Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Digital Curation?

Life can be a bit strange at times. As I sat through the day-long workshop on “digital curation” at the JCDL meeting in Pittsburgh on June 20th, a story about the possible demise of funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Division of Preservation and Access appeared in Inside Higher Education. Andy Guess, “Documents and Collections at Risk?,” attributed this cutback to “changing priorities, an increased focus on digital humanities scholarship and the completion of a major archival program last year.” Despite recommendations for an increase in the overall NEH budget from $144.355 million to about $160 million, this division’s budget would decline from 18 to about 10 million dollars. Guess reports on the position of the Society of American Archivists, trying to argue, among other things, that there is more to preservation than digital projects.

While the news of this was happening, I (accompanied by a cadre of doctoral students) was attending the workshop on “Education for Digital Stewardship: Librarians, Archivists or Curators?” This consisted of a series of presentations from various schools about digital curation with various different operating principles and definitions but all glued together by a common conviction that archivists, librarians, museum curators, and others must get a handle on how to preserve various objects and artifacts in digital form. This workshop is part of an ongoing project funded by the IMLS at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to develop a curriculum to serve as the basis for continuing education and for the education of masters and doctoral students who are preparing for careers in archives and the information professions where digital preservation is an essential component. Here is how the project is described: “The School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) is partnering with NARA in this IMLS funded project to develop an openly accessible graduate-level curriculum to prepare students to work in the field of digital curation. Two symposia will also bring the issues of digital curation and this curriculum to the broader library, archives, and museum communities as well as the public” (more information can be found at
There are many different definitions for digital preservation or curation, but here is the one from Wikipedia: “Digital curation is the curation, preservation, maintenance, and collection and archiving of digital assets.” “Digital curation is the process of establishing and developing long term repositories of digital assets for current and future reference by researchers, scientists, and historians, and scholars generally” (, accessed June 23, 2008). This is serviceable for the short-term, but it will need to be addressed in the future as the concept of digital curation is pushed as a professional objective or core component in a new profession.

This is an interesting project, with lots of promise and lots of peril as well. The promise is that it will produce a considerable array of tools and materials we can use for educating the public, professionals, professors, and policymakers. The peril is that we have to be aware of the past; we have tried this before and we have been confident as well that what we were doing would work. We even had financial support before, ironically mostly from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a federal agency on the brink of extinction; in this we need to be mindful of lessons to heed. We have prepared and published research agendas, developed curriculum addressing electronic records issues, and worked to broaden and strengthen preservation approaches – and our success has been marginal or mixed. What suggests that we could do better in the future with the newly named digital curation agenda?

As we engage in discussions about digital curation, we need to be asking questions, lots of them. Here are some questions worth reflecting on:

What do we lose if we embrace digital curation as a rationale for our work or as a new profession? For example, can we really recruit digital curators into our graduate program?

What are the present, existing aspects of our curriculum that ought to remain and be protected? In other words, what are we and what are we educating people to become? Will there be archivists, librarians, and museum curators in the future or only digital curators?

Have we really defined digital curation in a fashion that makes sense for what we are seeking to do and that logically maps out across the disciplines with a stake in this? We sometimes seem to be using terms, such as cultural heritage, that already have precise, established definitions.

Can the new curriculum for digital curation be designed in a fashion that it provides a platform for educating private citizens about how they can and should manage their personal and family archival materials?

Will digital curation be a new field, or is it a function within many other fields, such as archival studies, librarianship, information science, and museum studies? If we persist in promoting the idea that this is a new field, where will it be located in the academy and what will be its accrediting body? This is especially challenging, since some of the presenters at this workshop reflected the existing boundaries of librarianship, archival studies, and museum studies. Will the emphasis by some on the notion of a new field mostly serve as a problem to pursuing the aims of effective digital preservation?

Is the concern with technology issues perhaps overwhelming other important aspects of digital curation, such as ethics, accountability, policy, legal, and intellectual property matters? Can a curriculum be built and used that blends such issues together into a meaningful education experience?

These are just a modest number of questions worth considering. Hopefully, we will be careful in how we proceed and continue to ask and answer such questions.