Public Libraries, Little Free Libraries, and Embedded Librarians

April 28, 2014 by

It’s time I got around to posting something about my experience at the Texas Library Association conference earlier this month. I had a great time! It’s a huge event — I heard that the total attendance was over 7,000. That makes it probably the second biggest conference of librarians in North America, next to ALA.  One thing I particularly value is that it it takes a holistic view of librarianship, and tries to appeal to all sectors and contexts. Naturally, it’s dominated by public and school librarians, but there’s plenty for academics, librarians in the corporate sector, and other specialized settings too. Thanks to that breadth, I was pleased to note the presence of some public and school librarians, as well as academics and specialized librarians, at the sessions on embedded librarianship. Similarly, I benefitted from the opportunity to hear speakers whom I might not otherwise encounter, like Ross Todd speaking about evaluation in school library media programs, among others.

But my most surprising experience was my conversation with Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Libraries program. (littlefreelibrary.org) Coincidentally, I’d had my own first close encounter with a Little Free Library just a couple days before. I noticed a newly-installed one outside the Janney School, a public elementary school in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington DC, and took a picture of it, which I used in my presentation. 236

So I mentioned this to Todd, and we fell into a lengthy conversation. I learned what an extensive network of Little Free Libraries exists, how well organized is the effort to sustain it, and something of its history. I won’t repeat all the details here; you can go to the website to check it out. (And I encourage you to do so.)

The point is, the Little Free Library movement facilitates and leverages local initiative. Where Little Free Libraries thrive, it’s because someone in the community believed in the idea enough to take initiative, and the community supported it.

So, what’s the relationship between Little Free Libraries and the local public library? Are they competitors? Should they have nothing to do with one another? Or is there a role for public libraries to engage and partner with the Little Free Libraries? I think the latter. But not to take over Little Free Libraries, or sponsor them, or manage them. That would undermine their fundamental strength, which is community, volunteer-led initiative. Rather, I can imagine ways that public libraries could support and encourage the Little Free Libraries in their communities — everything from publicizing them (and maybe planting the idea for others to start them) to hosting meetups of local Little Free Library stewards. The idea would be to facilitate, not to control. That kind of relationship is true to David Lankes’ mission statement for librarians: to facilitate the creation of knowledge in their communities. It seems to me it’s also consistent with John Pateman and Ken Williment’s principles of community-led public libraries, as well. (See their book, Developing Community-Led Public Libraries.)

This could be one element of a public library’s community engagement strategy. Obviously it shouldn’t be the whole strategy. There are other needs that the Little Free Library doesn’t meet, and that the public library needs to be involved in. But it’s one way of magnifying the energy that already exists in the community — and it’s one more opportunity to embed librarians in the community as well.

Embedded Librarians in Second Life

April 24, 2014 by

I’m looking forward to joining Dr. Valerie Hill (Valibrarian Gregg) and the ACRL Virtual Worlds Interest Group in Second Life for a presentation / discussion about embedded librarianship, this Sunday, April 27, at Noon SL Time (US Pacific time) / 3 p.m. US Eastern. It’s free, so if you haven’t been in SL in awhile, this is a great time to dust off your avatar and join us! Here’s Valerie’s tweet about it, which gives the Second Life map location:

Diverse Initiatives, Common Challenges

April 21, 2014 by

I’ve posted my presentation for the Texas Library Association Conference on Slideshare, at http://www.slideshare.net/davidshumaker/shumaker-diverseinitiativescommonchallengesapril2014 . It’s entitled “Embedded Librarians: Diverse Initiatives, Common Challenges.”

I especially enjoyed preparing this presentation, because it gave me a chance to some ideas that had been percolating for quite a while: that different sectors of librarianship are experiencing similar pressures and undergoing similar trends, but we are too stovepiped as a profession to notice, most of the time. I took an audience poll at the beginning of the session and was delighted to find that there were public librarians and school library media specialists in the room, as well as academic, corporate, and other specialized librarians.

If They Close the Library …

April 2, 2014 by

“If they close the library, how will they know they even have a librarian?” I’ve heard this statement before, and I heard a variation on it again yesterday, in a conversation about information services at a nonprofit organization. I wonder if it’s still a widespread concern among librarians. If it is, that’s sad, and troubling.

It implies that the visibility and value of the librarian come from the size of our domain, the number of volumes, the square footage, the listing in the office directory. In the age of information ubiquity, that attitude is the gateway to irrelevance.

