Disintermediation and the (Embedded) Librarian


Last night’s “Nightly Business Report” on Public Broadcasting included a commentary on disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman. (You can read a transcript at http://to.pbs.org/pZAYuk.) The commentator’s point was that thanks to disintermediation in media industries (think YouTube and Amazon self-publishing), we are less and less dependent on intermediaries like TV network executives and book publishers to determine what we watch and what we read.

Nothing really new in that, but it got me thinking once again about disintermediation and librarians and how I haven’t blogged about the relationship between disintermediation and embedded librarianship. After all, we librarians are another group of intermediaries whose prospects have been affected by new technologies. Everybody has heard about how Google is going to put us all out of business.

That’s overstating it of course. Rumors of our professional death have been exaggerated — but there’s no denying the general trend of disintermediation.

The question is: in an era of disintermediation, what do you do if you are the middleman? You can stand around and wait to get cut, or you can move. Where can you move to? Either end of the transaction you formerly mediated. For librarians, in one direction lies the creation and operation of tools for content producers, or becoming a content producer yourself. In the other direction lies becoming so close to a group of information consumers that you become one of them — perhaps the arch-consumer for the group.

Initially I was thinking that the latter alternative was the embedded librarianship alternative, but as I consider it, maybe there are embedded opportunities in both directions. One thing for sure, you don’t want to get caught in the middle.


5 Responses to “Disintermediation and the (Embedded) Librarian”

  1. Disintermediation Trend is Eliminating Librarians | 21st Century Library Blog Says:

    […] I came across an intriguing blog post gathered by the search engine over night; “Disintermediation and the (Embedded) Librarian from The Embedded Librarian. Inevitably, it started me thinking about his premise. Last night’s […]

  2. Dr. Steve Matthews Says:

    Aside from taking exception to your dismissal of the disintermediation trend putting us all out of business as “overstating” and “exaggerated” – since I’ve been proclaiming that is exactly what may happen if librarians don’t figure out the alternative – I think you may have hit on an essential perspective to developing that new alternative. Your suggestion that moving toward “Either end of the transaction you formerly mediated.” may be THE appropriate alternative.

    However, your elaboration….

    For librarians, in one direction lies the creation and operation of tools for content producers, or becoming a content producer yourself. In the other direction lies becoming so close to a group of information consumers that you become one of them — perhaps the arch-consumer for the group.

    framed in those terms doesn’t seem quite so attractive. What librarian wants to be a creator of information that would by necessity be excessively narrowing to their tastes for accessing ALL information? And what librarian would want to become a consumer of information, which again by necessity would lead to consuming some but not ALL information?

    I hope there will be more discussion on this concept.
    Disintermediation Trend is Eliminating Librarians

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I too hope that there will be more discussion on this.

      To address a couple of your points:

      1. The reason I think the imminent demise of librarians as intermediaries is exaggerated is that I’ve been in this business for over 30 years and it seems like I’ve been hearing the same refrain since the day I entered library school. In fact, it goes back further than that — when was Desk Set released? So, after awhile I became a bit skeptical of the prophets of doom and gloom. That’s not to say I don’t think the profession needs change. (Pardon the double negative, I do think the profession needs change and I think we agree on that.)

      2. I strongly do think that moving to either end involves specialization. In the first place, what librarian really engages with all information today, either as producer or consumer? We all have our specialties. When I read Samuel Swett Green’s article on “personal relations” between librarians and the public (1876), with its omniscient reference librarian able solve esoteric requests with a phrase and a wave of the hand, I think what an unrealistic ideal it is for today, and I bet it was just as much an idealized vision, not a practical reality then.

      Further, I believe the future does involve specialization. I had an email earlier this week from an alumna who is working on the digitization of the papers of a scholar of Byzantine studies. Now, I think that’s specialized! I’d call her an information creator, by virtue of her work on inventorying, organizing, and digitizing the collection. I know that she combines her professionalism as a librarian with a passion for the field of Byzantine studies. Similarly, I conducted a site visit over the summer at a large corporation in which the embedded librarians serve as the “arch-consumers” of information for different marketing and business development groups. Despite sharing an in-depth knowledge of the company’s industry, they are so specialized that they call on one another for different types of financial and marketing data retrieval and analysis. Again, I call that specialized. I think both of these are examples of where the opportunities lie for librarians.

      And why not? This specialization doesn’t change the fact of their common identity as librarians, in my view. It’s just like doctors in this respect.. Gastroenterologists and brain surgeons are both M.D.s, but if I have a brain tumor I won’t hire the gastroenterologist to do the operation.

  3. Dr. Steve Matthews Says:

    Very true. I would worry that the Gastro would know which end to begin poking around. 🙂

    I guess my 15 years of experience has been predominantly the librarian generalist, and I don’t know any special(ist) librarians. I do know librarians like to combine their librarianship skills with their personal interests and become recognized for that combination, but I guess I never considered them as a specialist.

    Probably my broad generalization that “What librarian wants to be a creator of information that would by necessity be excessively narrowing to their tastes for accessing ALL information?” is just that – a broad generalization that may not be generalizable in reality. But, to be more fully recognized and specialized as you describe, wouldn’t this new role require specialist education as well?

    Based on the fact that technology and virtually every change agent today seems to be progressing exponentially, I think the change in the librarian’s “intermediary” role will come about sooner rather than later.

  4. Oleg K. Says:

    I’m getting to this post a bit late, I know, but wanted to add the following:

    While it does appear that sites like Youtube (etc.) disseminate information widely, and that leads to disintermediation, I would add that the middle man then becomes the company that stores and displays the content. So, in a sense, YouTube is now the middle man, and Amazon is now the middle man; videos have to conform to YouTube’s standards, and are only accessible when they’re embedded into another site, or through YouTube’s (poor) search.

    My feeling is that this is that there is more risk to information access when, say, YouTube, which is only accountable to itself is in control of storage and information retrieval. The proliferation of self-published books and homemade video are great when they can be found. Thus, the need for curation and preservation (which, in a commercial setting, are too often tied to the bottom line) by knowledgeable and independent folks remains.

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