WebSearch Meets Embedded Librarianship


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.


4 Responses to “WebSearch Meets Embedded Librarianship”

  1. Dr. Steve Matthews Says:

    At the risk of posing the proverbial “dumb question”, the implications of your Post title escapes me – “WebSearch Meets Embedded Librarianship”?

    Excellent idea for an organization with embedded librarians. Although you implied it, I was hoping for a specific expression of another advantage of cross-training among embedded librarians – to support continuity of services.

    However, that is not a strength of a matrix organization because of abnormal compartmentalization within a matrix. It is actually harder to get people connected and communicating, simply because it’s not normal to work for more than one “boss”. Does a person share everything twice, or filter ‘this’ information for ‘this’ boss, and ‘that’ information for ‘that’ boss? Good communications is a critical element to make a matrix organization successful.

    • davidshumaker Says:


      I subscribe to the view that the only dumb question is the unasked question!

      The title of the posting was the title of the workshop. The reason for the workshop title relates to the nature of the WebSearch University conference. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the conference. Its focus is on information resources and information retrieval tools on the Web, and it features presentations and workshops from some of the true authorities in the field. It’s geared to the information professional who truly needs to be an expert in web information finding and delivery. So, the embedded librarianship was an extension of the central focus. Embedded librarianship in part has been enabled by our increasing ability to use digital information resources from anywhere, thus freeing librarians from the library. When websearch experts work in an embedded capacity, then I’d say they have better opportunities to leverage their expertise. So, I hope that clarifies the title.

      Your point about having multiple bosses is an interesting one. I don’t know of any detailed studies of this. Based on my own past experience as a manager of embedded librarians, I’d suggest that the two bosses perform different functions — the embedded librarian has an administrative boss (the library manager) and a tasking boss (the information user group manager). The emphasis in the relationship with each boss is quite different. Sure, conflicts can arise, but they can be managed and minimized with — as you say — the critical element of good communication.

      • Dr. Steve Matthews Says:

        Thanks for the clarification – makes perfect sense in the right context.

        In the 80’s while working on my masters in systems management (Drucker not computers), I think we used Galbraith, J.R. (1971). “Matrix Organization Designs: How to combine functional and project forms” (now in PDF at: http://www.jaygalbraith.com/pdfs/galbraithmatrix1971.pdf) The basic distinction made by Galbraith back then was between “functional” and “product” design for an organization, on a continuum between the two pure forms, with “matrix” being the blended design in the middle. I suspect that your proposal for embedded librarians is a matrix design limited to just the embedded librarians – the distinction being that the two managers involved are not part of the same organization with a single conversion of authority at some point up the ladder.

        Today Galbraith has a new (2008) book entitled “Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work” in which he asserts that organization structures do not fail, but management fails at implementing them correctly. This is why the idea that the matrix does not work still exists today, even among people who should know better. But the matrix has become a necessary form of organization in today’s business environment.

        His book is also organized to address Balancing Power and Defining Roles, Designing Power Bases, and Roles and Responsibilities, along with Communication in the Matrix, formal and informal. I suspect there is some research within this book that does address the strengths and weaknesses of the matrix design, beyond the 1971 version that identifies the traditional kinds of disadvantages like a conflict of loyalty between line managers and project managers over the allocation of resources.

        Bottom line is – I think you may have hit upon a new concept for the 21st Century Library organization that blends and combines whatever structures and lines of authority will actually work. I hope the dialog continues.

  2. 21st Century Library Organization | 21st Century Library Blog Says:

    […] The Embedded Librarian David Shumaker proposed 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.” […]

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