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Digital Preservation Pioneer: Helen Tibbo

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Dr. Helen R. TibboHelen Tibbo is a descendant of Mayflower settlers Miles Standish and John Alden but she doesn’t flaunt her pedigree or socialize exclusively with snooty blue bloods. It’s difficult to say exactly how her Massachusetts cultural roots have defined her but she does embody bedrock New England characteristics such as self-reliance and practicality. And these traits influence her work as she helps lay a foundation for digital curation worldwide that will remain solid far into the future.

Thirty years ago Tibbo taught junior high school English. She enjoyed teaching young people but she wanted to be a college professor from age ten. So after five years she went to graduate school where she first earned an MLS, then an M.A. in American Studies and finally a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science. To this day, Tibbo’s doctoral dissertation, titled “Abstracts, Online Searching, and the Humanities,” is one of the longest dissertations at the University of Maryland…a testament to her drive and exhaustively thorough research.

In 1989, Tibbo joined the faculty of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she taught reference and online retrieval. During the 1990s, she observed a split between her colleagues who dealt with analog materials and those who dealt with digital materials. Tibbo said, “There was a chasm between the traditional manuscript curator and, say, folks who were in state archives and dealing with electronic records.” But institutions were increasingly seeing personal paper collections come through the doors that included computers and digital storage media. Since institutions look to new graduates to be able to tackle current challenges, Tibbo felt that it was incumbent upon SILS to offer timely courses that helped graduates do the job of digital preservation.

In 2000 she started teaching Digital Preservation and Access, one of the first college courses of its kind in the world. A lot has happened since then and the class has evolved a great deal but the core assignment hasn’t changed: students have to produce a grant proposal to send to the Institute for Museum and Library Services. In the process, students get exposed to a real-world digital-curation environment.

Tibbo is responsible for creating an assortment of courses, credentials and degrees. Her grant-funded research projects, where she has been PI, have brought in over $5 million to SILS and have produced a framework for digital curation curricula. One of the most powerful is the IMLS-funded Digital Curation Curriculum project, also known as DigCCurr (pronounced “dij – seeker”), which defines what digital curators do and what they need to know in the 21st century. DigCCurr’s curriculum applies to international digital curation.

Other exemplary UNC curriculum includes the Archives and Records Management concentration and the Digital Curation Certificate, which can be tacked onto a Master’s degree. SILS students can tailor their degrees or get dual Master’s. For example, the IMLS-funded Educating Stewards of Public Information in the 21st Century program provides students with a Master’s in Library/Information Science and a Master’s in Public Administration so they can work with digital preservation and curation issues in public policy.

Manning Hall, UNC School of Information and Library Science, by kslovesbooks, on Flickr
Manning Hall, UNC School of Information and Library Science, by kslovesbooks, on Flickr

Tibbo’s dynamism keeps her busy with many other projects and organizations. She recently finished a term as president of the Society of American Archivists, noting that she attended her first SAA conference in 1986, the year it celebrated its 50th anniversary, and she became its president 25 years later. She helped create a Digital Archives Specialist certificate program for SAA and updated the Guidelines for the Graduate Professional Archival Studies. “These courses are appropriate for managers, administrators and practitioners,” Tibbo said. “We focus on the special tools and skills they need.”

In 2005, she was appointed chair of UNC’s Digital Curation/Institutional Repositories Committee, which planned UNC’s institutional digital repository, a major undertaking. She is also collaborating with the UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee and the Digital Curation Center on an IMLS-funded project titled project titled Closing the Digital Curation Gap, which explores the digital educational and guidance needs of cultural heritage information professionals. “We’re looking at creating resources, guidance tools for small- to medium-sized repositories, public libraries and museums,” Tibbo said.

Tibbo stresses that digital curation – personal or institutional– is a job and you either accept the responsibility and do the job or hire someone to do it for you. Otherwise content may get lost. “Most of us don’t have the time or desire to do it,” she said. “When it’s someone’s actual job though, the repository gets taken care of.”

She sees an increased student interest in digital curation. When she started at UNC, she taught one archives course every two years with that introductory class averaging 15 students. She said, “Today we have a concentration in Archives and Records Management , two full-time faculty members and we’re going to teach three “Intro to Archive” sections this academic year to about 75 students.”

She’s keenly aware of the need for the best possible training to prepare digital curators for present and future needs. “The people we are educating today will still be working in 2050,” Tibbo said. “The world will be a very different place and it will be very digital…or it may be holographic or something. We don’t know what it will be but it won’t be paper based.”

Tibbo, with an eye on historical perspective, points out that that we are still in the early stages of digital curation and there’s so much we still don’t know. “But then again,” she said, “in 1995 we didn’t know how to digitize still images very well and today it’s taken for granted. So we’ll get good at digital curation of more complex objects over time.”

Since, most institutions now have digital collections or are acquiring content that includes digital content, the future looks good for digital archivists who know how to appraise a digital object, curate the object’s life and provide guidance for the object’s curation.

