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Why You Need Soft and Non-Technical Skills for Successful Data Librarianship

This article was originally published in the “Journal of eScience Librarianship” by Margaret Henderson :

Henderson M. Why You Need Soft and Non-Technical Skills for Successful Data Librarianship. Journal of eScience Librarianship 2020;9(1): e1183. Retrieved from
Margaret Henderson is Health Sciences Librarian, and chair of the research data management (RDM) team, at San Diego State University. She presented her research on the development of  team-based, case-based, critical pedagogy for one-shot classes at MLA and EAHIL in 2019. Margaret is the author of Data Management: A Practical Guide for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). She was a teacher, mentor, and content creator for the Biomedical and Health Research Data Management Training for Librarians offered by the National Training Center of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine. She was the RDM director at Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, and has had over 30 years experience as a biomedical librarian.


There is more to providing research data services (RDS) than the technical skills necessary for data management. Reviews of job advertisements for data librarians show that there are many other skills listed.

Eclevia et al. (2019) did a study of 104 job advertisements and found that interpersonal and communication skills, and the ability to work independently and collaboratively, occurred in job advertisements more often than knowledge of research data curation and management. Kahn and Du (2018) in a similar study of job advertisements, found the skills of research assistance and critical thinking/problem solving were in more job advertisements than knowledge of data sources or a statistical software package.

Federer (2018) conducted a survey of librarians doing data related work, and found that communication skills, the ability to develop relationships with researchers, and other “soft skills”, were especially relevant to their work.

“Soft skills”, or interpersonal skills, and other non-technical skills, are very important when setting up research data management services, and continue to be important to the sustainability of services. Reference skills, relationship building, collaboration, listening, and facilitating access to de-centralized resources, are all important to the success of a service.

Combining these skills with an understanding of the data life cycle, metadata, and some coding and statistics, will place librarians and libraries in a good position to support research at their institution.

If you want to work with data, you will need to be an administrator and an entrepreneur, as well as a reference and instruction librarian, so data science knowledge is only a part of the job.

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