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Proceeding from “Know that” to “Know how”

By Natsuko Nicholls

Recently in Chapel Hill, NC, I attended the DigCCurr Professional Institute: Curation Practices for the Digital Object Lifecycle, a workshop taught by world-renowned digital curation specialists and featuring a curriculum intended to help digital curation professionals build skills, knowledge, and community. My attendance was timely since the University of Michigan Library’s Research Data Services unit is currently designing and implementing data management and digital lifecycle services. As I start my second year as a CLIR/DLF Data Curation Fellow, I am becoming better informed about information theory and management. At the same time, as the emerging area of digital curation becomes better defined, I am re-evaluating where I stand on the digital curation landscape and realizing that I need to obtain more practical digital curation skills. When Christopher (Cal) Lee kicked off the five-day institute with his lecture on skills, roles, and responsibilities associated with digital curation work, he stressed the importance of “know how” rather than “know that”—it assured me that I was in the right workshop.

Most of us can agree that digital curation is “the active management and preservation of digital resources for current and future generations of users.” But what is the connection between the present and future? After taking the workshop, I would say it is the curated digital object itself, as well as the tools and workflows that contribute to the curation process. During the workshop, we traced the origins of digital curation in human behavior and information transfer practices throughout history, which sparked my interest in thinking through what research data we should save for the future, and how. As Cal put it, “digital objects are sets of instructions for future interactions.” In other words, people can interact with digital objects only when the objects include their original context and can be interpreted correctly with the help of documentation.

Today, researchers in most disciplines rely on digital data and leave many more traces of research activities and outputs than ever before. Are we leaving and saving meaningful (and economical) digital traces? How do we balance our desire to broaden access to digital information with increasingly limited resources (and functionality)? In my search for answers, I will continue to ponder variables, influencing factors, and ways of making associations more meaningful between digital content and users over time. This will help me be better prepared for reaching out to academic, library, and technology communities by talking about the value of data curation and digital preservation—both of which constitute digital curation. I am, however, also prepared to see both opportunities and challenges in building “organizational infrastructure (what), technological infrastructure (how) and resources framework (how much),” as Nancy McGovern mentioned in her inspiring lecture.

The daily group exercises after the lectures were a highlight of the institute. These exercises covered a broad range of topics and assignments, including digital curation program development, understanding the auditing and certification of trustworthy digital repositories, strategies for engaging data communities, understanding the economics of digital curation, and strategies for writing policies. The exercise on transforming policy statements into actionable requirements for digital repositories made me reconsider my own institution’s repository, Deep Blue, with an eye toward identifying potential changes that the Library may need to consider as we prepare for new archival preservation and publishing services for research data that are more accessible, secure, and efficient.

Being introduced to new subjects like digital forensics and getting hands-on experience with file format robustness (i.e., digital object fragility testing) was stimulating but rather challenging. It reminded me of the emerging roles of research libraries and how digital curation requires an understanding of all units of content and object management and how they work together. Most of all, I felt that increased familiarity with the broad spectrum of digital curation continues to be a vital part of the CLIR fellows’ mission as we endeavor “to be the human ‘bridges’ between academic and professional cultures, collaborating with librarians, archivists, administrators, technologists, and academics so that each might contribute more efficiently and productively to others’ success,” as Christa Williford said in her recent blog post. This is particularly true as I learn that the stewardship and lifecycle management of digital content increasingly requires collaboration amongst stakeholders in the digital curation landscape.

The institute ended with writing our own six-month plan with a group of people with similar goals. I was excited to meet with my new colleagues from Purdue, Baylor, and the University of Maryland in the group on data services/repository—one of nine groupings that also included preservation metadata; policies, workflows, and planning; and production and migration. Our group will focus on conducting an environmental scan, a needs assessment, and a gap analysis to identify past-current-future projects along the digital object lifecycle. We may also plan a pilot project. I believe cross-institutional communication and collaboration will keep us current in this field and enable us to share new ideas and strategies as they emerge. In January, we will go back to Chapel Hill to do a follow-up session. There, participants will compare experiences, lessons learned, and strategies for continued progress for the following six months.

At the end of her lecture, Nancy showed a picture of a baseball field with all positions remaining blank, asking “What might the digital curation dream team look like?” Recalling that open baseball field, now with better-defined personal and institutional goals in mind, I hope to contribute to the UM Library as we develop and implement a new suite of data services in the coming months.

Natsuko H. Nicholls is a CLIR/DLF Data Curation Fellow, associate librarian, and full-time researcher affiliated with the Clark Library for Maps, Government, and Data Services at the University of Michigan.

Author’s note:I’d like to thank the University of Michigan Library and CLIR for their generous support for my attendance to the DigCCurr Professional Institute.

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