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D-Lib Magazine
September 2006

Volume 12 Number 9

ISSN 1082-9873

What Is Needed to Educate Future Digital Librarians

A Study of Current Practice and Staffing Patterns in Academic and Research Libraries


Youngok Choi, Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Science
The Catholic University of America
Washington DC, U.S.A.

Edie Rasmussen, Professor and Director, School of Library, Archival and Information Studies
The University of British Columbia, Canada

Red Line



Due to the changing nature of librarianship resulting from the increasing amount of information available in digital format, educating digital librarians has become an important agenda within library and information science schools. To design and offer appropriate courses and teaching approaches for training competent digital librarians, educators can benefit from feedback provided by current practitioners in order to accurately determine what skills and knowledge are really required for digital librarians to be effective in the digital work place. To that end, we surveyed current digital library professionals in academic libraries in the United States to identify their activities and skills and to detect any gaps in their training. We analyzed input from the survey responses to learn more about the nature of digital library work practices and to identify common and necessary attributes (knowledge and skills) required of "digital librarians." The findings from our study have implications for the design of digital library education that meets real workplace needs.

1. Introduction

Digital libraries are an emerging concept, as today's libraries routinely provide information and services in digital form. As the nature and role of libraries have changed in response to the new digital environment, new applications and services have been developed. Many practitioners have reported on these changes in the digital workplace (Association of Research Libraries, 2000; Croneis and Henderson, 2002; Stoffle, et al., 2003).

Digital libraries have unique characteristics that differ from traditional libraries and their approaches to information provision. The evolutionary view of digital libraries has been addressed by practitioners in the library and information fields (Borgman, 1999; Digital Library Federation, 1998). From a traditional librarian's point of view, digital libraries present a transformative model of a large-scale, user-centric organization that is moving towards an integrated form with various components (See Figure 1). However, the main purpose of digital libraries remains consistent with that of traditional libraries in that the purpose of digital libraries is to organize, distribute, and preserve information resources just as it is for traditional libraries.

Chart showing relationships between components of a DL based on a practice community

Figure 1: Definition of a Digital Library Based on a Practice Community

Increasing priorities to align digital library (DL) applications with traditional library collections and services requires staff with new expertise that adds another dimension to library practice. Many researchers (such as Chowdhury and Chowdhury, 2003; Tanner, 2001) have described digital librarians' roles, and have suggested core competencies and skills needed to perform these roles. Now, in addition to their traditional library skills and knowledge, many of today's professional librarians are expected to possess additional knowledge and skills required for work within the digital information world. Librarians are thus faced with the challenge of acquiring advanced knowledge and skills to augment what they traditionally learned, and to do so while at the same time there is a shortage of experienced library staff (Tennant, 2002). As a consequence, educating digital librarians who are competent to work in the dynamic and complex digital environment has become a high priority.

An important step in dealing with these needs is to design educational programs appropriate for preparing future digital librarians for the workplace. To design such programs, we need to understand the staffing patterns in digital library practice, the activities and tasks in which current practitioners in DL development are involved, and the practical skills that help these practitioners function effectively. The study described in this article contributes to the development of education for digital librarians in taking that first important step.

The goals of the study were to:

  • Understand staffing patterns in digital library areas,
  • Identify critical activities of digital librarians,
  • Determine skills and knowledge required for digital librarians, and
  • Seek feedback on preparing students for digital librarianship.

2. Method

To identify the range of activities in which digital librarians are engaged, we employed a survey method. The survey was distributed to 123 directors of libraries that were members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). We requested the directors to forward our survey questionnaire to the current practitioners in their libraries that were in charge of digitization projects or digital library projects during the period from September to December 2005.

The survey defined a "digital librarian" as someone who is responsible for and involved in technology-based projects to deliver digital information resources in non-public service areas (Croneis and Henderson, 2002).

Information collected in the survey included demographic information (such as age, gender, and educational background), current job title and responsibilities, job history, academic preparation for the position, perception of the knowledge and skills important in performing their job, and suggestions about education and training programs.

