Embedded Librarians: Diverse Initiatives, Common Challenges.
This presentation was given at the Texas Library Association annual conference, San
Antonio, April 10, 2014.
The story of the six blind men and the elephant originated in the Jain religion of India
and it has spread across the globe.
In the story, six blind men encounter an elephant. Each touches a different part of the
animal. The one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a snake. The one who
touches the ear says that it is like a fan. And so on: the tusk is like a spear, the leg
feels like a tree, the side like a wall, and the tail like a rope. Each comes up with a very
different impression of the elephant. They are all right, of course. And yet they are all
wrong. They have only perceived the elephant in a single part, and cannot account for
So it is with embedded librarianship. In our highly diversified and stovepiped
profession, we are all heading in the same direction, and yet the specific steps we are
taking are different. Our embedded librarianship initiatives can seem unrelated, just
like the different parts of the elephant. Yet we’re really experiencing the same
imperatives and challenges, just as the blind men were all perceiving the same
To illustrate, imagine a focus group of six embedded librarians:
• A medical librarian
• An academic librarian at a 2-year community college
• An academic librarian at a research-oriented university
• A school librarian
• A corporate librarian
• And a public librarian
The question put to the group is, “what is embedded librarianship?”
Here’s what each one would say:
The Medical Librarian
“We medical librarians invented embedded librarianship, you know, though we don’t
call it that, generally. Instead we use terms like “clinical medical librarian” and
“informationist”. In particular, we credit Dr. Gertrude Lamb, of the University of
Missouri – Kansas City, who originated the practice of having librarians accompany
physicians as they went about their “rounds”. As the team would discuss the
diagnosis and treatment of each case, the librarian would find the relevant medical
literature to help inform the discussion. To do this, the librarian had to understand
the conversation, and understand the literature, so a degree of medical subject
knowledge is important. Since the early days, we’ve moved into other areas as well,
such as preparing patient information packets. In research institutions, we play an
important role in research data management. In teaching hospitals, we instruct
medical students in the use of health science databases and in medical informatics.”
The Academic Librarian – Community College
“In two-year higher education programs, we know exactly what embedded
librarianship is. It means teaching information literacy embedded in courses, pure and
simple. We focus on early intervention – getting into the courses students take with
us. Many of them have trouble with the transition from high school, where they may
never have done a research paper. We work with the instructors and strengthen the
instructional process. We make sure that course assignments are well designed to
build information literacy skills. We provide online tutorials and instructional modules
that instructors can plug into their courses as needed. We deliver presentations in
class and counsel students outside class. In online courses, we post research tips and
recommendations and we lead discussions in the course management system. But I
wouldn’t say that deep subject knowledge was that important for us. Just building a
good working relationship is key.”
The Academic Librarian – Research University
“Sure, we academic librarians know all about embedded librarianship. It started with
our liaison librarian programs way back in the early 20th century. Those early liaisons
emphasized collection development. They got to know faculty primarily for the
purpose of getting input on acquisitions, so that the collection could effectively
support the research interests of the faculty. Nowadays, it’s much more about
working collaboratively with instructors to infuse information literacy into the
curriculum. We also do some work collaborating on faculty research projects, and
some research data management, but really it’s about the university’s instructional
mission. Regardless, we have to know the subject domains and the course material.
Also, we’re engaged at all levels. It’s a myth that first-year interventions alone are
sufficient. We go all the way up to the Ph.D. level. Also, it’s increasingly common for
us to get involved in defining institutional learning goals and shaping the curriculum,
as information skills are recognized as a 21st century essential.”
The School Librarian
“We school library media specialists are also known sometimes as ‘teacher librarians’,
and that really sums up what embedded librarianship means to us. We are teachers.
In many states, we are certified as teachers, just like English teachers, math teachers
and so on. But instead of teaching a subject, we teach information literacy. I wish we
could specialize in different subjects like our colleagues in universities! But hardly any
of us have the staffing for that. So, since there’s no course on information literacy, we
teach it in collaboration with teachers in different disciplines: English, social studies,
and sciences. Together, we develop a curriculum that connects student learning
activities, so that humanities, social sciences and natural sciences experiences come
together as a holistic approach to knowledge, with information literacy as a
foundational competency that enables students to learn independently and equips
them for higher education and life. Study after study has shown that when we do
this, student performance improves. The tragedy is that because of cuts in public
school funding, fewer students are being exposed to our contributions.”
