Expectations of Expertise

With the slower summer days I’m better able to keep up with library and higher education news, blogs, and Twitter, though I have to admit that sometimes I wish I didn’t. I’m not going to link to the very snarky, and, frankly, mean piece currently making the rounds in which a researcher belittles the work of archivists. I guess it brings in the pageviews and ad dollars, though as a commenter noted, I can’t imagine that any archivist who comes across this essay will be welcoming to that researcher in the future. I’ve also been bothered this week by what seemed like a summary dismissal of a librarian’s concerns about textbook publisher access models in response to a faculty member’s question about the potential for student savings. The librarian pointed out that this very sort of vendor leasing model had often ultimately resulted in higher costs for libraries, as the vendors in question increased their prices every year.

All of which has me thinking about expertise. Librarians have it — why don’t many of those outside of the library seem to expect it?

Academia has a hierarchical structure, and academic librarians like all academic workers are embedded in it, which I’m sure influences perceptions of expertise. Last Fall Veronica wrote about the power dynamics in academia that affect the ways that faculty don’t recognize the information literacy expertise of librarians. This is a familiar and frustrating experience that I imagine all librarians who teach and do reference have found themselves in (myself included). Veronica noted that:

we are not necessarily seen as possessing valuable expertise until we prove ourselves worthy

Veronica specifically highlighted expertise in information literacy in her post, and I also think that there are many ways in which the expertise of workers in all areas of the library isn’t acknowledged. We’ve been trained and have worked to develop our practice in our libraries, often earning one or more advanced degrees as well. What is it about librarianship that leads otherwise smart people to assume that expertise is not required for our jobs? While I’d been a heavy user of libraries before becoming a librarian, I can’t ever remember thinking that librarianship was an unskilled job, or that librarians weren’t necessary in order for the library to function.

This summer I’ve also finally gotten around to reading Roma Harris’s book Librarianship: The Erosion of a Women’s Profession, which has provoked lots of thinking about expertise and gender. Harris notes that librarianship, like other female-intensive professions (examples include nursing and social work), has long had the perception of being low-skilled and requiring little training, and that low status and pay follow from these low expectations. Some aspects of librarianship that Harris discussed were less relevant to the current state of the profession, now 25+ years after it was published, though it was somewhat disheartening to see that some things have not changed. Not long ago I added “Dr” to my Twitter handle in solidarity with academic women in expressing their exasperation at having their research questioned or even explained to them by folks who assume a lack of expertise until otherwise demonstrated.

We have expertise as librarians, and I expect it of myself and my colleagues, who work hard to provide resources, services, and space for our academic community every day. I also expect that I will continue to need to share that fact with others to shine a light on the terrific work we do in and beyond the library.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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