Karsten Kühnel: The Role of Functional Provenance between Archival Appraisal and Description — do we need an EAC–F standard?

published under CC-BY-SA license


The ICA metatdata model for archival description is divided into four main entities as are records, creators, functions and repositories. Although it is common opinion that these entities are interconnected closely by different kinds of relationships, and although the ICA came up to them with four descriptive standards, up to now, machine–readable standards can be found only for three of these entities. Records, creators and repositories can be described on XML basis by EAD, EAC–CPF and EAG. Functions, however, still lack in an appropriate pendant, which could become represented in an EAC library for describing functions. If functions assigned to an entity would be seen as reasons for why an entity starts operating, then functions could be considered as sources of provenance. Functions as basis for the definition of fonds and for a methodology of archival description would be marginalized in the context of a digital finding aid system, if there would not be adequate tools for describing them. Thus, archivists should take into account to foster establishing an EAC–F standard.



In autumn 2013 the University Archives Bayreuth published its first function description within its online finding aid system, back then in a PDF format. The description was in accordance with the International Standard for Describing Functions (ISDF). Two further similar descriptions followed, up to now. Today, descriptions of the Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) core functions Research, Teaching and Graduation are published on the University Archives' website. In May 2014, the description of the Research function has been published also in a HTML format, in order to test how function description according to ISDF could be presented in an appropriate format on the web. The need for describing functions resulted from the opinion that functions could be seen as very continuous entities within the processes of creating records. The question arose whether archives could be superiorly arranged according to series based on functional provenances instead of inconsistent organisational structures. Concerning HEI archives, a tradition in doing so exists which goes back to Helen Willa Samuels and others. It is astonishing that no XML based standard has been developed so far which corresponds to ISDF and would allow using a commonly accepted metadata model which is propagated by the International Council on Archives (ICA). Here, the University Archives Bayreuth identified a lacking tool by doing its daily work.


The Role of Functions within a Model for Archival Description

"Context" as a framework in which records are originated, used and preserved is presented by the metadata model for archival description propagated by the ICA as a network of relationships between agents and functions defining the processes of creating and processing records. Each high level entity within this framework is intended to be described by its own standard: agents (International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies Persons and Families (ISAAR (CPF))), functions (ISDF), repositories (International Standard for Describing Institutions with Archival Holdings (ISDIAH)). Being causatively connected with records on the occasion of their creation and use, its relationships to records are a decisive means for its description. Records, however, as another high level entity within the metadata model are to be described according to the standard General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)).


n:m–Relationships between creators and fonds

Within this model each entity of the descriptive metadata model (agents, functions, records, and repositories) is characterised by and interlinked with specific descriptions. Thus, archivists are heading for a method well–known from compiling metadata in libraries: the production of authority records, which could be linked with any number of data sets or descriptive units. By this means, today archivists turn away from traditional finding aids. These coherent finding aids included the description of records as well as the description of all entities, whose representation has been rated necessary and useful because of their relationships to records in the context of their creation. By segmenting traditional finding aids into interlinked but separately provided sections, archivists demonstrate to have recognised existing n:m relationships between creators (or simply: agents?) and records. Any number of creators could have participated in the formation of any number of fonds, or: No fonds needs to belong to just one creator, but could belong to several creators or agents.[1] It was a novelty in archival science to recognise these practical facts resulting from the practice of creating records through performing administrative tasks. For a long time, the prevailing theory demanded the necessity to assign a fonds to a single creator and thus to achieve or preserve a definite 1:1 relation.[2] Especially due to Australian archivists, the established 1:1 relationship could be debunked as a construct, which couldn't meet practical processes any more. This knowledge of the variety of potential modern administrative structure, commonly performed and overlapping competences, new administrative working principles and reduced permanence of organisation and organisational structure was gained with the prominent contribution of Peter Scott as early as in the 1970s.[3] Furthermore, the n:m relationship between creators and fonds implicated an equal relation to the number of archives, which could reserve additional records of the same creators and fonds. Hence, the necessity arose to link the description of a creator to several fonds descriptions, even such referring to fonds that have been scattered about several archives. The utilisation of authority records was therefore recommended as appropriate elements within a methodology of archival description.


