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of the people

August 10, 2012

While I was on campus at SU for my week’s residency with IST511, I worked on a group project on the subject of embedded librarians. This had me thinking night and day about community. Several times in The Atlas of New Librarianship, Lankes suggests that librarians need to be “of the people,” not just “for the people” (p. 66). This fits very well with the concern for advocacy in my work (see more about this in my post on my superhero identity), which in my mind does require being “of the people.” To give you an idea of where Lankes is coming from, the section on Embedded Librarians is within a section titled “Go to the Conversation” (p. 114).

You may or may not be familiar with the idea of Embedded Librarianship. It’s most commonly associated with special librarians, who work not in a library, but rather are embedded in the field, in the community they serve. The examples commonly given are medical librarians who go on rounds with doctors in the hospital and help find information relevant to the cases at hand, or law librarians who  sit in on meetings with lawyers and then help find information necessary to try a case. These librarians don’t wait for someone to come to them, in the library, and ask for help. They’re there, in the field, offering help where they see  the need for it.

Our group chose to focus on the broadest definition of embedded librarianship that we could find:

“Embedded librarianship is a model of librarianship in which the librarian builds a relationship with members of a particular information user community, focuses on understanding the activities of the community and contributing to it, and becomes an integral member of it” (Shumaker, 2012).

We found this to be a much farther reaching model, one that resonates with this general idea of being “of the people” not “for the people” and could be an aspect of the work of any librarian. When we presented our poster for this group project, I really enjoyed stretching the mindset of several librarians who came by. They didn’t consider themselves to be embedded librarians, but I encouraged them to think about the important activities that they already do, or could be doing, with their communities.

For our group project I focused on academic librarians who are embedded in the departments they work with. The studies I looked at, especially from the University of Calgary, made me consider how this is a case of “everything old is new again.” My mother was a career public high school English teacher, and from her I’ve learned to recognize when a “new” trend is a catchy new name, usually with some bullet points, applied to a concept that has been in use for ages. At the University of Calgary, embedded librarianship was implemented across the campus, starting with a structure where most librarians would have at least 4 office hours per week in the physical space of the department they were working with. Younger/newer librarians found that this put them on a fast track to getting to know their community, and being invited into department activities. But for the “longer service” librarians, the structured office hours in department space were not necessary. They had built the same kind of relationships over time in other ways, and were already established as respected members of their departments (Clyde & Lee, 2011, p. 399).

This strikes me as something that someone who cares about her work would be doing anyway, regardless of what you’re calling it, or whether it’s trendy right now. The moral of the story for me is that all librarians have the ability to embed themselves into their communities, at least in some small way. Being “of the people” gives you a better chance of answering the needs of the people. A caveat, though: I can imagine scenarios where being of the people could lead to someone having a strong bias. This brings up another important challenge of embedded librarianship – that librarians need to have opportunities to connect with other information professionals, to be reminded of their mission. While being entirely unbiased is unrealistic, it still is important that the search for information is open to whatever surprises it might turn up. Which leads us to our next thread: Improve Society . . .

References

Clyde, J., & Lee, J. (2011). Embedded reference to embedded librarianship: 6 years at the University of Calgary. Journal of Library Administration, 51(4), 389–402. doi:10.1080/01930826.2011.556963

Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .

Shumaker, D. (2012). Who let the librarians out: How digital content is freeing librarians for new roles. Texas Library Association Conference. April 18, 2012.

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