Part of the Whole: Embedded Librarianship in Public Libraries
December 1, 2021
Jennifer Robertson, Carbondale Public Library
Libraries are always looking for ways to connect with their communities. The term “embedded librarianship” is widely used in professional and academic literature to mean librarians who provide services in the users’ environment. This often refers to academic librarians who work in a particular department on a college campus. Libraries are hubs of community activity, but the way that librarians provide information has changed, as has the way that users are seeking information and resources. To meet the users where they are, librarians need to understand what users are doing and what they need. Public libraries also have the difficult task of finding the non-users who need their help and finding ways to help them.
To learn more about public libraries and their embedded librarian engagement work in Illinois, I sent out a survey on IHLS and RAILS listservs. Happily, the results showed that many public librarians and library workers are involved in their communities as part of the work that they do within the library. The way that they are doing it varies and is particular to the communities in which they live and work. There is also a great deal of overlap in embedded librarianship with what is typically considered outreach. The main difference in embedded librarianship is the goal to become a part of the community that is being served instead of staying somewhat separate from it. This often looks the same as outreach and community engagement in practice.In a public library, librarians aim to embed themselves in areas where they can meet the needs of their community. This takes place through pop-up libraries, by attending or taking part in community events, by going into schools and other organizations, through partnerships with local businesses and organizations, and by joining community organizations. A main question that libraries need to consider is how librarians and library workers can embed themselves more deeply into the community, particularly in underserved areas. Librarians who are embedded in the community can build relationships, develop trust, and better understand the people, organizations, and businesses that they aim to help.
LIBRARIANS BUILDING COMMUNITIES
Joining community or civic organizations is a simple way to practice embedded public librarianship. This is a way to network and meet people in addition to finding ways to create community partnerships on a deeper level. Librarians and library workers who join organizations, become involved in them, and take on leadership roles can help further the goal of creating a community that is embedded with knowledge about resources and services offered by the library. The library essentially becomes a part of the organization through the representation of the staff member taking part. Examples of community organizations include Rotary International, Kiwanis, the Boys and Girls Club, and many other
non-profit organizations. Civic organizations include the Chamber of Commerce, main street associations, city or town committees, and other groups organized primarily by municipalities. Library staff generally should not become embedded in political organizations as representatives of the library, though that can be done on personal time.
When librarians or library workers join community organizations, they are developing relationships within the community where they live and work. Even small rural towns generally have one or two organizations available to join. Many libraries provide support to local organizations, but when someone from within the library joins the organization, it adds a perspective that would not otherwise exist. They can even take on leadership roles to create partnerships that have both the organization and the library’s interests at the center of their activities. At the Carbondale Public Library Teen and Youth Librarian Elizabeth Hartman is also a member of the local organization Carbondale United, who is working to fight violence in the community. “Carbondale United's vision of unifying area organizations to provide programs, resources, and education is a profound opportunity for our library to embed itself into the veins of our community. Working with community organizations like Carbondale United allows our library to reach new patrons, target efforts towards community needs, and avoid redundant programming or 'reinventing the wheel.' By collaborating with CU, we're able to create and distribute those educational resources and programs actually
requested by our community,” said Hartman.
Many libraries take a multi-pronged approach to embedding themselves in their communities. Chet Brandt from Tri-City Public Library said this about their work with organizations in their community, “We have few community organizations in the area. We work closely with the Parent Volunteer Group association with the Tri-City schools. We also host meetings of the Buffalo Women’s Club, and they reciprocate by helping volunteer for library programs. We have worked with the local village and the police department in supporting and hosting annual Halloween and Christmas holiday events. We also provided assistance in putting on a library mystery play written and performed by the school drama department that ended up being a profitable event for the school. We also support food collection for the Tri-City Food Pantry. We have had several elementary classes select us as their community support projects, raising some donations and donating children's books to the library,” said Brandt. Since every community is different, embedded librarianship is unique to the community.
GET OUT THERE: COMMUNITY EVENTS AND POP-UPS
How can librarians show off their skills and resources while also helping build exposure and trust within their communities? Pop-up libraries take place when libraries take their resources out of the physical space of the library. This is most effective in locations where non-users or individuals who are underserved by the library are present and can change the way that the community views the library. Libraries including Indian Prairie Public Library provide programming at schools, businesses, and in parks. Some libraries are able to invest resources into pop-up libraries by purchasing bookmobiles or other vehicles, which has been discussed in previous ILA Reporter articles. Those with smaller budgets can provide a pop-up library experience by bringing a table, chair, and a librarian to a location outside the library including community events. Pop-up libraries create the effect of becoming embedded in a community, as the library staff builds relationships and are present to answer questions and provide resources.
