Embedded Librarianship at SLA and ALA

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I’m just recovering from an intense two weeks at the Special Libraries Association Conference in New Orleans, and the American Library Association Conference in Washington, with several side meetings thrown in for good measure. So I thought this might be a good time to write up my impressions of the role embedded librarianship played at these two meetings.

The first program I attended on embedded librarianship was “Embedded Librarianship in the Field”, presented by Reece Dano and Gretchen McNeely of Ziba Design in Portland, Oregon. They adopted a working definition of embedded librarianship as being “integrated into small work teams”, and spoke of the importance of establishing strong relationships with other team members to build true teamwork – which I’d interpret as mutual responsibility of each team member to the others.

But what was most impressive about their presentation was the way they characterized the embedded model as “transformative” – changing the nature of the librarian’s role in the organization. They used the following concept pairs to illustrate the difference:

Traditional Model                  Embedded Model
Siloed                                                     Integrated
Tactical                                                 Strategic
Information providers                   Knowledge gurus

They presented examples of contributions they have made to team projects that transcend traditional ideas of the librarian’s role, such as participating in primary market research, and leading site visits. The latter provided the setting for a great anecdote they told that, to me, illustrates the unity of the profession and how even a public librarian can be “embedded”, in a sense. During a visit to a neighborhood where a new mass transit station was being planned, team members wished they had more authoritative first-hand information about the demographics of the area. Knowing that a branch of the public library was nearby, the librarian on the team proposed that they drop in and interview the librarian. They did, and the librarian was a fount of insight about the neighborhood – sharing knowledge that informed their design for the transit station.

Reece and Gretchen closed by sharing their recipe for success in embedded librarianship:

  • Build relationships
  • Be aware of and adapt to team members’ differing work styles and intelligences
  • Creatively curate and tailor knowledge
  • Step outside your comfort zone.

They did a great job!

Another SLA program ostensibly about embedded librarians was “Embed Yourself: The Librarian is IN”, presented by Ruth Kneale of the National Solar Observatory and Jake Carlson of Purdue University. They gave lots of interesting insights about their nontraditional roles – Ruth is a Systems Librarian and Jake a “Data Research Scientist” with Purdue’s Distributed Data Curation Center. They focused on the importance of relationship building (a strong recurrent theme!) and the high degree of trust needed between the embedded librarian and the leaders of the team. Jake made the interesting point that academic librarians have an opportunity to become embedded with university administrators – who can really use their help with policy and program development work.

Jake also offered the following characteristics of the successful embedded librarian (note the similarities to Reece and Gretchen’s list):

  • Teamwork
  • Support
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Risk – willing to take a risk
  • Translation – ability to explain your value in non-library-jargon terms
  • Ability to go outside your comfort zone
  • Ability to think outside the box

Regrettably, if there were any presentations on embedded librarianship at ALA, I was unable to find them. I did spend an enjoyable hour with Cass and Kaijsa, co-editors of the forthcoming book on embedded librarianship to be published by ACRL, as well as Lisa and Kate, two of the other chapter authors. So I hope ALA will cover this topic better next year!

The most discouraging conversation I had at either conference took place at a reception held in conjunction with the ALA Conference. I spoke with a librarian who has been running an extensive program of embedded information literacy instruction at a large university. She said that she is curtailing her embedded instruction because it’s too time-consuming and they need to concentrate on staffing the library reference desk. What a shame! I wonder if they were really able to assess the value of their instructional work, or explore creative ways to continue the program. Still, it’s a reminder of the real challenges that managers face with the transition to new models of library service.

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2 Responses to “Embedded Librarianship at SLA and ALA”

  1. Eileen Says:

    Great post! I have to admit that the point about explaining one’s value in non-library terms is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I think I am so “embedded” that I am no longer a librarian. I spend whole weeks sometimes doing editing and layout of publications, which is highly valued, but it comes at the expense of cataloging. Explaining our value in non-library terms has to be balanced with explaining the value of some misunderstood or underappreciated library tasks.

  2. davidshumaker Says:

    Eileen–

    You raise an important issue — one that I’ve actually thought about. I haven’t arrived at a magic solution but here are a couple ideas that might be helpful:

    1. Some librarians transcend the narrow definition of what a librarian does. And why not? If they are the best person in the organization to do something, they should do it. That’s part of sharing ownership of organizational goals. Also, that’s how people wind up as Vice Presidents, Directors, and senior managers of multiple functions in organizations. They keep stepping up and getting the job done. So, don’t put a limit on yourself.

    2. It doesn’t mean the cataloging isn’t important. But maybe it would make sense to hire someone part time or contract it out. Maybe with the institutional and domain knowledge you have amassed, your time is better spent on the other tasks and someone else can do some things you used to do. Getting a part timer or contractor may be cheaper than paying you to do it, too. (You will need to manage the activity of course!)

    3. So, as you say, the challenge is to explain why the organization should lay out some new money to get the cataloging done. It has to be in terms of the organization’s goals and needs. If you have a boss who “gets it” this may not be so hard. In other situations it is admittedly tough. The problem with some library tasks is that when they don’t get done, the operation doesn’t suddenly collapse. Instead, it just slowly declines. Farsighted management will understand this. For others, you’ll have to lead them through it.

    –Dave

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