On Librarians and RDM …

Discussions about libraries often elevate their subject to the status of an animate being, à lalibraries are expanding their range of research support services”, or “libraries must do a better job of demonstrating their value to the campus community.” Of course, such references are merely shorthand for the sum total of activities taking place within the library. Still, it is worth making the point that libraries don’t make decisions or carry them out.

Librarians do.

This observation is prompted by a recent note from Linda Salem of San Diego State University, who, after reading the first report in our Realities of Research Data Management series, wrote to us with a question that cuts right to the heart of the matter (we take the liberty of paraphrasing): “What is the librarianship of RDM work? In other words, what RDM-related activities will librarians do?”

Precisely. When we speak about the role of libraries in RDM, we are, fundamentally, speaking about the work of librarians. In our Realities of Research Data Management reports, we are looking at RDM as an institutional (university) capacity; in this sense, we tend to speak of the university – or some unit of the university like the library – as the primary agent in building or acquiring RDM capacity. But as a practical matter, it is the librarians, data specialists, technical personnel, and other staff that bring a university’s RDM capacity to life.

In A Tour of the Research Data Management Service Space, we divide RDM services into three components:

  • Education services: raising awareness, skill-building, disclosing RDM resources
  • Expertise services: RDM decision support and customized solutions
  • Curation services: technical infrastructure and services for data management

So in response to Linda’s question, we can say that librarians will make their contributions to RDM in some or all of these areas. But that is not a very tidy answer. RDM is an emerging service space, and the role of libraries and librarians in its provision is likely to shift and transform as the area matures. However, we can supply a few general observations that might help shape future thinking about librarians and RDM.

  1. In some cases, librarians won’t do anything …

The fabric of RDM services and infrastructure extends well beyond those provided by the academic library, or the university itself. Think, for example, of the Dryad data repository in the bio-sciences (an independent 501(c)3 non-profit), the DMPonline tool (provided by the UK Digital Curation Center, a national center of expertise in digital curation), or figshare (a commercial service from Digital Science). Many researchers navigate these resources without any mediation by librarians or indeed any local university staff.

Even when researchers avail themselves of local RDM services through their university, it is not necessarily true that those resources will be sourced in the library and staffed by librarians. Instead, they may be provided by other campus units, without library involvement. For example, Northwestern University’s Research Data Storage Service is provided through the campus Information Technology unit.

  1. … yet they will still need to be conversant in RDM and the RDM service space.

One area where academic librarians have already demonstrated leadership is in the Education component of campus RDM services. In particular, librarians often assume the responsibility of facilitating access to RDM resources provided through the library, other campus units, or extra-institutional organizations. For example, many academic librarians compile LibGuides, like this one provided by the University of North Carolina Greensboro, to assist researchers in navigating the RDM service space, pointing them to resources available on campus or elsewhere. Training is another area where librarians focus effort, educating researchers on the benefits of good data management practices, as well as the basic workflows involved. Librarians at the University of York, for example, regularly offer RDM workshops for faculty and students, covering the basics of RDM, university and funder data policies, data management planning, active data management, and long-term preservation and sharing.

So even if librarians do not direct a full spectrum of RDM services sourced within the library, we expect that they will be increasingly regarded as subject experts in this area, helping researchers to understand the topography of the RDM service space, and connecting them to the RDM resources that are available either locally or externally. Indeed, RDM may become an essential part of broader digital literacy curricula implemented by academic librarians on their campuses.

  1. The librarianship of RDM will become more concrete as roles mature and solidify.

Academic librarians are often shouldering major new RDM responsibilities. In some cases, this involves being asked to do things which are at present beyond their usual expertise. At many universities, a new role – data librarian – is emerging, but there can be ambiguity over the meaning of this designation: does it embody a librarian with a particular skill set, or is it more a description of new duties? In the case of the latter, a data librarian may be someone thrust into a new role who must acquire a range of new skills on the job.

We see the emergence of efforts to codify the basic skill sets needed for librarians and other university staff tasked with new RDM responsibilities. “Train the trainer” programs are a good example, such as the “Essentials 4 Data Support: the Train the Trainer version” workshop at the recent IDCC conference. Similarly, the MANTRA project maintains an RDM training kit specifically for librarians. As new training programs and even certifications appear, the librarianship of RDM, and the skill set needed to support it, will become both more solidified and consistent – and will complement a growing emphasis on digital curation and research support as essential skills in the librarian’s toolkit.

  1. Cooperation is needed.

The need for librarians to acquire new skills to support research data management boosts the incentive to develop programs for cooperatively developing and sharing RDM expertise. In some countries, such programs take the form of national centers, such as Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS) in the Netherlands, or the Digital Curation Centre in the UK. Other cooperative programs adopt a more distributed approach – the recently launched Data Curation Network is a collaboration between six US universities, and aims to create a “network of expertise” for RDM, enabling libraries to act collectively to curate a greater variety of data (type, format, discipline) than a single institution could manage.

Collaboration around developing skills and sharing expertise is likely to be particularly important for academic libraries, as they assume new data curation responsibilities at the same time that library budgets are static or shrinking. The availability of a shared pool of expertise and other resources amplifies librarians’ ability to support RDM at their local institution.

  1. The librarianship of RDM is the librarianship of the scholarly record.

RDM is an emerging – and fast-developing – feature of 21st century scholarship, re-shaping researcher practices and, ultimately, the scholarly record. The scholarly record is, of course, fundamental to the mission of academic libraries, and therefore provides a good starting point for thinking about the librarianship involved in managing research data. Librarians are the traditional stewards of the scholarly record, collecting and preserving the outputs of scholarly inquiry. Historically, those outputs tended to be print books and journals; today, the scholarly record is evolving to encompass a much wider range of materials, including research data. So the role librarians play in RDM – however that role comes to be defined – is a natural extension of librarians’ commitment to securing the ongoing availability of the scholarly record in its manifold forms.

Thanks to Rebecca Bryant and Constance Malpas for their input in writing this post, and to Linda Salem for inspiring it!