Embedded Business Librarianship

Taking your library into the business world

January 3, 2017

Embedded business librarian
Photos: Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock; julief514/Adobe Stock

What exactly is an embedded business librarian? An embedded business librarian is a library professional who is rooted in the business community; a librarian who is part of the business community instead of separate from it, who strives to be an equal partner and have an equal voice. Small business owners, professionals, and job seekers see the embedded business librarian as a peer, colleague, and fellow business community member instead of an outsider who solely represents the library.

The ultimate goal of the embedded business librarian is to become integrated in the business community as much as possible, and not be viewed strictly as “the library” or “the librarian.” This attitude and relationship will guide how librarians function in this position and will affect the activities they participate in, the committees that they join, the projects that they work on, and the way that they and others see librarians and the library. Ultimately, this will impact the role and services that the library provides to the business community.

Outreach vs. embedded librarianship

Embedded Business Librarianship for the Public Librarian
This is an excerpt from Embedded Business Librarianship for the Public Librarian by Barbara A. Alvarez (ALA Editions, 2016).

Being an embedded business librarian is significantly different from performing outreach. Everybody defines outreach differently, but often it can be thought of as a library professional stepping away from the reference desk and into the community—for example, setting up a booth at a local farmer’s market, doing a presentation at the high school before the summer reading club begins, or speaking to the public about a library initiative. In each of these instances, the purpose is typically to remind or inform people about their local library and to promote the library. This is perhaps the greatest difference between embedded librarianship and outreach.

Embedded business librarianship is not necessarily about promotion, although the library is certainly promoted when a librarian becomes a part of the business community. This could entail leaving the library and going into the community several times a week. Instead of going to community functions to give sound bites about the library and why people should support it, or presuming to know how it can support them, an embedded librarian will attend meetings, join committees, and network in ways that emphasize the library’s desire to learn and understand the business community as a peer. This will certainly be a mental shift for many libraries and may involve a conversation with library management about the functions and expectations of the role.

Both outreach and embedded librarianship are laudable efforts. Any time a public library makes efforts outside its own walls is a success. Depending on the staff size, outreach may seem more accessible than an embedded business librarian role. However, embedded philosophy can be implemented in an outreach model. The core concept is to make a concerted effort to be genuinely integrated in the business community.

Having an impact

For those of you who are uncertain, you may be wondering why we even need public librarians to be embedded in the business community. After all, shouldn’t business owners, professionals, and job seekers be coming into the library—not the reverse? You may be wondering, “Do we have enough staff to properly cover the desk in addition to sending them out into the community?” Make no mistake: Embedded business librarianship is an important role for the public library.

According to the US Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, 27.9 million small business owners accounted for 64% of the net new jobs created between 1993 and 2011, in addition to the 17.7 million independent workers detailed in MBO Partners’ Third Annual Independent Workforce Report. And as noted in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, the Great Recession proved to critics that libraries are needed more than ever—just ask the 36% of patrons who used the library in 2012 for job search assistance. This number has gone down to 23% (which is a good thing), but there is still strong support for the public library to provide business resources and workshops. In fact, 52% of all Americans age 16 and older say libraries should “definitely” create programs for local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Clearly data expresses the national business community’s need for library services. So what does this mean? Since some job seekers already come to the library, do we not need to reach out to them? Since there is a clear interest in business workshops at the library, should we just send out a few friendly emails to local business owners and hope that they’ll stop by? Should our library create some programs, promote them on social media and in the library newsletter, and feel that we did enough? Hardly. In fact, the data shows that it is the perfect climate to go outside the library and into the community to meet the business owners, professionals, and job seekers where they are and build relationships with them. It is important not to seize this moment as just an opportunity to boost program attendance and door count numbers, but instead to put energy into forming and sustaining meaningful connections. The data above is just a small fraction of evidence that shows how receptive the business community can be to the library becoming a part of the business community.

Take a moment to consider how much of your library’s community is affected by job growth, small business success, and employment. When a small business owner makes progress with help from the library, when a professional receives the information he or she needs from the library for an important company presentation, and when a job seeker learns at the library how to tailor his or her job search, their own well-being and the well-being of their friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and surroundings are greatly impacted.

Moreover, the feeling of genuine support and championship that the business community has because of the library’s embedded involvement could be the push it needs to move forward with a new initiative or project. In essence, when the library invests in building relationships with the business community, it is investing in the livelihood and future of all of its citizens. As public library professionals, this should not be optional but a core mission for us.

When the library invests in building relationships with the business community, it is investing in the livelihood and future of all of its citizens.

While statistics may point to the value of libraries in the business community, they certainly do not capture the entirety of its relationship with the public library. Some still view their local public library as outdated and obsolete. There may be great reverence for the library because people respect what it represents—education, literacy, and opportunity—but many people do not know how the library fits into their lives, particularly their professional lives.

