Thinking About Digital Curation

On Wednesday I attended the first lecture of the term for the Introduction to Digital Curation module. As this is an optional module offered across the Department of Information studies, there were students from the Library & Information Studies and Digital Humanities courses, as well as other students from Archives & Records Management. It will be really interesting to see how the Library & Information Studies and Digital Humanities students might apply digital curation in their disciplines, and if digital curation means something different to them.

Definitions

One of the first things that we did was to discuss our thoughts on digital curation in groups, and come up with a definition. These were the responses:

  • The selection, appraisal, management, long-term preservation and creation of access to digital records.
  • The preservation of material in a digital format to ensure its continued availability over time.

The first definition is a very archival response, as it encompasses the processes that archivists do already, but with digital stuff. Many of the same principles apply, but in a digital world, things are different, and we need to re-conceptualise these things in our head so that the terminology is applicable across different disciplines. It can be difficult to identify what is meant by ‘long-term’. To archivists, it may mean centuries, but to those working in IT, it may only mean 5 years.

Some alternative definitions:

“Digital curation involves maintaining, preserving and adding value to digital research data throughout its lifecycle.” (Digital Curation Centre, 2017)

“Digital curation is about finding ways to manage changes in hardware and software, operating systems and media so that material remains accessible long into the future. It is about identifying and implementing processes to ensure that digital material remains accessible but also retains its authenticity, context and reliability.” (Wellcome Library, 2016)

“Digital curation is generally referred to the process of establishing and developing long term repositories of digital assets for current and future reference by researchers, scientists, historians, and scholars.” (University of Leicester, [n.d.])

“Digital curation is the selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets. Digital curation establishes, maintains and adds value to repositories of digital data for present and future use.” (Wikipedia, 2016)

As you can see there are many varying definitions, (but thankfully our lecturer informed us that there is no right or wrong answer). Digital curation may mean different things to different people, and to different disciplines. Our own definitions of digital curation might change as the course progresses, so this is potentially a topic to re-visit at the end of term.

Existing knowledge

The discussion of our existing knowledge got us thinking about digital files or digital material as ‘stuff’, (a very technical term), but one which is less loaded with baggage than terminology such as ‘record’. This is what we collectively came up with:

  • Digital stuff deteriorates over time, and therefore needs managing over time
  • It’s not impossible to access ‘old’ digital stuff, but it can be hard
  • We tend to apply a paper mindset to digital stuff
  • Digital stuff should be treated differently to paper stuff
  • As archivists, we see it as our job to stop things from decaying
  • Many organisations don’t really have the knowledge or resources in place for digital curation

Digital stuff does deteriorate over time if not managed properly, and as hardware, software, and operating systems are upgraded and move from generation to generation, digital stuff can become harder to access, and can be lost entirely. Storage media can also deteriorate over time, and this can also contribute to the loss of the digital stuff if not managed properly over time alongside the digital ‘stuff’.

The application of a paper mindset to digital stuff is something that most of us do on a regular basis, through the use of terminologies such as ‘file’ and ‘folder’. Digital stuff does not embody a physical entity, so we use terms that we are familiar with in order to conceptualise in our minds what we envisage the stuff to be. As archivists, we care about information, we want to preserve it and make it accessible, and this applies to the digital stuff as much as the physical stuff. The continued availability of stuff is important.

So what does a digital curator look after?

The digital stuff, but it goes much deeper than just the stuff. Digital curation involves looking after the bits (the digital stuff), the sequencing of those bits, the physical carriers of those bits (the storage media), the software (to read and write the digital stuff), the hardware (to run the software), the authenticity of the stuff, the meaning of the stuff, the information objects, and information packages. A digital record needs to be performed before you can even read it. The record needs to be able to function before the information it contains can be read.

The digital stuff has a physical presence in its storage media, and the storage media needs management: consideration of the right temperature and humidity levels for the storage media to work, risk management in case the media becomes faulty or stops working, and disaster planning. From an archivist’s point of view, many of these principles can also be applied to archives. Archives need to accommodate different environments for different types of material, and there needs to be risk management and disaster planning to ensure the safety of the archive.

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