The total number of survey responses collected was 48, from 39 libraries.

3. Results

3.1 Demographics

Forty-one of the respondents (85%) identified themselves as professional librarians, five respondents (10%) were paraprofessionals, and two (4%) were neither librarian nor paraprofessional, with titles of "associate director" and "director for digital library programs." Of the 48 respondents, 37 (77%) had a master's or doctoral degree in Library and Information Science, and 7 (15%) had an academic background in computer science, engineering, or information technology management. There were slightly more women (27, 56%) than men (21, 44%) among the respondents (see Table 1). One-third of respondents were aged in their 30s.

Table 1: Demographic background of respondents

Age 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61+ Total
Male 1 9 6 5 0 21
Female 6 6 7 7 1 27
Total 7 15 13 12 1 48

Among the 41 respondents who were professional librarians, 18 (43.9%) had a relatively short period of experience as a professional librarian (Table 2). Previous working experience in libraries varied from being a reference librarian to a media librarian to a data service librarian to a digital librarian. The most frequently mentioned areas of previous experience were reference services (16), special collections/archives (13), systems (11), and cataloging (9). Some respondents had acquired experience outside libraries, as a systems analyst, software developer, and a Web site developer.

Table 2: Years as a librarian

Years Less than 1 year 1 - 5 years 6 - 10 years 11 - 15 years 16 - 20 years 21 - 25 years 26+ years
Total (N=41) 2 16 3 6 4 4 6

3.2 Digital Librarian's Position

Position Title

Two other workplace studies revealed a high demand for new professionals for leading digital library efforts in traditional libraries (Association of Research libraries, 2000; Croneis and Henderson, 2002). The results of our survey suggest that this trend is likely to continue. Positions of more than half of the respondents (29, 60.4%) had the term, "digital" in their title or that of their department. Examples are "Digital Initiatives Librarian (Coordinator or Manager)", "Digital Project Manager", "Director of Digital Library Development", "Director of Digital Library Initiatives", and "Head of Digital Project Department". Among these respondents, 18 (64.3%) had held their current position for less than 3 years, while one-third had been in position for more than 3 years (Table 3). The increasing number of professionals dedicated to digital libraries reflects a workplace need for digital librarians to provide leadership and coordinate a successful transformation of library services into digital libraries.

Position titles like "Director of Preservation and Digital Programs", "Chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections" and "Digitization Librarian" also reflect current efforts in digital libraries that are related to digital initiatives for preservation of and access to primary resources (Dalbello, 2004; Lynch, 2003). Other position titles include "Metadata Librarian", "Data Librarian", "Preservation Reformatting Librarian", "Digital Imaging Specialist" and "Digital Technologies Development Librarian".

About 40% of the respondents had been involved in digital library work from other functional areas, such as the technical service areas of cataloging and serials, collection management, special collections and preservation areas, and others. It is clear that the design, development and management of digital libraries require a collaborative effort from staff in many different functional areas within libraries.

Table 3: Length of Employment in Digital Work

  Less than 3 years More than 3 years Total
Digital position 18 10 28 (50.6%)
Others 9 10 19 (40.4%)
Total 27 (57.4%) 20 (42.6%) 47* (100%)
Note: * (1 missing value).

Main Activities/Tasks

Participants were asked to provide statements of their job responsibilities. From the responses of the 46 participants who provided this information, 274 specific job responsibilities were gleaned, and these were individually analyzed and grouped into six broad categories: "Management", "Technology", "Processing", "Digital Library", "Collection and Resources", and "Other".

Job responsibilities in the "Management" category were the most frequently mentioned, with almost half (45.99%) of the identified job responsibilities falling into this area. The survey results support previous findings that digital job advertisements emphasize administrative responsibilities (Croneis and Henderson, 2002). Responsibility for policies and procedures, collaboration, supervision, grants and planning were mentioned by more than 20 percent of the participants. Only 15 percent of the job responsibilities identified was grouped in the category of "Technology".

