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Pondering Provenance

September 22, 2015

On Monday 14th September, seven hardy souls met to discuss the W3C Provenance Standard. Everybody agreed that it was interesting to see another community’s take on provenance and that it did offer some reassurance that we were not alone in our belief that provenance was a very important concept with the potential to bring all sorts of benefits, if it could be harnessed and implemented. We did have doubts though about how these benefits might be realised and we felt that in our experience, recognition that ‘the question of how to collect adequate provenance, especially from end-users, is a challenging open problem’ (1) was probably something of an understatement.

As to the question of how it might be of benefit to archivists and records managers, we considered that it was a useful document for the following reasons;

  • It can act as a tool to build common understanding of provenance between the profession and IT professionals. It was envisaged that giving our IT colleagues a copy of this document, written as it is in a language they are more familiar with, would probably get our point across a lot more effectively than talking about Jenkinson and the fonds.
  • It can act as an educational tool for us, acting as it does as a reflection on and deconstruction of an idea that tends to be so all-encompassing for us that we find it hard to see it at all. For example, one answer, to the question ‘what have you learnt from this document’, was ‘that provenance is not as complex as I thought it was’.

On a personal note, I was left thinking that perhaps we (as a profession) do have a tendency to want to see provenance as this hugely complex and difficult thing since that then supports our sense of identity through our claim to a special understanding of and expertise in it? Indeed one of the things we found it quite hard to do at the meeting was to articulate what we could add, what we knew as archivists and records managers that would support the claim that we are the experts in provenance? If you have an answer to that one, please add it below.

  1. Requirements for Provenance on the Web”, Paul Groth, Yolanda Gil, James Cheney and Simon Miles, International Journal of Digital Curation, 2012, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 39-56.
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