On the Role of Digital Librarians

The other day, I told someone that I’m a digital librarian. Of course, they asked the standard follow-up question:

What does a digital librarian do?

Such exchanges have become common for me and they highlight the continuing issues of misperception that plague digital librarianship. People assume that it must be different from traditional librarianship.

I’ve addressed this issue before but I want to take another stab at it:

Digital librarianship is librarianship. There’s no significant qualitative difference between a digital librarian and any other kind. Digital librarians require the same basic training and fundamental skills that all librarians need.

Digital libraries are libraries. Sure, different sorts of libraries are different (how’s that for tautology?)—public vs. academic vs. private, etc.—but digital libraries aren’t any more so.

Think of it this way…

In grad school, I was taught that all library materials go through the standard steps of collection management:

  • Assessment
  • Acquisition
  • Processing
  • Circulation
  • Evaluation
  • Deaccession

I don’t have my old class notes in front of me, so I may not have those quite right. The point is—digital resources go through these exact same steps. They require the same kind of management as any other type of library material.

Library branches are responsible for handling their collections and offering patron services:

  • Reference
  • Patron instruction
  • Readers advisory
  • Community programs
  • Etc.

Digital libraries do all these same things—they’re just done online, using the library’s digital resources.

Brick-and-mortar library buildings face the continuing challenge of organizing their physical collections:

  • What goes where?
  • Do you design for convenience or to encourage exploration and discovery?
  • How do you create efficient traffic flow through the space?
  • Where do you locate service desks and front-line staff?
  • Etc.

Digital libraries face these same concerns—but they use website design and UX standards, rather than shelf layout; online chat and email, rather than desks.

And, of course, all libraries—physical, digital—face the same challenge of measuring the success of their efforts: circ stats, usage stats, attendance stats, door counts, site visits, page visits, link click-thru rates, abandonment rates, discovery metrics…

People need to see that digital library services are library services, and that digital librarians are librarians. Period. Just as libraries adapted to handle media resources beyond books in the 20th century, so to have they adapted to provide digital ones in the 21st. But the core principles and tasks of librarianship stay the same throughout.

What libraries do, digital libraries do. What librarians do, digital librarians do. It’s really that simple.

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