Embedded librarianship is all about making connections in the community, so attending and taking part in community events as part of library work can be extremely beneficial. 85% of librarians and library workers surveyed attend community events as part of their work. In addition, volunteering to serve on a planning committee can further embed the library into the event taking place.
Since more than 85% of the libraries surveyed for this article attend community events, there are some great examples of work being done in this area. Rantoul Public Library attends community events to sign people up for library cards. “Story times at popular community locations, such as laundromats, would also be very beneficial in order to reach community members who aren't able to make it to the library,” said Youth Services Librarian Joelle Travis. Alpha Park Public Library goes to community centers to provide programming. Taylorville Public Library is dedicated to community engagement, as their staff does talks at local schools, works with local non-profits with resource sharing, and offers book delivery throughout the town. The Lemont Public Library District has an environmentally friendly way of getting the word out about their library. “We have a book bike that goes out to the community, and we bring a hotspot with us so that we can register people for library cards,” said Lisa Moe, Collection Development Librarian. Thinking of creative ways to bring library services to the public is at the heart of embedded librarianship.
Embedded Librarianship in Academic Libraries
Q&A with Jennifer Horton, Science Librarian, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Q: What is your experience with the term embedded librarianship?
A: I think embedded librarianship has its roots in creating strong relationships with your community, whether it be in specific courses or with particular areas of campus. It entails working closely with members of your community, seeing what their particular needs are, and being available to assist them throughout a specific project or their time on campus.
Q: What are some ways that you (and other librarians) are embedded within the SIUC university system?
A: Most classes that we work with, we see for a typical one-shot session, but there are other courses that I would say that we are more embedded. There are degrees to how embedded we are depending on the needs of the students and what the faculty member desires. For example, I work with senior engineering students. These students are divided into teams working to complete their senior design projects. I go to their class and do an information literacy session, but my involvement doesn’t stop there. I then meet with many of the teams, sometimes multiple times during the semester. They write literature reviews utilizing a broad range of resources. One thing that I work with them a lot on is finding engineering standards. I stay active throughout the semester with the teams and answer questions that arise, often meeting with individual team members or small groups. The professors ensure that students know who I am and what I can do to help. They put my information in the course’s learning management system and upload documents I give them as well.
Another one of our librarians is very embedded in a specific course. She attends their class sessions, creates and grades assignments, regularly meets with students outside of class, and sits in on their final presentations. She is essentially a part of the course. Students get to know and trust her. A lot of work goes into this, but I think the students are very lucky to have her expertise and guidance throughout the semester. She becomes a mentor to them and another person they can seek help from that is not their professor.
Some librarians also work closely with some of our large-scale freshmen courses. They meet with the graduate students that teach the courses, develop curricula, and meet with the classes. We also have librarians that work with different areas on campus including SIU’s First Saluki Center that serves first-generation students, the Student Multicultural Resource Center, the STEM Education Center, the McNair Scholars, and others.
Q: How do you think academic librarians could become further embedded in their schools and communities?
A: I think developing relationships with faculty and staff on campus can assist in further embedding librarians. When a program goes well, it usually leads to other opportunities because faculty and staff like to discuss success stories with others on campus. It also helps to just reach out. Let professors know what you are willing to do and how your presence can help not just their students, but for them as well. Embedding in a course offers students a unique perspective and a lot of assistance they might have been too scared to seek out or may not even know existed.
Tips for Getting Started
- Develop support within your library for this type of project amongst leadership and the team. Some benefits include a better image for the library, additional support within the community, and effective planning for services, programming, and resources.
- Look for leaders in the community, organizations doing positive work in your community, and issues that will be important in your community over the next few years.
- Look for areas in the community that need support. Who is underserved and could use extra support from the library? Which communities need more attention?
- Ask yourself these questions: Does the organization add value to the community? How can the library help them with what they need? Will this increase the public perception of the library in the community?
- Look at the skills and resources that you and your staff have to offer. Is anyone bilingual? Do you have adequate staffing for this type of project?
- Develop a plan. Begin by approaching organizations and offering your support. Start small and build relationships over time.