Functional provenance

The Australian series system — developed in consequence of Peter Scott's theories — assumes an indeterminate number of creators, who are creating common fonds by simultaneously or consecutively fulfilling an identical function. The definition of the concept of series, which is applied to this system, is based on the assumption that serial elements or archival units within a series were originated through fulfilling the same function, no matter who was conducting this function at the time of formation of the particular elements (volumes, records). Thus, the function becomes the fonds–forming principle, the permanently and definitely comprehensible provenance. Functional provenance means a provenance based on a function as common cause for the creation or records, resp. for the definition of fonds. The integration of the term "function" into the definition of provenance is especially included in the terminological chapter of the standard ISDF. There, the term "function" is defined as follows:

"Any high level purpose, responsibility or task assigned to the accountability agenda of a corporate body by legislation, policy or mandate. Functions may be decomposed into sets of coordinated operations such as subfunctions, business processes, activities, tasks or transactions."[4]


Archival Description on the basis of function–oriented units

Archival description observing the principle of provenance — just as defining fonds itself — should always incorporate both concepts of provenance: institutional (or organisational) and functional. In archival practice, the common creator of records is conventionally employed as criterion for defining the borderlines of fonds. The first step in describing a fonds according to the principle of provenance is to assign a name — usually the creator's name. Users get to know the meaning of this high level title — the title of the fonds — by reading the chapters on administrative/biographic or custodial history of a finding aid, respectively the relevant sections of an authority record compiled as description of the creator according to the standards ISAAR (CPF) or Encoded Archival Context for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (EAC–CPF). The description of a creator includes, in particular, the description of its tasks and functions, the description of its mandate(s). Therein users are given the most important information for a productive evaluation of the described fonds: They are informed about aims, which were pursued by the creator working on the business processes approached to them. By this means archivists enable users to review the single pieces of information on archival material, the descriptions of each units from the viewpoint of the creator, in order to find answers to the question: Why did these records arise, which regulatory requirements were decisive for its creation? The information users get through the descriptions of the records combined with information about the creator's tasks and functions shall enable them to abstract this information in a manner appropriate to give significant indications to estimate whether records described in this way could be relevant for their research topic. This mentions already the level of description which refers to the smallest unit still identified as independent or unaffiliated (called the lowest level unit of description, mostly "file level"). Also on this level, meaningful information should be provided for users. Therefore, it is necessary to derive the manner of shaping titles from the principle of provenance as well. As Johannes Papritz phrased it once appropriately:

„Für die Titelaufnahme bedeutet das, daß sie im Sinne des Provenienzprinzips und der sich daraus ergebenden Konsequenzen allein auf die Erkenntnis und Wiedergabe des Entstehungszweckes ausgehen darf. [...] Kompetenzfremde Bestandteile gehören nicht in den Titel."[5]

The principle of provenance proves within the scope of subject–referencing archival description, which is directly derived from it, as an always function–oriented principle of identifying archival units.

Thus, the central messages of archival description are information on tasks, functions and mandates. This involves every level of description. The structure or arrangement of a fonds is influenced by this as well.


Principle of internal functional provenance (principle of fonds)

The next step after identifying the creator and therefore defining the fonds is to decide on the classification of the fonds. Along with this comes the decision whether to follow either the principle of respect des fonds — defined as a strict arrangement according to the creator's organisational units — or the principle of fonds. This principle is based on arranging according to the functions carried out which are responsible for the creation of records and which are carried out by the creator.[6] Klaus Neitmann, Bodo Uhl and others provided evidence that arranging fonds according to the principle of respect des fonds was not only carried out just by assuming transparent original tectonics, but also resulted from practicable forms of handling accruals from administrative depositories.[7] Stringently pursuing the target to use means of description especially to inform about contexts of creation led to a widely spread preference of the principle of fonds either as described above or as described in DAT III (s.v.). Tasks or functions account for the origination of administrative records and are executed by certain organisations or organisational units. Each task or function, however, could be transferred from one unit or even organisation to another, at any time. Fonds definition based just on agents, identified as creators, lacks requirements for a long–term continuity of tradition of contexts, in particular if the creator is a still operating but not a historic one. On the contrary, identification a long–term preservation of homogeneous contexts of origination is feasible by using the principle of fonds along with a function–oriented classification or arrangement and with a manner of formulating titles on file level, aiming the revelation of the original purpose of creation. Furthermore, they do not include any fixation on historical facts, but could be complemented and linked with records prospectively emerging from the exercise of the same functions.

