Is the demand for digital librarians stable or expanding?
December 17, 2012 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Is there demand for digital librarians trained in data management, exposing electronic collections, digital archiving, and so on?

What credentials are necessary? Could a two-year program have me hit the ground running with a focused, relevant MLIS?

I'm currently an English major in a tech job. I would love to be a librarian, but it has appeared to be a dangerous career choice for most of my life and so I never did pursue it. I'm in a state of flux at the moment and looking for a more fulfilling job than my current one; going back to school for something like this would be a very welcome change, assuming the career prospects were not terrible. Also assuming I could gain entry into a decent program.

Speaking of which, if I did this, where would I want to go to school? What are the costs?
posted by jsturgill to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There are numerous threads already about the job market for librarians (and pretty much all new librarians are educated in the topics you list). It's abysmal.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:14 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was hoping there was a glimmer of light for the more technically oriented librarians that were basically database administrators with a twist...
posted by jsturgill at 11:25 AM on December 17, 2012

The situation for skilled librarians with good technical skills is different, though. Browsing will give an idea of what's out there (mostly in North America) and what kind of skills are wanted. How well your MLIS set you up would depend on the program, but I think you'd also want to be doing a lot of hacking while you're there: programming, sys admin work, getting familiar with applications, contributing to some open projects, etc.

Data management, archiving, preservation and curation are in demand, and will be, in librarianship, digital humanities, etc., but the number of jobs is small overall. Keep an eye on Code4Lib, CURATEcamp and the like for what's going on.

It's a fascinating field. Good luck!
posted by wdenton at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in the digitization industry, and one thing lacking there is people who can manage the data for the businesses who buy our software and equipment. We end up doing much of the administration work for the businesses that buy our software and hardware, because the average IT department doesn't really understand how document imaging and retrieval works, how to archive or operate a destruction schedule, etc. Even figuring out how to organize the data is an esoteric skill: how does the customer use the data, what do they know in order to search for things? Those sort of skills fall closer to a librarian than a network administrator.

So, while I think that an MLIS will be an asset, you might want to look at it as: where are skills needed for data archival and storage? The answer is in hospitals, county human services departments, the land offices of oil companies, law offices, and so forth. It's probably not as fun-sounding as being a university librarian, but it's where demand is going. It's going to fall under the umbrella of IT for the meantime, and realizing a need for these skills is only beginning to be recognized by those businesses. If you have an entrepeneurial spirit, you could do the work as an outsourced service, like we do. As for how to find that job, well, finding any job is difficult, let alone one in a very nascent industry.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:36 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Demand? No. Some jobs? Yes. Basically, the more tech-heavy your resume is, the better chance you stand. Can you program, or is your tech experience more on the soft side like writing HTML?

I'm a librarian at an academic library and I specialize in digital projects and scholarly communications (institutional repository, data management, etc.) I have a background that involves 4 years of web project management, an MLS, plus 4 years of library/library school post-MLS experience in digital projects, and all but a thesis of a second 40 hour masters degree. I'm currently in an entry-level position in West Virginia. (Not saying that to diss my current position at all, just pointing out that you should think very seriously about where you're willing to live and what compromises you're willing to make.) If you do decide to pursue an MLS, go somewhere in-state so you pay as little as possible (this is not a job that provides a good salary to pay back student loan debt) and work your ass off to get internships/graduate assistantships.
posted by MsMolly at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You would want to go to any library school where you didn't have to pay. Fellowships and assistantships are dwindling and are harder to come by, but there are ways to get your MLIS or MSIS or MSLIS for free or for very little, and you should focus on those. Where do you live? In-state tuition is much less than out-of-state, and public tuition is less than private, so I would look at the public universities in your state to see what, if any, information science programs there are available and if they have faculty that do research in digital curation.

You might also want to look at UNC SILS's digital curation certificate program. MeMail me if you have any questions - I can get you in touch with some of the doctoral students and faculty members that run the program. They sometimes have funding for one or two exceptional master's students.
posted by k8lin at 11:39 AM on December 17, 2012

What is your current "tech job?" What is your skill-set?
posted by Good Brain at 11:46 AM on December 17, 2012

I started out as a Digital Librarian and moved into data management and business intelligence. There are lots of these type jobs in Austin, TX. Not sure about other places. I'd say the market is pretty good for my current field; I've had very little trouble finding jobs and was just recruited for another position. The market is better than traditional librarianship (other than school libraries, which usually has a decent market). You may have to abandon the librarian title, but I find that my degree in Information Studies makes me more marketable.

I went to UT Austin, which has a great tech/librarian/info architect/UI program. My degree was probably around $20k. I'm glad I did it, in the long run.
posted by hotelechozulu at 11:58 AM on December 17, 2012

Response by poster: What is your current "tech job?" What is your skill-set?

Currently? Low-complexity desktop support for very non-computer literate users. Some SQL to generate reports whenever management needs them. VBA scripting, mostly with Word and Access. Web development on the side, almost 100% WordPress with side projects in CherryPy (python minimalist) and CodeIgnitor (php mvc framework).

