February 8, 2009

Public, Private Sectors Seek Digital Asset Managers

Although people entered the digital world years ago, a great number of human historical records did not make the transition. As a result, a vast amount of newspapers, scientific journals, court records, corporate documents, literature, film and other material, accumulated over hundreds of years, needed to be modified for computer databases.  And once there, it had to be positioned alongside newer, digital material in a way that would allow people to quickly find the information they need.

Those entrusted to find a place for this vast amount of data are known as digital asset managers, digital archivists or digital preservation officers. Whatever their names, demand for these experts is surging.

Jacob Nadal, preservation officer at the University of California, Los Angeles, does not use the "digital" modifier because his responsibilities include safeguarding analog data in UCLA's collection, not just preparing them to transition to digital.

"I don't think there's any day where I would say I'm the digital guy," a New York Times report quoted him as saying.

However, he admits he's not really an analog, pen-and-paper person either, something that is increasingly the case in his field.  

Today, he said, "if you want to work in a library, you have to deal in electronic resources."

Mr. Nadal, 32, and a handful of colleagues spend much of their time  organizing and protecting digital material.  Their work includes licensing and purchasing digital content from suppliers, assigning identification markers known as meta-tags so material can be easily, researching copyright issues and ensuring that files remain intact whenever new versions of relevant hardware or software become available.

As one might expect in a nascent field such as digital asset management, Mr. Nadal fell into his work somewhat by accident, after he began working on various book-scanning and preservation projects as a student at Indiana University.  He later took over those projects after the head of preservation left the university.  

Nadal said that after that, it "took a year or two for me to realize my career in preservation had started a year or two past."

He believes  many of his counterparts have experienced similar situations.

"Among librarians, I think that happenstance may be a typical career path," he told the New York Times.

However, some backgrounds are better than others for would-be digital asset managers.  

While some IT knowledge is required, too much technical expertise is not always a good thing, according to Victoria McCargar, a preservation consultant and a lecturer at San Jos© State University and UCLA.

"People with IT backgrounds tend to be wrong for the job," she told the New York Times.

"They tend to focus on storage solutions: "ËœWe'll just throw another 10 terabytes on that server.'"

One result can be what McCargar called "waxy buildup", a lot of useless files that make it difficult to find the intended information.

Roughly 20,000 people work in the field today, Ms. McCargar estimates.  If the economy stabilizes soon, she expects that number to triple over the next ten years.

Public institutions employ many digital asset managers, but businesses use them as well, said Deborah Schwarz, chief executive of  consulting and headhunting firm Library Associates.  Law firms, in particular, are large employers in field, and have a great need for experts on digital copyright and other issues associated with the migration of legal documents from filing cabinets to databases.

The private sector employers tend to offer better pay.  For instance, while digital asset managers at public institutions would do well to make $70,000 a year, compensation for their corporate counterparts is typically  higher.

"Compensation varies wildly because it's an emerging area," Keith Gurtzweiler, vice president for recruiting at Library Associates, told the New York Times.

"Consultants who can make recommendations on systems can make $150 an hour."

And those who "manage them once they're up and running and maintain the machinery," can make from the $70,000's up to $100,000, he said.

Michael Doane is an information management consultant at Ascentium, a consultancy in suburban Seattle that employs 100 to 150 digital asset managers in a staff of 500.  

New graduates holding master's degrees in information systems management can "easily expect $80,000 to $90,000 in consulting and a little less in the commercial world," Michael Doane, an information management consultant at Ascentium, told the New York Times. 

Ascentium is a consulting firm outside Seattle with roughly 100 to 150 digital asset managers out of its staff of 500.

However, despite the higher pay, Mr. Nadal said he cannot imagine leaving U.C.L.A. for a corporate job.  Instead, he finds the challenge of managing vast amounts information for a major academic institution too attractive.

"We belong to the people of California and hold our collections in trust for them and for future generations of students, scholars and members of the public," he said.

"Public-sector institutions just strike me as far, far cooler. They have better collections, obviously, and they are innovative, connected and challenging in ways that seem more substantial to me."


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