Joyce Ray on Historical Preservation and Digital Curation

Joyce Ray Featured Image

The era of big data is upon us. Museums and cultural heritage institutions now recognize the importance of digitizing their collections, exhibits, and other resources. Museums worldwide are now routinely digitizing all collection objects as they are acquired and loaned, not only for access, but also as documentation in the event of loss, damage or theft. There is a critical need for trained and experience digital curation professionals as creation and acquisition of digital assets continues at a rapid pace.

The Johns Hopkins University Certificate in Digital Curation, offered through the online graduate program in Museum Studies, advances the education and training of museum professionals worldwide to manage and preserve all types of digital assets. Apart from an on-ground internship, the program is offered fully online and can be completed from anywhere in the world.

We sat down with Dr. Joyce Ray, the new Program Coordinator for the Certificate in Digital Curation and editor of Research Data Management: Practical Strategies for Information Professionals recently published by Purdue University Press, to find out more about this unique academic program:

Museums worldwide are evolving and embracing technology. What are your views on this progression?
Museums, like just about all organizations today, need to be responsive to online users. Initially, a lot of museums worried that if they put digital images of their collections online, people wouldn’t come to the museum to see the originals. Now they’ve realized that the opposite is true—people not only expect to find information about hours and directions to the museum online, but they also form an impression of the museum based on the quality and depth of its website. I’m amazed by the wealth of information that many museums are putting online today—not just online exhibitions, but images of all new acquisitions and, increasingly, their permanent collections.

These innovative uses of technology go far beyond the creation of digitized surrogates and have the potential to not only engage new audiences with museum collections but also to produce new creative work. I should also note that many museums, such as history, natural history, and science museums, are also producing valuable research data, such as archaeological and other scientific data, that needs preservation. JHU, with the leadership of the Sheridan Libraries and its university partners, is already an internationally recognized leader in the curation and management of research data and is offering data management services to JHU researchers. Of course, these developments underscore the need for museums to establish robust digital preservation and curation programs to protect their investments in digital assets.

The Certificate in Digital Curation is almost fully online. In your opinion, what are the benefits of online learning?
The first benefit I see is that online programs allow students who already have jobs or who cannot relocate to have access to formal educational opportunities. The program is structured around asynchronous (as opposed to real-time) discussion forums in which all students participate, so discussions are not limited to the most verbal students. Students get practice in organizing their thoughts, putting them in writing, and responding to others’ ideas in a conversation-style format. I think the discussions enhance the reading, research, and writing assignments.

Another advantage of the online program is that it makes it possible to recruit outstanding faculty, as well as students, from any physical location. We have leading experts teaching the digital curation courses, and the certificate also requires an on-ground experience, which in this case is an internship in a museum or related organization that is already implementing or developing a digital curation program.

Why should a prospective student choose the Johns Hopkins University Certificate in Digital Curation?
To the best of my knowledge, this program is unique in that it is offered online within a museum studies program, so it is tailored to the museum environment and also can serve the needs of working professionals and others who choose online study. I think prospective students who are working in a museum or plan to work in a museum (including museum libraries and museum archives) would benefit from the program. Our goal is to prepare professionals who can create a digital preservation plan, develop and implement digital curation strategies, participate actively in the digital curation community, and become leaders in the museum and digital curation fields. On a very practical level, graduates will be able to communicate with the technologists upon whom museums depend today—including webmasters and vendors of digital asset management systems and cloud storage services—to ensure that their valuable digital assets are properly managed and can be found and used again when needed.

All museums that are creating or acquiring digital assets with long-term value need staff with the knowledge and abilities that students who complete the JHU digital curation certificate will possess. We’re at the point that we should stop expecting museum professionals to learn about digital preservation and curation on the job. It’s time to develop the next generation of professionals who have formal education in the principles of digital curation and are ready to apply them in the workplace.

What attracted you to the position of Digital Curation Coordinator at Johns Hopkins University?
I’ve been following the development of digital curation education since 2006 because of my former position as Associate Deputy for Library Services at the US Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  I think the US, particularly through IMLS funding, has become a global leader in digital curation education as a result of this funding.  However, museums and museum education programs have had a less active presence in the digital curation community, so that’s what the JHU digital curation certificate is designed to address.

I worked at the National Archives and Records Administration for 10 years before going to IMLS, so as an archivist I was always concerned about digital preservation.  I embraced the concept of digital curation—defined as the management of digital assets over their lifetime—because it emphasizes the beginning of the digital life cycle as a critical component of the archiving and preservation process.  Too often people don’t think about preservation when they create digital assets, although many decisions made at the beginning of the life cycle affect the ability to manage, find and reuse these assets later.

How will your experience be applied to your new role?
At IMLS my office had responsibility for managing grants for library and museum collaboration, so I became very interested in applications of digital technology in museums.  Libraries, archives and museums have developed different ways of describing their collections because of their unique missions and histories, but that began to cause problems in the digital environment because of the lack of consistent practices.  For example, almost all collecting institutions have photographs and recorded sound collections, and in many cases materials that are related by subject end up scattered across museums, libraries and archives, but there were no standards to promote consistent approaches across different types of institutions.  It makes sense to try to make online searching as effective as possible, regardless of where collections are held, which means that collecting institutions need to work together to establish standards and good practices that make it easier for users to find all the resources they’re looking for.

You are currently a Visiting Professor at Humboldt University. Please talk a bit about your experience teaching abroad.
I’m teaching in the Berlin School of Library and Information Science (known here as IBI) at Humboldt University. There are only two semesters in the academic year here, the summer semester that runs from April to July, and the winter semester that goes from mid-October to February.

In the summer semester I taught Digital Libraries and Long-term Digital Archiving, plus a Copyright Review Seminar that was essentially a pilot project in which students tested a methodology for researching the birth and death dates of authors and editors of books published in Germany. The seminar was conducted in cooperation with the University of Michigan and the Hathi Trust Digital Library, which contains many German-language titles that cannot be made publicly accessible because they have not been reviewed for applicable copyright restrictions. This semester I’m teaching Libraries, Archives and Museums in Comparative Perspective and a conversation class, English for Information Professionals. Teaching students whose first language is not English is fun, because it’s an opportunity for cultural exchange (for me as well as for them), as well as giving students a chance to become more fluent in English. I can’t say that I’m becoming more fluent in German, unfortunately, because just about everyone here speaks English!

The classes here are face to face, while the JHU museum studies program that I’ve taught in since 2011 is online. The biggest difference between my students here and the ones I’ve taught at JHU is that the students at IBI are mostly coming right out of an undergraduate program, so they don’t have much work experience. By contrast, many of the museum studies students at JHU already have full-time jobs or have previous working experience. This makes online discussions very interesting and informative for everyone, including me. I’ve enjoyed my experience at Humboldt very much, but I’m also looking forward to coming back to Washington next spring.