Original order

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Original order is a concept in archival theory that a group of records should be maintained in the same order as they were placed by the record's creator. Along with provenance, original order is a core tenet of the archival concept of respect des fonds. By keeping records in their original order, additional contextual information about the record's creator and the environment of their creation is preserved.


The idea that archivists should arrange their records according to the order in which they were originally organized comes from Prussian archivists in the late nineteenth century. While trying to manage the arrangement of records within the Prussian State Archives, the archivists came up with Registraturprinzip, which formed the basis for what we know as original order.[1]

Though assuredly a feature of earlier archival practice, the first noteworthy articulation of the practice of original order was presented in the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives (also known as The Dutch Manual) in 1898, where, in the chapter on the arrangement of archival documents, point #16 states: "The system of arrangement must be based on the original organization of the archival collection, which in the main corresponds to the organization of the administrative body that produced it."


The Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology calls original order a "fundamental principle of archives" and posits two primary purposes: preserving "relationships and evidential significance" of records and facilitating use of the records by maintaining "the record creator's mechanisms to access.".[2] The SAA definition qualifies that original order is not necessarily the order of the records upon their delivery to an archive, noting that the original order may need to be created by the archivist.[3]

Archivists such as Maria Guercio have argued that "the principal role of the record is, in fact, that of rendering the act or fact, which is the subject of the record in its original administrative context, accessible and knowable across time and space."[4]

Original order "exists to preserve the original context of records," and some records depend on their original context to tell their whole story.[5] One of the common sets of core values of archivists, original order is one of the factors that sets archives apart from other institutions.


The principle of original order has been critiqued by many archivists. T. R. Schellenberg argued that the principle emerged from countries with a registry system of archival custodianship, in which registrars played an important role as intermediary between the agency or institution creating records and the archive that acquired and preserved them. The imposition of order by these registrars ensured records were logically and consistently organized prior to their delivery to the archive. For Schellenberg, writing in the 1960s, this registrar function no longer existed and records instead often were delivered to an archive absent any coherent or comprehensible system of organization. Per Schellenberg:

...in most modern filing systems, the original order given record items contributes little to an understanding of organic activity, and an archivist should therefore preserve the order only if it is useful... Methods of filing are unimportant to an archivist, except from the point of view of their utility in making records accessible.[6]

Other critics have noted that even the restoration of a presumed original order can risk erasing evidence of the management of a group of records after their original creation and organization.[7] As well, the shifting, malleable nature of large organizations, in which groups of records can pass through multiple custodians prior to their transfer to an archive, makes even identifying an original order difficult.[8] Tom Nesmith also argue that original order "retains little meaning in postmodern archives where origins are never final, but the subjects of new histories waiting to be done. When records arrive at an archives, they will have an order of some kind, but it will not likely be the actual original order of the records, as documents can be easily and repeatedly moved around prior to archiving them.[9]" In today's modern age, technology ensures that fonds and collections are continuously growing, which makes knowing the original order difficult.

Another criticism of original order is that it prioritizes the system of arrangement of records creators over an arrangement that best suits future users and researchers. This "usability" critique "acknowledges the evidential superiority of documents over filing systems by placing primary emphasis on access to documents.".[10] Use of an archival collection and ongoing processing or rearrangement may also impact ideas of what constitutes "original" order and what contextual information is prioritized for preservation, as Heather MacNeil details in recounting the ongoing "custodial intervention" of one collection.[11]


  1. ^ Schellenberg, T.R. "Archival Principles of Arrangement". National Archives.
  2. ^ "Original Order". Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists.
  3. ^ "Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology". Restoration of Original Order. Society of American Archivists.
  4. ^ Guercio, Maria. "Principles, Methods, and Instruments for the Creation, Preservation, and Use of Archival Records in the Digital Environment". The American Archivist. 64 (2): 238–269. doi:10.17723/aarc.64.2.n88455np210p8j5v.
  5. ^ "» Archives in Context and as Context Journal of Digital Humanities". journalofdigitalhumanities.org. Retrieved 2018-04-24.
  6. ^ Schellenberg, T.R. (1965). The Management of Archives. Washington D.C.: Nation Archives and Records Administration. p. 95.
  7. ^ Barr, Deborah (1989). "Protecting Provenance: Response to the Report of the Working Group on Description at the Fonds Level". Archivaria. 28: 141–145.
  8. ^ Duchein, Michael (1983). "Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des fonds in Archival Science". Archivaria. 16.
  9. ^ Nesmith, Tom. "Reopening Archives: Bringing New Contextualities into Archival Theory and Practice". Archivaria.
  10. ^ Boles, Frank (1982). "Disrespecting Original Order" (PDF). The American Archivist. 45 (1): 31.
  11. ^ MacNeil, Heather (Fall 2008). "Archivalterity: Rethinking Original Order". Archivaria. 66.