Curate Something

Nowadays we see or hear the word “curate” in television, magazine, and other advertisements. Whereas the word was originally used to describe work associated with art and other museums and personal collecting and connoisseurship, now the word has been appropriated by a variety of other professions, from information science to various humanities fields now engaged in digital work, to a wide array of hobbies and avocations such as genealogy and collecting of various sorts. Why have we seen the emergence of this broader use of the term? Hans Ulrich Obrist describes it this way: “The current vogue for the idea of curating stems from a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, raw data, processed information, images, disciplinary knowledge and material products that we are witnessing today” (Hans Ulrich Obrist, with Asaci Raza, Ways of Curating [New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2014], p. 23). The purpose of this post is not to debate the appropriateness of the term but to consider the utility of what is implies in our digital era.

The average American is awash in data, most of it in digital form. A lot of this data is deliberately ephemeral, but a lot of it is of permanent value to individuals and society. Family photographs and movies, letters and e-mail, diaries and blogs, scrapbooks and social media such as Facebook, diplomas and award certificates, and other documents are all valuable for marking one’s place in the world and useful for a myriad of reasons. Given the accelerating pace of our world, an increasing number of people have taken to personal archiving projects or collecting of antiques, printed ephemera, and historical re-enfacements as a way of connecting to the past. This has become especially enticing since so much of the digital world is constantly endangered. Backing up one’s life on the “cloud” seems like an uncertain hedge.

This commentator on curation has identified four functions associated with it — preservation, selection, contributing to scholarship (in this assessment, art history), and displaying and arranging. This provides a workable framework for further discussion. Preservation in the digital era may seem like something of a contradiction. Being connected digitally seems to imply always being on the move, always staying current, and always being in the present. Working digitally suggests that our texts, from e-mail to essays and reports, are always subject to change. For a while, professionals involved in preservation management viewed anything digital as not preserved and anything analog as permanent (that is, if subjected to the right precautions); in other words, to preserve a digital text meant that you had to move it into an analog form (print it out and store it in a secure, environmentally sound way). Now we recognize that there are elements of digitally born objects where we need to maintain their digital characteristics, both in order to understand their original intent and to make effective use of their content. We are shifting more and more attention to something called digital curation or stewardship, perhaps the inevitable result of living in a time when virtually everything is born digital. The task now seems to be influencing those who build our hardware and design our software to recognize the importance of a preservation mentality that is not merely antiquarian (collecting old and odd stuff) or some form of elitist connoisseurship (maintaining material objects because of some sort of rarified aesthetic principles).

The latter aspects of preservation bring us face to face with the nature of selection. One of the deceptive ideas of our digital era is that everything can be saved. In fact, we must learn to select carefully from among both our digital and analog sources. While the notion of Big Data has captured a lot of our attention, as a panacea to all of our business, government, and personal information challenges, we must also focus on the most important information as a safeguard in documenting our activities and being accountable. For individuals, this means they must learn to identify what is essential for family memory and economic accountability. Family archives, just like organizational ones, can be built initially from the financial records maintained for tax and related purposes. The memory of the family requires the maintenance of letters, diaries, photographs, and personal mementos of trips, events (such as weddings and baptisms), and favorite activities and pastimes. As an increasing quantity of this is born digital, extra caution needs to be paid to it; this is especially true for photographs, which have in the past two decades become almost exclusively digital. Many individuals and families place more and more of these kinds of materials on websites, blogs, FaceBook, and Twitter — and we need to protect passwords in order to ensure their protection.

Most people will not assume that anything they do to maintain personal and family papers will be of interest to scholars and other researchers. And for many that is a valid conclusion. However, historical, sociological, anthropological and other scholarly studies often use extensively personal and family papers. Shifting research trends have often enthusiastically embraced the discovery and mining of documents representing the full range of social classes. The creations of countless blogs and constantly changing forms of social media have opened up new possibilities for scholars and others to gain a more in-depth knowledge of political, social, economic, religious, and other aspects of our culture. Before then, scholars were reliant on archives for what they possessed, and, until the mid-twentieth century these institutions were largely focused on what the social and economic elites or governmental and business institutions created. The move to personal archiving can be understood for its value both to personal and family memory and for its potential for generating new kinds of archives that can be used by researchers of all sorts and with quite varied aims.

Displaying and arranging objects may be the most readily understood and appreciated aspect of personal curating. Upon entering someone’s house, it is not uncommon to find a wall of family photographs, diplomas, and travel souvenirs, all mnemonic devices intended to place in time, place, and space. In doctor’s and faculty offices we often discover diplomas and awards, generally with no legal or other value but that that of establishing someone’s authority to practice their livelihood. Many restaurants are decorated with historical photographs, sometimes of readily identifiable people and places, but just as likely display images that are not identifiable but which convey a sense of the past and connect the restaurant to its natural and historical surroundings. There is also a considerable sense of historical fabrication as well, where people buy images of other people’s families in order to create a set of surrogate ancestors; this often goes hand-in-hand with the purchasing of antiques and reproductions in order to create a sense of the past. All of this requires a distinct kind of curation.

Getting involved in all this is seen by some as being a check against the uncertain, tumultuous times of the digital era, where change is rapid and texts and objects ephemeral. But we also have to shift our attention and resources to curating digitally born materials. This can encompass careful back-ups of files, but also purposeful selection of certain documents to be created in both digital and analog formats or, in rare instances, to be created only in analog formats. Given the ubiquitous nature of digital systems and our reliance on them for our normal activities, it is unlikely that we will turn our backs completely on their use, even if we wanted to do so. However, we must more deliberately think of how we maintain records and information critical to our well-being.