Reality Hits Home

On July 15, 2010, in Research, by Chris Prom

I hate to keep harping on this point, but the more I think about it, the more concerned I am becoming that the notion of digital curation is an inadequate notion on which to sell a program for electronic records or digital archives. I know this is not a new point, for example, Adrian Cunningham made it a while back in The American Archivist, as part of a more general argument that archivists should not let others ‘hijack’ the notion of archives.

Over the past few days, I’ve had to grapple with this issue locally, since a campus committee issued a report recommending ways in which the University of Illinois Library (of which the University Archives is one part) “Steward Excellence,’ i.e. cut costs in order to deal with the state budget fiasco that enacts itself daily in Springfield, while hopefully not fatally wounding the University in the process.

In any case, the SEI report for the Library offered some thoughts about how the University Library might launch new initiatives to better meet scholars needs.  Two on page nine caught my eye:

Continue digital storage of published works, working papers, technical reports, and other research materials (through IDEALS: Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship <http://www.ideals.illinois.edu>).

Expand the curation of data (management of individual scholars’ data sets, with the potential to make them more widely available to the scholarly community and facilitate compliance with new requirements from NSF and other funding agencies to include data sharing plans in grant proposals) in collaboration with GSLIS, the Office of the Chief Information Officer (CIO), and Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES).

In other words, a major campus committee looking at the future recommends that a major part of its vision revolve around preserving publications and datasets.

I have no objection to either of these initiatives, since I think the preservation of this information is important.  (In fact, both types of documentation have long been identified, preserved, and serviced by the University Archives, in analog form.)  However, if these recommendations are implemented in the form described in the report, they are insufficient to the task of documenting the university’s functions in society or building research collections that meet user needs.

If the library ONLY maintains its institutional repository and adds some ‘data curation’ functions to meet NSF requirements, it will not capture the full range of documentation necessary to facilitate a complete understanding of the University’s teaching, research, and service functions.  For example, preserving datasets may be important, although each one should be assessed in conjunction with the principal investigator and subject specialist before it is blindly retained.  More to the point, data is only interpretable as one part of the organic documentary whole that include reports, correspondence, email, websites, blogs, audio visual materials, conference papers and numerous other genres of material, which must also be assessed, captured, preserved, and provided for access.  Similarly, the University must preserve some record of the activities of students, student groups, and student life, but this issue is elided in a narrow focus on faculty data.

Archivists, Unite!  Unless we raise this issue on our campuses, no one will—and it is doubly important to do so when the budget ax is swinging.

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