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?
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.