October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Teaching Digital Curation: A Functional Approach

Bruce Fulton, Peter Botticelli, Jana Bradley, The University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Science, USA


The University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science, the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, and the University of Arizona Office of Continuing Education are collaborating to develop and administer a new post-baccalaureate certificate program (DigIn) that introduces students to the theoretical knowledge, conceptual frameworks and practical skills required to create, maintain and curate collections of digital information. DigIn is a graduate college-approved study program consisting of six newly developed graduate-level courses to be delivered online. The certificate serves as an entry point for students who are considering pursuing master’s degrees in archives or library science and who also have an interest in technology and digital curation.  For those already holding or concurrently pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in library and information science, it serves as a post-master’s certificate of specialty or an area of concentration. Finally, the certificate offers current practitioners a practical way to update and enhance their skills for existing employment or in contemplation of new opportunities.  Curriculum development is grounded in a functional approach designed to integrate the practices of librarians, archivists, records managers and technologists within a framework of disciplinary knowledge and the work of interrelated communities of practice. The coursework balances subject knowledge and practical hands-on skills relevant to digital curation and insures that students acquire an understanding of the professions while demonstrating comfort and proficiency with technology and the ability to continue to develop their technical skills upon completion of the program.

Keywords: digital curation, technology management, digital libraries, digital archives, digital information management, graduate certificate programs


In the summer of 2007, the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science (SIRLS) began instruction in a new post-baccalaureate certificate program in Digital Information Management (nicknamed “DigIn”). The program addresses the need for a rapid scaling-up of education and training for information professionals charged with managing digital objects. In designing the curriculum, SIRLS sought input from a broad range of subject matter experts, including our official partner in the DigIn program, the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records agency.

The overall aim of DigIn has been to establish what we call a “functional approach” in teaching digital information management. By this we mean an explicitly inter-disciplinary approach that is firmly grounded in the practice of digital curation. Our contention is that digital curators in all professional domains face analogous problems in carrying out the basic functions required to manage digital objects, and that different communities of practice can solve problems more effectively by working across disciplinary boundaries. Thus, the functional approach of DigIn seeks to acquaint students with the basic theoretical concepts underpinning libraries, archives, records management and information technology, while at the same time immersing students in the hands-on work these communities are doing with digital collections. Above all, DigIn hopes to give students the learning skills they will need to keep pace with the rapid changes taking place across the world of digital collections.

In this paper, we discuss the justification for a certificate program like DigIn. Next we introduce the functional approach and examine the steps we have taken thus far to identify a common core of disciplinary concepts and technology skills most important for digital curators. Finally, we describe the current status of the program as we teach our initial cohort of students.

The Need for Continuing Education in Digital Information Management

The accelerating growth of all kinds of digital collections clearly affords new opportunities for professionals who are well-grounded in traditional information management principles but who also possess the technical skills needed to curate digital objects. Thus, Myburgh’s (2003) analysis of job postings demonstrates that today’s Library and Information Science (LIS) graduates face rising demands for technology skills in the job market. In some cases, librarians even face competition for jobs from computer science and MIS professionals. Richard Pearce-Moses (2005), past president of the Society of American Archivists, has raised the parallel issue of technical skills for archivists working with digital records in his talk “Winds of Change.” He strongly argues that the revolutionary change is the profession’s only adequate response to the dramatic rise of digital records in recent years.

As the volume of digital information grows, the demand for technology skills continues to outpace the supply of qualified job candidates. Information stored in printed materials–including books, journals, newspapers, mail, mass-market periodicals and office documents–is relatively steady, with growth of 7% reported for the period 1999 to 2002. In contrast, the amount of information stored on the Web alone during the same period tripled. The majority of government and business records are now created in digital formats and may never be printed. Newer categories of documents, such as digitally encoded video and sound recordings, continue to challenge archivists and records specialists. Digital information is not a future the professions should be planning; it is the current reality that the professions must actively address.

Yet even as the means by which information professionals accomplish their work changes, the traditional disciplinary knowledge of librarians, archivists and records specialists remains vital to their institutional responsibilities. The basic work of the cultural heritage professions–selection, acquisition, classification and description, reference, outreach, and preservation–is clearly evolving, but not necessarily in ways that undermine the theoretical foundations on which the information professions have been built over the past two centuries.

There is a significant risk, however, that a continuing scarcity of technical skills among librarians and archivists may enable professionals from other disciplines to wrest effective jurisdiction over the large parts of the digital information landscape. As Richard Pearce-Moses (2005) has observed, “Archivists and records professionals–as a whole, and not just digital records specialists–must respond by becoming as comfortable working with digital materials as they are with paper.” The alternative might be for archivists to be someday limited to working with a permanently shrinking universe of paper records.