Hence, it takes just a small step to adopt the advantages of the function–oriented description, which arise on the file level and subfonds or class level, on the fonds level and to recognise and depict fonds as a whole as communities of relationships on the basis of consistent functions.


Standardised descriptions of functions

It is necessary to process standardised descriptions such as authority records to be able to identify functions as consistent. For this purpose, the standard ISDF has been developed by the ICA.

Kuehnel 1

Image 1: Part of an ISDF authority record on the HEI function "research" (University Archives Bayreuth)

Kuehnel 2

Image 2: Attempted depiction of an ISDF authority record on the HEI function "research" as HTML frameset (University Archives Bayreuth)

Functions are given quasi–official denominations similar to persons and corporations, if they are referred to as tasks of an agent or a corporation in organisational decrees and suchlike. Moreover, it is possible to combine functions on different hierarchical levels into areas of responsibilities, main or sub–functions, tasks or business processes using practices of comparison and abstraction. In so doing, records generated from identic functions would become searchable (and findable!) over all creators. But it is problematic to specify consistent descriptions for abstract functions of this kind. You could say that the summarisation of functions into groups as well as the description of such groups could never be standardised, as there are no norms or legal regulations for their denomination. But this question would not be relevant before authority records would be used outside of their originators' control area. This would concern, in particular, research tools including several archives, archives portals, collaborative descriptive projects and other sections of the semantic web.

Nonetheless, there is no alternative to standardizing descriptions of functions as a means to depict operational motives in their records creating contexts. Similar possibilities for investigation and collaboration on the basis of a comprehension of provenance just relating to agents (creators) are only feasible to a lesser extent, as there are not firstly agents but operational motives responsible for the content–information within the archival material. Thus, the section mentioning the functions of CPF has already been conceded special importance in the standard EAC–CPF. The reference, however, to a standardised detailed description of the functions including derived subfunctions, tasks and related fonds and collections is still lacking.

For instance, approaches to normed–standardised descriptions of functions could be spotted in file plans, especially in inter–institutional file plans, whose compilation is carried out function–based as a rule. Concerning university archives, several function–oriented documentation plans mainly based on the pathbreaking works of Helen Willa Samuels have been developed all over the world.[8] These closely resemble each other and so — despite concerns expressed above — the assumption seems likely, that it is possible beyond that to create overall–accepted authority records for functions and function–groups using at least concordances and abstraction.

There had been presented the prospect of the development of an EAC profile for functions (EAC–F) in the annual report 2008 of the EAC–Working Group of the SAA. Unfortunately, this has not been realised so far.[9]


Functional Analysis for a Higher Education Insitution (with some examples of the University Archives of Bayreuth)

Functions as value causing subjects in appraisal

Functions are associated with something that perceives them, associated with operating subjects, regardless of whether the perception is an active or passive process. These subjects do not assume specific functions compulsorily; rather they are allotted to them or attract them. Thereby, functions could change or be handed over to other subjects. New functions could develop. Functions and operating subjects are facing each other as two self–dependent determinants, which are interrelated variably. Furthermore, both determinants are connected to records, whose causes of origination and contents arise from the constellations of relationships and external influences affecting them. Functions, agents and records are the three crucial entities, whose interlinked description generates a finding aid system. The agent who is concerned with, stores, describes and gives access to the records is acting as a fourth entity within such a finding aid system or metadata model. This fourth entity also qualifies for being part of this metadata model for archival description as the life cycle of records does not end being delivered to an archival repository but commences a new stage of life in a different setting. As part of a documentation plan or documentary profile the description of an archive being the fourth entity could be ignored largely (because description would refer rather to the archives seen as agent in accordance with the descriptive standards for agents in general ISAAR–CPF and EAC–CPF). Although, it's necessary to question whether the archives was assigned with a specific function or task notably defining archival activities in essential professional fields.

