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 .

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 .)

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 .)

New Year’s Resolutions and Reflections

January 3, 2014 by

Generally, I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog recently, though, and I’m inclined to make an exception and articulate a couple resolutions for The Embedded Librarian for 2014.

First, I resolve to publish more frequently. This is the standard kind of “I resolve to be a better person” resolution. I am always trying and wishing to publish more frequently. Nothing new in this. And by the way, don’t worry about being inundated. I doubt I’ll ratchet up as high as once a week. I’ll aim for 2-3 times a month instead of 1-2. Achieving this, however, may depend on resolution 2:

Second, I resolve to broaden the scope of the blog. While not losing sight of embedded librarianship, and its importance for the profession, I’d like to comment on wider issues of librarianship that may not always relate directly to the embedded model.

There are several reasons for Resolution 2, growing out of my reflection on the blog’s history, the progress of embedded librarianship, and what’s going on in the field these days:

1. Embedded librarianship is maturing. I won’t say it’s mature, but maturing. There’s still work to do in spreading the word among librarians. Not everyone “gets it” who needs to “get it” – but we’ve made lots of progress. We’ve begun to see a proliferation of books and webinars about the embedded model. I’ve been heartened to have more companions in the work of writing about, talking about, and doing embedded librarianship. Without attempting a review of the past year, I’ll just note that there’ve been several books either published, or announced and about to be released. I used to try to read everything that was published on the topic, and that’s getting harder and harder to do. And as the embedded model becomes more widely known, it’s time to work more on putting it in context.

2. The tag line of the blog says, “exploring new, embedded roles for librarians in organizations of all types”. I think the time has come to place more emphasis on “new roles”. I’ve come to realize more clearly that not only the “where” and “how” of librarianship have to change – the “what we do” has to change as well. It’s not enough to think we can perform the same tasks as we embed ourselves. Our skill sets and our contributions will change as well. Others are writing about some of these changes. I’d like to comment on new skills and new roles as they relate to the embedded model.

3. Related to the previous comment, I’m a bit frustrated by what I see as the over-emphasis on libraries as institutions and the absence of discussing librarians as professionals in our literature. We need a better balance, more attention to us as professionals, and not only the institutions in which many of us happen to work. Maybe my contributions can help provide that balance.

So, those are my resolutions and reflections as we enter 2014. The blog and the concept of embedded librarianship have come a long way since I started the blog six and a half years ago. With this refresh, I hope to keep things going for at least another 6 and a half!

A Commercial Message

December 24, 2013 by

In case anyone’s thought about buying a copy of The Embedded Librarian but price has been an obstacle, I thought I’d mention that Information Today is running a 40% off sale through Jan. 27.

See for details.


First-year College Students, Project Information Literacy, and Embedded Librarianship

December 18, 2013 by

I’ve just been reading the most recent report from Project Information Literacy. Released just a couple weeks ago, it’s entitled “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College.” It’s of particular interest to me, because together with my faculty colleague Dr. Sung Un Kim, I’m working on a study of the role of librarians in the First Year Experience (FYE) program here at Catholic University of America.

There were many observations in the report that were consistent with my impressions; I found myself nodding in agreement continously. There weren’t any big surprises; just many clear and compelling insights that I sort-of knew, but needed to focus on more clearly. There were echoes of time-tested models and principles of information behavior at work: concepts like the Principle of Least Effort, Mooers’ Law, the human tendency to ask other people we know for help with information needs, and elements of Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process. These are fundamentals that every librarian ought to learn by heart and apply every day anyway.

What I found most arresting was the study’s insight into just how jarring the transition from high school to college is. When it comes to information literacy, the students in the study enter college very poorly prepared for the research environment that awaits them: the resources are much more complex, the expectations are much different, and the skills needed are nothing like what they have learned in their secondary education.

Enter the embedded librarian. As I read, I found passages that just cried out for embedded librarians — observations like “freshmen had little idea about who to ask for help” and didn’t know whom to ask on the library staff — or even that there was anyone on the library staff that would help them (p. 14); or “most students don’t need to ask for help,” “Reference librarians are available only to students who have gotten stuck on their research,” and “A scholarly database(s) recommended by a librarian is the only source worth checking.” (Myths 1, 3, and 4 of 5, p. 19)

Imagine, then, how glad I was to see that in the concluding section, recommendation 2 is “An integrated approach to teaching information competencies”, and the embedded model is cited as a way to achieving that integration. I agree, of course.

So if you’re an academic librarian — especially if you’re involved in reference, instruction, and outreach, I highly recommend that you read this report. It contains great insights, and may help you in developing your own embedded role.

Embedded Librarians: Building Relationships in a Massively Open Educational System

November 18, 2013 by

I’ve posted the webinar presentation I gave for the Amigos Library Council on Slideshare at . Comments are welcome — let me know what you think!

MOOCs and Embedded Librarians

November 1, 2013 by

Next Thursday, Nov. 7, I’ll be participating in a webinar, “MOOCs, Mobile Technologies – Their Impact on Reference Service”, organized by the Amigos Library Council. My topic will be “Embedded Librarians: Building Relationships in a Massively Open Educational System.” It’s been an interesting topic to prepare for, and I’m looking forward to some good dialogue with the audience. I’m told there are still a few seats available, so if you’re interested, you can still register. Hope to see you there!


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