Catalog vs curate

Peter Rauch peterr at VIOLET.BERKELEY.EDU
Tue Sep 12 11:48:38 CDT 1995

>Date:         Tue, 12 Sep 1995 12:11:13 EDT
>From: Una Smith <una at DOLIOLUM.BIOLOGY.YALE.EDU>

>  Cataloging is the creation
>of data records in a consistent format on a tangible medium.  Curation is
>the analysis of specimens and all pertinent data, with various goals in
>mind:  verification of known data, validation of that data, discovery of
>interesting links or patterns among the data, determination of correct
>identifications, and taxonomic and systematic treatments and revisions.

OK, given those definitions...,

>In some institutions, on-line catalogs are perceived as an end-product,
>and as being (ideally) fixed.

Recorded data (that are recorded presumably to be used for all of the
curatorial activities you define above) are data. Most (hopefully all)
of science treats data with scepticism, and with care --understanding that
today's data leads to tomorrow's revised view of the world, including
very possibly a revised opinion about the correctness/validity of the
data used (or rejected) in formulating that view. This has been the
tradition regardless of whether the data are "online" or on more traditional

So, yes, online catalogs are today's end-products, but who but a fool
would consider them to be fixed in reality (ideals aside)? To call it
"today's end-product" however is to beg the issue. That just another
way of saying it's a work in progress.

One of the troubling issues in creating systems to manage online
catalogs is how those systems are designed (or not) to deal with
updates/corrections/alternative opinions. In particular, how do the
systems journal the history of corrections/etc? Most, I believe,
don't.  Most, I believe, simply replace an erroneous/outdated/earlier
opinion with the current thought, and irretrievably discard the older
data (except for system backup archives, which are not the proper place
to journal transactions). (I'd very much like to be contradicted in
my opinion that most collections databases don't do very extensive, and
in many cases do almost no, transaction journalling.)

>Also, there appears to be a great deal of
>difference of opinion about what various funding agencies want when they
>fund "cataloging" projects.  Hence, there is sometimes intense pressure
>on research staff to do "complete" and "final" curatorial work on all
>specimens as part of the cataloging effort, regardless of the scientific
>value of the specimens or the area of expertise of the curator.  It also
>requires highly trained researchers to spend huge amounts of time doing
>what could be done, for the most part, by a semi-skilled clerical worker,
>student trainee, or volunteer.  Consequently, cataloging can become an
>excruciatingly difficult, expensive, and slow process.

"Cataloging work" that either transcribes traditional catalog data to
online media, or creates new online catalog data _does_ create data.
Those data, it is argued, can be used by a variety of constituencies
for various purposes. In this sense, the argument of funding agencies,
I assume, is that one should get that "extra mileage" out of the
cataloging effort. I.e., once the data are made more accessible, then
they should indeed be made available. This "availability" has been
somewhat contentious because of the various positions taken regarding
how "freely" and how "much" of these easily-sharable data should actually
be shared. But, that is a mostly separate issue from your "complete and final"
question. As I argued above, the only way to achieve "complete" and "final"
online recordings is to acknowledge that online cataloging is an event
in progress, and that any system which is designed and operated to accomodate
updating AND update journalling is striving for completeness and finality.
A funding agency that insists on finality is in its own final stages of
senescence. An agency that insists that its funds be well-spent, and
that data be treated as such, is wise.

>Is it practical to make curatorial work a principal element of cataloging
>work, and not the other way around?  Is it useful?  Is it even desirable?
>I think not.  In fact, I think it may be extremely detrimental to natural
>history research institutions and to our science.

A well-designed system of online _cataloging_ will exploit the time and
motion efforts of the museum's staff resources, to optimize resource
use. Similarly, all of the known and expected _curatorial_ work that
goes into collections maintenance and use can be analysed with respect
to how to effectively and economically integrate the production of data
from those curatorial efforts into online systems (regardless of
whether those systems are "catalogs" or the museum's "Information
System" in some larger sense, of which the catalog is simply a
subsystem). There is no reason to argue that one, cataloging or curation,
is the child or servant of the other (with respect to online catalogs,
at least); the objective is to make data available for use.  Both
activities contribute to this goal. But, yes, clerical work is probably
most economically done by clerical staff, and that should be taken into
consideration when designing information/cataloging systems.

I have no doubt that Una observed some poorly designed systems,
or at least, systems designed to poorly-conceived criteria, and that
those observations would raise the concerns she described. However, I
think poorly conceived/designed systems shouldn't be used to define
the (proper) relationship(s?) between curatorial and cataloging processes.

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