Now, I do believe there are plenty of contexts in which the physical library is important and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But even in those contexts, we have to start with the question, what does the community need from us? If the answer includes a physical library, fine. If the physical library needs a book  collection, fine. But in other contexts, the answer will be that the community no longer relies on a physical library space, or collection. And regardless of the answer, librarians must demonstrate that they add value by applying their unique professional expertise, not only as custodians of buildings and collections. In those cases, the space and collections are the platform, not the pinnacle.

So, here’s my answer to the opening question: “Because the librarian is going to get out there and connect with the community and contribute to its members by applying the skills of librarianship!”

What’s yours?

Embedded Librarians in the Lone Star State

March 30, 2014 by

I’m looking forward to meeting embedded librarians in Texas at the Texas Library Association conference April 10 and 11.

On April 10 I’ll be doing a presentation entitled “Embedded Librarians: Diverse Initiatives but Common Challenges,” developing one of the themes that is most important to me: that we librarians need to hang together, to paraphrase Ben Franklin. Though we embed ourselves in very different communities, and make our presence felt in very different ways, yet we have a great deal in common and can learn a lot from one another.

The next day, I’ll be moderating a panel of leading embedded librarians from around Texas and the USA, including Sally Gore (UMass / Worcester Medical School), Sarah Jones (Spencer Stuart), Cass Kvenild (U. of Wyoming), and Laura Young, Austin Ventures. We’re going to have a wide-open discussion in knowledge cafe format of the top issues for embedded librarians.

We’re developing our list of topics now, so if you’ve got one (or more) that you think should be on our list, reply to this post, or tweet with #txla2014 and #embeddedlibrarians.

p.s. See http://www.txla.org/ for details about the conference.

The Stars Align for Academic Librarians

March 16, 2014 by

Four stars, to be precise: Kaijsa Calkins, University of Wyoming; Cass Kvenild, University of Wyoming; Elizabeth Leonard, Seton Hall University; and Erin McCaffrey, Regis University.  They’re all collaborating on a webcast, “Embedded Librarianship: The State of the Art” for the Association of College and Research Libraries, on Wednesday, March 26. Kaijsa and Cass are the editors of the groundbreaking collection “Embedded Librarians: Moving Beyond One-Shot Instruction”, and Elizabeth and Erin collaborated on “Virtually Embedded: The Librarian in an Online Environment”, which I mentioned in my last post.

Details at http://www.ala.org/acrl/embeddedlibrarianship .

What I’m Reading Now

March 3, 2014 by

What I’m reading now is a welcome addition to the literature of embedded librarianship: a new book from the Association of College and Research Libraries, entitled “Virtually Embedded: The Librarian in an Online Environment”, edited by Elizabeth Leonard and Erin McCaffrey.

(Full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword.)

Here’s my favorite passage from the chapters I read today. It comes from the chapter “Embedded Librarians in a Military Distance Education Program”, which describes the embedded librarianship program for distance learning at the U.S. Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC), in Norfolk, Virginia. Authors Catrina Whited, Bridget Powell, and Gail Nicula write:

“…a colleague in another public higher-education institution made this comment: ‘We treat all of our students equally. They all get the same services.’ This philosophy was antithetical to the JFSC [Joint Forces Staff College] library goal …”

Here, the authors have pointed out a common misunderstanding among well-meaning librarians. In seeking to fulfill the American Library Association ethical mandate to provide the “highest level of service to all”, they wind up providing “the same services.” They fail to recognize that needs are different, so that “the highest level” means customizing.

But to customize our services and meet the ethical mandate most effectively, we have to understand our communities. And to understand them, we have to build relationships with them, as we work beside them. And that’s the essence of embedded librarianship.

Watch It, Libraries

February 27, 2014 by

It seems like there’s been a lot of publicity about Netflix recently. About how effective their recommendation engine is … about how they’re leveraging their understanding of consumer tastes not only to distribute other people’s content more effectively, but to create their own original content aimed at specific markets, like House of Cards.

In fact, the title of this post is paraphrased from an article that ran in the Sunday Washington Post, Feb, 23, entitled, “Watch It, HBO.” The article is actually a version of an article that ran a few days earlier in Slate — you can read it here.

What strikes me above all in this article is the power of data analytics. Netflix, along with Amazon and other companies, is using what it knows about us, and about our aggregated behavior, to get smarter and smarter about serving us.

