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Why Content Marketers Need Digital Librarians

When you or your marketing team members need a graphic, a photo, or a video from your own content collection (that is, your content library), can you go right to it? Or do you call that what-would-we-do-without-you person who knows where everything is?

If you call for help — whether your content library resides in a digital asset management (DAM) system, a content management system, some other kind of repository, or a patchwork of shared folders — it may be time to call in a digital librarian.

At my company, we have certainly suffered the pains of content overload. Three years ago, we began working with John George, an independent information professional based in Seattle. Since we sell DAM systems, it was ironic to discover just how badly we needed help organizing our own assets. (“Assets” are simply the reusable files enriched with metadata stored in the content library.) Today, I see other companies either contracting with specialists like John or hiring full-time digital librarians to manage their content.

To explore the ways that digital librarians help companies make the most of their content assets, I interviewed John and our training specialist and another digital librarian, Lexy Spry. I also drew from off-record conversations with digital librarians at a global health-care organization, an advertising company, and a furniture manufacturer.

How do you know you need a digital librarian?

If someone in your marketing department spends a lot of time finding images for everyone else, that’s a red flag. Finding stuff isn’t this person’s job, but his or her title might as well be “finder of stuff” because no one else understands how to navigate your content library. Consequently, the finder of stuff spends hours every day emailing content to people who request it. If your finder of stuff goes on vacation, gets sick, or leaves the company, you’re in trouble.

The finder of stuff probably doesn’t track rights and licenses. He or she could easily send out expired stock images. Even rights for images from your photo shoots expire. You probably signed a contract with the model limiting the duration of your rights. (Three years is a typical limit.)

If your team relies on a finder of stuff — especially if your content library is loaded with marinating copyright lawsuits — consider hiring a digital librarian.

What does a digital librarian do?

What, you might ask, will a digital librarian do differently from your finder of stuff? John explains it well:

It’s easy to get assets online or into the library. It’s more work to make them discoverable. That’s what the metadata is for and where librarians prove their value. Your librarian will either manage that process outright or set up workflows that make it easy for others to add assets that are well-cataloged.

Digital librarians use metadata to make the right content assets accessible and the wrong assets (like expired images) inaccessible. They also train people to use the system and maintain its integrity. Unlike the finders of stuff, digital librarians architect an information management system that scales.

Digital librarians architect an information management system that scales says @jakeathey. #contentstrategy Share on X

Ultimately, a digital librarian’s work should empower people to find what they need, when they need it, without assistance.

Toward this end, the digital librarian must tackle perhaps the hardest task: figuring out which assets should be deleted or archived. Just as you can’t quickly grab the socket wrench you need when it’s buried under a jumble of tools you never use, and just as it’s tough to pick an outfit from an overflowing closet that includes clothes that no longer fit, it’s painful to go looking for a piece of content you want to reuse when it’s surrounded by redundant, outdated, or trivial content (ROT ).

Smart digital librarians use content analytics to weed ROT efficiently. Based on internal downloads, shares, embeds, reach, and other engagement metrics, the librarians can identify which content assets are being used and which ones may be considered for retirement. Those that don’t fit quality and brand standards can also be removed. Librarians can also establish a workflow that automatically retires content assets as usage rights expire. Assets may be versioned or overwritten as the creative team updates them to avoid duplicates.

Who is qualified to do this work?

People who are qualified to be digital librarians share several traits. First, they have a graduate degree in library and information studies. Unlike the finder of stuff, who typically has a marketing, communications, or design background, the digital librarian is trained to manage information.

Second, digital librarians know how to organize and describe stuff. Specifically, they have studied metadata, taxonomy, cataloging, and ontology — they know how to categorize information. The librarian has the skills to “create a vocabulary for your organization,” as Lexy puts it.

Third, digital librarians understand how information needs vary across business departments. They use this knowledge to determine settings for permissions and security. They understand, for instance, that images created by R&D shouldn’t be accessible to marketing and sales. Likewise, they know that graphic designers and video editors need access to all versions of a file, whereas social marketers need only final, approved images.

To find qualified digital librarians, start on LinkedIn. Search skills that the social network recognizes: library science, digital libraries, archives, metadata, taxonomy, cataloging, content management, digital preservation, collection development, information literacy, library management, content management, and digital asset management.

Give priority to candidates with a master of library and information science (MLIS). You can look at the U.S. News ranking of library and information studies grad schools to see if the candidate studied at a well-regarded program. Don’t give too much weight to the ranking of the school — just note whether it shows up on the list.

How do you measure the success of a digital librarian?

Measuring the librarian’s success is tricky because, as John says, “It’s hard to measure what people aren’t doing.” Eventually, the finders of stuff should receive no image requests at all. Everyone in the marketing department should spend less time requesting, awaiting, and hunting down assets.

To quantify success, you need to examine change over time. Before contracting a librarian, estimate:

  • Cost of searching and sharing
    • Multiply the average hourly salary of content marketing team members by staff hours per week spent finding and sharing assets.
    • Use a survey or conduct an observational study to get realistic numbers.
  • Cost of asset fulfillment
    • Multiply the number of assets downloaded per year by the average number of minutes required for each download. That gives you the time spent on fulfillment.
    • Multiply hours spent on fulfillment by the average hourly salary of content marketing team members.
  • Cost of asset loss
    • Come up with an average value for the assets in your content library.
    • Multiply that value by the number of lost and unused assets.

Once a digital librarian has revamped your content library, and your team has used it for several months, you can recalculate those three costs and note the difference. Keep in mind: If users spend a lot of time in your content library but download few assets, the librarian still has more work to do. You want to see a high volume of downloads achieved in minimal time per session.

Metrics alone cannot tell you if the librarian has succeeded. Use your content library for several weeks to gauge its performance. If you enter a keyword, do the results make sense? Do the filtering options quickly lead you to the content you want? Is what you find useful? Or do you feel like an exasperated character in this Bing commercial?

When should you call in a digital librarian?

Ideally, call in a pro before your content becomes a big, hairy mess. Think of it as preventive librarianship. At a small or mid-sized company, a digital librarian might seem unneeded, but today’s seemingly inconsequential issues grow up to be tomorrow’s monsters. Instead of waiting for content overload to kill your productivity, hiring a digital librarian early — the sooner, the better — can help you avoid problems in the future even as you reap the immediate benefits of making your content more findable now.

Contract librarians can help with needs assessment, evaluation, strategy, people wrangling, data, and systems, but you need a dedicated person to maintain your content library. In a small-to-medium-sized business, that maintenance could easily consume 50% of an individual’s work hours. With proper training, someone in your marketing department could maintain the system with a quarterly checkup by your librarian.

In a large business, you need one full-time team member to maintain your content library. In an enterprise dealing with multiple divisions, entities, brands, departments, and agencies, you need two or three full-time digital asset managers. At least one of them should be a formally trained librarian.


If videos, images, graphics, and PDFs fuel your content marketing strategy, but your team members can’t find that content on their own, you have a problem. Just think about all the hours you’ve lost hunting or waiting for content, and then do something about it. A finder of stuff can’t solve your problem, but a trained librarian can implement an appropriate content library and professionally organize your assets. Trust a librarian to win back your time and sanity.

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Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via