Monday, 12 May 2014

Becoming a Data Librarian

Today I attended an Australian National Data Service (ANDS) webinar on ‘Becoming a Data Librarian – everything you wanted to know….’ The topic obviously struck a nerve with some 124 connections to the webinar – and many of these would have involved more than one person listening in. As there are actually very few ‘Data Librarians’ in Australia, I assume that the webinar attracted a broad range of people such as librarians in other roles, librarians who do some data management but who are not called ‘Data Librarian’, library managers, data managers, library/info mgt students and more.

There were three speakers at the webinar: Cathy Miller from University of Adelaide, Philippa Broadley from QUT and David Groenewegen from Monash University. Cathy and Philippa shared their ‘path’ to becoming a data librarian while David took a birds-eye, senior managers perspective. Each reflected on the skills and knowledge that were needed as a data librarian. There were common themes in all three talks:

  • There is no well-worn path to becoming a data librarian. This is a new role, which many libraries are yet to create, and so there is no clear or common career path leading into this role.
  •       The role of data librarian is not well defined and is continually evolving, with the job responsibilities differing widely between institutions. Rather than being too narrow, the role is often much broader than the title indicates, though data management is of course at the core of the work.
  •       The role requires generic “soft” skills like communication. This is critical for conducting aspects of the role such as face-to-face data interviews with researchers, writing policy documents, training a group of researchers in data management and so forth. Another “soft” skill was obviously flexibility – both Cathy and Philippa changed roles frequently before their current data librarian roles and were prepared to take fixed-term contract (rather than permanent) positions. These “soft” skills are not exclusive to librarianship and may be gained outside of the library.
  •       There are some “hard” skills that help transition into the data librarian role. In particular: metadata, technical and repository skills and knowledge. Knowledge of the broader research environment and project management skills were also an asset.
  •      Most skills and knowledge are acquired on the job. David reflected on what librarians bring to the roles, such as knowledge of the scholarly environment and skills in organising and describing information resources. However, knowledge of eResearch and the research data environment along with skills in things like metadata were gained on the job, while in the role, rather than acquiring this beforehand (e.g. through a library degree or short course).

These common threads, reflected by the speakers, were heartening to me as they confirm the findings that Sam Searle and I wrote about in our VALA 2014 paper Redefining‘the Librarian’ in the context of emerging eResearch services.


Cathy and Philippa had both been involved in multiple ANDS-funded projects prior to or as part of their data librarian roles, which gave them advanced skills and knowledge in relation to data management. At a senior level, David was an ANDS Director before he moved into a new role at Monash University. This shows how important the role of ANDS has been in fostering better data management practices at Australian institutions, however it is concerning: now that many of the ANDS–funded projects at Australian institutions have concluded, where to for the data librarian roles? How many libraries are willing to create permanent roles for Data Librarians, or, re-write position descriptions of existing library roles so that they include data management? Will more libraries make data management mainstream, core library business? I like to think the answer is yes, and that it will be fuelled by the needs of researchers, changes in the requirements of research funding bodies including government, and by local policy implementation.  

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