Archive for the ‘expertise’ Category

UPDATE: 22 July, 2016. This post looks at the draft Framework. For a review of the approved version of the frame “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” please visit https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/revisiting-the-framework-is-authority-constructed-and-contextual/

by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ready for round three?

So far I’ve looked at two of the ACRL’s proposed threshold concepts for information literacy, noting that scholarship is only a conversation at a superficial and metaphorical level and that research is indeed inquiry, though the ACRL’s frame describing it is needlessly complex for such a simple, definitional concept. So, where are we?

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

Looks like it’s time to look at authority.

Authority is Constructed and Contextual


From the ACRL draft framework, we get the following description of authority:

Authority of information resources depends upon the resources’ origins, the information need, and the context in which the information will be used. This authority is viewed with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought.

Experts understand that authority is the degree of trust that is bestowed and as such, authority is both contextual and constructed. It is contextual in that the information need may help determine the level of authority required. For instance, getting a weather forecast before going on a picnic does not require the foremost meteorological authority while a dissertation on the latest weather models may. It is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. For instance, a religious community may recognize the authority of religious leaders and texts which may not be as highly regarded by others who are not part of the community. Scholars within a discipline may value specific publications or publishers over others. Allowing that some kinds of expertise are more worthy than others can result in privileging certain sources of information unduly.

An understanding of this concept enables learners to critically examine all evidence – be it a Wikipedia article or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding – and ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the information need of the moment. Thus, the learner both respects the expertise that authority represents, while remaining skeptical of both the systems which have elevated that authority and the information created by it. The experienced researcher knows how to seek authoritative voices, but also recognizes that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. The novice researcher may need to rely on superficial indicators of authority such as type of publication or author credentials where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.

First off, we need to be clear on what kind of authority we’re talking about. This ain’t political authority, which is often synonymous with power. Though information literacy absolutely should address issues of power (and kudos to task force member Troy Swanson for carrying the torch on this one), this particular frame is not about systemic inequality, hierarchies of control, or oppressive social structures. Rather, this frame deals with cognitive authority, which deals instead with trust and credibility. And talking about cognitive authority gives me a chance to throw a shout-out to an LIS hero, the late professor Patrick Wilson: librarian, philosopher, and dean of the library school at Berkeley. Working at the intersection of social epistemology and library science (see why I like him?), Wilson wrote the book on authority. Literally. His 1983 Second-Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority is one of the most widely read theoretical works on information literacy.

I’ve written before about the importance of testimonial knowledge and Wilson has argued essentially the same thing: the vast majority of what we know comes from the testimony of other people. As Wilson puts it, “all I know of the world beyond the narrow range of my own personal experience is what others have told me. It is all hearsay. But I do not count all hearsay as equally reliable. Some people know what they are talking about, others do not. Those who do are my cognitive authorities.” (1983, p. 13). These cognitive authorities are the people we deem credible and Wilson points out that this credibility is constrained in several ways. Cognitive authorities are credible only within limited spheres of influence, so, for example, an astrophysicist may not be an authority on literature and vice versa. Some spheres are very small and specialized (the authority on the mating habits of the Sao Tome Shrew) but I should add that many people are authorities in several spheres of influence.It’s also the case that these spheres of authority are contextual. For example, when I’m with my friends and family, I’m the authority on library and information science. But at work or at a conference I’m nothing special and I defer to cognitive authorities of the library world. What makes me an authority in some spheres and not an authority in others is not my expertise–that doesn’t change–but the nature of the relevant community. And that’s actually an important point that Wilson makes: having cognitive authority is not the same as having expertise. Being an expert is having a certain body of knowledge or know-how; being an authority is having credibility within a sphere of influence independently of knowledge or know-how. It’s all in the context. Of course, in many cases, authorities obtain their credibility by being experts or reliable sources for knowledge. But, it’s not a requirement.


