Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: Jump-Start Your Career as a Digital Librarian

Buy now at the ALA store!

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine in the SLIS career office, which has a bookshelf full of resources for students who are getting ready to graduate and want advice. Most of the books are standard fare about writing good resumes and cover letters or the typical "do's and dont's" for job interviews, but a good number of the books are specifically aimed towards library students preparing for traditional librarian jobs. While there is a lot to learn from books like these, there isn't as much overlap between traditional and digital librarian positions. The kinds of jobs I'm looking for are pretty specific and specialized, and there was never anything on that shelf that seemed very relevant to my needs. Imagine my surprise when I glanced over at the bookshelf to look for any new additions and saw "Jump-Start Your Career as a Digital Librarian" on display front-and-center.  It begged me to pick it up, and I obliged.
I was cautiously optimistic; on the one hand, this was the first time I had seen a book that focuses specifically on "new" digital librarians, and it was from the Library Information Technology Association (LITA), a subgroup of the ALA and a big name in the world of digital libraries. On the other hand, I had read other introductions to digital librarianship on the web and and found them to be severely lacking in terms of up-to-date, practical information. Considering how new this book is (it has a 2013 copyright date), I was determined to take it home and dive in.

The book itself is a series of ~20 page chapters written by different authors on different topics and divided into two parts, "Part I - Planning Your Career" and "Part II - Practicing Your Career".  Part I is all about getting the ball rolling with your career, starting with Chapter 1, "So You Want to Be a Digital Librarian - What Does That Mean?" by Jim DelRosso and Cory Lampert. True to it's title it explores the concept of digital librarianship, the duties and functions of a digital librarian and the various skills they must have. Chapter 2, "Getting the Most Out of Library School" by Micah Vandegrift and Annie Pho, explores the best way to make use of the unique opportunity that LIS students have to choose their areas of expertise through enrollment in specific classes. Classes aren't the only way to build yourself up, though. Student jobs, internships, conferences and even just researching things in your spare time are all valid ways of increasing your skill set. Chapter 3, "Landing Your First Job" is chock-full of solid advice for new job seekers, and Chapter 4, "Making a Career Shift" is written specifically for current librarians looking to break into the digital game. Chapter 5, "Furthering Your Career" by Roy Tennant is all about what Tennant calls "professional engagement" which separates those who are serious about their field from those who just show up to the job to get paid.  Reading blogs and journals and joining professional organizations are a great way to stay on top of what's going on. Writing blogs or articles, using social media and speaking at conferences are also important if you want to establish yourself in your field (and it doesn't hurt your CV, either). I think this chapter spoke to me the most out of all the chapters in Part I. Understanding and embracing professional engagement have made a huge change in how I see myself and my career.

Part II - Planning Your Career is less about jobs and more about skills, specifically tech skills.  Chapter 6, "Understanding Key Technology Concepts" by Matt Zimmerman explores the various technologies one may run into in a digital library. Zimmerman gives a broad survey of the technologies a digital librarian may encounter in the field (staples like XML, HTML, PHP, MySQL, etc.), and his deconstruction of the typical web app into a 3 part system was particularly interesting to me (I'm working on a web app right now and Zimmerman's model helped me think about it a bit more logically). Chapter 7, "Managing Digital Projects" has some great project management tips for those new to digital projects. I was looking forward to chapters 8 and 9 the most since they are about metadata, and I was not disappointed. Chapter 8, "Learning About Metadata" by Jennifer Phillips provides a great introduction to the concept of metadata by sticking to it's practical uses instead of getting bogged down in theory like many introductions to metadata seem to do. Phillips builds understanding by using iTunes as an example of an application that makes great use of available metadata. Phillips also uses MARC records from traditional library cataloging as an example of a metadata record, folding catalogers into the realm of metadata (a move that could be considered controversial some, but one I agree with). Chapter 9, "Putting Metadata into Practice" explores a real world example in a case study from the University of Nevada Las Vegas whose library digitized a collection of menus and created a custom metadata schema to describe them. Fascinating stuff, and a great example of the practical side of metadata.

Chapter 10, "Understanding Your Role in the New Scholarly Publishing Landscape" was a pleasant surprise for me, as I was not expecting to be so fired up by a chapter on scholarly communication. I admit that I don't know a lot about scholarly publishing, mostly because I never really cared all that much about it. Anne Shelley and Amy S. Jackson's description of the old system of scholarly communication contrasted with the new world of digital distribution, open access and institutional repositories was truly eye opening. The Open Access model of scholarly communication has the potential to change academia in a huge way, but there are still some major hurdles towards getting authors outside of the library to embrace it. I may not plan on going into the field of scholarly publishing, but knowing how it works (and even better, how it SHOULD work) is knowledge everyone in academia should be aware of. Chapter 11, "Collaborating on Digital Projects" by Andrew Weiss was also pretty interesting, as it focuses on the often overlooked "soft skills" a digital librarian needs to communicate effectively with other librarians or institutions. Last but not least, chapter 12 explores the exciting world of digital preservation.  Heidi N. Abbey provides a terrific introduction to digital preservation and it's related fields, digital curation and digital stewardship. This was also a surprise chapter for me, as I previously did not consider digital preservation as an "area of interest" for me. However, after reading Abbey's explanation of the importance for libraries to preserve our cultural heritage I'm sold! I'm going to check out a few of the suggested readings at the end of the chapter and make digital preservation a part of my skill set.

As a whole, I really liked the book. Since I am still a student, I cannot speak to the accuracy or thoroughness of the book from professional experience, but it meshes well with what I already know and makes for a much more complete picture. The only area I feel that I am competent enough to comment on is metadata, and chapters 8 and 9 were pretty spot on and did a great job of explaining the concepts without getting mired in details of any specific implementation.  The fact that this book inspired me to broaden my (probably too narrow) skill set is as good of a compliment I can give. The only thing that disappointed me about the book was the quality of the physical book itself. In the modern era where it's just as easy (in fact much easier) to publish digitally, I feel that if you are going to make a book you should make a nice one. This book felt a bit cheap, as many pages had text that faded from black to dark greyish (poor printing), and despite the fact that the book is nearly brand new and has been subject to virtually no "wear and tear" the covers are already starting to separate at the edges where the outer picture layer meets the inner card stock layer. This shouldn't happen with a book that sells for around $40. This would bother me a lot more if I had purchased it for myself, but since I'm just borrowing it is a minor annoyance. This is, of course, not a fault of any of the authors or even LITA but one of the publisher. Still, its worth mentioning if you are on the fence about getting it and can't decided between a physical copy or a digital one.

Overall Rating: 4/5


  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Bryan. I've been curious and I may just have to check it out! Let's get coffee soon.

  2. That sounds like a fine idea. Also congrats on being the first ever comment on this site!

  3. Thanks for the lovely review, Bryan, and for the positive comments on the chapter that I contributed to the book, Chapter 12: Preserving Digital Content. It is rewarding to know that the book is being read. :-)

  4. Nice review. There are a lot of amazing contributors with great advice in that book!