Discovering a Profession: the accidental data librarian

By Chuck | June 14, 2005

A session at the Edinburgh conference addressed a topic that arose earlier in the year on the IASSIST email discussion list about how people prepare and enter the profession of data librarianship. In general, is there a profession of data librarianship?An interesting question was presented on the IASSIST email discussion list earlier this year asking how one becomes a data librarian. Several people replied by relating personal accounts about their entry into this profession. Out of this discussion came the observation that many were ‘accidental’ data librarians, that is, they had not pursued a career as a data librarian but by happenstance discovered the profession.

This conversation was continued in a session at the Edinburgh conference: E4. Discovering a Profession: the accidental data librarian. Speaking in this session, Paul Bern (Syracuse University) questioned whether data librarianship qualifies as a real profession. He listed three attributes that W.M. Sullivan in Work and Integrity (2005) uses to characterize a profession:

  • a commitment to public service
  • public recognition of a degree of autonomy to regulate themselves
  • specialized training in a field of codified knowledge.

Paul noted that the first characteristic is one on which we clearly qualify as a profession. Data librarians are known for their dedication to public service. How data librarianship measures up to the next two characteristics, however, is debatable. This blog entry is dedicated to continuing this debate.


I Was Feeling Pretty Agnostic

Submitted by Robin Rice (not verified) on Mon, 2005-07-18 11:58. I was feeling pretty agnostic on this question of certification, I can see the benefits but also it’s hard to see it materialising. Now, I just came across a similar group that seems to have whipped up a certification process for themselves within a couple of years. Maybe it isn’t that hard! The organisation, ALT, Association of Learning Technology, which is a UK organisation, but seems to have close ties with SURF in the Netherlands, has developed a certification scheme for learning technologists. I came across this because I noticed there is a workshop at this year’s ALT conference on the ins and outs of certification. There is a document that explains it a little more fully by the executive director of ALT. Perhaps we should invite him to speak at IASSIST, or simply begin a dialogue with him about it? P.S. Here’s a picture of the original Accidental Data Librarians from the IASSIST/IFDO 2005 conference site -

Well, I Guess I Should Weigh

Submitted by Paul Bern (not verified) on Tue, 2005-06-28 15:13. Well, I guess I should weigh in here. Most of my ramblings below are in response to the previous posts, although not necessarily in the order they appeared. Like Lisa, I want to avoid focusing only on the term “Librarian.” As I pointed out in my presentation (as did Luis Martinez and Stuart Macdonald in their presentation in the same session), the Data Profession is more than just librarians. We are also computer technicians, statisticians and data producers. Perhaps the only common thread is that we all fell into the profession somehow. I think some people during the session who did not raise their hands may not have done so because they do not have the word “Librarian” in their title, or perhaps, do not work in a library although they perform all the same functions. When I was the Data Archivist at OPR, I would not have raised my hand, even though I performed some librarian-type duties. I would raise my hand now only because I have word Librarian in my title. I’m not so sure I even like being called a librarian simply because most people would not assume a librarian can do statistics and statistical programming. Getting people to learn that they can come to the library for this level of assistance is one of the biggest obstacles I have faced so far. Your point, Chuck, about data librarians and data in general needing more recognition in libraries is well taken. I could be wrong, but I think many librarians were saddled with data due to ignorance on the part of administration as well as a mentality that if one has an MLS then one should be able to do anything in a library. Then again, it may be that some institutions do not need a full time data librarian. I don’t want to nit-pick, but even as a full-time data librarian, I do not spend 100% of my time strictly on data activities. I am part of the Maps and Government Information Department and spend an average of seven hours a week working on our reference desk. Lisa mentioned that the phrase “ALA accredited Masters Degree, or an equivalent combination of a relevant advanced degree and experience” is rare. I don’t think the phrase itself is rare, what is rare, though, is being hired without the MLS. I am the only librarian I know of who does not have an MLS. I got the job here at SU because of my experience and my connection to the university – I worked as a stats consultant while I was a grad student here. I’m not so sure I would have been considered at another library, particularly not after making it clear during the interview that I have no intention of getting an MLS. Please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the MLS or anyone who has one. It’s only one of several ways a person can enter the data profession. I’m not sure if official certification is absolutely necessary. I would definitely not want any certification to be handled by ALA due to their obvious (and perfectly legitimate) focus on librarianship. The GIS page pointed out by Jen looks like a good model. What may be just as good is a list of courses or “required knowledge” for each of the four groups comprising the data profession. Certainly, we would need this even if we do go with official certification. In my presentation I also suggested having our workshops at other times of the year in other places. Another idea may be to have them as online/webcast courses.