Meanwhile, there are libraries that throw away all their user behavior data every night — in the form of circulation records — in the interests of protecting user privacy. When they do that, they throw away the opportunity to use that data to improve their services. I think that’s a mistake.

I’m not advocating that librarianship abandon its commitment to  protecting individual privacy. But letting privacy concerns cut us off from implementing modern, more effective services is a primitive, ostrich-like response to the challenge. Wouldn’t a more mature approach be to recognize that we need to offer the benefits that come with retaining and analyzing user data — but at the same time we must manage the risks?

If we don’t, what will happen as people become more used to recommender systems, and the systems get better and better — and libraries are stuck in the mode of purely passive 1980s-era approaches to service?

There are several ways I can imagine that scenario playing out — none of them favorable to libraries. So, I hope that the leaders of libraries that still throw out their user data will rethink this, and develop sophisticated programs that address both the risks and rewards of retaining and analyzing user behavior data.

MOOCs, the Gartner Hype Cycle, and Embedded Librarians

January 31, 2014 by

I’ve been preparing for the 6th Annual “Bridging the Spectrum” Symposium here at CUA, which took place today. My research assistant, Anita Kinney, and I gave a talk entitled “Embedded Librarians: Building Relationships in a Massively Open Educational System.” It’s a further development of the theme I spoke about in my webinar for the Amigos Library Council back in November.

One of the points we’re making has to do with the Gartner Group’s Hype Cycle. (If you’re not familiar with the Hype Cycle, see http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/methodologies/hype-cycle.jsp .)

We think that MOOCs need to mature, and go through a process in which we discard the hype around them and focus on what their real role is in education. We see an opportunity for librarians to influence their development by advocating for and figuring out how to integrate information skills in them.

Since all this has been on my mind, I was particularly interested in the release earlier this week of reports by Harvard and MIT about their MOOC experience. I haven’t read the full reports yet, but my reading of the summaries is that MOOCs seem to be meeting a need — but not as a replacement for formal education.

Moreover, in a news report on the studies by Campus Technology, interviewer Rhea Kelly places the same question we have asked: where are MOOCs on the Hype Cycle? And the answer from Harvard professor Andrew Ho is substantially the same as ours: somewhere between the peak of inflated expectations and the trough of disillusionment.

The bottom line for embedded librarians is this: we have an opportunity to influence the development of MOOCs as they mature. Now’s the time to lobby for a voice in your institution’s strategy!

Little Things Mean A Lot

January 5, 2014 by

One of the principles of embedded librarianship is that librarians are  important whether they work in libraries or not. In exploring the landscape of embedded librarianship, I’ve encountered embedded librarians who are part of library organizations (but spend a lot of time away from a library space), and others who are not part of a library organization at all.

My focus on this principle makes me hyper-sensitive to rhetoric that over-emphasizes the institutions and minimizes, de-values, and depersonalizes the professionals. I think this happens a lot, subtly, in our professional literature.

A case in point is the headline “Libraries Applaud Dismissal of Google Book Search Case” on p. 10 of the Jan-Feb 2014 issue of American Libraries. Why “Libraries” and not “Librarians”? The source of the applause mentioned in the article is the Library Copyright Alliance, a coalition of ALA, ACRL, and the Association of Research Libraries. The first two of these three have individual, not institutional members. The only person quoted in the article, other than the judge, is ALA President Barbara Stripling, who is presumably speaking for all those individual members.

So, again, why not “Librarians Applaud …”? Substituting the institutions for us professionals lends subtle credence to the old stereotype of librarians a self-effacing mice, and implies that our opinions as professionals don’t count, only our institutional identities count.

On the positive side, a better balance is struck in Barbara Stripling’s President’s message in the same American Libraries issue, p. 6. It’s entitled “Advocating for School Librarians: The Peril and Promise of School Libraries.” As the title implies, it addresses both the need for professional teacher-librarians, and the role of the library as space in the educational setting.

Getting this balance right is critical. Emphasize only “libraries” and we’ll get just rooms full of books (and maybe computers), passively administered, possibly by staff members who lack the professional skills to embed themselves and their resources into the educational mission. Such libraries won’t deliver value, and will play into the hands of those who might like to cut them out altogether. Instead, we need skilled and motivated professionals who can demonstrate in their work day to day why  they are essential to the education of our children, and that cutting them out jeopardizes our future as a society.

(By the way, you can read both these articles and more at http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org/issue/januaryfebruary-2014 .)


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