Digital Curation & Public Libraries – First thoughts

A few weeks ago I took part in a UkLibChat discussion on Twitter about digital libraries. Rather than going over all the different points raised in that chat (those interested in such a narrative would be better served by searching Twitter for #uklibchat or waiting for the relevant post on the uklibchat blog chat archive), the chat has prompted me to set down a few first thoughts on this topic. This is not intended to be anything more than a start – I certainly aim to write more on this topic in the future, in more depth and with greater clarity.

I posed a question for chatters on the topic, after reading Simon Barron’s post in advance of the discussion: “is there in fact scope for librarians to ‘curate’ large born digital collections,aiding user navigation->relevant bits?” I was particularly interested in his argument that “Digital libraries are, by and large, not managed by Librarians” and that, consequently, digital libraries – uncontained and unorganised – “are not libraries” at all; “they are information”. While I certainly agree with both parts of that statement, it seems to me that Librarians can make ‘libraries’ from ‘information’ simply by taking on the role – where possible – of organising (curating) digital materials into coherent and logical sequences. That digital material is currently not managed by Librarians does not mean that digital material cannot be managed by Librarians – even if they stand outside the system hosting that material.

This belief was prompted by work I have been undertaking in my home institution, in which I have been trying to bring some curated order to the vast range of web links used by frontline staff when dealing with information enquiries. I am thinking especially of those enquiries related to what we might call ‘social matters” – i.e. (and e.g.) customer access to governmental services, requests for information/forms relating to UK citizenship, contact details for (the appropriate) regulatory body for utilities and other services, housing needs, mental health issues, legal matters, and so forth. This might also include requests related to research needs not met by the institutions’ physical holdings – details of newspaper archives (both on- and off-line) would be one good example.

Many of these categories of knowledge are difficult to grasp in and of themselves, with the available digital resources viewable through the standard google search presenting the user with a complex set of potentials. Taking this into account and recognising that neither myself nor my colleagues are necessarily ‘experts’ in any one particular field, we can see how responses to customer requests are often conditional on the knowledge of resources held by that member of staff at that moment in time (taking into account gaps in memory). While staff can, of course, use the knowledge of colleagues to answer enquiries, this in itself is entirely conditioned by practical matters such as which staff are available at any given time.

This is, of course, traditionally the terrain of the Librarian – someone with the knowledge and skills to direct frontline staff/customers to the resources available in any particular field. However, at present, the department in which I work is without such an authority to which colleagues can refer more complex enquiries. To counter these issues, I have been aiming to create a ‘one-stop’ blog site that can be used as a hosting platform for all the relevant web links within each category of enquiry faced by staff (and some that are not). It is very much a work in progress and is hosted here.

The project actually began with my attempts to physically ‘map’ the wide range of resources / stock held and managed by the information department I am based in. The department manages significant specialist stock holdings across a range of locations – closed-access stacks and galleries, plus public corridors and rooms on two floors. Among these are official publications in the fields of government, the law and statistics, as well as significant journal/periodicals archives. Many of these holdings are continuous sequences dated back to the 19th-century. Additionally, the department also holds thousands of monographs that do not meet the stock guidelines for the core lending department. Among these are items with a particularly academic/research focus, together with other titles that are currently out-of-print (our holdings being particularly strong in the areas of politics, philosophy/theology/sociology, literature/literary criticism and history).

Although the catalogue system utilised by the service is useful when searching for these monograph items – those with a clearly defined title & author – staff and customers have found it creates more confusion than clarity when searching for those specialist items referred to in the paragraph above. Often, these items have catalogue entries that do not directly (or accurately) reflect their content. This, together with the variety of physical locations, means such items can be difficult to locate via the usual catalogue methods (keyword, title, or author searches).

Consequently, in order to improve matters in these regards, I began a manual cataloguing of such items, noting their title, Dewey code, dates of holdings & physical location; the intention being to create a more systematic and coherent ‘mapping’ of the department resources then afforded by a ‘blind’ digital catalogue. This work originally started with my research into the department’s Official Publication holdings, but I have since expanded this to mapping the full-range of closed-access holdings in all subject areas – for example, the comprehensive archives of non-current journals/periodicals (as yet incomplete)

As well as creating a more user-friendly way for customers to browse our closed-access holdings, this work provides staff with a better sense of what (and where) our stock consists of in specific fields. Having a clearer sense of stock holdings should then enable staff to more accurately connect resources to users / potential users. Again, this is especially important at present as the department lacks an attached Librarian. This loss of such deep institutional knowledge means staff have only a partial and often-superficial knowledge of the full range of departmental stock holdings. A wider service project is currently in operation around ‘community engagement’; before staff can hope to promote our stock to community groups it is important to have an excellent sense of precisely what those holdings consist of.

