What’s the ROI of Embedded Librarianship? — Part 2

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Way back on New Year’s Day, I posted part one of a comment about the Return on Investment of Embedded Librarianship. At the end of that post, I promised that it would be followed by Part 2. Well, as a very busy Spring semester is beginning to wind down, I’m finally going to make good on that promise. So here goes.

The original question was asked in the Q & A period after my keynote at the LIANZA Conference last December. It went something like this:

 “What is the Return on Investment of Embedded Librarianship? Have you measured it? It seems very costly, and some of us feel that our resources are better used on digitization and providing access to digital collections.”

Part 1 took the question on its own terms, and presented the evidence I know of that shows the value of embedded librarianship. In part 2, I’ll analyze the question, present its implied assumptions, and address it from an organizational strategy point of view.

I find the premise of the question very interesting. It seems to set up an either-or choice between digitization and digital collection building on the one hand, and providing the necessary information user service, support, consulting, guidance – call it what you will – on the other. That’s a radical change in strategy for librarians. Since the 19th century, it’s been an article of professional faith that it’s not enough for us to offer collections and passively wait for them to be used. Rather, librarians have overthrown the custodial model of librarianship in favor of an activist user- and usage-oriented professional orientation. This change from earlier times was famously proclaimed in Samuel Swett Green’s article “Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers” (vol. 1 of the American Library Journal, October 1876) and forms the philosophical foundation of much of S.R. Ranganathan’s seminal Five Laws of Library Science (1931).

Should we accept the idea that in the age of ubiquitous digital information, seekers and users no longer need help? I don’t buy that. I think disintermediation has its limits. The promises and pitfalls of our current environment put a premium on information skills – hence the growing emphasis in our educational system on information literacy. As people become more information literate, they don’t stop needing professional help – rather the nature of the help they need changes.

This line of reasoning changes the strategic question from “should we invest in digital collections or in embedded librarianship?” as my questioner implied, to “what sort of help do we need to provide for information seekers and users?” Or in other words, is our old model of library user services still appropriate, or should we make changes?

There’s abundant evidence that our old model of user services needs an overhaul. The Association of Research Libraries data has shown level or declining reference statistics in recent years. Julie Banks and Carl Pracht conducted a survey of academic librarians. Forty-four percent of their respondents reported a decline in reference questions.  They asked respondents to assess the effect of the Internet, and they report that “the main response dealt with the fact that the Internet had transformed reference because of its vast reach and information, reducing questions at the desk.” (RUSQ 48:1, Fall 2008) My own observations are consistent with these indicators. I teach a course called “Information Sources and Services” – a required introduction to library reference and public service work. The first assignment I give is a field study. Students visit a library of their choosing, observe the nature of activity at the reference desk, and interview one of the librarians. Most of them visit local public or academic libraries. Consistently, they report that a large majority of the requests are of two kinds: directional questions, and computer support questions. Subject reference questions are few and far between. While providing directional information and solving basic computer support problems are necessary services, they don’t utilize the skills of a good librarian.

Embedded librarianship offers an effective alternative for many organizations. With the embedded model, librarians gain the knowledge of information users’ needs that enables them to be effective providers of the most important information. They gain the access and collaboration that enable them to spot information needs that may be not be articulated. In educational settings especially, they gain involvement in the instructional process  that  makes information literacy relevant, and helps students to retain and use their new information literacy skills.

So the strategic part of the answer to my questioner is this: the question is founded on a false choice between digital collections and active engagement with the needs of information users. For most librarians — the vast majority of us, I think — our mission includes ensuring that information gets used effectively — not just building collections “just in case” they might be used some day. The real strategic question for librarians, then, is not whether to provide for that active engagement, but how to provide for it in the most cost effective manner. There are strong indications that for many, the embedded model may be an important element of a successful strategy.

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2 Responses to “What’s the ROI of Embedded Librarianship? — Part 2”

  1. Eileen Says:

    Great post. This makes it sound like we are all evolving in an “embedded” direction, or that we should try to. I’ll take it. This means that my very specialized solo experience could eventually help me in a much different type of reference experience. Sometimes I think it can’t or won’t. It’s as if the more I embed myself, the closer I am to one of our content specialists, and the more I distance myself from being a librarian. This post, however, helps me see how that skill could be applied in a very different library setting.

  2. davidshumaker Says:

    Eileen–

    There’s much food for thought in your comment.

    First point: I’m always leery of saying “all”. (As in, never say never.) I don’t know if _all_ librarians are going to wind up as embedded librarians but I do believe the trend will continue to grow. We haven’t seen the limits of it yet.

    Second point: About your specialized solo experience and edging closer to being a content specialist — another way to look at it is that you are an organizational innovator and problem solver who happens to have a unique set of skills, among them the skills of librarianship. A great thing about librarianship skills is that they are meta-skills. They enable you to pick up other sets of skills, so that you can move between organizations and contexts if that is what you choose to do.

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