Professionalised education for archivists, established archival science and the fact that until this day most archivists are historians as well, guaranteed and guarantee a high degree of proximity to the requirements of science and research as well as an appropriate familiarity with the requirements of administration, registry and other creators. As proven by numerous specialised archives at home and abroad, acquisition and arrangement is strongly influenced by specific mandates being assigned to an archival institution. Archives of scientific institutions, museums and memorials prioritise differently than state or municipality archives, because specialised mandates could be quite suited to limit the institution's collection profile. Each of these limitations is accompanied by particular criteria for appraisal. Records could possibly be quashed in one archival branch and archived in another. In summary, this may be seen as dissatisfying, but hardly avoidable. However, this could help to open up wider horizons onto guidelines for integrated collective appraisal through similar kinds of archives or even different archive branches. Possibly, this could avoid compulsory prejudging coincidences of decisions on appraisal and decisions on cassation. In which way archives build up their holdings, is determined by their each fundamental policy. It is displayed by archival laws, institutional statutes, documentation plans, metadata models and guidelines for the archival description to name some most important.


Multilevel complexity of functions

Therefore, archives take on a triple role:

  1. As creators by producing own records as a result of accomplishing their administrative transactions.
  2. As agents within the context of appraisal, fonds and collection definition and description.
  3. As custodians and providers of physical records preserved by them.

These activities can be assigned to different higher–ranking functions. Archives are probably one of the best examples for diversity of sub–functions, which could be met by an agent and could be combined with others in higher–ranking functions.

In March 2013, Susanne Kogler from the archives of the University of Arts (Graz, Austria) postulated that de– and re–contextualisation of archival information should be made visible and comprehensible for users of archives. In her presentation on archive and science in service of postmodern knowledge given at a joint congress of German, Austrian and Czech university archivists and archivists of scientific institutions in Prague, she cited Wolfgang Ernst as follows:

"Jenseits der traditionellen Vorstellung des Archivs als black box zeichnet sich die dynamische Konzeption komplexer Verbundsysteme aus Speichern, Menschen und Organisationen ab, im ständigen Spiel von De– und Rekontextualisierung. Aus Gedächtnisobjekten werden so Gedächtnisprozesse."[10]

In 2011, Tom Nesmith wrote about metadata models within the scope of archival description, which should be used to explain and express contexts:

„My suggestion for practical descriptive work is premised on the idea that the knowledge of records and archiving actions that a wide variety of archivists and others have thought necessary in metadata and descriptive systems and standards has become so voluminous that no formal practical system could convey it."[11]

Thereby, he refers to Sue McKemmish, who formulates this opinion even more precise:

"By attempting to define, to categorise, pin down, and represent records and their contexts of creation, management, and use, descriptive standards and metadata schema can only ever represent a partial view of the dynamic, complex, and multi–dimensional nature of records, and their rich webs of contextual and documentary relationships."[12]

And also in 2011, Peter Horsman wrote in his conference contribution "Wrapping Records in Narratives": "Context [...] does not focus on the fonds as a physical entity, but on understanding the meaning of records, how they were created, used, and maintained across space and time."[13]

These quotations affect, in particular, the section of archival description. They could provide indications for the function–analysis concerning appraisal, that no results should be expected except depictions of functions, which come into effect in specific contexts. Detection or elaboration of other relationships by using consecutive de– and re–contextualisation of logical information units could reveal new functions. Contextualisation of archival material is essentially determined by the creators' activities and functions. Additionally, there are influences of activities and functions of other acting subjects.

Functions can be associated with one or more agents, one or more activities and one or more effects with one being the origination of records.

