In my last post, I briefly discussed the meaning of the word ‘expert’, ending with a question: “Are librarians experts and, if so, experts on what?” I’m actually working on a paper at this very moment on the issue, but I thought the blog might be a good place to knock around some ideas. So, in this post I want to take a look at how academic librarians understand their own expertise and offer a brief account of how and why academic librarians can accurately be called experts.
First, I want to start with a problem. An old problem, actually, that goes all the way back to one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, the Charmides. In the passage that follows, Socrates and his interlocutor Critias are attempting to determine how an average person can tell a legitimate doctor from a quack…
Socrates: Then he who conducts his inquiry aright will consider the doctor, as a medical man, in connection with cases of health and disease.
Critias: So it seems.
S: And will inquire whether, in what is said or done in such cases, his words are truly spoken, and his acts rightly done?
C: He must.
S: Well now, could anyone follow up either of these points without the medical art?
S: Nobody at all, it would seem, but a doctor; and so not the temperate man either: for he would have to be a doctor, in addition to his temperance.
[Charmides, 171b-c., trans. W. Lamb]
Call this the Paradox of Expertise: how can a non-expert evaluate the claims made by an expert? If we just blindly accept what an expert says, then we’re gullible. But, it would seem that the only way we can correctly evaluate the claims made by putative experts…is to become experts ourselves. But, then, we wouldn’t need to consult the experts in the first place, now would we?
As librarians, this is especially problematic because we are tasked with managing massive quantities of information, most of which we know little to nothing about. Though we may actually be subject-specialists in one or two disciplines, most librarians are charged with providing assistance across all disciplines. For example, I recently provided some research assistance for a graduate thesis in computational
enjuneering ingenearing engeniering…I can’t even spell it I’m so not an expert. How can an idiot like me help a student research a complicated topic without knowing at least as much about that topic as the student asking for help?
What’s more, our patrons don’t seek out misinformation or disinformation; they don’t want to be deceived. No, our patrons seek information “in order to bring about good epistemic outcomes. That is, they want to acquire knowledge, true beliefs, justified beliefs, understanding, etc.” (Fallis, 2006). They come to the library for knowledge…so how can non-subject-specialist librarians facilitate their search? If I’m not an expert on quantum mechanics, how can I help generate new knowledge about quantum mechanics? Put another way, how are students justified in accepting the information the librarian provides?
Well, there are two main approaches to getting around the Paradox of Expertise: criticize the very idea of expertise and show that it is inapplicable or try to figure out some area of expertise that can get librarians through Plato’s trap. First, the negative, or “critical”, approach…
There’s no such thing as experts!
Sure, there have always been the curmudgeonly professors who view academic librarians as mere handmaidens to annotated bibliographies or as merely the people who place book orders. But, lately, there have been calls from within our own ranks to the effect that librarians are not experts…nor should they be. Taking their cues from postmodern theory, some librarians argue that the concept of expertise is tied to knowledge and knowledge to power and that power invariably leads to oppression or subjugation (LeMoine, 2012) . The idea is that being “an expert” is purely a social relationship and that if librarians adopt the “expert” mantle, then librarians are (re)enforcing a relationship of power: we’re experts, you’re not, so we call the shots. As Martin (2009) asks it, “[h]ow can experts assume to know what is right for all people if there is no body of independent, universal truth from which they manifest their expertise?” (p. 3). [This sentiment was recently echoed throughout the comments on this post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum. For the record, Wayne has it right.]
The postmodern approach is to circumvent hierarchies of oppression by embracing relativism, abandoning truth, and focusing instead on the social construction of knowledge, thereby transforming librarians into “non-experts and therefore [making them] more human-centered” (Stover, 2004). As to our relationship with knowledge, Stover (2004) writes that “a postmodern expert’s knowledge is constructed again and again, and may change depending on the client’s needs and experiences” (p.278). Knowledge, hence expertise, is contextual, relative, and socially determined.
Of course, the obvious question arises: if we’re not experts, and if there is in fact no such thing as truth, fact, or objective knowledge, then what the hell purpose do we serve? If it’s all just competing, equally valid “worldviews”, then there is no reason for a student to come to a librarian in the first place…Google will do just fine. The literature on postmodernism or social constructionism in libraries is sizable, but as I’ve previously argued and then reaffirmed later, postmodern approaches to LIS are antithetical to the educational mission of libraries and they can only lead to disenfranchisement. In the absence of arguments to the contrary, let’s just agree that postmodern librarianship is self-contradictory, elitist, anti-intellectual bunk and that we actually are experts in something. But, experts in what?
