The Authority of Experts

I’m building a staff photo board at work. In addition to a photo, I asked people to tell me their name, title, and what they were an “expert” in. I specified that they could be expert at anything, work-related or not work-related, giving the examples “cheese” and “being able to find ‘missing’ books.” Many people have been reticent to name their “expertise.” People seem worried that doing so might be conceited, or that others will try to test them. And interestingly, two staff members, both higher level managers, said that they felt that they were more a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

At my old job, I asked this question to two other groups – museum educators, and museum docents. Neither of these groups expressed the same reluctance to name their areas of expertise. Of course, medium may have something to do with it, at the museum, they answered verbally, whereas at my library, we are writing down their answers. Spoken claims don’t carry as much weight as written ones. But I also think that it may have something to do with the library environment.

Expertise and authority are key concepts in libraries. Librarians’ responsibilities often include helping patrons learn to evaluate someone’s credentials, to find the difference between well-supported arguments and wild claims. In school and college libraries, this might manifest as information literacy instruction, while in public libraries this is more likely to take the form of telling patrons, “no, don’t give that website your bank details so you can get free money, it’s a scam.” These are both excellent services that really help patrons. Encouraging independent thought and healthy skepticism is the positive manifestation of the weight we place on expertise and authority.

But these concepts also work to stifle staff and inhibit positive change in our service models. This idea of the sacred coupling of expertise and authority results in policies that seem only to guard the gravitas of the reference librarian – policies that state circulation staff can’t place holds, for example, or that pages can’t direct a patron in the stacks to the book that they are looking for. While it is true that reference librarians are trained to look for and address unstated information needs, there is no reason that they must personally examine every query for them. There is no reason that pages and circ staff can’t be trained to perform these tasks, and to know when to say to a patron “I need help helping you.”

Reference librarians are experts at deciphering and meeting information needs. But being an “expert” doesn’t preclude asking for help in this task, in fact, it absolutely requires the patron’s assistance. I was once asked by a patron, “Where are the Atlas Maps?” I replied, “Are you just looking for atlases, or is there a specific publisher, ‘Atlas Maps’”? “Oh, you don’t know!” She replied disgustedly, and stomped off. And working with other librarians can mean the difference between a swift and accurate answer, and a long bout of research. I have a coworker who is excellent at Reader’s Advisory, another who is an ace technology troubleshooter, another who knows exactly what is in our local history center, etc. etc. You better believe I consult with them as needed.

Being an expert doesn’t always mean being an authority. The reason I asked the question “What are you expert in?” for our staff photo board is because I hoped it would provide new topics for person-to-person information sharing. Unfortunately I mostly succeeded in turning people off. We’re stuck in the idea that an expert has to objectively be an authority. The truth of the matter is, expertise is often relative, and one can be an expert and still be humble.

Poultry Club Boys Listen to the Expert

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