Desiging New Programs for Educating Digital Curators

For schools of library and information science, the challenge of educating digital curators poses a serious dilemma. On the one hand, it’s generally accepted that students and alumni are operating in a fast-changing, unstable environment that demands keeping-up with developments in technology and user needs. On the other hand, academics are expected to conduct research and teach within established disciplinary boundaries. The disciplines may themselves by evolving in response to the rise of digital information resources, but probably not as fast as students or many practitioners might expect. The general problem for library schools, as Sutton (1999) asks, is “how do we structure LIS educational institutions and the LIS profession to play a continuous role in re-educating the professionals whose knowledge and skills have been intentionally rendered obsolete both from within and without the profession?”

In effect, Sutton argues that librarians and archivists need to stake clear disciplinary claims in the world of digital information management, before other disciplines attain dominance. To meet this challenge, Sutton argues for a balanced approach to LIS education, involving both the academic community itself and the communities of practice that are now working with digital information.

In other words, library and archives educators need to develop curricula that can bridge the gap between traditional theory and the practical competencies that students now need to perform in a rapidly evolving information marketplace.

In considering how technology is integrated in today’s LIS curricula, Markey (2004) argues in a recent comprehensive survey of LIS curricula that information technology is “the driving force behind the development and enhancement of LIS programs.” Nevertheless, the coursework added is generally in the form of electives and is not delivered with the same emphasis or integration as traditional LIS offerings such as collection development, reference, management and other foundational courses. To remedy this situation, Markey recommends that LIS programs deliberately focus on disputed areas affecting digital collections, including information organization, authoritative information, content creation, and preservation.

In a narrower sense, the dilemma facing information schools is whether to change existing programs or to start new ones. For over a decade educators have been warned, following Van House and Sutton (1996), that the “survival of LIS education does not necessarily mean the survival of current programs, and certainly does not mean their survival in their current forms.” Indeed, some information schools have sought to remake their existing curricula to meet the perceived need for radically new approaches to information management. Many in the field have argued, as Van House and Sutton do, that embracing some degree of change is necessary to ensure the “survival of the knowledge base, approaches, values, practices, and tools which must be applied to new problem areas” by practitioners working in otherwise traditional organizations.

However, remaking existing programs is not the only way to address the need for new approaches in a changing workplace. Increasingly, graduate schools are turning to post-baccalaureate and post-master’s certificate programs as a means to teach practical skills without sacrificing academic rigor. Welch and Syverson (1997) and Patterson (1999) claim that graduate schools are developing certificate programs for a number of positive reasons. First, they represent a flexible response to an emerging need for specialized training students need to advance their careers. Second, certificates provide an easier path to graduate education, especially for persons who have been out of school for some time. Three, certificates can serve as a recruitment path for students who may be inclined to pursue degree programs following the completion of a certificate. Fourth, certificate programs can be an opportunity for a discipline or interdisciplinary group to take their first steps in offering new graduate degrees or new degree concentrations.

The DigIn certificate is not intended to be a substitute for the MLS or other degrees required by employers or accreditation bodies. Certificate programs in general are sometimes perceived as hostile to traditional professional programs that require a master’s degree or beyond. SIRLS, however, does not expect the certificate program to cannibalize its master’s program. Based on surveys of departments that have implemented certificate programs across a wide range of disciplines and studies, 90% of respondents in a study by Miner (2000) indicate this has not happened and in fact, certificate programs often attract students who would not otherwise be in graduate programs. These surveys also show that certificate programs frequently serve as a starting point on the path to a full master’s degree.

While the ALA-accredited Master’s degree in library and information science will remain the gold standard for library professionals for the foreseeable future, the increasing specialization and interdisciplinary requirements for jobs in libraries, archives and museum collections foster a growing interest in alternatives that serve current staffing demands and projected candidate shortages. Traditionally structured graduate programs do not always provide a manageable and affordable environment for today’s diverse population of graduate students. Welch and Syverson (1997) describe them as often older with career and family responsibilities and the need to study on a part-time basis. Further, many currently in the workforce do not wish to enter a full degree program. These individuals often have an existing graduate degree and just need to update their knowledge and skills, or they wish to add additional coursework in a new area of study.

