So You Think You’re An Expert Academic Librarian

You’re really good at what you do. You’ve been doing it a number of years. People on your campus really respect your skills and knowledge. You might be an expert academic librarian – or maybe not.

I never thought much about expertise in academic librarianship or what it might possibly mean. My guess is that most of us academic librarians don’t go around thinking we are experts, and based on an interesting article I recently read, I think there’s a good chance that there’s no such thing as an expert academic librarian.

In the July-August 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues write about “The Making of an Expert.” Their article delves into how people become experts, and what qualifies someone as an expert. There’s no question there may be some holes in their theories, but it strikes me as a pretty solid argument for a somewhat ambiguous concept. They argue that real expertise must pass three tests.

First, your performance must be consistently superior to that of your peers. Wow, that’s going to be a tough one to prove for most academic librarians. Are you making better decisions than academic librarians at all other academic libraries? Do you get more reference questions right than your colleague at Big State University? It’s not like we have batting averages. Second, real expertise must produce concrete results. Again, that’s not easy to measure. I may have delivered a competent instruction session, but what if students go straight to Google afterwards and get poor grades on their research papers. That would appear to be a case of not producing concrete results. But if we could measure outcomes it might be possible to identify those academic librarians who are highly effective, much more effective than peers at achieving successful outcomes. Third, true expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab. Measure academic librarianship in the lab? Forget it.

You may be thinking that one could be an expert academic librarian, but that it’s impossible to quantify it for most professions. But surely you’ve heard of expert witnesses – doctors, engineers, computer scientists – professionals certified as experts by credentialing agencies – and perhaps the same could be done for academic librarians. But rather than debate whether we can be experts or not, perhaps we should focus on what we can all learn from this article to help improve our own level of expertise whatever it might be. What can we learn from the experts?

First, to become an expert practice deliberately. How many academic librarians practice their craft in whatever area of librarianship he or she works? Most of us likely become who we are (professionally) through on the job training. We don’t actually spend an hour or two a day rehearsing reference questions, and asking collegues to give us really hard ones and then critique our work. That’s deliberate practice. Next, take the time you need to become an expert. The authors’ research indicates that all experts have taken at least 10 years to get there. That’s why in fields such as music or sports, the top performers all began as children. Finally, those who want to be experts should get themselves a personal coach or mentor – and be willing to take criticism.

The bottom line is that no one is born an expert academic librarian – so we all agree on something here. Experts clearly can be made. Many of us do develop extremely high levels of skill as business researchers , catalogers of foreign language material, and possibly even as organizational administrators – just to name a few. But in the absence of really meeting the terms of being an expert, as laid out in this article, academic librarians still have opportunties to be considered experts by their peers and clients. In a world where most academic librarians with some degree of expertise don’t earn expert-level salaries, it can be good to know we are still capable of really helping people – and making a difference in their lives – and yet no one will be judging our expertise as they walk away pleased with the help received.

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