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The evolving role of the librarian

Image: David Shumaker.David Shumaker

David is Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America.

David's areas of interest include management and evaluation of information services, application of advanced computer and communications systems to information services, digital Libraries, especially the negotiation of digital content licenses, new and emerging roles of librarians in organizations, and marketing libraries and information services.


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Reference Reviews

New Library World

Library Hi Tech News

Library Management


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Whether you look at health care, professional services, or a host of other industries - including higher education - the emphasis in organizations today is on teamwork and group performance.

The evidence is building that, when properly managed, diverse teams generate the best outcomes. A recent project by Deloitte and Gallup found that high performing teams were distinguished by enabling each team member to concentrate on their strengths. *

In this environment, it would be unthinkable for librarians to stay locked up in their libraries as stand-alone specialists and apart from the team-oriented work going on around them. Instead, they need to be integrated into multidisciplinary teams. As the information specialists, librarians are alert to the information dimensions of the task.

They're best able to formulate the solutions that enable team members to use information effectively, and free up other members to do what they, in turn, do best. The name given to this new model of library and information service is Embedded Librarianship. Embedded librarians are those who develop strong working relationships with teams and units in the organization, share a commitment to the team’s goals and objectives, make meaningful contributions to its success, and are as fully engaged, or embedded, in the team as its other members are.

The practice of embedded librarianship is spreading. In law firms, librarians are embedded in practice groups or the marketing function. In medicine, they work closely with specialized institutes and research teams. In industry, a librarian might join a product development group, along with representatives from research & development (R&D), production, and sales & marketing. Higher education librarians engage with a variety of disciplines, from business schools to biology departments. The roles and functions of embedded librarians vary. They may start with traditional ’librarian’ tasks, like compiling background information for a project; but they may move on to other roles as well, like leading primary research, or contributing design ideas. They may proactively keep the team connected to breaking news, manage the team’s knowledge repository, and take charge of documenting its outcomes and lessons learned at the end of the project.

In higher education, embedded librarians tend to lean largely toward teaching roles. As experts in information literacy, they become embedded in academic courses, teaching students the most useful and authoritative information sources for their course research, and advising on how to use them effectively. They free up instructors to concentrate on subject matter – their strength – and not on research techniques. Because they know the course material and collaborate with the subject instructor, they provide expert counsel to students throughout the research process, from formulating search queries to using the best sources, to evaluating the information found.

This is a far different level of service than the old model of the librarian at the reference desk. It's active, not passive; engaged, not apart; customized, not generic. It gets librarians out of the library and into the life of the organization or community where they can apply their skills to the maximum benefit.

* Buckingham, M., Goodall, G. (2015) “Reinventing performance management.” Harvard Business Review 93:4, p. 40-50.