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Colloquium - Guralnick

The Role of Curators in Digital Environments
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
3/18/2009
11:30am-1:00pm

Curators have traditionally been content specialists who oversee a physical collection of objects that have natural or cultural heritage value. In the 21st century, the role of curator has expanded to encompass digital objects as well as physical ones. Digital curatorship in this century shares core similarities and some important differences from the more traditional role. This brief talk covers some of the similarities and differences. With regards to similarities, digital collections are essentially the same things as those with which curator's have always dealt. Knowledge of the content, interpretation and access remain fundamental to the curator's task. At the same time, knowledge of content and organization of collections of digital objects has been opened wide to those with the tools and infrastructure to access digital media. Thus, anyone can take on the role of curator. A fundamental question therefore is: How do we establish levels of content knowledge, and what role do professional curators have in this rapidly changing knowledge century?

As a professional Curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and as an informatician, I have grappled with these questions. The natural history community as a whole is also grappling with these questions given the inexorable movement of biodiversity knowledge into digital formats. It isn't simply digitization of collection records or literature. The process of taxonomy and systematics is becoming digital. How are major initiatives and participants moving towards creating open platforms for sharing knowledge and authenticating it? One example is provided by the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), a foundation funded project to create species pages for all 2 million plus currently named taxa. The EOL has developed a Curatorial Network Plan where any registered professional or amateur may help develop content for species. Master Curators may be assigned to reconcile information for pages with multiple curatorial inputs. The idea that many may contribute with filters and mechanisms for developing trusted content in cases of conflict appears to be a developing consensus view for the natural history and biodiversity community.

Dr. Robert Guralnick started developing natural history websites at the dawn of the World Wide Web. His first site, the University of California Museum of Paleontology, came online in late 1992 and was one of the first fifty web sites. It has been continuously running for 17 years. Dr. Guralnick managed to squeeze in a PhD in Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley while also working on web development. He was hired at the University of Colorado at Boulder as a Curator of Zoology and faculty member in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in 2000. Dr. Guralnick's research program continues to bridge media, informatics and biology. He has developed digital tools to explore global biodiversity patterns and has worked with multiple organizations attempting to distribute biodiversity data, information and knowledge. He is currently an Associate Professor.

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