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« Max Lehmann and the Development of the Principle of Provenance

Max Lehmann and the Development of the Principle of Provenance

This article examines the development of one of the main pillars of archival science, the principle of origin or provenance. This principle is explained in contemporary archival science by the realisation that archival records created or acquired in the course of the activity of one archives’ creator (institution or individual) belong together and they must not be mixed together with archival records of a different origin. In other words, the archival records of one archives’ creator form one organic whole, one archival collection.

The development of the principle of provenance began at the outset of the 1880’s at the central archive of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Geheimes Staatsarchiv in Berlin, when the archive’s director Heinrich von Sybel had approved new regulations for putting the archival records in order. The positions presented in those regulations, however, had been worked out by Max Lehmann, whose role in shaping the basic principle of archival science has until now remained in the background. Max Lehmann (1845–1929) worked at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv as an archivist in 1875–1888, having previously studied in Berlin, Konigsberg and Bonn. After his archival work, he moved on to research work at the universities of Marburg, Leipzig and Gottingen. Lehmann’s conflicting personality and his relatively short-lived career at the archive left his important contribution unnoticed. It was not until the 1950’s that Ernst Posner highlighted Lehmann’s contribution.

Prior to describing Lehmann’s innovations, the article provides an overview of prevailing practices in archival work in the 16th – 18th centuries in German territories and the Nordic lands. The development of deductive methods of classification in the rationalist spirit of that time, where the progression was from the general to the individual, and the main record groups were divided into subgroups in alphabetical order, began in German registries in the 18th century. Classification according to geography was also employed, in which case records related to the same geographical area were archived in a single group. The use of groupings did not cause problems in archiving records of one agency. Yet records from other agencies and from closed agencies started accumulating in the archives of agencies. Thus an initially serviceable archiving principle, the principle of content or pertinence, became a rather problematic tool that severed connections between records.

The primary positions of the principle of provenance worked out by Lehmann differed from previous practice in several respects. Lehmann found that according to the new principle, the archivist would no longer have to perform the labour-intensive work of putting records in order again. Records would not have to be rearranged and re-ordered according to their themes. Similarly, archival officials could in future be certain that it would be easy to find records of institutions after their arrival in the archive as well because the initial organisation of the records would be preserved. Lehmann was also convinced that the principle of origin would also be helpful for researchers of history, acting officials and archivists because the search for records would be considerably simpler than before. He was also of the opinion that archival registries, and chronological and alphabetical thematic registries covering all archives should be compiled in order to refer to connections between records belonging to different archives. The principles of honouring the original or internal order of each agency and the requirement of the inseparability of private archives handed over to the archive were also reconfirmed.

This article also examines the implementation of this new principle in practice, which proved to be more time-consuming than its author had envisioned — Lehmann drew up a separate code of practice in the autumn of 1884, the principles of which were to be prescribed for adoption and implementation in all archives under the central administration of Prussia’s archives, including archives in the provinces. Lehmann left the archive before his ideas were put into practice. Even though Lehmann was not the first person to discover the principle of provenance, he was the first to draw up detailed instructions for the adoption of that principle and was at the same time the first to more broadly discuss the problems associated with the new principle together with its effects on research work and practical management of archives.