Meredith Farkas has a thoughtful post up about what makes an expert. She says, in part:
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.
I find the “how they have positioned themselves” observation particularly interesting. Part of writing articles or speaking or teaching classes or what have you about a given subject really involves collecting insights, experiences, and stories from others: gathering and analyzing information. (How librarian-like!) When I talk or write about “career stuff,” I’m in large part talking about other people’s stories: What’s worked for them, how have people experienced the job hunt, what epiphanies prompted them to take a dramatic step that changed their career path. Note also: if you’re willing to get up in front of a group of people and talk on a given subject — and especially if you’re willing to accept money for doing so — you’re inherently claiming some sort of expertise; that’s why you’re there.
Meredith talks about teaching people to be critical of information, but we also as librarians are able to find answers because we know who to turn to, we know who might be more credible on a given topic. If I were building a wiki, I’d probably ask Meredith for advice — not because she is the foremost worldwide expert on wikis that ever lived, but because she knows more about wikis than I do, because she speaks and writes about wikis, and because I have a previous connection with her. She’s not the only person I’d ask, but she’d likely be the first, and then I’d investigate her advice, talk to other people working with the software, and so on. “Expert” can also mean “starting point;” help me get started on my path; help me figure out where to begin and how to move forward from here. Whenever someone emails me for career advice, I’ll give advice if I have any, but will also suggest that they post their question to a list or the LISjobs.com forums or that they email the Library Career People columnists to garner further opinions.
People turn to Meredith for advice on wikis (or me for career stuff, or Greg Schwartz for podcasting) because they’re now able to broaden their pool of “experts;” people “know” Meredith from her blog or me from LISjobs.com. At Internet Librarian, I attended a talk by Laura Crossett on “How I built a website for $16 worth of chocolate,” in which she talked about being able to ask technical questions of people she’d met in a librarian-related chat room or elsewhere online, and get answers enabling her to create her small library’s website without previous programming or web design knowledge. Expertise here involves knowing enough about something (PHP, Wordpress) to help someone else, which is all most of us really need, and either having a connection with the person asking (Facebook, LinkedIn, and twitter do count!) or seeming approachable enough to be asked.
All in all, I wouldn’t get hung up on the “expert” title. As librarians, we’re good at collaborating and sharing what we know, as well as knowing who to ask; we share our expertise with each other as a matter of course.