A Response to “Embedded Librarianship: A Critical Perspective,” by Robert Farrell

by

(Warning: Long)

The New York Chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRLNY) recently hosted a program on embedded librarianship. I didn’t attend, but I’ve read the four presentations from the program that have been made available at http://acrlny.org/2016-05-slides-embedded-librarianship/ . One of them is an essay entitled “Embedded Librarianship: A Critical Perspective,” by Robert Farrell. As the title suggests, it expresses a very negative point of view. What follows is my response. You may want to read Farrell’s essay first.

Briefly, the essay mis-represents the nature of embedded librarianship, makes four unsupported assertions criticizing it, and closes with what the author promotes as a superior alternative model of library service. Let’s address each point in turn.

Defining Embedded Librarianship

The essay mis-represents the nature of embedded librarianship. The author begins with the following: “… let me define embedded librarianship since people often mean different things when they use the phrase. Embedded librarianship, in my view, is characterized by an extended, typically semester-long relationship between one or more librarians and a specific course in which the librarian(s) teach multiple class sessions, attend class sessions, and/or are on call to a great degree either virtually or in person in order to provide instructional or reference services over multiple class sessions throughout a semester.”

That definition isn’t sufficient. It’s much too narrow. It’s just one type of engagement that an embedded librarian might be involved in. The literature shows that embedded librarians in higher education may be engaged in curriculum development, participation in research, and other types of work not covered by the author’s definition.

Moreover, the author omits the defining principles of embedded librarianship, which have been discussed repeatedly in the literature. To cite one example, on page 6 of my book, The Embedded Librarian (Information Today, 2012), I express them as:

  • Building strong working relationships with others in the community (in this case, the academic community)
  • Aligning with the work and goals of the community; adopting shared goals with the members of the community
  • Making customized, highly valued contributions to the community.

To the extent that a librarian shares these characteristics, that librarian is embedded. It’s much broader than any particular instructional engagement.

Following this erroneous definition, the author poses four questions, to which he provides answers.

Question 1

The first question is, “Can we afford it? No, we can’t afford it.”

His answer assumes that embedded librarianship is to be performed in addition to all other duties, and that all those other duties will be performed as they have been in the past, by the same staff in the same ways. The author doesn’t consider the opportunities to re-design and re-allocate work. Granted, many libraries have flat or declining resources and therefore can’t fund embedded librarianship with new money. Whether they have new resources or not, effective managers strategically review services and priorities, and shift resources to the most important work. That may mean shifting work from traditional to embedded services. I do not pretend that this is easy, but examples do exist. One is documented in my 2011 Addendum to the 2009 “Models of Embedded Librarianship” research report, available at http://www.sla.org and on this blog.

Moreover, this challenge is not unique to embedded librarianship; it is true of any innovation that might be undertaken. By implication, the author thus positions his argument as being against any innovations in librarians’ duties.

Question 2

The second question is, “Is it sustainable? No, it’s not sustainable.”

The author presents two reasons for this view. The first is that success depends on the unique capabilities of certain individuals, so that when those individuals change jobs, get promoted, or retire, the program will fall apart without them. The second is that embedded librarianship isn’t sustainable because it’s not affordable.

I’ve dealt with sustainability on a number of occasions, including in chapter 9 of my book. Here are a few more observations.

The first point is what I have called the “librarian walks on water” syndrome. It’s real, but smart managers can deal with it. I’ve addressed it in a number of presentations. See my 2014 SLA presentation, “Disruption, Alignment, and Embedded Librarianship” for some suggestions on addressing it. It’s available on Slideshare, and this is Pitfall #7 in the presentation.

In repeating the view that embedded librarianship isn’t affordable, and therefore isn’t sustainable, the author acknowledges some suggestions I’ve made for dealing with sustainable funding. However, he casually dismisses them with the following: “Easily said. Not so easily done.” Well, nobody said that everything worth doing is easy, and I know people who have done it. Once again, he seems to be taking a stand in favor of the path of least resistance, and against undertaking hard challenges to improve library services.

Question 3

The third question is, “is it exploitative? Yes, it’s exploitative.”

The author’s argument here is that embedded librarianship exploits librarians because they have to work harder. Like the first assertion, this one is founded on the faulty premise that embedded librarianship is additive – assigned over and above other duties which continue unchanged. As I’ve stated above, this is a challenge for any initiative, not limited to embedded librarianship. Furthermore, he once again disregards the existing literature that addresses his objections. See for example Pitfall #4, Burnout, in the Slideshare presentation mentioned above.

He also doesn’t take into consideration that when embedded librarians become valued members of their communities, their duties become more focused. Their partnerships with stakeholders in their communities allow them to use their expertise strategically in manageable ways that maximize impact on their community’s goals. They end up with a better workload, not an exploitative workload.

