Thursday, May 22, 2014

Types of librarian expertise - are they getting easier to acquire for non-librarians?

I have been recently thinking of the types of expertise academic librarians have and how recent trends in academic librarianship have made things harder.

1. Domain (basically knowledge of the research area)
2. Systems (how to actually use the search interface)
3. Information seeking (more on the structure of information and how to construct searches, etc.)

She goes on to mention a 4th type "interactional expertise", all of this is very interesting.

What I would like to consider is a) The difficulty to acquire such expertise and b) sources of such expertise, do academic librarians have a competitive advantage there?

To be precise, can someone who is not an academic librarian (here defined as someone who does not work in a academic library) easily acquire the same type of expertise academic librarians have assuming time is no object?

Domain expertise

The importance of domain knowledge for academic librarians is a well debated area (eg  Should libraries hire phds rather than just MLIS holding academic librarians?) and is I suspect the hardest expertise to acquire as it is the most specific of the three expertises.

Academic librarians definitely do not have any competitive advantage here and probably are not expected to. After all the typical academic librarian needs to have domain expertise in the area of library and information science as well as the discipline he is serving as a liaison, so it is not realistic to expect much.

Systems expertise

My understanding of  "Systems expertise" may differ from Christina, but I am of the view this type of the expertise is probably the easiest to acquire and getting easier with time.

Most databases (Scopus, Web of Science) come with extremely detailed help files, the typical academic librarian learns about them through trial and error and as a last resort referring to help files, same as any other user.

There really isn't any inherent difficulty for someone bright to sit down, read the help files on Boolean operators, proximity and field searching. The concepts maybe a bit alien if you have never encountered it before but once you got the basic concept down it's a matter of just "button hunting" on different platforms really. (Or am I undervaluing this expertise?)

Arguably a lot of systems require "Systems expertise" simply because they are so poorly designed and not due to any inherent difficulty.  

Improving user interfaces make systems expertise easier to acquire

While user interfaces of typical library systems are still poor, they are improving all the time and as someone remarked on Twitter, Google (or search technology in general) is probably not going to get any worse, so I expect in time, it will be easier for someone who is not a librarian to acquire this expertise. 

One thing that occurs to me though is librarians generally do have a competitive advantage here because they typically have direct contact with the library vendors supplying databases, discovery services etc. A minority of academic librarians like myself have additional expertise in terms of troubleshooting discovery systems, link resolvers etc because we are the ones who decide on the settings that may affect results.

So for example, if I need information on a certain feature in Scopus that isn't covered in the documentation, my Elsevier rep would just be a email away to answer my questions as we are direct customers. (Note : That said my experience is often you get very obscure or worse outright wrong answers from support staff of such companies because the developers are usually shielded)

This is where it occurs to me the typical competitive advantage exist enjoyed by librarians over our users lies. That and the fact that database vendors love to keep changing their interfaces and no-one but a librarian has the time to keep looking at them. :) 

But our competitive advantage is diminishing 

The typical researcher doesn't know who to contact if they have a question on say text datamining, though I would add in recent years this advantage has diminished because there are signs that publishers, database vendors are trying to reach out and engage directly to users not least by setting up Social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter as well as offer other direct services to users.

A interesting question to consider is this, when JSTOR or some popular database is down, do people complain to your library's social media channels or do they do it on say JSTOR's facebook page?

Why should our users ask us when they have a specific question about JSTOR , when they can get their answers from the horse's mouth?

Users are increasingly using systems not under our direct control due to cloud services

Increasingly as libraries adopt cloud services such as LibGuides, Summon, some next generation platforms in the cloud, there is an interesting side effect that libraries are becoming even more of the middle man.

For example take the library catalogue, in the past it would be something locally hosted so if anything went wrong, only our library would be affected and only our library could fix it.

But now we use Summon as our main search, and when Summon is down, every Summon using library is affected , this means ANU, Duke etc. Libraries that use Primo Central hosted in the cloud would be in the same boat.

In such cases, going direct to Summon people would be far more effective than going through the library because effectively we can't do anything anyway.

Users are increasingly using systems by parties we do not have privileged relationships with 
Another thing to consider is that increasingly users are shifting to systems that are not provided by the library (even as a intermediary). 

We are talking about Google, Google Scholar, Zotero, Mendeley (unless you get the institutional version maybe) etc.

Despite intense interest by researchers and librarians on Google Scholar (5 out of 10 of the most hots articles in LIS field for April 2014 are on Google Scholar!), librarians just don't have any privileged access to Google

Google is known for poor customer service, and  "if you are not paying, it means you are the product" also means libraries can't really demand answers, though I have found recently Google Scholar does respond to questions about entries from institutional repositories, where libraries serve as a source of information. In hindsight, this shouldn't be surprising as Google Search responds to webmasters as well but not users.

Academic librarians like myself who are tasked to be "knowledgeable" on Google Scholar, are reduced to reading up whatever literature exists by researchers who themselves spend time figuring things out by trial and error.

This may make you more knowledge than the typical person who has not read the literature, but anyone even a non-librarian who bothers to do that can achieve the same level of knowledge = you have no competitive advantage. 

Information seeking expertise

Christina's defines this as "more on the structure of information and how to construct searches, etc." It's a little vague and may blend in with systems expertise but I presume this refers to knowledge in general of the scholarly communication cycle and how it affects search.

This can be anything from knowing typical sources, how the fields and information are typically structured in general (e.g controlled vocabulary) .

In some areas, the typical researcher may actually have a competitive advantage over the librarian. For example, after all he actually does the research and knows what sources to use and what type of searches work.

It would be a very bold librarian indeed to suggest to a distinguished eminent professor that the librarian knows more about scholarly communication and information seeking in his area of expertise! 

It could be argued that academic librarians do have some advantage in that they are typically aware of new products first, though even this may not be as true anymore as mentioned above.

Other expertises

Of course searching is increasingly becoming a smaller part of the academic librarians skillset. We are told we need to learn how to support all stages of the scholarly communication cycle such as
  • Supporting grant proposals
  • Research data management
  • Reference management
  • Bibliometrics 
to name just a few.

Perhaps this is wise course of action, as searching is only to get easier.

Of course, even if the typical librarian has no competitive advantage over the typical researcher, and the typical librarian expertise is becoming easier to acquire, it doesn't mean academic librarians are doomed.

I assumed that "time is no objection" but of course it is!

First of all, beginning researchers would be much weaker in the 3 expertise mentioned, though I suspect most will eventually acquire them on their own even without librarian guidance.

Also just because a distinguished eminent professor could devote time learning about the ins and outs of Google Scholar, doesn't means that he will. 

They have their own fields of expertise after all.  

Add the synergistic effect of a bright academic librarian who has a unique blend of the 3 expertises... this is where our value lies....

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