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What Skills Does a Digital Archivist or Librarian Need?

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Archives, libraries and other collecting organizations are in the midst of a staff revolution. The digital age is driving a demand for employees who are comfortable and creative with technology. As someone who hires and supervises staff in a digitally-oriented environment I know this first hand.

Test Your Skill, by Spatch, on Flickr
Test Your Skill, by Spatch, on Flickr

I often hear from students and others with questions about the skills they need to compete in the job market. What programming languages should I learn? How much do I need to know about specific digital formats? Which standards should I study in detail?

No, no–those are the wrong questions!

That’s what I want to shout when I hear this line of inquiry. But I don’t yell because it’s rude and because I know the impulse flows from my own bias toward broader, more adaptive skills. My second and prevailing sense is compassion: so many people are trying so hard to figure out how to cope with a job market that is changing right in front of our eyes.

Let me say that expertise with programming, formats and standards is, of course, very important. It’s just that I happen to think several other talents have a greater bearing on success in today’s workplace. Such as an ability to understand and adapt to new ways of using technology, for example. It’s music to my ears when job-seeker shows awareness of how quickly the way we work can change. Archives and libraries depend ever more on technology-driven systems to accomplish their mission, and those systems are ever evolving. Staff with an eagerness to help refine how things are done are especially prized. Deep technical expertise is optional here. The most important thing is a basic understanding of how the different system parts—both automated and manual—contribute to doing the job at hand.

Related to this is an ability to bridge two distinct social camps: the highly technical and the highly not-technical. There are now many kinds of digital tools and services available to archives and libraries. These range from free to download software to big commercial vendors. A good staff person needs to know how choose among these options to meet the needs of users, many of whom could care less about how the information they want is delivered.

Pacman expands his palette, by Aram Sinnreich, on Flickr
Pacman expands his palette, by Aram Sinnreich, on Flickr

Archivists and librarians need to clearly explain what they do and why they do it. They need to do this internally as part of refining systems, and they really need to do it externally to connect with users and would-be users. The explosion of social media is driving a new approach to how cultural heritage organizations serve the public: instead of relying exclusively on patrons to come to them, institutions are marketing themselves using the same tools as commercial brands.

Today, saying something good in a 140 word Twitter message is as important for a library as for a celebrity or car company.

This calls for writing skills that may be different from those taught in school. Staff need to be comfortable writing in the first person and they need to be concise. What may have worked in school term papers—long, long sentences and laborious detail—doesn’t make for good social media content. Helpful as well is an ability to integrate photographs, graphics and video with text to make for rich, forceful online content that gets the right message out to as many people as possible.

There is lots more to talk about on this subject, but I’ll stop here. What skills do you think today’s librarians and archivists need?

Comments (17)

  1. So, so true! Personally, I believe that skills librarians possess are those that are needed across the board in any job situation. The ability to access information, to determine source accuracy, to locate resources, etc. These are skills we teach students in every discipline and hope they will apply to all situations of their lives both in and outside of school. As someone who constantly finds myself attending professional development sessions and taking classes, I think being in any job situation comes down to the basic, “do you have a strong work ethic?” We are taught that everyone can learn… yes, that’s true. But what of work ethic? Someone who is on time, persistent, positive, and works well with others…. those are qualities that are far more difficult to come by than someone who is technology savvy. Effective communication… the definition has changed as we grow, develop, and integrate new technologies. Communicating effectively in a Twitter post is different from communicating effectively in an E-mail or memo. With technology and digital tools changing at such a rapid pace, I think archivists and librarians would benefit from exploring and understanding multiple platforms, digital tools, and netiquette.

    • It is absolutely right to emphasize a good work ethic. I’d also add two other character traits: enthusiasm and resilience. It’s great to have staff who are truly excited about what they are doing–it lifts the whole organization, especially when times get tough. And it’s critical to have the ability to bounce back from setbacks and conflicts–because everyone has them.

  2. I agree with the first poster – that a work ethic is very important. I see fresh new people coming out of library school and many do have that work ethic, but not all. And certainly I have seen many librarians and archivists who have been on the job many years, who do NOT have that ability. They are mean, lazy, and do not care about anything except their paychecks and getting to retirement age.
    So, it’s very important to market one’s organization and be perceived as more than just a repository.
    I like LeFurgy’s comment that deep technical knowledge is optional. It’s knowing how to adapt, be creative, and deliver content in the best way possible for the end user – and not just blindly follow past ways of doing things.

