Feral Librarians and Embedded Librarians

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Another academic term is nearing completion, and once again I’m reminded of how much I owe to my students — including the idea for this post!

It’s my practice — borrowed from my colleague Dr. Bill Kules — to ask students for course feedback at the midpoint of the term. I ask three questions: what’s going well, what would you change, and what topics are you most interested in covering during the second half of the course.

I administered this survey in my “Libraries and Information in Society” course back in October. In response to the last question, one student responded (anonymously; all responses are anonymous): “feral librarians”. So, I promised the class that before the end of the term we would talk about feral librarians. As the end of the term approached, I knew I had to make good on that promise.

Now, I recalled reading about “feral librarians” a few years ago, but I hadn’t given the idea much thought. So, back I went, first to Google Scholar, the online databases, and ultimately to Library Journal, where you can read the article, “Raised by Wolves: Integrating the New Generation of Feral Professionals into the Academic Library”, by James G. Neal, at http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6304405.html .

As I understand it, the article raises a concern with the trend of hiring people without traditional Library Science degrees, and the acculturation it brings, into various positions in library organizations. The “feral professionals include paraprofessionals with bachelor’s degrees, or less, being given work formerly reserved for MLS-degreed staff; to IT and other non-librarian specialists; to MLS products of distance education programs who may not have been properly socialized into librarian culture; to Ph.D. subject specialists lacking the MLS degree. All are seen as threats to the status of librarians and the cozy monoculture of the academic library.

With my background in corporate librarianship, I wasn’t very sympathetic to the manifestations of the academic caste system I sensed in the article — the idea that one’s role and worth are determined by the letters after one’s name. I am used to a more meritocratic approach — your position and role are based on what you can accomplish. I felt an undercurrent of panic in the article. The “feral professionals” are presented as a disruptive force that library managers must learn to deal with. It’s true that the article ends  on a positive note, saying that the libraries need the diversity these new professionals will bring. But for me, that ending seemed at odds with the tone of the rest of the article. It seems more a grudging acknowledgement of change than a call to leadership.

Yet wasn’t until we were in the middle of the discussion in class that I realized what was really troubling me about the article. It was that the direction of change was portrayed as being almost all one-way: the feral professionals invading our libraries and upsetting our library way of life. (Yes, there’s one sentence about librarians taking on new roles, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.)

What we need a lot more of, in my opinion, is writing about librarians busting out of the libraries and bringing their unique skills and perspectives to their colleagues in administration and the subject departments. Not only writing, though, but leadership that makes it happen. Let’s mix it up. Invite those “feral professionals” into our organizations where they can add value, and push outward to explore and seize opportunities for librarians beyond the four walls of the library.

My research has brought me into contact with library managers and embedded librarians who are doing just that. So, I conclude that this whole “feral professional” thing is a digression. At best, it’s only half the story of building diverse teams, including librarians, in organizations. Let’s get on with the real work at hand.

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5 Responses to “Feral Librarians and Embedded Librarians”

  1. Dr. Steve Matthews Says:

    David,
    On my own Blog, one reader provided a link to a school position that was quite new and intriguing. See what you think: “Academic Integrator” position at North Shore Country Day School, would this be considered by Neal a “feral” librarian?

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Steve–

      Thanks for pointing to this job ad. It sounds like the perfect job for some outstanding school librarians I know. As a matter of fact, I just started corresponding with someone whose job is very much like this. There is another librarian who “minds the store” in the library, and she is the embedded librarian who works on a combination of technology development and collaborating with classroom teachers to provide embedded information literacy instruction.

      The way I understand the “Feral Professionals” article, if this position were filled by someone without the MLS — as it could be — then that would qualify as a feral librarian. But I don’t really think that’s as important as having someone with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to make a difference in students’ technology learning and information literacy, both.

  2. Julie Says:

    Love this!!! While I do think that the MLS/MLIS or MIS provides specific training that helps us learn how to identify information needs and draw out what a person really needs, I think that it can be learned. However, in what way do we show that while 97% of questions might be answered by a paraprofessional or IT person. What about the 3% that takes something more??

    I was talking about this today with a colleague. Just found out 2 more hospital libraries are closing. While yes you can find 97% of medical questions with Google or something else (if you are persistent and even willing to look up the question) what about those other 3% of questions. Ely states that physicians in Family Medicine fail to find the answers for which they search 41% of the time. PMID:17460122. How do we show convince administrators that it is important to find those answers and we are the ones to do it???

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Julie–

      Thanks for your kind words & thoughtful comment.

      I think we agree that librarians, who by and large have the MLS or equivalent, bring unique skills and perspectives to any team. Also that disintermediation (self service searching on the web, etc.) has disrupted the traditional model of librarians as search intermediaries. (It’s gone!)

      I guess where I would differ is that I would frame the question a bit differently. I think of the librarian as the team member who has the most knowledge and understanding about the role of information, and the best skills to improve the use of the information. If the greatest problem is retrieving the medical literature, the librarian should do that. But if the clinicians can do that for themselves most of the time, then maybe the greatest need is to do analysis and synthesis, and add more value that way. Or maybe it’s training on new sources and systems, or maybe it’s integrating access to the literature with an electronic medical records system, or …

      The other point I’d make is that relationships are critical. In the example of the Ely article, if the librarian and the physician have a good working relationship, then the physician is more likely to turn over an unsatisfactory search to the librarian before giving up. And if that’s the place where the librarian is needed most, then that’s what should happen. But if the librarian sees a greater need elsewhere, and the literature searching can be handled by an outsourced provider or some other solution, then the librarian should lead the change.

      (p.s. I don’t think outsourcing really can replace a good embedded librarian, but that’s another topic.)

  3. ConsiderJennifer Says:

    I have stumbled upon this post and thought it was wonderful. I myself come from a nontraditional academic position and also feel that there is a lot of fear with the changes happening in the profession. Thanks for the post, it is full of insight and I will be looking for more. :)

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