Let’s start with the term “disruption”, which has been popularized by the business
scholar Clayton Christensen. In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and other
writings, Christensen describes many examples in which a start-up company
introduces either a new technology or a new business model to an industry. At first,
the innovation may seem inferior to the established products and services in the
marketplace, and so those successful, established players ignore it. But perhaps the
innovator finds a niche in the market. Perhaps it churns out cheap, “good enough”
products for a segment not being served by the market leaders. Perhaps over time,
those cheap, “good enough” products get better and better – ultimately good enough
to compete with the expensive, entrenched market leaders. Overnight, those market
leaders can see their market share and their prosperity vanish.
Image: Christensen, C. (2013) Disruptive Innovation: Key Concepts.
I’ll just cite one example to illustrate the disruption of traditional library services. The
Association of Research Libraries is a group comprising about a hundred of the
largest, most prestigious research libraries in North America. This graph shows the
total reference transactions reported by members of the Association from 1999
through 2009. Clearly the trend is down. In fact it’s down 45%! In other words, the
traditional role of librarians in providing quick, factual and document-based responses
to individual inquiries – so-called “ready reference” services – has been significantly
One can of course suggest a variety of causes of this disruption – and a lot of them
will have to do with the rise of the Internet and general search engines, such as
Google. In contrast with the decline in research library reference questions, according
to Comscore the number of Google searches per day grew from 7 million at the end
of 1999 to over 230 million in 2008! (Google 2000, ComScore 2009)
We librarians are not the only ones affected by the massive disruption of the Internet,
though. Actually, we’ve withstood it better than many.
The venerable Encyclopedia Britannica went from selling over 100,000 print sets in
1990 to exactly 3,002 in 1996. (Cauz 2013)
According to the Washington Post, the number of full time travel agents in the United
States peaked at over 112,000 in the year 2000, and stands at under 51,000, or less
than half the peak, in 2012. (DePillis 2013)
I won’t go into details on fields like journalism, which has also experienced dramatic
declines – certainly in traditional media.
Of more direct concern to law librarians, both Australia and the United States are
experiencing a significant decline in legal employment. In the U.S., a recent study by
The American Lawyer, a trade journal, found an eleven percent drop in law firm hours
billed in the second quarter of 2013, compared to 2012. Interestingly, the study noted
the biggest drop of all was in the lucrative high end of the market. It found that in the
first half of 2013, the number of billable hours worked by the top 100 firms for their
top 70 clients in the New York area. That number was down by almost half. (Press
2013) From what I’ve seen of the Australian media, the overall feeling here is similar.
An article published in Lawyers Weekly a year ago noted the difficulties of recent
graduates in finding employment, and commented that “*law+ is not a guaranteed
career path any more.” (Whealing 2012) You probably saw the item in Lawyers Weekly
late last month, quoting law recruiter Elvira Naiman as saying that “it is the worst time
in living history to be a law graduate.” (Mezrani 2013) Earlier this month, Australasian
Legal Business noted that the outlook for corporate legal business is flat to decreasing
for the coming 12 months. (Prasad 2013)
Moreover, it’s widely thought that this isn’t some temporary downturn that will soon
right itself. A report issued in early 2013 by the Law School at Georgetown University
in Washington, DC says, “the market for legal service in the United States and
throughout the world has changed in fundamental ways and … the practice of law
going forward is likely to be starkly different than in the pre-2008 period.” (Center for
the Study of the Legal Profession 2013)
If you happen to be employed in a school of law, you have little reason to feel
immune from the disruption that is taking place. In the U.S., law school enrollments
have dropped sharply, as potential applicants have begun to realize that guaranteed
jobs aren’t going to be waiting for them upon graduation. As of July of this year, law-
school applications for the entering class of 2013 were down 36% compared with the
same point in 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. (Jones & Smith
And yet, the full effect of disruption may be still to come. Shown here is Clayton
Christensen, whom I mentioned earlier. In an interview published in Wired magazine
last March, he expressed the view that higher education is under imminent threat –
“on the edge of the crevasse” as he put it. (Howe 2013)
Indeed, signs of the disruption are everywhere, in the form of growing and
multiplying initiatives to create Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. In U.S.
legal education, we already have online law degree programs, though none are
accredited as yet by the American Bar Association. And the venerable Harvard Law
School announced early this year that it would offer a sort-of-a MOOC through the
EdX venture of which its parent Harvard University is a member. (Harvard Law 2013)
Now, it’s possible that legal education will resist falling into the crevasse, at least for
awhile, thanks to the strong influence of the accreditors, who can withhold their
Still, it may not be wise for law librarians to hope the storm will somehow pass us by.
It would be easy to become anxious or even discouraged in the face of this disruption
to our own profession and to our employers. Sometimes I hear librarians lapsing into
talk of “survival” and of “coping”, which suggest defensive strategies that seem, to me
at least, anchored in a faint hope that if we can just hunker down and passively wait
out the storm, maybe things will improve someday, by and by.
