The Embedded model, the future of librarianship, and what to do at work tomorrow!


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36th Annual Alice Rankin lecture, for the Special Libraries Association New Jersey Chapter, May 7, 2013

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The Embedded model, the future of librarianship, and what to do at work tomorrow!

  1. 1. This talk is entitled “The Embedded Model, the Future of Librarianship, and What toDo at Work Tomorrow.” As the title suggests, the talk has three parts. In the first part,I’ll propose a definition of embedded librarianship. Next, I’ll offer some ideas on whyit’s an important part of our future as librarians. To close, I’ll offer some suggestionsfor things that you can do, starting tomorrow, to build and develop your embeddedfuture in your organization.1
  2. 2. Let’s be clear about what embedded librarianship is, and is not.Every once in awhile somebody tries to make a joke about librarians and getting intobed. I’ve never heard one that I thought was any good. They are actually pretty lame.More seriously, embedded librarianship has little if anything in common withembedded journalism, although the terms are sometimes linked. The embeddedjournalist gained prominence in the Operation Desert Storm, as a journalist who rodeinto battle with a military unit, to gain a firsthand experience of the combat situation.Embedded journalists were, and are, brave and important figures. But it’s importantthat they’re essentially there as observers. They don’t take part in the combat itself.The embedded librarian is different. The embedded librarian is like embeddedsoftware, that allows all the computer-controlled functions of your car to operate.Jezmynne Dene, formerly of the Claremont Colleges, said that the embeddedlibrarian is like the geological concept of an element in a mineral, an “integral part tothe whole”.The embedded librarian is not an observer. The embedded librarian is fully engaged inthe action. The embedded librarian is essential to the functioning of the unit.2
  3. 3. So here’s my definition.An embedded librarian is one who:• develops strong working relationships with members of a team or community;• achieves mutual understanding with the team, which means that the librarianunderstands the team’s goals and operations, and the team understands thelibrarian’s role and value• shares responsibility for achieving the team’s goals• and makes customized, highly-valued contributions to the team.And, in short is a member of the team like any other, just with a unique set of skills –the information and knowledge expert on the team.3
  4. 4. I’d like to sharpen the point that embedded librarianship is really very different fromtraditional librarianship. Here are five important differences.1. First, the embedded model focuses on relationships, not transactions. Traditionalreference is a transactional operation. The reference desk is a place wheretransactions happen. Somebody asks a question, the librarian gives them an answer.The interaction has a beginning, a middle, an end. Similarly, traditional “one-shot”library instruction is transactional. Students come to the library, they get a lectureabout doing library research, and it’s over. End of transaction. Embedded librarianshipis relational. One interaction leads to the next, and it just keeps going and going, withincreased mutual understanding and collaboration as the interactions accumulate.This might mean a librarian embedded in a market research team, or it might mean alibrarian embedded with a first-year English class. The principle is the same.2. Second, the embedded model requires librarians to specialize, not to try to be allthings to all people. We librarians like to think of ourselves as generalists. We’veevolved sophisticated reference interviewing techniques to get us from a state of zeroknowledge of what somebody is looking for to at least a basic grasp so we canprovide them with basic help. But isn’t it better if we start from a position ofunderstanding? It’s sure going to be a lot better for the people we are trying to help ifthey don’t have to explain everything to us, and better for us as well. Just to cite anacademic library example: how many times across the decades have academiclibrarians had students come up to the reference desk and ask for help with anassignment – and the librarian had no background information about that assignment4
  5. 5. beforehand? It’s standard practice! How much better would it be if the librarian wasembedded in the class, so the librarian knew all about that assignment – maybe evenhelped to design it?3. Third, the traditional librarian stood apart from the organization, ruling over thedomain of the library. People came to the library – the librarians didn’t go to them. Inthe embedded model, the embedded librarian is out of the library and fully engagedwith the other employees and groups of the enterprise. This engagement, by the way,can be virtual as well as physical. Moving your office outside the library so you canhang out with the information user group you’re working with is a great idea and itcan be very helpful. But if you’re embedded in a distance education course or avirtual work group – as some librarians are – you can still be successful even if younever get to meet the people you’re embedded with face to face.4. Fourth, the traditional