Semantics: Digital Preservation vs. Digital Curation

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Tim Lepczyk

Jul 15, 2011, 11:27:11 AM7/15/11
Hi All,

This might seem like a silly question, but I've had some instances of encountering a disconnect when talking about digital preservation.  This disconnect comes from the terms "digital preservation" and "digital curation."  To me, they seem interchangeable, but I'm wondering if there are differences to others working in this area.  Is there a difference between the terms, and if so, how would you describe the difference?


Tim Lepczyk

Priscilla Caplan

Jul 15, 2011, 11:31:01 AM7/15/11
A good question.  I recently wrote an informal paper about this.  I've copied the relevant snippet below.  I'd be interested in hearing what others think.

Priscilla Caplan

Digital curation is larger than digital preservation; it includes preservation but also creation or selection, appraisal, ongoing maintenance and enhancement.  Data curators are expected to facilitate the use and reuse of datasets by interacting with creators and users, maintaining documentation, and establishing linkages with other resources.   Originally a term applied to all digital materials, curation followed the money and became associated with science and social science data.  Perhaps (I'm speculating) because "curation" is associated with cultural heritage rather than science, it is now being overtaken by “research data management.”  I suspect in a few years we’ll regard the tem "digital curation" as rather quaint and iSchools will offer specialties in data management. 


Stewardship covers much of the same territory as curation but is loftier and lacks the data-specific connotations.  Stewardship is taking responsibility for all aspects of something but not necessarily getting down and dirty with data.  Institutions exercise stewardship, individuals curate or manage data.  (I think this is what Nancy Cline meant as she was quoted in Michele’s paper.)  I think the Library of Congress named their post-NDIIPP initiative the National Digital Stewardship Alliance deliberately to compensate for the scattershot and temporary nature of NDIIPP project funding.  I think LC is trying to communicate a more mature, responsible, and permanent effort.   If you have stewardship of something, you don’t dump it in the bit-bucket when your funded research project ends. 


Digital preservation has two senses, one the most general and the other the most specific of these terms.  Its general sense is what we use as a shorthand for the entire field of endeavor.  Just as we say “bibliographic record” for a description of any type of resource, book or not, we say “digital preservation” when we can’t be bothered with distinctions.  (Note the first sentence in this paper.)  The second sense is the most specific because it is focused strictly on the actions that keep objects safe and usable, a small subset of the activities involved in stewardship or curation.  A JISC preservation briefing paper puts this very well:  “Digital preservation is the series of actions and interventions required to ensure continued and reliable access to authentic digital objects for as long as they are deemed to be of value. … Digital curation is all about maintaining and adding value to a trusted body of digital information for future and current use; specifically, the active management and appraisal of data over the entire life cycle.”   In the U.S., we tend to use "preservation" to refer to all activities guaranteeing the integrity and usability of an object, from storage management to active preservation strategies.  The so-called “ALA definition” reflects this.  In the EU, "preservation" is reserved for strategies to mitigate format obsolescence; everything else is “bit-preservation.”

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Dorothea Salo

Jul 15, 2011, 11:44:26 AM7/15/11
I like Priscilla Caplan's explanations a great deal. With regard to this:

>  Perhaps (I'm
> speculating) because "curation" is associated with cultural heritage rather
> than science, it is now being overtaken by “research data management.”

Pure practicality. If you say "digital curation" to researchers, they
look at you funny, you weird librarian, you. It's as bad as
"institutional repository."

"Research data management" they understand quickly. Whatever it's
called, I agree entirely that there's more to it than digital
preservation. For one thing, some research data is analog!

(It doesn't help that "curation" is the latest social-media-pundit
darling term, meaning something like "picking out neat links for other

Some elements of the library community remain convinced that "digital
curation" is the "correct" term. I tend to shrug at that and use the
term with them (the library-school topics course I teach has that
title, though I hope to change it), avoiding it whenever possible


Tim Lepczyk

Jul 15, 2011, 11:54:21 AM7/15/11
Thanks Priscilla and Dorthea,

It sounds like the terms are in flux and there is a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding, depending on where/how you stand  in relation to information technology, digital asset management, and the broader field of being an information professional/librarian.

What I've thought of as digital preservation, others are calling digital curation.  I thought the terms were interchangeable, with digital curation emerging as the buzzwordy, cooler term.  I viewed digital preservation as containing all the things you listed as belonging in digital curation.  It's helpful to understand that I've been using the wrong term.

Also, as to what Dorthea said, data management seems a better fit, or seems like a term that would age well.

To add to the conversation, when I went to grad school we discussed this topic in terms of knowledge management and the information life cycle.  How do you think that fits with the digital curation?  Or, is that what the private sector has been calling digital curation?



Chris Prom

Jul 15, 2011, 2:53:12 PM7/15/11

I think this represents pretty accurately how the terms are used currently

Even so, there as significant semantic problems that make it unlikely that an acceptable term common term can be found.

It has often been noted that by naming something, you really do define it, but members of this community are pursing slightly different--though complementary--goals.

For example, I agree that a lot of emphasis in now put on 'research data management' mainly because of the new NSF requirements, but it seems to me that the term 'research data' covers a very limited scope of information.  While I would never want to be known as a 'research data manager,' I understand why others might wish to be, and seem them as doing a valuable service. 

I am also a bit uncomfortable with the term data curation (partly for reasons already noted) but also because that term emerges from a tradition of manuscript librarianship of which I am not a part.  It is a valuable tradition, but not one I identify with.

Stewardship gets to the heard of the issue, but to me it is unexciting and conjures up a feeling of grudgingly fulfilling a duty or paying a tithe.

I like the term 'digital archivist,' because to me archival function is all about preserving evidence concerning past human activities and the information the results from those activities.     However, I fully understand why people don't like that term, and accept with a knowledge that it carries a certain baggage.  For starters, very few people understand the technical definition of  archives.  They see it as a 'dusty' out of date term, or to equate the term with 'archiving' (a 'verbed' noun) with making backups of data.

So, I think we all need to be comfortable with using a lot of different terms to explain what we do, and I hope iSchools are latitudinarian enough to accept that diversity.



Chris Prom

MPeterson -

Jul 15, 2011, 8:21:17 PM7/15/11
to Digital Curation

It has been interesting reading this thread. Priscilla's posting
stimulated a parallel conversation in the 'long-term digital
preservation reference model' group at
as the SNIA is debating these terms again related to work in the Cloud
Archive Special Interest Group. It would be great to compare notes

Let's cross pollinate this discussion between the two groups.

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