Notes on Disrespect des Fonds

Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives by Jefferson Bailey

This essay discusses the respect des fonds, an archival theory that dictates how documents and materials are organized, and how it relates to born-digital archives, a space where traditional archival thought does not necessarily hold the same weight as in traditional archival settings. The main question of the article is, “how will traditional principles of archival arrangement and description be challenged or modified to account for born-digital materials?” Quite honestly before reading this essay I had not thought all that much about how archives are organized.

Respect des fonds is an archival theory that outlines the way materials and documents are grouped in an archive and in the article is further defined as: “principle of grouping records by the administration, organization, individual, or creating body in which they originated. Respect des fonds mandates that the records of the creating entity not be mixed with those of a different entity. It prioritizes the “organic” nature of archival records, identifying the locus of their generation, and the evidence their consolidation provides about that originating body, as essential to preserving and maintaining context.”

This essay looks at the social context in which respect des fonds was created, the limits of the theory, new models that attempted to address critiques of des fonds, how born-digital materials must go beyond the limits of the theory, and the potential for reinterpretation of respect des fonds. The archival theory was developed in the 1800s in France in the wake of the French Revolution as a result of shifting politics and the necessity for order in creating new Archives Nationales. The organizing principle of des fonds is the origin or creator of the document because of the need to “know where it was created, in the framework of what process, to what end, for whom, when and how it was received by the addressee, and how it came into our hands.” Even after its creation in France it was not widely used but it really took off in Prussia and the Netherlands.

Since the early 1900s there has been a rise in criticisms of des fonds because the order is not always clear, can be reorganized, and reconstructed. There was also a discussion of usefulness, because des fonds was sometimes a confusing system was it always useful? “Fonds could also be mixed or “broken” into multiple transfers to an archive, making reconstitution difficult.”  (This reminds me of the article we read in Craft, Ann Laura Stoler, Against the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1-15.) New models were developed out of critiques of des fonds, “by forming new ideas about how order or grouping can evidence archival authenticity, identity, and meaning.”

         One theory developed in response to criticism to des fonds is the “series system,” an alternative that instead classified by function/use that was created by Peter Scott. Luciana Duranti developed the “archival bond” which “identifies a web of documentary co-dependencies that presumes an inheritance and relationship between records based on functional proximity.”

Another theory is the parallelismus membrorum, the similarity of parallel files.” This theory was developed in the 1980s by Michel Duchein and is a theory referring to structural patterns in grammar, Bailey uses the example of “I came, I saw, I conquered.” This theory is based off of the “contextual relations that exist between records of different fonds, the network of meanings that stretch across the archive.” In the same vein as parallelismus, is a theory called “parallel provenance” created by Chris Hurley. This theory is “built around composing different things from the same particles combining things in different ways to produce a variety of views of what they look like in aggregate…not so much about identifying a different creator as recognizing manifold content.”

Born-digital materials however necessitate different treatment in digital archives because of the nature of the material. Reading this section kind of made me feel like a comp-sci girlboss even though I had to read it a few times because I don’t fully understand technology. Anyways! Bailey introduces digital bits, “the bit, the binary, the magnetic flux reversal of the spinning disk that is the origin of the digital object,” which is one of the ways that digital records can complicate the des fonds theory. Digital bits are altered/reconstructed every time the file is opened “(for instance, a file’s “last opened” date)” will re-order the digital bits and the digital material order. Ambient data is another way that digital materials are more complicated than analogue materials because most users are unaware of the ambient data stored in a digital interface. For example, ambient data is made up of temporary files and multiple identical files that are hidden and thus complicate the linear order of files. This makes the origin order of des fonds difficult because digital files are not always ordered in a linear sense the way physical documents can be. In the digital interface the way users access and look for sources is a physically different experience as well, they are not looking through boxes and files but can instead search key words and descriptions. So while original order and provenance can be used for organization it is not the only way for users to access documents.

The author concludes that digital archives are a great time to rethink respect des fonds and “revisit the true goals of arrangement and description in the light of the capabilities of digital records.” Digital archives present new ways for users to search for documents and gain access to different types of related material. The space is there for a different and multifaceted organization system that is built off of but not limited to respect des fonds.

3 Replies to “Notes on Disrespect des Fonds”

  1. You did a great job explaining the reading! Born-digital materials and their organization is super fascinating. I have to agree I haven’t spent much time thinking about this but this article made me consider a few questions. How do we organize digital materials if we use a social platform? For example, if I were to work on an oral history project and posted the recordings on youtube how do we think about the arrangement of them? Can youtube serve as a digital archive for a smaller institution or family-based project?

  2. Hi Emma! First off, this is a great explanation of a confusing topic! I think it is strange that respect de fonds has had such a stronghold in archival practices, especially when considering its origins in the French Revolution. Do you agree with Bailey that it is time to reconsider the use of des fonds? While I find the system quite impractical for modern uses, I would imagine restructuring entire archives around a new, more digital-minded system to be extremely time-consuming.

  3. Hi Emma.

    Thanks for your great explanation on this topic. I think that we should definitely rethink respect de fonds has hold on archival practices. Since COVID, I think historians and archivists have to rethink the role of de fonds has on traditional archival principles and how they can incorporate it in the digital planform. They also need to think about if its even possible or should we think about other techniques.

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