Curation: Buzzword or What?

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

August 29, 2017
One of the most popular buzzwords in library-land at the moment is ‘curation’. It’s used to describe anything from old-fashioned collection development to human filtering activities on social media like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The word ‘curator’ gets used too liberally to describe the stuff people do on the web and, in my humble option, dilutes and pollutes the professional things that librarians do.

Librarians are so much more than assemblers of information, but let’s begin a discussion in this column about the difference between ‘curation’ and the activities performed by librarians. Is there really any way what someone does on Facebook is remotely like the work product of information professionals in special libraries?”

“Beware curation that doesn’t add focus, value and insight. That’s just noise.” – Robin Good

Yes, librarians are human filters—but we are so much more than that. Through professional training and experience we make critical judgments. The critical, professional thinking involved in the regular choices we make about content and process is vital to our success. That said, sadly, we often neglect to make these choices visible. There is a difference between collecting comprehensively and curation. This difference is reflected in the filters we use and the professional choices we make. Those filters may involve quality, fit for purpose, currentness, or, even more important, that most difficult filter—the single correct answer, or the ‘best’.

It’s one thing to create a bibliography or catalogue of content. That’s a foundation of the ‘stuff’ that may be needed—but it is by definition too much, too general, and too ‘meta’. Where’s the visible and real added-value in the context of the enterprise and end-user?

Digital or hard copy, dashboards, webliographies, LibGuides, special collections, and more, are good starts at delivering context in a digital world; they are (hopefully) updateable, comprehensive, high quality, de-duped, and useable on an authorized basis. But, do we—often enough—make the value added by the librarian visible? I think not. We must invest more time in doing what curators really do.

Defining curation

The term ‘curation’ was hijacked from the museum and gallery world. To curate something in that world is to be intimately connected to quality, provenance, and authority. When a collection is curated for a display, exhibition or show, it starts with a point of view—and often with a storyline and an intention to inform and educate. It is often built in a format that scaffolds the experience in stages as visitors engage with it.

As librarians move inexorably towards building more and more digital experiences, how do we make our value-add highly visible? How do we become comfortable with having a visible point of view? Let’s explore some definitions:

“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. This is often accomplished by archivists, librarians, scientists, historians, and scholars. Enterprises are starting to utilize digital curation to improve the quality of information and data within their operational and strategic processes. Successful digital curation will mitigate digital obsolescence, keeping the information accessible to users indefinitely.

The term curation in the past commonly referred to museum and library professionals. It has since been applied to interaction with social media including compiling digital images, web links and movie files.” (Wikipedia)

“A curator (from Latin: curare meaning “take care”) is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material. The object of a traditional curator’s concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether it be artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections.” (Wikipedia)

What is content curation?

“Content Curation is the act of discovering, gathering, and presenting digital content that surrounds specific subject matter. Though it is still considered a “buzz word” by many in the content world, content curation is now becoming a marketing staple for many companies with a successful online presence.” (EContent)

Nuts and bolts

“The Digital Curation Centre is a ‘world leading centre of expertise in digital information curation’ that assists higher education research institutions. The DCC is based in the UK and began operations in early 2004.

The following is a general outline of their approach to digital curation:

  • Conceptualize: Consider what digital material you will be creating and develop storage options. Take into account websites, publications, email, among other types of digital output.
  • Create: Produce digital material and attach all relevant metadata, typically the more metadata the more accessible the information.
  • Access and use: Determine the level of accessibility for the range of digital material created. Some material may be accessible only by password and other material may be freely accessible to the public.
  • Appraise and select: Consult the mission statement of the institution or private collection and determine what digital data is relevant. There may also be legal guidelines in place that will guide the decision process for a particular collection.
  • Dispose: Discard any digital material that is not deemed necessary to the institution.
  • Ingest: Send digital material to the predetermined storage solution. This may be an archive, repository or other facility.
  • Preservation action: Employ measures to maintain the integrity of the digital material.
  • Reappraise: Re-evaluate material to ensure that is it still relevant and is true to its original form.
  • Store: Secure data within the predetermined storage facility.
  • Access and reuse: Routinely check that material is still accessible for the intended audience and that the material has not been compromised through multiple uses.
  • Transform: If desirable or necessary the material may be transferred into a different digital format.” (Wikipedia)

So, the above lists the nuts and bolts of curation. While the terms organization and preservation describe professional skills, they’re insufficient from an end-user or enterprise standpoint to be measured easily or communicated well, in order to build an understanding of the wide impact of librarianship. As activities, they suffer from the anonymity of the team doing the work. They don’t reflect the choices made regarding what enters and doesn’t enter the collection. They hide the user experience arc about what the user goals may be in using the collections. And, most importantly, they don’t make clear the point of view inherent in the collection or curation.

What is ‘point of view′?

  1. a specified or stated manner of consideration or appraisal; standpoint
  2. an opinion, attitude, or judgment
  3. the beliefs or views of a large number or majority of people about a particular thing
  4. an estimation of the quality or worth of someone or something

When you are considering one aspect of a situation, you can say that you are considering it from a particular point of view. A person’s point of view is their general attitude to something, or the way they feel about something.

The role of ‘view’ and ‘opinion’

Don’t refer to what someone thinks or believes about a particular subject as their ‘point of view’. Refer to it as their standpoint, view or opinion. You can use expressions such as ‘in my opinion’ or ‘in his view’ to show that something is an opinion, and may not be a fact.

What is a ‘professional’ opinion?

Librarians are professionals, and our formal expression of an opinion on the worth or value or applicability of certain information in the end-user or enterprise context has value as a “professional” judgment. This is different, but related to such concepts as public opinion, group opinion, scientific opinion, legal opinion, judicial opinion, medical opinion, or editorial opinion.

Key implications of curation for special librarians and information professionals

In this post, I’ve explored what curation is in the context of our work as special librarians and information professionals. I’ve also argued that we too often hide much of the true professional added value of our work. To mitigate that, I think the following activities should be added to our communication with our users—either collectively or individually.

  1. Don’t neglect the importance of the cover memo. Even if this is just a handwritten note, formal memo or introduction to a report or package, ensure that you clearly state the professional decisions you made and the quality of the resources you used.
  2. Sign your work. Don’t just sign the reference and research results deliveries to individuals and teams, also make sure that you add your authorship on digital products such as LibGuides, portals, posts, e-mails, dashboards, and e-newsletters.
  3. Use professional language that differentiates your contribution from the original authorship of the content you provide. Start by outlining the comprehensiveness and limits of your research. Then make sure to share your opinion on the qualities of the content you’re delivering, note knowledge gaps, opportunities for further investigation, and any biases you detect. Start sentences with phrases like “In my professional opinion”, “The profession of librarianship regards this source as …”, or “This content was selected by the information professionals in our organization as authoritative and complete”, etc. Promote your personal name(s) as well as your library or team brand.
  4. Be part of the storyline. Don’t just stay focused on your contributions to the question of the moment or the fire you’re fighting. Be clear on how what you do and what you create make a difference in the real business of your organization. Know and tell your story of impact, and commit to being known as a contributor—not only for delivering information quickly and well.

It’s simple really. Librarians do awesome work. Let’s make that clear and visible. Databases, OPACs and Google are mere collections and access points until our intelligence makes them dance. Let’s sign our work.


<a href="" target="_self">Stephen Abram</a>

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse (

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