Back to the ACRL concept…

Overall, this overview is pretty good; it tracks Wilson’s work pretty closely. There are just a few lines that need to be changed or clarified:

“various communities may recognize different types of authority.”

This is true but I wish the frame was more explicit that (1) while different communities accept different authorities, (2) that doesn’t mean all authorities are equally valid and (3) it doesn’t mean those communities have good information. Sure, evangelical christians take the Bible as their authoritative source on social and scientific issues. But, that shouldn’t imply that the Bible is on par with science when it comes to authority. Then again, many social constructionists have argued just that. Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argued:

But can we then find a way of saying that the considerations advanced against the Copernican theory by Cardinal Bellarmine—the scriptural description of the fabric of the heavens—were ‘‘illogical or unscientific?’’. . . [Bellarmine] defended his view by saying that we had excellent independent (scriptural) evidence for believing that the heavens were roughly Ptolemaic. Was his evidence brought in from another sphere, and was his proposed restriction of scope thus ‘‘unscientific?’’ What determines that Scripture is not an excellent source of evidence for the way the heavens are set up? (1981, 328-9).

On Rorty’s account, Bellarmine’s appeal to scripture (to support a geocentric universe) was just as rational as Galileo’s use of a telescope (to establish heliocentrism). The problem should be obvious. If you don’t see it, then you might try considering how similar reasoning would play out in a moral situation. But, seeing as how I’ve done the anti-relativism thing in the past, lets consider it settled and move on.

“Allowing that some kinds of expertise are more worthy than others can result in privileging certain sources of information unduly.”

First, expertise and authority are not synonymous and they really ought to be distinguished. If anything, the ACRL needs a separate concept for expertise.  Anyway, I’m also concerned by that dangling ‘unduly’ at the end. It seems that this sentence is saying that evaluating some information sources as better than others amounts to improper privileging. But, isn’t that the point? Aren’t we supposed to admit that some kinds of authority/expertise are better than others? Even this very frame admits that a local weather report won’t cut it for doctoral research on climate science. Sorry, ACRL, but I’m going keep on teaching students that it’s a good thing to privilege some information sources over others (in context).

“the learner both respects the expertise that authority represents”

Again, authority represents credibility, not expertise. Though the two often appear together, many so-called authorities aren’t experts at all; many experts aren’t authorities.

“The novice researcher may need to rely on superficial indicators of authority such as type of publication or author credentials…”

I’d contend that even expert researchers look to types of publications and author credentials for evidence of authority qua community acceptance.

Knowledge Practices

The frame on authority establishes the following dispositions, which I’ll annotate, lightly:

  • “Determine how authoritative information should be for a particular need.”
    • Should be clear that it’s the information source that’s authoritative, not the information itself.
  • “Identify markers of authority when engaging with information, understanding the elements that might temper that authority.”
    • Seems like a good idea
  • “Understand that many disciplines have acknowledged authorities in the sense of well-known  scholars and publications that are widely considered “standard,” and yet even in those situations, some scholars would challenge the authority of those sources.”
    • This is a tricky point. We should never take an information source to be infallible, so it makes sense to question even what we read in in the most influential journals. But, when we question cognitive authority, what are we supposed to do? For example, we can admit that an article in an authoritative journal is wrong without diminishing the authority of the journal. Of course, repeated wrongs will diminish reliability which will diminish credibility, but my point is that we need to be careful: are we questioning the veracity of a source provided by a cognitive authority or are we are we questioning cognitive authority itself. The former does not automatically imply the latter.
  • “Recognize that authoritative content may be packaged formally or informally, and may include dynamic user-generated information.”
    • “may include dynamic user-generated information”? So, you’re saying comments, right? Online articles have comments? What does this have to do with authority?
  • “Acknowledge that they themselves may be seen, now or in the future, as authorities in a particular area, and recognize the responsibilities that entails.”
    • It would be nice if the ACRL mentioned what those responsibilities are.
  • “Evaluate user response as an active researcher, understanding the differing natures of feedback mechanisms and context in traditional and social media platforms.”
    • Again, how do comments and retweets factor into authority. I might be able to accept the practice if the ACRL explained this point, but honestly it just seems like a strange addition. (As an aside, the Framework comes across as having a strange relationship with social media. Whenever social media is mentioned, it feels like an afterthought desperately shoehorned in.)