librarian focused on being a service provider. Service is inour professional DNA. And that’s not all bad. But service providers aren’t fullyaligned. Their goals are to provide the service, and their responsibilities are just to dothat – and no more. Embedded librarians aren’t just service providers. They’re teampartners. That means they define their role more broadly. They do whatever theirskills and competencies enable them to do that helps the organization to succeed.5. Last, traditional library services have become a commodity. They’re taken forgranted. Embedded librarianship finds new value in new roles. There are twoimportant points that we shouldn’t lose sight of, though. The first is that thecommodity services are still needed – they’re just not enough by themselves. Thesecond is that this means we need to continue to evolving and finding still newersources of value in new roles. I’m going to come back to this in the next part of thetalk.4
  6. 6. I do want to clarify one point before I go on, though. If it sounds like an embeddedlibrarian is something you either are, or you aren’t – that’s not what I mean. WhatI’ve just described are two ends of a continuum, and there’s a lot of room in themiddle. When we talk about real life situations, it’s appropriate to talk about “howembedded” and “more embedded or less embedded.”5
  7. 7. Now let’s talk about the future of librarianship. To start out, I want to make clear thatI do not think that embedded librarianship is the only path for us to take. I think thereare several opportunities for our profession to develop. Embedded librarianship is avery important one, but not the only one.So, what’s happening to our profession, and where are we headed?6
  8. 8. To answer that, first consider that we’re now in the midst of a great informationrevolution. The last one was 500 years ago. We’re living in the greatest upheaval inthe ways society creates, distributes and consumes information since Gutenberg.Think about it. For millennia, information had been laboriously recorded and copiedby hand, one copy at a time. Copies were few, the number of works was small, andthe percentage of the population that could consume recorded information was tiny.Gutenberg changed all that. In a relatively short period, his invention disrupted themonopoly of scribes and copyists. It created a whole new publishing industry. Copiesproliferated and works multiplied. Some of those new copies were sacred andscholarly works of high authority, and some were junk. As literacy spread, thedemand for published material exploded. People began to complain aboutinformation overload.Of course, lots of things changed between Gutenberg’s time and 1993, but in the past20 years, thanks to the invention of the Internet, we have seen the kind ofdiscontinuous change not seen since Gutenberg.7
  9. 9. Here are my two candidates to go down in history as the Gutenbergs of the 20thcentury. We can call them co-inventors of the World Wide Web. The one on the left isSir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the hypertext transport protocol and hypertextmarkup language, not to mention founder of the World Wide Web Consortium. Theother is Mark Andreessen, who while still a student wrote Mosaic, the first graphicalweb browser, which made Berners-Lee’s html documents widely accessible. Together,Berners-Lee and Andreessen are as responsible as any for the web-based informationecosystem we have today. Their inventions have disrupted the information cycle thatdepended on publishers, journalists, broadcasters, and bookstores – and libraries.Their inventions have led to the creation of whole new industries in web servicehosting, information architecture and web design, social media, and more. Morefundamentally, they’ve challenged many information-related industries operated byprofessionals by unleashing armies of amateurs -- anybody and everybody with acomputer – or a phone – and a network connection. Copying – legal and illegal; opensource and paid – has proliferated, and the range and diversity of works havemultiplied. Some of the new information being created is marvelous and exciting, andsome is boring, silly, or even malevolent.8
  10. 10. Media consumption has exploded, and by 2008 the average American spent almost12 hours a day consuming information in some form – up from 7 and a half hours in1980. And we are complaining ever more loudly about information overload.Do you hear an echo of Gutenberg and the printing press?9
  11. 11. Librarianship has been one of the professions disrupted by the invention of Berners-Lee and Andreessen. We haven’t had it as bad as some –the employment ofjournalists in traditional media is down 40%.We have been hit pretty hard, though. Here’s just one fact to illustrate the impact. Inthe first decade of the 21st century, member libraries of the Association of ResearchLibraries – the biggest, most impressive libraries in North America – reported a 45%drop in total reference transactions. -- 45%! So we have been hit pretty hard.Fundamentally, the Internet has destroyed our monopoly on information. Time was,to find something out, to look something up, you had to go to the library. Now youGoogle it. Actually, now there’s an app for it. I won’t say, you don’t need the libraryany more – but let’s face it: there are a lot of times you used to need the library, butyou don’t any more. Our unique role used to be providing access to information. Ourvalue came from the access we could provide. Now we have lots of competitors whocan provide good-enough access, and do it quicker and cheaper than we can. That’swhat I was referring to earlier when I said the work of traditional librarians hadturned into a commodity.10
