Embedded Librarians in the Classroom

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As anyone who uses a public library today knows, you don’t have to be in the library to contact your librarian. Text messages and e-mail have bridged gaps of time and distance.

College libraries have latched onto that trend as well.

The catchphrase used these days is “embedded” librarians. It refers to the various ways that college and research librarians are serving both students and teachers, ranging from digging up reference materials to filling a valuable role in the classroom as a partner in the learning process.

Embedded librarians are making valuable contributions in both distance learning settings and in specialized environments such as libraries serving medical students.

It is yet another example of the kind of phenomenon described in Marilyn Johnson’s, This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. Johnson writes, “The most visible change to librarianship in the past generation is maybe the simplest: librarians have left the building. Waiting behind the reference desk for patrons to approach is old-fashioned. Passive is passé.”

In a 2010 article in Inside Higher Ed, it states that the role of the university library is changing, with e-journals and e-books “poised to turn the library building into study space and librarians into e-sherpas.”

Nancy K. Roderer, director of the William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University, prefers the term “informationist.”

She didn’t invent the term – that was coined in an article written in 2000 – but the Welch Library has become its embodiment.

The library dates back to 1929, but its attitude is hardly pre-Depression.  In 2001-2002, the library set about doing its strategic plan. The springboard for its plan was the idea that by 2012, nearly all of the material – some 400,000 bound volumes and thousands of journals and databases - at the library would be available electronically.

She said, “The plan was to call it ‘the library wherever you are.’”

Users were open to it, saying, “That will be wonderful when the library can be accessed from my clinic, from my office, from my laboratory, from my hotel room, from my car, etc.”

At the same time, however, they stressed that the services of professional librarians would still be needed. Enter the informationist, the gatekeeper to the vast electronic resources at the library.

In the Welch Library, there are 10 informationists, Roderer said. They are occupied with supporting research, clinical practice and education.

In addition, she said, Johns Hopkins just went through a major reform of its medical school curriculum. “The informationist serving that group was very involved in redoing the curriculum.”

In an article at www.hopkinsmedicine.org, Geoff Brown writes that informationists “began appearing in the School of Medicine’s hallways in 2005, and have now become valued assets for research, teaching, and clinical practice,” serving such departments as Allergy, Clinical Immunology and Urology.

In the article, Anthony Kalloo, director of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, credits Informationist Blair Anton: “Not only does she help me keep up with the latest articles and information in my own area and specialties, she helps me prepare for lectures and helps faculty gather background material for grant applications.”

But the value of embedded librarians is not limited to specialized academic libraries. It has been very successful in distance learning settings as well.

One proponent and exemplar is Cassandra Kvenild, distance learning librarian at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, Wyo.

In a paper she wrote with Kaijsa Calkins, “Embedding in the 21st Century Academy: Crossing curriculum and geography,” it states, “Embedded librarianship is a fairly new, hot topic in librarianship, but it is based in a long tradition of innovative library services, especially in reference and instruction”

In her own situation at the University of Wyoming Libraries, it added, “We strive for library ubiquity across campus and total awareness of library services for our distance students and faculty. To do this, we embed services wherever possible, at the point of need, point of instruction, and even the curriculum and general education planning levels.”>

The university occupies a unique place, since it is the only provider of baccalaureate and graduate education, research and outreach services in Wyoming.

In addition, the services of an embedded librarian are valuable to a student population that is often under-prepared to perform student research, since most first-year applicants are admitted, even though at least two-fifths of of incoming Wyoming freshmen do not meet the ACT college readiness benchmark score of 21 on the reading portion of the exam.

Nearly one-fifth of the degree-seeking students enrolled as of fall 2009 were distance learners through the university’s Outreach School.

The Outreach School provides distance learners a menu of educational formats, including video conferencing and online courses.

The duties of the embedded librarian at Wyoming are varied. They include reference services that are provided not only at the reference desk itself and through telephone and email, but also on the website, which offers an “Ask Us” button that leads to a number of options, including a form to “book a librarian.”

Instant messaging is also an important tool, and several library services are embedded online, including access to the university archives.

Kvenild said, “The key concept is really to form a bond with a group and really spend time in depth with a group on a project. That can take a lot of forms. Some people have used it really successfully in health care settings, where you are part of a team that is working on a project or a problem. Some people have used it really successfully with graduate research projects (such as) in a business school, if they are working on a big case study for an MBA program. The librarian will join the team and provide assistance for that case study.”

She pointed out that it stretches out the time the librarian is available. In other words, students are no longer limited to actual classroom time or library hours.

“You can really work with students where they are, and they can ask questions when they arrive naturally as part of their organic research rather than trying to anticipate everything everyone will need to know for their individual projects.”

Librarians, she said, provide valuable input on how to search for, find evaluate information, as well as how to formulate a research question, select a research topic or come up with good key words to narrow a topic.

“So what’s kind of exciting about embedded librarianship is that you have more time with the students at the outset of their process to really help them zero in on a good researchable topic and a really good research question,” she said.

Also, the embedded librarian works with faculty on curriculum. She said she and the health sciences librarian at the university worked closely with the college of nursing on its curriculum rewrite.

The distance librarian is particularly valuable to nursing students, many of whom are pursuing a bachelor’s while working as registered nurses, “so a lot of them will be working all night.”

They can go online and check into a class and leave a question for the librarian at 3 a.m. When the librarian gets in at 8 a.m., she can answer that question.

“When it’s really customized like that to the student, it’s a positive experience for them and for the instructor. It can be a little more tailored,” she said.


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