The job responsibilities within each category are as follows:

  • Management (45.99%)
    • Leadership, policies and procedures, collaboration, planning, supervision, resource management, project management, grant, representation
  • Digital Library (17.14%)
    • Digital projects/initiatives, technical standards/practices, design, development and implementation, digital preservation, framework, digital repository, digital contents aspects
  • Technology (15.71%)
    • Websites, digitizing/converting, technical support, system administration/maintenance, data conversion, system analysis/testing, open source software development, usability testing, interoperability, digital library technology
  • Processing (8.57%)
    • Metadata, access and retrieval mechanisms (bibliographic records, finding aids, EAD, MARC records), quality control, databases.
  • Collection and Resource (7.14%)
    • Collection development, collection management, preservation/record management, online resources
  • Other (6.43%)
    • Instruction/staff training, reference/public services, liaison, professional activities, user studies

The most frequently mentioned responsibilities from the 46 respondents were Website-related tasks (35% of participants), policies and procedures (28%), collaboration (28%), supervision (26%), overall responsibility for digital projects/initiatives (26%), monitoring of technical standards and practices (21.7%), and writing and administrating grants (21.7%).

Skills and Knowledge Needed

Participants were asked to rate the importance of skills and knowledge in performing their work for three areas (technical areas, traditional library-related areas, and other skills), with 23 sub-areas on a 5-point Likert scale. The five highest ranked choices among all sub-areas were communication and interpersonal skills (mean 4.60), project management/leadership skills (4.56), understanding of digital library architecture and software (4.52), knowledge of the needs of users (4.42), and knowledge of technical and quality standards (4.33).

The highest ranked choices for each area are shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Ranking of Skills and Knowledge

  • DL architecture and software (4.52)
  • Technical and quality
    standards (4.33)
  • Web markup languages (4.04)
  • Database development and
    management systems (3.77)
  • Web design skills (3.71)
  • The needs of users (4.42)
  • Digital archiving and
    preservation (4.52)
  • Cataloging, Metadata (4.00)
  • Indexing (3.71)
  • Collection development
  • Communication and
    interpersonal skills (4.60)
  • Project management/leadership
    skills (4.56)
  • Legal issues (3.90)
  • Grant/proposal writing skills (3.88)
  • Teaching and group
    presentation skills (3.52)

These findings confirm the continuing importance of communication skills, project management, and team leadership skills identified from a Delphi study of academic librarians (Feret and Marcineck, 1999). It should be noted that the definition of "digital librarian" given in this survey was limited to non-public service areas. Thus, rating for some of the knowledge and skills, such as reference service areas and teaching and presentation skills would have been rated differently by professionals working in public service areas.

Educational Courses Supporting Current Work

The survey asked participants to indicate the most relevant/valuable courses they had taken in an LIS school for performing their current work. Twenty-one respondents provided answers to this survey question. Various courses were mentioned ranging from cataloging to an internship. The most frequently mentioned courses were in the areas of cataloging, collection (electronic resources) development and management, systems analysis, and information technology. "Digital Libraries" was mentioned as a course name only once.

3.3 Training Gaps and Thoughts on DL Education

The survey also asked participants to describe the aspects of their position for which they felt least prepared. Thirty-four participants identified areas for which their education and training had not prepared them adequately. The most frequently mentioned tasks were related to technical aspects. These are:

  • Overall understanding of the complex interplay of software,
  • Lack of vocabulary to communicate to technical staff,
  • Knowledge of Web-related languages and technologies,
  • Web design,
  • Digital imaging and formatting,
  • Digital technology,
  • Programming and scripting languages,
  • XML standards and technologies, and
  • Basic systems administration.

Other tasks mentioned less frequently include: overall understanding of digitization and digital library aspects, project management skills, management, administration, supervisory skills, collection development, metadata, organizational structures, library culture, changing policies, actual day-to-day work, and contract law, negotiation, and licensing.

