Archives and Societal Provenance: Australian Essays

By Michael Piggott. Philadelphia, PA:  Woodhead Publishing, 2012. 334 pp. $100.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-84334-712-5.

Michael Piggott has assembled a career’s worth of essays, speeches, and papers on the development of Australian archives and has illuminated each entry with a new examination of the developments through the framework of societal provenance. The result is the fascinating volume, Archives and Societal Provenance: Australian Essays, published in 2012. It is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any archivist and an encouragement to further explore how the evolution of the archival professional nationally and internationally has affected records creation. 

The term “societal provenance” refers to the broad interpretation of societal processes that contribute to the creation of records.  As the author says, “according to this view records have a back-story and an afterlife; they have breadth and depth. They lead a double social-life; they ‘reflect and shape societal processes’” (3). Tom Nesmith coined the term “societal provenance” in 2006; however, the concept has earlier origins in the work of writers who addressed concepts such as multiple provenance, parallel provenance and secondary provenance.

This volume is divided into four series: History, Institutions, Formation and Debates. These series each delve more deeply into particular topics in the history of the development of archival institutions in Australia. While previous studies in societal provenance have focused on specific documents or collections, Piggott seeks a more varied approach, stretching from the “cognitive records of pre-contact Indigenous Australians” (4) to larger-scale sets of government and business records. Several chapters in the book describe important developments in the course of Australian archival history, while others “explore our relationship with history and historians” (7). To this end Piggott connects the concept of societal provenance to recent work by historians Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg[i].

Readers with little background in Australian archival history will find many interesting sections in this book. In Part Two: Institutions, Piggott provides an overview of T.R. Schellenberg’s highly influential Fulbright lectureship in 1954. Over his 6-month residency in Australia, Schellenberg argued for the formation of a national archival agency independent from the national library system and set off “war of secession” (86) in the decades to follow. In Chapter 8, “War, sacred archiving and C.W. Bean,” Piggott recounts the creation of Australian War Records Section (AWRS) of the Australian Imperial Force in 1917. Bean, serving as Official War Correspondent during World War I, saw the critical need to preserve and maintain the records of Australia’s contribution to the war. Bean was motivated by a growing nationalistic spirit in Australia as well as a “sacred” obligation to memorialize the war effort. In his writing Bean referred to the records collected through the AWRS as a “temple and a shrine wherein the war records, rather than the body of the unknown soldier, perpetuated the memory of the war dead” (127).

Piggott tackles some recent developments in Australian archives in Part Four: Debates. In chapter 12, “Two cheers for the records continuum,” the records continuum concept is even-handedly examined through the framework of societal provenance, even though the author declares that is “falls short of the three cheers accolade” (187). Collecting repositories and personal record keeping practices are also examined, most interestingly through the case of “auto-archivist” Percy Grainger (197).

The writing in this book is personal, reflective and thoughtful. The essays are well-researched, foot-noted and enjoyable to read. This volume will be of interest to those seeking a better understanding of archival history in general (especially as it relates to Indigenous people or colonial rule), the development of Australian archival agencies or societal provenance. Piggott has shown that there is great potential in the use of the societal provenance framework in the examination of records creation.


Morgan Gieringer

University of North Texas

[i] In Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives by Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg (2011) examine how developments in the American archival profession resulted in an “archival divide” between historical scholars and archivists.