The Paradox of Relevance

October 3, 2014 by

So often in the library literature we read various prescriptions for “remaining relevant”. Some librarians adopt that as an unofficial mission statement. Their strategic goal is to “stay relevant.”

I think we should stop talking about how to remain relevant. Being relevant isn’t a goal, it’s a by-product. If we focus outward, on how we will contribute to our communities, and not inward, on our own “relevance”, we will discover much to our surprise that we have become not only relevant, but indispensable. And that’s the paradox.

Let’s go a step further. In an interview (Harvard Business Review, March 2014, p. 128), John Cleese (of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame) talked about his foray into management training. He said, “…we decided that the ideal leader was the one trying to make himself dispensable.” Let’s be those leaders. Let’s adopt the goal to empower our communities and contribute to their success. Let’s build and field the tools and resources they need, even if especially when it might mean they don’t keep coming to us for the same old things. If we keep trying to work ourselves out of a job, we might find the next job they’ll want us to tackle is just crying out for our attention. And that’s the paradox.

The Knight News Challenge

October 3, 2014 by

Colleagues Elizabeth Kelsen Huber, Elizabeth Leonard, and I submitted a proposal earlier this week in the Knight Foundation’s library challenge competition. Briefly, our initiative is to collect stories and models of librarians engaging with the community, and then to disseminate successful practices and lessons learned.

Please visit our proposal at and give us your feedback!

October is Embedded Librarians Month

September 27, 2014 by

Well, maybe not according to any official declaration, but it sure seems like it to me. I’ll be participating in three programs during the month. Here are the details in case you’d like to join in.

On Wednesday, October 8, I’ll be participating in Dr. Valerie Hill’s program, “Embedding Librarians in Digital Culture”, as part of the web-based Library 2.014 conference. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. US Eastern time. See for details.

A week later, on October 15, I’ll be in another web-based conference. This one is the Special Libraries Association’s 2014 Virtual Conference, a reprise of selected presentations from the annual conference held in Vancouver last June. So, if you weren’t able to get to Vancouver, and would like to join in the conversation on “Disruption, Alignment, and Embedded Librarianship: Connecting the Dots, and Avoiding the Traps,” this is your chance. (And if you were there, join in and let’s continue the conversation.) The session starts at 3 p.m. US Eastern; see for more information.

Last but not least, on Friday, October 24 I’ll be at the 23rd Annual Conference on Libraries and the Future, sponsored by the Long Island Library Resources Council. This sounds like a really interesting program and I’m looking forward to it. My presentation for this event will be entitled “The New Net-Centric Librarian.” The website for more information is

Hope you’ll be able to join me in one, two, or all three of these events!

If You Have to Ask …

August 31, 2014 by

Recently, I was re-reading an old document (from 1993, actually) that contained advice I’ve seen over and over in the library literature, and disagree with pretty strongly.

Talking about corporate librarians, the authors say that “a large number of our potential customers do not use our services” and go on to advocate that “we should interview non-customers whenever possible. We can ask how they obtain and use information and what we could do to provide it.”

While I applaud the emphasis on outreach, I have two problems with this line of thinking.

First, we shouldn’t be measured solely by our reach, or what proportion of our potential audience comes in contact with us in some way. That may be a more important measure in some contexts than others. But as a rule it’s more important that we reach the right audiences — the ones who need us the most. Where, in the corporation, government agency, law firm, etc. can we have the biggest impact? In the university, which courses have the heaviest information fluency component? Embed instruction in those — don’t worry about the rest.

Second, I’ve generally found that asking people about their information behavior is a relatively unproductive exercise. There are exceptions, but for the most part, they don’t tend to think about it. They’re not aware of the options they could have. Information is secondary, it’s a tool to get some other goal accomplished. It’s that goal that they’re focused on. So instead of asking them about information, ask them what they’re working on. Better yet, observe what they’re working on. And by all means don’t ask them what you should do to provide information. Two skills the librarian should bring are the ability to  analyze the information dimension of a situation, and the ability to improve it. If we can’t do that, then they probably don’t need us. But we shouldn’t be asking our “potential customers” to do our job for us.

Both of these points fit well with embedded librarianship. Embedded librarians should think strategically about where to embed: who needs us the most; where can we have the greatest impact? And the more embedded librarians collaborate with a group, the more we understand the nature of their work, and the role of information and knowledge in it — and the more opportunities we see to make a difference. So, we don’t have to ask — we know.

Law Firm Librarians Moving Quickly to Embedded Model

August 1, 2014 by

Over at the Dewey B Strategic blog, Jean O’Grady reports a few tidbits from the American Lawyer 2014 survey of law firm librarians. Among those tidbits: “81% of are embedding librarian in practice groups up from 14% in 2012.

That’s an amazing change! It sounds like embedded librarianship has become standard operating practice in law firms. Not that I’m surprised — in my SLA-funded research I studied a leading firm that had an outstanding program, and that was back in 2009 and 2011. It’s great to see the practice spreading!

(The ALM survey report is here; but unfortunately it’s behind a paywall.)


Don’t Re-Design Your Website!

July 20, 2014 by

I worked on my first corporate intranet design and content development plan over 20 years ago, so by now I’ve witnessed and participated in multiple generations of website redesign projects in various organizations and settings. Typically these have been grand, top-down affairs that start with complaints that “nobody can find what they need” and involve wireframes, various forms of testing, and a complete overhaul of the site’s navigational structure.

