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Digital Preservation, Digital Curation, Digital Stewardship: What’s in (Some) Names?

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"Digital preservation buttons" by wlef70 on Flickr
"Digital preservation buttons" by wlef70 on Flickr

I admit it: I’ve been prone to using the terms “digital preservation,” “digital curation” and  “digital stewardship” interchangeably without thinking too hard about their origins or subtle differences. Where do these different terms come from and what do they imply? Let’s briefly explore the slightly different (though often overlapping) approaches of preservationistas, curators and stewards.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “preserve” as “to keep in its original or existing state.” This idea of “preserving” has long been part of the Library of Congress’ mission, so it was with little surprise that our program to address the challenges of digital materials was named the “National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program”; the founding NDIIPP report was called Preserving our Digital Heritage” (PDF); and that our website is called “” Working to figure out how to “not lose” existing digital information was a significant early driver of NDIIPP.

"Mmm, curation cake!" by dolescum on Flickr
"Mmm, curation cake!" by dolescum on Flickr

In contrast, “digital curation” concepts started to appear after “digital preservation” had already put a stake in the ground. “Curation” takes a “whole life” approach to digital materials to address the selection, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets in addition to their preservation. (See this article for more background on the concept.)

Digital curation concepts largely arose from the scientific data and e-science communities, who have traditionally been driven more by immediate data re-use concerns than by “preserving” as an abstract concept.

A pair of key documents from early 2003 helped shape curation concepts. The first, “Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure” laid out the concept of a distributed technical research environment (“If infrastructure is required for an industrial economy, then we could say that cyberinfrastructure is required for a knowledge economy.”), but also posited conceptual government program models of curation that would “ensure that the exponentially growing data is collected, curated, managed, and archived for long-term access by scientists (and their IT applications) everywhere…”

“The Data Deluge: An e-Science Perspective” report (PDF) from the UK  touched on some of the same issues, establishing the curatorial data-centric view of the universe (“Data from a wide variety of new sources will need to be annotated with metadata, archived and curated so that both the data and the programs used to transform can be reproduced in the future”). The UK Digital Curation Centre followed shortly in 2004, one outcome of evolving curation approaches.

“Curation” is a useful concept for describing the evolving whole-life view of digital preservation, but concentrates on underpinning activities of building and managing collections of digital assets and so does not fully describe a more broad approach to digital materials management.

Additionally, the term “curation” has started to gain traction outside of the libraries and archives universe (especially in the US) under the rubric of “content curation,” often defined as “the aggregation, organizing and filtering of web resources around particular subject areas.”

The further development of this meme, especially in marketing, may well create an employment boomlet for librarians, but the conflicting definitions do muddy the water for the established digital preservation community.

NDSA card, by wlef70, on Flickr
NDSA card, by wlef70, on Flickr

Enter “stewardship.” “Stewardship” concepts evolved out of the environmental community, but that community’s idea of holding resources in trust for future generations has long resonated in the digital preservation community.

“Digital stewardship” satisfyingly brings preservation and curation together in one big, happy package, pulling in the lifecycle approach of curation along with research in digital libraries and electronic records archiving, broadening the emphasis from the e-science community on scientific data to address all digital materials, while continuing to emphasize digital preservation as a core component of action. More background on “stewardship” and its differences from “curation” can be found in “Cooperation and Collaboration in Teaching and Research: Trends in LIS Education” (PDF).

Which leads us to the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. The NDSA incorporates this unified vision of digital information management with the shared goal of leveraging community collaboration to ensure enduring access to digital information over the long-term.

So…which of these terms best describes what you do?

Comments (5)

  1. Considering that “stewardship” contains the essential elements of the archives and library profession as well as the custodial dimension of the curatorial profession, it is a perfect blending of the responsibilities.

    I’ve been stressing the “stewardship” aspect for several years now …

  2. The post makes a good point, especially in the way the path from “preservation” to “stewardship” has progressed. I think that stewardship is a realistic way to describe what I do: make sure digital materials are created, described, housed, preserved, etc, in the best way possible, therefore giving the materials the highest utility and longest lifespan possible. I consider myself working as a “steward”, because our preservation systems are also access systems that are constantly evolving. While I’m not (frequently) working with data that is still in the creation phase of its life cycle, I’m not comfortable considering myself a “digital archivist” by any means. It’s a comfortable, and practical, middle ground.

    In an organization like ours, where we can afford so much expertise and granularity of duties, specific work related to data curation (vs. stewardship) is likely to have a place. I’m of the opinion that, to be useful, data curation (at least in an academic library) is going to require a slightly narrow focus and higher levels of expertise. This will involve working with the larger university community to determine organizational needs and seeking researchers interested in exploring new possibilities. Once institutional needs have been discovered, a new position can be created to best meet them.

    Data stewardship, on the other hand, will likely remain a role for a generalist: someone who knows and cares about things like sustainable digital file formats, practical and useful applications of standards, digital quality control, etc. Stewards and curators can, and should, work together, to leverage expertise in particular areas.

  3. These are some great observations. I do like what the term stewardship implies.

  4. To me, ‘digital preservation’ lacks univocity: It both carries the narrower meaning of migrating content over time (pertaining to Preservation Planning, cf. OAIS) and a broader meaning, which covers all the activities from Ingest to Access.

    ‘Digital curation’ designates the whole lifecycle – from the creation of the digital object (Records Management) until its death or rebirth.

    ‘Digital stewardship’ is quite vague and covers potentially the whole cycle, like digital curation. I like the definition given above, but the fact that it needs specific defining makes it a ‘weak’ stand-alone term.

    ‘Digital archiving’ is what is missing. It is a strong candidate, as it clearly distinguishes the two phases in the digital object lifecycle, that is Records Management and Digital Archiving (cf. the OAIS activities) and avoids confusion with the second meaning of digital preservation as defined above in this comment.

  5. As a lay person with minimal technical background, I have been pondering the following problem;
    Does anyone know what the actual life of digital print will be? In, say, 2080 will the content of a document digitized today be readable? On what kind of instrumet? We know that a book, printed on non acid paper, kept in a reasonably dry place will be readable for at least a couple of hundred years or longer.
    Can we say the same for a digital work?

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