Joining The Fray… My

Submitted by Jen Darragh (not verified) on Tue, 2005-06-28 10:29. Joining the fray… My working title is “Data Archivist” but my assigned position title is “Database Specialist” - in all honesty, and perhaps I’m just being persnickety, I would say that my assigned position is more accurate than my working title. I would say that 100% of my time is dedicated to data services - but the services provided are probably different than those typically provided by an academic data librarian in a large university library. I, like many others, stumbled into my profession by accident. I did not have any library training when I started, just a BA in psychology and a few years experience processing raw data for a longitudinal survey research project. Just last year I began my graduate studies to obtain an MLIS and am halfway through the program. My studies have most definitely influenced my position in the positive. I wonder, however, if I hadn’t already spent five years in the job and was starting out fresh with a degree in library science, if the outcome would be the same. I now know that an MLIS can definitely enhance a career in data services, but it most definitely is not necessary. I too would like to see training session offered by veteran data service professionals - MLS or sans MLS. There is a wealth of knowledge in IASSIST that can be found nowhere else. I also think professional certification is something worth looking into, but I’m not certain who we should seek out for help (ALA is a good idea, perhaps SLA could help as well?). The GIS professional community has also been debating the certification issue - see Does anyone know how that debate is going? There are quite a few geospatial data librarian positions cropping up, and I wonder how GIS certification will affect them.

In Response To These

Submitted by Tiffani Conner (not verified) on Wed, 2005-06-15 12:20. In response to these postings, first, I am one of the librarians who has neither 100% data tasks nor the title (or any indication in my current title) of data librarian, yet in my job description “data services” is one of many that are listed. While my situation may be different (I’m creating the data service to be offered by the library, we are not a data archive yet we have many tools and certainly access to data sets), I still feel the terminology needs to be somewhere in my title–still working on that. I have asked that if the data service is indeed implemented at the library that my title be changed to reflect recognition of both the time and library’s committment. As to the education piece, while I understand some of the issues with certification, I wonder if an option might be to speak with ALA and CLA (and other international orgs), for example, and add this on. ALA has the APA going, which is designed for certification (at the moment of non-MLS library employees). Since it’s an existing structure, could IASSIST join up? Otherwise, I’d personally like to see some online courses developed. IASSIST members could act as instructors or students and it could be opened up to anyone else. I’m thinking primarily of a course like Cindy Severt taught at UW-Madison (she indicated it was a couple of years ago). It was an actual grad-level course on data librarianship, perhaps it could be paired down or parsed out to make it a 6-week thing, or two 6-week sessions? I wouldn’t want to recreate the ICPSR training sessions. Certification will be great for some but unnecessary for others.

