We Are All Curators

Image under CC license by nickgoesglobal

The word “curation” in common usage has lost some its meaning. We think of it more in terms of collector, aggregator or disseminator and not as “caretaker” as is its true definition. We future and current archivists and librarians, are all curators of information. We are shepherds and superintendents of data and particularly in the online space, we should be setting the example for proper care.

Anyone who tweets, facebooks, blogs, links, writes, or shares in the online space is similarly a curator of information. A webpage is just like a piece of paper in a library with all accompanying metadata. The shared hyperlink to that paper is both amazing tool and the source of conscientious curation questions.

The new information economy is not based on amassing huge amounts of data but curating and providing context to important, true, interesting, and/or relevant information. A link deserves to be attributed if shared. No brainer right? This is usually accomplished by linking to the original post or page. Equally important, however, is the source of the material – who or whatever lead to it – similarly deserves credit.

I have been ruminating on this idea of late after reading the Curator’s Code by Maria Popova. You can visit the original Curator’s Code site here and for more mind fodder you can watch, readread and, for the contrary view, read – links via @brainpicker and Google. Basically, the Code advocates using “via” and “HT” (Hat Tip) with your links to attribute your source if other than the original creator, either a from direct link or a stream-of-finding respectively.

The idea is that just as you attribute an idea you espouse to a person, book or quote, you should also reference from whom – from what curator – you found your item of information (picture, link, article, post etc).

This mostly pertains to Twitter and Facebook but crosses into any social media platform. The system is not perfect and depends on a community that values curation – that esteems the caretakers of information. (ahem: like librarians) 

Some automation to this end occurs with Twitter, Facebook and even Pinterest if you re-share a link (retweet, reshare and repin respectively) but there are ways to circumvent it for the less honorable. Instead of relying on the application to make the connection, the act of source attribution ought be a conscious one. 

Think about it this way: If you found a really funny or profound image after many hours of research, shared it online and it went viral, wouldn’t you want credit for being the “source.” Sure the original was out there previously, but you were the one that brought it to light and added context by saying “this is important enough to share” and providing a statement (or more) about the original that give it more meaning – even if that is in the form of a hashtag or “LOL.”

Just as you wouldn’t state an idea as yours if you got it from someone else, so ought you not retweet or repost without giving credit to the curator who brought the item to your attention. We certainly care about original artistic content but we should be equally careful about how we use and share intellectual content. 

I do see the opposing view: Do we cite the finding aide or even library from where we gather our information? Likely not formally. If we are conscientious person, however, we at least thank our supporters and influencers. I see the “via” and “HT” as the responsible and courteous thing to do. For me, I have found a wealth of other good sources (including @brianpicker Popova) because others have properly attributed their tweets or blog musings. I see it like a painting on loan to a museum, the loaning organization is identified — credited — along with the artist and title.

The LIS community should be a the forefront of these types of issues, shaping and setting standards. Besides linking or liking the writings of others, however, I haven’t seen a whole lot of original content generated. I am happy to see that both the APA and MLA set guidelines for Twitter attribution but much more is needed to clarify and codify good online citation behavior.

What do you think? Do you use HT and via? Are there more norms that should be established? Or is this a waste of effort?

27 replies

  1. What I really like about Twitter culture is that it’s important to give credit to your sources with the RT, HT, or via. Before I joined Twitter, people would just reshare videos or articles that someone else posted on FB and pretend that they were the ones who found it. When I joined Twitter, I was quite relieved to see that this culture of sharing and giving credit was the norm. Great post Joanna!


    • I like Twitter culture as well, though I shamefully admit I’ll occasionally remove the attribution of where I found something. Usually it’s just a space issue; I don’t want to edit the original post and leaving in the RT would cut off the link or something. Perhaps I should get more comfortable using MT so that I can keep credit to sources. I don’t know.


      • I admit that I have deleted an extra reference for space as well Carl, especially with long handles it is problematic. The “MT” is definitely my friend and I use it often. I love the restriction of the 140 characters but maybe Twitter will get on board and the attribution will work more like a Facebook Tag where it doesn’t count against your limit. We can dream… (thanks for your comment and honesty)


    • Thanks! I agree, it is one of the reasons I really like Twitter as well. I do appreciate that Facebook has started to catch up some with the “reshare” button but I think attribution is more ingrained in the culture.


  2. Really nice post, Joanna. I’ve been interested in curation as a backbone of culture for a long time, and I think that curatorship (in the sense of one who finds and disseminates interesting things and ideas) is an incredibly important and often neglected role. It’s a complicated issue, but the creative economy over the last century or so has brought about a society in which everyone wants to be the creator, not the curator.

