Funny Aside: I was reading some articles on Monday and, while doing so, jotted down the phrase “comparing apples to oranges” in the small notebook that I carry around for just such note-jotting. It was a seed for this week’s post that I wrote there to hopefully germinate into a full-fledged thought. Thus, I found it quite funny yesterday when one of the co-PIs of the project I’m working on said, in a completely different context, “This isn’t comparing apples to oranges. It’s comparing apples to … humus!” Though totally unrelated to anything I’d thought of writing about, I figured it a good sign that I was on to a good title. I’m going with it.
I bought two books on metadata yesterday. Personal books for my personal collection. I’ve borrowed several books on the subject over the past few months as I’ve tried to get a better understanding on the subject of metadata – what it is, how it works, and why it’s important in information systems. I know the answers to these questions in theory, of course, but I lack the nitty gritty. I needed to buy some books so that I could write in them, like most of my old textbooks of the past. Fulfillment of the tasks that I’m given as an informationist isn’t going to happen in theory. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. I need to know how to analyze metadata requirements, select and/or develop necessary schema, create a controlled vocabulary, and ensure that what I come up with, propose, and implement works – more importantly, makes a difference. If it doesn’t do the latter, it’s a pretty hard sell to any researcher, let alone our profession overall, that my being on the team is worthwhile.
In the great discussion that is the discussion of eScience, i.e. the discussion of libraries and librarians and our role in working with data, we continually stake claim to the fact that information management, organization, and retrieval are our areas of expertise. Implied within this is the idea that since our profession (1) developed complex cataloging systems and has maintained them for lo these many years, and (2) that we oversaw the transition from physical card catalogs to OPACs (online public access catalogs), then we (3) know all about how to make different sources of information and/or data inter-operable. We know how to describe information in such a way to allow easy access, easy retrieval, easy sharing. This is our expertise. In fact, this expectation of expertise is stated quite clearly in Aim 1 of the approved proposal for my position:
Leverage the skills of an embedded informationist to allow the research team to more effectively and efficiently communicate about the data derived from multiple sources.
By applying indexing and metadata expertise, the informationist will develop and implement tools that allow the producers of project data analyses (data analyst and statistician) to understand exactly what the consumers of the analyses (PIs, project director, operation managers) are asking for when they request analyses and to create and format analyses that effectively respond to the requests.
I guess at this point it is only appropriate for me to make a confession: I have never created a metadata schema in my life (though I do think I could right a song about it, considering how those words go together so well; metadatA, schemA). I’ve never created a controlled vocabulary. I have indexed things. I have abstracted things. I’ve created tools to improve the organization and sharing of information. But to claim that I have metadata expertise is a bit of a stretch. I have a thorough understanding of some related areas, but I am far from an expert when it comes to creating and/or managing metadata.
So, did we pull the wool over the researchers’ eyes when we signed off on this aim for the grant? Did we claim something that we thought they wanted to hear to convince them of my place on the team? No, I don’t think so. I think that it’s more appropriate to say that we – as a profession and in this particular incident – co-opted a trendy term, “metadata”, (it sounds so techy-important, after all) and inserted it into our own professional vocabulary to give us a toe-hold into an area where we eventually want to be. Librarians doing literature searching, teaching information literacy, and/or providing citation management are not new services. We’ve been doing these all along, outside of the venue of any research team. We have to bring something new into the team, a skill(s) that demonstrates our presence on the team, as an active and engaged member, is significant and important and vital. This will insure our place there in the future. So we pick a word that no one is really all that clear about and say we’re experts with it. The fact that no one is really all that clear about it in the first place allows us to do this.
The truth I’m seeing though, is that I don’t really need to know metadata, per se, to create the outputs (a data dictionary and data request form) that are required of me in Aim 1. So why am I reading books – even more, spending my own money on books – about metadata? Why do I care? In the introduction to his book, Metadata for Information Management and Retrieval, David Haynes states:
This book is aimed at two principal audiences: the information professionals who want to develop their knowledge and skills in order to manage metadata effectively, and managers who are faced with strategic decisions about adoption of IT applications that use metadata.
The intention of this book is to help specialists and professionals who manage information resources to become easily conversant with this important and rapidly developing area … including … library and information professionals who want to educate themselves about a core area of skills as part of their continuing professional development.
The bigger truth for me is that understanding metadata, really knowing how to develop and apply it, will ultimately allow me to address Aim 2 of the proposal, “Assist investigators in identifying and reporting information technology issues that have arisen in the implementation of the study that may be of use to others.”