The Corporate Librarian
“It’s been interesting to hear my colleagues talk so much about instruction. For most
of us in the corporate sector, instruction has little or nothing to do with embedded
librarianship. And when I say “corporate sector”, I’m including nonprofits as well as
for-profits, law firms, associations, government agencies, and the like. I do wish my
colleagues in primary, secondary, and higher education were able to have more of an
impact, because I have to deal with the lack of information skills among so many of
our employees. But that’s another conversation. For me and my colleagues, it’s all
about getting and using information and knowledge. We provide access by working
with teams and groups to organize their knowledge, so that they can connect and
find the people and documentation they need when they need it. We provide
analysis and answers for competitive intelligence and research and development
teams. In all of these activities, we have to specialize and we have to know the
people and their work. We’re just the team members with the special expertise in
knowledge and information.”
The Public Librarian
“I guess I’m the last to speak, and our public librarians have also been the last to
adopt embedded librarianship. For a long time, nobody thought it had much to do
with us. But things are changing, and I think we have as much potential for applying
the embedded model as anyone. After all, we’ve understood for a long time that the
communities we serve are really aggregations of different demographic groups and
interest groups – what the marketers call segments. And we’ve partnered with other
community groups and agencies to strengthen our community service. Now, we’re
just focusing more intentionally on getting out into the community and finding the
places where we can embed ourselves to make a difference. The most important
thing is what John Pateman and Ken Williment point out in their book, Developing
Community-Led Public Libraries, that our library “service provider goals and
objectives should not be confused with direct consultation and collaboration with
community members themselves.” (p. 20)
I imagine our six librarians leaving the focus group with a new appreciation of the
diverse applications of embedded librarianship. They might be thinking hard about
what embedded librarianship really means, what its unifying elements are. They
might also wonder if the other participants have experienced the same challenges as
they have experienced, in building their programs.
Let’s address these questions.
Here’s my favorite definition. It comes from the book “Embedded Librarians: Moving
Beyond One-Shot Instruction.” The emphasis is on the word “integral”. Embedded
librarians, no matter what services they provide, must be truly integral to their
Dene, J. (2011) “Embedded librarianship at the Claremont Colleges.” in Calkins, K. and
Kvenild, C., eds. Embedded librarians: Moving beyond one-shot instruction. Chicago:
ACRL, p. 225.
There are 5 factors:
• Mutual understanding
• Shared goals
• Customized, high-value contributions
• Team membership
The photo is of Clayton Christensen, who has popularized the idea of disruption of
companies and industries, starting with his book The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Librarianship is one of a number of professions and industries that have been
disrupted over the past two decades.
Photo: DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 23JAN13 - Clayton Christensen, Professor of Business
Administration, Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, USA
concentrates during the televised session 'Leading through Adversity- Improving
Decision-Making' at the Annual Meeting 2013 of the World Economic Forum in
Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2013.. . Copyright by World Economic Forum. . swiss-
image.ch/Photo Remy Steinegger.
3.jpg (Accessed Sept. 14, 2013) CC License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-
In different settings, embedded librarians are providing a wide variety of
contributions: teaching, research, knowledge management, data management,
competitive intelligence, community development, and more. Here we explore
examples that illustrate this diversity of initiatives.
Let’s turn now to common challenges – problems that may come up as you build your
embedded model of librarianship in your community, no matter what type of
organization or context you are operating in. I’ve identified eight in all, but we can
group them into three categories:
• Challenges of Getting Started
• Issues that can prevent you from building momentum as you scale up
• Pitfalls that can interfere with sustaining success over the long haul
The first one is getting traction for starting the new model. I’ve heard librarians say
things like this, “managers in my organization don’t know what I’m talking about, or
don’t see the value, when I propose that they need an embedded librarian.” This is a
common problem in the startup phase. It indicates that there’s a need to pay more
attention to marketing the embedded idea.
I have four suggestions for addressing it.
1. Assess the readiness of your staff and the organization. Don’t begin before you
2. Focus on the people in the organization who do get it. Actually, all you need is
one partner to start. I’m a big fan of beginning with pilot programs, showing the
value, and then scaling up.
