March 19, 2012

Expertise and Psychology (And a Mention of the Blogosphere)

I also had a strong reaction to Rory’s recent post on “Deprofessionalization and the Library Blogosphere.” Others have made good points about his criticism of library blog-discourse, and I won’t repeat those. The main issue I have his emphasis on “expertise.” I think this is problematic because what is just as important is breaking down barriers of intimidation between the library staff and the users. (Now, I should say that I’m speaking specifically about the public library context, which I don’t know if Rory was really thinking of. I was a student worker at the university library during my MLIS program and hear a lot about academic librarianship through blogs, articles, and friends, but I can’t speak to the changes happening in that setting, much less in other types of libraries.)

Rory writes:

Making the case for the importance of maintaining our presence in libraries as professionals, is, as I mentioned, dependent on being able to claim an area of indisputable expertise. This expertise should be understood as constituting what it means to be a librarian. The knowledge and skills that make up this expertise, and the work that goes into advancing that knowledge and those skills, should be our primary concern as librarians, and should be the main content of our communication with each other as librarians, especially where that communication is before the public.

Yes, but…Expertise, knowledge, and hard skills is not all of it. To quote this terrific post by Sara at The World Is Yours:

Librarianship is not just a mystery-shrouded field of uber-professional people talking about information theory and culture to each other in academic journals. Librarianship is also talking to and about people, full stop. Librarianship, and its related fields, are functionally, in the end, fields in which our goal is or should be to help people find and use the information they need and want in their lives. It is a social field, a public field, and one in which an air of mystique and mystery is not always conducive, needed, or even desired.

My proximate goal at work may be to teach yet another patron how to email an attachment or do a title search in the OPAC, but my ultimate goal is to promote critical thinking (with a super-ultimate goal of social change and making the world a better place, but I try to keep my occupational vision modest). And who would look to me as a credible model of critical thinking without trusting me as much as a personality as a title?

I’d be shocked if any of the patrons I’ve talked to in the almost-ten years I’ve worked at my library knew or cared that there are blogs by librarians. It’s neither here nor there. Same, I think, with why the young librarian has tattoos or has an ironic bun or whatever. (Note to self: “Ironic Bun” – name for new band?) Bigger problems are that the librarians may not be receiving the ongoing training they need to give good, knowledgeable service to the people who come into the library, and that the people who don’t come into the library already doubt that they can get good, knowledgeable service, and that’s why they don’t even bother.

And even being a knowledgeable authority does not solve the problem of the complex psychology involved in information-seeking and learning. Why, for example, does belief in climate change indicate a political leaning? After reading Too Big to Know, I noted a long passage on p. 151 that includes the following:

[E]ven scientific knowledge exists in a messy web of humans where we make decisions – for better and often for worse – based not just on information and knowledge but within a social realm of social striving, personal interests, shared hopes, motivating emotions, and barely sensed stirrings.

People who come to the public library may be scared, exasperated, annoyed, or—let’s not be totally negative—tentatively excited at the prospect of coming to one of us for help. And why do they come? They want book recommendations (yes, spontaneous reader’s advisory still happens!). They want to—ever so shyly—get a schedule of computer basics classes. They’re 15 and wondering what to do with the screenplay they just wrote. They need articles about elementary classroom management and books about black inventors and CDs about learning English for Urdu speakers. They want images of characters from Russian fairy tales for a personal art project. They want a list of accredited culinary schools in New York City because they’ve heard of the French Culinary Institute but it’s so expensive. They want to become nurses. Some of them need a nurse. In none of these cases would pure expert “professionalism” alone see you through, and it might even hinder the interaction.

I don’t think the public needs to see us as experts qua experts. They need to see us as informed, as kind, as knowledgeable, as intelligent, as caring. Our jobs in the public libraries have a lot to do with literature and culture, but we also do a lot of “community center”-type things. This is a fact and it’s probably helping our doors stay open. We need expertise, and our practice needs to be backed up by coherent theory. But it’s the practice that the public experiences.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you, Melissa. As a recently retired public reference librarian (who worked in both public and academic settings), I must agree with you. Throughout the past 25 years, my greatest sense of work fulfillment came from genuine connection with patrons – above and beyond the professionalism I maintained during interactions with them and my colleagues. Professionalism is easy; compassion and understanding in a wide variety of circumstances is the true challenge making our work worthwhile in the long run.

    Comment by rcn — March 31, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

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