  3. “adaptive skills” are the key trait for our profession, in my opinion. The changes in the information landscape have almost in all cases been imposed from outside- through commercial or social evolutions- and successful librarians are the ones who can identify the disruptive potentials and moderate or modify their impact to create better outcomes for their own enterprise and clients. Enthusiasm and a ruthless intellectual appetite are pretty good to have as well.

  4. What about all the cuts at the libraries?

    • Budget cuts obviously have a detrimental impact on staff. All the more reason for promoting as much enthusiasm and resilience as possible!

  5. Hello,

    I agree that we should not only focus on technical skills with regard to the new digital heritage landscape, although they are still necessary (I addressed this last question here: Do we need Cyberarchivist ? –

    In addition to professional ethics it seems to me that other transversal skills are sorely lacking in our professional world. I’m thinking to “change management”, which is particularly difficult for us because it is a fast time management against our habits of long time management needed for heritage conservation.

    My own experience is an example: records manager for over 20 years in a large university hospital, I changed superior more than 10 times and almost as many times for head of human resources. Each time before re-explain the work of my service, I have come to develop dashboards that allow me to communicate without wasting time with my bosses and so devote myself to my work. If it is good to develop communication skills, both in analogical and digital ways, it is also necessary to sell to our sponsor the work we do at back office to provide services “in the window” to our users.

  6. The nature of the library will change in the Digital Age; indeed, the paradigm shift is well underway. Rather than being mere storage receptacles managed and curated by sage-like gatekeepers, these institutions are increasingly evolving as portals of the imagination. Librarians and archivists are the docents who facilitate the users’ experience, their ability to readily access this exponentially expanding universe of information. And while flexibility and intellectual curiosity (and a sense of humor!) are key character traits for these critical posts, it is equally important to remember that users are not all equally eager to embrace cutting-edge technology or push the technological envelope. Be gentle. Learn and grow, to be sure–while remaining cognizant of and sensitive to the needs of the public you serve (from Luddite to techie geek!).

  7. My mother was a librarian, graduated from University of New Mexico, brought her work home with her; she would bring book home for evaluations, and my father my brother and I would help out with the stacks of books she would bring home. I took a speed reading course in junior college for this reason. Mother would take trips to outlying branches and to the bookmobiles, she was totally dedicated to her job and loved it and the pursuit of higher learning.

    Mom passed on just before the dawn of the digital age, but she would have been right in there figuring out how to make things better, Because: She had
    a great work ethic and dedication. Above and beyond.

    I don’t see a lot of that in the youngsters around me today!

  8. So true and well said. +1.

    I have been in the ICT business for more than 25 years and every time I get this question, I answer in the same vein you do.

    In a business that utilize technologies in operations and on which the quality of the service lives or dies, the really valuable ones are not those who know programming languages and every technical detail. Rather these are the ones with adaptive skills, those with the eye to see harmony between technology and process and what tools are most compatible with the service delivery objectives.

    In fact for a long time now when I hire, the computer science graduate is hardly ever the first on the list. It is more likely a liberal arts graduate with a real feel for the technologies and almost a craft approach to its utility!

  9. learning ‘no hyphen after -ly’ might help (that’s if the -ly is an adverbial ending . . . as in “digitally-oriented”) . . . bcs

  10. I’ve got social media down – but I thought this was supposed to be an article about the skills a digital archivist/librarian needs? Understanding, adapting, eagerness, marketing, Twitter, and writing skills – all good stuff. Now, what skills does a digital archvist or librarian need that are distinct from what most employable folks should already have under their belt?

    • As I tried to explain in the post, a great skill relates to understanding systems for working with digital content. “Systems” is fancy word for steps to complete a task or series of related tasks, and thinking about refining–or defining–such steps for digital content is a critical part of what today’s digital archivists and librarians need to do.

  11. Great comments. Very interersting site. Good read. I’ll be coming back for more information. Keep up the good work.

  12. Great comments.I appreciate your web site.It was interesting and informative. I’ll be coming back for more information. Keep up the good work.

  13. I’m a MLS student trying to gather info for a career trajectory paper. I hope to be a digital Archive specialist. However I am not having much luck finding good personel resources to ask the required questions of. Any suggestions? Looking for people working in the field.

  14. “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer

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