    And yet the best curators are in a position to make an enormous cultural contribution, arguably more so than the creators themselves. And as you rightly point out, things are now shifting in a direction in which curation is something in which we all participate, whether we realize it or not.


    • Thanks Amy! I think about a good curator as like a patron back in the day who found and supported the great artists, we wouldn’t have a number of our great masterpieces or celebrated pieces if it weren’t for those that found and bought or saved them. The Internet is still relatively new but expanding exponentially, the only way that good content will be found and placed in context is will good curation. It will be interesting to see what the future brings and who or what types entities step up to the plate.


  3. Thank you Joanna for bringing via/HT to light for me.
    I am new to Twitter and my first reaction was, I didn’t know. I spent 8 weeks learning Twitter and the via/HT idea was not in a slew of how-to blogs and guides. My second reaction is: no more Twitter for me. I was barely keeping up with 30 subscriptions. And I almost did not complete my last thesis because of plagiarism terrors. I am very grateful for the coding that formats a retweet, shortens a link, and hyperlinks the @name. If this bit of coding (to via or HT appropriately) could be built in with a Firefox or Chrome extension, the terror of erring would lessen for me. Though imagine the post: RT HTname1 HTname2 HTname3 depending how closely your network is to the originator. Maybe I can answer my own need after CodeYear concludes?


    • Fear not, Jennifer, we are all doing out best! Via and HT are relatively new formatting concepts so it is unsurprising that they weren’t in your guides but the idea of attribution (at least through RT) has been around since the beginning and as you said the coding is helpful to make it easy. The lengthy @ @ @ do get cumbersome and that is a flaw in the system. If it gets to be too much I usually start editing from the most recent and keep the original, but that is my own standard. If you find or create a good hack that would be stellar! Going on a Twitter sabbatical is understandable, I confess I get overloaded. I would recommend you keep your account and check in every now and then – you don’t have to read everything but it still is a great source for information.


      • Jo, Jennifer, and all: For what it’s worth I tend to use the new-style retweets when I don’t know or follow the original source, since that credits them in a standard way without having to worry about including those in between and keeping it under 140. When I do know the original tweeter and want to add my own comment, I’ll use RT (MT if I have to shorten to keep under 140) or write my own post and put (via @source) at the end, depending on how much I want to add of my own.


  4. When I first read this, I thought to myself, “But librarians don’t need nor want the glory. We don’t go into this field to get props for information we share. It’s just part of being a librarian.” But as I thought about it more, I can see the benefit of this. This is really a form of provenance. Seeing the trail a piece of information took on its journey to where it is now can be quite valuable. And yes, it can be tedious and onerous. And maybe it’s not worth doing when the information is obtained from a library catalog or finding aid, but I believe the chain of provenance of a link or a video can be quite interesting. Who knows, maybe a study into provenance of this type can shed some light on how a link or a video goes viral.


    • Definitely Chris! Reading some of the other comments I was thinking about the idea of the Tipping Point and who or what makes things go viral. It is only through attribution (or an electronic web of records that is searchable/traceable) that we would be able to root out the sources. That type of genealogy of the important or popular is indeed interesting.
      You’re also right, there is an idea that we shouldn’t want the glory but if a librarian or institution is showcasing or curating content that others find valuable, that act has value and should be honored. Most importantly, it will help keep libraries and librarians “relavent” in the eyes of patrons and funders in the increasingly online information society.


  5. But is “creating” content i.e. you mention Twitter, the same as “curating” or “caring” for that content or item ? Should all of it be curated , why so? or why not so? bigger questions….


    • Indeed bigger questions Karen. The LOC is keeping all tweets at this point so they, at least, think that there is some value in that content – apart from the links, images and other pages that they source to as those are not being kept (that I know of) and a lot of links are or will go dead. So, as a user, if we incorporate that piece of content – the tweet – into your own collection of information, we should “take care” to attribute it properly if you use it as a source (in a paper, conversation, or online – just as we would with something we read in a book). What we chose to further promote through social media should receive even more “care” as we are showcasing it to our patrons (just as a museum does with a piece of art). If we are active in the online social medial space we both publishers and curators of content – our own and others. We are also oftentimes acting without thinking consciously about the ramifications of those actions. Looking at source attribution is just one corner of that iceburg but I think an important one.
      Does that make sense? Do you disagree that we are already participating in that process? Or take issue with the choice of term “curator”?