Again, lightly annotated:

Learners who are developing their information literate abilities are:

  • Inclined to develop and maintain an open mind when encountering varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives.”
    • I totally agree. Now what does it have to do with authority in particular?
  • “Motivated to find authoritative sources, recognizing that authority may be conferred or manifested in unexpected ways.”
    • No problem here
  • “Aware of the importance ofassessing content critically to the best of their ability.”
    • This is just generally good advice. Not sure how it’s specific to authority.
  • “Recognize that there are potential problems with traditional notions of granting authority.”
    • There certainly are, but it might help to talk about them.
  • “Conscious that maintaining these attitudes and actions requires frequent self monitoring.”
    • “Be aware of what you’re doing.” Good advice across the board. Why is it specifically here. You know, several of the dispositions, throughout the framework, really need to be pulled out and given their own space. I’m thinking it could just be called “Critical Thinking.”


The Verdict: Is authority contextual and constructed?

I’m going to agree with the ACRL on this one: authority is constructed and contextual. Hopefully this concept will bring renewed attention to Wilson’s work on cognitive authority, but I’m not keeping my fingers crossed. Thankfully, the concept as written doesn’t commit itself to either strong constructionism or naive realism, so it should be palatable to a wide range of librarians. However, it would help if the relationship between authority and expertise were fleshed out a little better. If it helps, I’ve got a post on the nature of expertise and another on the expertise of librarians. Really, if there’s a problem with this frame, it’s in the knowledge practices and dispositions. First, the parts on social media are tacked on sort of awkwardly. Second, many of the knowledge practices suffer from lack of explanation. “Markers of authority,” “packaged formally or informally,” “responsibilities that [authority] entails,” “user response.” These aren’t explained in the overview and can be interpreted in many ways. There’s nothing wrong with leaving things open to interpretation, but it does work against the purported “thresholdiness” of the concepts if they can be freely interpreted however librarians want. Third, several of the dispositions are just generally good intellectual traits and it’s hard to see why they are coupled with authority in particular. Other frames make more explicit connections between their dispositions and the concepts in question. This frame? Not so much.

And at three frames in I’ve reached the halfway point. The scholarship frame points to a helpful metaphor, but it also oversimplifies scholarship in an unhelpful way. The research frame gets things right, but it also doesn’t say that much. As Paul Hrycaj pointed out in the comments, “Given the meaning of “inquiry,” this frame seems equivalent to ‘Research is research.'” And the authority frame also gets things right but leaves a lot unexplained. Still, each frame is stronger than the last and I’m hopeful that the trend continues.

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by ktylerconk on Flickr, CC BY

One of my favorite things about the old beaux-arts Carnegie libraries is that they usually feature inspirational quotations inscribed deep into their marble friezes, architraves, and whatnot. For example, you may recognize the line in the image above from the New York Public Library. “But above all things Truth beareth away the victory.” Sounds pretty awesome, right? It’s almost as if the library is gently reminding visitors that it’s in the truth-business and since truth is the most powerful thing in the world, if you just stop in and look around, you’re bound to come out a winner! Actually, that’s exactly what it means; the line comes from the King James version of 1 Esdras and the dude who said it ended up winning a speech-writing contest hosted by King Darius I.* (For any millennials reading this, Darius was the dad of the evil king in 300.)

