Last month, I was invited to participate via Skype in a staff development meeting organized by several public library systems in the Chicago area. The title of the meeting was the “Big Fun Future (BFF)” Meeting, and I tried to focus my comments on the opportunities for public libraries to apply the principles of embedded librarianship in their communities.
The file is a bit long (1500 words) but here goes.
Hope you like it!
Remarks to the Big Fun Future meeting
Chicago-area public library staff
Aug. 17, 2012
By David Shumaker
Thanks for inviting me to be a part of your Big Fun Future meeting today. I love the title you’ve chosen for your meeting. Sometimes the future can seem a bit scary, but I’m with you: there are some really big, fun, and exciting opportunities out there – we just have to figure out how to take advantage of them. I hope my remarks today will help you to do that. I understand that we have about 20 minutes together. I plan to speak for about 10 or 12, so that we can have some questions at the end.
2. Roles before Competencies
I understand that your focus today is on skills and competencies, and I’ve been asked to speak on skills for embedded librarianship. But to identify the skills we’ll need, we have to figure out what roles and tasks we’ll be called on to perform, so I hope you’ll forgive me for starting my remarks with the question, what’s our job going to be?
It’s nothing new to say that we are living through the greatest information revolution in the last 500 years. Libraries are directly in the path of this revolution. Our fundamental ideas about how we do our job are being called into question.
So, how’s this revolution affecting your job? I’m guessing that for many of you, your experience is similar to what my students observe. I teach a course called Information Sources and Services. It’s an introduction to basic reference and public services. The first assignment requires students to go out and observe service operations at a library, and talk to one of the librarians. Of course, many of them go to public libraries. Almost always, they report that they see very few of the classic subject requests and reference interviews that we like to teach in class. Instead, the overwhelming majority of service interactions are directional or related to computer technical support.
Meanwhile, most of the information-seeking and use that formerly took place in libraries are now taking place away from libraries. Library resources and the open web are available anywhere, any time. So, what does this mean for expert library information help? Do we just let it go? I hope not. Do we rely on virtual reference? I don’t think so – virtual reference is ok, but it’s not sufficient.
3. Embedded Librarianship
This is where embedded librarianship comes in. Embedded librarianship connects librarians to their communities more closely than ever before. It gives us the chance to do more and become more valuable than ever. It can be a big part of the Fun Future.
Let me illustrate with three examples:
In Columbus, Ohio, Library Director Patrick Losinski is focusing on “community outcomes.” He has led the public library into a partnership called “Learn for Life” in which a variety of community institutions — government and non-government – have come together to address three key educational needs:
• Kindergarten readiness
• 8th-grade math skills
• College readiness
Here in Washington, DC, the public library teen services coordinator, Rebecca Renard, has formed an alliance with another community organization, Radio Rootz, to enable teens to provide knowledge to the teen community – and develop their own information literacy skills in the process. It came about because the teens said they needed better information about events, activities, and issues relevant to them. The partnership was set up to address this gap. It’s called youth202.org. (202 is for the District of Columbia area code.)The librarian and Radio Rootz supervise teen reporters, who develop stories that are broadcast on Radio Rootz on an iTunes station. They’re also posted on the youth202.org website and Twitter feed.
In Colorado, the Douglas County Library staff use the term “community reference” as well as “embedded librarianship” to refer to their initiatives. An article in the May/June American Libraries says this about what they are doing:
“Community reference involves sending librarians out into the community to work closely with groups and conduct onsite reference interviews, as needed, to discover and answer their questions. This process helps [the] librarians stay informed on the needs, goals, and direction of the community, allowing [them] to showcase [their] skills and services in a new way.” (Galston 2012)
So, there are three examples that illustrate a range of embedded librarianship initiatives in public libraries. You’ll notice that these initiatives involve the librarians getting out of the library, and into the community. But even more important than the physical change in where they work, there are common threads in how the librarians work. They are:
• Establishing relationships with a group (or groups) in your community.
• Understanding the group, its values, culture, and goals.
• Committing to shared goals with that group – goals that you the librarian share equally with the other members of your group.
• Contributing to the group by applying your unique skills and insights as a librarian, and thereby participating in achieving the group’s goals.
4. Skills for Embedded Librarianship
Let’s recap for a moment. I’m saying that the information revolution has fundamentally changed how our libraries will serve our communities. More and more, we will leave the traditional reference desk and the traditional reference interview and work in partnership with other organizations. I’m saying that this change to embedded librarianship will increase our role and our visibility in the community.
Now let’s get to skills and competencies. Clearly we need some changes in order to realize this vision. I’d like to make four points here:
1. Our strengths in information organization, knowledge of information resources, and human information behavior are our base and will be more important than ever.
2. New personal competencies for relationship-building and collaboration are essential.
3. Solve problems, don’t answer questions.
4. Focus on analysis and answers, not access.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
First, some skills don’t change fundamentally. Organizing information, finding information, and helping people use information effectively are in our DNA as librarians. We’ll be using new tools to accomplish these jobs, so we need to stay up with them, and be committed to continuous learning – but these fundamental principles will remain our unique skill set in any context we work in.
Second, we need to make sure we have good personal skills for relationship building and collaboration. Libraries as organizations, and librarians as individuals, have not always been effective at connecting and collaborating in the past. The ability to do these things will be essential in the future. This means both at an interpersonal level, and also deepening the relationship by understanding the work of the team we are working with. We have to be librarians who also understand something about economic development, or learning theory, or social needs in our community – or whatever our team is addressing. And by the way, these are learnable skills. They are not a matter of personality or whether you are an extrovert or introvert. Everyone can do this.
Third, we really can’t take the old notion of library service with us into our embedded future. According to the old notion, good service was basically limited to being friendly and providing an accurate answer. We never found out if our answer really solved the questioner’s problem or not. We have to take responsibility for solving the larger problems that trigger information needs. That’s what Patrick Losinski’s “community outcomes” idea is all about. That’s what collaboration is all about –shared goals, and that we are responsible to one another for achieving them.
Finally, our old notion that our job is to provide information access is far too confining for the embedded future. Librarians often shy away from analysis. We feel we are not supposed to interpret information for our library users. And I understand the reasons for that. But, in the embedded model, that changes. We must be information analysts, with the ability to retrieve, understand, analyze, and synthesize information in order to provide the answers that will contribute to our team’s success. If we stop short of this, we will not be adding the kind of value that we need to add.
So, in these past 10 minutes or so, I hope you’ve gained some new insights into the forces motivating change in our library services, and how embedded librarianship can be an important part of that change. I hope you’ve gained some insights into the nature of embedded librarianship and how it offers us new opportunities. And finally, I hope you’ve seen that this new way of working calls for a mixture of strengthening our traditional skill set and developing some new skills and attitudes at the same time.
If these ideas appeal to you, and you want to know more, I’d invite you to start with my blog at http://www.embeddedlibrarian.com, and may be take a look at my book, The Embedded Librarian.
And now, in this brief summary there are many, many issues I haven’t even touched on – so I bet you’d like to ask some questions.
1. Fialkoff, F. (2012). Moving to outcomes. Library Journal, 137(1), p. 8.
2. Renard, R. (2012). Youth202: An experiment in teen-driven knowledge management at an urban American public library. Paper presented at the IFLA Conference, Helsinki, 2012. Helsinki: IFLA. Available: http://conference.ifla.org/sites/default/files/files/papers/wlic2012/141-renard-en.pdf .
3. Galston, C., Huber, E. K., Johnson, K., & Long, A. (2012, May-June). Community reference: Making libraries indispensable in a new way. American Libraries, p. 47-50.