When members of the business community are informed about the resources, workshops, technology, or other ongoing engagement projects at the library, they are often amazed, intrigued, and prompted to learn more. This appreciation grows when librarians develop meaningful relationships and work with business people on committees and socialize with them in networking groups.

This appreciation can become mutual advocacy. The library no longer has to tout its own accomplishments and worth because others will advocate for it. It is much more valuable to have peers vouch for an organization than to have the organization vouch for itself. To use a business analogy, people often tell job seekers that they should not necessarily ask others for interviews and job leads when networking, but rather they should be asking others how they can be of service. In turn, when someone does learn of a job opening or promotional opportunity, they are happy to return the favor to the job seeker. This holds true for how the library will integrate itself into the business community: We will demonstrate how the library is relevant by supporting our members, who in turn will support and understand the library on a deeper level.

Becoming an equal partner

Every community and library has specific goals for how to improve connections with local businesses. And through the embedded business model, relationships will indeed change and new opportunities will be created or discovered. That being said, the overall goal for this position is a consistent focus on learning and understanding the business community on a meaningful level as well as positioning the library as an organization that is part of it. As library professionals, we tend to assume that because we view the library as a relevant and integral part of the community, others must share those views. The truth is many people view the library as irrelevant.

However, embedded business librarianship is not self-serving. It comes from a true and honest attempt to understand, learn, and be an equal partner. This means stepping back and listening—not just telling the business community what you think they want to or should hear. It also means demonstrating the library’s case, not just saying it. Embedded business librarianship recognizes that you do not know or have to know all the answers to the issues or struggles that the business community may face. You are going to work with them toward a solution, not try to be the solution.

As you increase your interactions and engagement, you will undoubtedly discover that the business community may very well be the same people who serve on local charitable committees and school boards and in local government. You may find that you already see them in the library as community members, not as business members. Essentially, when you develop relationships with the business community, you are developing relationships with the entire community.

Getting started

Before getting started, you must have a clear conversation with the management team at your library about the expectations for this role. If your library expects deliverables from every event, workshop, demonstration, or speaking engagement, this discussion will be especially important. Support from colleagues and management is crucial, especially in the beginning when much of this is experimental. You need to see where your library fits in the equation.

When you are embedded in the business community, your outcomes will not always be consistent, especially in the beginning. You may attend functions where you feel that you did not make an impact or a connection, and your library needs to support your role with an understanding that it is not intended to boost programming statistics, reference questions, or door counts.

Many marks of success are going to be aspects that you cannot put onto paper but you will notice regardless. An example of an improvement that you cannot necessarily quantify is when people in the community start referring you to others and speaking positively about your role and the library’s opportunities.

That being said, depending on your library’s management and board philosophy, you may need to come up with ways to quantify this new role without impeding its progress. Some examples:

  • How many events did you attend each month?
  • If you speak at an event, how many people have you reached?
  • Report news, trends, and data that you are learning in this new role and how these relate to the larger community and the library.

If you need to speak to the board about this new role, emphasize what you are learning and how the relationships you are developing can complement any of the above statistics.

You may feel you need to be a business expert to get started in this role. That is not true. Having a business background can certainly be helpful, but an interest, curiosity, and desire to learn more about business are the most essential assets. The most important aspect is your knowledge of your library and your own eagerness and desire to make a difference. If a library professional possesses these qualities, there is no reason that he or she cannot be an embedded business librarian.

How relationships will transform

Depending on how often your library has already positioned itself in the community, you may be treading on brand-new territory. Regardless if you already have a solid business relationship foundation or your library is a complete novice, you will no doubt feel awkward and out of place in the beginning as an embedded librarian. There may be times where you will feel tongue-tied, confused, or like you do not belong. Over time, you will absolutely develop confidence and a sense of who you are and how the library fits into the conversation with business members.

In moments of doubt, it helps to reflect on why you are the embedded business librarian. Focusing on building relationships from a genuine belief that you want what is best for your library’s community and that you can add value to people’s lives will keep you driven, focused, and motivated.

As you continue in the embedded business librarian role, you will go from an outsider who has to be clued into the community’s goings-on to someone who is aware of the latest developments, trends, and events. Instead of hosting a table at a community event, you may be on the committee for organizing the event. Instead of attending a business “lunch and learn,” you may be invited to present at one. Instead of going to a local speaking engagement, you may have been one of the people to help select the speaker. Instead of introducing yourself at village merchant meetings, you will be able to update everyone on trends at the library and stay abreast of trends in the community. You will also learn how the library can host ongoing projects, events, and platforms that directly serve the business community.

The bottom line is that you can expect relationships with the business community to transform from transactional to interactional.

Don’t be afraid to get started

You might feel pressured to do everything at once, but don’t be afraid to start small. This is a process that will take time. Even if you feel that you are not making progress, you have not failed—and will not fail—because you are serving your community to the best of your ability. Have patience with yourself and with the community. Encourage yourself to learn new technology, trends, relationship interactions, and everything else that comes with your role.