… or, my case against being a data curator.
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.” (Wikipedia) Later, 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).