Things You Can Do as a Library Student to Prepare for a Career as a Data Librarian

Editor’s Note: Celia Emmelhainz worked as an international librarian for three years while studying for her MLS, and now works as a Social Science Data Librarian in Maine. She blogs at Dumpling Cart and invites young data librarians into conversation on the Databrarians blog. This post was originally published on February 18, 2015.

We do so much in library school—take classes, work, study, and figure out how to market ourselves when we graduate. In this post, I’d like to talk about how I became a data librarian, and what you can learn about data while still in library school!


I worked abroad for three years while in library school, and I was totally focused on being the best social science librarian I could be: teaching classes, doing research on social scientists, and volunteering to archive social science datasets.

So it was with both joy and surprise that I became a social science data librarian after graduation a few months ago. I’d worked with data before, but I didn’t expect how central it would be to my post-MLS job. Oh, this is a post about academic librarians, you’re thinking.

Yes! But hold on—data skills will be useful to public and school librarians as well. In a world of “big data”, “public data”, and “data science,” we’ve got a great chance to reach out and help people access, use, and share “data” about our world. In other words, data skills, like internet skills and book skills, will be handy for any librarian in the next few years.

  1. Who is a data librarian? 

The subject of debate! I’ll define a data librarian as someone who works with “data” (individual records of human, social, or physical life) and “statistics” (summaries of all of all those individual examples).

As a data librarian, you might advise local business owners seeking market data, help students run statistics for a project, encourage librarians to use infographics as they communicate with the public, or help researchers to manage large datasets effectively. Your title might look something like these recently-posted job titles:

  • Data Reference Services Librarian
  • Data Services Librarian
  • Social Science Data Librarian
  • Business and Social Sciences Librarian
  • Science Research Librarian
  • Data and eScience Librarian
  • Science Data Librarian
  • GIS Librarian
  • Research Data Management Librarian
  • Data Curation Librarian
  • Quantitative Data Collections Librarian
  • Librarian for Data Visualization
  • Assessment Librarian

Yes, those are academic roles, but as Americans learn more about public data sources and the cool visualizations that can result, I expect more businesses, schools, and public libraries will hire librarians who bring data skills to the table.

  1. What skills do I need as a data librarian? 

Start with the people skills, attention to detail, and problem-solving skills that every librarian needs—then add greater technical or scientific knowledge than your peers. You’ll have a competitive advantage if you can show a few of these skills:

  • Teach data or statistical literacy as well as information literacy
  • Reach out to scholars in business, science, social sciences, OR the (digital) humanities
  • Provide “data reference” for people who need help finding data or analyzing in online tooks (like the US Census website)
  • Help fellow librarians to overcome their fears and help patrons find data, just like they help people find books, websites, and multimedia sources
  • Lead ethnographic interviews and analyze qualitative data in NVIVO and Atlas.ti
  • Can use Excel, Stata, R, and/or SPSS to produce statistical results
  • Share public data sources ( and private data sources (ICPSR)
  • Help people find spatial data; if a GIS specialist, help people actually work ERSI, ArcGIS, or other tools
  • Teach seminars for patrons on finding, using, sharing, or visualizing data
  • Learn project management, assessment, or library metrics
  • Be willing to learn data programming languages like Python and R
  • Have a BA/BS or MA/MS in scientific, business, or social science research
  • Are able to explain data management and archiving to researchers
  1. Whoah, isn’t that a lot to ask?

No worries—almost no one has all these skills. Like you, I roll my eyes when libraries want to hire a skilled teacher, auditor, data scientist, business analyst, and programmer all in one. But don’t be put off. Please apply anyway, because:

  1. a) Most advertisements ask for the moon, but they may only need 2-3 of these skills right now. If you’re friendly, willing to learn, and committed to start with what you know, you’ll have plenty of time to develop other skills on the job.

b) Many libraries don’t yet have anyone comfortable with data. But in the future, most new librarians may be expected to have data skills. You may start out alone, but you’re actually ahead of the curve—eventually, newer grads will come alongside you in providing data services to all parts of the library and the community.

  1. So how do I learn data skills?

Welcome to 2015. What’s great is that a) there are many free sources for learning about data, and b) you’ll be the ‘expert’ if you just know a little more than the older librarians. Check out the resources below:

* Blogs like Databrarians and eScience Community have great lists of resources as well as regular posts about data librarianship.

* School of Data and the Data Journalist’s Handbook are easy introductions to working with public data.

* NECDMC and Mantra introduce you to ‘research data management’, a.k.a. helping people preserve their data for future researchers to re-use.

* The Data Scientist’s Toolbox is a free set of nine challenging Coursera courses on large datasets. Join Bryan Brown’s librarian study group to study with other library students and recent grads!

* Daina Bouquin lists tons of resources for helping patrons use R, a statistical tool and programming language

* edX and DataQuest both help you learn Python, another programming language used for data science

* Join the Databrarians Facebook group, follow data librarians on twitter, or form a data science study group to learn from others.

* Let me know if you have questions! I’m still learning, but happy to help by email or in the comments below.

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