Are Librarians Experts?

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

August 22, 2017

Are librarians actually experts? If so, what are we expert at? What is our expertise?

The Oxford English Dictionary (via Google) offers this definition of “expert”:


A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. “experts in child development”


Having or involving authoritative knowledge.
“he had received expert academic advice”

And the OED (again via Google) defines “expertise” thusly:


Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field.
“technical expertise”

Wikipedia—that engine of crowdsourced expertise of variant quality—states:

“An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study. Experts are called in for advice on their respective subject, but they do not always agree on the particulars of a field of study. An expert can be believed, by virtue of credential, training, education, profession, publication or experience, to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially (and legally) rely upon the individual’s opinion. . .

Experts have a prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field. In specific fields, the definition of expert is well established by consensus and therefore it is not always necessary for individuals to have a professional or academic qualification for them to be accepted as an expert. In this respect, a shepherd with 50 years of experience tending flocks would be widely recognized as having complete expertise in the use and training of sheep dogs and the care of sheep. Another example from computer science is that an expert system may be taught by a human and thereafter considered an expert, often outperforming human beings at particular tasks. In law, an expert witness must be recognized by argument and authority.”

So, I ask you, what are special librarians and information professionals “expert” at? What is our expertise? Said another way, if we were called upon to testify in a court case, how would we represent ourselves? When does one qualify as an expert witness?

“An expert witness, professional witness or judicial expert is a witness, who by virtue of education, training, skill, or experience, is believed to have expertise and specialized knowledge in a particular subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially and legally rely upon the witness’s specialized (scientific, technical or other) opinion about an evidence or fact issue within the scope of his expertise, referred to as the expert opinion, as an assistance to the fact-finder. Expert witnesses may also deliver expert evidence about facts from the domain of their expertise. At times, their testimony may be rebutted with a learned treatise, sometimes to the detriment of their reputations.” (Wikipedia)

That said, are we expert upon graduation? Or is something more needed? What distinguishes a novice, newbie, or intern from a fully performing “expert” in our field? What lines are crossed when we move through the stages from student through graduation and first position to full expert? Is this what those job advertisements mean when they require 5-10 years of relevant experience?


So, back to this column’s title. . . are librarians actually experts? If so, what are we expert at? What is our expertise?

We seem to meet the criteria: we have an accredited education, a valued credential, experiences and abilities in an occupation, and, indeed, a profession, a calling. Worryingly, there are emergent expert systems for which the definition above suggests that they might outperform human experts.

And, more importantly, how do we communicate our expertness? What is our expertise and what territory can we rightly or realistically claim? What do we want our clients to know about our expertise?

Let’s think a little bit of what experts derive from being recognized as such.

An expert derives some benefits from being so perceived. These include public respect for your skills, moderate understanding of what you bring to the table, some simple trust for your competencies, and, arguably, compensation differences if you’re an accredited professional (vis-a-vis lawyers, doctors, engineers, therapists, etc.). You also may pass hurdles like employment credentials or be accepted for skills based on your education and credentials rather than being tested by your employer as part of the hiring process.

Those are good things.

What is our ‘expertise’?

We may have a foundation of expertise and a shared philosophy of librarianship that underpins being an information professional. That said, the age of generalists has ended, if for no other reason than no one librarian can know all aspects of librarianship, even in a defined sector. The age of specialization is on us.

We work in a complex field and, sometimes, we might confuse our sector, industry, or field expertise with the actual expertise of “information.” Our complexity runs the gamut, with information professionals having expert status in metadata, reference, research skills, question negotiation, scholarly publishing, negotiation, design—the list is too long to enumerate here.

How does this work in a technological field?

There is no doubt that technology is not the place for lone wolves—despite the Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, et al mythology. Successfully leveraging technology is a team effort, and no one person can hold all the keys.

So, we must represent our expertise—and expertness—in context: as part of teams. Many IT/IS folks are pretty knowledgeable in related areas, but our teamwork with them on issues of user experience, research competencies, metadata, ontologies, taxonomies and so forth can be (and often is) critical to many projects’ or enterprises’ success. We all have stories about how our experience, talents and expertise were demonstrated through asking the right question(s) or clarifying/identifying a research need or process that turned a project in the right direction. Many of us have great stories of our impact on the work of our clients, or in our organizations.

Hiding our light…

Sadly, I don’t have a simple and concise answer for what makes us all experts. Rats! I do believe that we are. When asked, I say that ‘I know how to orchestrate information so that knowledge creation happens seamlessly’. I’ve discovered that, for me, this generates better conversations than does using the “L” word. I also believe we’re too deferential and don’t promote our expertise consistently enough. A lot of what we do looks like magic, because it happens in our heads and through experience with us—not as some tangible result. Therefore, it behooves us make sure we develop better strategies for representing our intangible contributions to our employers’ successes. Off the top of my head, here are some tips that work for me:

Tips for shining a light…

  • Know deeply what your expertise is (and isn’t) and exactly how it aligns with your clients’ needs and talents
  • Don’t be arrogant (that’s harder than you may think!) but still be confident
  • Tell stories and back them up with data, measures, facts, proofs (not the other way around)
  • Get and use testimonials—and use them with your client’s peers
  • Keep text tight and use visuals and graphics for impact
  • Build relationships on many levels—friendships, colleagues, acquaintances, professionals, peers, et al
  • Collect and use testimonials (even through regular reference, questions, or project surveys)
  • Have something more than an elevator speech (but have that too)
  • Eye contact, eye contact, eye contact
  • Use the right body language—reflect the listener
  • Use the right words for the situation—avoid library jargon
  • Communicate what efforts and decisions you made when delivering the results—don’t just think clients know already
  • Align with your culture visually and in words and actions
  • Chill out, relax, get comfy—remain approachable

Share your stories, questions, and insights in the comments below!


<a href="" target="_self">Stephen Abram</a>

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for his new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians, coming in autumn 2017!

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