By John Farrier
A cherpumple is a cherry pie, a pumpkin pie, and an apple pie each baked within separate cakes, then assembled and iced. I found a picture of one on a food blog, posted it on Neatorama.com, and from there the cherpumple went viral. That one post brought hundreds of thousands of readers to Neatorama, and eventually the cherpumple was featured by mainstream news organizations such as ABC News. Sometimes all it takes is a librarian to shake the Web.
Clay Shirky put it simply: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” That’s why, in the past few years, the act of quickly finding and explaining new information on the Internet has emerged as the profession of digital content curation. It is a task for which librarians are well-suited and a potential source of employment.
I have two jobs. The first is as a librarian at a community college. The second is as a content curator at Neatorama.com. This entertainment blog highlights neat, odd, and fascinating bites of amusement, from the latest breakthroughs in malaria research to Incredible Hulk baby costumes.
Blogging has been around for more than a decade, and librarians have become active and prolific bloggers. But let’s distinguish between digital content curation and blogging. Bloggers might opine on the issues of the day or their personal lives. Content curators, however, are focused strictly on their audiences. At Neatorama, I find neat stuff and show it off to people who want to be entertained and informed with the primary goal of keeping and growing that audience.
It’s harder than you might think. I have to know where to look, how to do it expeditiously, and discern from experience and traffic statistics whether our readers will regard an item as “neat.” The content must be neat enough to draw in a vast number of readers. That’s because curating at Neatorama isn’t a hobby; it’s a source of income from a for-profit company. So I have to do my best to keep advertising and sales revenues high. I must sift through vast piles of potential content every day and present the best, perhaps 1-2 percent of the total, to readers in a manner that hooks their attention.
To accomplish this feat, I rely heavily on a RSS reader with over 500 new items daily. If a source appears to regularly offer new material with a high useful-to-useless ratio, I subscribe to it. If it doesn’t, I unsubscribe promptly. Likewise I keep an eye out for the subreddits, Tumblr blogs, or Twitter feeds that reliably present me with publishable content in volume.
Does all of this sound familiar? It’s what reference librarians do every day. We navigate the world of information to find the best content for our patrons in a timely manner. Have we discerned what the patron is looking for? What are the best sources for it available? Can we get to it quickly? How do we effectively present it to the patron? These are questions that reference librarians ask and answer during the reference interviewing process. They’re also what content curators do.
I’ve noticed that my mental habits and thought processes as a librarian have served me well as a content curator. Many, possibly most, curators are trained as freelance writers, so they know how to write in an amusing and witty manner. That’s important. But my ability to find content efficiently with the readers’ preferences in mind – a skill formed and honed at the reference desk – has given me an edge in the curation business. So I’m proposing that librarians look at digital content curation as a potential career.
Keep in mind that content curation is not all Millennium Falcon apple pies and Judge Judy cross stitch samplers. I’m in the entertainment business, so my content is light and playful. Other content curators focus on the news needs of particular professions and industries. The staff of PRDaily.com, for example, provides public relations professionals with the latest and the best news about that industry. DesignBoom.com keeps track of the newest and hottest trends in art and industrial design. BusinessInsider.com highlights news about world markets. For almost every niche, there’s a site curating the latest news and in need of skilled curators who can direct readers to that news efficiently.
If you’re thinking about breaking into this business, it’d be a good idea to get some direct experience first to show prospective employers that you have the necessary skill set. You can get started in content curation quite quickly. All you need is a social media platform, such as a blog, Twitter feed, open-access Facebook page, or Google+ profile. Find the best content and add new items daily. Focus not on your own interests, but those of your readership. Prove that you can draw readers as a trusted source and keep them coming back for more.
Then you should try to secure an internship. Many content curation firms, such as Mediaite, Gawker and Flavorwire, offer internships that will give you hands-on training in the field. They’ll train you to examine your audience, compile potential sources and pitch your content to the audience in an attention-grabbing way. Do well, and you might be asked to stay.
That is your foot in the door of long-term employment as a librarian applying his/her skills in a new profession with a bright future. The need for a human element to guide users is what has made librarians critical for past generations. It will only continue as we make the shift into digital content curation.
John Farrier is a librarian and content curator in Texas. Twitter.com/johncfarrier. Submissions for Backtalk should be 850 to 900 words and sent to Michael Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org