The Education of a Digitization Projects Group: A Dispatch from TCDL 2012

When the Digitization Projects Group isn’t busy saving the world (one scan at a time), we’re taking time to recharge our creative batteries and hone our technical skills at various conferences, symposia and workshops. This past week, half of the DPG (our Manager, Darryl Stuhr and myself) traveled to Austin for the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries.

This is the kind of group where library and IT types coexist in harmony, focused on the lofty goal of providing access to digital content, management of data, and the preservation of that data now and forevermore. Topics covered at TCDL included collaborative project workflows, data architecture, preservation systems, streaming video and much more. It’s the kind of group where a speaker may use the phrases “crowdsourcing,” “Internet 2” and “replicating server” in the same sentence with confidence that most people in the room will know what they’re talking about.

Darryl presented as part of a panel immediately following the opening session. His portion of the show covered the Browning Letters Project, specifically the challenges and rewards of working in collaboration with multiple parties to achieve a common goal. As outlined in this post, the Browning Letters Project is a major collaboration with Wellesley College focusing on the written correspondence of the poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

After a morning of presentations, nothing keeps things moving like a spicy “bowl of red” at the Texas Chili Parlor. We were joined by colleagues Tim Logan (Assistant Vice President for the Electronic Library) and Billie Peterson-Lugo (Director of Electronic Libraries Resources & Collection Management Services) for a lively round of conversation and traditional Texas chili.

Pictured: conference fuel

Presentations in the afternoon included information on streaming video for faculty use; crowdsourcing transcriptions of manuscript collections; and workflow/planning for collaborative projects. There was even an appearance by  Georgia Harper (University of Texas at Austin), a copyright expert who helped consult our group regarding the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.

Georgia Harper: Copyright Rock Star

The day ended with a poster presentation session/reception where I presented a poster outlining what we’ve been up to in the realms of curation of digital assets and outreach to our respective publics.

Note the irony of presenting info about digital collections on a printed poster.

These conferences always generate lots of good ideas we can integrate into our work back in Waco. And while it can be easy to fall into the trap of “conference high” – where every idea you had seems like the most important thing in the world and must happen right now – there’s no doubt that taking advantage of opportunities like TCDL allows us to network with like-minded professionals, get exposed to new ideas and benefit from the critical mass that forms when lots of people interested in the same thing gather in one place for an extended time.

And did I mention the chili?

Mrs. Neff’s Portrait: Or, The Things We Scan That Aren’t Online

If you’re a regular reader of this blog,* you know we feature items in this space that are drawn from our digital collections that we believe are unique, interesting or otherwise worthy of added exposure. And for that purpose, we have more than 35,000 objects online to write about – more than enough to keep bloggers busy for years to come.

But what about the things we digitize at the Riley Digitization Center that don’t go online? What makes something worthy of occupying a spot in cyberspace and what makes something a candidate for relegation to a dark archive, securely stored and likely never to see the light of the Internet?

In general, there are four major reasons to digitize an item:

  • Rarity. The object in question is one-of-a-kind.
  • Fragility. The object is in a state of physical disrepair and digitization is a step on the way toward better storage, conservation or digital enhancement.
  • Access. The object will make a beneficial addition to an online environment.
  • Preservation. The object isn’t deemed an acceptable candidate for online presentation for any one of a number of reasons.

The reasons for keeping an item offline are numerous, including copyright concerns; lack of provenance information (source, date, authenticity, etc.); sensitive content; or potential for misuse.

Copyright Concerns
Some material we digitize in order to preserve the information on a physical medium (a 45 rpm disc, for example) before it can be lost. However, the copyright holder’s status for such an item may be unclear, as happens often with items from our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. In these cases, the files are preserved (but access is limited) until copyright claims are established and addressed.

Lack of Provenance
In some cases, there is very little background information on an item, and that uncertainty makes is usefulness as a digital object less clear. For an item to be truly considered useful, the more verifiable information we can gather about it, the better. Sometimes an item is scanned to preserve information but held offline until further research can reveal crucial information that would make it a useful online object.

Portrait of Mrs. Pat M. Neff, courtesy Baylor University

This portrait of Mrs. Neff is an example of an item scanned for preservation – as part of a 2010 project to digitize all 13 official portraits of Baylor’s past presidents – but is not online due to a dearth of information about it. Until further research is done to establish some basic information about the provenance of the portraits, they are being held offline; in the future, they may be added to an online collection.

