In recent years, the role of librarians in law firms has evolved to keep pace with the many changes we’ve witnessed in the legal industry. Traditional roles have expanded outside of the library, as librarians find new ways of creating value for the firm. The concept of the embedded librarian is a good example of this evolution. David Shumaker, who writes The Embedded Librarian blog, offers the following definition of embedded librarianship:
[A] distinctive innovation that moves the librarians out of libraries and creates a new model of library and information work. It emphasizes the importance of forming a strong working relationship between the librarian and a group or team of people who need the librarian’s information expertise.
While much of the research on embedded librarians has been done in the fields of higher education and the health sciences, embedded librarians have also been studied in corporations, government agencies, law firms, and nonprofits.
The 2012 Law Librarian Survey (purchase required) from ALM this year asked for the first time whether or not any librarians were embedded in practice groups. Only 14% of respondents replied in the affirmative; 86% said no. A higher percentage (26%) responded yes when asked a similar question in a separate survey of law firms conducted by Three Geeks and a Law Blog in February of this year. However, what is really interesting is that another 21% of respondents were “considering or moving towards” embedded librarians. This make for an almost even split between firms that have or are considering embedded librarians as opposed to firms that do not have them.
Marlene Gebauer of Greenberg Traurig presented the results of the Three Geeks survey on embedded librarians at the Ark Group Conference on Best Practices & Management Strategies for Law Firm Library, Research & Information Services. The results were posted at Three Geeks. Other survey findings include:
- Most firms with embedded librarians have had them in place from 1-5 years, but 24% have had them in place for 11+ years.
- Embedded librarians are found in the department they support, in a centralized location or in decentralized locations.
- The majority of embedded librarians report directly to the library.
- Benefits include the development of stronger working relationships with the groups the embedded librarians support, a better understanding of their groups’ research needs, improved evaluation of research products, and more visibility in the firm.
Shumaker, who is clinical associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America, has researched and written extensively on embedded librarians. In July, the publication Information Today published an excerpt from his latest book, The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed. Successful embedded librarians, he contends, contribute to the teams they work with in highly sophisticated ways. For corporations – and he includes law firms in this category – and government sector jobs these contributions include competitive intelligence; literature evaluation and synthesis; news alerts and current awareness; and document delivery and interlibrary loan. Corporate and government sector embedded librarians were also “were more likely than in other sectors to participate in the management and analysis of internal knowledge and information.” This coupling of knowledge management with research and analysis expertise, Shumaker points out, is a powerful combination: “Information expertise . . . is valued when it is clearly linked to effective decision making and timely action. . . By taking ownership of the full range of information-related tasks, the librarian in turn becomes the knowledge expert on the team.”
One of the points that Shumaker makes in his new book is that the successful embedded librarian approaches the role of librarian in very broad terms.
It is not to provide just expert research service, or information literacy instruction, or the management of internal content. The embedded librarian’s role is to help the team use information most effectively in its operations, and the manager’s role is to help the organization optimize its use of information – by the most appropriate means available. That means that embedded librarians are constantly trying to work themselves out of a job. It also means that they are change leaders, not change followers. And it means that they are in a position to experience sustained success.
He specifically cites as an example a librarian at a law firm who managed an in-house database pertaining to a new regulatory issue being followed by the firm, making a significant contribution to the firm establishing itself as a leader in this area. However, the activity was eventually outsourced once a vendor began to provide an acceptable alternative. The librarian was not laid off, but continued with other high-value contributions.
While data on embedded librarians in law firms is just beginning to be collected now, it will be interesting to see in which direction this trend is heading. One thing is clear in the “new normal” of today’s legal industry – clients will continue to pressure law firms to become more efficient and cost effective. Firms will continue to fine tune their strategies to become more aligned with their customers’ needs. Embedded librarians could be a part of that strategy, adding more value for the library organization and ultimately for the firm as a whole.
Posted by Marianne Purzycki
 The question was “Do you have “embedded” researchers, practice specialists, concentrated or practice associated researchers in your department?”
 In 2007, Shumaker received a research grant from Special Libraries Association to study embedded librarians. The final report, Models of Embedded Librarianship, can be found here. An addendum chronicles site visits to six organizations, including one to a “large international law firm.”