June 18, 2018

Calling All Content Curators | From the Bell Tower

Definitions and descriptions of content curation sound like something that academic librarians are already doing, or have been doing—or should be doing. Let’s not miss the boat on this one.

All these years of producing a filter blog, and I never realized I was a content curator. That’s primarily because I really had no clue about the term “content curation.” Now it seems this term is everywhere, and countless people are doing the curating. To produce the blog I sift through dozens of articles about higher education every day. From those I choose three to five that seem most appropriate for my audience. In essence, that makes me—and other filter bloggers—a content curator. At least I think so. Apparently there is a thin line between curating content and outright stealing it. There’s something a bit more special to curating, and lots of individuals are getting in on the act. When you think about academic librarians and the work they do, such as putting together a library collection, content curation seems quite similar. Now that curation is hot, perhaps academic librarians can get our communities to see us as less about “books” and more about “adding value.”

Content superheroes

So what’s behind the phenomena that led Fast Company to refer to content curators as “superheroes?” Again, something librarians have dealt with for ages: trying to bring organization and context to a world overrun with information. As the world spews out information faster than we can handle it, librarians know it becomes much harder to wade through all the content, good and bad, in order to find what pieces make the best fit for any particular information need. Content curators are coming to the rescue by organizing and providing context to all the content. Here’s how the act of curation is described:

Curation is the act of individuals with a passion for a content area to find, contextualize, and organize information. Curators provide a consistent update regarding what’s interesting, happening, and cool in their focus. Curators tend to have a unique and consistent point of view–providing a reliable context for the content that they discover and organize.

That definition suggests content curators have to go beyond tweeting links. Anyone can click on a button and instantly share a link, but that often adds more noise and less signal. Curating requires some degree of thought and consistency. Curators can save individuals considerable time that they would otherwise spend trying to update themselves. While blogs are showing few signs of fading, a curator doesn’t necessarily need one, as the options for sharing content are expanding.

The tools are improving

The interest in, and viability of, content curation is being pushed by a whole new category of web-based software designed to facilitate the curation process. Right now the most popular tool of them all is Pinterest. A good deal of the content one encounters on the site seems to have undergone little, if any curating, but the software has the capacity to organize and share any type of visual content. As Steven Rosenbaum’s article “Content Creators Are the New Superheroes of the Web” points out, Pinterest can create vast noise, making it part of the problem as well as a solution. In time curation software, all types of it, will improve the quality of what’s being curated and how it is shared with others. Some of the startups competing in that space include Curata, CurationSoft, Scoop.it, Google+, Storify.com, PearlTrees.com, MySyndicaat.com, Curated.by, Storyful, Evri, Paper.li, Pearltrees, and Magnify.net. Some, like Scoop.it and Storify.com, seem aimed at consumers who want a tool that makes it easy to share content with those who share their interests, while others, like Curata, are out to sell corporations software to capture more consumers by using content as bait to lure them in to a larger marketing initiative. Academic librarians are experimenting with Pinterest, but what about all of these other options for curating content?

Thankless job?

Curation is hard work. It’s time consuming to gather and then sift through vast amounts of content in order to present your audience with just the right items. Add more time if you try to put each one into some context that indicates why it was selected and what it might mean (such as why this offers just a few items weekly). And don’t expect anyone to thank you or proclaim you the next great library thought leader. I think content curators will ultimately do this thankless job simply because they are passionate about reading in a particular niche area and then sharing the best of what they find with some dedicated followers. If you want to be a content curator, you should also follow a few rules offered by Rosenbaum:

  1. If you don’t add context, opinion, or voice, and simply lift content, it’s stealing.
  2. If you don’t provide attribution and a link back to the source, it’s stealing.
  3. If you take a large portion of the original content, it’s stealing.
  4. If someone asks you not to curate their material, and you don’t respect that request, it’s stealing.
  5. Respect published rights. If images don’t allow Creative Commons use, reach out to the image creator—don’t just grab it and ask questions later.

