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
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):
- 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.