Digital Curation and Bias in Interpretation

The guide to Data Curation that we read raised an interesting point in its introduction to the subject – namely, that interpretation of source material could be more important to a digital archive than the source document. I’ll admit that this idea threw me for a loop at first. Traditionally, curating artifacts (e.g. art pieces in a museum) has focused more on preserving the original artifact than preserving reactions to it. But it does make sense in a digital setting, where the original documents can probably be acquired from other sources and may in fact be commonplace.

Still, the idea that curators have to preserve interpretations of an artifact does raise an important issue – specifically, the issue of how much power curators have over the final interpretation of an artifact. The guide points out that even simple research have layers of interpretation; markup, metadata, annotations, and commentary all influence the way the data can be read. Choosing which interpretive layers to present in an archive effectively decides which interpretations are valid. The presence of some interpretations of data in an official collection implies that they carry more weight than others, and the same holds true for different readings of a text.

To some degree, this manipulation of interpretation is unavoidable. As Alec points out in his blog post, any field that deals with human stories will never be completely accurate and factual, since human stories are inherently messy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – debates over interpretations of data are how we come to better understand the data, after all. It just means that curators of digital archives should be careful not to let their own opinions shape which interpretations are presented along with a text. To do otherwise would shut down discussion of digital artifacts, rather than encourage it.

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