John Azzolini reviews a comprehensive overview of embedded librarianship, a new model of library service that promises to enhance the strategic value of contemporary knowledge work.
Librarianship as a profession is confronting a growing demand to prove its worth. Library patrons expect utility. The organisations that fund them pre-suppose a contribution to their bottom lines.
The calls for this proof come from librarians themselves as much as from their employers. And the tone of the questioning is persistent if not redundant. It can be distilled to a fundamental query: Can the library sustain its basic mission of effectively and efficiently fulfilling its users' information needs given the technological, social, and economic developments that are transforming how people interact with data, documents, and each other?
Librarianship: In Search of the Value Proposition
These transformations have been occurring for some time, in different areas of living and working. Though not flowing from a single source, for librarians the impacts from these changes have seemingly converged on their profession as if they were collusive forces.
A global financial crisis and its lingering downturns have resulted in deeper budget cuts for many departments in every type of institution, public and private. A rising trend toward direct information consumption has caused many everyday users as well as executives to believe that removing librarians from the knowledge cycle is the next logical step. Caught within the sights of cost-conscious decision makers, libraries and information centres have become vulnerable to downsizing.
Students enter universities - even secondary schools - wedded unconsciously to their handhelds, always connected, assuming unmitigated and near-immediate digital satisfaction for their knowledge wants. Most of them were born into this socio-technical life-world as if it were a natural order. They know and expect nothing else. In such an environment, librarians orchestrate access but need not be confronted. They maintain crucial databases and finding aids, but can do so unseen and disembodied. They can be relegated to infrastructural innards.
For-profit organisations, the home of law firm and business librarians, are looking upon the outsourcing of support staff with increasing favour. And while library positions have not yet been handed over wholesale to third-party providers, there is industry trepidation that it could move in that direction. The threat is vague but distinctly present.
Many have taken to the outlets of library opinion and prediction, warning of impending disintermediation and possible obsolescence if the field fails to embrace drastic changes in how it carries out its service mission. Blogs, journals, and conferences are animated with calls to re-conceptualise philosophies and re-direct core methods. Some commentators merely emit distress signals on behalf of the library community. They are invocations of crisis without even a stab at real solutions. Others, however, are serious attempts to map out alternative pathways to a more stable occupational future. These need to be reckoned with.
A common path taken by the more constructive endeavours is demonstrating how librarianship can re-establish its value in a rapidly changing environment. This value is understood to be the knowledge-creating and disseminating efficacies that libraries bring to their users more ably and with less cost than other institutions. Since libraries are housed and financially supported by parent organisations of some kind, the value is usually construed as a combination of business and mission-relevant attributes. The emphasis on mission may be more pronounced in academic and public libraries, while corporate and firm libraries stress the financial aspects, but it is ultimately about how management assesses the library's contributions to the organisation's long-term integrity. Granted, the value has a large practical component for a library's patrons; the direct benefits are the answers, leads, and guidance they obtain when visiting the reference desk or searching the collections. However, the final criterion for most libraries will be the value proposition attributed to them by upper-level decision makers. User satisfaction is a valuable standard, but in the end it is often translated into a determination of whether the library produces distinct results in light of the resources devoted to maintaining it.
A concrete attempt to re-assert the business and service value of librarians has been the adoption of the practice model known as embedded librarianship. Although it has been applied in libraries in one form or another for a few decades - without necessarily using the word ‘embedded’ - only in the past several years has it risen to widespread notability. Judging by the upsurge in professional discussions and published cases devoted to this approach, librarians of many types are expressing keen interest in the value-enhancing potential of embedding themselves. Its contemporary significance is fully examined by David Shumaker in The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It's Needed. The author, an associate professor at The Catholic University of America's School of Library and Information Science in Washington, D.C., is a well-known chronicler of embedded practices. This book is the field's first attempt at a comprehensive review of embedded librarianship's shared features, variable manifestations, and elements for success among major types of libraries.
