Because good research needs good data

Opportunities and challenges in digital curation

Diana Sisu | 04 February 2019

1. The two of you are pioneering a new plenary discussion format at IDCC19, what do you hope to get from the session?


I hope this will be a really productive start to a discussion that will need time and lots more participants going along, at IDCC and at similar venues. Radical Collaboration (overview and discussion in RLI 296) is a focus for what I would like to talk about. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in the US devoted an issue of their publication Research Library Issues (RLI) to Radical Collaboration. It would be great if that framework and the topics and examples shared in RLI 296 could inform at least part of the discussion. There are also a set of working definitions – a key tool for building communities through awareness and common understanding – for digital practice terms in RLI 296 building on some terms introduced last year – it would be wonderful to review those and/or add others to the discussion.


Over the last fifteen years, I've been grappling with the broad challenge of stewardship - by which I mean bringing the legacies of the past and a sense of the present into the future. As both our legacies and our present become increasingly digital, digital curation plays a critical role in this. Memory institutions of all kinds - libraries, archives, museums, and other emerging organizations we don't have a good taxonomy for yet - also play central roles. But as I'm increasingly coming to understand, the enterprise of stewardship is even broader than these, and involves many professions and perspectives.

This is going to take conversations that we don't have very often, if at all. It's going to require all of us to develop more nuanced and sophisticated perspectives about the roles and contributions (and indeed sometimes limitations) of various professions that contribute to the broad enterprise of stewardship. We also need to come to much better understanding of language, and what precisely it means (and to what groups) -- terms like "archiving", "archive", "curation", "curator" are very good examples.

Nancy has made an absolutely tremendous contribution in articulating some of these questions from the perspective of a very well established community with a very strong ethical, professional, and indeed philosophical or theoretical consensus that has historically defined the archival profession. Note that there are now a lot of other self-identified "archivists" that have appeared that come from very different places and contexts.

I view this as a wonderful opportunity to advance these broader conversations about where digital curation "fits" both in the work of archiving, the activities of archivists, and the overall enterprise of stewardship.

2. What are the key messages you want to share about curation practice and the need to collaborate?


I would point to the closing recommendations of RLI 296 for key messages:

  • Be sure everyone who should be or wants to be at the table is, allowing room for more seats as our awareness grows and to accommodate the unexpected guest.
  • If it is not possible to have everyone who might need or want to sit at the table, ensure holistic communication to maximize their ability to contribute and follow along the whole of the process.
  • Come to the table with questions not answers, the best way to build understanding and avoid bringing in our own biases and (mis)perceptions.
  • If you haven’t learned something in coming to the table, sit longer, ask more questions, and continue to listen.
  • Be sure to reset the table as needed to adapt to the different perspectives that might contribute to collaborations to address our new and changing challenges and priorities.
  • Remember to never assume you’re chairing even if you sent out the invite to join the table—an innate strength of the roundtable for radical collaboration is by definition there is no head.
  • Remember to value your knowledge and that of others; bring your whole self and be courageous—you may be the only one with your perspective and it needs to be heard.
  • Prioritize the common goal over any single “right” approach—radical collaboration allows for the greatest cumulative impact with an awareness of the needs and contributions of the whole table.

We have unexplored opportunities to come to the table together with questions to learn, to explore, to advance – not with answers we may believe we have in place with no need to revisit. It takes time to engage in radical collaboration, and it will be worthwhile. We should think of ways to measure success for truly working together.


We are going to need intense and wide-reaching collaborations. The character of these collaborations is going to vary a great deal depending on which stewardship or curatorial challenges we are trying to address.

3. Which challenges are most pressing, in your opinion, given the current state of digital technology?


Scalability and complexity are always big challenges we face as technology evolves. We need to devote all of our energies to working together – maximizing our skills, strengths, and resources. That is not easy to do as indicated by the radical in the title. We often feel like simply swapping information at some point in our process or project, which is hard enough to do, is collaborating.


Honestly, the more closely I look at many of the emerging stewardship challenges in the digital environment, the more convinced I get that we have no real idea how to address them, or even what we'd like to accomplish or what can realistically accomplish. A good example of this is the effects of pervasive and intensive personalization in various kinds of information delivery and social media systems. (I wrote about this in a December 2017 First Monday article). We really have to start talking about these challenges - and there are lots of them! - is ways that go beyond just saying they are intractable.

Additionally, I'm very haunted by the relatively new problem of extremely aggressive technological obeclesence and what that means to creators and their willingness to engage with the affordances of technology.

4. You're both regulars at IDCC. What excites you about this year's programme?


I am looking forward to Christine Kenneally’s keynote, the posters – always a favorite session, and the topics for the parallel sessions are timely as always. Trust is a long-standing theme for me and looks like I will be darting around the parallel sessions – so many to choose from!


This is a wonderful, packed program! Too much to see. I'm so glad we are going to work a journalist's perspective in here through Christine Kenneally, and I'm delighted that Patricia Brennan is coming to share her thinking with this community - she gave the closing plenary at our December 2018 CNI meeting and was just amazing. (We have video of that talk online at if readers want a warm-up for Melbourne!).

I'm very mindful that I'm signed up to do a brief summary of some of the main themes and most exciting ideas that I am taking away from the meeting at the end, and very worried about how much I'm going to miss because of the multiple tracks!

Put your questions to Nancy and Cliff

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