Kuehnel 3

Image 3: Simple model of relationships between functions, subfunctions and CPF


Methodology of analyzing and identifying functions

Analysis of functions is closely linked to a foregoing analysis of tasks and effects. Tasks can be detected primarily in assignations from legislative provisions such as the Higher Education Act (Hochschulgesetz), beyond that in schedules of responsibilities, job descriptions, file plans as well as in mission statements and other means of external presentation. Effects of university acts find expression in press reviews, annual reports, research reports or university calendars for instance.

Helen Willa Samuels developed an outline of university functions which includes seven main categories that could serve as a guiding principle to determine archival relevance of sources and contents. Sources containing information which could be assigned to one of these main categories, contain potentially information archival value.

Kuehnel 4

Image 4: Chart with types of sources

The chart shows types of sources that contain necessary information for a more in–depth function–analysis and have exemplarily been chosen from the amount of all types of sources. Sub–functions assigned to the main–functions, which are highlighted in blue, could be determined from the types of sources highlighted in yellow and green by means of assignation and self–commitment. Effects and activities that arose from assignations could be discerned from the types of sources highlighted in orange. These are also information about sub–functions, which could be assigned to main–functions in turn.

Each sub–function that has been determined by so doing must be checked up on its importance for the functioning of the university. For this purpose, the determined sub–functions should be asked the following questions:[14]

  1. What is the denomination of the sub–function?
  2. How important is the sub–function for the university?
  3. What is the history of the sub–function?
  4. How did the sub–function develop and which were the reasons for its transformations?
  5. Which aspects of the sub–function are the most important for the university?
  6. Were there any key events, strategies and persons or agents being influenced by this sub–functions?
  7. In which organisational context was the sub–function exercised and which agents did perform it?

These questions shall be answered in the context of describing functions and in the context of appraising function–based created records. Knowledge of the sub–function and its development allows it to formulate retrospective objectives of documentation that could serve as basis for further appraisal. In the course of formulating these objectives, reference could be made also for instance to remarkable historical events and these could be defined as notably worthy of consideration. Precise and profound information about reasons for the change of functions as well as about the influence of sub–functions cannot be given in this phase of processing. In part, more thorough verification will be necessary.

The next step to get from approximate objectives of documentation to a documentation profile or plan will be the examination of the administrative history of the organisational units of the university. Helen Willa Samuel points out that the term "administrative history" should neither be perceived as history of the administration of the university as an organisational unit nor as history of administering as an activity, but that this term should include a widespread and in–depth investigation of all functions performed in the university. For instance, one chapter of such an administrative history could arise from the topic: "Trace the evolution of the curriculum and the methods used to teach the curriculum!" This would be an examination of a sub–function out of the group "convey knowledge". The results — shortened if necessary — could be integrated into an ISDF standard description of the relevant function.



  1. Functions are the basis for each activity of agents in the context of creating records. They are expressed either in definitions of mandates, which shall be performed by certain agents, or by the agents themselves precisely explaining what they are doing and why. In the records can be found which functions an agent has really performed and whether these functions coincide with the functions assigned to him.
  2. Organisational and functional charts are often completely different from each other. Functions must be performed continuously because they determine the aim of an agent's existence. Agents do not guarantee knowledge about, which functions they would have to perform at which phase of their existence and even do not provide any security about the duration of their corporative existence.
  3. Functions stay independent from changes of organisational structures among the agents performing them. Thus, functions can be seen as relevant creators thoroughly respecting the role of cpfs as records creating bodies as well. Functional provenance is an appropriate principle for making multilevel relationships visible by introducing variable tectonics on the basis of types of relationships to be prioritised by archivists and users.
  4. Functions have been identified as a main entity of an archival descriptive metadata model. Functions have need of machine–readable forms of description that can be technically associated to the descriptions of other entities within the relevant metadata model, in order to make also the descriptions of properties linked to functions useable for archival description and for semantic web based retrieval tools. Up to present such a form does not exist. The standard ISDF is a formal standard, only, that lacks its machine–readable complement. This complement could be an XML based EAC library for functions.

The awareness of the important role of functions in the contexts of records creation, appraisal and description should result into this certain answer to the initial question of this essay: Yes, we actually need an EAC–F standard!


