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

May 27, 2016

(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 . 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 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.


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.


Special Libraries Association Releases Revised Statement of Professional Competencies

May 4, 2016

At its April 13 meeting, the Special Libraries Association (SLA) Board of Directors approved a revised Statement of Professional Competencies. This new document continues SLA’s 20-year history of leadership in articulating the evolving competencies of librarians and other information professionals.

You can see it at, and there’s a blog post by Carolyn Sosnowski, a member of the task force that drafted the document, at . (Full disclosure: I chaired the task force.)

But why is this important to embedded librarians? One of the important innovations in this new document is the separation of competencies into “core” and “enabling”. “Core” competencies are those that are unique to our profession. The hope is that having this list can help with one of the challenges that embedded librarians face when starting new engagements: how to articulate what they do to others. The “enabling” competencies are the ones that are not unique to librarians, but are nonetheless vital to successful performance. Embedded librarians may need these more than any other librarians, because they have so much contact with so many diverse members of their communities and organizations.

So, I encourage you to take a look at the new competencies, try them on, and see how they fit. If you have comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Embedded Librarians Caucus Releases Webinar Recording

April 29, 2016

The Special Libraries Association’s Embedded Librarians Caucus has released the recording of its webinar, “How To Get An Embedded Librarian Job”, which was recorded last December 15.

Featured speakers were:

  • Rachael Altman, Corporate Research Analyst, Grant Thornton International, Ltd.
  • Mia Breitkopf, Connected Learning Coordinator,Aresty Institute of Executive Education,The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
  • Nadine Anderson, Behavioral Sciences Librarian, University of Michigan-Dearborn
  • Jamie Marie Keller-Aschenbach, Head of Research and Access Services, Florida Coastal School of Law
  • George Peckham-Rooney, Data and Operations Specialist, Seyfarth Shaw

Enjoy! And if you have comments or questions, post them here or on the Caucus website, .

“Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch”

March 14, 2016

I read this phrase in an article in yesterday’s Washington Post. (See citation below.) The article is about a U.S. company’s expansion into the Russian marketplace. Apparently the company has been very successful despite many challenges in doing business in Russia over the past decade or more. The article ends with the observation that “[c]ompanies bent on expanding abroad must be attuned to the culture of a country and enmeshed in its life to truly succeed. … ‘Culture eats strategy for lunch.'”

You may ask, what in the world does this have to do with embedded librarianship?

Here’s the thing: I still see librarians setting strategy in a vacuum. They get it that the library walls have come down, and that library services now need to reach outside the building, but they develop their plans without really taking into account — and becoming part of — the life and culture of their communities. They approach the community as outsiders from “the library”, rather than building their identity as members of that community. One of the advantages that effective embedded librarianship brings is engagement, so that the librarians really become “enmeshed” in their communities. So, take a fresh look at your strategy. Does it really make your library operation a part of the community you serve? If not, you may want to integrate embedded librarianship into it. Or, culture may eat it for lunch…

Reference: Fairchild, G. (2016, March 13) “Selling in Russia? ‘Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch.'” Washington Post, p. G2.

Word of the Day

December 27, 2015

I’ve recently learned a new word that I like a lot. It’s more than the word of the day — it may be the word of the year. You  won’t find it in the Britannica/Webster’s dictionary or the OED. There’s no Wikipedia entry for it (somebody should take care of that!) Based on a quick review of my university library’s discovery service, Google Scholar, and Google, it appears to have been coined in 2007 by Gunther Eysenbach of the University of Toronto.

The word is “Apomediation”. Here’s how Eysenbach defines the role of the “apomediary”: “The agents that replace intermediaries in the digital media context may be called ‘apomediaries,’ because rather than mediating by standing ‘in between’ (inter-) consumers and the services or information they seek, they ‘stand by’ (apo-) and provide added value from the outside…”* In other words, the apomediary isn’t a gatekeeper standing between information and the information seeker (the traditional concept of the librarian’s role), but a guide, advisor, and facilitator who works with the information seeker to help focus attention on the best, most important information.

