I used to think that embedded librarianship applied to public libraries only in a kind of indirect or metaphorical way. I couldn’t see how it had much to do with the public library reference desk.
I’m changing my mind.
This change is partly the result of a recent talk radio show appearance, and partly due to some recent initiatives that I’ve learned about thanks to Library Journal.
The radio show was the Kojo Nnamdi show, a talk show on WAMU-FM, a public broadcasting station affiliated with American University here in Washington DC. I was asked to go on the show to discuss the “privatization”, or complete outsourcing of operations of public libraries. The other guests were to be a representative of LSSI, which is the dominant vendor operating fully outsourced public libraries in the U.S., and Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association. Unfortunately, LSSI ended up not participating, so the dialogue I had hoped for didn’t take place. Still it was great to spend 40 minutes discussing librarianship on the public airwaves. If you’d like to listen, or read the transcript, go to http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2012-03-08/outsourcing-public-libraries .
As I was preparing for the broadcast, a recent editorial in Library Journal was very much in my mind. It was “Moving to Outcomes”, from the Jan. 26, 2012 issue. (See http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/01/opinion/editorial/moving-to-outcomes-editorial/) The editorial makes two points. One is that library leaders must evaluate their success in terms of their impacts on the community they serve. The other is that they must collaborate with other community organizations in order to achieve meaningful results — the “collective impact” movement.
These points were reinforced in a webinar held on March 6. Participants offered several examples of community partnerships involving public libraries. These partnerships seem to have some of the key features of embedded librarianship: strong working relationships, specialization, mutual accountability for achieving common goals.
As I reflected on the editorial and the webinar, and tried to define what I really thought about outsourcing public libraries, I realized that initiatives at the District of Columbia Public Library also aligned well with these ideas — specialized services like the Adaptive Services Division, or the Teens of Distinction program. (I’d say more about these programs but this post is getting a bit long. Maybe I’ll return to them in a future post.)
I realized that I had been basing my thinking about embedded librarianship in public libraries upon the operations of the traditional reference desk. I wasn’t taking other activities into account. In fact, public libraries have had limited embedded programs in the past, and if LJ and the webinar participants are right, and the “collective impact” movement grows, we can expect them to have more.
The partnering and sharing ownership of outcomes that will take place will cement the library services to the community and raise perceptions of its value. (And as that happens, I think communities will be less likely to entertain the idea of outsourcing.)
So I’ve changed my mind. The reference desk is just the tip of the iceberg. Public libraries have a lot more going on than that. Public libraries and embedded librarianship have a lot to do with one another.