Last week I gave a workshop on embedded librarianship at the WebSearch University conference in Washington, DC. The time was Sunday morning at 9 a.m. — not the best! — and the audience was small (8), but enthusiastic. The participants gave me some good feedback that will help me strengthen the workshop for future sessions, and they asked really good questions.
One question had to do with the organizational model for administering embedded librarianship. Should the librarians continue to be part of a library or information services unit, or should they be hired and managed by the information user group they work with?
While local circumstances may drive adoption of a decentralized model, in general my preference is that in an organization large and complex enough to have a number of embedded librarians, it’s better for them to be part of a centralized unit. My primary reasons have to do with the reachback, workload sharing, and knowledge sharing opportunities that centralization offers.
Embedded librarians tend to experience peak periods of demand, when they’ve got more work than they can handle. Also, they often have responsibilities that don’t stop if they go on medical leave or even (believe it or not) take a vacation! In a well-managed central library service, the library manager can create mechanisms so that the librarians back each other up, and can pick up the tasks when necessary.
When library staff become embedded, generally they don’t all become embedded. There continue to be some tasks that are better performed centrally: these may range from basic document delivery work to negotiating and managing complex and expensive enterprise-wide content licenses. Keeping the embedded librarians connected to the central library service strengthens communication and collaboration between the two: the embedded librarians can refer some tasks to the central library, and also provide their insights to help inform service and resource decisions.
Finally, the embedded librarians are likely to use many of the same tools and encounter the same problems in their work. Clearly they constitute a community of practice, and they have their own knowledge sharing needs for professional tips, tricks, techniques, and problem solving. The central library connection facilitates communication and collaboration among them.
What we’re talking about, really, is a matrixed organization, where librarians “live” in one organizational unit, but join other units where they are needed to participate in projects or ongoing functions. If you’re interested in matrixed organizations, you might like to read an article in the July-August 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review. The article is “Building a Collaborative Enterprise”, by Paul Adler, Charles Heckscher, and librarianship’s own Laurence Prusak. Here’s a salient passage: “The matrix structure has been tried by many firms during recent decades, and its failure rate is high, so people often assume it’s a poor model. But matrix structures actually offer a huge competitive advantage precisely because they are so hard to sustain. They both support and are supported by the other features of the collaborative model…” (p. 101)
I’d add that a matrixed organization in which librarians are matrixed, or embedded, where they are needed, is an organization that really brings information and knowledge to bear on critical elements of its work.