Embedded? What is that exactly?

The term embedded….and its derivatives embeddedness and embedment….when applied to libraries,  librarians and library services felt trendy to me at first and a bit co-opted.  I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction.  When I toss this term about with people outside the profession, it often causes a snort of laughter or at least a bit of a raised eyebrow.  But these responses are almost always followed by either a skeptically or sincerely posed question: “What is that exactly?!”

The answer….the embedded library model and its practice….is anything but trendy and co-opted.  It is, in fact, important, positive, sustainable and a perfectly logical extension of the library profession’s core principle of service.  To me, while the term embedded is relatively new, the efforts it encapsulates — to customize services to our users and to be out there and in there with our users where ever and whenever they need help — are not new.  Back in the day, the bookmobile was an innovative embed.  Branch libraries that cropped up in strip malls in the 70s were an embed.   These are examples of libraries “taking it to the people” before we had a hip term, like embedded, to bandy about.

I believe that libraries have certainly earned the right to co-opt a shiny new term!  How we embed is now dramatically different in terms of the breadth and depth of the information and services that we can offer  and the myriad ways in which they can be delivered.  Embedded library services are a many faceted gemstone of possibilities.  The traditional desk-hugging librarian is now an increasingly rare specimen. The beauty of the trendy term embedded is that it is attention grabbing.  It makes people outside the profession –as well as any remaining desk-huggers within – wonder, inquire and then, hopefully, nod their heads in recognition at the logic of it all.

I read David Shumaker’s fine distinctions of embedded librarianship with interest.  He clearly sees advantages to a taxonomy that sets the virtual, the personal, the consulting, the roving and the embedded librarian apart from one another.   But I wonder whether these distinctions set up obstacles to adopting what works for individual libraries.  Do Shumaker’s fine parsings of the term hold up…or  even matter…in practice?

Perhaps I feel this way because I have already hijacked the term embedded for my high school library setting and I’m loath to part with it.  My self-described embedded experience is a daily reality.  It so absorbs my work  life and sloshes over to my after-hours that it can interfere with all else…..including writing this blog post in a timely way!    Our high school adopted a 1:1 Mac laptop program three years ago, enabling a shift toward a moveable feast of library services during the school day and virtual presence 24/7.   The shift has gotten some real traction recently.  Since our LIBR 220 course started  just over a week ago, I have delivered the following library services in an embedded-esque (new term….feel free to co-opt!) manner:

  • IL instruction for our 9th grade I-Search research project,  combining a flipped classroom series of tutorials with in-classroom instruction.
  • Introduction of a project-specific LibGuide for a long-term research project for AP Environmental Science course.
  • Design & introduction of a LibGuide for a weeklong exploration of revolutionary movements for World History, including providing in-classroom, targeted database search advice with each small group on their chosen revolutionary movement.
  • In-classroom targeted database search instruction for an upper level Japan Seminar course research project.
  • Design of a LibGuide for research projects in Psychology, to be unveiled in the classroom next week.

Our new high school library efforts don’t neatly fit Shumaker’s careful definition of embedded.  We are an untidy hybrid of virtual, roving, consulting, personal embeddedness with necessary remnants of the traditional practice still.  We are a work-in-progress. But I think we are re-imagining our services in line with the embedded model.  The activities I list briefly above are the product of much effort, including the wooing of faculty, proactive marketing of prototypes and collaborative discussion to refine them.  In turn, these embedded practices spin off a multitude of projects and the promise of longterm partnerships that are both supremely satisfying and daunting.  These efforts to embed at the heart of learning in our high school is reinvigorating our role in the lives of faculty and students.


Curb service 10,000 current books – convenient, free, time saving: Chicago Public Library, Randolph St. corridor [Poster]. (ca. 1936-1941). Chicago: Illinois WPA Arts Project. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98508385/

Shumaker, D. (2012). Defining embedded librarianship. In The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed. Medford, NJ: Information Today.





About tellthetruthruth

I'm a 12 Thinger.
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9 Responses to Embedded? What is that exactly?

  1. hannah says:

    Hi, Ruth. I agree that the practice of embedded librarianship preceded the term itself. Your example of “taking it to the people” with bookmobiles is a good one. As you mention, librarians have definitely earned the right to adopt a shiny new term. I think shiny new terms help to mobilize people to action. Even though many librarians may have practiced embedded librarianship for decades, there are many more who have not. Terms become popular at certain times for a reason and are often a reaction to changing cultural expectations. I think we need this shiny new term at this current point in time because methods of information creation and gathering are changing and librarians and libraries need to make sure we change too.

    P.S. The new programming at the high school library sound amazing!

    • embendered says:

      You are right, Hannah! It is essentially about mobilizing people within the profession as well as capturing the attention, involvement and patronage of those outside. Whatever we choose to call it now and in the future, we will be measured by the relevance of what we actually do. I am happy for the chance to investigate, with you and our classmates, the innovative ways that librarians are reassert themselves as vital partners for learning, living and thriving in today’s world.

