More thoughts on Digital Curation

Below is the text I recently posted on the forum for the Digital Curation MOOC I have begun this week. It is (yet another) attempt to clarify/define the term in a meaningful way:
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After doing some wider reading around the term, starting with the article by Leslie Johnston, I would like to add some extra points. Further to what I have written above, I would now set out four broad practices that could be said to constitute digital curation. These are:
  • i) digital curation as it is understood by the e-science and data communities – narrowly defined, highly-skilled and technical practices such as those of the Digital Curation Centre. This seems to be the earliest definition (2003) and most likely the one implied by most current professionals in the field.
  • ii) what I would understand to be the utilisation of traditional practices and skills of museums, archives and art galleries as applied to digitised materials. This would involve the acquisition, selection and careful digitisation of physical texts/materials/objects – for the primary purpose of preservation – and then the contextualised exhibition of these items within a institutional ‘space’ (whether this be physically within a museum (etc) via a digital screen, or via a website that has been ‘curated’ by a professional within the sector). An example of this would be the Rossetti archive.
  • iii) next, we find those practices that I would define as the ‘work undertaken to hold digital culture in trust for future generations’. This would involve the management of obsolete (or soon to be obsolete) digital data (web pages, files, etc) in such a way that it would be usable by future generations using more advanced technologies. Examples of this would be the work undertaken by the Internet Archive. Again, this is often highly-specialised and technical work.
  • iv) finally, we find the, (relatively) non-technical, digital equivalents of the wider cultural trend for content ‘curation’. This would mean the (knowledgeable) selection/cataloging of digital content into (more of less) logical categories. Examples of this would be activities such as creating ‘intelligent’ YouTube or Spotify playlists focused on specific themes, or the cataloging of diffuse links to digital content under particular topic headings (www.openculture.com would be a good example of this).

What these practices all have in common is that they involve some aspect of ‘curating digital material’ (if we define this broadly as ‘the management of digital content’). Practices ii) and iv) may involve interpretive practices to a greater or lesser degree, while meanings i) & iii) are more technical and ‘neutral’ in their application (being designed to create a base from which interpretation can take place). Nevertheless, these practices share an ethos and a broad set of goals.

Can we therefore refer to them all as aspects of ‘digital curation’? Well, this seems to me to be complicated by the fact that the term was first used to specifically mean i). To allow these other practices (and more) to exist under that same broad heading without negating that earliest definition, I would suggest the following (or similar) new terms for each practice outlined above: i) digital data management (-curation); ii) digital preservation (-curation); iii) digital stewardship (-curation); and iv) digital cataloguing (-curation).

This way no narrow definition is necessarily required of the wider ‘digital curation’ term (nor is it exclusively held by the first meaning); it can, instead, profitably include any practice involving the curation of digital materials, both technical and interpretive – or any combination of both.In fact, it is likely that future specific cases of ‘digital curation’ will require a combination of these practices; for example, the management of a ‘born digital’ archive may involve a combination of practices ii) and iii). Digital curation as an emerging practice will consequently be by necessity cross-disciplinary – or at the very least require input from diffuse and diverse practitioners, cutting across boundaries of roles and institutions.

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