Provenance (A Two-Bit Word for "Is This Stuff Really Worth a Plug Nickel?")



29 December 2014

EE's discussions of many materials—from artifacts to databases, from records to digital images, and even traditions—encourage us to consider the provenance of the material we use. Simply put, the term means "chain of custody" or "history of ownership."

Judging the validity of information provided by a source requires us to consider all factors that could affect authenticity.  Careful researchers consider not only whether an item is an original or a derivative record, but also how an item or its information has been transmitted from its original state to the place and form in which we found it. Especially do we need to consider the nature and provenance of Web material, whose numerous incarnations and transformations often affect the reliability of their content.

Some publishers of electronic databases or reproductions supply a note informing us that they obtained their data from another firm or individual. Even so, to analyze the reliability of their material we also need to know

  • the identity of the original compiler (individual or agency) who first assembled that data set;
  • the original source(s) from which the data were taken;
  • whether the database represents full or partial extraction from those sources; or
  • whether it was generated from materials randomly encountered by the original compiler.

Tracking the origin of Web-offered materials can be difficult. A currently marketed database may have been purchased from a firm no longer in existence, which may have bought its information from a book compiler, who may have assembled materials randomly published elsewhere. Such a database could be of radically different quality from one issued by, say, a learned society using skilled copyists to extract every document in a record set or an image collection created by a company that contracts with an archive to reproduce an entire record series.

For privately held material, our statement of provenance will report the chain of title by which that piece of writing or that artifact passed from its original owner to the present. As researchers, we inquire about this when we consult with the owners. Often, however, their own knowledge of the item's provenance will be incomplete, in which case we still record whatever is known or discoverable.

If our attempts to track the origin of the material are unsuccessful, we should say so and explain the efforts we made. This will help us and others avoid unnecessary repetition of the same. When we carefully report our steps, we or a user of our work may be able later to plug some of the gaps in our research process or our findings.

PHOTOCREDIT: "Questions on Arrow Signs—Who What Where When Why How," CanStockPhoto ( : downloaded 4 December 2014), uploaded 31 October 2013 by iqoncept; used under license.