I do scripting in python, php, javascript, shell scripting (not daily--just when would take a week or two before I could do anything particularly useful without a reference, but I'd love to get a job where I did need to maintain shell scripts regularly), SQL, Linux server maintenance (at least at the apt-get update level, and occasionally compiling stuff from source... I use puppet + vagrant to configure VMs for programming, and I have my VPN for side projects and hosting friends' sites), git (though nowhere near using the full power of git: branching and merging on repos only I have access to is about all I'm familiar with), osCommerce customizations, and WordPress (I imagine I could pick up Drupal quickly).

No Ruby, but I think I could pick it up quickly for a position with a minor RoR component (I'm assuming I wouldn't get hired for a full-time RoR thing without experience). No perl, no C or java. No tomcat, no solr, no map-reduce framework experience. No django, but again, I think I could pick that up very quickly. Limited database design experience. I get the tradeoff between normalization and speed, but I don't have most of the lingo down. I'd have to look up what it meant if tasked to build a 2NF schema for blahblahblah, for example. I know what key value stores are and how they differ from relational databases, and I have a very limited, birds-eye understanding of document-oriented databases. I know crap-all about graph databases.
posted by jsturgill at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2012

I find that learning one piece of in-demand software will help you get jobs faster and better than going back to school for a degree in something that has general, dismal job prospects.

For example, I became a self-taught Administrator. Now I work for a Fortune 500 company and I get inquiries via LinkedIn at least twice a month.

If you like a particular piece of database management software, become a guru in it. You can do this on your time, and at little to no expense.

Participate in on-line communities, etc. I'm not certified, but it doesn't seem to matter much. Although certification never hurt anyone. Mix and mingle and people will say nice things about you.

Which leads to jobs.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:16 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to give you an example, this is a job announcement I just got:

Digital Public Library of America Coordinator
University of Georgia Libraries, Digital Library of Georgia

The University of Georgia Libraries seeks a Digital Public Library of America Coordinator who will be responsible to the Associate Director of the Digital Library of Georgia (DLG) for metadata aggregation, creation and upgrade; project management; staff supervision; rights management; vendor and partner relations; and other duties related to the DLG’s participation in the Digital Public Library of America’s (DPLA) Hubs Project. As a hub for the DPLA, DLG will provide digital services to Georgia institutions, such as digitization, metadata, data aggregation and storage services. In addition, the DLG will host community outreach programs to bring users in contact with digital content of local relevance. This position is a 24-month, grant-funded position. To view a full description of duties and qualifications and application procedure please go to

Is that closer to what you were looking for? This is, note, a grant-funded position, which is an issue for a lot of digital humanities jobs in the fields I follow. On the other hand, if you're looking more at the database side, then yes, I think job prospects are slightly better. You could also look at library vendors like Innovative, Ebsco, and OCLC to see what kinds of positions they're hiring.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:30 PM on December 17, 2012

Response by poster: jetlagaddict, I'd love to be competitive for that sort of job. Would strong tech skills and a relevant MLIS degree make someone a candidate for the position?

With even more tech/database oriented positions, would a technology-focused MLIS plus some sort of relevant internship experience tend to be enough to get into the field?

I'm trying to feel out where things stand, and whether it makes any sort of economic sense to go back to school for a while in order to open some doors.
posted by jsturgill at 12:40 PM on December 17, 2012

It isn't really clear why your current job is unfulfilling, or why you'd love to be a librarian, but it sounds like you should be able to find your way into a different, better, tech job than desktop support and/or compete for tech-focused library jobs and/or information focused but non-library jobs.

What is it you think that spending 1-2 years in school + cost of tuition + possibly some amount of forgone income will get you that you couldn't acquire faster and/or less expensively?

Start looking for jobs, or at least doing informational interviews for jobs you think you'd prefer.
posted by Good Brain at 2:43 PM on December 17, 2012

Response by poster: It isn't really clear why your current job is unfulfilling, or why you'd love to be a librarian, but it sounds like you should be able to find your way into a different, better, tech job than desktop support and/or compete for tech-focused library jobs and/or information focused but non-library jobs.

Museums, libraries, and educational institutions are attractive employers to me. Any archival or librarian job within those contexts would likely be very much aligned with my values, allowing me to view my work with pride and feel like I'm making the world a better place. From what I've seen, these jobs absolutely require an MLIS. (From what I've seen being a janitor in a library practically requires an MLIS.)

The current job has severe restrictions on my agency and very few interesting problems to work on. I've also saturated the growth potential of the position, so that advancement will depend on finding another position. In most other respects it's fine.
posted by jsturgill at 2:50 PM on December 17, 2012

I'm going to push you a bit and suggest that you broaden your horizons. Every single thing you list, museum, libraries, educational institutions, all of them depend on specialization of labor. That means that the things that you value, the things that you think make the world a better place, depend on people doing things that you don't value, which, I hope, will suggest to you that maybe they are valuable too.

Or, from another perspective: For good or ill, the fact that library jobs tend to be few-and-far-between, require qualifications in excess of what the job responsibilities would seem to suggest, and pay relatively poorly, is an indication that there are dramatically more people like you, who value such work, than society at large is willing to pay to do such work. One result, your values are actually making life harder for people with similar values (and vice versa). One implication is that you may actually find working in a library less fulfilling that you believe it would be.

On the other hand, if you can find a less obvious job that uses your skills and still aligns with your values, though perhaps not quite as well as you imagine a library job would, then you may find yourself both more satisfied, and doing more good.

In any case, good luck!
posted by Good Brain at 2:43 PM on December 24, 2012

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