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Digital Humanities Curation? What Do We Mean?

I am interested in exploring the various ways that we discuss curation in the digital humanities, as well as models of best practice in digital humanities curation. What are great examples?

With its origins in the 14th Century, specifically in the practice of rural priests or “curates,” the word originally emphasized the caring for and attending to the souls of a parish. By the 15th century, curate became associated with legal guardianship, usually over minors. Only with the enlightenment, in the middle of the 17th century, did the word come to be associated with objects, specifically those of a museum or gallery.

More recently, with the emergence of the digital era, the definition of curate has widened, at least as suggested in a 2009 New York Times article.  It is being used by “designers, disc jockeys, club promoters, bloggers and thrift-store owners,” as a sort of code for taste.  According to NYTimes writer Alex Williams, stores “curate” their merchandise or nightclubs “curate” an evening’s entertainment, and websites “curate” their content. “Curate,” Williams wrote, “has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.”

Curate means many things in museums and cultural institutions outside the digital realm, from building collections, to caring for those collections, to interpreting them. It stands between the work of librarians, archivists, and scholars as its own category of activity, but is in fact more multidisciplinary than peer fields. It demands subject expertise but is not subservient to it. It demands methodological expertise but is not subservient to it. It demands the rigorous of metadata practice but is not subservient to it. Digital curation has added a new dimensionality to the mix, which is technical knowledge, but even here technological knowledge is key but not a requirement.

Curation as a concept has gained new life in the digital humanities world, and is discussed clearly in the Digital Humanities Manifesto.  One popular version of this (emerging from technology communities) suggested five basic approaches to content creation: aggregation, distillation, elevation, mashup, or chronology. I found that oversimplified, without an appreciation for the humanities, but it was provocative nonetheless. Even if one adopted something, what examples might we point to as brilliant guides for digital humanists.

So, I am curious how we digital humanists understand our roles as curators. One of the best definitions from the Digital Curation Centre in the UK, proposes a definition of curation that emphasizes archival practice. Another case study about digital curation from the Library of Congress also emphasizes archival practice as the home of curation.

Both beg a larger question that I want to pose. What is the role of interpretation and research in the process of digital curation? How is digital curation an act of scholarship?  And, why not emphasize the interpretive aspects more? Surely a curator–whether digital or otherwise is more than a guardian of real or virtual objects? Aren’t we making interpretive choices?  Are their models of digital curation to which we would point colleagues and students?

Those are just some of the questions that I’m interested in finding some answers to. And, of course, I am also interested in asking the right questions, which I am perhaps not doing yet.  Broadly, this question is driven by something I am currently writing about humanities curation and content curation.

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