Archive for May, 2012

In my last post I wrote that librarians are experts on the causal chain of testimonial knowledge. Of course, that’s rather technical language, so I’ve been looking for a friendlier way to explain how and why librarians are experts. We’re the people who act as guides to the network of knowledge claims and cultural expressions that make up our cultural record (or at least that portion of it that fits within our financial and moral constraints), so how can we fit that into 140 characters, so to speak. Then it hit me: the social transcript! I explained Charles Osburn’s social transcript theory in a previous post, but the quick take is that ‘social transcript’ refers to the “oral and written communications that are passed on to subsequent generations as knowledge of many kinds, and therefore to be critiqued, accepted, rejected, or even ignored” (Osburn, 134). It’s not just information. It’s not just recorded knowledge. The social transcript is the record of intellectual and aesthetic works that we choose to represent our beliefs, knowledge, values, and culture. As librarians, our role is to act as stewards and guides to that social transcript. Maintaining the social transcript is tantamount to preserving the causal chain of testimony so that we can situate our beliefs appropriately and come to new knowledge and new aesthetic experiences. In the elevator-friendly sense,  are experts on the social transcript. But, so what?

I’d like to use this post to say something about the potential upshots to thinking of librarians as experts on the social transcript (i.e., the causal chain of testimony). So, here goes it…

On the value of being a librarian…any type of librarian.

“Balkan topography” on Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA)

One of the things that bugs me most about librarianship is the endless fragmentation and cordoning-off of various librarian ‘types’. Are you in reference? Instruction? Access services? Cataloging? IT? Archives? Are you a public librarian? Academic librarian? Medical librarian? School librarian? I could list off the various combinations all damned day but, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a librarian and you probably already know that the profession suffers from some pretty severe Balkanization. To a certain extent, that’s to be expected, given the relevant differences between various functions in the library, various types of libraries, and various communities encountered. To make the library run, we need to play different roles.

But, then, why are we all called ‘librarians’? You wouldn’t say that everyone who works at Apple is a software engineer. Or that everyone at Disney World is an “Imagineer”. True, there are organizations like schools, where most members are called ‘teachers’. But, that makes sense because teachers play the same general role, just in different domains. Librarians, on the other hand, play very different roles within their organizations…but all in the same domain.

If we do like many librarians, and go the route of defining ourselves in terms of information particulars (e.g., information literacy, organization of information, access to information, etc.) then we run the real risk of marginalizing our coworkers. Librarians are experts in organizing information? Good for the catalogers, bad for the instructors. Experts in information literacy? Good for the instructors, bad for the catalogers. Experts on literacy? Great for the school librarians, not so much for the medical librarians. Hopefully, you get the drift. In contrast, I think that by defining librarians as experts on the social transcript, we can create a more inclusive environment. Whether cataloging, reference, or archives, we all are playing different roles directed at the same domain of expertise: the social transcript. Likewise, whether school, public, special, or academic, we all have different communities of practice  but we all operate within the same social transcript. Whether you’re an academic reference librarian, a public cataloging librarian, or an early childhood literacy school librarian, we’re all applying our expertise within the social transcript and we all deserve the title ‘librarian’.

On the value of fiction

By Flickr user Metadata Deluxe (CC BY 2.0)

Many librarians want to define librarianship directly in terms of knowledge or information. But, as I’ve asked previously, if libraries are fundamentally places for acquiring knowledge or accessing information, what does that entail for works of fiction? Sure, you could argue that the reason we read The Brothers Karamazov is for insight and knowledge about the human condition, but that’s a rather cynical view of literature and it ignores the emotive and aesthetic value great literature can have. And, of course, the view completely falls apart with popular books like Twilight or the Harry Potter series. Do we read Harry Potter to gain knowledge about child wizardry? Twilight to gain insight into the experiences of teen werewolves?  Of course not. We read these books because they entertain us. We read these books because they are part of the cultural landscape. In other words, they are sewn into the fabric of the social transcript. This is why 50 Shades of Grey makes headlines, and far more sexually explicit books in the same library don’t: 50 Shades of Grey is part of our social transcript (Working Stiff…not so much).

On the value of bad information

By Flickr user Mr. Reivaj (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Of course, our commitment to knowledge and information is a still a pretty big deal. So, it seems odd that we routinely collect, organize, and make accessible bad information. We say we are committed to information literacy or that we are committed to knowledge creation. And yet we keep on buying books on homeopathy. On astrology. On bullshit medical advice that is killing children. Libraries are full of  misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. And even with less controversial topics, libraries stock their shelves with books that directly contradict each other. Why?

Part of the reason for this is because, as experts on the social transcript, we understand the difference between primary information and secondary information. By ‘primary information’ I mean the actual claims made by an information source. By ‘secondary information’ I mean the information we can derive about an information source. For example, a physics textbook contains primary information insofar as it reports certain facts about the world. It contains secondary information insofar as that collection of facts, formulae, and theories says something about the social transcript (i.e., secondary information about what we take to be ‘physics’). Likewise, though a book on homeopathy contains a great deal of false information at the primary level, it offers a great deal of valuable secondary information about the social transcript: it tells us what some people think is true. As stewards of the social transcript, we need to provide both what is true as well as what is believed to be true.