Shumaker divides his work into two parts. The first (‘Embedded Librarianship: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’) covering chapters one through six, presents an introduction to the core characteristics of the model. It touches upon the relationships and ambitions that distinguish embedded librarians from their more traditional counterparts and why these properties represent clear advantages for those seeking a more robust librarianship. Inexorable changes in work practices, user expectations, and technological diffusion have made embeddedness both a necessity and an opportunity. One chapter is given to a distinct type of library or libraries, where the status, structure, and potential of the embedded model for each one are discussed. The book’s second half (‘Your Path to Success’) addresses those readers interested in commencing their own embedded projects and looking for an empirically minded guiding hand. With questionnaires, suggestive scenarios, and the extracted wisdom of practitioners who have embedded successfully, Shumaker attends to issues of readiness, organisationally specific strategies for starting up, sustaining a project once it is running, and frameworks for evaluation.
Although embedded librarianship is gaining prominence, not every librarian has read accounts of it, let alone experimented with a programme of their own. Some might be able to discern ‘embeddedness’ when catching a glimpse of it in action, but a formulation of its attributes and an offering of real-world examples are compulsory for a preliminary understanding. In Chapter 1, ‘Defining Embedded Librarianship,’ Shumaker does not give an explicit definition; he clarifies the dispositions toward professional communication, knowledge, and work product that mark off embedded librarians as particularly value-producing.
To embed oneself is to establish and maintain a strong project-oriented partnership with a specific user group, building a highly collaborative, trust-based relationship with it in order to provide customised information expertise. Embeddedness signifies a social and task-based integration between librarians and their targeted groups so closely woven that the latter’s knowledge needs can be habitually anticipated and satisfied by the former. Librarianship at this level pre-supposes deeper, ongoing face-to-face interactions. In some situations, a physical work space is shared by the group and its librarian so that the customisation, collaboration, and anticipatory information solutions that define the embedded relationship can best be realised.
The chapter contains five illustrations (a culinary arts department in a private university; a design consulting firm; the Performing Arts Centre of a private college; the biology curriculum of a public university; and a marketing unit of a large public corporation) that show the variety and potential for professional fulfilment of embedded arrangements.
The author contrasts the embedded approach with the so-called traditional way of librarianship. This is seen by him as hampered by an overly transaction-based practice method. Users contact the reference desk with standardised, one-on-one queries. Librarian responsiveness is diffused across individuals with separate knowledge needs. Consequently, it can be reactive or even disaggregated piecemeal into a bureaucratic product.
In Shumaker’s eyes, not only is ‘traditional’ librarianship lacking in much-needed flexibility and creative energy, but even its most vaunted features - unflagging service and responsiveness to users - are considered to be a level below the anticipatory, partnering stance of the embedded model. This blanket judgment of librarianship of the non-embedded type as outmoded and worthy of replacement informs much of the book. I find it problematic and will return to it in this review's conclusion.
Chapter 2, ‘Push and Pull: The Forces Driving Embedded Librarianship,’ argues that contemporary librarianship is still mostly stuck in a traditional passive reference mode, and it is faced with societal trends as disquieting as they are auspicious. The 'push' refers to dramatic changes in information use as a result of ubiquitous media and content sources. Massive amounts of Web-based material are accessible at almost any time of the day. When there's widespread perception that such quantities are available for easy direct consumption, the library’s reputation as a librarian-enabled knowledge site could depreciate to the point where it is mainly sought out as a social meeting space or a technology hub. ‘Pull’ is the demand for creativity, innovation, cognitive diversity, and measurable knowledge work in an increasingly competitive world economy. These organisational and business forces open up fertile possibilities for librarians because they place a premium value on competencies and outlooks that most librarians already possess, though perhaps have not fully actualised. The book makes a strong case that the push impresses upon librarianship the spectre of obsolescence, which must be met and overcome by exploiting the opportunities carried forward by the currents of pull.
The next four chapters focus on specific types of libraries, exploring how embeddedness has been typically expressed in each. Chapter 3 (‘Embedded Librarians in Higher Education’) and Chapter 4 (‘Embedded Librarians in the Health Sciences’) are the stronger of the four, if only because the embedded model has been more fully developed and analysed in those institutional settings. Shumaker delves into the origins of embeddedness in academic and medical libraries, discusses best practices, and touches upon possible future directions for both. This pair of chapters is an absorbing read, rich in references and skilful at relating how each library type uniquely addresses stakeholder relationships, librarian training, organisational culture, and self-evaluation.