The research project I’m working on involved the creation and implementation of a tracking system for collecting a great deal of data that is essential to determining the outcomes of the study. This process took place long before I became a part of the team, but what I’ve learned from questions and observation is that this part of the project took much more time, energy and effort than anyone originally anticipated. Conversations between the research team and the IT people building the system didn’t always go well, not because people didn’t get along or didn’t want to work together, but because they spoke different languages.
ENTER THE INFORMATIONIST! If I can become “easily conversant” in this area, if I can take on the role of interpreter between these two groups, then I will have a truly valuable and unique place on the team. So it behooves me to read and learn and absorb and practice – to become proficient in creating and managing metadata (and other aspects of information systems), because this is the area with the “vacant” sign hanging over it. Further, others on the researcher team are not looking for new roles. Neither are people in IT. Librarians are the ones seeking to redefine themselves. We are the profession looking for new ways to do (sometimes) old and (sometimes) new things. We are the profession not doing things we once did, thus we are the profession with the opportunity to explore some new and different things. The others in this mix are not in the same place we are. In other words, they don’t have this great opportunity that we have right now.
However, there is a real need for our profession to step up and do this now. There is a good reason to say that we are experts in metadata, even if we aren’t, and it goes back to something I typed earlier, “The fact that no one is really all that clear about it in the first place allows us to do this.” No one yet knows who or what an informationist really is. No one is all that sure what a data specialist or a data librarian does. As we’re not sure what the role is, we’re not sure the qualifications we’re looking for when we’re seeking to fill such a position. This became really clear to me earlier in the week when I saw a couple of advertisements for job openings in this area. See for yourself. Do a quick search of job descriptions and job postings for this field. You’ll quickly find that there exists no one (or two or three or six) name for the job. There is no one entity where these job openings arise (some come from libraries, some from research centers, some from the private sector). And most notably to me, there is no one set of qualifications – not even one degree – that is required to fill the positions. Postings require everything from a BS to a PhD.
It is this last part that really got me to thinking about – made me really aware of – how wide-open this entire field is. A recent posting for a Data Management Specialist by Johns Hopkins University states that the qualified candidate will have a Masters of Science in Engineering or Library Science. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve seen this particular coupling, but for some reason this time it struck me and I thought… My brother has a graduate degree in engineering. I have one in library science. What in the world did we ever learn in our schooling that’s similar?! What skills do we mutually possess?
Answer: Zippo! Though to be fair, my brother’s degree is in civil engineering, not computer science, the type of engineering degree I presume JHU means.
But this thought led me to spend a bit of time looking at the requirements of these degree programs. I chose a school that offers both degrees – my own alma mater, Syracuse University. SU is a national leader among information schools and they’ve also recently initiated a certificate of advanced studies program in data science, likely the closest we come in librarianship to computer science. I determined, in my non-scientific way, that it was a suitable choice.
In a nutshell, an MS LIS from Syracuse University requires completion of the following core classes:
- Intro to the Library & Information Profession
- Information & Information Environments
Information Resources Core
- Reference and Information Literacy Services
- Library Planning, Marketing, and Assessment
- Information Resources: Organization and Access
Management and Policy Core
- Management Principles for Info Professionals
- Survey of Telecommunications & Info Policy
In addition to this, students can choose from a variety of electives, focusing their work in the areas of Information Services and Resources, Information Organization, Retrieval, and Access, or Information Systems Design and Management.
An MS in Engineering, Computer Science from SU requires these course as an introductory core:
- Structured Programming and Formal Methods
- Computer Architecture
- Principles of Operating Systems
- Design and Analysis of Algorithms
After this, students complete coursework in abstract mathematics, computer organization and programming systems, data structures, programming languages, and software specification, design, and implementation.
In my humble opinion, these two programs are apples and oranges, and the candidates coming out of them are apples and … humus. Or perhaps brothers and sisters.
HOWEVER, please don’t read this as me bemoaning our degree or saying we are much less prepared to work in a computer-heavy, technology-driven world than our engineering counterparts. That’s not what I see when I see a university like Johns Hopkins post a job opening that will accept applications from candidates with such disparate educational backgrounds. To the contrary, I see it is a sign that when it comes to this area of data management and data services that even a university like Johns Hopkins, a world-renowned research institution, doesn’t know what or who the heck it’s looking for to fill the role.
And so I’ll exclaim again, ENTER THE INFORMATIONIST! It’s “make it up as you go along” mode; “learn as you go” mode; it is, to borrow again from Johns Hopkins, “entrepreneurial library programs” mode.
My first supervisor in this profession, the now-retired Jim Comes, was often heard saying, “These are not challenges, these are opportunities.” I find myself hearing Jim’s words in my head a lot lately, a reminder that the challenge of facing a task that I don’t know how to do is actually an opportunity for me to learn something new. And so I’m going to read two books on metadata – in between reading about happiness, because I’m still stuck on that topic, too.