“Our generation has done a lot of thinking about digital curation,” said Tibbo. “The next generation will do the work. And make great strides. They will be the real pioneers.”

Comments (11)

  1. With a lead like that, I almost did not read the rest of the article- the first 2 sentences are offensive and I can’t you could not find any other way to introduce this stellar person.

    Perhaps your next post will be about a man and lead it with “‘Joe Blow is well hung’ said a colleague, but he wasn’t referring to physical traits….”

    • Thank you for reading the blog. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      Dr. Tibbo is indeed a stellar person and it was my intention to communicate her expansive character, not only as an internationally influential academic and information technologist but also as a down-to-earth person…someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously and who is open to casual joshing. I intended the opening sentence to be a little jarring and humorous because the article is dense with high praise and reverence for Dr. Tibbo’s admirable achievements. Before publication, I asked her about specifically about that opening line; she approved it and said it made her laugh.

      I certainly meant no disrespect to Dr. Tibbo or any readers of the story. I’m glad that you did read through the rest of the article. There was so much to write about Dr. Tibbo, so many projects that she is involved in, but given the restrictions we have on the length of our articles I had to edit out many additional impressive and valuable facts about her.

      Again, thank you for reading the Library’s blog, and I sincerely hope you continue to do so in the future.

  2. This is a good read for me. Thank you for posting this useful information. This was just what I was on looking for. I will come back to this website for sure.
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  3. I agree with Susan, with the amendment that the first two paragraphs are disrespectful. Fortunately, I scrolled past this to the meat of the article which was quite interesting and useful.

  4. I am going to err on the side of generosity for a moment and assume that all you really meant to say was that Helen Tibboo is a cutting-edge, stereotype-defying pioneer in the the field of archival education. However, there was no worse possible way to depict her character than in the cliched and grossly stereotypical manner that you have chosen. Like yourself, I am a West Coast transplant. I now live in a town that was actually founded by Miles Standish and has produced two US Presidents, but I have never once experienced the type of snootiness that you depict as being endemic to the experience of living in New England. The long, odd introduction that you chose undermines everything that is good about this article and, for me, made it nearly impossible to focus on the parts that were actually worth reading. I kept wondering what other erroneous assumptions underlay your thoughts on digital preservation, as well.
    I sincerely hope that no one outside of the library and archival professions ever discovers this article. If anyone else ever does read this, it will reinforce an additional set of stereotypes that badly need dismantling–librarians and archivists as priggish pseudo-intellectuals whose scholarship and professional practices are not to be taken seriously.

  5. I think one could as easily say that a man is well put together and it would still reflect on their character and be a compliment. The fact that the author asked Helen how she felt about the opening paragraph was very professional.

  6. I read that the Library of Congress is giving free digital curation training to museum staff, etc. – do you have any information or links to that program?

    A very interesting read; I’m a Records Manager by day dealing with the reality of aging electronic records that need to be preserved as well as transferring current records to electronic format, and a researcher and writer in my off-hours which include imaging historical letters.

    I look forward to following some of the links provided in the article.

    • Trish, you might be referring to the Library’s Digital Preservation Courses & Workshops for Organizations and Institutions. You can find more information at

  7. Hi, Helen : This is Nanyan Huang, nick name is Nancy. I am a former computerized cost estimator in National Envelope, and Brenner Paper Products more than 10 years since 1989. I had 17 years digital and Nano softwre control all tech computer product US Cpyright Registration number monopoly. Applied in 10-15 years, spent more than $800,000 for those all expenses.

    Digital tech, is completely innovation for everything, Music, picture, Film, Movies, TV, Satellite, Radar, DVD, HI-tech, computer. Digital for test examine material, digital documentaion management also important. All products must use digital 1,1,1,0, and 0.000000000000000000001.

    If this world made mistake, should immediately halt and correct.

    I just read introduction about you, and other experts. Have a greatfull Digital Archives Day at the Library of Congress.

    Nancy National Accounting
    Small Business Owner:
    Nanyan Huang (Nancy)

  8. You’re an idiot, Mike. Way to cheapen an entire field by objectifying one of its leaders and commenting on her hereditary background as if you were selling cattle.

  9. Morgan,

    I removed the first paragraph, which referred to Dr. Tibbo’s appearance. At the time the blog post first went live, I consulted with her and she approved of it. However your comment made me realize that I never commented on anyone else’s appearance, male or female. So…fair enough. I greatly respect her and her work and I do not want to detract from the dignity of her profile.

    As for my comments about Dr. Tibbo’s background, I’m letting them stand. In every interview I’ve ever conducted for the Library of Congress, I’ve tried — out of curiosity — to connect with the humanity of the interviewee, to ask about some of the elements that may have helped form her character. It is impossible to do justice to Helen Tibbo or you or anyone in 1200 words.

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