From Custodian to Curator – the challenge for the digital age

I was a conference delegate last month at the Apple University Consortium’s 2009 Create World Conference.  Justin Macdonnell, a keynote presenter put some nicely provocative issues to the floor of digital arts creatives and creative arts academics gathered at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Justin’s keynote, ‘In the Absence of Criticism’ revolved around a couple of questions.  Firstly, in an increasingly web-based world how can we ensure our ‘repository’ of arts-related digital materials are looked after and curated adequately? He was concerned that a failure in the technology, a lack of provenance and critical discourse could mean the obliteration of so much of what he calls our ‘communal memory.’  We could end up, he noted, living in a state of the continual present.

The other question  – and it hit home amongst the academics at AUC Create World – concerned the ‘authority’ of the critical voice(s) which act as guides through the plethora of information on the web.  At bottom is the issue of the provenance of this information.  And thus emerged the notion of individuals acting not merely as responsible custodians but also as curators of the right stuff.

These were good points, and the Q&A discussion via a panel (which included myself) ended with some consensus.  Firstly, responsibility needs to be taken at organisational level, or perhaps even more importantly, at individual level both for custodial preservation, and for curating.  Curating here was defined as an active hunting out and storage of material.  Sift, collate, and backup are what’s needed by the traditional custodians: museums, libraries and so on, but also by individuals and, nowadays, by online encyclopedic project teams.

I’m all too aware of the importance of archiving, curating, and ensuring that materials are made available. When I was researching Australian theatre for my doctoral studies I was appalled at the dearth of accessible materials.   So much, for example, of the flotsam and jetsam of a production – the hard copy programmes, posters and reviews had been lost or, more likely, not considered sufficiently worthwhile to preserve.  I’m always mindful that the only evidence we have of the look of an Elizabethan playhouse came from a sketch of the Swan Theatre made by Johannes de Witt, a Dutch visitor to London circa 1596.  He thought it sufficiently interesting to ‘collect,’ and the friend he sent it to clearly recognised its worth; he copied the sketch, and it remained preserved somehow until its rediscovery in 1880 in Amsterdam.  I know this from the terrific Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature, one of the many encyclopedic projects where information is gathered, sifted, collated and (I hope) backed up somewhere else.

There can’t be too many of us who haven’t lost something to the cyber black holes; I have, and it’s not funny.  Only yesterday a friend noted on Twitter how devastated she was to lose years of images in a collection of jewellery pieces – all on a hard-drive which had ‘died.’  We’ve all heard these stories, and I’m a little obsessive about backing up my files these days.  Once upon a time I used floppies, then CDs and DVDs, but with the amount of digital materials I have accumulated over the years, I wanted something that was easier to manage.  I now use external hard drives, the automatic Time Capsule on my Mac,  the clever Dropbox which not only backs up selected materials, but which also makes them accessible from any web-browser or my iPhone.   The latest in my armoury is Carbonite, which backs up everything in the background, encrypts it, and keeps it on another server.  It’s a paid app, but it’s worth every penny to my sanity and my time – and no, they’re not paying me to say so!  There’s a saying in the digital world that ‘it’ doesn’t exist unless it’s in two places; I take that seriously.  I have to say that I also have a little black notebook that gets a workover!

Whilst we’re getting better at recording and preserving especially with the advent of the digital age, the ease of the ‘point and shoot and send to Flickr’ syndrome has created a new problem in its wake. With so much out there, how do we sort the trash from the treasure?  Who should be doing the sifting through the cultural middenheaps?  Importantly, as Justin Macdonnell asks, where is the provenance for all this information?  Who are you going to trust?  What are you going to do to help?

This is a coda to the above comments, and one prompted by an article For the Love of Culture published in The New Republic by Lawrence Lessig. He notes the problem of copyright and licensing, another issue especially for makers of documentaries curating their original works for digital preservation.

The consequence of this ecology of creativity is that the vast majority of documentaries from the twentieth century cannot legally be restored or redistributed. They sit on film library shelves, many of them dissolving, since they were produced on nitrate-based film, and most of them forgotten, since no content company or anyone else can do anything with them.

It’s a salutary reminder that once meaningful, now outdated copyright laws need reviewing urgently to keep up with the rapidly changing digital world.

Here’s Justin being interviewed after the keynote session by Allan Carrington (U of Adelaide).  It’s 5 minutes worth listening to.


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