Web Magazine for Information Professionals

C21st Curation Summer 2005 Public Lecture Series

Neil Beagrie and Helen Forde report on the public lecture series 'C21st Curation: working with digital assets in the new Millennium - challenges and opportunities' held at University College London over May and June 2005, and on plans for a second series in 2006.

A growing and significant part of the record and culture of the UK is now in digital form. The lives of staff working in our institutions, current students, and private individuals will be increasingly influenced by these trends and the growing demand for professionals to curate digital assets.

The School of Library, Archives and Information Studies (SLAIS) at University College London aims to raise awareness and interest amongst students on university vocational courses for museums, libraries and archives in digital stewardship. As part of this work SLAIS launched a series of four public debates by seven leading speakers open to students, professionals and the general public, organised over the first five weeks of the summer term 2005.

The four evening sessions each attracted an audience, varying between 50 - 70, of professional librarians, archivists, records managers, practitioners involved in digital preservation and students. Each session provoked lively discussion and debate. Speakers and attendees continued informal discussion during the receptions held afterwards. Some of the key themes and issues which emerged from the series are detailed below.

Chris Batt, Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, started the series off, with a wide ranging paper on digital futures, urging everyone in cultural heritage institutions to consider how they would need to revise their activities and philosophies in the light of technical and social change. He discussed the value of digital assets held by cultural heritage organisations and argued that they should increasingly be viewed and promoted as knowledge institutions. Current difficulties included both that of ensuring the preservation of the digital materials and of finding relevant information. He argued for persistent and perpetual access to information as a universal entitlement and the need to re-think the vocabulary used for the exploitation of digital assets. His concluding forecast was that in time everyone would have their own personal knowledge space online and he urged the audience to be passionate about the future and the role of cultural heritage institutions in the digital world.

Neil Beagrie, Partnership Manager for the British Library and JISC, started the second session by focusing on the growing importance and impact of personal digital collections and publishing. He argued that people are capturing and storing an ever-increasing amount of digital information about or for themselves, including emails, documents, articles, portfolios of work, digital images, and audio and video recordings. Computer processing, storage, and software tools available to individuals are increasing in power, volume, and ease of use, year on year. Many issues arise from this more informal and increasingly empowered landscape of personal collection, dissemination, and digital memory. He discussed potential implications for individuals, libraries and their institutions and urged cultural heritage institutions to engage with and help shape this emerging landscape of digital collection. He was followed by Maggie Jones, Executive Secretary of the Digital Preservation Coalition, who noted that it not only remains difficult to recruit individuals with appropriate skills in digital preservation but also that the need for such skills is growing. The potential impact of this long-term skills gap on institutions in the UK is likely to be severe and is a cross-sectoral issue. She then outlined plans for a UK vocational digital preservation training programme to address this issue, which will focus initially on the Higher and Further Education sector with funding support from JISC. It builds on existing exemplars of training and information provision and will be developed at multiple levels, to meet the needs of senior managers, existing practitioners and new staff.

Sheila Anderson, Director of the Arts and Humanities Data Service, opened the third session by describing a series of projects illustrating the development of digital resources. She highlighted the potential challenges for curators of digital research in the arts and humanities caused by the widespread digitisation of source materials, adding interpretation, and then providing access to them as a seamless collection. She also noted the changing face and pace of scholarly knowledge in relation to Web sites and the ephemeral information they contained. In conclusion she emphasised the need for global collaboration and shared services. Helen Shenton, Head of Collection Care, British Library, followed with an outline of the current thinking of the British Library on the curation of digital materials and the challenges and opportunities these presented. She gave examples of C21st curation at the Library ranging from Web archiving to e-science. The BL mission of enabling the UK to preserve and use its digital output forever has produced many new challenges. It has also produced many contrasts with the print environment such as the differing physical characteristics of the actual information carriers, and the worldwide as opposed to national organisation and availability of the information.

The final session began with a paper from Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Gallery, explaining that the expectation of galleries is for on-site visits, enhanced by remote access, rather than as a substitute for them. As a consequence technology has been used more for enhancing existing experiences than for creating new opportunities, though programmes such as ArtStart (the National Gallery's award-winning interactive multimedia system) are being developed for educational and recreational purposes. However, he noted that in addition the digital world was having an unexpected and significant impact on traditional gallery services as visitor and staff expectations were changed by online experiences and services. Sarah Tyacke, Chief Executive of the National Archives, completed the series with a clear indication that the future of archives is digital, and that by adapting, archive offices could become more participatory while retaining earlier roles. The consequences are new audiences and wider take-up of information, building on the emotional impact of programmes such as 'Who do you think you are?'. She reiterated the importance of archival expertise and records management in the digital age. Finally she demonstrated the need to be inclusive within the archival profession and institutions by the proper curation of not only the traditional materials but also the audio-visual and born digital materials.

Future Plans

The 2006 series C21st Curation: access and service delivery will run from 26 April to 17 May on Wednesday evenings from 18.00 to 19.15 in the Chadwick Lecture Theatre, University College London (UCL), followed by a reception in the Haldane Room.

Sessions and Speakers will include:

26 April 2006Scholarly Communication
David Brown (British Library)
Paul Ayris (UCL)
3 May 2006Digital Resources in the Humanities
Prof. Susan Hockey and Suzanne Keene
(Institute of Archaeology)
10 May 2006Service Delivery in National Institutions
Natalie Ceeney (The National Archives)
Jemima Rellie (Tate)
17 May 2006Curation and Access for Scientific Data
Neil Beagrie (British Library/JISC)
Prof. Mike Wadsworth (UCL)

All lectures are free and open to the public.

Author Details

Neil Beagrie
BL/JISC Partnership Manager
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB

Email: neil.beagrie@bl.uk
Web sites: http://www.bl.uk/

Helen Forde
School of Library, Archive, and Information Studies
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT

Email: h.forde@ucl.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.slais.ucl.ac.uk/

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