Everyone’s Got A Bit of Librarian In Them

The pedagogical value of collecting digital media wIth archive and curation tools

How do we begin to keep track of the numerous resources available on the web when working on a research project? What happens when you want to send that perfect article that you found on Facebook the other day to a friend, but now you can’t find it? Search dilemmas like these can be solved in part with the help of archive or curation tools — software that helps you sort and find web-based resources. In this week’s essay, I take a look at archiving and curation as activities for learning and the applicability that these activities have in the classroom.

Photo credit: Megan Amaral via Flickr

This is one of those topics that are hard to write about generally. Customization is the signature feature of digital archiving techs and my method of archiving may not work for everyone else. Every morning, I read a bunch of headlines from websites that I follow and save the ones I like to read either right then, or to read later. While skimming my daily news and tech gossip headlines, I take part in a curation process that I’ve honed over the last 10 years that works for me. There’s no right way to make a collection of web links, videos, and notes. So, yes, everyone’s personal digital library is different…and should be different. It’s your library for your needs. As such, there’s great value in introducing these technologies to students and having them create custom collections of resources that help them achieve their goals or express their interests in a way that is authentic: you have a constantly evolving collection when you’re done that you can share with others.

Every now and then, some new apps come along to make this process easier. For me, I find a way that helps me organize the articles and other media that I find that I may want to use later for either a project, or just to have in my personal library for something that may come up. Web curation and archive tools are one of those that have meaningfully changed how I read headlines and save stuff for later. With petabytes of content generated every day on the web, we need a way to set aside the nuggets of useful information for us to retrieve later.

K-12 and entry-level college writing courses on how to do research and argumentative essays have long suggested strategies on how to keep research projects organized, such as how to record, sort, and properly cite resources like papers, books, and websites. However, the digital world has complicated matters as the amount of information has exponentially increased with each passing year. Indeed, there are more news articles than ever from every perspective, hundreds of op-eds and essays on any topic imaginable, and an ever-growing number of blogs and personal websites.

My blog here is no different: I’m not the first to write on digital archiving and curation as activities for learning, and certainly won’t be the last. My writings, like the writings of everyone else, are doomed to get lost in the sea of internet info unless we have tools for grabbing things we find useful. There’s so much information being shared that problems of finding information notwithstanding, we need a way to capture and retrieve information sources after we find them.

If you don’t have a research project that you are working on, you’ll still likely find some value in archival tools for curating your own personal collection of web links that you find fun or aligned with your hobbies or career interests. Everyone has a bit of a librarian in them, and these archival tools can be good for anyone with hobbies, interests, or things they like to organize for either themselves or to share with the world.

Tools for archiving digital resources

There are probably hundreds of archiving tools out there that require no programming skills to set up. I’ll cover a few of the popular ones below, but talk about what distinguishes them in general.

The bookmarks, stars, or favorites in your web browser is one of the original archiving technologies that were available on the web. They continue to be available today, but they are difficult to tag and search and lack the robustness for research and sharing that modern tools have. However, bookmarks are still really useful for small collections of personal links that you visit frequently, or websites for which you don’t need a lot of organizing. If you don’t need to organize or search your bookmarks, then don’t rule them out. However, they can get pretty unruly if you let your bookmark collection grow (as mine has done for the last decade…)!

Second, there are personal link-saving and link-sharing websites that provide the search and sorting functionality that is missing in conventional bookmarking tools in a browser. Websites like Diigo and Delicious are great tools for doing the one simple task we need: saving web links. But we get a bonus as well. Users can sort, tag, and put the links into folders, as well as choose which parts of their collection are public and private. The privacy controls coupled with search capability have made these a favorite of mine over regular web bookmarks for years.

Another bookmarking service that has gained a lot of popularity is called Pocket. When you save something to pocket, it creates an easy-to-read version of the page in your Pocket for later ease of reading — and I have to admit, it’s really nice. Searching and tagging are very good in Pocket as well, making it a great private repository of links. In addition, it links well with multiple devices, as Pocket can simultaneously live on your phone, tablet, and laptop web browsers. With a simple “save to Pocket” button, you can capture anything with a URL web address and view it on any of your other devices. As a result of its simplicity and that it can connect to other services like IFTTT (for automating tasks) and Buffer (for scheduling links to be shared on social media), Pocket has become a central part of my daily reading.

Notetaking apps have also gained in popularity for saving links in an organized way. Evernote is probably the most popular of the legion of apps available to take notes. Notetaking apps help you keep more than just weblinks organized, as you can take text, voice, video, and other notes, as well as take “clippings” of other resources, like a news article. It’s a great option for people who don’t want to limit themselves to certain types of media in their collection, but it’s not easy to publicly share a folder (think of the bookshelf metaphor above) and publish it on the web. Evernote also has space and bandwidth limitations, which require you to move to a paid plan in order to be a high-volume user of the service. That being said, I really like Evernote and use it for notetaking. However, I use other services for saving and searching for web resources as If have found that they work better for my workflow.