I Have A Little Problem With

Submitted by Lisa Neidert (not verified) on Wed, 2005-06-15 10:13. I have a little problem with the term data librarian – not a problem with treating our work as a profession. I too came to my profession ‘accidentally’ via the path of a Ph.D. program. There are many of us who fell off of the normal professor track, but whose skills and knowledge make us very useful to the research profession. However, most of the folks who followed my path do not have a library degree. Thus, it is difficult for me to consider myself as a data librarian although I do not mind my unit being thought of as a data library. Actually, the term library often carries negative connotations among so that my unit is known as “data services” which encompasses all aspects of data from management, dissemination, programming, improvement, acquisition, and education. Almost all jobs posted for data librarians in the United States require library certification. The following example from the UM job site is rare wording “ALA accredited Masters Degree, or an equivalent combination of a relevant advanced degree and experience.” While I may have the same skills as other data librarians I would not even be in the job pool for many of the jobs other IASSTERS hold. I taught a course this past semester in quantitative reasoning. The position was as a lecturer and I had the distinct experience of gaining more respect from the researchers I serve wearing my lecturer hat. This gets back to the certification discussion. To be a lecturer one has to have a terminal degree in the substantive area in which I taught – which I do. It is much clearer to see what my expertise and responsibilities were for teaching. I was also clearly in charge of the course. I had “public recognition of the degree of autonomy to regulate myself.” There was something very satisfying about my experience as a lecturer - not just the tasks I did but the role I played. There is something to this certification discussion.

Most Of The People With Whom

Submitted by Chuck Humphrey (not verified) on Tue, 2005-06-14 18:27. Most of the people with whom I have contact who are data librarians or who perform data librarian functions were trained by practicing data librarians. One could think of IASSIST as being its own small university where members train one another. When we look at the need for our profession to involve specialized training in a field of codified knowledge, we currently find a system heavily dependent on peer-to-peer instruction. Without other avenues for people in our profession to receive training, peer training has been a very successful system. For one thing, the collective expertise of the members in IASSIST provides you with almost all of the knowledge on this planet about data librarianship. Through IASSIST, the ICPSR Summer Program, DLI Training and other specialized workshops, one can acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes to be an outstanding data librarian. This is fine if your job does not require special credentials in data librarianship or if we are willing to maintain our current professional status. The Education Committee of the DLI External Advisory Committee explored the possibility of certifying data librarians in Canada. Many practitioners told us that they would like to have a certificate verifying that they have achieved a specific level of training as data librarians. Our search for professional certification models led us to the Association of Canadian Archivists where we discovered that certification is a very costly endeavour. Canada does not operate its own certification program and appears to rely on the Academy of Certified Archivists, which is located in the United States. The overhead of an operation like the Academy is far more than the resources available to certify Canadian data librarians. As a consequence, the recommendation by the DLI Education Committee was to forego certification and to consider the use of recognition statements for completing workshops.

There is a level of demand at which one could justify a certification programme for data librarians. For now, it appears that such a business plan would need to be international in scope.

I Attended The ‘Accidental

Submitted by Chuck Humphrey (not verified) on Tue, 2005-06-14 13:56. I attended the ‘Accidental Data Librarian’ session in Edinburgh and am concerned that the part-time aspect of many of our jobs as data librarians hinders the development of our profession. I believe that data librarianship is a profession and would like to see how we can advance this field to satisfy the three characteristics of a profession itemized by Sullivan. The challenging criteria are the public recognition to regulate ourselves and, in conjunction with this, certified training based on a recognized body of knowledge. I’ll say more about certified training in another comment.

The part-time nature of many of our jobs makes these last two characteristics formidable obstacles. Of the approximately 60 people attending Session E4, I asked for a show of hands, first, for how many spend 100 percent of their time as a data librarian and, second, for how many have data librarian functions in their job but do not spend 100 percent of their time on these functions. A quick hand count showed around 15 who are full-time data librarians and 35 who do data librarian functions as just part of their job. I can only speculate that the non-respondents in the room do not see themselves as data librarians or as performing data librarian functions.

This non-scientific poll indicates to me that our work as data librarians has been integrated into other jobs. While it is reassuring that data librarian functions are valued and recognized to the extent that they have been incorporated into other jobs, it is the other work responsibilities that are likely recognized as the profession of these people. Consequently, many of us have a professional title that isn’t data librarian but which has a specialization in data.

The challenge is to develop a profession around data library functions that are recognized as professional activities until the number of people who are working as data librarians 100 percent of the time reaches sufficient numbers.