Embedded Librarians: Building Relationships in a Massively Open Educational System
We’ll start with just a very short review of MOOCs.
Then we’ll review some examples of what librarians have been doing and saying.
Next I’ll offer my thoughts on a sustainable model for librarians to be engaged in
We’ll continue with a consideration of why embedded librarianship is very relevant to
our ability to sustain librarians’ engagement.
Then we’ll conclude by looking at why our institutions need embedded librarians in
MOOCs have received a great deal of publicity just in the past year. We might even
call it hype. It was Nov. 2, 2012 that the New York Times declared the Year of MOOCs.
Last March, Clayton Christensen, who is famous for his book The Innovator’s Dilemma
and the idea of disruption in markets and technology, predicted that higher
education as we know it is “on the edge of the crevasse.” Just this past Sunday, on the
anniversary of the New York Times article, the Times published another article in
which Christensen in effect doubled down on his prediction that MOOCs will disrupt
higher education. So it’s clear we need to take them seriously.
There’s a sense that MOOCs and librarians don’t mix well. Writing in Reference
Services Review earlier this year, Kerry Wu said that “From a strictly ‘access’ point of
view, modern academic libraries and MOOCs seem to stand on opposite sides.” Wu
was referring to the problem that libraries license digital materials for enrolled
students and other members of their academic community, and not for massive
numbers of casual students who don’t pay fees or have any relationship with their
Wu, K. (2013). Academic libraries in the age of MOOCs. Reference Services Review,
41(3), 576-587. p. 577.
OCLC Research held a workshop on MOOCs at the University of Pennsylvania last
March. Merrilee Proffitt of the OCLC Research staff prepared a review of librarians’
engagement for that occasion. Reinforcing Wu’s point, she noted that “… most
libraries are engaged around clearing copyrighted materials for use in classes.”
Proffitt, M. (2013). MOOCs and libraries: An overview of the (current) landscape.
Retrieved 11/1/2013, 2013,
But what about library services to MOOC students? Some writers have been
extremely negative about the prospects for any kind of service engagement. In an
article describing his own experience with MOOCs as a librarian at San Jose State
University, Bernd Becker recommended in effect that librarians hide from MOOC
participants. He said, “Avoid supplying a librarian’s direct contact information.”
Becker, B. W. (2013). Connecting MOOCs and library services. Behavioral & Social
Sciences Librarian, 32(2), 135-138. p. 137-138
In New Library World, Bruce Massis speculated about how librarians could possibly be
engaged in MOOCs. He wondered, “…who would be assigned to provide reference,
research and supplementary library instruction to tens of thousands of students
enrolled in the MOOC?”
Massis, B. (2013). MOOCs and the library. New Library World, 114(5/6), 267-270.p.
In her Library Journal article about MOOCs, “Massive Open Opportunity”, Meredith
Schwartz quotes Jeffrey Pomerantz, a library science faculty member at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as flatly dismissing the feasibility of having librarians
embedded in MOOCs. The quotation goes like this, ““I haven’t heard anything about
any of these platforms integrating libraries or librarians … if you’re talking about
embedded librarians, you’d need thousands of them.”
Schwartz, M. (2013). Massive Open Opportunity. Library Journal,138 (9), p. 3 of
printout, quoting Jeffrey Pomerantz of the UNC-Chapel Hill SLIS.
10. A Sustainable Model for Librarian Engagement
The picture that emerges from these samples is pretty bleak. Fortunately, there’s
another point of view, which leads us in a much more productive direction. In the
Next Steps identified in final group discussions at the OCLC Research conference, that
point of view was summarized as “Get the library involved.” That, to me, is the
principle to guide us forward.
MOOCs and Libraries Conference. (2013). MOOCs and libraries: Massive opportunity
or overwhelming challenge? next steps identified in final group discussions. Retrieved
11/1/2013, 2013, from http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/events/2013/0318moocs-next-steps.pdf
The questions that are driving the initiatives that I quoted a few moments ago are
summed up in these questions. But these are not the questions we should start with!
They come later. There are two problems with them:
They are tactical
They are disconnected from institutional initiatives
They are putting the cart before the horse. They are focusing on issues that come
second, not first.
Instead, I propose we start with these two questions, before we dive right into
renegotiating licenses, finding open access content, or setting up reference services
What’s our institution’s MOOC Strategy?
Are we involved in shaping it?
Everything else will flow from those.
We need to keep in mind that we are very early in the adoption cycle here, and that
we have been subjected to a great deal of hype. This means that MOOCs are going to
have to evolve. In an Ithaka report released just a couple weeks ago, Rebecca Griffiths
points that out. So, it doesn’t make sense for librarians to focus on tactical questions
like the ones above. What we need to do instead is be part of the evolving strategy
of MOOCs. We need to shape the decisions about what role MOOCs will play in our
institutions. We need to align our participation in MOOCs with that strategy. And our
own role in them will in turn be shaped – must be shaped – by the strategy. We
should not be trying to make these decisions about licensing, or reference services,
on our own.
