Kristen Schuster

Kristen Schuster

Last updated on 10 September 2019

Kristen Schuster is Lecturer in Digital Curation at Kings College London

I had a rather interesting conversation with a colleague a few months back. It started with the simple question: what exactly do you do? Usually this sort of inquiry is a conversation stopper, but with this particular colleague, it was a genuine inquiry meant to start a conversation. It helped that we were sitting in a room full of undergraduate students visiting from the States who had only a vague inkling (at best) about the Digital Humanities.

They were in for a bit of a disappointment though, because I am not a digital humanist. I’m a librarian who works within the digital humanities. And I have a rather fantastic, if slightly cryptic, job title: Lecturer in Digital Curation.

To try and start a conversation I made a rather bold claim that I find ways to structure data in creative, responsive and ethical ways. These three concepts (and I use the term concept purposefully here) are key to making digital curation more than a process of collecting and preserving objects. It adds nuance to the process by requiring we engage with the motivations and contexts that facilitated the creation of a collection and the interest in preserving it. This is to say, for the person or persons responsible for digital curation activities it adds a layer of responsibility and a space for inquiry.

Not only do the notions of creative, responsive and ethical processes and practices cast a critical light on what we collect or amass, but also makes space to recognize that multiple research and practical processes can co-exist and not necessarily be at odds with one another. The plurality of opportunities for organizational practice requires one key element to really have potential though: Intelligible systems for structuring and exchanging content. So, I would argue that metadata is a key aspect of digital curation.

It came as no surprise to my colleague that I pinned my whole job description and professional practice on metadata – it is notoriously one of my favourite topics of conversation. What did surprise my colleague though, was my enthusiastic description of my student’s contributions to my current interpretation and understanding of digital curation.

I teach an optional module, From Information to Knowledge, that is colloquially called Metadata. At the start of each term, the majority of my students have never worked with an encoding language, have no knowledge of controlled vocabularies and have, not consciously at least, reflected ways cultural context and personal experience effect knowledge organization practices. They are also incredibly anxious because they have to submit five pieces of marked work – a short essay, three extensible markup (XML) records and a reflective portfolio with revised XML records.

It is certainly a challenge to manage student anxieties while encouraging them to take risks, ask questions and collaborate to really engage with the strengths of data structure standards while critically evaluating data content standards. If (and this is a big if) I do my job, this whole process is as a rather remarkable opportunity to start conversations and learn new things while teaching students about data structure standards.

I don’t often think I really hold up my end of the bargain as a teacher – I have very ambitious learning outcomes for each of my lectures, and I often worry that my students leave more confused than empowered. The idea that metadata is not neutral, and that our practices effect users is not an easy thing to many students to embrace. Something as technical as XML and something as prescriptive as data entry doesn’t, at first glance, seem creative. What’s more, the idea that there are ethical implications – and not just in making something findable, but in how we make it findable – requires a certain amount of discussion and debate. But this past year I had a moment of triumph (and yes, I am bragging) when about halfway through the term one of my students raised his hand during seminar and asked: “if we’re organizing data to help users learn new information, are we allowed to impose our feminist agenda on the data we’re supposed to structure?”

I was gobsmacked. In a good way. And I’m not jaded enough to think he was pandering to my second favourite topic of conversation: gender theory and feminist politics.  

What followed was a lively conversation about the ways a metadata schema like Dublin Core, where we can do just about anything, offers opportunities to interrogate our assumptions (or a cataloguer’s assumptions) about information or objects or information about objects and the users who are likely to find, access, select and obtain any combination of these options.

These sorts of conversations, I think, are essential to digital curation. Not just because they are ground our practices in theories of inclusion and diversity. They require we really think about why and how we collect, describe, preserve and provide access to content (regardless if it is analogue, a digital surrogate or born digital).

Now, perhaps, for the point of this post: How do digital curation activities support digital preservation. This is after all a post for the Digital Preservation Coalition.

I’d like to start by pointing out that if we can’t find something, we aren’t likely to ensure it remains in any condition to be studied, shared or reproduced.

Now, that seems like a rather basic task – on a personal level we all have a vague sense of what sorts of digital content we have stored on our hard drives, flash drives and cloud storage subscriptions… and we also have a vague set of practices we use to name files and folders. So why not expect the same for organizations like museums, universities, banks, hospitals etc… to have the same notions?

Well, I quite like this sort of optimism. It neatly skirts conversations about digital deluges and information overload and, shudder, filter bubbles. Afterall, thinking that things are unrecoverable would put me out of a job. However, my job is to take this optimism and temper it with some degree of practicality.

The notion that things can be found, if we understand the organization or persons responsible for creating and managing them is, I think, a good place to start. Developing this sort of understanding, however, requires having some rather complex and not always intelligible conversations with people who think and act differently than us.

So, how exactly do we make things findable? Curation of course!

Curation as a process of selecting, organizing and storing content so it can be re-used should involve more than a bit of work creating guidelines for designing organization schemes for the objects themselves and data structure practices that reflect these organizational schemes. I started off by saying that we need to structure data in creative, responsive and ethical ways. This is not simply a matter of choosing the ‘right’ metadata schema or finding the ‘best’ controlled vocabulary. It is also a matter of asking why certain things are being curated and preserved and others are not.

That, if you hadn’t figured already, is easier said than done because it requires engaging with the not always comfortable reality that not everyone shares our point of view, our information needs, or understands our cultural identity. However, engaging with this sort of consciousness can help us better balance the technical and social facets of digital curation and digital preservation so that we do not surrender the critical and social aspects of collecting, storing and providing access to objects and information. My inquisitive student with the budding feminist agenda is, again, a rather perfect example. He was the only male in my seminar section, and by pure chance found himself sitting between two classmates he did not know. What had started out as a straightforward exercise of transferring metadata from the digital collection record for a dress in Victoria and Albert Museum into a Dublin Core record, turned into a heated discussion about representing the social, cultural and economic circumstances of an ornate gown in a granular, modular and extensible XML record. They never did finish their XML record, but they did write a rather compelling discussion forum post about why Dublin Core would be the ideal metadata schema for cataloguing complex cultural heritage artefacts. To end on an optimistic note (because I suffer from transatlantic enthusiasm): Teaching is a rather perfect opportunity to have complex conversations and to spark interests in learning more about new collections, new data standards, and new technologies. Because, after all, what exactly should we do with our feminist agendas?


Fabiana Barticioti
4 years ago
Hi Kristen, what a great post to make us think about what we do in our day to day job. Have been thinking a lot about metadata, catalogues, schemas, and so on. I don't have much answers either, but one think that I keep reminding myself and my colleagues is that "we shouldn't lose site of our users" when talking technical talks.

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