Finally, the concept of the “pinboard” website has gained in popularity in recent years, which is a visually appealing way of seeing resources. Pinterest is arguably the most popular app for saving web resources in this way. Pinterest calls itself “a catalog of ideas,” with curators of each board illustrating a variety of pinned resources that are related to a central idea. Pins are simply any kind of web resource that they deem worthy of being attached to the board. These boards are visually stimulating, as readers typically see multimedia content when looking at a board and its theme. Although Pinterest has gained a reputation for being only for wedding planners and foodies, it’s an excellent example of a tool for curation and public sharing of resources. Although I’ve not personally used Pinterest, there are other examples that are similar to Pinterest that I’ve enjoyed. These include Goodreads or Libib for book or media library collections, or Snupps for creating a board to show off a general collection of stuff (like my Star Wars toys or my Lego collection). Web resource archives don’t have to resemble stodgy bookshelves or academic-like bibliography lists of resources — they can be pleasing to the eye as well!

Regardless of the tool you use, remember that it’s primarily your library: make it work for your needs.

Curating your collection

The goal of archiving solutions is to consider what you’ll need later. This isn’t always intuitive at first, but the ability to organize your digital resources reflects the true power of these tools to make your and students’ lives easier. In addition, depending on if you want to publicly share your personal library, organizing your resources will certainly help visitors find value in your collection.

Sure, it takes a bit more time to keep your stuff organized, but it’s worth it. It’s just like folding the laundry: I always prefer to pull out a nice bundled pair of socks from the drawer when I want. Those socks don’t fold themselves, though… (grumpy face). The same applies to web-based resource organizing: services like Delicious, Pinterest, Pocket, and Evernote help us to capture and sort web links, videos, and files quite efficiently.

Someday, though, the laundry will fold itself — at least metaphorically. These technologies will get good enough pretty soon where they will be able to sort articles and web links into useful categories for us all by themselves. But, we’re not there yet, so let’s talk about how to sort.

So, let’s get tagging! Many of the systems I recommend in the next section are based on the common “folder/tag” architecture. Simply put, we store resources (like an article we want to save) into folders that we make so that we can browse all of the related resources that have likewise been put in a folder or attach tags to the article to help with searching for it later.

If a system uses folders, we can name them anything we want — that’s where the custom curation element comes in. Think of it as your very own digital bookshelves, except you can arrange the books in any way you want and have as many shelves as you need. In many ways, it’s just like the desktop computer folders in which you put documents. For instance, if I want to collect useful news on tech, I might make a folder called “tech news.” If continue this line of thought of thinking of folders as bookshelves, we can browse the bookshelf for interesting things or relationships between the resources on the shelf. It’s similar to what you can do at a physical bookstore or a library, examining the stacks and browsing the shelves for interesting things. This is what I’ve been calling the browsing effect, or the ability to find connections and generate new ideas just because resources were lumped together on the same “shelf.” Archiving tools give us the power to collect resources and organize them in a way that gives us useful new ways of seeing our information. And the best part is that you can browse others’ publicly available digital “shelves” as well.

…It’s also way easier to find your things when they’re put away on the shelf! :)

In a similar process to assigning folders, we apply “tags” to links in some of these archive systems. We can affix as many tags as we want to describe the article, and typically the more we put the easier it is to find the article. Think of it as putting a sticker or nametag on the article, and that you can scan that nametag really easily when you want to find it in a pile. Back to the laundry example, imagine that each sock, shirt, and towel has a nametag on it. With a special, hypothetical mobile phone app that doesn’t yet exist, what if we can cause nametags on clothes to light up if you search for them on the app, or better yet sift themselves up to the top of the pile? That’s the principle behind tagging — we assign labels to resources so we can find them easier later by only searching for that label.

Don’t be afraid of how you are sorting/tagging articles when you get started. Some tags that are useful to you may only become evident as you’ve been doing it for a while. As such, your system can change over time, and it’s perfectly normal! I often find myself creating new tags in my pocket/delicious archive.

To have a successful archive, it’s important to just keep in mind how you want to structure your resources. I’ve found it best for me to just mimic how I sort things in my head — things that are news I label with a tag called news; things that are helpful to a research project I label with a tag that is specially named for that research project (for instance, “weeklyArticles” — and I sometimes truncate or combine words to make a unique word that I can easily search for later).

