Science Fiction Writers, Homeland Security and Embedded Librarians?


As an avid science fiction reader (starting at age 10 with Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars), I was caught by a headline in Friday, May 22nd’s Washington Post  that read “U.S. Mission for Sci-Fi Writers: Imagine That.”  Reading it, I kept seeing interesting parallels between what Homeland Security is doing to get researchers to think more creatively and what one innovative institution is doing to embed librarians in an academic program.   

Homeland Security introduced sci-fi writers to their conference participants (mostly researchers) to help them imagine future risks and solutions.  Interacting with the sci-fi writers pushed the researchers outside their comfort zone and away from their datasets into a new a new territory of possibilities.

Dave and I recently visited an academic institution with a dynamic embedded program that uses a not-so-different technique to introduce embedded instructional services.   

This university mixes students and faculty from the soft and hard sciences on teams to tackle an issue facing a local population (50% of the projects are in foreign countries).  The success of student/faculty teams depends on well-crafted project proposals with context-dependent, imaginative, approaches. Research in unfamiliar areas is critical to understand the culture, the problem, and what might and might not work.  Successful proposals are followed by onsite implementation.  One project of these dealt with seasonal flooding and destruction in Africa and proposed an effective dam constructed of old tires.   

Everyone is working outside their own disciplines; everyone is outside their comfort zone.   

Into this mix comes an embedded librarian, incorporated as a team member, briefed on all project team issues.  Like the science fiction writers at the conference, the librarian opens up new worlds to the students.  The librarian introduces new research strategies, new, resources, and new information – leading the teams to broader perspectives.  Students learn how to research in unfamiliar areas, use the literature and, finally, to be self-sufficient researchers in the field.   

Pushing everyone outside their comfort zone and onto inter-disciplinary teams facilitates acceptance of the embedded librarian as a project team member and an integral part of the curriculum.   

The university has metrics to show the benefit from working with a librarian at this level.  Students on project teams that included an embedded librarian perform significantly better in researching and analyzing data than those on teams without these innovative members.  The Dean of the program believes the work of the embedded librarians has made the difference.


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3 Responses to “Science Fiction Writers, Homeland Security and Embedded Librarians?”

  1. Eileen Says:

    Hip Hooray for interdisciplinarianism! This post underscores the theme of Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind (DC/SLA will meet to discuss this book later this month.) . The gist is that machines are doing much of our “left brain” activities now – and they excel at it – which not only frees us, but obligates us to complement machine automation with more humanistic and “right brain” skills such as design, empathy and synthesis. He mentions Peter Drucker a lot!

  2. Tim Says:

    Thank you for the interesting article. I am interested in the scale of the program you describe. How many students and faculty were involved? Would you care to share the name of the academic institution?

    Best regards,

    Tim Kern
    Accidental Embedded Librarian

    • marytalley Says:

      Thanks for your comment. Here’s a cite for a paper discussing the metrics and outcomes for the program:

      DiBiasio, D., Mello, N.A. (Fall 2004) Multi-level Assessment of Program Outcomes:
      Assessing a Nontraditional Study Abroad Program in the Engineering Disciplines.
      Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, vol. 10, p. 237-252.

      The institution (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, named in the paper) has approximately 4000 students and 300 faculty. The paper notes that in 2004, 500 students applied for 380 program positions. You can find a discussion of the embedded librarians’ involvement in the program and the positive performance outcomes credited to their work in the Appendix B, pages B10-14 of our Research Report

      Hope this helps,

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