A Philosophy of Digital Librarianship

I am a digital librarian. I did not begin my tenure in the library professiong thinking of myself as such, but through my work, my research, and my reading, I have adjusted my thinking about the nature of librarianship to include the expansive possibilities that “digital” offers. Somewhat to my surprise, I find that this adjustment, this addition of the “digital,” does not so much as shift the nature of librarianship – or move it away from its core, traditional values of access and preservation – as expand the responsibilities and responses of the vocation to accommodate the increased access and preservation needs that our transitional period of history, the so-called “Digital Era,” demands.

Like most digital library positions, my position exists in the interstices of the library: My domain is metadata but not the catalog, reference questions but not the desk. This “in-between-ness,” the interstitial nature of digital librarianship, is proper to my position given that the backbone of my work, digitization, is a process that occurs in that transitional (and transformative) space in-between the complex and the simple, traditionally, and, more recently, in-between the physical and the virtual.

For digitization, as I see it, is not new. Rather, I define digitization[1] as a process that makes the complex object simpler by breaking it into bits in order that it might be re-aggregated into new, more malleable media. Consequently, I believe digitization “is not merely a phenomenon of the current age, but an active force throughout technological history,” one whose technological progeny include telegraphs, typewriters, radios, televisions, and even letterpress printing, and whose current best expression is that most powerful of digitizers, the computer (Kirschenbaum 134).

This definition of digitization is important to my conception of digital librarianship because if digitization, as I claim, is not new, then neither does the position of digital librarian represent the sea-change many want to claim it does, as the products ‘digitization’ produces – anything from books to databases – include materials that librarians have dealt with for centuries.

This is not to say that the computational model of digitization has not drastically changed librarianship in the past few decades. It has. The change, however, is not so much a paradigm shift as it is an expansion. As Stephen Ramsey explains, “The computer revolutionizes, not because it proposes an alternative to the basic hermeneutical procedure, but because it reimagines that procedure at new scales, with new speeds, and among new sets of conditions” (31). That is, the new scales and speeds computation has wrought on society do not change what digitization is or does, but computation does so increase the scale and speed at which digitization can be done that new ways and means of working with digitization and its products must be imagined.

So, to my mind, digital librarianship is a re-imagination of librarianship, one that does not propose alternatives to the traditional values of librarianship – Access and Preservation – so much as re-envision new ways of honoring those values by providing expanded modes of access online and by assisting both libraries and individual patrons with the daunting task of preserving their virtual records, research, and writings. But while I conduct my own work as a digital librarian believing that what I do is strongly connected with the traditions of librarianship, I also feel an increased urgency and dedication to the expansion of that tradition because I believe we live in a transitional era, one whose participants need and desire more and better access to primary, historical resources and whose digital materials need more care and thought given to their preservation.

Accordingly, I develop digital collections and their online portals with a user’s access foremost in mind and strive to make these portals as inviting and browseable for the general user as they are detailed and searchable for the researcher. My websites’ designs are expressions of my belief that access should be unfettered and intuitive as I design them so that their contents are available through several different expressions – be that via a map, a timeline, or a subject-based tag cloud – and so that the items, their metadata, and the collection’s contextual information are available to users in much the same way the physical folders of documents or photographs that hold the original items are available in our Special Collections & Archives department.

In terms of preservation, I believe librarians have a duty to educate their patrons about the ways and means by which they can best obtain, save, organize, and archive their own digital files and data. I did not enter my job holding believing this as firmly as I do now. Through my research, I gained a better understanding of how (and how poorly) people interact with their digital files and have, due to the insights I gained doing so, designed presentations and tutorials on how to collect, clean, and visualize both one’s own data – i.e. that data collected about one via their smart phone – and other publicly available data of importance such as that released by Wikileaks. Similarly, because I witnessed, when I first began my position, how essentially useless a poorly maintained digital archive is, I now spend a great deal of time establishing standards and procedures for preserving the library’s digital content so that it might be accessed and used by future generations. So through both my research and my work, I have witnessed firsthand the need and urgency for increased digital preservation work and education in the library, which has in turn even more firmly centralized the principles of digital preservation in my own work.

The double bind and opportunity of digital librarianship is that it must deal simultaneously with both the macro and the micro, uncovering both the emergent patterns of the everyday and the exceptional objects that accumulate into these patterns. As such, the digital librarian’s mode must be that of re-discovery, of uncovering that which has been here all along but which has been missed, forgotten, or at a scale too large or small for us to see. I count myself lucky in that I am called upon, as a digital librarian, to create new ways for users to see and find this re-discovered material. I find this work extremely satisfying because I believe it to be important not only for the Library and University but also for the State of Idaho and the Northwest generally. I believe this because I feel the digitization that these exceptional objects undergo and the online access we provide to them allows all those interested in Idaho and our University, be they in Moscow or Pocatello, Seattle or Helena, the ability to uncover for themselves those objects and patterns that make our institution, our library, and our collections unique and important to the larger histories and ideas that scholarship, both digital and otherwise, produces.

Devin Becker is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of Idaho


Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

[1] My definition is not my own, but is itself based on a definition digital humanist Matthew Kirschenbaum adopts from Humanities researcher Morris Eaves.


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