NLI Curators Conference Draft

Name: Emily Esten

Affiliation: University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Bio (75 words): Emily Esten is the Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica Curator of Digital Humanities. As the inaugural Kaplan Curator, Emily Esten spearheads projects that facilitate access to and use of Penn’s Judaica collections, promoting them and making connections between them and dispersed Judaica content around the globe. She holds a BA in history and digital humanities from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a MA in public humanities from Brown University.

Title: Collections as Data: The Role of DH in Curatorial Work

Abstract (100 words):  Libraries serve as a central space where researchers, educators, staff, and communities engage with collections, tools, and services that help transform the future ways in which knowledge and culture is disseminated. Digital scholarship is a key aspect of libraries’ work, furthering institutional capability to expand upon collections and develop ways in which they can be interpreted. Employing it as a method for collections-centered work can identify new avenues for curatorial exploration and creative provocations presented in its digitized form. This talk introduces digital scholarship by highlighting the connections between collections curation as it is traditionally understood and data curation.

Slide 1: intro

[Before I get started, I want to note that the slides and text of this talk are available at this link on my personal website listed on the screen. I have a tendency to talk quickly when I’m excited, and given that internet connections can be fuzzy at times, it’s just easier to release all the information at once. I also hope that you’re all safe, healthy, and coping within the state of the world.]

Slide 2: the future

There are a lot of existing talks that you can find that think about the future of humanities, theorizing pretty extensively the ways in which humanists will work in the future. These talks argue that digital humanities (referred to throughout as DH) methodologies, skills, and tools will not only be incorporated but absolutely necessary to the work of future scholars for the conceptualization and practice of their fields. That’s great. But I want to push back on that for two points.

Slide 3: what does curatorial practice look like when we normalize the role of DH?

First, I don’t think we have to look to the future to understand the ways in which digital humanities extends to the work of curatorial practice. When people talk about digital scholarship as something new and exciting and groundbreaking and futuristic, I think it is a failure of contextualizing ourselves in the current moment and in what it’s trying to accomplish. Curators are already actively shaping and rechanging their work to fit digital needs. The jump from digital to digital humanities is not as daunting or as far off as we think it is.

And second, these talks are often for academic researchers, imagining the future of graduate school, tenure-track and tenured scholarship, or for institutions as a whole. Those are not the only people who do DH, and it’s dangerous to think so. We have to center curators and curatorial practice in DH, not only to stake its place in our practice but to make sure the work we do is represented in theirs. The activities at the center of DH are already an active part of what we do as curators. Its values, concerns, and questions are integral to furthering the responsibilities that already exist in the curatorial profession. .

Slide 4: what does a curator do? 

That brings up the question: what are those responsibilities? Obviously this will vary depending on the institution, the collection, and the individual, but ultimately our role is to steward and advocate for the collection and its users.

Within an institution, large or small, a curator assists researchers, educators, staff, and communities in engaging with collections, tools, and services that help transform the future ways in which knowledge and culture is disseminated.

So, some of these responsibilities of a curator include: 

Curators make meaning and create context in an institutional setting. They shape patterns and perspectives around emerging themes and discourse. And with their particular knowledge of and access to objects, they facilitate experience and interactions with such content that can generate valuable new insights.

Slide 5: what does a curator do right now?

So especially within the past year and half of COVID,  we can think about how digitization and digital tools have changed the ways we meet some of those responsibilities. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as DH, but it does highlight that these responsibilities continue even when access to physical items, spaces, or experiences is limited. Curators have: 

So “digital” is already implemented in curatorial practice to some extent. And in most institutions, we’ve been engaging with technology for a long enough time to have digitized materials, made them available for consumption, invested in some infrastructure to support work with the collection. We’re already working with some tools, services, skills, and people that we need in order to do DH. (Or, at least, working towards them.)

Slide 6: curation is already considered a core DH competency.

When it comes to DH, curation is often talked about as a practical skill around data. Data curation, which is often the first step or foray into DH work for students these days, involves the capture, migration, annotation, description, and interpretation of data into ordered, interoperable information. If you’ve ever written a finding aid or put together metadata, you know this: you’re documenting a physical object as well as its importance, its context, knowledge that may not be obvious or accessible but important to understanding an object.

There’s a reason this is called curation - this is a pretty obvious connection between curatorial work and DH work. What we do in both cases is document our process - the selection and choices we make, communicate them so that they’re understandable, weigh the factors that make some things available and others not, and consider what needs to be done to continue their usage in the future.

