At the beginning of the conference I went to in Iceland, the President of Iceland’s Library Association discussed how they’d assembled all of these great experts from around the world to speak on their areas of expertise. Whenever I hear that word — expert — I get a lump in my throat. The fact is, I don’t think of myself as an expert (especially in the area of LIS education!!!). And I don’t really want other people to think of me that way either. In fact, I really dislike the term in general — I think it has little practical purpose and can actually be detrimental to people’s sense of self-efficacy.

I found this definition of the word expert in the Wikipedia:

An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability in a particular area of study. Experts are called in for advice on their respective subject, but they do not always agree on the particulars of a field of study. An expert can be, by virtue of training, education, profession, publication or experience, believed to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially (and legally) rely upon the individual’s opinion. Historically, an expert was referred to as a sage. The individual was usually a profound philosopher distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment.

I have a lot of friends who are knowledgeable about various topics who I would certainly trust if I needed advice in that area. Some are considered experts and some are not. The only difference I can really see between those who are and aren’t experts is how they have positioned themselves. The ones who are considered experts often speak at conferences or write articles or teach classes on their chosen subject. Because of this, their name becomes associated with that subject, making them an “expert”. It’s like me and wikis or Greg Schwartz and podcasting or Rachel Singer Gordon and career stuff. We created some stuff, wrote some stuff, talked about some stuff, and suddenly, we were authorities on the subject. And, for some of us who are now considered experts, it’s a title we’re rather uncomfortable with.

Tto me, the definition of an expert should be someone who has knowledge on a certain topic (or set of topics) and is willing to share that knowledge with others. There are likely lots of people out there who know as much, if not more, about a topic than an expert, but they don’t feel the inclination to share their knowledge publicly. This may mean that an expert is frequently no more an authority on a subject than any other person with similar knowledge; it just means that they’re more likely to be willing to share that knowledge (maybe for free, maybe for money).

No matter how much Web 2.0 pushes the notion that the amateur has a lot to offer, I still find that many people would rather ask questions of someone publicly seen as an expert. For example, I wrote a column for American Libraries (published last month) where I talked about using WordPress as a content management system for a library website. I highlighted several library websites in the column including the Troy Public Library. Instead of emailing the people at the Troy Public Library to ask them about their site, one librarian emailed me to ask me all about their website and how he could do something like that. I certainly don’t know more about how the Troy PL achieved their website than they do. I get lots of people writing and asking me about things completely outside of my areas of knowledge like computer reservation systems for public libraries or careers for youth service librarians. Why someone would feel more comfortable asking an academic librarian about these things than, say, a listserv full of people who have varied experience in these areas is beyond me. I’m always happy to help with something I feel comfortable offering advice on, but sometimes I get questions that seem much better-suited for “the hive.”

Relying solely on the opinions of experts can also be dangerous. When I was a child and family therapist, I worked with a lot of clients whose parents pretty much saw the word of their psychiatrist as the word of God. They would never question a doctor. I mean, if they have an MD, clearly they must be right, right? I went to the psych evaluation of one of my clients where the psychiatrist asked the child if he fell asleep in school. The child said “yes.” He then said that the child was narcoleptic. Luckily I was there to bring up the fact that the child can’t sleep at night and falls asleep in class because of his insomnia, or he’d have been put on a serious medication needlessly (that probably also would have made the insomnia worse). I’m glad many people these days don’t just accept everything that’s told to them by a doctor — second opinions (or third, or fourth) are very valuable to help patients make the best decisions for their own health. We should question the advice of these experts.

I think the idea of experts and amateurs creates a false dichotomy; as if only the very few are capable of attaining a certain level of knowledge of a subject. I worry that it may make some people feel like they aren’t capable of learning a lot about a certain subject and that they will always have to rely on others for answers. A lot of people underestimate their ability to do things with technology; I see it in my class and enjoy watching students prove themselves wrong on that count. I do not have more talent for learning how to use wikis, blogs and other social software tools than most other semi-tech-savvy people in this profession and I’d hate to think that the whole expert/amateur thing would lead anyone to think that they aren’t capable of doing something on their own.

And I’m sure some “experts” want people to feel incapable. In some fields, experts make a lot of money telling other people how to live their lives, how to make money, etc. Even those of us in the profession who are considered experts benefit in some way, though most of us certainly can’t quit our day job. If everyone felt that they could learn to manage money on their own, they wouldn’t buy Suze Orman’s books or watch her TV show. Then again, none of us really wants to learn everything on our own, so people would probably still read books by “experts” even if they didn’t consider those people any smarter than a lot of the other people who know stuff about that subject.

I’m glad there are people who write books about baby stuff and childbirth that I can read. However, I also don’t take what any of them say to be the gospel. Instead of relying on one expert, I read a lot of books, articles, etc., which tend to offer a lot of conflicting advice (cribs with drop-sides are bad/cribs with drop-sides are fine, cord blood storage is a waste of money/cord blood storage is important insurance for your child, co-sleeping is good/co-sleeping is bad, etc.). I query the hive. In the end, I make the decision myself based on the opinions of doctors, midwives, mothers, writers, friends, and my own gut. Experts sometimes pass off opinion as fact — like the book my colleague read that encouraged women to moderately drink and smoke during pregnancy and strongly discouraged circumcision — and even if they don’t, there will be some bias to what they write. My book was biased towards lightweight virtual reference solutions like instant messaging, and I’d hope anyone considering implementing virtual reference at their library would read more than just my book when planning for it.

I know it would be a lot easier to just ask an expert, get an answer and go with it, but that’s exactly what we teach our patrons not to do. We teach them to be critical of information — to utilize multiple sources and to see where the author is getting their information from. People often ask me which wiki software they should use and I feel very reluctant to give them that sort of an answer. I think people should make that decision on their own, based on research they’ve done. Just because I like MediaWiki doesn’t mean it’ll work for your project and I’m only willing to give people a list of popular software options, not to give them a definitive answer. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out the opinion or advice of people you trust, but it’s important to realize that their advice is just that and isn’t necessarily the best option.

It’s nice to see people becoming more critical of information generally, and it should be interesting to see how this impacts the notion of “experts vs. amateurs” in the future.