What is Digital Curation?

Latin cūrō: I arrange, see to, attend to, take care of, ensure; I heal, cure; I govern, command; I undertake, procure…. from ProtoIndoEuropean *kʷeis (“to heed”). [1]

The Digital Curation Centre (DCC) currently, as of July 2014, defines digital curation as “maintaining and adding value to digital research data for current and future use” and adds that “it encompasses the active management of data throughout the research lifecycle”. In other locations, the phrase includes the notion of a “trusted body of” digital research data, similar to earlier definitions that described digital curation as “maintaining and adding value to a trusted body of digital information for current and future use; specifically, we mean the active management and appraisal of data over the lifecycle of scholarly and scientific materials.” (The DCC website as cited in [2]). According to Yakel, “Digital Curation is the active involvement of information professionals in the management, including the preservation, of digital data for future use.[2] These concepts are very specific, and we may want to question some of the restrictions they put on the scope of digital curation.

  • Research data only? Digital information and digital goods extend far beyond what is commonly understood as data and include artefacts as diverse as computer games, digital art, and electronic records. The ability to manage these assets for current and future use is equally critical for a sustainable society. While any piece of digital information can be research data for someone, we do not wish to restrict ourselves to the object of research data only.
  • Trusted data only? The notion of trust in digital objects is complex. Supporting trust certainly provides a crucial objective for curation activities, but we do not wish to restrict our attention to those digital objects that are assumed to be trusted a priori.
  • Information professionals only? As Rusbridge et al. point out, “[t]he foundation of the DCC reflects the belief that long term stewardship of digital assets is the responsibility of everyone in the digital information value chain”. [3] Arguably, crucial curation activities may be carried out by actors that are not information professionals, such as scientists annotating and releasing a data set.

In order to not restrict the notion of digital curation unnecessarily, we hence settle our understanding with the following minimal definition:

Digital curation is the active involvement in the management, including the preservation, of digital resources for future use.

This intentionally broad definition is slightly adapted from Yakel [2]. It omits the restriction to who is involved and uses the term “digital resources”. Note that the focus on future use can be a very close or a very distant future.

The role and relevance of digital curation

In almost all areas of society, but in particular in science, research, and scholarship, the ability to effectively create, share and use digital resources has risen to form a crucial ability. Relevant, effectively usable and sustainable data are a key ingredient for many of the grand challenges of the 21st century. This is demonstrated daily in areas ranging from economy to climate science, from the digital humanities to malaria research. Liveable cities can only be built if we learn over longer time frames from collected data. Tackling climate change fundamentally relies on scientists’ ability to effectively use time series data from diverse sources. The highly acclaimed work by economist Piketty and Saez on income equality has curated data at its heart. Our capability to analyze and assess the actions of politicians, media, organizations and governments relies on an ability to establish facts from digital evidence. The Internet Archive may have key evidence about the shooting down of the MH17 flight over Ukraine not because of automated web crawls, but because of a conscious act of curation, the choice of an individual to archive a particular web page [4]. The list goes on. The challenges of social, environmental, human and economic sustainability are far from solved. Well-curated, usable, understandable data are essential in exploring our place in the universe, sustaining humanity and the environment, promoting and improving public health, engaging cultural values, enabling future technologies, and advancing prosperity key challenges emphasized in the Strategic Research Plan of the University of Toronto. Digital information and digital goods extend far beyond what is commonly understood as data and include artefacts as diverse as computer games, digital art, and electronic records. The ability to manage these assets for current and future use is equally critical for a sustainable society. The “active involvement in the management of digital information for future use” is thus not simply a task that data centers, libraries and archives and museums are solely responsible for, a task that can be assumed to be completed by distant service providers. It is a concern of central relevance to a multitude of stakeholders and can be found in a myriad of scenarios and systems, many of which are embedded into the fabric of organizations, communities and society as a whole. As such, digital curation becomes a design question, a decision problem, a policy issue, and a concern at the intersection of an array of connected disciplines. Information professionals, researchers, and organizations have a unique opportunity to play crucial, central roles in this complex ecosystem.

  1. See http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cura#Latin (accessed July 31, 2014)
  2. Yakel, E. (2007). Digital Curation. OCLC Systems & Services.
  3. Rusbridge, C.; Buneman, P.; Burnhill, P.; Giaretta, D.; Ross, S.; Lyon, L.; Atkinson, M. (2005). “The Digital Curation Centre: A Vision for Digital Curation”. 2005 IEEE International Symposium on Mass Storage Systems and Technology. p. 31. doi:10.1109/LGDI.2005.1612461. ISBN 0780392280.
  4. Nicholas Taylor (2014). The MH17 Crash and Selective Web Archiving. The Signal, July 28, http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2014/07/21503/