Cf. Peter Horsman, "The Last Dance of Phoenix – The De–Discovery of the Archival Fonds" in Archivaria 54 (2002), p 1–23; here: p 15. 
Cf. Terry Cook, "The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post–Custodial Era" in: Archivaria 35 (1993). 
Cf. Peter J. Scott, "The Record Group Concept: a case for abandonment" in American Archivist 29 (1966). 
International Council on Archives (ed.), International Standard for Describing Functions (1st ed., Dresden, 2007), p 10. (http://www.ica.org/download.php?id=1667)(viewed 3 December 2014). 
Johannes Papritz, Archivwissenschaft Bd. 3 (Marburg, 2nd ed., 1983), p 265. Translation: This means, that shaping a title in terms of the principle of provenance and resultant consequences may just be aimed at recognition and reproduction of the original purpose of creation. [...] Elements not giving information on competences do not have place in a title. 
This defintion differs from DAT III: „Besondere Form des Provenienzprinzips mit ausschließlicher Berücksichtigung der organisatorischen Herkunft. Bei seiner Anwendung werden Bestände mit äußerer Abgrenzung nach Provenienzen, aber innerer Ordnung nach sachlogischen Prinzipien hergestellt. Es wird dort angewandt, wo das Schriftgut aus der Verwaltung besonders wenig durch Vorgänge strukturiert wurde oder wo es außerhalb der Entscheidungsprozesse entstanden ist, also etwa bei chronologischen Serien." (http://staff-www.uni-marburg.de/~mennehar/datiii/germanterms.htm (viewed 10 November 2014)). 
Cf. Bodo Uhl, "Die Bedeutung des Provenienzprinzips für Archivwissenschaft und Geschichtsforschung" in Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte, 61 (1998), p 97-121. — Klaus Neitmann, "Ein unbekannter Entwurf Max Lehmanns von 1884 zur Einführung des Provenienzprinzips in den preußischen Staatsarchiven" in Archivalische Zeitschrift, 91. (2009), p 59-108. 
Helen W. Samuels, Varsity Letters – Documenting Modern Colleges and Universities (Chicago, 1992). — Cf. inter alia: Oxford University Archives Selection Policy (Oxford, November 2008)(http://www.oua.ox.ac.uk/staff/selectionpolicy.htm)(viewed 3 December 2014). — JISC infoNet, HEI Records Management — Guidance on Archival Appraisal, p l. (January 2007). 
For an EAC profile for functions cf: Encoded Archival Context Working Group Report. Annual Meeting 2008 Society of American Archivists, submitted by Kathy Wisser, [2008] (viewed: 16. September 2014). 
Wolfgang Ernst, Das Rumoren der Archive. Ordnung aus Unordnung (Berlin, 2002) p 138–139. 
Tom Nesmith, "Documenting Appraisal as a Societal–Archival Process: Theory, Practice, and Ethics in the Walk of Helen Willa Samuels" in Controlling the Past – Documenting Society and Institutions, Essays in Honor of Helen Willa Samuels, hg. v. Terry Cook (Chicago, 2011) p 31–50, here p 34. 
Sue McKemmish, "Placing Records Continuum Theory and Practice" in Archival Science (2001), p 354. 
In: Usability of the Archives of the International Tracing Service — Workshop at the ITS, 10/11 October 2011. (Bad Arolsen, 2011)(http://www.its-arolsen.org/fr/aktuelles/aktuelles-2011/index.html?expand=5591&cHash=235961ff533a09ac50e905cfca3a06a9)(viewed 3 December 2014). 
Cf Helen Samuels' explanations for the following approaches (Varsity Letters, S. 256 ff.)! 

About the Author

Karsten Kühnel

Karsten Kühnel studied history, linguistics and ancient philology at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and archival science at the Archives School Marburg. He held different positions as archivist at church archives, municipality archives, and at the German Federal Archives. From 2008 to 2013 he led the division for archival description at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. There he joined the EU funded EHRI project and became member of Work Package 17 (standards and guidelines) and Work Package 6 (interdisciplinary methodologies of Holocaust studies). Since March 2013 he is the head of the university archives Bayreuth.

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