I saved and organised the content as a blog to enable quick editing and updating. In the particular case of Official Publications (the most comprehensively completed section at present) I further decided to include, alongside details of the physical departmental holdings, information about the archives available to view online in each category of material (via sites such as In time I realised that this process could be repeated with all subjects – creating a ‘one-stop shop’ that mixed a systematic mapping of departmental stock holdings with a guide to the most relevant third-party digital resources within each possible subject category.

After some time working on this project I encountered the concept of digital curation. I first encountered this idea during a talk by Dave Coplin at a Future of Libraries Seminar held in Leeds. In a public library context, I interpreted digital curation to mean the identification of the most relevant information from diffuse/diverse digital content and the subsequent bringing together of those materials within ‘ordered’ subject categories.

The project has, then, evolved into a combination of digital curation and my wider attempts to define the physical departmental stock holdings (physically defined and then organised logically in a digital form – so a hybrid physical-digital curation). This is achieved through a systematic and coherent weaving together of a hitherto complex range of digital and print materials within defined topic areas. By doing so, staff and library users alike gain a comprehensive overview of all content within that field and the relationship between the available library and online holdings (that is, identifying gaps in the former that can be filled with the latter). The ‘mapping’ of physical holdings also allows the library or institution to digitally create categorised guides to resources that can themselves be disseminated digitally, thus allowing for more targeted ‘browsing’ of stock than possible when materials are held across a range of spaces (and which for most libraries will always involve some form of customer-public inaccessibility to particular places of the building).

In itself this project draws upon work I have been undertaking on a personal digital curation research project. This is the Museum of Football History – a YouTube channel (and related Twitter feed / blog) in which I am cataloguing historic football matches into season-by-season playlists and guides to specific teams/players (also very much a work in progress). Again, the intention is to bring order to a vast, hitherto confusing, collection of relevant material so that the general fan, sports history researcher, or journalist can jump straight to the content that interests them in a systematic / coherent fashion, allowing them to focus their efforts on the creation of interesting content without having to concern themselves with the time-consuming search for archival resources. While Barron – quite rightly – holds that “[f]olksonomies and collaborative systems of organisation make top-down hierarchical organisation systems appear at best antiquated and at worst obfuscatory”, I believe there is a place for Librarians and libraries to become one-of-many collaborators in that process, a collaborator with the added experience and knowledge to (sometimes, not always) contribute to more effective folksonomies.

This is the traditional work of library professionals adapted for the new digital era. That is to say, just as libraries have previously ordered and catalogued a diverse range of printed materials so that readers do not have to wade through 10,000 books or journals to find one of relevance, so the digital curator orders and catalogs a similarly complex selection of digital materials for the same reasons. The intention is certainly not to ‘do the work for’ the reader, merely to create a viable intellectual structure from within which the reader can work more efficiently and effectively.

Further, the digital librarian does not necessarily catalogue / index every single item within every single available context but, again, merely provides a structured platform from which students can begin their own research. Such individuals may be searching for non-logical patterns not identifiable by the digital librarian, the hunt for which would nonetheless still benefit from a coherent approach to curation in the first instance. In the public library context this would be lists of the most relevant / useful / appropriate digital resources for meeting customer information requests, ordered by subject category. In the football context, the structure would be the sorting of chaotic material into the temporal narrative of seasons. Taking these two context together, we could envisage public libraries ordering YouTube videos by subject matter – such as World War I, job-seeking advice / information – for the benefit of customers.

Digital curation in this reading is, in short, a contribution to a ‘cataloguing of the internet’, for the purposes of providing a more effective base point toward the facilitation of wider content creation. It is the creation of a library by any other name, only in a form fit for the digital age. In answer, then, to my own question – yes, I do think there is scope for librarians to manage ‘born digital’ content (as well as digitally curating details of physical holdings into systematic categories) in order to aid customer navigation to the most relevant materials. It is a vast undertaking but, quite possible, a necessary one.



One comment

  1. […] – has only recently become an issue of interest to me. Without going into excessive detail (more here), I have become interested in the digital as a tool to systematically bring together (and then […]

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