How do you curate content?

David Pogue would rightfully reprimand me for using the term “content” which he considers to be an insider’s word, meaningless to the rest of the world. He’s probably right, but content curation just sounds good because of the alliteration. There isn’t a better noun for a collection of writing, videos, text, pictures, diagrams, comments, articles, and so on that is available on the web and on paper. Or is there?

Photo courtesey L. Marie on Flickr

Photo courtesy L. Marie on Flickr

Curating is the act of collecting, preserving, and organizing. It’s usually associated with artwork, museums, education, and research institutions. Archiving is the act of collecting, preserving, and cataloging archives. So, as technical communicators, is there more value in content curating or content archiving?

From Wikipedia’s English-language definition of a Curator, I learned that “In larger institutions, the curator’s primary function is as a subject specialist, with the expectation that he or she will conduct original research on objects and guide the organization in its collecting.” In technical communication, becoming an expert quite quickly is highly valued by employers in high technology and the sciences. Original research is not usually needed by the employee, though.

There’s also a lot of interesting information in the entry for Archivists and Curators on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. After reading about archivists, I now wonder if that is the better term for what technical communicators do as they collect relevant information to help people learn how to use a software product or a particular gadget.

If part of your job is to go through customer support forums, seeking information worthy of archiving, you might be a content archivist. If moving content from WinHelp to HTML Help is part of your job, you might be preserving important artifacts – your online user assistance system. If your job is to go through community content and even create a Google Custom Search Engine for certain communities or blogs or wikis, you might be a content curator. You are building a collection that others can wander through at their leisure to learn about something.

What do you think? Curator or Archivist?

10 Comments

  • August 6, 2009 - 2:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for suggesting such an intriguing “metaphor duel”.

    Going by association rather than BLS stats, I’d rather be a curator (in a museum) than an archivist (in an archive). I prefer going to a museum with galleries and white cubes than to an archive with stacks and bad lighting.

    As a curator, I have some say in presenting content in an engaging way and making it look good – in addition to the collecting and preserving.

  • August 6, 2009 - 5:53 am | Permalink

    I’m siding with curator. Curation implies not only collecting and preserving content, but (as Travis Derouin of wikiHow mentioned in a recent talk) also implies improving that content over time.

    Much of the content that’s being curated on the Web isn’t a fixed point. It’s changing, sometimes in subtle ways. A curator will incorporate those changes to keep the content fresh and up to date.

  • Patty Blount
    August 6, 2009 - 8:53 am | Permalink

    I like “curator”! Interesting metaphor… The “care and feeding” of information… Hmmm

  • August 6, 2009 - 12:52 pm | Permalink

    You’ve pointed out what curators and archivists do; might we need more in-depth discussion of why they do these things to shed light on their relevance for our work? Or do you take the purposes as self-evident?

  • August 7, 2009 - 2:11 am | Permalink

    A NYT story (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/theater/06inge.html) about never-lost, re-found plays by William Inge intersects with our discussion:

    The plays have been “stored in the library at Independence Community College … [and] have been available for researchers to read on site but, in order to preserve them, were not to be copied or checked out of the library. It was a case of manuscripts hiding in plain sight.

    “‘There’s often a disconnect between the caretakers of a collection and the arts organizations that might want them,’ said Marcel LaFlamme, curator of the collection and the college’s library director. ‘Curators have been trained to put the preservation of the artifact first, but within the last 20 years there’s been more of a focus on access, mostly because of digitization.'”

    – Well. Putting the preservation of a body of knowledge first at the cost of restricting access doesn’t sound like what tech writers should be doing…

  • August 7, 2009 - 8:43 am | Permalink

    I think some answers to your “why” question are going to be subjective, naturally. The answers probably revolve around “why are there museums?” and “why do we educate people?” Some will find more value in those activities than other – much like technical communication, I suppose. :)

  • August 7, 2009 - 9:02 am | Permalink

    Wow, great find Kai! I love the line “It was a case of manuscripts hiding in plain sight.” Thanks for sharing.

  • August 11, 2009 - 10:19 am | Permalink

    Curator, is an excellent choice. And I might add more descriptive of the “creative” nature of content.

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  • David
    August 31, 2009 - 10:27 am | Permalink

    If you’re writing “for the rest of the world” then maybe Pogue has a point and you should start by explaining what a computer is, but we rarely write for an audience that broad. For many audiences, “content” is a fine word that makes a useful distinction and that is easily understood. In short, Pogue is a twit who overstates his case because he likes being cute. I find cute (and Pogue) annoying, but then maybe I’m not part of his target audience.

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