Data managers should emulate good librarians

Haul away the hardware, peel off the software, rinse off the mystique and you see what the people who manage data really are: They’re librarians. That’s the role IT workers should model themselves on.

I’m not talking about technology. I don’t care what tools anyone uses. Whether we’re talking about bound paper known as “books” or bits magically transmitted over “wi-fi,” I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

I know, the comparison may seem harsh. Librarians are said to shuffle silently among musty old books that no one ever reads. Or, as my friend Karen Schneider puts it, they’re “some misguided brontosaurus snuffling in the antediluvian biblioforest.”

She’s director of the Cushing Library at Holy Names University, just across the bay from San Francisco. She’s one of the actual librarians who resist a trend among some in her profession. They want to run libraries like traditional information technology departments. They’ve been seduced by the old mystique — which in the business world has worn thin.

You know the complaints: IT guards its data like gold bullion instead of serving it to those who can create value with it. It tries to shop its way out of problems. Only the initiated may enter.

Why anyone would want to emulate that, I don’t know. Yet apparently, from what she wrote last week in her blog Free Range LIbrarian, this trend has legs among some who manage libraries.

That trend seems idiotic when you realize what a well run library is all about. Substituting just a few words, you can see a philosophy for IT in the one she describes for librarians:

In the end, what matters, and what we are about, are the ancient truths of librarianship: organizing, managing, making available, preserving, and celebrating the word [data] in all of its manifestations; helping our users build skill sets the fundamentals of which (if not the ephemeral details) will last a lifetime [a fiscal year]; and celebrating and defending the right to read [analyze], however that word is interpreted. This is what we do. This is who we are. This makes us librarians.

Librarians and IT workers, that is. Does technology really make anything new? I say that, fundamentally, nothing is new but the tools.


  1. Ted Cuzzillo says:

    They do. Most may not yet know how to do it with SQL, Tableau, or even Excel. But knowing how to extract specific information (data) for whatever need has arisen is what they’re all about. No? The point is about the concept of the job.

  2. Michael W Cristiani says:

    Ted and Dan,

    Now, I ride the bus daily with a number of librarians. They talk very passionately and without filters about what they do. Ted, your analogy is apt. Dare I suggest training and education in library science would serve the data analyst well. Indeed, the hard core data analysts I know who have been librarians are quite uniquely qualified; they think, eat, sleep, and bleed schemas, query optimization, and open data, all to our benefit and enrichment!

    As always,

    Peace and All Good!

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