If You Insist…

5 Apr

… or, my case against being a data curator.

Pastor Shep © Susan Mattinson, 2012.  Reproduction permitted with permission of creator.

Pastor Shep © Susan Mattinson, 2012. Reproduction permitted with permission of creator.

Perhaps it is because I am married to an artist. Maybe it’s the fact that I have a sorority sister from my college days who has her doctorate in art history. Maybe it’s because before I became an exercise physiologist and a librarian, I was a member of the clergy, the profession from which the word “curate” originates. Maybe I’m nothing more than a real stickler for people using the correct word to describe what they do. But regardless of the reason, I simply cannot stand how my profession has co-opted the word “curate,” and worse, morphed it into a noun by calling it “curation.” If I had a dollar for every time the word was used at this week’s eScience Symposium, I’d be on vacation today.

Whenever I get on my soapbox about this, people remind me that the meanings of words change all of the time. Similarly, we create new words quite often, our attempt to get at what we really mean. To these comments I say, “I agree, but that’s not the point.”

“So, what is the point?”, you may ask. The point is this – I am bothered by why we feel the need to attach this word to what we are doing. In case you haven’t noticed, curate and curation are two of the hottest, trendiest little words today. Suddenly, everyone is a curator, from boutique store owners to night club promoters to everyone and her sister who slaps a picture of a wonderfully decorated cake on their Pinterest site. Maria Popova, the “curator” behind the delightful website, Brain Pickings, is an absolute darling of the New York Times; their very favorite curator.

First, this clamoring for my profession to be hip bothers me because I fear it’s a reaction to something bigger. As John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute points out, “It’s an innocent form of self-inflation. You’re implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does.” (This quote is found in one of my favorite pieces on the subject by Alex Williams of the New York Times.) It’s true that there are archivists in the mix of librarians doing this curation stuff, and it’s true that they have advanced degrees in archival work, and it’s true that there is a great deal of overlap between archives and museums. But archivists are archivists, and curators are curators. They do actually have different educational and practice backgrounds.

Further, librarians in particular have a short fuse when it comes to non-professionals, i.e. those without the essential ALA-accredited MLS degree, calling themselves librarians. The battle cry in my profession of medical librarianship has been, for years now, a call to take back our profession. A hospital needs a medical librarian, we say, not simply someone who can oversee a room filled with journals and computers. We have a special role, a certain expertise. THIS is what we keep claiming.

So…  Why then are we being quick to take on the moniker of another profession? I think it’s a question worth asking or at least one to think about.

Secondly, I return to the fact that if we do really want to call ourselves curators, then we need to practice curation, and I do not believe that this is what we are doing at all. As mentioned previously, the word originated during medieval times when members of the clergy in Europe were entrusted with the “cure of souls.” (WikipediaLater, the Church of England used the term as a description for the ministers who took care of a parish. From this, then, we get the aspect of the museum curator, the one charged with the care of a collection. In this sense, librarians have always been curators, though interestingly, we chose to call ourselves a particular kind of curator, i.e. a librarian, entrusted with the care of a collection of books.

Taking care of a collection is very much part of the role of a curator, however it is not the only role. A curator is also assigned the task of selecting the materials to be in a collection. When we say that an art show has been curated, we mean that an individual(s) has looked at each piece of work submitted and made a judgement, based upon some theme or idea or standard, of whether or not it fits. This involves a particular relationship with the art, the artist, and the public and/or the institution that one serves.

In an interview for Art Journal, Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston says,

Don’t pause in front of weak work. Just keep moving, pause in front of strong work even if you don’t like it, even if you don’t understand it, even if it’s not to your taste, even if it’s not going to work in any of the rooms that you have to fill, stop in front of the strong stuff and walk by the weak stuff. And that is harsh. I don’t stop. Now, how I figure out what is weak and what is strong, that is a harder question. Because your question really goes to: What are the criteria, how do I ascribe value? … It’s a poetic and nice way of asking the hard question, which is, How do you end up making the choices to show what you show? (Art Journal)

Librarians, or more to the point, those librarians (and computer scientists and engineers and information technologists) calling themselves data curators, are not, by and large, doing much of anything along the lines of selection. If anything, subject specialist librarians who practice collection development, these individuals are doing the curatorial work described by Molesworth. They are the ones who look through a large pool of content and select, based upon certain criteria, what they deem important for their collections.

I have yet to hear anyone practicing data curation touch on this aspect. To the contrary, the conversation usually revolves around how to save and preserve everything, how to make everything accessible. This quest is, to me personally, ludicrous, not to mention fraught with countless problems in regards to infrastructure, workload, ethics, and more.

And so, a curator, in the purest sense, both selects and cares for a collection. You need to do both. And you need a certain level of education and a certain set of skills to do both. As long as librarians are content to pass along the task of selection to others, be it of data sets or the list of citations generated in a systematic review, we are not acting as curators. Our role is important. Collecting, storing, preserving, and making materials accessible is not something to snuff at, but it is not curation (if you insist upon using that word).