Including a hashtag on a tag can also be helpful so you can find only your tags with that label, and not just any occurrence of the word in your database. For instance, typing #news would find anything that has that exact string of characters — which would only be your tags that you labeled #news. On the other hand, simply typing “news” without the hashtag would turn up every article that had the word “news” in it, regardless if you want to see it or not. Sometimes that’s helpful, but the hashtagging system became popular for this very reason in online archiving and communications tools.

Another thing to think about when organizing your resources in an archive is to consider 1) whether having an audience would be fun or useful and 2) what that audience might want to see if you open your archive bookmarks up. As a technology used for education, the development of a public personal archive would be a nice project around a topic of study. Wikipedia is a great example of a public archive, with each article pointing visitors to many useful sources on any given topic. As Wikipedia is foremost public-facing, care needs to be taken to consider how the public will view the articles, evaluate whether or not they will find what they are looking for, and to provide information that they would find valuable in the first place. I have a public Delicious archive that I store articles that I think people who are into the intersection of education and technology would find interesting. If you have a public archive, it’s worth considering every now and then what you’re putting online and how your audience might interpret it.

Thinking pedagogically about archival tools

So, what are some of the pedagogical implications for archival tools if we dig a bit deeper into classroom application?

Knowledge creation. Readers who are fans of learning philosophy will see an immediate benefit of archive tools for assisting with knowledge creation and information synthesis among learners, especially when archives are social. There are many opportunities to see connections between items in a folder, board, or among a particular tag. When working with tags specifically, we can see how some tags are related to or contrast with others, causing us to do a bit of critical thinking and idea generation. I say “we” here because it’s not only students who can learn from these tools when used in a classroom. Potentially anyone who interacts with the archive, including parents, teachers, and others from a student’s community, can learn and continue to create new knowledge by sharing critiques and ideas about the archive.

Content-specific study and deep exploration. Curation is great for content-area study, giving not only a storage and retrieval space for resources but also a place for thinking and reflection. Are you studying modern American literature? You can create an archive for that to capture titles in your range of study, but also critiques, media, and articles on the places and themes of the literature. Putting these all together in one space gives learners a new perspective on their area of study via that browsing effect I discussed above. Studying weather in the real world? You can create an archive for news articles of weather occurrences, as well as articles and media on the science behind weather phenomena. Studying big social issues like crime or the economy? You can create archives into which articles can be sorted and retrieved for later use. I’ve done subject-based archives many times and find them to be helpful not just for organization, but generating insights as well.

The browsing effect and critical thinking. I discussed what I call the browsing effect above (I’m sure there are other names for it in the library and information sciences). What I mean here is what happens when you browse the stacks at a library, which, unfortunately, doesn’t happen nearly as often today as we switch to dominantly digital media. Sometimes ideas pop up when you’re walking the stacks. As you’re looking at book spines along a row of similarly categorized books, questions seem to pop up about how things are related and why stuff is there. When I was an undergraduate, I would walk the stacks when working on political science term papers. I could see the various titles of the books and hypothesize on how concepts might be related. How is political economy related to decisions made by state government in a particular decade? Two books of those topics close to each other often helped me make a connection via this browsing effect. Having an article archive helps me in much of the same way, especially as I write my weekly column. I often go back to my digital archives in Delicious and Pocket to get ideas on topics. The browsing effect is not a new phenomenon by any means — libraries figured it out years ago! But digital archives are bring back this valuable aspect of libraries that we are starting to lose by not visiting the physical stacks.

Current thinking capture. This one’s simple: it’s an archive of your thinking as well. Learners can look back and see what was found when, what articles influenced their thinking, what paths were taken to get there, and what sparked interests and questions at certain points. A reflection on one’s thinking could be really revealing and provide many insights, especially when trying to garner personal lessons about one’s growth. Students of all ages can benefit by asking questions of why they put articles in the bin and how these web resources are related and different. Digital archive tools capture our interests in a special way that even journals have a hard time grabbing. What outside influences helped us generate our thoughts at the time? We can get some of this from our archives.

Publication and creation. Finally, but maybe most importantly, digital archives give learners an opportunity to create work products for both themselves and for others. In effect, these digital archive tools give participants the opportunity to create a literal museum, library, or special collection that is unique — they built it. The archive itself has additional meaning imbued by its creator, making it more interesting than the individual parts of which it’s composed. Building a project like this not only promotes the critical thinking and subject-matter study mentioned above, but it also gives ownership to learners over an authentic activity. It’s far more interesting and motivational to build your own set of resources and not be limited by the type of media in the collection. By allowing students to curate, it makes for a great project around a particular topic or learning goal.

What do you think?

How have you used archiving tools in the classroom? Do you have any ideas about how archiving tools might promote or detract from learning? — tweet me at @jeremyriel and let me know what’s on your mind or what’s worked for you. I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.