Cool Tips for Digital Curators: In the World of Scanning and Building Digital Collections, We 'Digital Curators' Are More Important Than Ever

By Huwe, Terence K. | Computers in Libraries, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Cool Tips for Digital Curators: In the World of Scanning and Building Digital Collections, We 'Digital Curators' Are More Important Than Ever


Huwe, Terence K., Computers in Libraries


Scanning, converting, "ingesting," and preserving: They're not going away anytime soon. In fact, these tasks have grown in importance, complexity--and prestige. Nonetheless, the fact remains that some solid work with a laptop and scanner will get you started as an innovator. In 2004 I wrote a column about plain old scanning, that ur-level of repository-building, and named it a "hip" technology (Nov./Dec. 2004 CIL). I still think this is true, but the market, the consumer, and the technology have evolved. So it's a good time to share cool tips that pertain to the here and now.

My tips are more about people and their behavior than simply about technology. Scanning and ingesting digital objects is only part of the challenge. Digital archiving, both the basic and the rocket-science levels, depends on discovery. That's basically a research task, and research often is social networking activity. We are surrounded by resources that have value and relevance, but they often lie overlooked. That's why discovery is a powerful task to keep in mind while doing digital library development. Digital collections, particularly those that include images, text, and sound files, are very popular as teaching and learning tools and gain immediate attention--but they must be discovered, often by looking at existing collections with a new perspective.

I find that the role of the curator has expanded with the impact of digital media, so my cool tips for curators (and wannabes too) arise not just from technical practice but from social interaction. To start off, I'll tell you some of what I've been doing and then follow up with some suggestions that may transfer well to many different types of projects.

Three Projects, Three Roles

Lately I've been involved in three archiving and digitization pushes, and they make excellent examples for my argument that the collection-discovery process can drive innovation. They also support my premise that linking technical skills like scanning with outreach to users can lead to new support and new roles.

I'm a curator with the California Digital Library's "Web at Risk" project (www.cdlib.org/inside/projects/preservation/webatrisk). The goal of this Library of Congress-sponsored research is to develop a toolkit for archiving the open Web. My "beat" is labor, and, in particular, the interplay between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the breakaway group of unions that separated from the AFL-CIO. This project is big, with many institutional partners, and I am a small cog in its vastness. Yet in some crucial respects, the curators are in the driver's seat: We're giving programmers loads of practical advice, much of which pertains to the "organic" nature of collections. The curators have deep subject knowledge and a keen awareness of the future value of today's open Web. Their tech skills are good, and they understand the challenges. They're innovators too: For a good example of what's possible, take a look at UCLA librarian Gabriella Gray's Online Campaign Literature Archive (see http://digital.library.ucla.edu/campaign/about.html). The CDL's project has been covered in library literature, so I won't go into further detail here, except to say one thing. The balance between programming expertise at the back end and subject expertise at the front (or collection development) end is working just great, and it points to the power of these kinds of collaborative approaches.

My next big project came in a flash. All of a sudden, I had the opportunity to partner with the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, to create a repository of their proceedings. The timing was right to apply for support from the University of California Labor and Employment Research Fund. After rushing to meet the deadline, I was amazed to learn that I was funded to the tune of $33,000. The funds would enable us to do large-scale scanning and to create a Web repository of federation materials, placed in a rich context of lots of other documents from our library collection. …

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