Where Did This Stuff Come From: Acquisition and Provenance

by Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana | May 23, 2013

Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana

At its core, the archivist's job is to make the material in collections accessible and ensuring the information contained within the material never comes to harm or is lost. You can apply the same care and handling of your own family history collection to make it more focused and organized. In a previous article, I introduced you to the components of an archivist's job: appraisal, acquisition, arrangement and description, preservation, and providing access. Let's take a deeper look at the second component of an archivist's job: acquisition.

As with the component appraisal, the term acquisition seems pretty straightforward. It means to receive material into a collection. There are a number of ways in which to acquire material for your collections, and they don't differ dramatically from that of the Our Town Archives, our fictional example. The collection policy, which defines the types of material that will be accepted as additions to the collection, is very liberal. This allows for the addition of any material that pertains to the history and cultural "goings on" of the town, which is the same end-result most of you have for your own collections. 


The Importance of Provenance

An aspect of acquisition that can't go without being discussed is the provenance of material. This is the "ownership" trail of material, be it a large group or a single item. Why is provenance important? As an example, in the case of the Our Town Archives, a problem arose when the new archivist was reviewing a collection of large sized file folders labeled "Mr. Dean Templeton."

Each file folder contained a large format thin ledger filled with a variety of information in handwriting. On closer examination, the archivist realized the ledgers appeared to be the daily transactions from the local township office. There were no records in the collection that explained where the ledgers had come from or who gave them to Our Town Archives. These ledgers were filled with an incredible amount of historical and genealogical information including the names and addresses of local businesses and citizens. The archivist had to research the potential origins of the ledgers and discovered that Mr. Dean Templeton had been the township's Superintendent from 1852 to 1860.

Laws vary widely with regard to documents created in and/or by government offices. In this case, much time was spent contacting the appropriate agencies in the county and an agreement was negotiated for the Our Town Archives to digitize the ledger to preserve and make the material available in the future. However, the original ledgers had to be returned to the county. Had there been a record of provenance, the archivist wouldn't have had to spend all of that time doing the additional research.

The provenance of the material you bring into your own collections provides a trail back to where it was originally found. This "ownership" trail is the citation you use to locate your sources. Whether it's a log you keep by hand in a binder, a spreadsheet or a separate software package, the provenance of what you have in your collections protects you and assists current and future researchers in understanding how the materials came into your possession.

Let's review a few of the ways in which material can be acquired for your collections. In general, there are four ways this occurs. Materials are acquired by: being passed down, found through research, shared/donated by others, and purchased.

Passed Down

Acquiring material passed down through your family is often how family history collections begin. Whether it's a basement full or just a few documents, if you're lucky enough to be the recipients of this type of material, understanding how to archive it will ensure it will remain accessible for future generations of researchers.

If you're fortunate enough to have more than one relative who provided a group of material to you, it's best to keep each group separate, even though it might feel right to combine them. Again, this keeps the provenance of the material clear. Labeling each group separately is a terrific start: "Jane Smith (Mom) Manuscript Collection" and "Robert Jones (Uncle) Manuscript Collection."


For those who haven't acquired material that was passed down, your own research leads you to material from which you gather important information. Whether or not you acquire what you find through your research will generally depend on the quality of the source and how it fits within your own collection policy. There are two broad categories under Research: physical material and digital material. Both categories have benefits and drawbacks; only you can decide what is best for your collection.

When you're fortunate enough to go to a repository, be it an archives, library, historical society or other location where genealogical material can be obtained, you need to decide what material, if any, to acquire. There are many, many ways in which we can capture (acquire) information located within the sources found in any given repository. If the information is vague or appears to only briefly mention your research subject, you may choose to simply note the source but go no further. If there is material that directly refers to your subject, then you will most likely want to acquire the information. Again, whether you simply have a photocopy of a page produced, or attempt to acquire the source itself for your collection is completely dependent on your own collection policy.

To say that digitization has revolutionized how someone can perform family history research is an understatement. From having the 1940 census available in months rather than years to being able to see material held in archives on the other side of the globe, the Internet has become a key element in the explosion of genealogical research. It also allows us to acquire digital instances of original records we might never have had the opportunity to acquire in the past. Digital material needs to be cited in the exact same way as the physical material you bring into your collections.

Materials Shared From Other Researchers

While this is fairly rare, occasionally you may be lucky enough to acquire material from a distant cousin or someone who located material referencing your family surname. This type of sharing requires special attention when describing how and why it came into your collection. Keep in mind that in a generation or two you won't be around to explain where it came from. Describing its origins will help them understand what it is and why you had it.

Purchased Material

This is the one area that differs significantly in family history collections from that of an archives. It is rare, although not outside the realm of possibility, that an archives will buy material for its collection. As researchers, however, purchasing materials is an acceptable (and common) way to acquire them for your collection. Certified copies of vital records, copies of documentation such as deeds, court records, veteran pension records and even ephemera that may be attached to your family can all be purchased to make them a part of your collection.


Documenting each acquisition transaction creates that all-important link back to its source. Being able to tell the origin of those materials will help you (and future researchers) evaluate them and more fully understand what they mean.

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