Sarah Higgins

Sarah Higgins

Last updated on 25 July 2017

William Kilbride asked us earlier this week (Born in a Storm 18 July 2017) what digital preservation professionals say when people ask us what we do. Like him I usually try to go under the radar and say I teach at a University. If pushed I say I teach digital information management – it seems a little more understandable than digital curation. Mostly this is met by a polite silence and a change of subject. Sometimes it leads to a lively discussion – especially if I personalise the message – using their own digital photographs or online bank statements as an example of the types of digital information that needs managing. Sometimes people probe further and ask who wants to study digital information management.

New professionals

Yesterday was graduation day for Information Studies at Aberystwyth University where I teach across all the degree schemes offered. Celebrating with our new graduates, and their proud friends and families is always the highlight of the year. The post-graduates celebrating yesterday completed their dissertations in September 2016 – nearly ten months ago, so there was the added satisfaction of hearing about their first steps into the workplace, and blossoming new careers as librarians, archivists and records managers. Some reported how important the knowledge gained through their optional module Digital Information Management for Access and Preservation was already proving in their new roles. Others – who took a different option route – told me they planned to take one of our CPD Short Courses in Digital Information or Digital Preservation soon. In just a few months they had realised that digital information is now ubiquitous in the information professionals’ workplace and they need to get a handle on managing it as soon as possible.

Amongst our graduates were the first to have taken a completely digital route to professional qualification through the MSc in Digital Curation. Like our other degrees this is accredited by CILIP but will also be put forward to the ARA (Archives and Records Association UK and Ireland) for accreditation when we welcome their accreditation panel to Aberystwyth in October. These graduates are also settled in good jobs, which I have to say sound very enticing when toiling through a pile of marking. But as William pointed out there is no word for their new profession. The degree is certainly training people to manage information - in a particularly fragile format - across its lifecycle but where do its graduates sit within the established documentary heritage professions of libraries, archives and records management?


Defined professionals: Libraries, archives and records management

Librarians, archivists and records managers have well defined professions with national and international bodies that protect and develop their interests. Their core principles are defined in ethical statements such as the International Federation of Library Associations Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers (International Federation of Library Associations, 2011) and the International Council on Archives Code of Ethics (International Council on Archives, 1996).

Importantly for their professional development, growth and advocacy librarianship, archives management and records management are also recognised academic disciplines with defined theoretical principles and competencies for higher education. In the UK their educational requirements are enshrined in the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education’s Subject Benchmark Statement for Librarianship, Information, Knowledge, Records and Archives Management. This single Benchmark Statement recognises information science as a meta-discipline that sits above and cuts across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities (its core sub-disciplines, helpfully listed in the QAA’s title). There are of course other sub-disciplines of information science – but these generally focus on a particular subject area or sector in which the work is undertaken. All require knowledge of theoretical principles and ‘competencies related to identifying, creating, acquiring, organising, retrieving, preserving, curating and disseminating information’ (QAA 2015, p.5).

As professionally orientated disciplines, degrees that lead to professional qualifications in librarianship, archives management or records management, also require competencies in professional skills. In the UK the skills required are defined by CILIP’s Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB) and the ARA’s Accreditation of Post-Graduate Qualifications Criteria.


But where is digital curation?

Information science is a meta-discipline. It sits above and pervades the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Libraries, archives and records management functions - core sub-disciplines of information science - were born primarily from a need to have somewhere to store physical items, with access to these a secondary driver in their development. Digital curation is also an information science discipline, but it is released from this primary focus on storage location while focussing, unusually, on one manifestation of information. Moreover, it sits above and pervades libraries, archives and records management (and all other information science sub-disciplines) as they increasingly work inside the digital paradigm; and is acting as the change-agent moving libraries, archives and records management towards convergence (Higgins, 2013).

Digital curation professionals require professional ethics, knowledge of theoretical principles and skills defined for information science, but they also requires cognitive and practical skills that are drawn from computer science – another meta-discipline. Those already working at the coal-face will recognise many of these skills as those specified in the current draft QAA Subject benchmark Statement for Computing (QAA, 2015b).

Digital curation is implicitly covered in one line of the UK’s QAA statement for information science, regarding it, rather narrowly, as one of nine competencies related to using information technology: ‘understanding of the preservation implications of digital materials (digitised and born-digital) and the ability to design or specify appropriate systems for digital preservation’ (QAA 2015, p.10). There is no explicit link to more holistic needs of digital curation in terms of resources and organisational support (Cornell University Library, ICPSR, & MIT Libraries, n.d.); or to the rather more advanced computer skills that may be required.

CILIP unhelpfully keeps its PKSB behind a membership wall, and I am not a personal member – but looking back at spreadsheets from our last accreditation exercise digital curation per se does not seem to be mentioned at all – it’s skills being conflated into general headings regarding curation, preservation and ICT. ARA’s Accreditation Criteria do not specifically mention digital curation or even digital material either, though interestingly suggest that student candidates and teaching staff could have digital curation knowledge.

It is no wonder then that when developing our MSc in Digital Curation I had to look beyond these formally recognised documents to the work of DigCCurr and Cal Lee’s Matrix of Digital Curation Knowledge and Competencies (Lee, 2009), DigCurv’s Curriculum Framework for Digital Curation (DigCurV, 2013); as well as my own earlier work with the Digital Curation Centre, particularly the DCC Curation Lifecycle Model (Higgins, 2008). With no QAA to reference, the required paperwork proposing the degree needed a 15 page appendix to explain the means by which the degree’s curriculum was developed, and reassure Aberystwyth University’s Academic and Quality Records Office that Digital Curation is a real discipline.


Time for a new profession?

William Kilbride called for digital preservation values to be made more explicit and more shared as a means to being able to give ourselves a professional name. Digital curation is a real discipline; it has professional bodies to support it, a set of theories and concepts, and a body of knowledge and higher education opportunities. Isn’t it time we professionalised the discipline by establishing an appropriate code of ethics and developing a QAA that doesn’t hide in the inadequate coat-tails of librarianship, archives management and records management?



Cornell University Library, ICPSR, & MIT Libraries. (n.d.). Digital preservation management workshops and tutorial. Retrieved September 7, 2015, from

DigCurV. (2013). A Curriculum framework for digital curation. Retrieved from

Higgins, S. (2008). The DCC curation lifecycle model. The International Journal of Digital Curation, 3(1), 134–140. Retrieved from

Higgins, S. (2013). Digital curation: The challenge driving convergence across memory institutions. In L. Duranti & E. Shaffer (Eds.), The Memory of the World in the Digital age: Digitization and Preservation: An international conference on permanent access to digital documentary heritage, Vancouver, Canada, 26-28 September 2012 (pp. 607–623). Vancouver, Canada: UNESCO. Retrieved from

International Council on Archives. (1996). International Council on Archives code of ethics.

International Federation of Library Associations. (2011). (International / IFLA-) Code of Ethics for Librarians and Other Information Workers, Draft. The Hague. Retrieved from

Lee, C. A. (2009). Matrix of digital curation knowledge and competencies. Retrieved from

QAA. (2015a). Subject benchmark statement: Computing. Higher Education. Retrieved from

QAA. (2015b). Subject benchmark statement: Computing: Draft for consultation.

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