We believe a well-developed graduate certificate program can be a strong first step towards meeting the challenge of providing both academic rigor and a hands-on practical education for librarians, archivists, and records specialists seeking careers in digital curation. In the long run, a certificate program in digital curation may serve as a stand-alone post-graduate certificate, a concentration within an academic master’s program or Ph.D. minor, or it may serve as a post-master’s add-on offering evidence of additional specialization and expertise.  Instead of adding electives to an existing master’s program, the certificate, by its nature, incorporates a diversity of classes all designed to inform an area of specialization while providing the disciplinary knowledge and conceptual frameworks that currently underpin the information professions.

Towards a Functional Approach in Teaching Digital Curators

The functional approach we have been developing for the DigIn program has several key aspects. First, we are taking a problem-centered approach that emphasizes the hands-on skills (tactics, in other words) and the strategic knowledge needed to make effective decisions in practical situations. By focusing on problem solving we are not presuming that students will have, or need, mastery of the disciplines or technologies with which they are working. Instead, we are hoping to prepare students to operate effectively in an uncertain and changing environment that requires constant adjustment and learning on the part of practitioners.

Thus, in teaching technology skills we are not assuming that students will become qualified systems administrators, for example. Rather, in our first course, Introduction to Applied Technology, we are teaching students how to install and configure servers as a way to build the students’ general capacity to learn and work with Linux-based systems, in this case.

In other courses, we plan to make extensive use of case studies to show how effective decision making processes can lead to positive outcomes even in the face of great uncertainty. The example of JSTOR, as Schonfeld (2003) demonstrates, shows how effective management strategies can enable organizations to solve problems and deliver new types of collections successfully without first acquiring an extensive knowledge base.

The second key aspect of the functional approach is that it emphasizes a comparative perspective in analyzing collections, programs and projects across disciplines. We consider it essential for DigIn students to understand the historical, institutional and technical context in which they will be acting as digital curators. We hope students will emerge from DigIn with a fine-grained appreciation for the similarities and differences between digital repositories built by different professional communities.

At the same time, by examining closely the organizational context in which curatorial problems arise, we hope to instill greater flexibility in our students, enabling them to apply a variety of management strategies and technologies in response to the practical obstacles they are likely to face. In training digital curators, it would be a mistake to ignore the traditional divisions among information professions. But in our view it would also be a mistake to discourage curators working in one discipline from borrowing techniques and strategies from another discipline.

Indeed, much research in the history of technology shows how complex systems, including computers, are often invented pragmatically rather than by some overarching design. The Web, for instance, is not a “designed” system so much as a patchwork of technologies developed over many years and fitted together (in quite elegant fashion by Tim Berners-Lee) in response to pragmatic needs–in this instance, by the need for physicists to transfer large data sets around the world. The lesson for DigIn is that managers of digital information need to be highly flexible in matching technologies with the emerging needs of users and the institutions that own digital collections.

Besides helping students better understand problems in digital curation, the explicitly cross-disciplinary perspective we have adopted for DigIn is also intended to advance two important related goals of the digital library community in recent years. One is interoperability, or the use of open technology platforms and standards in an effort to make systems work together more seamlessly. Another goal is federation, or the linking of digital collections in ways that enable users to search across repositories and to build virtual collections from objects housed in more than one repository.

It’s important to note that these are examples of strategic goals, intended to make digital collections more cost-effective and more useful to the ever-broadening community of digital information users. We will consider it a good indicator of success if DigIn students show an appreciation for the need to pursue goals aimed at adding value to the universe of digital collections representing the academic and cultural heritage sectors.

In devising course content, the DigIn team have worked on a conceptual framework that includes the main elements described above: a problem-centered, comparative approach that reveals points of commonality in the technologies and organizational processes or routines involved in digital curation across disciplines and institutions.

Library   Archives   Museum
Theory   Theory   Theory
Collections …….. Collections …….. Collections
Routines ______ Routines ______ Routines
Technology ______ Technology ______ Technology

Table 1: Digital Curation Functions

Table 1 above shows the essence of what we regard as the functional approach to teaching digital curation. First, we assume that the basic theory of these disciplines will remain distinct in the digital future, though it’s fair to speculate that disciplinary boundaries may be redrawn or that some key terms may be altered as digital collections come into wider use. Nonetheless, we do regard it as essential that students gain at least a basic understanding of how the core concepts of each discipline and a grasp of how differ from one another.

We do anticipate that change in the disciplines may come from below, from the practical realities faced by curators as they work to meet users’ demand for more virtual collections and greater cross-repository search capabilities. We thus anticipate growing links between collections, and a need for students to recognize the potential for greater federation among existing collections.

The key to the functional approach is represented by the bottom two rows of each table. We believe that the experience of digital curators shows that there are many commonalities in the processes or organizational routines followed by curators from different disciplines. This makes it potentially fruitful to analyze local practices and thereby to draw generalized lessons for our students out of the particular management problems faced by practitioners in the field.

