The Embedded Librarian: Never Underestimate the Power of Human Connection

by Rachael Altman, Head Editor, INALJ Illinois
previously published 11/7/13

The Embedded Librarian: Never Underestimate the Power of Human Connection

rachaelaltmanI recently attended the Special Libraries Association Education Division (SLA DEDU) webinar, “Embedded Librarianship” presented by David Shumaker, faculty member at the School of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America and author of The Embedded Librarian blog and book.

SLA’s Education Division provides a forum for librarians and information professionals in the interdisciplinary field of education and provides a platform to exchange knowledge and information with colleagues working in the broad field of education information services. The Education Division offers monthly free webinars on the second Friday of each month. Visit the division’s website to view the webinar schedule and learn more about the Education Division.

The Embedded Librarianship webinar was insightful and thought provoking. I follow Shumaker’s blog and I have been reading his book, but it was beneficial to hear him reinforce the benefits embedded librarianship can have on the community. I recently started a new position as Reference & Instructional Librarian at Rockford University and I am very interested in exploring, and one day implementing, the embedded librarian model throughout the campus community.

Shumaker started the webinar with the basic definition of an embedded librarian as a sharer of knowledge and information. He then went onto examine “what embedded librarianship is” and “what embedded librarianship isn’t.”

The key components of embedded librarianship are relationship, mutual understanding, shared goals, customized, high-value contributions, and team membership. The traditional model of librarianship (and what the embedded librarian is not) focused on the following:

  • Traditional reference and transactional operations—the reference desk as a place where questions are asked and answered
  • Librarians as generalists
  • Librarians stood apart from the organization—reigning over the pearly white gates of the library
  • Librarians were focused on being a service provider, but not aligned with the organization as a whole
  • Library services as a commodity and taken for granted

Shumaker notes that the librarian has a unique set of skills as the information and knowledge expert on the team. The embedded librarian is one who:

  • Develops strong working relationships with members of a team or community
  • Achieves mutual understanding with the team, which means that the librarian understands the team’s goals and operations, and the team understands the librarian’s role and value
  • Shares responsibility for achieving the team’s goals
  • Makes customized, highly-valued contributions to the team.

I was recently speaking with an undergraduate student, who is interested in pursuing a career in librarianship, and I explained to her that a degree in library and information science transcends career paths and librarians are equipped with a unique set of skills to serve as the information and knowledge expert in the community. Librarians cannot necessarily be all things to all people, but we can develop our skills to better serve our team or community members. Most importantly, the embedded librarian must focus on cultivating meaningful relationships, and must leave the brick and mortar walls of the library to fully engage with the community.

In a similar presentation for the SLA New Jersey Chapter, Shumaker notes that the “embedded librarian is like embedded software, that allows all the computer-controlled functions of your car to operate … The embedded librarian is not an observer. The embedded librarian is fully engaged in the action. The embedded librarian is essential to the functioning of the unit.” In other words, librarians are the essential puzzle piece, and must be part of the structure, development, and core of the community.

The “Models of Embedded Librarianship Final Report” prepared by SLA in 2009 discovered that the embedded librarian model of providing “specialized services to specific groups” is widely implemented across different organization types and industry sectors. The embedded model is largely practiced in educational institutions, but it is also practiced in legal services, financial services, information and technology services, the biomedical and pharmaceutical industry, and media industry.

The embedded librarian model of building relationships in the communities we serve ties into Dave Lankes’ Call for New Librarianship and Participatory Librarianship, and the “mission of librarians to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” As librarians, we are in the right profession and we are uniquely positioned to serve as leaders in the knowledge age. Librarians must be dedicated to social action, leadership, and innovation, focused on knowledge, conversation, and developing relationships.

I’ve heard it said, and I like to believe, that librarians were the original collaborators. Betsy Wilson, Dean of University Libraries at the University of Washington, wrote “the library is the intellectual crossroads of the community—a house of stories preserving our memory and fostering communication and collaboration. Librarians can lead collaborations that will keep the community alive and vibrant.” Wilson’s article, original published in 2000 by the Association for College & Research Libraries is aptly titled, “The Lone Ranger is dead: Success today demands collaboration.” The article discusses the end of the “triumphant individual,” the need for institutional engagement, and the importance of collaboration and partnerships throughout different segments of the community.

Shumaker’s Embedded Librarianship, Lankes’ New Librarianship, and Wilson’s “death of the Lone Ranger” emphasize that the most important factor in collaboration is human relationship. Go out there, embed yourself in the community, be part of a team, fight the good fight, and take charge for leading change wherever you go. Peter Drucker said, “Librarians are human change agents. Their product is a child who learns, a young person grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.”

I am a human change agent. Today, I am going to change someone’s life.

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