A recent conversation caused me to look at website design in a new light, and to think that it’s time (past time?) for a new approach. There are two things wrong with the old top-down redesign process:

1. It bogs down in trying to address the whole site at once, rather than applying a systematic segmenting approach to address the needs of a given audience. Good marketing involves thinking through who the key audiences are, understanding the purposes and processes in how each one uses the site, and customizing to meet their needs. By taking a site-wide approach, top-down redesign projects dissipate the energy and attention paid to specific audiences.

2. It overlooks the integration of media. With the proliferation of social media and content targeted to mobile as well as stationary devices, a website is only one element in a well-developed communication strategy. By focusing only on the web piece, the traditional approach relegates media integration to an afterthought.

So, what might replace traditional website redesign? Here are a couple ideas:

1. Keep a light hand on high level navigation. Don’t get bogged down in it.

2. Instead, start by identifying and understanding the key audiences. What do they need to hear from us? What content and capabilities do we want to deliver to each one?

3. Develop and maintain the content, messages the audience needs. Pay attention to timing and incorporate a variety of media as appropriate. Keep in touch; know whether it’s working and watch for evolving needs.

Selling and Embedded Librarians

July 3, 2014 by

I’m always behind in my reading. So it is that I’ve just finished an interesting article published some months ago in the Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship about the applicability of sales techniques to the work of embedded librarians. Here’s the full citation:

Finley, W. E. (2013). Using personal selling techniques in embedded librarianship. Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship, 18, 279-292.

The idea that librarianship has something to do with sales may dismay some librarians. I, on the other hand, used to think of embedded information analysts as kind of like account reps, so I welcome it as a fresh, interesting and useful perspective.

I won’t try to recap the article here; instead I encourage you to read it yourself. Instead, I’ll add two comments.

First, I think the applicability of selling techniques has its limits. For example, the object of selling is the exchange of value (money for product or service). But in most libraries, the connection between services delivered and funding received isn’t direct. As the author points out, “we don’t ask them for money to deliver a bibliographic instruction session.” There are exceptions to this, and I used to work in an organization where our embedded services were funded by the groups that benefited from them. Maybe this model should be more prevalent, but in higher education and many other organizations, it’s not going to change anytime soon. Also, I think there’s something fundamentally different when the “seller” and the “buyer” work for the same organization, because there is (or should be) a much closer alignment of goals and interests. In a commercial transaction between two separate entities, there’s an overlap of interests but not true alignment.

That leads to my second comment: I’d be interested in extending the conversation to the concept of “consultative selling”, which strives to narrow the gap between buyer and seller, and achieve more of a real alignment of interests. I’ll note here that I think the term “partner” is wildly overused in information commerce — it seems like every database vendor wants to be the library’s “partner”. But when it comes to embedded librarianship, we really do want to create partners, not customers, and “partner”, “collaborator”, “colleague” are much more accurate terms than “customer” for the type of relationship we’re trying to create. To the extent that “consultative selling” represents a more “customer”-centered application of selling principles, I think it has something to offer us.

I’m hoping to hear more on this topic. What do you think? Do selling and consultative selling have a place in the conversation about embedded librarianship?


Disruption, Alignment, and Embedded Librarianship at the SLA Conference

June 15, 2014 by

I thought the session on embedded librarianship at the SLA Conference last week went very well. It was a 90-minute session, so I used the first 30 minutes to explain the knowledge cafe format and introduce the topic; and the remaining 60 minutes were devoted to small group discussions (three 15-minute segments) and closing.

My presentation is on Slideshare at  by the way.

There were about 60 people in the room when we began the group discussions, and over 50 remained at the end. That was too many participants, and too little time, for the classic knowledge cafe conclusion of having every participant make a closing statement. Instead, I set up a couple flip charts and put out some sticky notes, and asked everyone to write down their closing comments. Several people spoke up to request copies of all the comments, and there was unanimous agreement that I should post them. So, here they are: DisruptionAlignmentParticipantComments  .

I think they will mostly make sense even if you weren’t at the session. I’m thinking about analyzing them; maybe coding and grouping them. But I don’t know when I’ll get around to it, so I hope you’ll post your own comments and responses.

Quotation of the Week

June 13, 2014 by

I just read this yesterday. It’s from the Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2013; specifically Charan, R. (2013) “You Can’t Be a Wimp: Make the Tough Calls.” Harvard Business Review, 91 (11), p. 74.

“In the boardroom of a company whose most profitable division was directly affected by Napster, the online music service, the CEO and directors debated for roughly an hour about how to kill Napster. After all the brouhaha, one quiet director made a simple but incisive comment: ‘No law is going to prevent social change.’ He recognized that the consumer was being liberated and the industry was about to go through a radical shift.”

I wish that the vendors of academic and professional content would absorb that insight. In particular, the managers of the Harvard Business Review don’t seem to be reading their own stuff. They continue to cling to their traditional business model and to impose extraordinary restrictions on the use of their material.

Embedded Librarians at the SLA Conference

June 1, 2014 by

Next up, the SLA Conference in Vancouver. I’ll be leading a session on embedded librarianship, “Disruption, Alignment, and Embedded Librarianship: Connecting the Dots, and Avoiding the Traps” on Sunday, June 8 at 1:30 p.m. The session is 90 minutes long, and you can count on it that I’m not going to talk the whole time. Instead, we’ll use most of the session for interactive small-group discussion modeled on David Gurteen’s “knowledge cafe” format. So, if you’re going to Vancouver, please come and participate!