AALL Conference Report: Embedded Librarians

By , August 2, 2012 10:16 am

by Anna L. Endter

2012 LLOPS Grant Recipient


I received a LLOPS Chapter Registration Grant and attended my first AALL Conference in Boston this July.  I’m a (very) recent graduate from the Law Librarianship program at the University of Washington and was excited to experience a few days of all things law librarian.  The Conference turned out to be a great combination of interesting programming, networking opportunities and a chance to talk with vendors about their products.  I am looking forward to 2013 in Seattle, and I hear that a few other people from the Conference are excited about coming to our city next year, too.

One of the sessions I attended was called “Embedding Librarians to Add Value to Your Institution.”  I chose this program because it seems like I keep coming across blog posts, articles, etc. about embedded librarianship and how this model can be applied to law librarians, particularly those in private law firms.  I was interested to hear how embedding librarians can be used as a strategy for strengthening and re-focusing a library’s place within an organization and showing added value.

The panel included David Shumaker from the Catholic University of America, School of Library and Information Science, who has written extensively about embedded librarianship and maintains a blog about this very topic. In 2007, Mr. Shumaker received a Special Libraries Association Research Grant and embarked on an eighteen month study about embedded librarianship, which culminated in two reports.  The final report can be found here.

Mr. Shumaker has also written a book, The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed, which was just released.  Mr. Shumaker began his talk by explaining that loosely defined, embedded librarianship means moving the librarians out of the library and into the groups with which they frequently work.  Mr. Shumaker identified four characteristics of embedded librarians, which I found helpful in thinking about what it means to be an embedded librarian:

  • Builds a relationship with members of a particular information user community
  • Focuses on understanding their work
  • Shares their goals and contributes to achieving those goals
  • Becomes an integral member of the community

You can access Mr. Shumaker’s AALL handout here.

The other two panelists included Owen Smith from the U.S. Court of Appeals – 6th Circuit Library and Marguerita Young-Jones from Reed Smith LLP.  Each of them spoke briefly about their experience with embedded librarianship and then led breakout sessions designed to be informal question-and-answer roundtables.  I attended the session with Ms. Young-Jones, an embedded librarian in the intellectual property group at Reed Smith.

Ms. Young-Jones described embedded librarianship as a “spectrum.”  That is, there are many ways for organizations to embed librarians and the model can be tailored to fit a particular institution’s needs.  For example, in some organizations, like law firms, the embedded librarian could sit in the practice group to which she is assigned rather than in the library.  In that kind of arrangement, the librarian might focus all of her time meeting the research needs of one practice group.  Or, as in Ms. Young-Jones’ case, the librarian could remain within the library but be “assigned” to a certain practice group (or two).  Ms. Young-Jones’ priority is to handle intellectual property-related requests first and then share other reference work as needed.  When an IP- related request comes into Reed Smith’s shared reference “bulletin board” system, Ms. Young-Jones takes it.  This is true for any office across the firm with an IP-related need; Ms. Young-Jones takes anything IP-related that comes in, regardless of which office is doing the requesting.

One of the benefits associated with embedding librarians in law firms, for example, is the ability (for librarians) to provide more efficient, targeted research and service.  By getting to know the attorneys and tools used by a particular practice group, the embedded librarian can provide highly specialized research and assistance that is tailored to meet the needs of specific attorneys.  Ms. Young-Jones talked about how focusing on IP-related work has allowed her to develop strategies for adding value to the practice group beyond just responding to her attorneys’ research needs.  For example, she attends IP practice group meetings so that she knows what the group is working on and what their upcoming information and research-related needs are likely to be.  She can then target new tools, articles and information to the practice group because she has been able to develop an expertise and a relationship with them that adds value to their practice and helps them do their jobs better and more efficiently.

The roundtable also included a discussion about some challenges associated with implementing an embedded librarianship model within a law firm.  Most of the comments seemed to focus around “false starts,” or attempts to embed librarians that were later abandoned, for a variety of reasons.  Some librarians reported that efforts to embed were abandoned because of lack of buy-in by either the librarians or attorneys.  It can be a difficult model to implement unless everyone (from the top down) is on board and expectations are very clearly defined.  Some felt that goals for the program have to be developed and communicated before the program is implemented or it will not be successful.  It can also take time (and, according to Ms. Young-Jones, a lot of patience) to build trust within practice groups and “encourage” people to contact a particular librarian for their research needs.

The issue of logistics was also a hot topic at the discussion.  Many of the questions posed to Ms. Young-Jones centered around things like what happens to IP requests when she is out of the office or unavailable (she manages expectations and communicates about her availability), how she built trust with her practice group (it took lots of time, patience, and persistence), and what happens when a librarian wants to “keep” a reference request that should go to a different embedded librarian (the library manager needs to be responsible for continuing to explain workflow, duties, etc. and make sure that the details of the program are well communicated and understood).

The session was excellent and I came away wanting to know more about embedded librarianship, particularly in law firms.  I’m curious to hear whether any LLOPS members consider themselves “embedded” and what that model looks like in their workplace.

My thanks again to LLOPS for the Chapter Grant!

One Response to “AALL Conference Report: Embedded Librarians”

  1. Anna–
    Thanks for your kind words about the AALL embedded librarianship program. I enjoyed participating.

    You and your readers may be especially interested in Site Visit 1 in Appendix B to the final report, and Site Visit 4 in the 2011 Addendum to the final report. Both are accessible from http://www.sla.org/content/resources/scholargrant/resgrant/pastresearchgrants.cfm . They describe a very successful embedded librarianship program at a large law firm.

    The question about “false starts” is a good one. For that reason, the second part of my book opens with a chapter on assessing readiness, and contains some ideas about avoiding false starts and increasing your chances of success.

    –Dave

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