Foreword: Reflections on a Career in Data Librarianship

Jeff Moon

Recognition of Research Data Management (RDM) as a key pillar in the research enterprise has increased dramatically in recent years, driven by the efforts of data librarians and specialists, research facilitators, policy makers, funders, journal publishers, administrators in higher education, and a growing number of frontline researchers. But how did we get here? Reflecting on my 36 years working in this space, the answer is clear: community. It is the collegial and collaborative nature of the Canadian data community, working over decades, that has brought us to where we are today through the shared belief that together we can do better. Tracing the history of this progress will help frame the origins and purpose of this new Open Educational Resource (OER) RDM textbook. My recounting of our shared history will be personal and necessarily selective; far more thorough and thoughtful coverage can be found in the excellent works of Gray and Hill (2016) and Humphrey (2020).

I arrived at Queen’s University in 1987, armed with a background in biology, a library degree, and a basic knowledge of statistics and mainframe computers — with the latter ultimately getting me hired as Queen’s first data librarian. I believe Queen’s University was one of only six Canadian institutions with data librarians at that time. Early on, I learned that data librarianship was an aerobic activity: run 9-track data tapes to the computing centre, run back to the library, execute your batch job on the mainframe, run back to the computing centre to collect printed results, run back to the library, find and fix errors, repeat. I was in the best shape of my life.

At around this time, the Federal government of the day imposed cost recovery measures that effectively raised the price tag for Statistics Canada data tenfold, from $25 to $2500 per file, putting these data well out of reach for most researchers and universities. Laine Ruus, a veteran Data Librarian at the University of Toronto, thought together we can do better. Collaborating with the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), Laine spearheaded negotiations to purchase a single set of all Census data files from Statistics Canada, to be copied and shared under license with participating institutions. The gargantuan, and wholly altruistic task of copying and shipping hundreds of magnetic tapes across the country ensured these data remained affordable and accessible for the 25 institutions who joined in.

With this success, however, came challenges — what were academic libraries supposed to do with these tapes? Librarians, more often than not those responsible for government documents, were assigned ‘data librarian’ roles but in most cases had no background or training in this field. As part of the response to this, the Canadian Association of Public Data Users (CAPDU) was established in 1988, with training as one of its primary mandates. Early drivers of this training included Wendy Watkins (Carleton University) and Laine Ruus. Training was first offered informally, often one-on-one, and later more formally in conjunction with various conferences.

Wendy later partnered with Ernie Boyko from Statistics Canada to undertake a watershed project — developing and resourcing what became known as the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI), a national data service model designed to provide access to Statistics Canada data and, importantly, targeted training, for a fixed and affordable annual subscription fee. But this success took much buy-in, time, and effort. In a 1995 regional report to ICPSR, Wendy wrote: “To date, all parties are enthusiastic. What remains to be found are firm commitments to funding.” By its launch in 1996, over 50 institutions had joined with each designating a ‘DLI representative’ and taking advantage of the dual benefits of cost savings and much-needed training. Another less tangible benefit to emerge from DLI was a nascent hub-and-spoke community of practice, with more-experienced data librarians and specialists offering support, guidance, direction, and encouragement to a growing number of new data professionals across Canada. This de facto network of expertise and mentorship helped build relationships, trust, and credibility — and is a community-building model that we are benefiting from to this day.

Fast-forwarding through time, I see the blur of progress from magnetic tapes to tape cartridges to CD-ROMs — standalone and networked in ‘towers’ — to the emergence of Internet data delivery via FTP and eventually the web. Baked into this latter period were many home-grown, web-based data delivery services whose cryptic names probably still resonate with data librarians of a certain age: IDLS, Equinox, QWIFS, LANDRU, ISLAND, Sherlock, and SDA. Regional training offered by DLI was often framed around one or more of these services. This patchwork of systems served as a proving ground for more ambitious national solutions to come, with several of these platforms providing subscription access to institutions across Canada.

Importantly during this period, the concept of data management arose and grew, albeit slowly. Many data librarians became involved in what was coined ‘data rescue,’ reflecting the reality that many government-produced data files were at risk of being lost due to ignorance, lack of funding, or neglect. More than once, Laine Ruus, a data packrat in the very best sense of the word, was asked by Statistics Canada if she had kept (managed) a copy of a data file they needed but could not find. In another example, the ICPSR regional report cited above mentions the University of Alberta Data Library rescuing 20 years of Alberta Hail Study data when that provincial government program was shuttered. These data can be found today in Borealis, the Canadian Dataverse repository.

As technology advanced, so did awareness of the importance of doing research digitally. As with the data rescue initiatives already mentioned, there was a growing understanding of how important, yet vulnerable, researcher-generated data were. In the past decade or so, the federal government and its Tri-Agency funders issued a series of foundational policy documents outlining their stance on open science and the importance of transparency, replicability, verification, and reuse of data. Libraries as well, spearheaded by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) and astutely led by Executive Director Susan Haigh, took an active interest in RDM. With support from CARL Library Directors, and visionary leadership from Charles (Chuck) Humphrey (University of Alberta), a roadmap for RDM in Canada emerged, culminating in the creation of CARL Portage in 2015. In 2017, I accepted the challenge of filling Chuck’s rather large leadership shoes when he retired, joining Lee Wilson, then Service Manager at Portage, in continuing to develop the Canada-wide Portage Network of Experts, or NoE (a thankful nod here to DLI), which was initiated to grow and coordinate RDM capacity and training from the ground up in Canada. Together, we oversaw the transition of Portage into the Digital Research Alliance of Canada (the Alliance). The RDM team at the Alliance and the NoE, now led by Lee Wilson, continue the work of Portage through close collaboration with others in the Digital Research Infrastructure ecosystem to improve data management practices, platforms, services, and training across Canada.

