Training the Digital Curators of Tomorrow

The following is a guest post by Emily Reynolds, a 2012 Junior Fellow.

Earlier this month, the Board on Research Data and Information held the Symposium on Digital Curation in the Era of Big Data: Career Opportunities and Workforce Requirements. Bringing together digital curation educators and practitioners, the event featured discussions about the skills required by employers for data curation and the training programs needed to develop those skills.

From professionals managing scientific data, to representatives of funding organizations, to the heads of graduate-level programs hoping to train the digital curators of the future, the event brought together many perspectives that coalesced around two themes.

Junior High School: Classroom, by Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-H25- 91658-C

Junior High School: Classroom, by Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-H25- 91658-C

The digital curator fills many roles.  The diverse tasks and proper place for a digital curator in an organization was discussed throughout the day. Whether the digital curator is best represented as an octopus juggling many activities, as the intersection of two or three circles in a Venn diagram, or as part of a three-legged stool (all of which metaphors were used throughout the day), his or her role is complex and deeply integrated with many other institutional activities. As a result, digital curation education must cover a range of tasks and responsibilities.

Domain-specific knowledge is essential for digital curators.  Many speakers mentioned the need for a digital curator to understand the content of the data sets he or she works with as a prerequisite for preservation work. While this was primarily emphasized by those working with scientific data, it was also echoed by Andy Maltz of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who discussed the need for digital curators specifically interested (and educated) in audiovisual preservation.

Data storage - old and new, by Ian-S, on Flickr

Data storage - old and new, by Ian-S, on Flickr

As a current iSchool student, I was surprised by how adamantly the scientific digital curators present emphasized the need for domain-specific knowledge. These speakers indicated interest in teaching data curation to trained scientists, as opposed to teaching science to trained information professionals. This seems to present a great opportunity for information schools to partner with the scientific departments of their respective universities.

One problem emerged again and again: the lack of a common vocabulary for digital curation. As I noted in my last post, the diversity of stakeholders in digital stewardship means the language used to describe it can vary widely. Different people even define “digital curation” in different ways. In such a relatively young field, the exact responsibilities of the data curator are hard to pin down, varying widely from one person’s conception of the role to the next.

All of these points present an interesting set of educational challenges. The study committee will be releasing a report, based in part on this symposium, early next year. Audio recordings of the symposium, as well as presenters’ slide presentations, are available on the BRDI website.

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