This is Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School. Christensen
first popularized the idea of “disruption” in his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s
Librarians have actually been dealing with this disruption for some time now. I’d date
it back about 20 years. Much of the change is due to the revolution in information
technology started by, among others, these 2 individuals: Mark Andreessen, and Tim
Berners-Lee. You’ll recall that Berners-Lee was the developer of the hypertext
transport protocol and hypertext markup language. Then, in 1992, Andreessen, while
still a student, wrote Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, which made Berners-
Lee’s html documents widely accessible. As Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman say in their
book, Networked: The New Social Operating System, “1993 is the birth year when the
early majority cohort of adopters began to use the internet.” (p. 61) I think that is a
good point from which to date the beginning of the disruption we are still
So how did this disrupt librarians?
In her Foreword to my book, The Embedded Librarian, SLA CEO Janice Lachance put it
in a very vivid way. Here’s an excerpt from her description:
“Imagine a librarian accompanying you throughout the course of your day.
You drive to work and the librarian is in the car with you, telling you the latest news
and helping you avoid traffic jams. You leave your office to get lunch and the librarian
walks down the street with you, describing the specials at your favorite restaurants.
You go home and sit down to eat, and the librarian is there at the table with you,
telling you how the stock market performed that day.
… today we carry pocket-sized and paper-sized librarians around with us wherever we
That’s a far cry from what we used to think of as a librarian’s role. Our traditional
mode of operations has been disrupted. We used to have a monopoly, but now we
Libraries used to be “the only game in town”, but now we have competition – lots and
lots of it. As Michael Stephens wrote in Library Journal, “People do not think of the
library first when they need information.” (“Stuck in the Past.” (LJ Apr 15, 2011, p. 54)
Or, in the words of Meredith Farkas, “In an environment of information abundance,
librarians are no longer gatekeepers of valuable bits of information … Yet our
reference services are based on an environment of information scarcity.” (American
Libraries, “The DIY Patron”, Nov-Dec 2012, p. 29)
So, no wonder the ARL reference numbers have gone down! The traditional model of
library services has been disrupted.
Imagine if Starbuck’s or McDonald’s had a 69% decline in sales. The repercussions
would be pretty dramatic. They wouldn’t wait 10 or 15 years to respond. They would
be coming up with new approaches right away. We librarians need to do something –
Blaming Andreessen and Berners-Lee for our troubles won’t help. We need to get on
with life and take action.
To do that, I’d like to turn back to Clayton Christensen. In a recent Harvard Business
Review article, Christensen, and co-author Maxwell Wessel, advocate that traditional
operations that are experiencing disruption should stop and ask themselves, “what
jobs are my customers hiring me to do?”
Isn’t that what “alignment” is all about – gearing our efforts to the contributions that
our organizations need from us?
Probably you have seen this graph before. It comes from the 2009 SLA Alignment
report. It shows some big disconnects: where librarians said one thing was important
and information users said something else. Here are some of the biggest gaps:
• Librarians thought one of their biggest values came from managing print library
collections. Information users ranked it far down the list (20% gap)
• Librarians thought their biggest value of all was doing research for information
users. The users ranked it in the middle of the pack (23% gap)
• Users wanted librarians to manage internal content. Librarians saw that as a
relatively low priority (8% gap)
• Information users wanted librarians to integrate information into work processes.
Librarians ranked it near the bottom of the pack. (9% gap)
These results indicate that we aren’t as well aligned as we need to be. We are not
always doing the jobs our employers value most. We haven’t consistently taken on
the jobs they need us for. (Alignment Project presentation, slide 18)
So how do we get aligned? Wessel and Christensen recommend that “the best way to
identify the jobs a company does for its customers is through a combination of
extensive surveys, interviews, focus groups, and in-person observations.” I’d like to go
Wessel and Christensen one better and propose that for us librarians, embedded
librarianship gives us a way of not just continuously monitoring the jobs our
employers want us to do, but also doing them.
Wessel, M. & C. Christensen (2012, Dec.) “Surviving Disruption.” Harvard Business
Review, p. 56-64. (quote p. 62)
Now that we’ve discussed disruption and alignment, let’s turn to connecting the dots
in order to succeed with embedded librarianship. What are some of the common
characteristics of successful embedded librarians?
First let’s be clear about the definition of embedded librarianship:
An embedded librarian is one who develops strong working relationships with
members of a team or community; shares responsibility for achieving its goals; and
makes customized, highly-valued contributions to the team.
So how do you build relationships, achieve shared understanding and goals, and
maintain ongoing collaboration?
Here are a few ways that librarians have developed strong working relationships.
Sometimes they start by leveraging existing connections with good library customers.
Sometimes they volunteer for a committee, a task force, or even a social or
community service activity, and get to know people through those activities.
Sometimes they promote embedded librarianship just like they would promote other
Embedded librarians achieve shared understanding and goals with the communities
in which they work. This means the librarian knows the dynamics of the community
and understands its work and goals. The librarian sees how her work impacts the
But it’s a two-way street. This sharing also means the leader and members of the
community recognize and appreciate the librarian’s unique role and the value of her
The slide lists three tactics that all play a part in this.
Finally there’s ongoing collaboration.
First the librarian has to deliver. The quality of the librarian’s professional work has to
be high. As an embedded librarian, there’s no place to hide. If your work is mediocre;
if it does not contribute to the community, people will know and the collaboration
won’t be successful.
Because of this, it’s important to evaluate and to communicate with the leadership of
the community, to make sure they are aware of the value – and to make sure the
librarian is aware of any concerns they may have.
Sounds easy, right?
Maybe not. Another thing I’ve learned is that there’s a variety of pitfalls that can
derail embedded librarianship initiatives. Here are my top eight pitfalls. See if any of
them are concerns for you!
Photo: Foxtongue. (2003, March 3) “A Precise location.”
http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxtongue/25492148/ (Accessed June 3, 2014) Used
under CC license Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA
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.
4. 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 librarian.
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
disappointmentcan be serious. No new librarian can step in and perform at the same level –
precisely because the nature of embedded librarianshipdemands 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
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 pitfall 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 pitfalls 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
Now it’s your turn. In today’s knowledge café, divide up into small groups and discuss
one of the two questions shown here. Let the conversation flow.
When I call time, you’ll move to a different group and repeat the process with a new
set of discussion partners.
To wrap up, we want to capture at least one take-away from each participant.
Most of all, I hope you’ve gained at least one good idea that you can take home and
work on after the conference. Remember, as Alan Kay has said, the best way to
predict the future is to invent it.