Shortly after Portage was launched, I was asked to map out a graduate-level RDM syllabus for the Library School at Western University. After much searching, I ended up choosing a textbook written in the United Kingdom as a foundation for the course. While well-written and thorough, this textbook relied entirely on UK- and European-based tools, policy frameworks, and examples. And while many aspects of RDM transcend national boundaries, bringing the topic home for Canadian students would have been of great value. Others have expressed similar frustration in seeking authoritative home-grown RDM support.

Portage, and now the Alliance, have done much to address RDM training needs in Canada, working closely with the RDM NoE, and in particular the National Training Expert Group (NTEG) to create a range of webinars, templates, guides, glossaries, videos, and primers – all freely available on the website. At the same time, others in the RDM community recognized more could be done. Of particular note, Lachlan MacLeod from Dalhousie University initiated grassroots discussions about the creation of an open textbook on RDM, convening community calls and establishing a mailing list for interested participants. A core national editorial team was formed, consisting of Elizabeth (Liz) Hill, Kristi Thompson, and Emily Carlisle-Johnston, all from Western University [English] and Danielle Dennie (Concordia University) and Émilie Fortin (Université Laval) [French].

The English editorial team worked on initial concept development for the textbook, fundraising, and editing of English-language submissions. Liz Hill brings a wealth of data and RDM experience, has deep awareness of the history of data services in Canada (see article, cited below, and historical chapter included in this work), and knows/is known by just about everyone in the Canadian data ecosystem. She served as consummate people- and relationship-wrangler for the project. Kristi Thompson brings a background in computer science and quantitative analysis to the project, which along with previous editorial experience, she leveraged to review technical content in this textbook. She is known for her work on data anonymization (see the Sensitive Data chapter in this work) and quantitative literacy, and her involvement in ‘data rescue,’ all grounded in strong RDM expertise. Kristi also led very successful fundraising efforts for the project. Emily Carlisle-Johnston brought essential expertise in OER, copyediting, and textbook development to the editorial team. Her knowledge of the Pressbooks open-publishing platform, her advocacy for openness throughout the project’s workflow, and her previous experience leading the editorial process for OER projects while working at eCampusOntario, made Emily a perfect fit for this project.

The French editorial team was responsible for overseeing translation, reviewing French contributions, and leading the production of a complete French edition of the text. Émilie Fortin has a range of experience and a background in preservation, and in addition to her editorial work she contributed crucial material on metadata and formats to this textbook. She has been working in RDM since 2021. Danielle Dennie has a background in science librarianship as well as RDM and has held several library leadership roles. Danielle was the primary coordinator between the English and French sides of the project, liaising with the English project team and juggling copy editors and translators. Danielle and Émilie co-led outreach with the French data community and translated communications for the project.

This core national editorial team had a diverse range of skills and levels of experience, with each member contributing in distinct but complementary ways. Their collective efforts ultimately attracted over 50 members of the Canadian data community to serve as editors, authors, reviewers, fundraisers, and other contributors to this project. This larger pan-Canadian team had a shared appreciation of the value and importance of framing RDM training and resources in the Canadian context and set out to fill this need, culminating in this all-Canadian bilingual RDM textbook — Research Data Management in the Canadian Context: A Guide for Practitioners and Learners.

It is exciting to think how valuable and appreciated this work promises to be as part of an ever-growing arsenal of Canadian RDM training resources. This textbook is aimed at researchers and practitioners at all levels and from all disciplines. It has strong potential for use:

  • in teaching (Library School courses, workshops, etc.)
  • as a reference source (by researchers and RDM specialists, new and established)
  • by administrators hoping to learn more about policy and regulatory aspects of RDM
  • as a driver of change, with applications in policy discussions, development, and deployment.

The online and open nature of this work will facilitate access and ongoing improvement. The RDM landscape is constantly changing with advancements being made locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally — all with the potential to inform and augment this textbook over time.

Fundamentally, this textbook is the embodiment of a sea change in the Canadian data ecosystem. We are witnesses to and participants in the broadening of our collective national focus from solely facilitating access to and use of existing data, to proactively expanding available content by promoting and supporting the FAIR-ification of researcher-generated data in the ways described in this work. The best practices, tips, guidance, policy discussions, and examples in this textbook will certainly bolster efforts to normalize the necessary and growing focus on FAIR. I say normalize, because we do need to make the best practices surrounding research data management a normal and expected part of researchers’ mindsets and workflows — not just in response to policy imperatives, but because researchers recognize and value the benefits of data well managed, for their disciplines, for their reputations, for future reuse and verification, and for society at large. This textbook will help us, together, to reach this goal. Never underestimate the power of a dedicated community to get things done.

March 2023

Gray, S. V. & Hill, E. (2016). The Academic Data Librarian Profession in Canada: History and Future Directions. Western Libraries Publications. Paper 49.

Humphrey, C. The CARL Portage Partnership Story. (2020). Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 15(1).

About the author

Jeff Moon is the Director, Data Strategy and Services at Compute Ontario.


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Research Data Management in the Canadian Context Copyright © 2023 by Jeff Moon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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