3. Seek first to understand their needs, not to promote your idea. Explore how their
team’s performance is being dragged down by problems with knowledge discovery,
information analysis, or knowledge and information management, and how a team
librarian could help with that.
4. Step back. Maybe you need to defer your plans; maybe the time and conditions
aren’t ripe yet. Focus instead on building relationships, not taking action. Learn about
the organization by getting to know the people in it. This might mean volunteering for
activities that aren’t related to your library work. Use these activities as a way to get
to know people and their work, and maybe to get them on your side.
Now we come to the pitfalls when you’re trying to build momentum from initial
Number two is the problem of allocating resources. I’ve even encountered library
managers who have killed embedded librarianship programs, or let them wither,
because they thought the program couldn’t scale. After all, when librarians start
operating in the embedded model, it means they have to stop doing something else
they used to do. Maybe that’s working on the reference desk, or doing one-shot
instruction. So here are three ideas for dealing with the resource allocation as you
1. Get more resources. It’s not out of the question. But where those resources come
from depends very heavily on your own circumstances and your organization’s
approach to budgeting. Can you get your user community to pay, such as a
department or division in a large corporation? Or can you get your supporters to
advocate for an increase in your budget?
2. Think strategically about staff responsibilities, and shift positions away from legacy
tasks toward emerging value-added tasks. A highly successful academic library
director I interviewed followed this strategy. She reorganized, taking care to counsel
staff as they adjusted to their new duties.
3. Think strategically about just how pervasive the embedded model should be.
Nobody’s advocating that every librarian become embedded, or that every course has
to have an embedded librarian. Choose your spots. Prioritize your opportunities and
go for the ones that offer the best chance of making a real impact on your
organization’s mission. Let the rest go.
Number 3. Believe it or not, there is perhaps such a thing as becoming “too
When this happens, librarians feel alone and cut off from their friends in the library
organization. After all, working with other librarians, in the same space, sharing
duties and projects, is pretty congenial. We all speak the same language, we help
each other out. Take a librarian out of that environment, put her in a situation where
nobody else around her speaks the same jargon or really understands what she does,
and a sense of isolation sets in. What’s more, she loses the benefit of comparing
notes and collaborating with other librarians to solve common problems. Do this for a
group of reference librarians, for example, and what was once a strong community of
practice has been broken up.
The astute manager can address this by being proactive. Create social occasions,
shared tasks, and shared communication tools like a social media group to keep the
embedded librarians connected with one another and with central library operations.
The next issue is closely related. It’s the problem of workload balancing and burnout.
I’ll illustrate with a story from my own experience. I once had a conversation with a
very successful embedded librarian who told me that when passing the offices of the
team she was working with, she tried to keep her head down and avoid eye contact,
because she was already overwhelmed and wanted to avoid getting any more
projects. This was a big red flashing DANGER sign to me. Here was an outstanding
librarian facing burnout, largely because we hadn’t put in place any kind of backup
mechanism for her.
In the years since that episode, I’ve encountered a few successful efforts to address
this problem. One I like is to form interest groups, which can include both embedded
and non-embedded librarians. Group members share their knowledge about
resources and projects, and back one another up as the need arises. This actually
helps with the isolation problem, as well as leveling out the workload and giving
central library staff a stake in the embedded librarianship model.
Now we get to the challenges of sustaining success over the long haul.
Number 5 involves loss of enterprise perspective and what’s best for the
organization. I’ve labeled it “parochialism”. The idea here is that ultimately embedded
librarianship needs to serve the mission and goals of the whole organization, not just
a single unit or department. Sometimes, when embedded librarians are spun off from
a knowledge and information services organization, the big picture gets lost.
Furthermore, opportunities for the librarians to act as boundary spanners and bridge
builders get lost too.
Two actions can address this pitfall.
One goes back to the idea of interest groups or other mechanisms to keep the
embedded librarians connected to each other and to central library operations keeps
them aware of needs and activities outside the groups they are embedded with.
Second, central library management needs to be engaged with the information user
group managers, and not simply delegate the relationship entirely to the embedded
librarian. In two successful operations I’ve studied, library relationship managers
make regular visits to information user group managers. They use these meetings to
review the nature and level of embedded librarians’ tasking and to gather feedback
about how things have been going and what the outlook is.
