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Training the Digital Curators of Tomorrow

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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.

Comments (2)

  1. The “must have domain knowledge” refrain has been echoing from domain researchers since Alma Swan’s first report on data-curation roles, which is so old I’m thinking about yanking it from my digital-curation syllabus.

    I’ll be blunt: for most data, especially most small data, I don’t believe a word of it. Sure, a background helps; why wouldn’t it? Is it a sine qua non? Not for an information professional with gumption.

    I put a library-school student with a psych background in a microscopy lab, working on standards development and metadata. He did just fine (and he has a data-curation job now).

    I don’t particularly discipline-match my digital-curation students to their field projects. They’ve handled everything from MFA art exhibitions to survey results to language recordings and transcripts to virtual-environment data. They invariably do fine.

    In Milwaukee this summer, I taught data management to a roomful of grad students, postdocs, and faculty from (among other disciplines) psychology, physics, clinical/translational medicine, and engineering. I did fine. (Not perfect, but fine.)

    Diane Hillmann once chatted with me about this constellation of beliefs. “Researchers all think they’re special snowflakes,” she said, “but they’re not.” I think she’s right, when the rubber actually meets the road. With luck, as more LIS practitioners actually get out there and help, opinions will catch up to the rubber on the road.

  2. I wonder if the emphasis on scientific data curators being scientists first and data curators second is realistic.

    Scientific publishing relies on anonymous peer review, but modern science is so specialized that many scientists could count on one hand the peers qualified enough to review their articles. If peer review is that specialized, how specialized do data curators need to be?

    80% of grants are given to labs with a single PI and less than six grad students. A single curator in a department would have to serve a wide variety these small labs, each with their own specialization. It seems to me that it’s more important for a scientific data curator to understand digital preservation in order to serve the specialized of each community. Science is its own culture, but one that can be learned after a good grounding in data curation.

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