Finally, it is widely accepted that digital curators from all disciplines face analogous, if not equivalent, problems in managing information technology. DigIn aims to teach students to approach technology problems strategically, by emphasizing the need to build the organizational capacity needed to evaluate systems and for individuals to adapt quickly as technologies evolve over time.

In applying the functional approach, our eventual aim is to enumerate the skill-sets and theoretical concepts relevant to specific tasks carried out by digital curators. This in turn leads us to our larger goal of identifying a common or core knowledge and skills base relevant to curation across multiple disciplines.

This is a challenging agenda, to be sure. In order to assure that the DigIn curriculum addresses a true cross-section of institutional needs, our course development activities are being conducted with advice and recommendations from a national panel of recognized experts in the fields of digital libraries, archives, records management, and information technology. As a starting point, we have devised a basic pedagogical model:

Theory Fundamental knowledge of discipline.
Conceptual Framework Strategic knowledge guiding action.
Practical Skills Tools and methods needed to act.

Table 2: DigIn Pedagogical Model

The key point is that in developing coursework we are attempting to strike a balance between disciplinary theory, conceptual framework grounded in the practice of curation (including the one discussed above), and a strong measure of hands-on technology skills. We hope that this approach will give students the basic tools they need to work in digital curation today and the learning capacity they will need as the field evolves over time.

Current Status of the DigIn Program

In 2006, IMLS awarded three years of funding for DigIn under the Capacity Building priority of the 2006 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program. Since then, SIRLS has begun curriculum development and recruited faculty for the program. Student recruitment began in early 2007, and our first cohort is now enrolled.

After examining the current need for training in digital curation, SIRLS chose to develop an entirely new curriculum rather than to designate existing master’s level courses as the requirements for DigIn. In particular, it was felt that the DigIn program needed more hands-on learning, especially involving technology, than is generally included in existing LIS master’s-level coursework. Thus, DigIn students will be required to install and maintain a range of information systems and to create authentic work products, such as working web servers and databases, and to configure and maintain operating systems. Also, it was decided early on that the program would be taught entirely online, enabling a wider range of students to participate.

In summer 2007, the initial DigIn course, Introduction to Applied Technology, was taught for the first time. Two courses will be initiated in the fall semester: Introduction to Digital Collections and Managing the Digital Information Environment. Two additional courses will begin in spring 2008: Digital Preservation and Advanced Digital Collections. The final requirement will be a yet-to-be-named “capstone” course that will include the completion of a digital portfolio by each student. As it is currently designed, the certificate can be completed in as little as 15 months, over the course of four semesters (including two summer sessions). Students who wish to limit their studies to one course at a time may complete the program in 27 months.

Course development activities for DigIn have been guided by a set of program outcomes devised at the outset of the grant. Most importantly, DigIn is intended to produce an informed learner. In general terms, this means that certificate graduates will be prepared for leadership roles in digital information management, and be prepared to successfully manage digital objects in the changing environment of libraries, archives and other cultural heritage institutions. Overall, graduates are expected to model success in a number of ways:

  • Demonstrate the skills and knowledge necessary to be an effective learner, showing mastery not only of emerging issues and technologies.
  • Model information literacy in the course of study and in the relevant professional context after graduation.
  • Attain a fundamental grasp of the core theoretical concepts underlying digital information management across disciplines.
  • Understand the mission of the librarian, archivist or other information professional, and abide by the codes of ethics of the professions, including respect for privacy, intellectual property and intellectual freedom.
  • Develop the skills needed to understand the information needs of the user communities being served.
  • Model successful communication skills in addressing the full range of technical and non-technical issues affecting digital collections.
  • Attain the confidence needed to excel across a broad range of professional dimensions, including teaching, learning, leading, and managing all types of digital information.

SIRLS and its partners have made a number of decisions that are intended to institutionalize DigIn as an ongoing program complementing SIRLS’s master’s and doctoral programs, and that will meet professional standards and the University of Arizona’s guidelines for course content and delivery.

First, SIRLS is electing to proceed on an “authorship model” of course development, which means that SIRLS retains the right to use all course content developed for the program by faculty members and outside experts. This assures students that the curriculum will be informed by a constantly widening pool of experts representing all aspects of digital curation. The authorship model also insures that each successive cohort of students will receive a consistent and standardized program of study.

Second, SIRLS has worked with course development specialists to create a software template for course delivery that is flexible and that also uses a state-of-the-art pedagogical design for online delivery. One of the advantages of online delivery is that it affords multiple approaches to a subject, making it possible for students with diverse learning styles to discover which methods work best for themselves.

