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Embedded Librarians

June 9, 2010

BALTIMORE — Nancy Roderer is one for bold predictions. As a library consultant in the 1980s, Roderer predicted that all academic journals would be electronic by the mid-1990s.

A decade into the 21st century, Roderer’s opinion might now be considered prescient, if a bit off on the timing. It may have taken a little longer than she predicted, but every relevant academic journal now publishes an electronic version, and many journals only publish in the digital format.

Now, as director of the Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University, Roderer has taken the opportunity not only to forecast sea changes in library science, but to pioneer them. By now, most librarians agree that the role of the library is changing, and that e-journals and e-books are poised to turn the library building into study space and librarians into e-sherpas, and many academic libraries have begun moving in that direction.

But none have jumped in as audaciously as the Welch Medical Library has under Roderer. Two years from now, the medical library at Johns Hopkins, a world leader in medical research, will have realized a “distributed” library model — one that nearly everyone else in higher education considers either a far-off goal or a theoretical guidepost. A library located everywhere, and nowhere.

“We don’t really need to have a central service point anymore,” Roderer says. “By 2012 we do expect to be out of the building.”

The library will be “recycling” much of its print collection, and storing other books offsite; faculty and students will be able to send away for the hard copies via snail mail — like Netflix.

The model Roderer and her staff are pursuing is distributed not only in the sense that every researcher’s computer can access the library’s website and its vaults of electronic journal articles and e-books, but in that library personnel are embedded in various departments to work with researchers on their own turf. These staffers are no longer called librarians; they are “informationists.” (Roderer did not invent the term, but she prefers it to “librarian,” which she says evokes envoys from a faraway building rather than information experts whose skills are applicable anywhere.)

Medical students, clinicians, and professors are loath to trek across campus to the library’s physical plant now that the majority of its collections are available in electronic format through its website, Roderer says. However, that does not mean the library’s staff is no longer of use to researchers, she says — nor does it mean the staff’s interactions with researchers need to be limited to e-mail and text-messaging.

The idea behind the embedded-informationist program is that researchers benefit from on-site access not only to the library’s digital resources, but its human resources as well. “Research teams tend to be made up of experts in a number of categories … but they don’t always have an information expert on them,” says Roderer. “So the idea was, shouldn’t we have one? And we think the answer is yes.”

Claire Twose, the informationist who deals primarily with the departments housed in the schools of public health and basic sciences at Johns Hopkins, says that being on the ground with researchers — sharing spaces, attending meetings, casually bumping into them in the hallway — allows librarians to develop a better understanding of what the researchers need, while the researchers learn more about what sorts of assistance the erstwhile librarians can offer. “You don’t know until you get into their environment what they need and how they work,” says Twose.

For example, researchers might know how to find electronic tools through the website, but might not know how to use them in the most effective way, she says. In turn, working with the Hopkins researchers has allowed Twose and her colleagues to modify and improve the discipline-specific Web portals on the library’s website according to the needs and habits of the researchers who use them.

Serendipitous interactions between researchers and informationists are also a useful consequence of the “embedded-liaison” model, Twose says. “Walking down the hall, somebody would say, ‘Oh yeah, I meant to talk to you about X,’ ” she says. “And it wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t actually there and doing the work.”

Limited Implications

Roger Schonfeld, director of research at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit that researches library transformation, among other things, likes to point to the Welch as an example of a library aggressively adapting to the digital age. “Directionally, what they’re doing is pretty consistent with what you see at a lot of libraries,” Schonfeld says. “The speed and completeness with which they’re going there is rather different” — which is to say, admirable. Not many libraries have been so bold as to forsake the physical plant entirely, and certainly not by 2012.

Not that they all should be, necessarily. Different sorts of libraries serve different sorts of patrons, and for that reason, Schonfeld cautions against holding up the Welch as an example that can be replicated across many institutions. “Any library specialized around a certain field or discipline has the increased flexibility to serve the needs of that field only,” he says, “whereas a general library has a broader constituency that it has to balance its resources across.”

In other words, the Welch has the luxury of only serving the university’s schools of medicine, public health, and the hospital, not a broad swath of liberal arts departments, some of which might not be as amenable to electronic texts as the medical fields have shown themselves to be.

Even the Welch, with its narrow focus, faces challenges in making the switch. For example, there are only 10 informationists on staff, serving roughly 100 departments, meaning they have to spread their time thinly to meet the demand for their services. Twose says there need to be many more, but Roderer says finding funds is difficult. Even though Roderer says vacating the physical building and its associated cost should theoretically free up library funds to invest in the informationist model and elsewhere, she says her deans often point out that the medical school still has to worry about paying to maintain the building, and not only that, but repurposing it — which could be somewhat expensive, given how much of it is stacks. (“Want to buy a building?” Roderer asked me, in jest.)

But this does not mean the Johns Hopkins experiment cannot be instructive to other academic libraries. Schonfeld points to the example of Purdue University, which runs a program similar to the informationist model at the undergraduate level.

About two and half years ago, Purdue began embedding librarians in different undergraduate departments, where they hold office hours and often co-teach courses. The underlying idea is similar to the one behind the informationists at Johns Hopkins, says D. Scott Brandt, the associate dean for research at Purdue: The more deeply embedded the library staffers are with the students and faculty they serve, the more valuable — and relevant-seeming — they will be as the world of the library continues migrating to the Web.

“What we’re trying to do is have the library be wherever you are,” Roderer says. “And we’re quite serious about that.”

For the latest technology news from Inside Higher Ed, follow Steve Kolowich on Twitter.

 

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