  12. 12. Michael Stephens (“Stuck in the Past.” LJ Apr 15, 2011, p. 54)As Michael Stephens wrote in Library Journal, “People do not think of the library firstwhen they need information.”11
  13. 13. So our traditional operating model has been disrupted. And when you are disrupted,you better change your operating model, pretty quick.And that is where the embedded model comes in. It enables us to create new valuein new ways. The characteristics that distinguish it from traditional librarianship arethe characteristics that create new value:Relationships: so we understand the communities we are working in.Specialization: so they don’t have to explain everything to us every time they ask us aquestion; so we can organize and manage their information in the ways that areresponsive to their work; so we can teach them the things they need to know most.Engagement: so we are present and available, pitching in as needed and not waitingto be asked.Partnership: so they know they can count on us, so they know we care as much aboutthe success of the community as they do.Those things move us away from commodity and toward added value.You know, sometimes I think I might add one more characteristic to embeddedlibrarianship, and that is “visibility.” I wish I had a dollar for every librarian who hassaid to me, something along the lines of “they just don’t understand what we do”.Embedded librarians don’t have that problem. Embedded librarians are very visible,and if you’re adding value, everybody knows it.12
  14. 14. The embedded librarian, now and in the future, is the information and knowledgeexpert on the team.13
  15. 15. So it’s clear what embedded librarianship is, and it’s clear why it is going to beimportant in the future of many librarians. So what should you do at work tomorrow?14
  16. 16. You could order a new sign that says “Embedded Librarian on Duty.” But don’t dothat! A new sign won’t make it so.15
  17. 17. It’s going to take more work than that, and it’s going to take you awhile. You won’tfinish tomorrow. In fact, you may never finish. But you can start.Here’s my three step program:1. Figure out where you are, as far as embedded librarianship is concerned2. Identify the facilitating factors and the barriers in your environment3. Prioritize actions you can take to seize opportunities and overcome barriers.So, it starts with some reflection. Let’s go through each step in turn.16
  18. 18. Relationships are key to embedded librarianship, as I’ve been saying. So, start bythinking about your relationships with the people in your community. Maybe youhave some friends at work – not librarians – that you get together with for lunch.Maybe you participate in a work-related club or social group, or volunteer activity. Doyou ever talk about work with these friends? Could you?How about working relationships with groups, or teams, or departments who useyour library or information service? Do you participate in team meetings? Collaborateon projects? Meet with their managers to discuss projects and priorities, and learnwhat their pain points are, and talk about how you and your group could help?Both social relationships and working relationships are strong factors in theembedded model, so assessing your relationships is a good place to start when youwant to assess just how embedded you are. In our SLA “Models of EmbeddedLibrarianship” research, we found a number of relationship building activities thatembedded librarians commonly take part in. In my book, there’s a self-test you cantake to help you evaluate this. It includes both purely social activities, and work-oriented activities.You might come out of this with a conclusion that you have some strong relationshipsbut you want to develop and strengthen some others. Or you might conclude thatyou need to start creating new relationships across the board. Whatever your currentsituation is, you’ll need to think about readiness before you strike out on an actionplan.That takes us to Step 2: assessing how ready you are to initiate embeddedlibrarianship.17
  19. 19. Readiness comes in two flavors: librarian readiness and organizational readiness. Let’s take librarian readiness first. Do you, or the staff who’ll betaking this on, have what it takes to be successful? Based on my research, I believe there are four key characteristics.The first is skill at building relationships. This comes as no surprise, since I keep emphasizing this point. But it may be scary for some librarians,who don’t think of themselves as extroverted glad-handers. But if you think this means turning your library staff, or yourself, from an introvertinto an extrovert, I have good news for you: introverts can do this. I have to tell you a story here.The second is subject domain knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, embedded librarians specialize. They need to know at least enough about thesubjects their community members care about, that they don’t have to get basic background. What we found in our research was ratherinteresting, though. It turned out that about half of