documentation that would explain its history and origin, how it relates to other observations, etc.
  • Context Information: The information that documents the relationships of the Content Information to its environment. This includes why the Content Information was created and how it relates to other Content Information objects.


Next Month: Archivist Values

Archival records exist to be used and not merely saved for their own sake. Archivists are not hoarders or packrats. Archival records ought to be organized properly and in a timely way so they can be used. Archivists should administer their collections equitably and impartially. (309, 310)