Manifesto, part I: on not being an expert

You know how sometimes composing an email focuses your mind to the extent that you find you’ve written a manifesto? Here’s the text of a reply I sent to the LIS-INFOLITERACY list this morning, prompted by the question: ‘How can we move the nature of IL training from “how to do this” to “why this is important”?’ In responding to the question, I realized that although I talk about this stuff a lot I’ve never actually written it down … until now.

I’ve been aiming for some years now to realign my research skills sessions from the procedural “how to” towards the reflective “why”, and the most useful insight I’ve gained is: think process, not product (or if you prefer: research, not resource). Rather than offering sessions on individual resources, my courses are called “How to do a literature search”, “How to decode your reading list”, “Referencing without tears” and similar. They are designed to support various aspects and phases of doing study and research, and as such they naturally introduce useful sources and tools for each process. However, they also aim to spark discussion of choices and values. Why might this particular resource be a useful one for you? Concomitantly, what are its limitations for what you’re working on?

This approach means that I always offer options – a range of resources to support a particular phase in the process, never just one. As a result, it’s up to the individual student or researcher to identify what each resource has to offer and make an informed choice according to their own needs, which are determined by the context in which they’re working at the time. This hands the agency and the responsibility back to the student. It recognises that every information context is different, and that the person who is the ‘expert’ in that context is the individual student or researcher – not the librarian. It means that I can suggest tools and resources, but not mandate their use. It means I don’t frame Google (/Scholar) as some kind of competition, but as an information source which like all information sources has drawbacks and limitations. It’s grounded in a belief that I’m not here to give people answers, but to support them in framing questions.

I think relinquishing our status as ‘experts’ who have the answers and tell students ‘how to’ is vital if we want to move towards becoming partners in the research process, and invite them to consider the ‘why’. That relinquishment of expert status is a difficult move to make as it seems to undermine our most cherished identity as librarians, but I do believe that for a host of reasons – most important of which is supporting research excellence – it’s an attitudinal change we must make.

1 comment so far

  1. Morwenna (@tixylix) on

    Hi Emma
    Thanks so much for writing this down! I was very inspired by your talk at LAT13 recently but when I came to trying to summarise it for my work blog, I floundered somewhat. I was talking to a colleague about this earlier today, found your blog to send her to and then read this post (I’m a little behind in reading my feeds!). So this post will really help me explain to colleagues about your view on this and how we can consider it as an approach to teaching at my insitution.
    Thanks again and great to meet you at LAT13

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