Such language, and the attitudes that underlie it, reveal a lack of vision and creativity
about the role that librarians can play. At its worst, this kind of thinking can culminate
in the mindset noted by Clay Shirky. “They’ll miss us when we’re gone” is not a
strategy, not for our employers, and not for us.
In fact, the disruptions that our employers are undergoing mean that they need us
more than ever. But they need us to operate in new ways, to fulfill new roles, and to
adopt audacious goals for ourselves.
So, this may be the time to adopt the audacious goal of becoming integral to your
employer’s strategy for addressing the disruptive forces we’ve just been speaking
about. Do not confine yourself to thinking that your job is to run the library. Extend
yourself and claim a role in your organization’s most important strategic initiatives.
Of course, Matt and I cannot possibly say what the new roles and goals are that you
should adopt in your organization. Only you can do that. However, the embedded
librarianship research I’ve done, and other reports in the literature, suggest some
possibilities that you should probably consider.
One is to become integral to the marketing activity. Both law firms and law schools
are in a constricting market that favors those who can innovate, add new value, and
promote their offerings effectively. In other words, smart marketers will be rewarded.
Librarians are well placed to play integral roles in this function.
In higher education, another option is to embed information literacy instruction
strategically into the curriculum. It’s widely recognized that the skills to obtain the
right information, evaluate it critically, and use it effectively are vital for work and
living in the 21st century. Many academic librarians have succeeded in embedding
various elements of information literacy instruction into individual courses on a one-
by-one basis. What’s emerging, though, is a strategic approach: embedding librarians
into the curriculum development activity in their institutions; identifying the best
courses in which to incorporate information literacy instruction; thinking through the
scaffolding of skills throughout the curriculum.
There are other possibilities of course. You may work in an organization that is
emphasizing knowledge sharing to enable staff to collaborate more effectively. If you
work In a firm, your employer may be concerned about the information literacy skills
of recent graduates – the result of the fact that law schools haven’t all come to grips
with the need to emphasize information literacy in their curricula. In the U.S., it’s well
documented that junior associates can be notorious wasters of legal research
resources, and their own time. They can spend hours, rack up huge bills, and not find
the information they need. So maybe your strategic opening is to address that gap.
The next part of our thesis is that in order for librarians to be successful in claiming
strategic roles in their organizations, they need to change certain aspects of
traditional library services and operations. They need to change how they think and
what they do.
In my work on embedded librarianship, I’ve identified five factors that summarize the
changes. These are the differences between traditional librarianship and embedded
Here are five important differences.
1. First, the embedded model focuses on relationships, not transactions. Traditional
reference is a transactional operation. The reference desk is a place where
transactions 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 lecture
about doing library research, and it’s over. End of transaction. Embedded librarianship
is relational. One interaction leads to the next, and it just keeps going and going, with
increased mutual understanding and collaboration as the interactions accumulate.
This might mean a librarian embedded in a market research team, or it might mean a
librarian 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 all
things to all people. We librarians like to think of ourselves as generalists. We’ve
evolved sophisticated reference interviewing techniques to get us from a state of zero
knowledge of what somebody is looking for to at least a basic grasp so we can
provide them with basic help. But isn’t it better if we start from a position of
understanding? It’s sure going to be a lot better for the people we are trying to help if
they don’t have to explain everything to us, and better for us as well. Just to cite an
academic library example: how many times across the decades have academic
librarians had students come up to the reference desk and ask for help with an
assignment – and the librarian had no background information about that assignment
beforehand? It’s standard practice! How much better would it be if the librarian was
embedded in the class, so the librarian knew all about that assignment – maybe even
helped to design it?
3. Third, the traditional librarian stood apart from the organization, ruling over the
domain of the library. People came to the library – the librarians didn’t go to them. In
the embedded model, the embedded librarian is out of the library and fully engaged
with 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 can
hang out with the information user group you’re working with is a great idea and it
can be very helpful. But if you’re embedded in a distance education course or a virtual
work group – as some librarians are – you can still be successful even if you never 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 in our
professional DNA. And that’s not all bad. But service providers aren’t fully aligned.
Their goals are to provide the service, and their responsibilities are just to do that –
and no more. Embedded librarians aren’t just service providers. They’re team
partners. That means they define their role more broadly. They do whatever their
skills and competencies enable them to do that helps the organization to succeed.
5. Last, traditional library services have become a commodity. They’re taken for
granted. Embedded librarianship finds new value in new roles. There are two
important points that we shouldn’t lose sight of, though. The first is that the
commodity services are still needed – they’re just not enough by themselves. The
second is that this means we need to continue to evolving and finding still newer
sources of value in new roles.
So, just to recap, the embedded librarian:
• Builds strong working relationships with others in the organization in
order to achieve shared organizational goals
• Has, or acquires, the specialized domain knowledge necessary to the
tasks at hand
• Engages with partner individuals and groups wherever and in whatever
modes are appropriate to ensure effective collaboration
• Adopt the goals and objectives of the communities and teams with
whom they’re working as their own – they define their responsibility as achieving
team and organizational goals – not just providing library, or information, or
• Is able to add value to the team or community by applying
sophisticated professional skills related to knowledge and information – skills that are
unique to the librarian among all the members of the team.
