Published June 28, 2019 | Version v1
Presentation Open

The Social Mission of 21st Century Research Libraries: Building Data Literate Communities

  • 1. University of Pittsburg, United States of America


The datafication of research, higher education, and society has made data literacy a key requirement for academic and professional success. It is also a prerequisite for successful participation in citizen science, open government, community development, smart healthcare, and social networks. The data revolution has similarly penetrated all areas of frontline and backroom work in libraries and turned research libraries into data-intensive organizations as a result of developments in digital scholarship, bibliometrics and altmetrics, open science, linked open data, learning analytics and data-based decision making. All library workers will increasingly need at least basic competence in dealing with data to contribute effectively in the research library of the future.

Many research libraries have responded to the data challenge by evolving their data literacy support from helping students and faculty to find and use external social data sets to advising on management and sharing of original research data in the context of funder requirements for data management plans. A few libraries have extended the depth and breadth of their data literacy support to cover other areas and involve more library staff via data literacy training. However, our study suggests more radical change in data literacy practice is needed for research libraries to support their communities effectively in the connected data society of the 21st century.

Our research is based on a comprehensive investigation of the impact of data on society and understandings of data literacy among different disciplines, professions, and institutions. We also explored approaches to data literacy education, including information literacy and digital skills practices that could be adopted or adapted to develop data literacy. We supplemented evidence from a variety of literature (research papers, academic textbooks, professional manuals, agency publications, popular treatments, and industry newsletters), with data from project databases and organization websites to capture current thinking and emergent practice in this fast-moving field.

We found significant variation in how different groups and sectors define and position data literacy, which has implications for the scope and focus of library data literacy interventions. We also identified a range of stakeholders as potential collaborators for research libraries in advancing data literacy locally and globally. In addition, we found evidence of research librarians acknowledging responsibility to ensure all staff and students have the digital skills required to be successful in scholarship, employment, and lifelong learning; and another example where librarians successfully delivered an information literacy course helping students to handle information from multiple life perspectives, supporting their information needs across their academic, professional, and personal lives.

We conclude first, that data literacy is an essential competence for all members of society; second, that existing models of data literacy education need to be extended to reflect alternative conceptions of data literacy and cover settings where people interact with data in their personal and social lives; and third, that research libraries are uniquely placed to lead the development of data literacy in society, by virtue of their expertise, structure, and relationships, but should collaborate with salient stakeholders to develop a more diverse and inclusive approach.



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