The Four Sons of digital curation

Dec 07 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

So I wanted to put in my two penn'orth on this question on DHAnswers about best-practice guidelines for data in the humanities, but what I have to say is a little askew of where that discussion seems to be going. I'll say my piece here, then, and link from there.

At CurateCamp yesterday, the discussion of a curation community of practice suddenly took an extraordinarily technogeeky turn. By way of bringing it back to earth a bit, I pulled out a well-worn analogy that I've used before in other contexts: the Four Sons parable from the Pesach service.

The First Son in the Pesach parable asks his father to describe to him in exhaustive detail all the observances of Pesach and all the stories behind those observances, so that he can do everything correctly and pass on the knowledge to his descendants. Everybody in the CurateCamp room, myself certainly included, was a First Son. We can't get along without our First Sons. The peril of First Sons, though, is that they tend to lack perspective and get caught up in pilpul.

This is exactly what happened at DHAnswers. A couple-three First Sons got to duking it out about the value (or lack thereof) of SGML/XML markup. Derailed the entire conversation into a tiny, tiny corner of a very big question. It's what was happening at that particular moment in CurateCamp, too. It happens a lot, and it's a problem.

The Second Son in the Pesach parable asks, "What is all this to you?" By saying "to you," and not "to us," the Second Son intentionally and hostilely places himself outside the community, treating it as a zoo full of weird and occasionally unsavory animals. He doesn't understand what's going on and will have to be talked into caring. In universities, a lot of Second Sons live at high echelons of library, IT, and university-wide administrations. Grant funders have a fair few of them too.

The Third Son asks only, "What is this?" He's not hostile, but he's utterly clueless, not even understanding what he doesn't know. I've met Third Sons in large numbers among faculty. As the Pesach fable explains, Third Sons need simple and straightforward explanations that they can follow even if they don't really understand the problem domain.

The Fourth Son does not even know how to ask, and he exists in large numbers among faculty as well. The Pesach parable insists upon outreach.

The Third and Fourth Sons are why so very many early digital projects are no longer extant. The Third and Fourth Sons are the ones who perpetrate all the wrongheaded antipatterns DHAnswers has so kindly and snarkily collected. The digital humanities cannot progress among the humanities generally until the Third and Fourth Sons receive more and better guidance—emphatically including warning them away from common antipatterns!

Here's the thing. Too many approaches to digital curation, even to explaining digital curation, are aimed at First Sons. This is self-limiting, counterproductive behavior. Whatever the ACH and the NEH do to address data management among humanities research, it needs to be aimed at all four sons.

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