Anyway, inspirational quotations are sort of a mainstay in libraries and, to that end, the new library here at UTC will feature around 100 quotes in and around the building. To facilitate the short turn-around given by the architect, we recently asked the campus community to submit quotations related to libraries, learning, education, and the like. Of course, the last thing we want is to chisel something into granite only to have a student or professor loudly declaim against a misquotation. So, we’ve been attempting to verify as many quotes as possible and, to date, we’ve fact-checked 298 quotations, proverbs, aphorisms, and sayings. In the process, I’ve had time to think about how something as simple as a quotation can act as a barometer of how we understand truth and knowledge in libraries. Allow me to explain…

First, here’s a quote we received that has been attributed to Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

You know, that would look pretty cool in one of the group study rooms. Poking around Google, you’ll see the quote repeated in most of the popular quotation websites. It’s included in dozens of books of quotations. It’s listed at wikiquote.org as appearing in the 1984 book Curing Nuclear Madness, edited by Frank Sommers and Tana Dineen (Toronto: Meuthen, p. 158). The American Library Association includes it at libraryquotes.org. It even sounds like the kind of thing Margaret Mead would say. And, to top it off, it’s quoted on literally every page at the official Institute for Intercultural Studies website. You know, the institute that Margaret danged Mead founded. Obviously, I marked it as verified and I approved it for use in the new building.

Except, I didn’t. Even with multiple sources–some highly reputable like the ALA and the IIS–I marked the Mead quote as unverified and unfit for use in the new library. Popular quotation websites are, as most librarians know, filled to the brim with misquotations. The book mentioned on WikiQuote is an incredibly obscure book of New Age social psychology written by a sex therapist. The ALA list of library quotes lists “The newsletter of the Friends of the Largo Public Library, FL” as the “primary” source.** Even the IIS admits (on the FAQ page) that “we have been unable to locate when and where it was first cited.” The one thing missing is a primary source. Without a book, article, interview, or other work by or featuring Margaret Mead, I’m not going to call the quote verified and it won’t go in the library.

Am I being stubborn? I suppose some librarians may think I am. And here we can point to a rather mundane example of how our philosophical theories and attitudes inform professional practice. In contrast to the common argument that librarians need more discussion of practice and less theory, I want to show how deep philosophical convictions play a real role in professional practice. Let’s look at three common librarian attitudes towards truth: constructionism, pragmatism, and realism.

First, if you consider the massive amounts of agreement regarding the Mead quote to be sufficient verification for using it in a library, then you are most likely a social constructionist. This is a somewhat common view and it holds that the truth is whatever we have agreed is the truth. Typically, this agreement takes place through social processes. For the social constructionist, we are justified in believing that Mead said it…because everyone agrees she said it. Further, the social constructionist approach is highly skeptical of authority or credibility. To the social constructionist, what matters is reliability or consensus (Lankes, 2007)*** so it’s the consensus about Mead’s quote that matters, not the nitpicking about primary sources. Dave Lankes of “new librarianship” fame is a good example of a social constructionist.

Second, you may believe that the potential value of the quote for students and the lack of proof that Mead didn’t say it are enough to consider it verified. In this case, you are most likely a pragmatist. That is, you probably believe that truth is whatever we find most useful to believe. For the pragmatist, the quote should be verified because Mead said it for all intents and purposes. Practically speaking, adding Mead’s name gives the quote social and intellectual cachet and doesn’t deprive anyone of their claim to authorship. Likewise, practically speaking, attributing the quote to Mead helps spread Mead’s rather important and compelling worldview. Nitpicking over primary source documents misses the point: truth is about what is most practical and useful to believe, not what is “out there” in the world, and believing that Mead said it is more useful than attributing it to an anonymous source.  Lots of librarians identify as pragmatists (see Crowley, 2005, Spanning the theory-practice divide in library and information science. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.).