  6. you had said “Anyone who tweets, facebooks, blogs, links, writes, or shares in the online space is similarly a curator of information. A webpage is just like a piece of paper in a library with all accompanying metadata. The shared hyperlink to that paper is both amazing tool and the source of conscientious curation questions.”

    some differences……to “create” information is not the same as to “curate” something is it ? if “anyone” tweets something how also is that different than saying a “library/organization” esp a national level one like the Library of Congress, and a government agency, how is also that going to be a different level than just “anyone” doing it too?

    Being more ‘participatory’ too we can ask the same – is that the same as being a ‘curator’ ? what are some of the differences and yes can everyone really say they are all curators ? or do they mean they are all creators of content ? what type of content ?

    also being a publisher of content is not the same as being a creator of content or being a curator of content either. I think it’s important to look at the differences and also keep looking at the terms and how they are being defined questions are a good thing! 🙂


    • Yes, questions are a good thing. To yours I’d offer my own: What do you think? 🙂
      Again, I think we are creating and curating at the same time. Perhaps we are only creating derivative works by adding “So inspirational!” or “LOL” but it is content just the same and we are taking care of it (any original as well as our own contribution) — or should take care of it — in the same way we would any other artistic expression. No, perhaps “anyone” in the online space is not curating at the same level as the LOC but, should your tweet go viral or your Facebook post start to get thousands of reshares, perhaps with even further reach (at least for the day). I think about some posts recently where a quote was posted by many and attributed to MLK but it was misattributed, and where someone shared a story supposedly about the Obamas but was lifted from a West Wing episode. If the resharing parties had linked back to the original we would know who the incorrect first-share-source was — or in the case of true items that hit public just at the right moment: who the correct source is.
      Yes, we can try to define terms. Yet there is so much crossover in the online space that you can act (and I would argue we are acting) as creator, publisher, and curator all at the same time. It is with the last that I chose to focus on through the specific lens of proper attribution but I think all three and more are almost continuously in play.


  7. I can see where you’re coming from, but I’m not quite so sure on your conclusions. Why should “discovery” count as much as authorship? Creation is by far more difficult that collection. Attribution is important, but that should go to the creator and not be muddled by long chains of “vias” and “HT”s, not to mention the kooky doodles that the curators code wants to standardize on.

    tumblr is another good implementation sharing that allows for the type of “curator” acknowledgement, and even the guy who wrote that code has issues with the emphasis that’s being placed on curation online. http://www.marco.org/2012/03/12/not-a-curator Marco Arment, the creator of instapaper as well as working at tumblr on the reblog function, nad he gives a nice argument on why just linking to the useful source doesn’t transfer ownership to you, and so anyone following your link should link to the useful thing and not the intermediary.

    Now, the is a role for giving attribution when your writing an entire article. But if you’re just linking? Then the focus is on the source, and not the journey to get there. John Gruber, one of the foremost link bloggers in the apple and technology spheres wrote a longer piece on attribution as well. He backs up the point that if you’re providing content of your own based off of an intermediary, source it. But, if you’re linking to mlprovide a conduit to the source, you can ignore, and in some cases should ignore, the intermediaries to extol the original author.


    It’s good that there are now proper ways to attribute tweets, log posts, and the like in papers, but we shouldn’t let the new zeal around sharing things online damage the credibility of authors along the way.


    • Hi Chris,
      Sorry for the delayed response (semester is getting to me). I’m not necessarily advocating that discovery and promotion count as much as authorship, just that it is important to the chain of metadata surrounding a piece. As our Information Society continues to mature I think social influence and credibility will become more and more important and as such, the source for spreading information also rises in stature. I’m not sure how that damages the credibility of authors, in fact I would argue that it raises them. If you are linked to a piece by a curator (or curators) that you trust you are more likely to trust the article and author, no? I get your point that we shouldn’t let the metadata outweigh the message but I think the two are both important and the former offers both greater context and credibility to the original.
      Thanks for the link and your thoughts!


  8. This is a great article and I am happy to see the LIS community engaging this social phenomenon. Many people outside our “faith” have odd ideas about what curation is and isn’t, and much of this has been fueled by business-oriented publications such as “Curation Nation”, which attempts to posit curation as merely a branding strategy used for news aggregation, prospect engagement, and (the unspoken goal) immunity from copyright infringement lawsuits (sigh). On the other hand, this is a great opportunity for the LIS community to connect with the public at large on this hot topic, and enable patrons to engage in more meaningful curative endeavors (yay!). I’m very encouraged by projects like the Curator’s Code and I hope we live to see a day where chains of attribution are as inherent a part of the Web as hyperlinks.


    • Agreed! Thanks for the support. It is still very much a work in process and curation attribution is just one portion of the larger metadata puzzle that is the Internet and mass of information and content produced daily. I agree that it is a great opportunity and I hope more LIS folks get involved. Thanks for your contribution in this space!


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