Archive for May 10th, 2012

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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