the successful embedded librarians in our survey had prior education or experience in theirsubject domain, and the other half, or thereabouts, didn’t. What subsequent interviews showed, though, is that those who didn’t start out withthe knowledge, acquired it one way or another. In many of the successful programs, there’s active management support – and even expectation –that the embedded librarian will engage in some form of education to learn about their domain. That might be in-house training, or attendingprofessional or scientific conferences, or signing up for formal courses. Whatever it takes, that subject domain knowledge has to be part of themix.The third is Organizational knowledge. Call this “knowing the ropes.” Call it politics. In the interviews I’ve conducted, embedded librarians haverepeatedly called my attention to this, and distinguished it from the subject domain knowledge I spoke of a moment ago. The embedded librarianhas to know – or, again, has to learn – how the organization functions. New embedded librarians, we’ve found, often rely on peer mentors ormanagement champions from their community to help them get started in learning their way around.And the last element is your Librarianship skills. Are your staff top-flight information professionals? As I mentioned earlier, the embeddedlibrarian is very visible. This is a good thing, if the librarian is doing a good job, because the value will be clear. But for someone whose skills aren’tas sharp, the demands of the embedded role may be too much. This is also a tricky area because different teams need different things. It might becompetitive research and analysis in a commercial marketing group, or managing a collaborative virtual workspace in an R & D group, or teachinginformation literacy skills in a university biology course. No librarian is tops at all of these, so matching the skill set to the needs of yourcommunity is not always easy.How do your staff measure up? Do they have these? If they don’t, do they have the motivation and capacity to develop them?Now let’s look at organizational readiness. Key factors include:1. An executive champion2. Strong working relationships with middle managers3. Heavy users of library services who are respected by their peers4. The autonomy for the library manager to start something new, and an organizational culture that is open and encouraging (or at least tolerantof) initiatives.You’re pretty lucky if you have all four of these. I’d say that if you have the fourth one, which is autonomy and an open, forward-leaning culture,plus any of the other three, you probably have enough to get started. Here are a couple examples.At Affinion Group, Jill Stover Heinze, who is a member of the Virginia Chapter, got her big break from an executive champion. The president of hercompany directed her to move her office to the area of the Marketing Communications group. The move enabled her to build relationships andcollaboration that fundamentally changed her role in the company.At a multi-national corporation I visited, the embedded librarian “relationship managers” meet regularly with middle managers to discuss thebusiness needs, library services, and funding of embedded librarians. Each group pays an annual fee to fund their embedded librarian. At one suchmeeting, the librarian informed a group manager that the group’s assessment would have to go up substantially, because of the increaseddemands being placed on the embedded library services. The manager’s response was to the effect that this was no problem, because theembedded librarians were the best bargain in the company.In higher education, what we’ve seen in multiple stories from the literature is that a faculty member and a librarian will hatch the idea ofembedded information literacy instruction, which then gets sold to the library director and department head.Whichever version fits your circumstances, what you are essentially looking for here is a partner, somebody you can do business with, and theconditions that will allow you and your partner to start something new.And when you take the pulse of the organization, you may find some parts more receptive than others. You may find that you want to prioritizeworking with those, so you can achieve something quickly. Or, for other reasons, you may choose to prioritize other units, even if it means youhave to lay some groundwork first.18
  20. 20. Either way, now you’re ready for step 3.3.3 Prioritize actionsStep 3 is to decide on your action priorities and begin working on the first ones.Those may involve training and mentoring staff. They may involve joining the softballteam, or the bond drive committee, just to start building relationships. They mayinvolve setting up meetings with key management contacts, to explore potentialembedded relationships.Whatever you choose, you won’t finish tomorrow.19
  21. 21. But – you can start!20
  22. 22. As Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”I hope this presentation has triggered some ideas and energized you to take actionand invent your embedded future.21
  23. 23. As you invent your future, please stay in touch. Email me. Check out the Embeddedlibrarian blog for an occasional update on embedded librarianship. Get the full pictureand a detailed map for inventing your future from the book. I wish you the very bestsuccess, and hope to hear from you!22
  24. 24. 23