The sixth issue is settling for something short of a strong embedded relationship.
Operational models are being called “embedded” that don’t meet the criteria. For
example, in higher education, especially among librarians involved in distance
education, the notion is out there that you’re embedded if the course management
system contains a link to the library homepage, or a librarian virtual reference app.
There’s no mention of a collaborative relationship and shared instructional goals with
the subject instructor. I even read recently of a so-called embedded librarian –
embedded in the sense that she had authoring privileges in the course management
system – who posted an introductory video in the sites for several courses she was
quote-unquote “embedded” in. Without telling the instructors, that is. She was
surprised when some of them reacted negatively.
The antidote to this, of course, is to keep in mind the five elements we discussed
earlier, and insist on progress in building relationships, shared goals, and real
collaboration toward achieving organizational objectives.
Number seven relates to the lack of succession planning. I call this the “librarian who
walks on water” syndrome. The members of the team that the librarian is embedded
with – who don’t understand what the librarian does – come to see the librarian as a
magician, or miracle worker, who is able to create essential information and analysis
out of thin air. They begin to attribute this outstanding performance to the unique
mastery of that individual, rather than the characteristics of the profession. Maybe
this is due to the fact that they have never worked closely with a librarian before, and
never experienced what librarians are capable of contributing. At any rate, they
become convinced that nobody else out there could do the job as well as their
That’s all well and good for the time being. But what happens when that outstanding
librarian gets promoted, or leaves the organization, or retires?
If there’s no succession planning, if there’s no understudy waiting to take over, the
disappointment can be serious. No new librarian can step in and perform at the same
level – precisely because the nature of embedded librarianship demands a sustained
relationship, and thorough understanding of the work. At this point the entire
embedded engagement is in danger of falling apart. The team members may
conclude that they’ll never find another librarian who can perform as well. So they
disengage, they cope, and everyone is the worse for that.
The antidote, of course, is succession planning. This follows nicely from the interest
group idea already mentioned. Include junior staff in the groups. Introduce them to
the role of the embedded librarian. Introduce them as backups to the members of
the information user group. Have them sub at team meetings and work on projects
when the embedded librarian is unavailable. These things will prepare them to step in
as embedded librarians when they’re needed. What’s more, they’ll be familiar faces
to the team members, who will already appreciate their capabilities, and quickly
recognize that they can walk on water, too.
The 8th and final challenge has to do with evaluating the embedded librarian’s work.
The library manager isn’t in a good position to do this – even less so than with staff
working in a central library. The manager may not see or even communicate with the
librarian most days. The manager has little or no idea what the librarian is working on
or what results the librarian achieves.
Meanwhile, the community group leader sees the librarian’s results, but doesn’t have
the knowledge to assess the librarian’s skills. As a result, the librarian’s value can
either be over-inflated or under-appreciated.
For that reason, the best evaluation may be achieved when the library manager and
the community group leader communicate. However, I do want to append a caveat to
these comments about evaluation. Above all, the nature of evaluation needs to
reflect the practices and policies of your organization.
So, these are the eight challenges to watch out for:
First, the challenge of starting out without proper preparation.
Then, the issues of resource allocation as you scale up, along with isolation and
burnout as librarians engage in their new, embedded roles.
And over the long haul, the dangers of parochialism on the one hand, and settling for
a lesser role and relationship than you could have, on the other. Add to those the
risks of failure to plan for succession, and the challenges of evaluating the embedded
Going back to our opening story, others are developing embedded librarianship
initiatives too. Keep in mind that librarians in other fields as well as your own may
have insights and solutions that can help you. And be sure to share your experiences
to help them.
So, embedded librarianship is not easy. But it is worth it! So I hope this presentation
has given you some insights that you can use to take the initiatives you need to take,
and overcome the challenges you will inevitably encounter. After all, it’s what you do
that will make a difference for you and your community. Here are three steps you can
begin to work on right now, even before you get back home.
To conclude -- we need to embed ourselves in our communities, whatever they may
be, and take responsibility for inventing the future.
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 action
and invent your embedded future. I wish you the best!
As you invent your future, please stay in touch. Email me – I’d love to hear from you.
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!
This presentation may be reused under Creative Commons License Attribution-
ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). See also photo credits above.