Why librarians shouldn’t be afraid to call themselves experts

Hello my name is ExpertAt a library conference I attended recently, I noticed that two speakers opened their talks by announcing that they were not “experts” on the subject matter they were about to present. This struck me as a rather odd way to begin a presentation; it caused me to put little faith in the presenter, and it even reflected poorly on the organizers of the conference, who really ought to have found some genuine “experts.” Of course, in both instances, the presenters went on to give perfectly good talks, but their lack of confidence had a negative impact on my perception of their presentations (watch a TED talk for a good example of an effective, confident presenter).

I feel that too many librarians are hesitant to identify themselves as experts. Perhaps this is because we consider ourselves to be “jacks of all trades, masters of none.” Perhaps, as Mari Vihuri suggests, it’s a case of imposter syndrome. Or perhaps, as portrayed by librarian stereotypes, we are simply too meek and humble. In any case, it needs to stop. If we want to earn the respect (or simply the attention) of our clients, peers, and administrations, we need to make it known that we are experts in the areas we work in every day (it should go without saying that we should never claim to be experts on topics we’re genuinely not familiar with).

For example, as a librarian at McGill, I gave many workshops for students and faculty members on the use of the citation management programs EndNote and Zotero. At the beginning of each session, I would introduce my co-presenter and myself as two of the McGill Library’s citation management software experts. Did this mean I considered myself to be the most knowledgeable person on campus, or even just among the library’s staff, on any of these programs? Certainly not. As a relatively new librarian, I was fully aware that there were researchers and librarians at McGill who knew EndNote and Zotero much better than I did. However, compared to the people in the audience, who had voluntarily signed up for an introductory workshop, I was an expert. I may not have been “the” expert, in the sense of being the ultimate guru on campus, but I was clearly “an” expert, in the sense of having spent a significant amount of time with the software and knowing it well enough to teach others to use it.

Similarly, when giving in-class presentations to students in the Faculty of Management, I always encouraged them to come speak to a Management liaison librarian such as myself for help with their research, and I would regularly describe our team as being the research “experts.” In some cases, there may have been faculty members or graduate students who were more adept at using specific databases than I was (especially when I was first learning the ropes), but I believe that if I had instead claimed that the Management librarians “knew a bit about research and would be happy to do what we could to help, even though there are other on campus who know more,” students would have been much less likely to contact the library.

So this is a challenge to everyone in the library/information community: spend a few minutes identifying the areas (and circumstances) in which you could be considered an expert, and make a point of spreading the word about your expertise. Don’t brag, but make sure the people around you realize what you’re really good at doing. And encourage your colleagues to stand up for their expertise as well. It will make people respect you and listen to what you have to say.

What are you an expert at? How do you let people know without bragging? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Need a little inspiration? Here’s your expert-related Friday Fun:

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9 thoughts on “Why librarians shouldn’t be afraid to call themselves experts

  1. I work closely with a faculty member who tells her students that they need to seek the help of an “expert librarian” and she often introduces me as “her expert librarian.” At first I found it strange, but then I realized that she was right–I am an expert at what I do. She turns to me for my expertise in searching, just like she turns to other colleagues who are experts in other things. We shouldn’t be shy about sharing what we know we how to do well.

    • Jill, that’s even better than telling everyone you’re an expert: having someone else to tell everyone you’re an expert! :)

  2. I think this is an issue because of the rapidly changing role of the librarian brought on by the sudden technological advances (e-books, online databases, the huge wealth information available online). From speaking with academic and school librarians, I have noticed a common thread in that many do not wish to make trouble for themselves by defining themselves as experts or professionals because this could be perceived as invading the profession of the lecturer/teacher. They understand that they need to be more active in passing on IT and research skills to students but are uncertain as to just how active they should be and where the boundaries exist. Academic librarians say that the teaching staff often do not regard librarians as fellow academics or as teachers never mind as expert professionals, despite the fact that the majority of librarians today have graduate and post-graduate degrees. To me, it seems like snobbery and one of the reasons behind the reluctance of librarians to consider and promote themselves as experts. Librarians need to more active to proclaiming their positions as experts because if they neglect to promote their valuable skills no one else will, and the ultimate result for many librarians will be either sharp reductions in funding, cutbacks in staff and even closure.

    • Absolutely – some librarians seem to think their value is obvious, but this is not the case (at least, not as much as we would like it to be). If we don’t make our value known, no one else will do it for us.

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