Archival Science

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 3–15 | Cite as

Questioning autonomy: an alternative perspective on the principles which govern archival description

Original Paper


This article employs lenses of the history of systems thinking and elements of cybernetic thought to develop an alternative perspective on the principles (respect des fonds, provenance and original order) which govern the practice of archival description. It seeks to focus attention on the idea of autonomy and the questioning of this idea that rests within the practice and to demonstrate how this questioning ultimately resolves into a concern with epistemology and with the question of how we can describe the world around us without any point of reference external to ourselves. This article will also suggest an alternative perspective on the principles which govern archival description, namely that they should be seen as an injunction to account for the point of view in points of view. Moreover, that such principles should be seen as governing archival description, not in the sense of directing archivists how to describe archives, but rather in the sense of being an archival expression of the check that governs, the epistemological question inherent in, all our descriptions.


Archival description Cybernetics Second-order observation Systems theory Autopoiesis Provenance 



The author wishes to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) for funding the research upon which this article is based, all the participants in that research and Alexandra Eveleigh, Dr Andrew Flinn, Dr Elizabeth Shepherd, Geoffrey Yeo, the editors and all the anonymous peer reviewers for their comments and advice on drafts of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University College LondonLondonUK

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