Curator, publisher, aggregator, librarian: creative professional?

By Alex

In March of 2012, a heated debate ensued after Maria Popova of Brainpickings introduced the curator’s code—two Unicode characters (ᔥ, the “via”, and ↬, the “hat tip”) meant to help people credit the origins of the links they share online. The “via” indicates a direct link to a piece of content, while the “hat tip” is used to credit another person who’d previously shared the content. Though these terms had been around before the advent of the curator’s code, the code was an attempt to standardize the terms and to publicize the ethics of recording how links are shared.

The curator’s code is a piece of Popova’s broader position that arrangement and information architecture are meaningful (she uses the term “combinatorial creativity”). The core idea behind the code is that “content curation and information discovery” are valuable, creative forms of labor, and those laborers are worthy of being getting credited for that work.

Sometimes called curation or aggregation (many people on both sides of the debate don’t feel there is an adequate term), this kind of work can take on a few different forms. It might be a twitter feed comprised of links briefly commented on, or a blog post (on a site like HuffPo) featuring a longer summary and a link back to an original article. Basically, “content curation and information discovery” fall under the umbrella of the act of grouping, collecting, or listing other sources.

In the context of journalism the link back to the original source is especially important to the original creator of the content, since it can mean more page views (which is tied to revenue). Linking back also builds social capital—as David Carr said in an interview, “…often the only compensation that’s out there. That ego compensation or artistic compensation.” In that way it can also be important to an artist or social media personality. The principle of linking back (with or without a “via”) isn’t a foreign concept, since it does basically what a copyright notice does—identify the author (or owner) of a thing.

And that aspect of the curator’s code was generally accepted. Besides some aesthetic issues and practical gripes with the Unicode characters, the backlash flared when the definition of who should get credited with authorship was broadened to include the aggregator/curator, with particular issue taken with the word “curator.” “ ‘Curation’ is an act performed by people with PhDs in art history” commented Matt Langer (on Gizmodo). As Marco Arment elaborated in his post (titled “I’m not a curator”):

I completely disagree with Popova on the value of discovery.

The value of authorship is much more clear. But regardless of how much time it takes to find interesting links every day, I don’t think most intermediaries deserve credit for simply sharing a link to someone else’s work.

Reliably linking to great work is a good way to build an audience for your site. That’s your compensation.

But if another link-blogger posts a link they found from your link-blog, I don’t think they need to credit you. Discovering something doesn’t transfer any ownership to you. Therefore, I don’t think anyone needs to give you credit for showing them the way to something great, since it’s not yours. Some might as a courtesy, but it shouldn’t be considered an obligation.

Langer noted

… when we do this thing that so many of us like to call “curation” we’re not providing any sort of ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire. “Interesting things” or “smart things” are not rubrics that make the collection and dissemination of data that happens on the Internet anything closer to a curatorial act; these categories are ultimately still reducible to “things I find appealing,”…

Joe Lazauskas, reacting to Langer’s post, noted that for him sharing content and creating original content are not equally valuable activities, and agreed that “there’s no standard that distinguishes curation from sharing, it’s just a means of attributing artfulness and profession to the act of presenting non-original content to an audience.”


Whichever side of the curator’s code debate one goes with, its questions about the definition and cultural value of curation are important, and relevant in other contexts. For example, like web curators, librarians engage in “the act of presenting non-original content to an audience,” selecting and communicating sources they have not created to users. If not when web curators do it, can a librarian’s collection, gathering and sharing, arrangement, aggregation, selection, and curation be considered artful, valuable, creative, and/or professional? This is an important question for a field that has historically struggled with its professional identity—particularly regarding the cultural value and impact of its activities. In her book The Alienated Librarian, Marcia J. Nauratil traces thwarted professional development and public recognition to the feminization of the field, but another root might be our culture’s devaluation of the work of curation/knowledge organization—clearly seen in the reaction to the curator’s code.

How can we come to an understanding that these activities are creative, not in the sense that something original and new is created, but in the sense that meaning is created? In books like Questioning Library Neutrality, the political impact of accessions and collection development becomes clear. One core tenet that emerges is that the choice to include or not include a source in a collection is not neutral, but rather carries weight. In the library these choices of inclusion and exclusion impact the users, representing or under-representing their interests—and in that way they are creative, in that they create meaning or a message or an effect on people. Another aspect that comes up in QLN is that how a source is cataloged—for example, what subject terms are used and the specific wording chosen for them—imparts bias. A “neutral” position still communicates something—you say something by saying nothing. Maybe another way to phrase that is silent or explicit arrangement says something—it creates meaning, and in that way it is interpretive. Even though the brand of interpretation is different from what many people would traditionally accept as creative, seeing collection and organization through the lens of neutrality can lend more credibility to the idea of curation—thereby lending credibility to the project of librarians and others who gather and present information to others.

*I tried to trace where I got my links from, but it was actually harder than I expected (since my way of working is to open a bunch of tabs and look at everything at the end). I’ve been thinking about this topic since last year, so that added to the confusion–I’d bookmarked some of the following pages then, and for this post did some additional googling.

Popova’s previous writings:

In a new world of informational abundance, content curation is a new kind of authorship (6/10/11) [↬ Megan Garber]
Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity (8/1/11) [↬ Popova, Introducing the Curator’s Code]

Introductions to the curator’s code:

Maria Popova, Introducing the Curator’s Code: A Standard for Honoring Attribution of Discovery Across the Web (3/9/12)
Swiss Miss (3/9/12)
David Carr, A Code of Conduct for Content Aggregators (3/11/12) [↬ Swiss Miss]
Megan Garber, The Curator’s Guide to the Galaxy (3/11/12)
Duncan Geere on Wired, ‘Curator’s code’ proposed for web attribution (3/12/12)
Brooke Gladstone’s On the Media interview with Popova (3/23/12)

Reaction to the curator’s code:

Twitter discussion of the curator’s code
Daniel Howells’ post (3/11/12) [↬ Swiss Miss]Jennifer Daniel’s satire on Bloomberg (3/12/12) [↬ Michael Surtees]
Marco Arment, I’m not a curator (3/12/12) [↬ Daniel Howells]
Matt Langer, Stop Calling it Curation (3/12/12) [↬ Daniel Howells]
It’s Nice That post (3/13/12) [↬ Daniel Howells]
Michael Surtees’ post (sometime in March? undated) [↬ Daniel Howells]
Brad Zackarin, The Curator’s Code in the Classroom (3/14/12)
Iain Claridge, My Collector’s Code (3/14/12)
Maria Popova, Einstein on Kindness, Our Shared Existence, and Life’s Highest Ideals (3/19/12)
Glen Isip’s post (3/20/12)
Joanna June on Hack Library School, We are all curators (3/23/12)
Maria Bustillos on Buzzfeed, Why we need “Curators” (4/3/12) [↬]
Joe Lazauskas, Rethinking the Curator’s Code: The Hidden Dangers of Elevating Content Sharing (6/20/12)
Learning by Doing, The Curator’s Code: The Art of Online Attribution (8/6/13)

For more, see the press and debate section of the curator’s code website.

Related stuff:

Jesse Hicks’ interview with David Carr on The Verge (4/3/12) [↬]
Curator’s code suggested in a libguide for the Mina Rees library (CUNY)


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I'm a first-year LIS/HAD student at Pratt interested in the intersection of art and libraries.

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