More and more lately, I’m asked the question “what do you do?” This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Often, how I answer depends on who’s asking – is it someone who really cares or needs to know? – and how much detail I feel like going to at the moment when I’m asked. When I’m asked at conferences, as I was quite a bit at FORCE2016, I tried to be as explanatory as possible without getting pedantic, boring, or long-winded. My answer in those scenarios goes something like “I’m a data librarian – I do a lot of instruction on data science, like R and data visualization, and data management.” When I’m asked in more social contexts, I hardly even bother explaining. Depending on my mood and the person who’s asking, I’ll usually say something like data scientist, medical librarian, or, if I really don’t feel like talking about it, just librarian. It’s hard to know how to describe yourself when you have a job title that is pretty obscure: Research Data Informationist. I would venture to guess that 99% of my family, friends, and even work colleagues have little to no idea what I actually spend my days doing.
In some regards, that’s fine. Does it really matter if my mom and dad know what it means that I’ve taught hundreds of scientists R? Not really (they’re still really proud, though!). Do I care if my date has a clear understanding of what a data librarian does? Not really. Do I care if a random person I happen to chat with while I’m watching a hockey game at my local gets the nuances of the informationist profession? Absolutely not.
On the other hand, there are often times that I wish I had a somewhat more scrutable job title. When I’m talking to researchers at my institution, I want them to know what I do because I want them to know when to ask me for help. I want them to know that the library has someone like me who can help with their data science questions, their data management needs, and so on. I know it’s not natural to think “library” when the question is “how do I get help with finding data” or “I need to learn R and don’t know where to start” or “I’d like to create a data visualization but I have no idea how to do it” or any of the other myriad data-related issues I or my colleagues could address.
The “informationist” term is one that has a clear definition and a history within the realm of medical librarianship, but I feel like it has almost no meaning outside of our own field. I can’t even count the number of weird variations I’ve heard on that title – informaticist, informationalist, informatist, and many more. It would be nice to get to the point that researchers understood what an informationist is and how we can help them in their work, but I just don’t see that happening in the near future.
So what do we do to make our contributions and expertise and status as potential collaborators known? What term can we call ourselves to make our role clear? Librarian doesn’t really do it, because I think people have a very stereotypical and not at all correct view of what librarians do, and it doesn’t capture the data informationist role at all. Informationist doesn’t do it, because no one has any clue what that means. I’ve toyed with calling myself a data scientist, and though I do think that label fits, I have some reservations about using that title, probably mostly driven by a terrible case of imposter syndrome.
What’s in a name? A lot, I think. How can data librarians, informationists, library-based data scientists, whatever you want to call us, communicate our role, our expertise, our services, to our user communities? Is there a better term for people who are doing this type of work?