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My Curator Done Told Me

Have you noticed that curators, once restricted to institutions like museums and art galleries, are now running rampant? Research librarian Stan Friedman investigates curator-mania, and discovers that people are finding comfort in an old, trusted term.

On November 23, 1894, The New York Times reported that a Professor Daniel G. Elliot had accepted a new position. He secured this job via a resume showing more than 30 years of relevant experience, authorship of over 100 scientific papers and enrollment in numerous scientific societies.

On December 27, 2010, a Twitter user named Professor_Snack received his 748th follower. Chances are he is not a gorilla in a Santa suit as his profile picture indicates, but rather, a middle-aged guy with a wry sense of humor and his own blog.

What these two men hold in common, beyond their learned titles, is that they are representative of what we thought of then, and what we think of now, as a curator. Elliott was the new Zoology curator at Chicago's Field Columbian Museum, with an expertise in obtaining African specimens. Professor_Snack maintains seven different lists on topics like celebrities and authors. As with every list maker on the microblogging service, Twitter identifies his collections as being curated. Meanwhile, the social news site Tumblr has added "curated topic pages" as a finding aid, and FortuneMagazine.com offers Today in Tech, "a curated selection of the day's most newsworthy tech stories."

To be a curator was once to be the professional overseer of a large collection of important physical objects, be they books, artwork, shrubbery or zoo animals. Today, anyone with computer access and a few minutes to spare can curate. It is irrelevant that their collections do not exist in the animate world. It is assumed that good search skills have replaced deep subject knowledge. And it is a reflection of our current, turbulent relationship with knowledge that this particular term has undergone such a massive massification.

Prior to the Internet revolution, there were basically two forms of knowledge gathering. We could travel to a publicly available location and proceed at our own pace through a curated collection of materials from which knowledge could be drawn (or photocopied). Or, we could stay home and be allowed access to certain types of knowledge by various arbiters. Newspaper and magazine editors, radio disc jockeys and television producers culled what they believed was socially or commercially important and presented it to us in regularly scheduled intervals, or during special reports if we happened to be tuned in at the time.

Today, we tread the fine line of information overkill. Every song, video, article or musing from the world's 2 billion Internet users is up for grabs and pushed out to us at an impossible to follow rate. Smartphones sit in our pockets like grenades, so packed with potential that there have been over 7 billion app downloads from the iTunes store alone. We have nearly unlimited access to what once was impossible to retrieve and we can gather it all from a single, smooth device; as opposed to the time when our data sources were tactile and scattered, separated by moments of calm reflection. And it is all virtual. One corrupt hacker or corrupted hard drive and our storehouses vanish into the ether.

When too many things come at us too fast, we humans have an instinctual response: we want our mommy. That is to say we want a trusted elder who can grasp and control a situation, then choose the right path. We reach back to our earliest memories for such a person. So, when we are overwhelmed with the flow of knowledge, or wish to portray ourselves as in control of it, it makes perfect psychological sense to call forth the term used to identify one of our earliest knowledge handlers. A signifier that, unlike Librarian, has avoided unfortunate stereotypes: a cure-all, a Terminator, a Curator!

It makes etymological sense as well. Curator stems not from the same French root as curiosity, which is what I had assumed, but from the same Latin root as cure. The 600-year-old definition per the O.E.D. is, "one appointed as guardian of the affairs of a person legally unfit to conduct them himself, as a minor, lunatic, etc."

Now, curators circumnavigate the zeitgeist. Within the Library community, the job title Content Curator is commonplace, though the question remains how the role differs from, say, an editor or an aggregator. World of Warcraft gamers know that when a dangerous Curator loses his health, he will "enrage." A recent New York Times arts piece contained the lede, "Ryan Seacrest, pop culture curator?" and credits a chairman of Clear Channel Communications with this dead-on definition: "He has emerged as somebody who you believe is searching through everything out there and telling you what is the very best about popular culture at that moment." Back in the golden era of television, Seacrest would have been merely a host, but that passive term does not serve when we are attempting to seize the moment, rather than spend the hour.

Perhaps the most unusual twist in the curator's path is that it is beginning to show up in reference to private collections. Sharing has always been an implicit aspect of curating, yet a Twitter list accessible only by its creator is still tagged as curated. The Whitney Museum now offers a "Curate Your Own Membership" program to personalize one's involvement with the organization. And an editor at Random House recently declared, "We think it's an ideal moment to really begin helping a reader curate the collection of e-books that they want." Thus, curators of the ironic might want to make an addition to their lists: the fact that a word which once defined those who looked out for others, now also refers to those who look after themselves.

Stan Friedman is the Senior Research Librarian for Condé Nast. His ebook novel God's Gift to Women was recently published by Scott & Nix, Inc.

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