Several respondents addressed the importance of trend analysis based on the newness and changing nature of digital libraries. They made the following comments:

"I simply had to make the effort to understand the work through reading, attending
workshops and learning on job"

"So much has changed"

"Changing policies to apply digital preservation"

"...from management to 'you-name-it'"

Others commented on the value of practical experience in the workplace and pointed out the lack of actual technical and practical training in their academic courses, which provided theory-based discussion rather than practice.

We invited respondents to provide their suggestions for LIS educators/schools on courses that should be added to the digital library curriculum. Obvious answers were a need for courses providing tools and techniques for project management, team leadership, and soliciting and administering grants, and courses specifically on digital libraries such as: digital library design, digital preservation, digitization, and current digital technologies such as: OAI-PMH, metadata standards, XML, EAD, and TEI. Courses on usability testing, human-computer interaction, Web design and applications, information retrieval, and cataloging were also mentioned. The topics suggested for the courses emphasized a balance between theory and practical skills. These ranged from courses relevant to working in the real world of digital libraries – with respect to technology and standards, business skills, copyright issues, programming, user studies/scholarly communication – to courses on the theory of digital libraries, to help in understanding the big picture for various digital library applications.

4. Summary and Conclusions

A summary of our findings from the survey follows:

  • While there are emerging units and positions within digital libraries, the working environment of digital libraries is collaborative in areas that range from computing systems to traditional library functions.
  • Professionals working in those areas tend to be young and are relatively recent graduates. Because many libraries will eventually be transformed into digital libraries, and require professionals educated in this area, digital library jobs will be very attractive to the next generation of the library profession.
  • Major tasks in which digital librarians are involved include management, leadership, and website-related tasks. Managerial tasks emphasized planning and oversight of digital library projects, while providing leadership and expertise in digital library areas contained elements of collaboration with other members of the library staff and with users. Trend analysis, such as monitoring the practice and standards of current digital libraries, is critical in these jobs.
  • Survey results confirm the high value of soft skills needed in digital librarianship. Due to the emphasis on team-based and collaborative projects, current digital librarians considered communication skills and project management skills very important in performing their roles. As the nature of digital libraries is constantly changing, digital librarians must be able to adapt to change and continue to learn.
  • The needs of DL education present two main aspects: one is the need to emphasize skills and competencies, such as communication skills and trend analysis; the other addresses the need to further develop the technical and information skills for practical and operational understanding of digital libraries.

Clearly, digital libraries are the future of academic and research institutions, and digital professionals will be required to have more breadth and depth of knowledge and skills across the dimensions of traditional library knowledge, technology, and human relations. Because of the complexity of digital libraries and digital library projects, professional education programs for digital librarians should provide not only technical skills and traditional library training, but also should place greater emphasis on management, including project management skills through practical experience of a digital project. In addition to the necessary technical skills, library professionals need to develop strong interpersonal and team-work skills. Based on this survey, it appears that LIS education needs to pay attention to additional education in interpersonal and communication skills and integration of practical skills and experience with digital collection management and digital technologies into curricula.

Our survey was limited to digital librarians in non-public service areas in academic and research libraries. Conducting a similar survey in other types of institutions and roles, such as cultural heritage organizations and professionals in public service areas, would be useful to confirm our findings. It would also be desirable to conduct a similar study on individual parts of a digital library framework to understand the similarities and differences among them with regard to required skills and knowledge. By conducting such a study, we could further identify core competencies needed for digital librarians, and learn from existing digital library practice to better educate future information professionals.

5. Acknowledgements

This study was sponsored by a research grant from the Association for Library and Information Science Education. The authors express sincere appreciation to those digital librarians who took the time to participate in the survey.


Association of Research Libraries, SPEC Kit 256: Changing Roles of library professionals. Janice Simmons-Welburn. May 2000.

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Tennant, R. (2002). Digital libraries: The digital librarian shortage. Library Journal, March 15, 2002.

Copyright © 2006 Youngok Choi and Edie Rasmussen

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