Ultimately, it’s every manager’s job to take care of the people who work in the organization, and that means a reasonable workload that is commensurate with their strengths. The library manager who doesn’t address both the quality and quantity of the workload isn’t doing their job. The challenge is that embedded librarianship can be too successful, in the sense that it is so effective and so popular that it could overwhelm the staff. So is that a reason not to do it? A poor manager might reach that conclusion, but a good manager would figure out how to address the challenge.

Question 4

Finally, the fourth question is, “who is embedded librarianship for? I believe it’s typically more for us than it is for students.”

Here, the author inveighs against embedded librarianship. He asserts, with no supporting evidence, that it benefits few students – ignoring both the positive reports in the literature, and the dramatic decline in traditional academic reference services in the past couple decades. He calls embedded librarianship “attention grabbing” and “flashy”. Apparently to him it’s nothing but a political ploy to curry favor with university administrators who rely “on manufactured austerity conditions that pit campus unit against campus unit for allegedly scarce resources.” No evidence is presented for these opinions. I don’t know what they’re based on.

Thus, the reader is left to balance, on the one hand, report after report in the literature of positive experiences with embedded librarianship – along with evidence of the shocking decline in use of traditional reference services in higher education, and on the other hand this unsupported rant.

He ends this section and sets up his conclusion with the observation that, “I’m not saying that the embedded librarian may not in fact be benefiting the students she works within unique ways, but might her time be better invested in developing more sustainable instructional projects?” This comment is founded on the false definition and false assertions of the entire essay to this point. Still, let’s look at his proposal.

Conclusion

The author recommends a model of academic library services which he claims is different from embedded librarianship – based on his mis-representation of what embedded librarianship stands for.  But let’s look at what it consists of. Here’s a passage from the essay:

“The model we’ve developed involves a series of steps that also require an investment of time and resources, but which result in embedded learning activities …. It begins with a series of focus groups and avoids talk of “information literacy” or other LIS constructs in order to focus on allowing disciplinary faculty to paint a picture of the information-related disciplinary practices and behaviors they’d like to see their graduates embody. The activities that result form [sic] this collaborative process [are] not dependent on librarians, but rather are intended to become a part of the disciplinary curriculum … The model we’ve developed seeks to position librarians as disciplinary curricular consultants and collaborative instructional designers.”

Note the use of the words “embedded” and “collaborative” in this passage. Elsewhere the author characterizes his model as a “slow process of relationship building”.

In other words, this is a model that satisfies the criteria for real embedded librarianship:

  • Building strong working relationships
  • Aligning with the work and goals of the community; in this case instructors in various disciplines
  • Making customized, highly valued contributions to the community in the form of innovations that meet curricular goals.

So, it’s embedded librarianship with a particular approach and focus. The author is simply saying that maybe embedded librarians don’t actually have to be the instructors all the time. Maybe they can work with subject faculty to inform the way the latter incorporate information and research skills into their teaching, and he’s leading us to a framework he has used to do this.

I have three responses. First, I agree. I’ve known embedded librarians who have done this. In fact, embedded librarians who are considered part of their communities and valued partners in meeting its goals are probably more likely to be included in instructional design partnerships. Second, this particular approach isn’t immune to the challenges the author uses to attack embedded librarianship. These are challenges that managers have to address – and which the author doesn’t confront in promoting his version of the model.  Third, I do have questions about the challenges that may arise with this model, but I’ll save those for another time.

In conclusion, this essay is a missed opportunity to contribute to the development of embedded librarianship in higher education. Instead of mis-representing embedded librarianship and deliberately setting out to do a “hatchet job” (his words) on its role in academic library services, he could have positioned his work on collaborative curriculum development as a variation of it.  Still, we can learn something from the essay by focusing on the author’s approach to curriculum development and leaving the rest aside.

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2 Responses to “A Response to “Embedded Librarianship: A Critical Perspective,” by Robert Farrell”

  1. stevebizlib Says:

    Thoughtful response to Farrell’s article, David, thank you for the time you put into it. From his opening sentence regarding the Ian Beilin talk from last year, I get the impression that he felt called upon to provide a contrarian point of view. I found the slides from the Beilin talk, but there wasn’t enough content on them to know what point of view she provided.

    It is certainly curious that Farrell’s recommended proactive engagement with subject-specific info lit and curriculum design is a type of embedded librarianship. His more narrow definition is what I call the “co-teaching” version of EL and like you, I am aware of published research and significant personal experience (and feedback from students, profs, and business school administrators) that refutes his absolutist negative conclusions. So again I wonder if he was trying really hard to be contrarian for the sake of discussion, Hyde Park-style, like some folks are asked to do every year at the Charleston Conference. –Steve

  2. Summer Roundup of Professional Reading 2016 | This Liaison Life Says:

    […] A Response to “Embedded Librarianship: A Critical Perspective” Blog post by Robert Farrell https://embeddedlibrarian.com/2016/05/27/a-response-to-embedded-librarianship-a-critical-perspective… […]

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