The Next Step(s)

22 May

Spring is a whirlwind in my workaday world. It’s chocked full of meetings, presentations, science boot camp, and all of the many things that make my job such a great one to have. While many academic librarians may be looking forward to the end of another semester and a few months of a quieter summer life in their libraries, those of us in medical schools rarely notice the ticking of the academic clock. Our students never leave, but just roll from one clerkship to another; one lab to another; one class to another. When I first started working in this environment, it took a little while to figure this out. I kept waiting for people to go away for the summer. I kept waiting for the parking lot to be a little bit less full. It’s true that during the height of July and August, there’s a little bit of a lull, but mostly we just keep rolling. Roll on!

One of the dates on my calendar is an upcoming talk at Tufts Medical School’s library, part of a staff development day for the University’s librarians around the idea of embedded librarianship. I feel like I’ve talked so much (and written so much) about my new(ish) role the past 9 months that I could do it in my sleep, but after writing that poetic welcome for the opening of “One Health” a couple of weeks back, I fear I’ve set my bar quite high in terms of public appearances. I should’ve known better. Regardless, the pressure is on to do something new – to share some new thoughts, ideas, and experiences; to hopefully offer some encouragement and/or inspiration for my colleagues in this area.

Embedded-Librarian This being the case, I’ve been spending a good bit of my early morning and evening reading time taking in some of the writings on the topic that I’d put aside for awhile. One of these is David Shumaker’s book, The Embedded Librarian, that came out last year. David is a member of the faculty at the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University. For a good while, he has written “The Embedded Librarian” blog and much of his book is an expansion of the thoughts, ideas, interviews, and more that he’s shared on the blog. If you’re interested in this topic at all (and I imagine that if you read my blog, you must have some interest), I recommend it. I’ve found it to be a keeper, one for your professional bookshelf or, in my case, my Kindle.

In defining “embedded librarianship,” and in particular, distinguishing it from traditional librarianship or liaison librarianship, David captures a characteristic that I’ve been struggling to put a name to:

Embedded librarians go a step further than responsiveness – they anticipate. A senior academic administrator I interviewed recently described the embedded librarian she works with as a ‘fount of ideas.’ A corporate administrator told me his embedded librarian suggested ways of accomplishing tasks that others on the team wouldn’t think of – ways that save the team time and effort. Embedded librarians don’t wait to be asked. They use their close working relationships to identify needs and find solutions.

Along with the talk at Tufts, I’m also putting together my part of the presentation that I’ll be giving at Science Book Camp for Librarians next month. Its focus is upon interviewing researchers. Part of what I want to share in these talks (and here) is the idea found in this quote. It’s about anticipation. It’s about building on relationships. It’s something that Daniel Pink calls “problem finding.” I’ve also been reading articles in psychology books on attentive listening. I think it’s kind of that, too. I’ve been reading articles on narrative medicine, the practice of getting patients to tell the story of their illness. I think there’s some of that in it, as well.

It’s a bit of all of these things, this thing that I can’t quite put a single name to. It’s the marriage between your skills and expertise, and your patron’s need. It’s being able to readily identify that relationship and then act on it. It’s the next step after someone invites you to a meeting to discuss doing a literature review. It’s the, “And … what else?” The trick is that 9 times out of ten (or maybe 99 out of 100), the researcher doesn’t know the answer to that question. S/he hasn’t a clue. It’s the informationist’s and/or embedded librarian’s job to know. It’s our responsibility to be able to listen for the opportunities. And if I’ve learned one thing in these past months, it’s that there is NO shortage of opportunities. People are awash in a sea of information, communication breakdown, and disconnection.

I came away from the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association with a bubbling research question centered on our readiness to do this work, as well as the barriers that prevent us from doing it. Stay tuned for updates on where I go with this, but for now just take it as a comment that I see some interesting questions/issues around our abilities and desires to take this next step.

If you have any thoughts, suggestions, or models of what this elusive characteristic is called, I’d be delighted if you share them in the comments to this post.


4 Responses to “The Next Step(s)”

  1. Patricia Devine May 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    It’s called “Being a librarian”! Seriously, though, isn’t that what we do, find problems and solve them? Although embedded librarians are a relatively new concept, I think we have been doing a bit of embeddedness all along — getting to know our users, learning about their needs, finding out how their work connects. Love the consonance in your first sentence, by the way.

    • salgore May 22, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

      We do this to a degree, Pat. We always have. But there really is a difference between being reactive to issues, situations, and questions that come to us (very traditional model) and actively seeking them out. We don’t have a history of doing that. Or at least I’ll argue that we don’t. David Shumaker does a really good job of providing lots of examples of where the two concepts differ. They do.

      Part of the difference is that we don’t just look for the problem to solve, solve it, and move on. That’s a model that we have followed – and need to continue to follow, for sure – for a long time. Yes, we are problem solvers, but being embedded requires something more. Again, Shumaker distinguishes this as an embedded librarian is a part of the team, thus s/he is responsible for the outcome(s) of the team just as any other team member is. I’m not looking to solve any problems for my research team “simply” to solve them, but my involvement actually has a direct impact on the outcome. Or at least that’s the goal. Well, REALLY the goal is that my work provides a direct, positive, impact on the outcomes as a whole.

      Along these lines, I’d also argue that we have long looked to understand our users so that we can support their work, not necessarily partner with them in it. There is a difference there. The Library Director at Wake Forest University spoke at ACRL-New England a couple of weeks ago and I loved what she said, “We do not serve our faculty. We partner with them.” That is a significant difference, whether we realize it or not. I’ve become part of the mammography study research team. I’m now considered part of the leadership team for the Community Engagement Research section of our CTSA. In this capacity, I offer lots of thoughts and ideas that go well beyond anything that I might have suggested (or been expected to suggest) if I were the librarian assigned to them and/or the liaison to their department, and the relationship(s) built allow that.

      I really do see it as “the next step.”

  2. Brandy King May 22, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    So excited that you are loving David Shumaker’s work! And I think the difference you pointed out in your reply here is key — partnering with them instead of supporting. YES!

    • salgore May 23, 2013 at 7:41 am #

      Thanks, Brandy. It’s a great book.

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