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Dean's Update: Are Librarians Ready to Help Develop Data Literacy?

October 6, 2017

A Google search identifies over 2 million links to “data literacy” with clarifications of what it is and how it has become a necessity for success in all types of workplaces, as well as a necessity for being a responsible, thoughtful and ethical citizen in today’s world. 

One short presentation offered by the Data-Pop Alliance defines data literacy as “the desire and ability to constructively engage in society through and about data.” According to this definition, data literacy is clearly an extension of information literacy - a driver for many librarians to coach students toward becoming life-long learners, grounded in sound evidence. 

So what’s all the fuss over the emerging change from being information literate to being data literate?  In other words, what is the difference between being a savvy explorer of any information format and understanding how to build infrastructures to preserve, find and utilize data for meaningful purposes?  Some propose it’s the impact of “big data”— the sheer size of data to engage with now makes it different from the various data sets humans have maneuvered for a long time. 

Major producers of data are those who gather or create research data.  And many of these people are the faculty and graduate students within our university communities who are funded by federal agencies that require research data output be available for others to use to advance knowledge.

In addition, “research data literacy” goes beyond life-long learners being effective and responsible consumers of information to becoming impactful producers and contributors to knowledge, for which raw data are a starting point.

Academic librarians now see research data and the accompanying need to manage them as a new objective for their services and partnerships.  At Drexel, we are among them, as we have realigned our resources to help our researchers meet federal funders’ requirements. We are doing so for designing and implementing data management plans, for ensuing access to authoritative information and data and for inspiring a life-long quest for learning among our students through understanding and adopting practices for responsible, authoritative research data management.  

In this and past issues of In Circulation, you can read about our progress in expanding data services, including efforts to contribute to teaching researchers and students how to find and manage research data in effective ways. Librarians are developing new skills around research data and gaining confidence to partner with faculty in treating their research output as institutional assets subject to records management.

This summer, I (along with others) delivered talks at the IFLA conference, a major international gathering of librarians, to explore what is needed to better prepare librarians to engage in coaching mastery of data literacies. There are technical skills and understanding of policies and legal requirements, but success also depends on research practices and gaining trust to help researchers deposit their work.

I also recently attended a conference on information literacy (ECIL) and heard numerous presentations about its importance in the workplace. During the sessions, I was pleasantly surprised to see update after update from many European countries describing results of a comparative study to identify the awareness and support for embedding effective research data management practices into academic settings.  Results were similar to those we uncovered from our own faculty survey last spring.  It is clear from both sides of the Atlantic that there are many ways of approaching these problems; there are cross-campus stakeholders interested in addressing them, and there’s plenty of work to go around.  

Expect to see future references to different aspects of the impact that research data have made on academic life, and how the Drexel Libraries is at the forefront of exploring new programs and services to assist our researchers and improve faculty productivity — which in turn raises the University’s reputation.

Danuta A. Nitecki
Dean of Libraries