Tuesday, June 10th, 2008...5:14 pm

Costs and Methods of Curation

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Others will have their own thoughts on today’s excellent Berkman Luncheon session with Anne Balsamo, “Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work,” but I’ll focus on spinning out a little further some of the ideas that came up at the talk. As I noted, I come at this from a Library and Information Science context, so the production and future not just of libraries but of librarians is pretty important in any discussion. Given always-scarce resources, one of the key functions of librarians is (and always has been, and always will be) that of curation and collection development: the determination of which things are included and which are not. Digital libraries and repositories certainly make the marginal cost of storing the next book extraordinarily low, but their maintenance is very much not zero, so this will be just as much of a problem going forward as it always has been.

David Weinberger noted the tendency of any curation project towards canonization, saying that “these are the good books and these are not,” and I don’t disagree – moreover, that’s the point, as every library should seek to serve its community and constituency as well as it can. But there’s nothing that says this needs to be a top-down process – indeed it never has been entirely, as generations of reference librarians can attest from continual questions as to why they don’t have ____.

Social media tools can, as with anything else, make this a much more democratic process. Just as the physical design of public libraries undergoes a public planning and review process, so too can librarians engage their constituencies in collaborative processes to determine what needs are and aren’t being served by existing (or not-yet-existent) collections. That being said, at the end of the day it’ll still be the library professionals that open up in the morning and close in the evening, whether they’re looking after books, computers, or the exciting new kinds of resources and affordances that Balsamo mentioned in her talk (e.g., scanners, 3D printers, sewing machines, etc.). After curation, library and information professionals also take on the exceptionally important role of intermediary: for every generation, libraries can serve this key function of providing access to scarce knowledge and information resources, for the transmission or creation of knowledge, and they can (and should) best serve patrons by facilitating access to those knowledge resources, whatsoever they may be.

Even as easy as replicating 1s and 0s has become, there will never be a virtual equivalent of Borges’ Library of Babel – resources, and the means of accessing and interpreting knowledge will remain scarce. Whatever physical and conceptual changes might happen to the places and ways of accessing, interpreting and creating knowledge, we will still need to have publicly available and accessible places in which to do so, and people to facilitate those interactions.

-Jacob Kramer-Duffield