  2. Diana says:

    Hi Ruth and Hanna,

    Reading your post and Hanna’s response made me think of all those librarians that were “embedded” without them knowing that they were. What I mean is that I know of wonderful librarians who have always stepped forward and have given their best to create tools and programs for their patrons. I also know librarians that were not “afraid” to reach out to faculty and offer their expertise and collaboration for a particular project. There are many examples. Still, I think that’s not the point. The embedded librarianship is not a description for a job well done, but rather a new direction for all librarians. It points to where we [librarians] need to go. Some of us have already started …. Great job Ruth!

    • embendered says:

      Ha! So true, Diana. Sometimes when we assign new terms we forget to honor the pioneers who have been doing these things all along without the glory of jazzy terminology! The discovery that there are official terms for what we already do can be very affirming though. I remember learning, in LIBR 244 Online Searching, about the search strategy “pearl growing”. It was totally surprising to find out that what I thought was a shameful backdoor cheat to comb for keywords and citations was actually a time-honored strategy with a totally cool name of its very own.

  3. mgfarkas says:

    You’re all so right! Every new generation of librarians wants to think that they are creating something totally new, but the simple truth is that a lot of the stuff that’s hot now — the idea of Library 2.0, embedment, flipped instruction, etc. — predated these buzzwords. I was flipping the classroom before a term for it existed. Some librarians were building close relationships with their departments before the idea of the embedded librarian came to the fore. Many librarians, amazingly, were user-centered long before the Library 2.0 term (my least favorite term EVER) began being thrown around in 2005-6. I often get very cynical when it comes to buzzwords because I’m very sensitive to the hype cycle and hate to see librarians jump on bandwagons not because of the needs of their patrons but because they think their library should be doing it. But buzzwords can bring people’s attention to good ideas (like embedment) so that those people can take those concepts beyond how they were originally envisioned, as you are Ruth.

  4. georgereads says:

    Hi Ruth,
    Great post! RE: Shumaker’s role distinctions: I agree that it may not be the best approach to distinguish between roles, especially in a K12 library environment. I do a little bit of everything in the library, including cataloguing sometimes–I’m taking a wild guess that you may as well, even if you are just consulted for something like a cataloging issue. I really enjoy all the roles because it gives me insight on all the tasks that make a working library happen. Moreover, the possibility of creating elements of embedded librarianship could be found in each role.
    You’ve made an impressive impact in your library with the skills you’re teaching–well done!

  5. Katherine Ralson says:

    Hi Ruth,

    I thought this comment from you was interesting: “Branch libraries that cropped up in strip malls in the 70s were an embed.” I currently work in a public library branch that is in a small shopping center, or what might be called a “strip mall.” My branch is known as a “technology branch.” In this particular branch, although we do have a small collection of books for the neighborhood, our primary book collection is focused on books related to popular computer applications (i.e. MS Office programs, Facebook, Twitter), operating systems in their various versions, computer programming, and digital photography. We are a location in which holds can be placed and picked up, and books from throughout the 33 branch system can be checked in and sent back to their owning branch.

    It is interesting that you would think of my branch as an “embedded” branch. I am wondering how being located in a strip mall makes us different from a branch located in its own building within a neighborhood. The other technology branch in our system actually is located in a community center (the Laguna Hills Community Center, to be specific). Would you say that, due to their location, that is also and embedded branch? Now that I think of it, we have several branches that share a building with another entity. I am wondering whether being “embedded” has more to do with location, or the connection the people who work for the library have with the community.

    • embendered says:

      Katherine, it might be a perfect example of my “truthiness” to boldly claim that branch libraries are part of an embedded model. I think David Shumaker would certainly say I was stretching it. But it came to my mind because my mom was a public librarian in Ann Arbor, Michigan when they began opening branch libraries in strip malls. She happily spent the rest of her career there and, although she’s retired now, Ann Arbor’s West Branch Library is still going strong in Westgate Mall. Ann Arbor District Libraries made a conscious effort to be a presence in the routine of the patron, near grocery stores, hair salon/barbers, pharmacies, Kmarts, and restaurants. It was good for the library, good for the adjacent businesses and, most importantly, good for the patron. They weren’t talking “work flow” or “embedded” back then but the spirit of the thing seems similiar to me.

      After the readings so far in this class, I know that today’s model of the embedded librarian is about more than just location. You are so right that it is more about the connections that librarians have with their users. So maybe the elements of successful embedded librarianship are many, varied and meant to be customized. I say: Proudly rock your branch library for its convenient location, its customized services and the connections you are making with the folks in your community!

  6. rvrichardson says:

    When I was telling my coworkers what classes I was taking this semester, I mentioned this class and many of them gave me the puzzled look. I’ve had to explain with examples of what our business librarian does. So while agree the term might be a little trendy the idea behind it is great. People are doing similar outreach without the term, and it still seems to working out well for the students and faculty.

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