Third, SIRLS is working with its permanent faculty to insure that all DigIn courses meet the requirements of a rigorous master’s-level course. This includes carefully articulating course-load expectations and harmonizing DigIn as much as possible with master’s-level study on such matters as advising, admissions, co-enrollment, and provisions for dual credit. At present, admissions requirements for the certificate mirror those of the UA Graduate College and SIRLS’s master’s program, with the exception that certificate students are not required to submit scores for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

DigIn Students

In recruiting students for the DigIn program, it was anticipated that we would be teaching a diverse group with a wide range of technology skills and experiences working with digital collections. The program is intended to appeal both to recent graduates as well as mid-career practitioners seeking to advance their careers. Likewise, students with technology backgrounds are to be welcomed alongside those from the humanities.

Our general assumption is that digital technology has become a pervasive, organic and yet transparent influence in cultural heritage work, making it more-and-more valuable for professionals–and not just those who seek to become digital curators–to acquire formal knowledge and updated skills in working with technology and digital resources. Thus, the DigIn program should be an attractive opportunity for information specialists seeking to advance within institutions, or for professionals seeking new career paths in digital curation.

Our initial cohort, consisting of 14 students, began the program in May 2007. DigIn enrollment is anticipated to range from 15 to 25 new students annually. As a group, the students meet SIRLS’s recruiting objectives, including representation from women and ethnic minorities who are particularly under-represented in technology-related professions. Of the 14 who began the program, 10 are female, including one Latina and one Native American. Eight students were awarded scholarships under the terms of the IMLS grant.

The first DigIn cohort is also diverse in background. We have students with experience in computer programming, Web development, systems administration, records management, scientific research, journalism, business, education, and the fine arts. Four students are currently working as archivists. Five students either have an MLS (or equivalent degree) or are currently in the master’s program at SIRLS.

It’s also interesting to note the age range of our first cohort. The median age of the group is 45, including just one student under thirty (27 years old), and only four students under 40. Five students are at least 50 years old, with our oldest student being 56. This suggests that at least in its early stages, DigIn is appealing to practitioners who are lifelong learners and who recognize the growing importance of digital technology in the cultural heritage sector. We also have several students who are seeking to change careers and who are using DigIn as an entry point to the world of libraries and archives.

One immediate challenge we have encountered in teaching our first course, Introduction to Applied Technology, is that our students clearly have widely varying levels of technical skill and experience. We have librarians who had never used a command-line interface before, and information technology specialists who have a wealth of practical experience. Early indications are that it is possible, and pedagogically effective, to integrate students from these diverse backgrounds. We believe that the complex demands faced by digital curators in the field require educators to find innovative ways to combine the pursuit of technical competency with the theoretical understanding needed to effectively manage society’s valued digital information assets.


SIRLS and its partners gratefully acknowledge major funding for the certificate program from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. We also thank the members of our national advisory panel for their advice and recommendations for shaping the DigIn curriculum.


Myburgh, Sue (2003). Education Directions for New Information Professionals. Australian Library Journal 52(3), 213-15.

Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). The Winds of Change. Consulted July 24, 2007. http://www.archivists.org/governance/presidential/rpm2005.pdf

Lyman, Peter and Hal R. Varian (2003). How Much Information. Consulted July 24, 2007. http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/

Sutton, S. A. (1999), The Panda Syndrome II: innovation, discontinuous change, and LIS education. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 40(4), 247–262.

Markey, Karen (2004). Current Educational Trends in the Information and Library Science Curriculum. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 45(4), 317-39.

Van House, Nancy and Stuart A. Sutton (1996). The Panda Syndrome: An Ecology of LIS Education. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 37(2), 131-47.

Syverson, Peter and Welch, Stephen (1997). Post-Baccalaureate Certificates: A First Look At Graduate Certificate Programs Offered By CGS Member Institutions. CGS Communicator 30(9).

Patterson, Wayne (1999). Graduate Certificate Programs Pose Admissions Challenges. Consulted July 24, 2007. http://www.gs.howard.edu/staffs-webpage/wayne-page/Graduate%20Certificate%20Programs%20Pose%20Admissions%20Challenges.htm

Miner, Lynn (2000). Guidelines for Proposing Graduate Certificate Programs at Marquette University. Consulted July 24, 2007. http://www.marquette.edu/provost/forms/documents/graduate-certificate-programs-11-2000.pdf

Schonfeld, Roger (2003). JSTOR: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cite as:

Fulton, B., et al., Teaching Digital Curation: A Functional Approach, in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/fulton/fulton.html