Image [cc] Seattle University Law Library

We’ve discussed the idea of embedded library researchers on this blog in the past, but as I was having a conversation on alternative ways of promoting the value of library and research services in a firm yesterday, I started wondering if the idea of the “embedded librarian” could be flipped on its head. There are many places where it is just impossible to place librarians within practice groups, but what about embedding library concepts, practices and knowledge within the practice group through someone that is already in that group? In other words, how about turning one qualified member of a practice group into a de facto member of the library?

Within each practice group, there tends to be a “go to” person that knows the ins and outs of where things are located, what resources are available to the group, and tends to answer those group “pardon the interruption” emails that fly about when someone in the group isn’t sure where to find the answer. You can probably go to anyone in the group and ask them who they go to when they are trying to find a resource they’ve used in the past, or who they go to when they need to see if they are citing properly for the court in which they are filing their brief, or who they go to when they want someone to proof what they’ve written. Typically, each group has one… and an opportunity for the library and research team is to determine just exactly who that go to person is. Perhaps it is a paralegal, or a secretary, but it could very well be an associate or even a partner within the group. The key is to find them and start building a relationship.

In building the relationship, you want to determine what are the patterns that show up when other members of the group come to this person for help? Are they the same types of questions, such as, citation, editing, finding previous work, scenarios? What are resources they are using to answer these questions? Do they know all of the different resources that are available through the library’s paid subscriptions or what’s available for free through the Internet or locally available resources? Is there something that could be purchased by the library that would help? Is this person using the resources effectively? Does this person know when he or she is overwhelmed and needs to reach out for help to the library research staff or others within the firm? These are all good questions to ask that will make them an even better go to person, all while establishing the value of the library and research team in assisting them find the right answers, quickly, efficiently, effectively, and with higher quality results.

The key here is to strike a balance of training and assistance, without attempting to upset the culture established within the practice group. It should be viewed as the library coming to show their support to the group and the individual, and not as a power play to pull that research into the library. Quite frankly, most libraries have a large enough workload and wouldn’t want to take on additional tasks that could be handled on the practice group level. My initial thoughts on how to best strike this balance is through informal training and conversations. Once you’ve established who the go to person is, built a relationship, determined the types of issues that they face, and understand what additional resources, guides and training they need, then work with them on their schedule, in a one-to-one style of informal training. Establish a mutual understanding that the library is there to assist them when they need it, and in the end, that you are all on the same team, ready to jump in to solve a mutual problem.

Just as with most project, start small, find champions, communicate, and be willing to adjust according to the needs of the people you are trying to help. Once the relationship is built, it would seem logical that there would be additional rewards that flow from this relationship. One example that I can think of off the top of my head is that the library would have an “in” with this group now. Having that inside person can open up many opportunities for the library and research group. In a way, it would be like having a de facto library researcher embedded in the group. Someone that when they are asked to solve a problem would be able to say “the library showed me this resource that can help us answer this question.” That’s not just a win for the library, it’s a win for that practice group and the firm.

  • Greg…Might I suggest that that person is a librarian, but not part of the library? Why should the embedded librarian be counted among the library staff when their focus is a particular practice group? Most research librarians bill the majority of their time, so this would be adding another timekeeper (rather than overhead) and source of revenue to the practice group.

  • Colleen,

    In my scenario, the person is not a librarian, but rather someone within the practice group that conducts research, and is trusted by that group to handle the "first-level" types of research that would never come to the library. Perhaps this was clearer in my head than in my post. There are just situations that do not require a full-time librarian, but still can benefit from getting the training from the library on the best practices and resources available through the library. The de facto embedded librarian, as I talk about it here, is actually a researcher in the Practice Group (assigned to that group) and might be anyone from a secretary or paralegal to an associate or partner. It's kind of a "training the trainer" situation.

  • Mikhail Koulikov


    What you're envisioning sounds a lot like what Cleary Gottlieb already has in place with their dedicated and practice-specific information specalists – This person may or may not hold an MLS, but he or she is not a librarian in the sense of being a part of the library department.

  • Mikhail,

    My idea doesn't get that precise. Although what Clearly Gottlieb is doing looks like a good idea, my thoughts were that it doesn't have to be a formal job, or even in the job description. Find those people that already exist and make them better researchers through training and relationship with the library.

  • Greg…I understood what you were trying to say, and I think it makes sense. What I was musing about was what would it look like if instead of just "sitting" with the practice group or asking someone else to be the library champion, why not break the library apart and have librarians as actual members of the practice group? Truly embedded in the sense that they are not part of the library. Maybe in that scenario the library staff only consists of technical services and a few generalists. This would be Mikhail's example, except that person doesn't work for the library.

    • If the situation were such that truly embedded librarians or equivalents are possible, then that would be great. However, of you have 6 librarians and 25 practice groups… then the logistics wouldn't really work. I'm thinking more along the line of situations where truly embedded librarians just wouldn't be possible. Zena Applebaum has some good posts on this type of truly embedded librarians.

  • I think Colleen's suggestion would be more efficient, and in a way, everyone becomes involved and not merely part of the group.

    • I agree… in a perfect world where law firms embrace change, that works best.

  • Why couldn't you have 25 research specialists? Maybe when they are "librarians, but these are revenue-generating member of the practice group (I know it's the same thing, but if this is what it takes to grow our profession…so be it). Break that box Greg!!

  • Actually, a librarian in every practice group would be a wonderful thing.

  • Colleen's tip could well be extremely effective, along with in ways, everyone gets involved and never purely area of the class.

  • Greg,
    I like your idea. I'm in a corporate legal department and I only have one librarian so the idea of embedding librarians in the practice groups is not going to work for us. We have been trying to get our practice groups to identify a person who would be a champion of our information management initiatives (not just research focused). The person could work with to alert us to pain points in their info management processes as well as a main contact for us to deliver our communications to their group. Thanks for helping me focus what it is I have been trying to do.

  • One idea that was shared with me recently was that of embedding a group of admin folks from various departments (library, KM, finance, etc.) as a team for a floor or a practice group. These folks are then physically accessible and attorneys and other support staff (secretaries, paralegals) might be more apt to stop at their desks and ask a question or bring up an issue they are having. Even if they approach the "wrong" admin person, they could then be redirected to the right one. The most important qualifications here then become that the folks that are embedded are curious, service-oriented and overall good firm ambassadors. Of course, librarians are the first choice to come to my mind here, but if we were able to team up with other admin folks, that would broaden the staffing pool and maybe make embedding a more feasible and perhaps more effective idea.

  • Denise Pagh

    Greg, I think that your idea has merit as a model for solo librarians. This targeted approach is is a smart way to expand one's scope of influence and have a more far-reaching impact.

  • Greg, great post and I'm glad that I could comment on it.

    You bring up a great point that many of us attorneys spend an awfully lot of time in the library. It's important that we all spend some time in research and we all have someone, who we can lean on in the office if need be.