Academic librarianship as a data profession

Andrew Cox believes academic librarianship is becoming more of a data profession and outlines a spectrum of data roles from the familiar to the new.

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The data role spectrum

What emerges from this is a ‘data role spectrum’. At one end of the scale are the data related tasks that feel relatively familiar, such as data search, data literacy training and data collection management. At the other end of the scale are those that we might associate with the work of IT professionals, such as data carpentry, or researchers, such as data analysis and visualisation. These fit less easily into the classic library role, but the profession is changing to engage with them more.

The spectrum is useful for looking at other areas where the ‘deluge of data’ is flooding into academic library work. An emerging topic is Text and Data Mining (TDM) where machine learning tools are used to analyse huge unstructured corpuses of texts. In TDM the library role is most likely to be about licensing content (data collection management) and training people to use tools (data training), and in managing derived outputs (a form of data curation). 

Another area that could be analysed through the spectrum is around bibliometrics and altmetrics, where ‘the data’ is about researchers and their outputs, analysed to reveal the impact of research. Here the role seems mostly to be about calculating metrics and helping researchers to understand metrics about themselves and their work, in the context of the concept of responsible use (Cox et al. 2017; Bibliomagician, 2017). Interestingly, here the role is actually in the area of doing analysis/visualisation, albeit, through proprietary tools, and with an emphasis on training others to undertake analyses for themselves.

In conclusion

Academic librarianship seems to be moving towards becoming a data profession. It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next decade. Perhaps data analysis will become integral to professional competencies. This would be a fundamental shift in the positioning of academic librarianship. There are much more obvious areas where including data in support services or training is a natural extension of what academic libraries already do; and other areas such as data curation that others would expect librarians to take up. The data role spectrum could help chart these changes.

Andrew Cox is a senior lecturer at the Information School, University of Sheffield and is co-author of the new Facet Publishing book, Exploring Research Data Management.


This is an edited version of an article to be published in UKeiG's eLucidate journal. For more information on eLucidate (the e-journal of CILIP special interest group UKeiG) contact Gary Horrocks 

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