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What Makes an Expert?

by on August 23, 2016

An expert is generally considered someone with extensive knowledge or experience in a given area. But in today’s society of information available instantly at one’s fingertips, literally, the concept and role of the expert has shifted. Still, many people desire expert advice and actively seek out others outside their circle for confirmation or information.

For our patrons, librarians should be considered experts in many areas. Certainly we should be considered experts in the areas of reader’s advisory and research. As such, I believe we should be the experts on experts. It is the librarian’s role to evaluate source material and information, specifically the content’s legitimacy. These tasks are fundamental to what we do. In reality, however, many librarians are not experts, in all areas of librarianship.

I have frequently found that library boards seek out external experts to counsel them on policy and procedure, often ignoring their experts on staff. Staff, in turn—often in retirement or upon not getting full time employment—become consultants to other libraries to give them advice. This rotation has always perplexed me. How is the hired consultant different than the resident staff member?

There are many things that I know nothing about; however, there are topics in which I consider myself an expert. I define myself as an expert because of my combined formal education and practical real-life experience. But the question plagues my mind: How does one identify an expert?

I’ve met many colleagues with whom I’ve disagreed on their self-definition as experts based on the sometimes-problematic advice they give. At the same time, I’ve sought advice from other colleagues who express that they don’t feel worthy of even being labeled a professional, let alone an expert.

How can the librarian evaluate an “expert”? How do we asses institutional consultants? How can we determine who has the expertise we want to invest in at a conference presentation or professional development? How can we decide who to suggest for our patrons?

There are paths to determining expertise, but everyone must commit to walking that path. One can usually learn about most consultants’ or presenters’ backgrounds, education, and experience. Many times we can even find a sampling of their work and make at least a preliminary assessment of their credibility based on these elements. We already do this when we read reviews for our collection development and when hiring staff. We do this in our personal lives when seeking product reviews, consumer guides, or even asking others for recommendations. But how often do we question our “experts”?

I believe everyone is an expert on something, but before I blankly follow another person (or ask that they follow me), I want them to consider and investigate. Before I call myself or another an expert, I need to be able to explain why they have earned that title. As librarians, we do not need to be “experts” for each other, simply “colleagues.” But I hope we all can explain why we have earned the title of “expert” for our patrons.

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