Librarians are experts on information
If you’ll recall from my last post, I follow Goldman’s (2001) definition of ‘expert’:
An expert (in the strong sense) in domain D is someone who possesses an extensive fund of knowledge (true belief ) and a set of skills or methods for apt and successful deployment of this knowledge to new questions in the domain. (p. 92)
When librarians attempt to define the domain of their expertise–the place where they have knowledge and the ability to apply it–it usually boils down to some aspect of information. Librarians might be “experts at collecting” information (King and Porter, 2012), and especially experts on “the collections they manage and the writing process as practiced in the disciplines” (Wilder, 2005). Librarians might be “information experts” (Pressley and Gilbertson, 2011; O’Kelly and Lyon,2011; Crosby, 2001). For yet others, we’re experts on information literacy, information ethics, information seeking, or information resources. It almost always comes back to information. But, as Shannon (1953) pointed out,
the word ‘information’ has been given different meanings by various writers in the general field of information theory. It is likely that at least a number of these will prove sufficiently useful in certain applications to deserve further study and permanent recognition. It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field. (p. 105)
Basically, the concept of information is too polysemous to be the foundation for our expertise. For example, let’s try a quick show of hands: how many of us spent time in library school discussing signal processing, electrical engineering, or applied mathematics? How many of us are familiar with the Kullback–Leibler divergence or the Shannon-Weaver model? I’m guessing that most of us aren’t familiar because we’re not information scientists (despite the somewhat misleading ‘IS’ in some of our professional certifications). And though there are other, more librarian-friendly aspects of information out there (such as the semantic conception of information), I think we should try to reframe librarian expertise in terms of something more tangible and useful. Information literacy, information seeking, and similar social/behavioral activities are candidates, though I think they are too narrow to be self-sufficient. And we certainly don’t want an open-ended conjunction to describe ourselves in our elevator-speeches: “What’s a librarian, you ask? Well, a librarian is an expert on information literacy and information seeking and access to information and information needs and information technology and infor…hey, where are you going?!”
Librarians and the domain of knowledge
I’ll grant that saying librarians are experts on information management is good for general purpose use. But, we’re experts on information management to what end? Rather than try to situate ourselves as experts in some subject area…rather than try to call ourselves a “science”…I’d like to see librarians take a meta-theoretical approach to what they do. As Abraham Kaplan (1964) argued, librarianship should not be confused with sciences and should instead be placed with the meta-scientific endeavors of logic, mathematics, linguistics, and information science (p. 301). Library theory is not focused on the “substance and content of the endless domain [of knowledge], but only with its form, with its structure, with its order, with the interrelations of the various parts” (p. 304). If Kaplan is right (and I think he is) then librarians are experts on the form, structure, and order of the domain of knowledge, not on any particular subject. So, that’s the direction I want to take: librarians are experts on “the domain of knowledge”. But, what does that really mean?
I should probably say a little something about “the domain of knowledge” and how we come to access it. Historically, philosophers have focused on knowledge acquisition through either direct experience, reason, or reflection, and epistemology has been a highly individualistic enterprise. Yet, the vast majority of what we know doesn’t come from direct experience or ratiocination at all. As Hume put it in his Enquiry,
there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eyewitnesses and spectators (Book X, Part I)
Now, Hume wasn’t talking about courtroom testimony: put simply, testimony is the declaration of fact by a speaker to a hearer/reader/viewer/etc.. For example, I know I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana not by direct experience, but by the testimony of my parents and the testimony of my birth certificate. Likewise, even though I’ve never been there to measure it, I know that Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa by the testimony of those who have. Books, articles, videos, photos, paintings, or whatever information source you choose, these are all candidate means for transmitting testimony. In a nutshell, all those information sources that we librarians collect, organize, and provide access to…they’re means of transmitting testimony.