Chapter 5, ‘Embedded Librarians in Corporations, Nonprofits, and Government,’ covers the model in libraries that have strikingly less experience with it than the health and education fields have. The author sketches an incipient notion of embeddedness in corporate settings in the early 1990s, when downsizing, special library closures and a rapid switch to digital information germinated the idea of the library as a service, with a responsibility for cost-effectively supporting the strategic goals of the parent organisation. The functions and tasks found in corporate embedded programmes also differ from their medical and university counterparts. Where the academic librarian’s emphasis would be on information literacy and curriculum development, and the clinical librarian would concentrate on a sophisticated grasp of the domain literature, the corporate librarian would be more likely to perform competitive intelligence, current awareness, and document delivery. The evaluative stance toward embedded practice is also different in this kind of library. The feedback from library managers and the heads of target groups receiving embedded services tend to be rather informal and qualitative when compared to the more metric-conscious academic and medical embedded projects.
The term ‘embedded’ is hardly ever used among school and public librarians. Indeed, one might be hard-pressed to find evidence of credible embedded practices in such settings, whether they are labelled as such or not. However, in Chapter 6, ‘Embedded Librarians in Schools and Public Libraries’, a case is made that valid examples of embeddedness are to be found among them. Despite certain obstacles attributable to their organisational structures and librarian-patron interactions, Shumaker recognises an occupational readiness and a growing advocacy for the model among public as well as elementary and secondary school librarians. However, I found this position to be less than convincing, as many of the given instances of embeddedness seem more like a heightened level of collaboration between teachers and librarians, or a not-so-extraordinary community involvement by public librarians, than the purposeful embedded librarianship explicated in this work.
The four chapters of the book’s second half grapple with the practical issues of readiness, initiation, perpetuation, and measurement and accountability. Chapter 7, ‘Assessing Your Readiness,’ encourages readers to appraise their potential for embarking on an embedded programme. It provides an ‘Embedded Librarianship Maturity Questionnaire’ that allows one to judge how much one possesses ‘indicators of embeddedness.’ These include various dimensions of target group interaction, collaboration, communication, and performance feedback. The Questionnaire, based on questions and themes from an earlier Special Libraries Association (SLA) research project , allows one to obtain a score and corresponding placement along a continuum of maturity, from not embedded to highly embedded. Shumaker usefully distinguishes between librarian readiness and organisational readiness and the elements of each, and includes worksheets for both readiness dimensions. To show how these elements might influence readiness in applied settings, he sets out fictional scenarios of different types of libraries (medical, law firm, university and government agency) and gives them varying levels of organisational and librarian readiness.
Chapter 8, ‘Getting Started With Embedded Librarianship,’ opens with a note on the importance of assessing the many facets of your organisational structure in order to lay a more resilient foundation for your newly forming embedded model. An important option to consider is whether the centralised library will be separated from, combined with, or replaced by one’s embedded librarians. Continuing with the four readiness scenarios from the previous chapter, Shumaker proffers an action plan for each combination of organisational-librarian readiness. When knowing the mix of environmental, motivational, and cultural conditions, a viable plan can be tailored.
Also relying on the SLA’s Models of Embedded Librarianship: Final Report, Chapter 9, ‘Sustaining Your Embedded Role,’ expounds the ‘habits of successful embedded librarians.’ Based on one of the more comprehensive studies of the embedded model, these empirically minded recommendations are welcomed. The habits are marketing and promotion of one’s capabilities and successes; provision of high-level, value-added work product; commitment to self-evaluation; and engagement with and cultivation of support from both library and user group management. Naturally, maintaining a programme means being cognizant of regular problem areas so as to avoid them or at least prepare and mitigate. Among the more common ones are excessive or inappropriate work demands, social and professional isolation of the embedded librarian from the central library, and a lack of preparedness for succession planning when established librarians leave the organisation. In the face of these potential pitfalls, the author stresses the significance of responsible and effective library managers, who are frequently liaisons between embedded librarians and user group managers.