Of course, this isn’t to say that any information, misinformation, or disinformation is part of our domain, or that we have to treat misinformation and disinformation equitably. Patrons generally seek knowledge, not deception. So, we generally provide factual information, not fringe theories: I don’t give physics majors articles on astrology or medical students books on homeopathy. Unless they ask for them. Furthermore, scientific and cultural theories are constantly being adjusted. The medical theories of Galen won’t get you through medical school and Newton’s aether theory won’t get you through physics, but at a secondary level of information about information, it’s vital that libraries collect even these discredited theories as a means of enhancing the social transcript and preserving all of the links in the chain of knowledge.

On the value of librarians in a changing world

I’ll add one more upshot: defending the contemporary value of librarians. If we, as a profession, are going to justify our continued existence into the 21st Century, we need to make a strong case. One of the more popular tactics is to reposition librarianship as a social science, which directs our professional focus at information users rather than information itself.  I’d be an idiot to suggest that we shouldn’t pay close attention to the information needs of our communities. But, should that be the core of librarianship? When we go before the city council, the school board, or the budget committee, do we want to justify our value by saying, “well, we’re the people who study how communities use information”? Of course not. Research into the sociology of information use may be what we do, but it isn’t what defines us.

So, why not explain that librarians are experts on the social transcript? We’re the ones that make sure that the chain of knowledge is intact, reliable, and accessible. We ensure that our communities have access to the domain of knowledge and culture in a way that makes sense. That last bit is important. Yes, the amount of information available online is staggering. With an Internet connection, the average person has access to quantities of information that are orders of magnitude greater than even that contained in the Library of Congress. But, which information matters? This is where librarians come in: we make that flood of information manageable.

Moreover, defending librarianship in terms of the domain of knowledge or the social transcript gives us a firm foundation for the relevance of librarians in conversations regarding scholarly communication, open access, copyright, and similar important issues. Rather than describe our value with gate counts and grade point averages, we can point to our unique expertise in dealing with the transmission of knowledge across and through barriers. Not only do we curate information to help our patrons discover what matters, we play an active role in shaping the networks that convey that information.

Conclusion: it’s not about information

I guess what I’m trying to say is that information and knowledge are not the bedrock of a philosophy of librarianship. Yes, information and knowledge are integral to a properly functioning library, but they aren’t the things that distinguish us as librarians: we’re neither information scientists nor epistemologists. Instead, we’re experts on the transmission of information and knowledge through testimony. We understand the networks that preserve and deliver knowledge, if not the knowledge itself. Thinking of librarianship in terms of testimony solves some thorny philosophical issues, but if philosophical issues aren’t relevant to you, then just take the aggregate of all the various chains of knowledge and expression available to us. That’s the social transcript. And that’s where librarians live.


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Photo by pkingDesign on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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?

C:No, indeed.

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…


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by Flickr user Chris Pirillo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you read TheAtlantic.com regularly, then you may have seen a recent article entitled “Wikipedia and the Shifting Definition of ‘Expert‘” by resident Wikipedia-booster Rebecca J. Rosen. According to Rosen, even though Wikipedia is deferential to expertise, changes are afoot:

a new study from researchers at Stanford University and Yahoo Research points to a complementary phenomenon: The definition of what makes someone an expert is changing…Expertise, to these researchers, isn’t who a writer is but what a writer knows, as measured by what they read online.

Actually, what she links to is a summary of a poster presentation from the 2012 World Wide Web conference in Lyon. The poster, entitled “A Data-Driven Sketch of Wikipedia Editors“, presents the findings of an as yet unpublished study by a couple of computer scientists from Yahoo! Research and a doctoral student from Stanford. The longer paper, entitled “Smart but Fun: A Data-Driven Portrait of Wikipedia Editors,” is still under review so I won’t pull any juicy citations from it, but it’s worth a read anyway. But, basically, the researchers pulled data from the Yahoo! Toolbar and compared the search behavior of Wikipedia editors to that of other Web users. They found that Wikipedia users tend to be “more sophisticated than usual Web users” and “deeply immersed in pop culture.” No big surprise. (Except for the “more sophisticated” bit. I don’t know any tech-savvy people who would willingly install the Yahoo! Toolbar.) Anyway, Rosen zeroes in on the researchers claim that “[i]ntuitively, someone is an expert in a topic if their interest is significantly above average.” She adds that “it’s a new and radically distilled understanding of expertise: An expert is someone who knows something.” All this supposedly lends credence to Maria Bustillos’s infamous claim that Wikipedia has meant “the death of the expert.” Or, at the very least, it’s signaled a new sense of expertise that is gradually usurping traditional notions of credibility.

