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:

I love citation software because I don’t love citations

By jazzmodeus on flickr

People are surprised when I tell them I’m interested in citation management software (I’m talking about librarians here; non-librarians just stare blankly when I tell them that). Am I really that passionate about these programs? Yes; I have a special fondness for Zotero, but I’ve also learned to love EndNote (in spite of its many quirks) through teaching it for the past couple of years, and I’ve been curious enough to spend time with RefWorks and Mendeley as well.

So do I really love citations that much? No. In fact, just the opposite. I have no love for the mechanics of the various citation styles, and I think it’s a waste of time for students and researchers to go through their reference lists and italicize the journal title and volume number but not the issue number (when using APA style). I think it’s a tragedy when a student (especially an undergraduate student) loses marks on an assignment for putting a comma after the journal title instead of a period. I love citation software because I don’t love doing citations by hand, and these programs can save people a lot of time and frustration by automatically formatting citations in just about any style imaginable.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s essential that students are taught the principles behind citing; they absolutely need to learn why and when to cite. I just don’t think they should spend so much time on how to cite. I suppose it’s worthwhile to teach students that different citations styles exist, but even this isn’t critical for students who have no intention of ever publishing an academic paper (though they do need to know the name of the style they’re expected to use, so they can select it in the software).

I would actually go so far as to say that the use of citation software can discourage plagiarism in some cases. Imagine a first year undergrad working madly late at night on a paper that’s due the next day (I’m sure you’ve never known anyone like this, but use your imagination). He comes to the end of his writing and realizes he needs to cite his sources. He types up citations for all the direct quotations and other obvious passages. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he realizes there are additional sources he relied on heavily in his research, but he can’t quite remember where he copied down their details. Plus, he’s so tired that he will probably make errors in his reference list and lose marks. He hits print and falls asleep at his desk, without giving any credit to some of his sources.

Now imagine that same student, still working at the last minute, but this time he’s been using Zotero (or a similar program) throughout his research process. Each time he reads something relevant, he adds the citation information to his Zotero library (usually with just a single click). Now when it comes time to insert these citations into his paper in the wee hours of the morning, he makes a few quick clicks, and the word processor plugin does all the work for him. Of course, he needs to go through and make sure there are no errors (the software is certainly not perfect), but it saves him a lot of time and effort. And since it’s quick and easy, he cites all his sources, even the ones he might have been able to get away with omitting.

When first learning about citations, students often ask how to decide how many to include in their papers, to which most instructors reply, “when in doubt, cite.” I’m sure this occasionally leads to papers where every single sentence has a citation, but I think everyone would agree that it’s better to have a few superfluous citations than to have a few omitted. I say, let’s make this as easy as possible by using software for the heavy lifting.

So I love citation software because I don’t love forcing students to learn where to place their commas when they could be learning how to actually perform research. But this leads to another question: what would happen if every university instructor in the world agreed that students could just jot down the author, title, and publication year of each source they used, in any format? Would I still love citation software if its formatting function became unnecessary for undergraduates? I’ll admit this would make it less essential, but I think it would still be useful to help students keep track of their sources as they go through the research process. And of course the formatting function would still save time for graduate students and other researchers. So yes. I would continue to promote these programs to students, learn new ones as they are introduced, and blog about them.

What do you think? Am I crazy for loving software this much? Leave me a comment!

Fun with Zotero: Scanning barcodes

I’m fascinated by citation management software. At work, I regularly teach students, faculty, and sometimes other librarians how to use EndNote, and I’ve given a couple of sessions on Zotero as well. Sometimes I doubt that the majority of information professionals share my passion, but a quick look at my blog stats tells me that my most popular blog post by far has been the one I wrote comparing EndNote and Zotero, so I must not be alone.

Both EndNote and Zotero have been improved tremendously since I wrote that post three years ago, and I try to keep up with the new features. One feature of Zotero I find particularly useful when dealing with print books is the ability to import an item by ISBN. By clicking the magic wand icon, you can enter the ISBN of a book, either by typing it in or by scanning the barcode, and Zotero will import the metadata from WorldCat. Now, this feature is actually not new, but there’s a new option for anyone who doesn’t have access to a library barcode scanner (or for when you’ve left yours at home). Scanner for Zotero is an Android app that allows you to scan a book’s barcode using the camera on your Android device and then sends the record straight to your Zotero library. The app costs $2 from the Android Market, but if you really don’t want to pay, you can download the code, which has an open source license, and then compile it yourself (personally, I was happy enough to pay the toonie).

Logo for the Scanner for Zotero app

I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now, so I thought I would share my thoughts. In general, I am quite impressed; it’s a simple app without any bells or whistles that only does one thing but does it very well. I hit a small snag when setting it up, but the developer responded promptly to my email and walked me through it (thanks, John!). Scanning a barcode is reasonably quick, though not as fast as the dedicated barcode scanner I have at work, and adding an item to your Zotero library is straightforward (the simple interface does not provide an option for saving an item to a collection within your library, but this hasn’t bothered me). One of the only options available is to choose whether to use WorldCat or Google Books to retrieve the metadata. As one would hope, the records are more or less the same regardless of the source; however, there are some slight differences. What surprised me the most was that there were differences between records imported using the magic wand (which makes use of WorldCat) and ones imported using the app when instructing it to use WorldCat. Here’s what I found when using the three different methods:

Magic wand (WorldCat):

  • Language field blank
  • No page numbers
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Only the first author is listed

Scanner for Zotero with WorldCat:

  • Language appears correctly as three letter code: eng, fre, etc.
  • No page numbers
  • Editor shows up in Author field preceded by “Edited by”
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in a single Author field

Scanner for Zotero with Google Books:

  • Language appears correctly as two letter code: en, fr, etc.
  • Number of pages appears correctly
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in separate Author fields

Both Scanner for Zotero options clearly produce better metadata than the built-in magic wand, but each of the three has its own quirks, presumably due largely to quirks in the structure of WorldCat and Google Books. I would recommend the app to any Zotero user with an Android device. Even if you don’t have a stack of books you’ve been waiting to add to your Zotero library, it’s fun to be able to zap the barcode of anything with an ISBN. Surely if you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, you must agree with my definition of fun.