Catalog vs curate

Tue Sep 12 19:33:21 CDT 1995

Una Smith <una at> wrote:

>> 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.

Peter Rauch <peterr at VIOLET.BERKELEY.EDU> wrote:

> OK, given those definitions...,

What about those definitions?  Have I been too inclusive in describing
the task of curating?  Is my definition of cataloging too restrictive?

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

> Most ... of science treats data with scepticism ... including ...
> opinion about the correctness/validity of the data used (or rejected)
> ... This has been the tradition regardless of whether the data are
> "online" or on more traditional media.

Yes, generally.  And it should arguably always be true.

But let me restate my point:  consider what happens when an institution
does not carefully delineate (define) the tasks "catalog" and "curate",
and expects "curatorial" efforts such as I describe above, as a part of
an institution-wide push to build an on-line catalog of its collections?

This may present the curator with an impossible task:  to produce vast
numbers of new catalog records while simultaneously providing the best
possible curation of those records.  Funding agencies expect a certain
level of performance, which I am told they generally evaluate by the
number of entries added to the on-line catalog.  But rapid production
of catalog records means transcribing readily available data, whether
or not it is "well curated".

Those fortunate institutions that have well curated collections are in
an enviable position.  But what of the others?  How do they stay alive
in this cut-throat funding environment?  To invest in adequate curation
before on-line cataloging means giving up volume, hence risking loss of
further funds.  But to neglect an opportunity to do adequate curation
is to waste precious resources.  How do you define what is "adequate"?

> 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.

Note, I said "end-product", not "today's" end-product.  Somehow, these
two very different concepts appear to become conflated in the minds of
all too many administrators.  Which appears to lead in some instances
to the trap I mention above, where curators are assigned the impossible
task of producing vast quantity and exquisite quality *simultaneously*,
with no more resources than they had before.

How to break out of this trap?  Perhaps an exchange of documents in use
at various institutions would be constructive?  Does your institution
have a written statement of its goals and priorities?  Or can you state
the definition of "catalog" and "curate" in use in your institution?

> 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.

That's very true, but I think it's also far outside the scope of this
particular topic.

> "Cataloging work" that either transcribes traditional catalog data to
> online media, or creates new online catalog data _does_ create data.

Transcription from paper to on-line media creates data?  How is that?
I defined cataloging as the creation of data *records*, which I do not
think is equivalent to creating data.  Do you have a different idea?

> 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.

Be that as it may, what can we do when faced with the need to cope with
such impossible demands as I describe above?  We find ourselves faced
with an immense challenge:  to turn musty old (sorry!) natural history
collections into (ultimately) fully integrated components of a global
information system.  And to do it rapidly and cheaply.  This task seems
to require skills and mental models that are entirely new to most of us.
So what can we do to equip ourselves with this new stuff as rapidly and
cheaply as is clearly expected of us?

> A well-designed system of online _cataloging_ will exploit the time
> and motion efforts of the museum's staff resources, to optimize
> resource use.  [other good bits deleted]

Absolutely.  But what are the important elements that we should use
to recognize available resources, and exploit them most effectively?

> I have no doubt that Una observed some poorly designed systems, or
> at least, systems designed to poorly-conceived criteria ...

I've seen some excellent ones too.  Most are a mixed bag.  That's no
fault of anyone:  how can we know what features we want until we try
them out and find out what works and what doesn't?  But I think that
even a poorly designed system can succeed if it is used well, to make
the most of its good features and to minimize effort that is not cost-
effective.  I think it is important to distinguish between what is
cost-effective and what is constructive effort:  these are different.

> I think poorly conceived/designed systems shouldn't be used to define
> the (proper) relationship(s?) between curatorial and cataloging
> processes.

I think the frank and fair analysis of poorly conceived/designed/used
systems could help us recognize relationships between curatorial and
cataloging processes that are ineffective or even destructive.


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