Marydee Ojala
Editor, ONLINE Magazine
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Distributed Librarianship

ONLINE, March 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


In library terms, distributed librarians within an organization may be in different locations, time zones, and/or disciplines.
A growing trend in librarianship is something I like to call "distributed librarianship." I base my definition loosely on distributed computing, where several computers are connected via a network to share aspects of tasks. As Webopedia ( puts it, "A word processing application might consist of an editor component on one computer, a spell-checker object on a second computer, and a thesaurus on a third computer."

In library terms, distributed librarians within an organization may be in different locations, time zones, and/or disciplines. It's partly the distance teamwork that Laurie Putnam talks about in this issue, particularly her discussion of a home-based information professional staffing a virtual reference desk, but it's more wide-ranging than simply teamwork. It can be an entire virtual library, where the task of the librarians is to deliver information directly to desktops. Roger Strouse elaborates on this in the INDUSTRY INSIGHTS column in this issue, particularly the tricky issues of buying content.

Distributed librarianship takes several forms. It's the newspaper library that puts its information professionals on the individual beats–the Sports Desk has its librarian, as does the News, Features, and City Desk. (Personally, I'd ask to be assigned to the Food Desk.) It's the pharmaceutical library that puts its people next to the bench chemists and those working in discovery. It's the commercial bank that adds an information professional to the lending officer staff. It's the multinational that assigns librarians to specific projects and has them working with the project team to ensure that all information needs are not only met but anticipated. Getting librarians out to the individual business units is an aspect of distributed librarianship.

Some librarians have been distributed to home offices, others to satellite offices within the company. One high-tech company has a division several states away from its headquarters. That division decided they needed an information professional: not a physical library, but a librarian who would do all those good things librarians do–locate, analyze, evaluate, and disseminate information. The critical piece for physical distribution is keeping in touch with the network. Distributed librarianship is not performed in a vacuum. This is not a solo librarian here and a solo librarian there. It's a coordinated effort.

Different time zones encourage distributed librarianship. When a librarian at an investment bank in London is in the middle of a research project and it's getting late, she can pass the entire package to a distributed library network member in Toronto. When it gets late there and the bank still hasn't reached closure, the package can be sent to the Tokyo library. Documentation of the procedures at all the different locations in the different time zones is essential to the success of this distributed model. Time shifting is a characteristic of distributed librarianship, as is trust and shared working procedures.

Some organizations have practiced distributed librarianship, without calling it that, for some time. Others, struggling with budgetary pressures and the need to better understand the information needs of their customers, will find that the distributed librarianship model solves many problems.

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