This is a useful way to think about the role of the embedded librarian, for whom the traditional intermediary role has become outmoded and inaccurate. When we talk about the embedded librarian as collaborator or partner, we can’t be talking about the old gatekeeper / intermediary model. “Apomediation” is a great word to describe the new model that has to replace the intermediary.

I was introduced to the term by an excerpt from the book, “Library 3.0: Intelligent Libraries and Apomediation”, by Tom Kwanya, Christine Stilwell and Peter G. Underwood, who write extensively about the role of the apomediary librarian. Though they don’t use the term “embedded”, the relationship they describe between librarians and community members dovetails extremely well with embedded librarianship. Elsevier has made the excerpt available in a collection entitled “Facing Contemporary Challenges in Librarianship” which you can find at . It’s also on ScienceDirect.

*Here’s the citation to Eysenbach’s original article: Eysenbach, G. (2007). From intermediation to disintermediation and apomediation: new models for consumers to access and assess the credibility of health information in the age of Web 2. 0. In Studies in health technology and informatics: Vol. 129 (162–166). IOS Press.

Library Strategy

August 25, 2015

I’ve avoided writing about strategy for a long time. In large part that’s because the words “strategy” and “strategic” are so over-used these days. In the Special Libraries Association, where I focus a lot of my attention, it seems sometimes like they show up in every other sentence. There was even a proposal to rename the association as the Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals a few years ago. I didn’t get it — I could never figure out what was wrong with being a tactical knowledge professional. “Strategic” seems to have become synonymous with “valuable” or “worthwhile” or “successful”, and that’s wrong.

But my thinking was refreshed recently by a chain of readings that sent me back to one of the gold sources on strategy, Michael Porter’s 1996 Harvard Business Review article, “What Is Strategy?” Here’s what Porter has to say (HBR, Nov/Dec 1996, p. 68): “Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position involving a different set of activities.” And (p. 75) “Strategy is creating fit among a company’s activities. The success of a strategy depends on doing many things well — not just a few — and integrating among them.”

Those statements provide a framework for understanding the basic task for libraries and librarians today, and the role of embedded librarianship.

For decades, if not centuries, librarians had a “valuable position” based on the integration of a set of activities focused on acquiring information resources and making them available — collections and access. Our position was unique. We had no competition. Then came the revolution of the 1990s, which is still underway. Many types of information became readily and cheaply available from a variety of sources. The position of librarians that was built on collections and access was no longer unique and valuable. (Yes, there are exceptions, as well as different rates of change in different sectors.)

However, the revolution in information ubiquity brought along with it new problems, including problems of attention, analysis, and interpretation. Librarians actually have a number of competencies that can be combined with new ones to form a new set of integrated activities as the basis of a new “unique and valuable” position — a new strategy — that addresses these new problems.

I do not think that embedded librarianship is the new strategy. In some situations it could be. But in others, it is an essential component of the strategy: a subset, made up of a number of integrated activities itself and in turn integrating with other activities, to establish a new unique and valuable position for librarians.

One more thing. Porter also acknowledges that “Operational effectiveness and strategy are both necessary to superior performance”. (p. 61) So it’s okay to be tactical too.

Is Knowledge Power?

August 12, 2015

You can’t get through a course of study in librarianship without hearing the adage “knowledge is power” or its variant “information is power”. It’s often repeated but rarely examined, though a few cynics have asked why, if it’s true, librarians are not running the world.

Well, a current news story gives us a fresh opportunity to examine the validity of that old saying. The New York Times version is headlined “Nine Charged in Insider Trading Case Tied to Hackers” ( ) According to the story, the scheme involved breaking into the computer systems of news distributors like PR Newswire and Business Wire, getting advance access to press releases, and trading on the information in advance of its becoming public. The Times says the scheme yielded over $100 million — pretty powerful.

Yet there’s nothing exotic about the information the hackers obtained — millions (billions) of us have access to the same news on the web and our favorite digital library resources. We have the same information the hackers had. But they had a few things the rest of us lacked: timing (they got it first), context (they knew what the news meant), ability to act (they had the mechanisms to trade on the information), and motivation to act (they were willing to take the risks — in this case legal — to use the information).

