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Q&A with an embedded librarian

Portrait of librarian, Heather JamesThe Libraries’ Department of Research and Instructional Services offers faculty classroom support, helping students learn information literacy skills and use of academic resources. Librarians can be embedded in courses as instructors or simply as research contacts. Among other things, they teach students how to use research databases, evaluate sources and create bibliographies.

Heather James is one of several research and instruction librarians experienced as an embedded librarian. Here is a Q&A to help you decide whether an embedded librarian could be useful in your classroom.

1. Heather, you’re a librarian. What do librarians do?

In the most basic sense, librarians put people in contact with information. That might seem easy since at the most basic level that’s what Google and other search engines do also, but librarians additionally put in the work to determine what information is going to be useful for future generations and how it can be guaranteed to be around and accessible for those future generations. This doesn’t mean that librarians are elitist; for example the Library of Congress recently decided to archive Twitter streams because they are evidence of our current culture. Then librarians assist people in working with all those systems of preserving, finding, and evaluating the information.

2. What is an embedded librarian?

“Embedded” is just a term that librarians started using to describe a relationship or organization where a librarian is closely dedicated to and integrated in an academic course or a project or a group. Most often this means that an academic course will have one librarian dedicated to its students who will become very familiar with its curriculum and goals. He or she will interact with the students and professor over the course of the semester in various ways. This isn’t the only possible organization, though. There could be an embedded librarian for a non-curricular research project, like in a faculty member’s lab, or for a resource center or student group. Any group who foresees a need for extended interaction with a librarian could make use of an embedded librarian.

3. How does an embedded librarian help students? Faculty?

For both faculty and students, the most obvious benefit of an embedded librarian is that one person will be familiar with the needs and content of the course or research project. Having one contact person, who is a librarian and therefore familiar with the various areas of the library as well as with the research process can streamline communication and assistance when it’s needed. At a more subtle level, it can be great for students to build a working relationship with a librarian since we are supportive faculty who are just as invested in the education process and students’ success as their professors, but we don’t have the barrier that grading and evaluation can sometimes create between faculty and students. Finally, there is quite a bit more than many people realize to the concepts of information organization and the infrastructures that mediate researchers interacting with information. Having an embedded librarian offers students an extended opportunity for learning about and working with these concepts and tools.

4. I’ve heard about a teaching strategy called the flipped classroom. What is it?

Flipped classrooms are a concept that was developed by instructional faculty and secondary education teachers. The idea behind it is that rather than spending classroom time dispensing information via lecture, the content of the lecture can be shared with students ahead of class and the class time can be used for questions, application, and more complex interaction with the material. Generally lecture content is shared digitally in the form of recorded videos and is assigned as “homework” prior to the class session.

Flipped classrooms are not an idea that developed specifically within libraries, but the method is one that appears to work well for Information Literacy learning objectives. Class time is traditionally used to provide background information, leaving little to no time for student interaction with the information. An example of this in Information Literacy instruction is the introduction of a database interface. This type of information could easily be shared ahead of time, allowing students to be prepared with questions and ready to address more complex concepts before they first see a librarian.

5. Is there any evidence that adding a librarian to a class improves students’ information literacy skills?

Yes. There are lots of case studies that show having a dedicated librarian more fully integrated into a class where students are tackling major research projects and/or concepts related to accessing information not only improves students’ final output but also increases their confidence in navigating the research process on their own in the future. These cases also show that faculty are more satisfied with what they see from the students’ final output and with the structure of the class as compared with previous iterations of the course that did not integrate a librarian.

6. What types of courses are best suited to having an embedded librarian?

The obvious best fits are courses that have a long term research project or a maintained focus on research, even if it’s over the course of many smaller projects. However, I say that with caution because often the response from department faculty will be that their course does not have a “big enough” research project to merit an embedded librarian. Many courses will include an element of practicing research along with a goal of having students understand how and why research, scholarly communication, attribution, and ethics are important to the field. These are also courses that can benefit from embedding a librarian. Finally, courses that are “gateways” – by that I mean they introduce and tackle key foundational concepts – for higher education or for a specific major would benefit from having an embedded librarian since there isn’t a single major that does not rely on research and scholarship at some point, and the library is a major linchpin of that system.

7. How do I get a librarian embedded into my course?

Contact the librarian for your department. You can find him or her through the Staff page on the library’s website.