Of course, we want to avoid the gullibility horn of the Paradox of Expertise, so we have to have an account for where that testimony comes from in the first place. As Michael Dummett writes, for something to count as knowledge, having been told it,
the original purveyor of the information - the first link in the chain of transmission - must himself have known it, and therefore have been a position to know it, or it cannot be knowledge for any of those who derived it ultimately from him. (1994, p. 264)
Jennifer Lackey (1999) slightly weakens Dummett’s claim, explaining that, “[w]hat is necessary for testimonial knowledge is that a speaker’s statement be appropriately connected with the truth, where knowledge on the part of the speaker is only one such connection” (p. 489, my emphasis). And this, I think, is the locus of librarian expertise. A librarian need not be an expert on the subject matter at hand to be a reliable source for knowledge. We just have to provide and guarantee an “appropriate connection” to the knowledge in question so that patrons are connected to knowledge in the appropriate way. Though I may not know a thing about computational whatchamacallit, I can provide a student with the right chain of testimony to get her in touch with the knowledge she needs. Our traditional norms of librarianship (information literacy, accessibility, verifiability, archives, etc.) are all directed at the causal chain of testimony that transmits knowledge from its initial instance to a knowledge seeker.
Librarians are experts on the causal chain of testimony
Like Kaplan argues, we aren’t experts on some particular subject, we’re experts at a meta-theoretical level. Librarians are experts on the causal chain of testimonial transmission. As librarians, we are tasked with ensuring that the causal chain of testimony is intact, accessible, and reliable (i.e., truth-conducive) and to that end we apply (and teach) information literacy, authority control, collection development, and a host of other skills. We promote accessibility, verifiability, and an archival mission. We don’t sit in judgment of particular claims of fact or opinion. Our role is as experts on the transmission of knowledge, not the contents of that knowledge. Following Goldman’s definition, we have domain knowledge of how knowledge spreads through reliable networks and we have the skills needed to tackle new problems in managing those networks.
Basically, there’s a ton of information, misinformation, and disinformation out there. For knowledge seekers, it can be difficult to trace a claim or theory back to the original evidence or justification. That’s where librarians step in as guides. While other experts create new knowledge, we are tasked with managing that knowledge, which requires a type of expertise in its own right. In a strict sense, we’re experts on the causal chain of testimonial transmission. In an elevator-friendly sense, librarians are experts on the domain of knowledge.
Since this is already a rather long post, I’ll hold off on detailing the upshot to my little theory. But, I do think that thinking about librarian expertise can yield specific benefits. In the next post I’ll discuss how a testimony-based view of librarianship gives equal value to all librarian types (public, academic, cataloging, reference, access, etc.), how it solves tricky ethical issues in librarianship, how it admits of both fiction and nonfiction, and how it can be used to prove our value when asked “why do we need librarians anyway?” Later on, I’ll discuss some problems in the epistemology of testimony, and how librarians can help. Here’s a good article, if you’re interested in what those problems may be. In any event, if you bothered to read this far, let me know what you think. I think that librarians are experts on the domain of knowledge understood as the chain of testimony, but I could be wrong. After all, I’m no expert.
Stuff I mentioned earlier
Crosby, O.. (2001). Librarians: Information experts in the Information Age. Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 44(4): 2-15.
Dummett, M. (1994). Testimony and memory. In Matilal, B. and Chakrabarti, A. (Eds.). Knowing from Words, (pp. 251-272), Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Fallis, D. (2006). Epistemic value theory and social epistemology. Episteme, 2(3): 177-188. Online.
Goldman, A. I. (2001). Experts: which ones should you trust. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63(1): 85-101.
Kaplan, A. (1964). The age of the symbol–a philosophy of library education. Library Quarterly, 34(4), 295-304. [Link to review]
King, D. L., & Porter, M. (2012, Feb. 14). Create a library “tech shop”. American Libraires blog. Online.
Lackey, J. (1999). Testimonial knowledge and transmission. The Philosophical Quarterly, 49(197): 471-490.
O’Kelly, M. K., & Lyon, C.. (2011). Google like a librarian. College and Research Libraires News, 72(6): 330-332. Online.
Pressley, L. & Gilbertson, K.. (2011). Librarians as experts: Using the web to assess our value. Computers in Libraries, 31(4): 19-23.
Shannon, C. (1953). The lattice theory of information. IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, 1(1): 105-107
Weaver, W., (1949). The mathematics of communication. Scientific American, 181(1): 11–15. Online.
Wilder, S. (2005). Information literacy makes all the wrong assumptions. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 51(18). Online.