The Great Curate Debate

I’m unleashing the inner curmudgeon today. My topic: curating.

Last week as my writing friend Sue and I were driving back from Benicia I talked about the column I write for Fantasy Literature, World Wide Wednesday. It is an internet round-up column the same as many sites provide. Sue said, “That’s fantastic! You’re curating all that content and publishing it!”

My first reaction (unspoken) was “curate, schmurate*.”

I am having a bad reaction to that word lately. A while ago a Facebook friend who is a foodie posted an indignant rant about how people weren’t respectful of an eating experience he had “curated” for them. I thought, “Just slap some mashed potatoes on the plate and get over yourself, dude!”

“Curate” comes from the Latin word for “to care for.” It’s probably why the Church of England had a role, for many years, of curate (They show up in Jane Austen frequently), who acted as the vicar’s assistant and kept the church, and the congregation, going.

Curators are more closely associated with museums, galleries, and collections of specialized objects. I suppose if you didn’t have librarians and archivists, you would have book curators; and I suppose we do have book curators at places like the Library of Congress.

Nowadays, though, everyone curates everything. We all curate everything.

After my mental huff at Sue’s comment, I realized she is right about the column. I have an idea of what the column should contain; I search the internet for articles and videos along that general theme, I lightly read (or skim) the material to make sure it is accessible enough, deep enough and not-whacko enough for our audience. Then I link to it, and provide a brief description of it (a provenance, I suppose). If, instead of links, each of those articles was a teapot, I could be said to be curating a collection. I am, in fact, curating content.

So what’s my beef? Part of it is an old-fashioned view of the word. When I think of “curators” I picture college-educated people with a lot of knowledge and experience in their field, whether it’s fifteenth century European art, Greek pottery, medieval weaponry or Star Wars memorabilia. They’ve read, they’ve studied, they’re vetted, and that’s part of curating to me. Loading a bunch of your favorite songs onto an MP3 player isn’t “curating.” Only, these days, it is – you have “curated your music experience.”

Well, good job!

We all have the ability to “curate” our own entertainment now. Through Netflix, Amazon, and OnDemand we can watch what we want when we want. We can assemble a group of similar-themed entertainments – and yes, that probably meets the definition of “curate,” too.

And it makes us think, because we can do that, that we’re somehow experts; that we know as much as real curators. I can find an article on Star Wars memorabilia easily, I can even read it; it doesn’t make me an expert in that particular niche field.

The fact that the word somehow implies that I know as much as a real, working, educated curator makes me grouchy.

I mean, really? If I separate the black and navy-blue socks out of the hamper, and don’t wash them with the whites, have I “curated” my laundry experience?

I understand that this came this came about as a reaction to the volume of diverse information that is easily available now. While most of us compile links to internet articles, “compiling” has a specific technical term, and the degree of evaluation I perform (I do skim the articles, I do make sure it’s from a site with at least minimal legitimacy) is curation. It’s just curation-lite, and I don’t think we should give ourselves airs.

I don’t want my burger and fries curated! I just want them hot and on a plate. I don’t want to “curate” the last season of Grimm. I just want to queue it up and watch. I don’t think if you recommended six books to me, you have “curated a reading experience!” I think you just recommended some books.

The ship has sailed on this one, and I’m left standing on the dock stamping my foot and yelling “Darn kids!” But I don’t like it. And a big reason I don’t like it is that it’s part of the same movement to downgrade storytellers, poets, singers, painter and sculptors to “content providers.” I will grumble more about that in a future post.

*Sue was excited that I get to do the column and my lack of enthusiasm was not gracious!

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