I do not understand the point of curated databases

Photo by Nesster.
Photo by Nesster.

Lately I’ve been volunteering to do usability testing for Yale’s library. Well, “volunteering” is probably too generous a word, since Yale pays pretty well, in the form of iTunes and Barnes & Noble gift cards. I like the gift cards, but I love the excuse to rant about what I do and don’t like about the library interface.

I have no idea how much of my ranting is actually relevant to the subject of the tests, but I enjoy it anyway. Most recently, I enjoyed ranting about what I’ve been calling “curated” databases, since I don’t know the technical term for them.

I’m talking about things like America: History and Life, a product put out by ABC-CLIO that indexes articles, dissertations, and book reviews that ABC-CLIO thinks are relevant to American history and culture. I’m irritated when researchers into American history are directed (and we always are) to America: History and Life to find relevant articles and books.

My thing is, why? Maybe a product like this that selects subjects for the researcher was useful in the olden days, before keyword searches, but I feel I should be able to set the parameters of my search, not an invisible curator. Why should someone else decide what’s relevant to American history and culture when I can set my own limits using keywords and get much better coverage in AcademicSearch and JSTOR?

I really think that the Students of Today feel similarly. We’re used to curating our own searches in Google. I apologize to the well-intentioned experts who have created these databases, but I don’t think we need you.

Speaking as a former curator, I definitely do think there’s a place for expert selection — in a digital exhibition, for example. But in a search, we expect coverage, not curation.

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