Helen 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.
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.”