And there’s one more thing: as a result of doing all these things, the librarian is a very
visible and highly valued member of the organization. Too many times, as I’ve talked
with librarians over the years, have I heard them lament how unrecognized and
undervalued they are. Too often I’ve heard the refrain, “if only they (meaning their
bosses and others in the organization) understood what we do … ”.
Well, embedded librarians don’t have that problem. Their work is visible and
immediate. They’re helping build the future and achieve the goals of their
In the course of my research, I’ve studied a leading global law firm, spending time
with them in two stages of the project, two years apart. During my second review of
their operations, the firmwide director of marketing said that the embedded librarian
“makes everybody do such a better job.” In other words, the librarian was considered
essential to the firm’s marketing success – by the director of marketing.
I’ve also had the opportunity to study a leading U.S. university twice. There, a librarian
was able to get herself appointed to a task force reviewing the undergraduate
experience. Through this position, she succeeded in having information literacy
learning goals and instruction added to a seminar program for first-year students, and
also in upper-division major-project courses. A biology professor there told me that
she has seen the impact of the embedded librarian first-hand, because students who
have the opportunity to work with an embedded librarian in their first year gain skills
that make them better students beyond the first year. (I should add that the university
was in the process of extending the embedded librarianship model to all first year
students the last time I visited.)
I’d also like to mention that here in Australia you also have examples of successful
embedded librarianship programs. Maybe you are already aware of some of them.
Here are a few that I’ve read about:
Mary Simons, of the Macquarie University Library, has co-authored an article with
two physicians who teach at Macquarie’s Australian School of Advanced Medicine.
The article describes their collaboration to embed information literacy skills into the
curriculum. They conclude that “IL is facilitated through an integrated approach where
skills are embedded, practiced, and assessed in clinical settings to support patient
care and lifelong learning.” And “The professional relationship between clinicians and
librarians has been greatly enhanced by the integration of these librarian services into
this unique learning environment.” (Simons et al. 2012)
At Charles Darwin University, Research Services Coordinator Jayshree Mamtora has
become embedded in the research and scholarly communication processes –
collaborating with research project leaders and university staff to further the scholarly
research mission. Mamtora concludes that “the research librarian’s role is itself in a
state of continual transition, and is changing from a supportive relationship to a
collaborative partnership, from one that is on the periphery to one that is being
embedded within the research community.” (Mamtora 2013, p. 369)
Finally, I’d call your attention to the work of Fiona Salisbury and Linda Sheridan at La
Trobe University. They describe their work to develop a systemic, coherent and
sustainable approach to the design of undergraduate information literacy programs
through participation in a university-wide process of curriculum review and renewal.
In their conclusion, they advocate that libraries need to be poised ready to create and
seize opportunities for involvement in the curriculum review process and to play an
important role in the development and implementation of university strategy.
(Salisbury & Sheridan 2011)
Now let’s turn to the last point in our thesis. Does this really work, and how can we
make it work? In our workshop on Monday, a few of us delved into that question in
detail. Here’s a brief summary. It has five elements.
First, build relationships. Relationships are key to embedded librarianship. You have to
know your community and they have to know you.
Second, learn the organization and the subject domain. Many of you already have a
lot of knowledge of the law. Do you have specific knowledge of the areas of the law
that your firm specializes in, or that your school emphasizes as its strength? And do
you understand the dynamics of your organization – how things get done, and by
whom? If you have this knowledge, have you put it to use in developing your own
Third, use your relationships and your knowledge to figure out what you can do that
will help your community the most. By the way, don’t ask them what you should do.
Understand them and what they do, and need – but you have to be the one to figure
out what you can contribute.
Fourth, build alliances. I say it this way because it is a matter of creating an alliance or
a partnership with your community, not delivering a service to them. I hope you see
the difference. It isn’t just words, it’s a whole mindset.
Finally, get senior management on board. There is some flexibility here. If you are
blessed with effective advocates at the highest levels of your organization, you may
even have them encouraging you to take the initiative. But it’s common that you build
up from working partnerships first. Either way, ultimately you need to have senior
management on board.
If you are able to do these things successfully, you will be able to achieve those
audacious goals, and you may find yourself making increasingly important
contributions to the health of your organization. In the next slides are a couple
examples of embedded librarians who have done just that.
It’s up to you. You can hunker down and hope the disruption passes you by. Good luck
with that. Or you can set audacious goals, embed yourself in the strategic priorities of
your organization, and help it to achieve success in the new environment.
As the computer pioneer Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to
invent it.” The opportunity is there. I can’t predict your future – but I wish you the
very best as you invent it.
As you invent your future, please stay in touch. Email me. Check out the Embedded
librarian blog for an occasional update on embedded librarianship. Get the full picture
and a detailed map for inventing your future from the book. I wish you the very best
success, and hope to hear from you!