So I think this story is yet another reminder that knowledge, or information, alone is not power. The value of information is not inherent in the information by itself. And if librarians want to make a difference (what are power and influence after all but “making a difference”) then we cannot just deal with information in isolation — we have to be engaged in the use of the information: timing, context, ability, and motivation to act.

While you’re doing that, though, just keep your ethics with you at all times!

Words of Wisdom

July 8, 2015

I’ve just been reading the Dec. 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, and points made in 2 of the articles really resonated with my thinking about embedded librarianship.

Advice in the article “Why Corporate Functions Stumble”, by Kunisch, Muller-Stewens, and Campbell, reads like a primer for librarians and knowledge managers (who are, after all, a corporate function): start small, focus on quick wins, don’t try to do everything all at once, etc. But my favorite sentence is this: “Managers who see themselves as functional professionals and don’t feel a need to fully understand the company’s divisions are guaranteed to antagonize business units.” Just substitute “librarians” for “managers”.

That’s followed by Keith Ferrazzi’s “Getting Virtual Teams Right”. Many embedded librarians end up on cross-functional teams, virtual or not, and the role can feel uncomfortable, especially for those new to it. Ferrazzi gives good advice, targeted to team leaders, on how to make virtual teams work. The same advice is useful for any team member on what to look for in a well-led team, and maybe some suggestions to make to your team lead too!

Over and over, articles like these have convinced me that we are not engaged in anything unique when we practice embedded librarianship — we are going through experiences that are common to other organizational functions as well, and we can gain a lot by applying the lessons from these other functions to our own practice.

Embedded Librarianship News Updates

May 29, 2015

I have two exciting news items to report:

First, I’ll be presenting a webinar for the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA) next Wednesday, June 3, at 2:30 p.m. US Eastern time. It’s entitled “Embedded Librarianship: Connecting the Dots, and Avoiding the Pitfalls.” For more details on the agenda and registration, please visit ,

Second, the Special Libraries Association Board of Directors approved the formation of an Embedded Librarians Caucus at its May meeting. Over 100 SLA members signed the petition to form the caucus! We’ll hold a kickoff meeting at the upcoming SLA Annual Conference on Tuesday, June 16 at 9:45 a.m. All members and prospective members are invited to attend!

Solo Librarians and Embedded Librarians

April 4, 2015

A quick check indicates I’ve never blogged about solo librarians — an omission I’m now about to rectify.

Solo librarians, of course, are the only librarians in their organization. It might be a small law firm with just one librarian, or a small corporation, or even a unit — perhaps an R&D lab — in a large organization with no centralized library and no mechanism of communication and collaboration among librarians who are dispersed around the enterprise.

The question arises, what’s the difference between a solo librarian and an embedded librarian. It’s a great question, and it came up again last week in the context of the petition drive to start an embedded librarians caucus in SLA, which already has a Solo Librarians Division.

Here’s my answer:

Think of a Venn diagram with two partially intersecting sets. Some solos are embedded (more and more these days, I estimate) and some embedded librarians are solos.

That is, many solos function in close, collaborative working relationships with others in their organizations, and they have the characteristics of embedded librarianship that I’ve written and spoken about. But, although declining, there are still people who are the only librarian in the organization, who still function primarily as custodians of resources and answerers of ready reference questions; they are equally accessible to everyone and they are not closely collaborating with anyone. These solos do not fit the definition of embeddedness.

Take the other case. Many embedded librarians are organizationally attached to centralized library organizations, though they may spend their days away from the library and other librarians. They may have offices with the groups they are embedded with; they spend most of their time in collaboration with the teams whose work they are participating in. This matrixed organization is the model at MITRE, where I used to work; it’s written up in a couple of the case studies from my SLA-funded research; and it’s the predominant model in higher education. So, these librarians are embedded but they are not solos.

I think these will continue to be two distinct categories of librarians, though I’m personally not so optimistic about the prospects of solos who don’t develop the collaborative working relationships that characterize the embedded model. I think what we will see is more solos who are embedded and more networks of librarians who are embedded with units and work groups but also maintain connections with their peers across the enterprise.

By the way, we’ll be closing the SLA petition drive on April 10. SLA members, sign up now at to become a founding member!