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Data and the Librarians

It was the launch of the first publicly available bibliographic database, the very beginning of online search.  And it led some librarians to think it was time to leave the profession.

In her monthly column in the MLA News, the sage Lucretia McClure points us to Irwin Pizer's 1994 Doe Lecture where he describes the launch of the SUNY Biomedical Communication Network in 1968.  I've always been quite proud of the fact that online searching was invented by medical librarians.  Without Irwin Pizer (and others) there'd've been no Sergey Brin.

While it's true that online searching was scary enough to drive some librarians into early retirement, others (as Lucretia says) "could not wait to dive into the automation revolution."  By the time I entered the profession a decade and a half later, online searching was shifting from being a specialized skill to a basic proficiency that all librarians were expected to have.  Then came the World Wide Web and librarians who based their sense of their professional selves on their competence in searching the Dialog databases or MEDLINE felt the ground lurch beneath them once again.  I believe there may have been a few more early retirements.

But of course there were more librarians who were excited about it all.  And I noticed to my delight, as the decade of the nineties wound on, that at conferences it was easy to see more new graduates of library schools eager to make their mark in the online world.  Librarians knew how to surf the web.  Librarians were cool.  Pizer's BCN was ancient history.

It was timely for me to be reminded of this this morning as I'm getting ready to review a couple of data management books: Lisa Federer's edited collection, The Medical Library Association Guide to Data Management For Librarians and Margaret Henderson's Data Management: A Practical Guide for Librarians.  The shift into developing data management services that we're seeing in academic libraries across the country promises to be at least as radical and disruptive as the invention of online searching fifty years ago.

I'm sure there are some librarians who are watching "big data" conversations taking over conferences and discussion lists and thinking this may be a good time to get out.  But the webinar I attended this morning,"Creating a Campus-wide Research Data Services Committee: The Good, The Bad, and The…" makes it clear that just as in those earlier upheavals, there are smart and energetic librarians eager to take it on. (This was part one -- part two is Thursday morning, 11/17).

But it's a huge undertaking and while there are many reasons that it makes sense for librarians to take on these roles, few practicing librarians have the day-to-day skills that are necessary.  There's a huge learning curve.  And this morning's presentations make clear how very far we have yet to go.

Those earlier revolutions, online database searching and navigating the World Wide Web, applied technology to the traditional domain of the reference librarian.  They vastly expanded the information resources available, with a concomitant increase in the challenge of acquiring mastery, but it was still fundamentally the librarian in the library, working with students and faculty, helping them find and use the information resources they required.

The challenges of data management might seem similar, calling on the skills of the cataloger and indexer to provide metadata and context for datasets.  But the shift is more radical.  It requires a new kind of partnership between the librarian and the researcher and new forms of organization and collaboration between the library and the other components of the institution.  What is apparent from this morning's presentations and is a theme that runs through most of what I see as librarians work to develop data management services, is how isolated librarians typically are from understanding the range of work and activity that makes up the days of the average faculty researcher.  It's not really surprising.  Although librarians work with people from all across campus, our interactions with them usually touch only a very small part of their daily activity.  And because we are so focused on providing a particular library service to them, we can miss their bigger picture.  This myopia affects the development of data management services.  The natural tendency, because this is the way we've always operated, is to define and develop a set of services that we think researchers need, and then try to figure out how to get them to use those services.

I touched on this in my recent essay in JeSLIB.  As I've been thinking about the challenges of data management over the past two years I've had two significant advantages for developing what I've come to believe is a necessary perspective.  First, I'm operating out of the Provost's Office rather than the library.  This is incredibly useful in keeping me focused on what researchers need, rather than what the library can provide.  Second, I come to this after nineteen years as director of the health sciences library, where I operated as a member of the Council of Deans, part of the senior leadership of the university.  I know the people, I know the issues, I know the politics.  In too many libraries, the primary responsibility for developing data management services has been turned over to a mid-level librarian who usually has other responsibilities as well.  But to have the kind of impact that is necessary, these services have to be collaborations with the Research office, Offices of Sponsored Programs, research centers, IT and others.  Mid-level librarians generally don't even know what all these entities are, much less who are the people in them and what challenges they face.  Doing that kind of outreach is going to require that the senior people in the library do some of the heavy lifting, opening doors and clearing the way for those smart and energetic data librarians that they're hiring and training.

Fifteen years ago it was common to see ads for electronic resources librarians.  I'd look at these ads and tell my staff, if we're not all becoming electronic resources librarians to some degree, we're not doing the job that our communities need us to do.  I feel the same way about data management librarians.  Just as online database searching and WWW navigation became bread and butter services for libraries, helping the institution do a better job of managing research data will become just a regular thing that librarians do.

For now, though, those pioneering librarians are like Pizer's crew at SUNY, half a century ago, inventing the future without a map, with only a sketch of a plan, but with great enthusiasm and, as Pizer said, thinking back on his career, "a sense of wonder."  What a fabulous time to be a librarian!


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