Larry Prusak, Knowledge, and Embedded Librarianship

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I’ve admired the work of knowledge management researcher and consultant Larry Prusak for a long time. I was glad to find an interview with him in the December 2009 issue of Information Outlook, and I read it with eagerness.

I found much to agree with in the interview. Prusak draws a sharp distinction between information and knowledge. He describes the distinction this way: “knowledge is what a “knower” knows, whereas information is codified”. Knowledge resides in people’s heads; information resides in documents. Prusak goes on to assert that knowledge is much more important than information; that information has become a commodity, and that “information professionals” who want to be around much longer had better become “knowledge professionals”.

Along the way, he gives a nod to embedded librarianship as a good way to make the transition from “information professional” to “knowledge professional” – welcome recognition indeed!

While I agree with much that Prusak says, I found the vision he articulates to be limited and incomplete. It’s incomplete in two ways: in setting up a choice between information and knowledge; and in focusing exclusively on one economic sector where librarians work while ignoring the common concerns of librarianship in all sectors.

1. Choosing between information and knowledge
Prusak suggests, and I agree, that librarians as a profession have been slow to embrace knowledge management and knowledge services. Many of us latched onto a narrow mission and vision that only encompassed external, published information. We became stuck in an identity that limited our role to collecting published literature, like books and journals, when we should have grasped that our skills could apply equally to internal and unpublished information – and even to the knowledge inside people’s heads. It’s good that we now take a more comprehensive view of our role.

Where Prusak goes off track is in advocating that librarians give up information as we take responsibility for knowledge. The anonymous interviewer asks, “It sounds like you’re saying that information professionals need to move away from procuring and maintaining content”, and he seems to agree, as if all information has been commoditized.

To be sure, some information has been commoditized. But a lot has not. Documents, because they represent the knowledge of people we can’t talk to, have and will continue to have, great strategic value. Try telling the law firms, pharmaceutical companies, market research departments that the content they’re shelling out millions of dollars for every year is worth zero. The budget line items they’re allocating don’t support that view. Try telling it to the content vendors who are adding value through new knowledge delivery services. When you have a significant dollar cost, you need someone who understands the business to manage it wisely. Try telling the lawyer who needs a case, the advocate who needs the language of a Congressional report, that they should just ask the judge or the Senator what was in their head when they wrote the document. Try telling the market researcher that the survey data aren’t important, or the competitive intelligence specialist that instead of reading patents they should call up their competitor and ask what their strategy is. Very often, the people with the knowledge are the ones who read the information in a document. So I say it’s not an either-or choice: not either knowledge or information. It’s a both-and world: we need both information and knowledge. Librarians need to manage both. Librarians, having finally figured out that they should be concerned with knowledge as well as information, should take responsibility for both – not give up information services and management in pursuit of knowledge services and management. To do so would be to repeat the error of the past: to see our role and our value too narrowly.

2. Focusing solely on the corporate sector
In his comments on embedded librarianship, Prusak says that, “I just wouldn’t call it librarianship. That term doesn’t work in business.” In agreeing with the interviewer’s assertion that librarians should ignore information content, he says, “I’m not talking here about university libraries or public libraries …” – as if corporate libraries are a world apart.

In his exclusive focus on business, Prusak misses the larger realities of librarianship: librarians in all sectors – whether they use the word librarian in their job title or not — are taking responsibility for knowledge as well as information.

I agree that in some organizations the term “librarian” will not gain you the status you need. Organizations vary, and if this is the case where you work, then don’t use the term. For most of my 27 years in a not for profit corporation, I didn’t have the term “librarian” in my job title, for this very reason. It didn’t stop me from identifying with the profession of librarianship, though.

I wonder what makes Prusak think that universities, public libraries, and others don’t need to deal in knowledge too. I think the strategy to move beyond information (documents) to knowledge (connecting people) applies to librarians in all sectors. Here are two examples. In the November-December issue of Information Outlook, Michele Tennant of the University of Florida described her role in recruiting faculty to affiliate with the University’s Genetics Institute – a knowledge management role if ever there was one. Some public libraries have organized “check out an expert” events – instead of checking out a book, you make an appointment to have a conversation with someone who embodies or is an expert on a given topic. (For an example, see http://living-library.org)
So, to think that only corporations need knowledge is to place a false limit on the importance of knowledge in society. To think that librarians need to give up information as they engage with knowledge is to ignore the essential connections between the two, ignore the ongoing importance of information, and again set up a false limit on the role of librarians. We’ve limited ourselves too much in the past. Let’s not perpetuate that mistake.

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4 Responses to “Larry Prusak, Knowledge, and Embedded Librarianship”

  1. David Whelan’s Blog | David Whelan Says:

    [...] talks about getting out of the library.  Here’s a great post from the Embedded Librarian about the Prusak interview, for those who want to get a perspective from someone who is embedded.  One of my former mentors [...]

  2. Knowledge and the Librarian | David Whelan Says:

    [...] talks about getting out of the library.  Here’s a great post from the Embedded Librarian about the Prusak interview, for those who want to get a perspective from someone who is embedded.  One of my former mentors [...]

  3. Knowledge and the Librarian — Information, Law, and Technology with David Whelan « David Whelan Says:

    [...] talks about getting out of the library.  Here’s a great post from the Embedded Librarian about the Prusak interview, for those who want to get a perspective from someone who is embedded.  One of my former mentors [...]

  4. Knowledge and the Librarian « David Whelan Says:

    [...] talks about getting out of the library.  Here’s a great post from the Embedded Librarian about the Prusak interview, for those who want to get a perspective from someone who is embedded.  One of my former mentors [...]

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