The experts aren’t dead

If you’ve bothered to click on the links, you’ll see pretty quickly that Rosen’s article is ill-informed and that she probably hasn’t read the very study she cites. Likewise, you’ll see that the authors of the study have a weak grasp of what it means to be intuitive. “Intuitively, someone is an expert in a topic if their interest is significantly above average”? In what world is that intuitive? Apparently a world where correlation implies causation, I guess. A world where compulsive gamblers are experts on game theory, teenage boys are experts on the female reproductive system, and toddlers are experts on differential geometry. I think we all can agree that merely showing a great deal of interest in a subject does not make you an expert on said subject.

"Mama! Dada! Positive Gaussian curvature!"

I think there are more plausible and certainly more well-thought-out definitions of what an expert really is. In his widely anthologized article “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?”, Alvin Goldman proposes the following definition of what it means to be an expert:

 [W]e can say that 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. Anyone purporting to be a (cognitive) expert in a given domain will claim to have such a fund and set of methods, and will claim to have true answers to the question(s) under dispute because he has applied his fund and his methods to the question(s). (p. 92)

So, you can be an expert so long as you satisfy two properties: you’ve got to know a lot about something and you have to be able to apply that knowledge to new situations. For example, a particle physicist is not an expert on subatomic particles merely because she knows a lot about them. She also has to be able to make predictions, solve problems, and be able to adapt to new discoveries. That is, the expert is the one who can reliably solve problems in particle physics. In contrast, the Wikipedia editors on the particle physics page are not experts because they are interested in the page. Neither are they experts if they’re read a lot and have a lot of domain knowledge. They’re only experts on particle physics if they can successfully apply their knowledge in new and challenging situations. Basically, if a given Wikipedia editor is capable of searching for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, I’d say she is probably an expert on particle physics.

And, if you think about it, this comports well with our standard distinction between expert and amateur. An amateur is very interested in a subject and knows a lot about it. An expert knows a lot about it and can put that knowledge to use as a tool for discovering new questions and finding new answers. This, of course, is not to say that amateurs can’t discover anything new–they certainly can and do all the time. But, experts do it consistently and reliably.

But, are we paying attention to the experts?

Here’s the thing: geeky postmodernists love Wikipedia because, to them, Wikipedia represents a destabilizing force. The success of the world’s largest encyclopedia has supposedly meant the end of the old, post-Enlightenment hegemony of ‘expertise’, ‘truth’, and ‘objectivity’. Now, we live in a world where the expert is dead, where individual genius and creativity are symptoms of “Romantic snobbery“, and where quaint notions of ‘fact’ are officially deceased. But, of course, this is all just so much sophism and intellectual mysticism. Truth, fact, objectivity, and expertise are safe, secure, and just as they have always been. In fact, as I argued a few weeks ago, Wikipedia is actually surprisingly deferential to traditional, scholarly expertise; Wikipedia is founded on a deep respect for authoritative knowledge. So, contra the postmodern geeks, the experts aren’t dead…we’re just not paying attention to them.

And it’s true! We are willfully ignoring expertise. Homeopathy is a billion dollar industry. Horoscopes appear in every “news”paper. People think gays and lesbians shouldn’t adopt, that Obama is a secret Muslim, that there’s no agreement on climate change, that intelligent design is legitimate science, and that vaccines cause autism, just to name a few pants-crappingly stupid beliefs that people would stop believing if they just listened to the damn experts. Actually, that last one about vaccines is a good example of just how dangerous it is to ignore genuine expertise. For a great overview of why and how non-experts should defer to experts, take a look at Stephen John’s “Expert Testimony and Epistemological Free-Riding: The MMR Controversy” in the July 2011 Philosophical Quarterly (you may be able to find a free copy if you poke around a little).

by Flickr user chrisheuer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

by Flickr user chrisheuer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Are librarians experts?

Basically, an expert is someone with the requisite skills and knowledge to discover and answer new questions in a given domain. It’s not just about what we know, it’s about whether and how we can use what we know. As a librarian, this brings up an interesting couple of questions: are librarians experts and, if so, what is our area of expertise? Postmodern librarians like LeMoine (2012)Martin (2009)Stover (2004), argue that librarians are non-experts. Realists like Pressley and Gilbertson (2011), O’Kelly and Lyon (2011), and Crosby (2001) argue that librarians are experts on information and information seeking. There’s actually no consensus about whether librarians are experts or “generalists.” And though I do think that librarians are experts, I’m not so sure that calling us experts on “information” is accurate.

In my next post, I want to tackle the question of whether and, if so, how librarians are experts. It’s an especially interesting problem given that we reference librarians routinely assist patrons in researching subjects about which we know very little…so how and why are patrons justified in trusting our help? And in case you think this is just idle, armchair philosophy, remember that there is an active movement afoot to replace academic librarians (generalists) with subject-specialist post-docs (experts).  Figuring out whether librarians are experts is a crucial step in explaining our worth. And rather than claim that the definition of ‘expert’ has been radically altered, or that the expert is dead, or that expertise doesn’t matter, I’d like to argue that it most certainly does and now more so than ever.

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