Sensitive Content
Sensitive content generally takes the form of information that could be considered patentable or otherwise copyrightable. For instance, original research generated by a doctoral student as part of a dissertation – which is then commercialized in the form of a book or product – may be digitized for preservation but not placed online due to its potential marketability.

Potential for Misuse
Items in this category include things like the blueprints for extant buildings. The Digitization Projects Group worked with Baylor’s architect and his staff to digitize the original blueprints for many of the buildings on campus, including recognized landmarks like Pat Neff Hall, Armstrong Browning Library and Tidwell Bible Building.

Unfortunately, because these items could be used for nefarious ends by people intent on doing harm, we will not be releasing them online. This is a true shame, as the plans include amazing details, all of them hand-drafted in a era before computer assisted design (CAD) became the standard for draftsmen. Below is a small excerpt of the ornamentation of Waco Hall’s main entrance to illustrate the kind of material in this category.

Detail of main entrance to Waco Hall, courtesy Baylor University architect’s office

Doomed to Darkness?
That’s not to say that these items will never be included in our digital collections. Often, they are slated for addition to future collections, or they are queued up for further research that will make them valuable additions to existing collections. Regardless of whether they find themselves displayed in your browser window someday, the staff at the DPG is committed to keeping them safe, secure and functioning for decades to come, a commitment that extends to any object that finds its way through our doors and onto our equipment.

*If you’re a regular reader and haven’t yet signed up to receive email notices when a new post goes live, take a moment to do so in the side bar. It’s the easiest way to ensure you’ll never miss a word of what’s happening with the DPG!

Everyone’s a Curator!

There was a time in the not so distant past when the word “curator” wasn’t heard much outside the polished marble halls of the world’s museums. People imagined curators as bespectacled, retiring types who, armed with a PhD in art history or some obscure subset of archaeology, would arrange items in a back room until they were ready for display in a museum exhibit, often accompanying their selections with densely-worded labels peppered with phrases in Greek or Latin.

Today, anyone with a Pinterest account can claim the title.

So what happened? Simply put: the advent of new technologies democratized the way in which people select, describe and display materials online. There are almost no limits on how people can choose to express their interests in a “curated” way: in a Flickr photostream, by the types of information they display on Facebook, or in the objects they find on Etsy and then display tastefully in their living rooms. In some senses, if you find it, talk about it, and choose it out from a larger set, you could be said to “curate” a collection.

But not everyone is happy with the sudden broadening of the definition of curation. A viral blog post titled “An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet” begins with this rather aggrieved introductory paragraph:

Stop it. Just stop. Do you have a business card? Read it. Does it say “Curator” under your name? No? You are not a curator.

The post, written by someone with “curator” on their business card, neatly encapsulates the borderline rage that fills some of the professional museum/library/archive staff members whose job it is to select, preserve and display the items in their care.

The other side of the argument comes from people like Suse Cairns, whose blog “museum geek” offers fun insights into the world of museums from a young Australian’s perspective. She thinks the widespread use of the word “curator” is just fine, thank you very much.

I think that the liberal use of the term curator makes it stronger and more valuable. Some of our sector’s lingo is making its way beyond the walls of our institutions, and getting picked up by the mainstream in a positive way.

Both of these posts are most worthy of your time, and they give good evidence for both sides of the debate.

So What Does This Have to Do With This Blog?

Pictured: Credence to my argument and the essence of digital curation, in a nutshell

As someone who does have the word “curator” on my business card, and as a person whose livelihood is tied up in the idea of curating assets, I’ve been watching this debate closely for some time now. And for me, it comes down to this: if my job serving as Curator of Digital Collections allows someone the opportunity to access, digest, reinterpret or repost something they found because of my efforts, it’s a win for everyone involved.

The Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections are by their very nature a curated set of material, drawn from Baylor’s unique holding institutions. They are digital objects, offered without charge to anyone in the world who wants to study them and use their contents to better their lives (or the lives of others). That may sound like some pretty highfalutin’ sentiments, but I believe it’s at the heart of what we do. We can’t digitize everything in the collections of our special collections libraries, so we start by choosing the materials people most want access to, are the most interesting or are the rarest. Then, we pledge to take care of those digital files forever and ever (amen) as part of our service to the public trust. It’s curation at its finest.

There will be people who rail against the use of the title “curator” outside its historic limits, and there will be just as many people who embrace it on the most tenuous grounds imaginable. But to my mind, if a Pinterest user gains a sense of what “real” curators do by selecting the things that strike their fancy and then telling others about them, it can only serve to make the jobs of museum and library curators more approachable, more meaningful and more relevant.

Now get out there and get to curating. The world is eager to see what you’ve found.