Chaos into curation

The more I think about it, the less I see content curation happening in academic libraries, but feel free to argue that point. Acquiring content, adding metadata, and providing access via search tools demonstrate our capacity for excellence at information gathering, organization, and retrieval, but there’s little context being added. Vast numbers of research guides are created to assist the less experienced to locate content, and these are great tools for facilitating navigation, but too few of them go beyond offering links. Where’s the context? You’ll find it where the curation is really happening in academic libraries—in the special collections department. These units are creating amazing sites that feature the best of what content curation is all about—screening hundreds or thousands of documents to find the best examples, scanning and organizing it, and then added the context via supplemental information or simply by putting in into historical context. There are also good examples of social media being used to promote the content and offer updates to keep it fresh.

Given the growing interest and importance of content curation, academic librarians should be asking themselves how they can play a greater role in producing curated content or involving others on our campuses by helping them become curators of their own content. With a knowledge of the tools and techniques, academic librarians are already developing expertise as content curators. We need to figure out how to leverage those skills to provide a valued service to our communities. I heard this in a Wired conference presentation: deep design turns chaos into curation. That resonated with me because it seems like a perfect description of what libraries could do for their communities. We know our students and faculty are drifting in an ocean of data and text. It’s up to us to design solutions to help turn their chaos into curation.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Hello Steven, we’ve known each other for over a decade now so I know you will not take my comments here as me peddling Springshare tools, but I wanted to point out that while we’re glad that the internet has caught the “curation bug” recently, we’ve been helping libraries and librarians curate content for their patrons since 2007, when we introduced LibGuides.

    LibGuides is a library-specific curation tool – it helps librarians organize and highlight important resources selected from vast library holdings so that patrons can start their research in a more effective manner – by accessing these best-of-breed resources related to a specific discipline, subject, topic, or for a specific course, assignment, etc.

    There are also many special-collections type guides in LibGuides – one can go to the community site http://community.libguides.com to find curated content on just about anything – all prepared by your friendly librarians, the best content-curators out there. :)

    So, the technology to do content curation in libraries has existed for a while now, and the success of LibGuides to date confirms that the librarians have been doing content curation long before everybody else started Pinterest boards and the like.

    -Slaven Zivkovic
    Founder, and Chief Springy

  2. Hi Slaven. Thanks for reading FTBT and sharing a comment. You probably did notice that I mentioned the creation of research guides as navigation tools to help community members find their way to the best of what the library has to offer. True – I didn’t call them LibGuides, but I’m not a spokesperson for springshare – but you know I’m a big LibGuides fan and have been on board since before there even was a LibGuide. But those guides do fulfill part of the mission of curation – pulling together critical resources and guiding people to them. Now you can argue with me on this – as may others – but I would argue that the vast majority of research guides (there are others beyond LGs) are big on links but not so much on providing the context. Yes, some guide developers will try to offer scope notes and embellish their guides with explanatory notes – and if so – then they could be providing the context. But I’m not so sure that just offering links or bibliographies could be described as providing context. In any case, all types of research guides should be valued by community members.

  3. Thanks Steven, it took me a bit to figure out what “FTBT” is, because to me this was always “Steve Bell’s LJ blog”, lol.
    In any case, I hear what you’re saying and I agree – as you say “Curation is hard” and the quality of curation depends on the curator (the librarian, in our case) rather than on the platform. My main point was that LibGuides provides just as good a platform for content curation as any of those other tools mentioned in your post, and we were there way before pinterest scoop.it and the like.

    There’s plenty of really valuable librarian-driven content curation going on. For example, this LibGuide from UIUC provides not only a really good list of pre-selected resources for people interested in studying the Bosnian Language, but it also gives some context/background on the country, the language, the culture that influenced the language, etc.

    I would also argue that explicitly providing context is not the requirement to make curation a success. To me, good curation is also about pre-selecting valuable resources for a topic in one place, beyond what I would be able to find myself in a reasonable amount of time. If, for example, I am interested in following Elections of 2012 beyond just what CNN or my local news say, where should I start my research? How about this LibGuide from Pace Law Library. There is no way I would have been able to find and select these types of quality resources myself, in a short amount of time. The fact that my friendly librarian found these really good books, websites, and other resources related to Elections and organized it in one place for me – this is invaluable stuff. So, I think this pre-selection of high-quality resources on a given topic is also valid (and valuable) content curation.


  4. I do agree that used appropriately, LGs can facilitate content curation. Perhaps you’ll have more to say about this is your next issue of Springy News. Thanks again for your comments.