The importance of digital curation in this sense is repeatedly discussed in the field of DH, for scholars - it’s a core competency to data literacy, and something that good practitioners are questioning themselves about constantly. The act of curating this sense - the selection and choices - is an easy intervention, both for the active skill and also for the theoretical knowledge. 

If we are the curators who intend to not only support researchers of the future, but to fulfill its responsibilities in preparing and preserving our collections for the possibilities of that future research, then engaging with digital humanities is necessary for the practice alone.

Slide 7: what does DH encourage in curators? 

This idea of data curation is an important connection, because DH, at its best, helps us scale. It lets us think of collections not only as physical items, but as data - units of information that can have information connected to them. Thinking about a collection as data can be a challenging concept to grasp - it does require flattening aspects of what we think of as valuable in terms of collection curation. But it also expands upon what we think of as valuable, and takes into new account. 

 For curators, this scale presented in DH is something that supports and furthers our work. We work between these two modes all the time - the tiny object and its individual data points, the scholarship and its connective touchpoints on a larger scale. DH offers a framework for visualizing that scale and challenges, for exploring it with one object or exploring it with many.

Documenting the process of what has been collected and brought together, advocating for its digitization and conversion to data to understand the affordances of what’s available, and bringing to the table specific disciplinary competencies - for many of you, the unique challenges of working in Judaic studies - all of this is crucial to furthering “curation” as a skill in DH.

Slide 8: what can curators encourage in DH? 

DH encourages more than just technical knowledge. It encourages process, a way of approaching technology in conversation with ethical and critical inquiry. Now data curation is one part of curation as a DH skill. The next, which isn’t always foregrounded as curation but definitely is, goes back to that full list of responsibilities I mentioned earlier.

Fundamentally, DH and curators are interested in a similar question: how do we organize and represent collections, their contexts, and their value, with digital presences? How do we give it place within our educational and research abilities, providing shape and narrative, to explore our users, structures, tools, and scholarship? Bringing this fully-realized curatorial practice to the table, 

Slide 9: what does curation-centered DH look like? 

Knowing what DH lends to curatorial practice, and what curators lend to a DH practice, what does curation-centered DH look like? What kinds of projects can curators initiate and grow, support and sustain? 

And here’s where you hear of lots of words - crowdsourcing, data visualization, linked data, metadata cleaning and construction, exhibitions and instruction - but what’s most important in a curation-centered DH is that it exceeds the expectations set on our responsibilities. This is about making sure what we do stewards the future of the collection, and creates opportunities for engagement with collections. It connects people and DH to understanding what we do as curators, and what we want to do as curators. Let the role of DH in our work also be one that allows us to be proactive in a range of scholarly, educational, and technological processes, and continues our role in scholarly and public tradition.

Slide 9: what does innovation look like?

I feel compelled to provide examples. 

In each of these projects, the curator is not necessarily the one spearheading the project. But they’re intimately involved, and bringing an important perspective. They’re helping to shape the questions that we ask, take them into furthering our responsibilities. In making DH a part of curatorial practice, let its role of DH be one that brings up back, always, to the collections at hand. We’re already using technology to connect to our collections and to connect to each other, so let’s get to that next point.

What I don’t see here, and what I see as a crucial point of infusing DH with curatorial practice, is how curators can work together to connect outside of our institutions. Building Interactivity and connections among collections through more than just databases ingesting all our content, what can we do to make sure that DH practitioners can bring our collections together, to ask the questions we’re all thinking at the same time?

Slide 11: what do we have to do to get there?

I’m ignoring a big step here that it would take to make collections interoperable and ordered information. Doing DH at this scale can require a lot of investment on the part of an individual as well as that of the institution. In addition to developing technological infrastructure, integrating DH initiatives requires investing in our research practices, consultations, administration, and staff work. What I think is that we’re already on our way there. Having a working knowledge of the tools and services that exist, of the collaborators who can partner on projects, and projects under development- in essence, making DH and not just digital a part of our practice, normalizes both and lets us tackle the questions we want to ask.

Sometimes this often comes as an idea that digital undermines core principles and strengths of a profession. And I’m not here to dismiss that fear, but rather let us shape curatorial practice and our engagement with DH in such a way that emphasizes these core principles and strengths of curatorial work. Furthermore, let it be yet another methodology  for us to unpack the conceptions, logics, and ideas that have made “traditional” in curatorial practice what it is. Together, using a DH practice as part of our curatorial practice helps further our goal to steward collections for the future knowledge, exploration, conceptualization, and contextualization.

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