Embedded Librarianship in American Libraries Magazine

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The May 2013 issue of American Libraries, the official magazine of the American Library Association, carries three mentions of embedded librarianship, and taken together they provide an interesting range of perspectives.

In his article, “Defining Transformation”, ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels provides a brief survey of the transformative changes taking place in all sectors of librarianship. I couldn’t agree more with his premise. I have come to believe that we’re living in the midst of the greatest information revolution since the printing press, and that embedded librarianship is one of the new, emerging models for our profession. Fiels writes, “Increasingly, librarians are now embedded in the community as a way to better serve groups such as seniors or small businesses.”

As if to confirm Fiels’ point, Evie Wilson-Lingbloom’s personal narrative, “Retired, but Embedded” describes her volunteer work with Hedgebrook, a writing residency program for women. She describes the ways that her skills as a librarian have contributed to the group and made a difference to its participants — and also how she has used her affiliation to benefit the local public library. She concludes, “Working as a librarian embedded in this venue enables me to continue effecting change myself — for libraries and for people.”

Finally, Meredith Farkas elevates embedded librarianship to the status of a hot, hyped-up idea. She leads off her article “Spare Me the Hype Cycle” with the following example of hype: ” ‘Every academic librarian worth her salt is embedded.’ ” In a way, this is flattering for me as someone who has both studied and advocated embedded librarianship. I wouldn’t have said we had reached the peak of inflated expectations yet!

I do try to mention, as I did in my presentation to the New Jersey chapter of SLA last week, that embedded librarianship isn’t the only future for librarians. However, I do think it’s an important element of our professional future. In the end, I agree with Farkas’ closing sentence, “Focusing on the needs and priorities of those we serve helps to ensure that we are embracing — or not embracing — new tools for the right reasons.” And the embedded model is a good way — perhaps the best — to attain that focus.

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2 Responses to “Embedded Librarianship in American Libraries Magazine”

  1. Dr. Steve Matthews Says:

    David,
    I wholeheartedly agree that embedded librarianship is a huge part of the future of librarianship. I can’t help but wonder if Fiels used the term “embedded” in a more generic sense as opposed to the “embedded librarian” sense that you do, which in itself is one of the problems we face – individualized terminology / interpretation that prevents the essential commonality that provides impetus to the movement. People use terms that they don’t fully understand in the intended framework, therefore the meaning gets diluted and fails to gain momentum as it properly would if people shared the common vision of “embedded librarianship.” I think you’re definitely on the right track, so keep pressing and advocating. Others will follow.

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Steve, thanks for your comment. The question of what constitutes embedded librarianship is one I think about a lot, as I’m continually looking for ways to communicate my ideas more clearly. So here are a couple of thoughts.

      The first is a general one. I take a fairly broad view of embedded librarianship. I think of it as analog, not digital, if you will. That is, it’s appropriate to speak of “more embedded” or “less embedded”: it’s not the case that either you are or you’re not, with no middle ground. So I’m ok with using the term “embedded”, even if it’s not as strong an embedded relationship as I’d like.

      Second, relating specifically to Fiels’ essay, we don’t know for sure how he would define the term. He only mentions it in passing. However, when he talks about being out in the community and focusing on specific segments, I imagine relationship-building, and collaboration with the leaders of various community organizations, and working with those groups in ways that are customized and highly valued. I imagine that the public librarian doing these things well is seen as an essential contributor to the social service system of the community. So, that’s just my imagining, but if it’s anywhere near correct, then I’m very comfortable calling that embedded librarianship. As an example, there was a presentation at the Computers in Libraries conference last month by a public librarian who has forged a strong relationship with the local Chamber of Commerce (I believe it was) — attends their meetings, partners with them on programs for small business owners, etc. I’d call what she was doing embedded.

      What actually troubles me more is some of the academic library literature that emphasizes plugging a library instruction module into a course management system, and calls that embedded. In these cases, the module may be embedded but the librarian isn’t. The things that are omitted are the communication, and collaboration, and relationship-building, the customization and shared commitment that I consider to be the hallmarks of strong embedded librarianship.

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