Finally, if you withhold judgment about the quote and refuse to verify it in the light of massive social and practical agreement, you may just be a realist. The realist takes as a starting point the belief that Mead either did or did not say something about thoughtful committed people. There is an objective fact of the matter and determining that fact requires absolute a high degree of certainty. A recorded interview, a text written by Mead, a letter…the bar for the realist is set fairly high and a verified quote can only be one with a clear, direct, and unambiguous provenance. No matter what people agree she said, or what practical exigencies require, the realist approach hinges on (for lack of a better term) objective evidence. True, some may argue that a book or letter or interview are just texts and texts can be wrong. This is why realism (at least in fact-checking quotations) is very concerned with authority control. This is also why realism does give preference to expertise in the forms of authority and credibility. Interestingly, the realist (and the pragmatist, to a certain extent) does think that consensus and reliability are important. But, that’s qualified as consensus by credible sources and reliable at leading to truth. Ultimately, the realist position is to only call the quote verified to the extent that objective, authoritative evidence supports it.

Now, in many (most?) cases, all three theories will agree. Did Francis Bacon say that “knowledge is power”? To the constructionist everyone agrees he did, so he did. To the pragmatist, it makes the most practical sense to accept that he did, so he did. For the realist, you can find “nam et ipsa scientia potestas est” in the original text of Bacon’s Meditationes Sacræ, so he did. All three theories agree that Bacon’s immortal words are verified. It’s only in the difficult cases that theory or worldview will start to distinguish decisions. This is especially visible in quotes attributed to the most famous and prolific thinkers: Einstein, Twain, King, Angelou, Jefferson, Franklin…anyone whose name can lend gravitas to a pithy saying. And, I should add, this isn’t just a library issue, as the recent proliferation of Tea Party misquotations adequately demonstrates. Indeed, as a realist, I get pretty ticked off when politicians and pundits misattribute or just invent quotes from people like Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and other important folk. Especially when those false quotations stand in direct opposition to what their supposed speakers actually believed (as is usually the case). For those interested in a decidedly realist approach to fact-checking and verification of famous quotations, I recommend the Quote Investigator.

In the end, does any of this matter for practicing librarians? Aren’t we more concerned with the day-to-day practice of librarianship, not abstract philosophical navel-gazing? Well, I suppose that depends on what you want to take away from it. I, for one, think it matters to a certain degree. In information literacy, what do concepts like credibility, relevance, or accuracy mean if not in light of these philosophical worldviews? In scholarly communication, isn’t the emphasis on impact factors and citations evidence of the social constructionist push for consensus building? Isn’t research in evidenced-based librarianship evidence of pragmatic or realist tendencies? Where you fall on these and other issues in large pat depends on your philosophical outlook. So, does philosophy guide practice? As Sydney’s Paul Redding just wrote, in response to Australian MP Jamie Briggs’ assertion that philosophical inquiry isn’t practical,

“In the division of intellectual labour, philosophers work mainly at the level of the hinges between thoughts, on those concepts deeply embedded within the argumentative threads weaving through our culture. But these are threads that have started somewhere with the formation of beliefs, and end somewhere in actions. As the concepts on which philosophers work are typically located a long way from where these threads start or terminate, philosophical research is generally described as “pure” rather than “applied”. But “pure” does not mean “irrelevant”. Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?”

Yes. Philosophical worldviews affect practice. It’s called praxis and it deserves as much attention as it can muster. You can quote me on that.


by DennisM2 on Flickr. CC BY

* Actually, he won so hard that Darius gave him financial and political backing to lead the Jews out of Babylon and build the Second Temple. Dude’s name? Zerubbabel.

** Just an aside: the ALA libraryquotes.org website treats newsletters and desk calendars as “primary sources.” Of all the professional organizations you’d expect to understand “primary source” you’d think the ALA would be right at the top.

*** However, Lankes’ discussion seems pretty inconsistent. He argues that “the most common way to become an authority…is through reliability” (681) and then claims that “reliability and authority can be seen as opposite ends on a spectrum” (681). Are these interlocking concepts or polar opposites? Lankes is unclear. In any event, the realist advocates for authority and reliability, not authority instead of reliability.

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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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