Now, the next question is, so how do we get involved with the strategic
decisionmaking? That’s where embedded librarianship comes in. Embedded
librarians are in the best position to get involved. And to get involved, you’ll want to
adopt the principles of embedded librarianship. As Jezmynne Dene has written, the
embedded librarian is “an integrated part to the whole”. That’s what you’ll need to
become, if you want to play an important role in the evolution of MOOCs.
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.
Poll on audience familiarity with embedded librarianship.
Ok, well it looks like we have a lot of embedded librarians. You all are in a great
position to affect how your institutions implement MOOCs. Everyone else, you have
some work to do. So, since many of you are experienced embedded librarians, I’ll
very briefly review the characteristics. There are 5 factors:
Customized, high-value contributions
When we relate this to MOOCs, it means that librarians need to have strong working
relationships with the people who are developing the strategy for MOOCs. We need
to understand the forces driving our institutional strategies – and we need to
convince the leaders that we have something to contribute. We need to share the
institution’s goals: in other words, it’s not about the library; it’s about fulfilling the
institution’s mission. We need to then deliver on our promise and make a difference.
Ultimately, then, we need to get on board and be part of the team, and not act in
Embedded librarianship is NOT about:
Space or co-location
Technology (but must use the prevailing technology of the institution)
A specific type of service.
Instead, embedded librarianship is a different relationship between the librarian and
others in the institution. I’m saying that fundamentally if we are going to affect the
future of MOOCs, we need a different relationship with our institutions and the key
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.
MOOC initiatives need librarians because the need for information skills isn’t going
away. In fact, it’s more acute than ever. In her book, Information Literacy As a
Student Learning Outcome, which is based on her dissertation at Simmons College,
Laura Saunders documents the widespread recognition of how important information
Saunders, L. (2011). Information Literacy As a Student Learning Outcome : The
Perspective of Institutional Accreditation. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited.
What’s more important is, we’ve actually done a pretty good job of convincing
educational leaders, including accrediting bodies, of the centrality of information
skills in education. Saunders documents the fact that in the United States, every
regional higher education accrediting body includes information skills in their
standards. The case is pretty clear that not only are skills in working with information
essential for citizens and professionals in modern society, but that there’s a big gap
between what society needs and what the educational system has been delivering.
Saunders, L. (2011). Information Literacy As a Student Learning Outcome : The
Perspective of Institutional Accreditation. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited.
For academic librarians, this has led to widespread opportunities to incorporate
instruction in information skills into the curriculum. We have forged partnerships with
academic officers, deans, department heads, and instructors to incorporate
information skills in curriculum planning and learning goals, and to embed
information instruction in a variety of forms into courses throughout the levels and
subjects of higher education.
So, it’s hard for me to imagine that we are going to abandon all that as we begin to
deploy MOOCs and MOOC-like educational methods. Already we know that MOOCs
suffer tremendously high dropout rates. Further, there are indications that the people
most likely to drop out are the same people who are weakest in information skills. If
MOOCs are going to truly revolutionize education, aren’t they going to address this
issue? It seems to me that this is one area that MOOCs have to evolve into. And as
they do, we librarians have to be part of that strategic process. And to be in that
process, we have to embed ourselves at the institutional level.
So, what can you do tomorrow? Here are my suggestions for getting started:
Form relationships with key individuals involved in institutional MOOC strategy and
Get a seat at the table when these issues are being worked on.
Help identify impacts and dependencies in the MOOC initiative; help shape strategy
Advocate for consideration of information literacy / information fluency in the
strategy – as a matter of institutional necessity.
Propose solutions that are creative and harmonious with the strategy.
Partner with subject instructors who are deploying MOOCs or MOOClike courseware. Help them formulate their approach and integrate information skills
instruction with it.
If the subject faculty cannot provide individualized attention, then
neither can the librarians
If the subject faculty receive accommodation from other work for
MOOC initiatives, so should librarians, as appropriate
If paid collections cannot be opened to MOOC students due to cost /
vendor restrictions / licensing terms – or if it’s prohibitive in terms of time and cost to
address this problem, then consider increasing reliance on open access resources.
Assess your progress. Remember this is a strategic process. Adjust as you and your
Remember, as an embedded librarian, your mission is NOT to advocate for the library.
It’s to contribute to accomplishing the institution’s strategic goals for MOOCs. So also
be ready to take on “stretch” “out of the box” assignments – don’t be limited by
traditional ideas of a librarian’s role.
So, as Katy Mahraj points out in her article in Public Services Quarterly, there are
many roles we can play. However, I’d add that they all hinge on our being embedded
participants in the strategic evolution of MOOCs, and not trying to figure out our role
Mahraj, K. (2012) Using information expertise to enhance massive open online
courses. Public Services Quarterly, p. 365.
To conclude, I can’t predict what role librarians will take in the MOOCs of the future. I
do suspect that if we focus on the tactical issues of licensing and reference services,
we’ll be at a great disadvantage, and both our institutions and the participants in
MOOCs will also suffer as a result.
Instead, we need to embed ourselves in the strategic development of MOOCs, 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 with the MOOC strategy – and for that matter,
other strategic initiatives – in your institution. I wish you the best!
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!