10 Responses to “If You Insist…”

  1. Regina Raboin April 6, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    Curation is always a strong theme at RDAP and this year’s was no different, along with OA/Scholarly Communication, ELB’s, altmetrics. This conference, along with the post got me thinking about whether or not I consider myself a ‘curator’. I am “entrusted” with the research/information and data management needs of my faculty/researchers and students. These ‘needs’ are diverse and, at times, require me to evaluate, select, & collect resources, recommend research strategies and care for these in various ways, I am not a ‘curator’, but there are aspects of curation that I bring to my faculty, researchers & students.

    • Katie Houk April 9, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

      Perhaps this is why there’s a smaller, but growing trend to say “data steward/ship”? Personally, I prefer more descriptive and concrete names like: research & data librarian, digital preservationist or archivist and other boring, less cool titles.

      I’ve personally noticed that all of the “eScience” gatherings I’ve been to are overwhelmingly focused on digital data librarianship. Sometimes it bugs me because it makes it seem like we’ve conquered all the traditional challenges of when we were just plain old “science librarians,” or like those same issues just don’t exist anymore.

      However, to speak to your doubts about librarians actually being curators of the data… if we WERE truly curating data, we might be able to prevent horrible situations such as this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQ_3g2hUCn4

      • salgore April 9, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

        Love this comment and your thoughts, Katie! In particular, I struggle, like you, with feeling okay about the overabundant focus on data when we speak of eScience and librarians. It’s frustrating to me, because I believe that the environment actually affords us so many more opportunities. But… data seems to be trendy. Now I’ll watch the video clip you shared. I hope it’s the naked more rat! So cute!!

  2. Tommy Weir (@TommyW) April 14, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Singing my tune…

    When I graduated College, mid-Eighties, and began working in the visual arts, curators had the very specific role outlined above. They had done advanced research into a field and they presented an exhibition of relevant work in a museum.

    I worked with contemporary artists, where the practice of exhibition making did involve a breadth of issues to address in order to select and craft exhibitions, but we never referred to it as curation. We were exhibition organisers, gallery directors, never curators.

    The rot, if I may so term it, began in the visual arts itself. Gallery directors and their staff began to extend the term to include contemporary art shows. And not even themed or major exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennale, you began to see it in a range of exhibitions. These ran the gamut of private galleries showing their annual show of a particular artist’s work, to exhibitions where the person selecting the artists and their work was making a statement of sorts circling around a particular cultural observation.

    The move embraced exhibition makers as cultural producers, the artist’s work became a part of their medium. We had moved quite a distance from researched, rigorous analysis which put the artist’s work centre stage, towards a creative, at time analytical, at times intuitive, method which placed the curator and their vision centre stage.

    I had a feeling all was lost when I moved to New York in 1990 and taking my then girlfriend to the Anarchy Café for a Valentine’s Dinner, picked up the menu. Down the bottom the words “Menu curated by…”

    • salgore April 15, 2013 at 7:23 am #

      This morning’s coffee was hand-crafted and curated by artisans in our local roastery. 🙂

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I hear that even museums like the Guggenheim are getting in on the act, allowing visitors to “curate their own visit.” As you now, the whole rot started from within.

  3. sunsignsaggmoonsaturnincap April 14, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    No, I don’t agree with this. There is currently much needed discussion in the museum sector stating that curators need to do more than simply care for collections. I would argue that in the field of human rights museology or the notion of the socially inclusive museum that curators focus on the representation of people and their narratives. Some museums don’t have collections at all but exhibit narratives.

    I’m all for being clear about the meaning of terms but the definition in this post does not reflect the current breadth of museum practice.

    • salgore April 14, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

      Thanks for the comments. I appreciate you adding your thoughts to the meaning of curator in fine arts today. My point, though, was less about defining the word within the art world, but more to state that this is its origin. My profession, librarianship, seems to want to jump on the bandwagon and co-opt the term for its own use; a different definition of the work altogether.

  4. Nom de plume April 15, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    I think it has to do with our growing awareness of education – how far it goes and how far it doesn’t. With all due respect to those with the doctorates, there are the bare boned skills of the job, often done by people with backgrounds in other professions, on-the-job educations (or school of hard knocks), so on. We must broaden our awareness of what it takes or who it takes to do a certain job. Get beyond the licensures, degrees, certifications, and authority-based definitions .. Again, I mean no respect to curators, etc., but what does it *really* take to be qualified, in this day and age? Besides a tight job market. There is no great mystique to many of these jobs, and frankly, the much assorted plethora of certification routes are vastly over-rated IMO – just another way for others to make money without much more than how much voodoo they can concoct in the psyches of our television-watching society.

    • salgore April 17, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

      Your comment really captures the fluidity of the times we live in. Degrees, licenses, certificates… you’re absolutely correct in noting that these are all up for “re-grabs,” so to speak, when it comes to defining them AND requiring them for effectiveness in the workplace. Personally, I think we can trace a line from this to the unfettered rise in educational cost over the past years with little to any accountability for what we received in return.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation!


  1. Saturday links: macroeconomic problems - Abnormal Returns | Abnormal Returns - April 20, 2013

    […] are not using the term curator correctly.  (Librarian Hats via […]

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