Scholars today use a multitude of data-driven methods and new platforms in their research and scholarly communications, and as librarians, we must learn and adapt our skills and services accordingly to continue to be effective scholarly partners.

Librarians have an especial connection to the philosophy and methodologies of the social sciences: we are social science researchers and scholars ourselves, as well as resource curators and research support service providers. As Jim Neal observes, the rapidly evolving scholarly landscape in our digital age brings these multiple facets of librarianship into interesting juxtapositions that librarians and scholars need to consider.

What does librarianship mean in the digital age?

Research strategies in the humanities and social sciences have changed in critical ways with the advent of digital tools. One good description of this data-driven shift in scholarly practices is captured in this quote from a recent Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) report (2012) on the Digging Into Data Challenge (, as the report authors note that “many meaningful outcomes of computationally intensive research, such as data-rich visualizations, cannot be distilled into conference presentations, journal articles, or monographs.” Librarians have a critical role as partners in the research lifecycle to work with scholars in translating their data-driven research into new types of publications and modes of scholarship. And librarians have opportunities to engage in new ways with the multiple user communities that encompass faculty, students, and beyond. As Sula (2012) argues, there is “a new type of academic library user that has emerged in the past decade, one that is focused on digital scholarship and research. This new type coincides with trends in other fields in terms of big data, access to datasets, and support for technology, including instruction.”1Sula, Chris. “Digital Humanities and Libraries: A Conceptual Model.” Journal of Library Administration 53: 10–26. Librarians have a critical role as partners in the research lifecycle to work with scholars in translating their data-driven research into new types of publications and modes of scholarship. In responses to these user needs, we today see new and expanding areas of expertise being hired at academic libraries for areas such as data curation, publishing, GIS and spatial data analysis, user experience, and digital humanities. This shift in the makeup and focus of library staffing could be evidence of the transformative shifts in libraries as described by Jim Neal. Two of his proposed elements particularly resonate for me, the elements of radical collaboration and deconstruction.

Radical collaboration

As the Association for College and Research Libraries’ recent Value of Academic Libraries report notes, “Research collaborations between faculty and librarians continue to benefit both partners. Faculty benefit from library resources and librarian expertise. . . . librarians benefit from the opportunity to ‘secure the library’s future as a significant partner in research and scholarship.’” The Value report is only one of a number of studies that suggest research partnerships between faculty and librarians—as well as with other types of users—are more necessary than ever. The partnerships that librarians forge also increasingly go beyond the traditional reference consultation and bibliographic instruction: faculty, researchers, and instructors at all levels explore new modes of teaching, learning, and research that make use of digital technologies and engage existing resources and expertise in new ways.

An example of this new type of collaboration is chronicled in the 2015 EDUCause Review article ( that I authored with Anita Chan, a faculty member in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois. As our piece outlines, we engaged in an intensive teaching collaboration to incorporate digital humanities tools in the course curriculum in an effort to teach students digital literacies in addition to the course learning outcomes. And as we note, “with infrastructural support to enable interdisciplinary faculty, librarian, and IT staff collaborations, humanities classrooms can evolve into rich experimental spaces for multimodal forms of learning.”2Chan, Anita Say and Harriett Green. “Practicing Collaborative Digital Pedagogy to Foster Digital Literacies in Humanities Classrooms.” EDUCause Review (October 2014): Innovative teaching collaboration such as this is but one of a rapidly growing set of example that showcase how librarians have unique skillsets and areas of expertise that position them as prime partners in these types of innovative teaching and research collaborations. In doing so, the traditional notions of what it means to be an academic librarian are shattering into a kaleidoscope of new, unimagined structures.


As we think about what a librarian’s work traditionally involves—bibliographic instruction, reference, collection development, and developing library services among others—what does this kind of work look like in today’s networked scholarly landscape? The traditional notions of what it means to be an academic librarian are shattering into a kaleidoscope of new, unimagined structures.While some may argue that certain tasks are obsolete, it might be more fruitful to deconstruct them into their core essence: How do these functions operate in a landscape of data-driven research, technology-infused teaching and learning, and infrastructures guided by assessment and educational metrics?

One prominent example is the case of collection development: libraries continue to have rich collections of materials to acquire and curate, but we can consider data curation and data sharing as another new facet of collection management and curation. As Palmer, Weber, et al. (2012) observe, “Because of its commitment to the ‘needs of users to access and use information of value over the long term,’ library and information science (LIS) is uniquely positioned to provide the kind of foundation needed for systems and services to manage digital content, especially research data.”3Palmer, Carole, Nicholas Weber, Trevor Munoz, and Allen Renear. “Foundations of Data Curation: The Pedagogy and Practice of ‘Purposeful Work’ with Research Data.” Archives Journal 3 (2013): And social scientists need this expertise in research data curation, as recent studies by Faniel, Kriesberg, and Yakel (2016) and Kim and Adler (2015) reveal the complex needs of social science researchers around the issues of data use, data sharing, and curation. 4Faniel, Ixchel, Adam Kriesberg, and Elizabeth Yakel. “Social Scientists’ Satisfaction with Data Reuse.” Journal for the Association of Information Science and Technology 67, no. 6 (2016): 1404–16.5Kim, Youngseek and Melissa Adler. “Social Scientists’ Data Sharing Behaviors: Investigating the Roles of Individual Motivations, Institutional Pressures, and Data Repositories.” International Journal of Information Management 35 (2015): 408–418.This is one of several ways in which library and information professionals engage with the emergent needs of researchers, and it requires strategies that break down and reconfigure our essential skills to meet the needs of researchers and students today.

Librarians are building skills and expertise in these areas, and libraries as institutions are hiring experts with such skills into the library. This enables librarians to integrate more fully into the research lifecycle, with in-depth collaborations that range from helping researchers to find sources of data to employing digital tools and curation of the data generated from digital scholarship research.


Bertot et al. (2015) argue that when considering what is in store for librarianship, “the future is in the hands of the bold and the fearless—those willing to take risks; go ‘big;’ break down disciplinary, social, and professional barriers; and go against convention. The fearless information professional is undaunted, unequivocal, and unabashed.”6Bertot, John, Lindsay C. Sarin, and Joanna Percell. Re-envisioning the MLS: Findings, Issues, and Considerations. College Park, MD: College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, 2015. This “fearless” information professional is emerging in today’s library already, as the social sciences and disciplines across the spectrum demand untested and evolving support structures for research and teaching. By engaging in radical collaborations and pursuing new reconfigurations of library engagement and services, librarians can become even more embedded in the research workflow and engage researchers as partners.