Chapter 10, ‘Evaluating Your Success,’ elaborates on the success-facilitating habit of evaluating one’s embedded programme and then persuasively communicating the results to those who have the power to authorise, enrich, or terminate your programme. It discusses the strengths and shortcomings of several metrics: output and activity, outcome, and impact. The author contends that successful embedded librarians apply a combination of these measures. One’s organisational culture and managerial preferences will determine how much of one or the other is applied, and at what level. To challenge the reader’s grasp of the chapter’s concepts, Shumaker proposes an ‘Evaluation and Sustainability Exercise.’ In this activity there are four fictional scenarios of different libraries facing a specific challenge. The reader is invited to come up with an action that would overcome the challenge and thereby sustain the embedded programme. The author then provides his own detailed solutions to these challenges, underscoring the importance of local institutional conditions in crafting an evaluative framework for one’s embedded endeavours.
The Embedded Librarian’s goal is not simply to explore and affirm the positives of embedded practice, but to advocate its necessity (and superiority) in a transformed society. To bring out the dynamism and effectiveness of such an argument, it is understandable that certain narrative liberties will be taken. Contrasts are more dramatic when applied with very broad brush strokes. However, I find some of the pronouncements by embedded advocates regarding both their new calling and librarianship in general to be overstated. Embedded librarianship as an emerging practice model is truly exciting, but it also has some aspects of being ‘the next best thing.’ Librarians are not immune to the wholesale, almost giddy appropriation of promising new methodologies, especially ones promulgated as a cure for the disintermediation blues, a malady that seems to grow progressively worse as digital information tools and sources expand.
I have several lingering questions for which the standard answers leave me unconvinced:
- Are most instances of officially designated embedded librarianship truly examples of a ‘new model of library and information work’ or are they just more targeted types of librarianship, enhanced versions of the consultant-specialist? How susceptible is ‘embedded librarianship’ to being conflated with simply an acute involvement in specific users’ projects? Shumaker distinguishes the embedded model from the consulting librarian and other types (p.14-17), but to what extent is ‘embeddedness’ only a new name for pretty much the same old stuff, only slightly intensified, re-labelled, and boasting substantial trending potential? It’s difficult to argue with respected studies and a field leader, but I still have my doubts.
- Is ‘traditional librarianship’ really as stagnant and enervated as embedded enthusiasts claim? And if so, is it possible or desirable to supplant it with the embedded model? Shumaker favours the anticipatory over the responsive and partnership over service. Even if embedded librarianship is as anticipatory and partnership-based as its advocates assert, aren’t these qualities nonetheless standing on the shoulders of traditional library responsiveness and service? Can any approach to librarianship still be called ‘librarianship’ in the absence of these two pillars?
- Can embedded librarianship be accepted en masse by every type of library? Considering this book’s chapter on public and school libraries, which portrays a set of occupational and physical environments somewhat incompatible with the embedded model, I am sceptical. I also see an inextricable problem for some kinds of special libraries, particularly those serving professional service firms. The embedded paradigm expounds full membership of the librarian in the user group, and shared responsibility for outcomes. This is doubtful given the ingrained status differences and rigid boundary-making in some professions. In these settings, an embrace of librarians as equals by user groups is implausible. And once this core element of embeddedness is removed, the model cannot be initiated, let alone sustained.
Despite the reservations above, I consider this to be an important book in several ways. For those who see embedded practice as a viable option for their own libraries, it provides a preliminary blueprint for assessing their capability and, if ready, for priming their starting positions with proven methods. For practitioners already engaged in embeddedness in one form or another, this work serves as a guiding source, for some of its distilled insights have likely not been fully applied by them. Perhaps most relevantly, The Embedded Librarian is a fine example of how librarians of all kinds can creatively adapt their venerable yet recently self-doubting mission to an unstable environment. It ambitiously re-conceptualises librarianship’s abiding strengths into a more value-creating and professionally sustainable embodiment. The author’s continuing dedication to this practice model can be found at his blog, The Embedded Librarian .
1. Shumaker, D. and Talley, M. (2009). Models of Embedded Librarianship: Final Report. Alexandria, VA: Special Libraries Association, in .pdf format http://www.sla.org/pdfs/EmbeddedLibrarianshipFinalRptRev.pdf
2. The Embedded Librarian blog http://embeddedlibrarian.com/
John Azzolini has been working in private law firm libraries in New York City for over ten years. He began in technical services and cataloguing but later realised that the challenges of reference were too tempting to pass up. John is always interested in discovering new legal research content and methods as well as in the continuing possibilities of digital libraries.