CATALOG YOUR EXPERTS
by Marylaine Block
In the Fall, 2003 issue of Library Journal's NetConnect, Eric Lease Morgan says that when his library constructed the personalized portal system for My Library, he didn't just assign subject headings to databases and web directories; he also assigned them to librarians. That way, when students set up a personalized portal to guide them to resources in their major fields of study, the librarian who was the subject specialist in that area would appear as one of the prime resources.
I think that's an excellent idea. I'd just extend it even farther. To begin with, we all know more than we are officially responsible for knowing. For instance, my unofficial, non-librarian knowledge base includes breadmaking, knitting, murder mysteries and sports novels, first amendment law, rock music lyrics, American popular culture, and more than any sane person would ever want to know about the American agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll (the subject of my master's thesis).
You could do a similar inventory of each member of your library's staff and find an extraordinary range of expert knowledge. The library I worked for includes people with expert knowledge on day lilies, cat psychology, Eastern religions, opera and choral music repertoire, needlework, wedding planning, Cesar Chavez, 60's rock music, Pez dispensers, canning, minor league baseball, diabetes, spinning, vegetarian cooking, the college admissions process, home-made Christmas decorations, and menopause (LOTS of knowledge about that one). One librarian has lived in India, and another in Japan. One was a long-haul truckdriver before getting his library science degree, and another worked for the state of Florida's criminal justice system.
Do we all know these things about each other? No. We each know some of them, as the knowledge happens to assert itself in conversation, but without a deliberate effort to consolidate the information about available expertise, the use of it is hit-or-miss.
Extend it further to the entire campus and you will find an extraordinary array of expert knowledge well beyond the specific courses our faculty teach. There's the priest I called on for Latin and Greek translations and for his personal knowledge of the Vatican, where he studied for a few years. We can go to one of our history professors for information about the Vietnam era peace protests and reaction to them in own university and community.
There's a biologist from Brooklyn who's an expert in the ecology of Texas' Big Bend area, as well as the arcane arts of stickball and negotiating the New York subways. Our poetry specialist is an omnivorous reader of science fiction, and one of our criminal justice faculty is an expert on gang graffiti. One of our English professors regularly escorts interested students to Ecuador over the Christmas holidays.
It's not just the professors, either. Among the staff, you'll also find experts, in woodworking, quilting, diocesan history, London theater history, rehabbing Victorian homes, and genealogy. You'll find people who have served in local and state political office, in the Corps of Engineers and the Rock Island Arsenal, and in the Peace Corps in Africa.
Why does this matter? Partly because a human expert can help us make sense of the overwhelming amount of data we can easily find on the web. Human experts, unlike search engines, can understand our questions, and can provide answers to our questions in less time than it takes us to wade through umpteen web sites looking for them. If they don't know the answers -- and many of them will deny that they are REAL experts -- they will refer us to people who can answer them, or tell us how to ask our questions better, in the terminology of the field. They can teach us hands on how to perform a particular skill.
Above all, they can match their answers to our level of understanding after exploring how much we already know, or don't know, about the topic. Skilled readers' advisors always start by finding out what books we already enjoy, and what we enjoy about them, which enables them to recommend books that are equally adventurous, with equally spunky heroines or similar mastermind detectives, with equally witty dialogue or gritty action, with equally believable characters and equally interesting subplots, etc.
But human experts also matter because so much knowledge remains inside our heads and never makes it into the pool of public knowledge. The "How Much Information" project at Berkeley has found that by an overwhelming margin, the medium that houses the most information is Office documents, which may or may not ever be shared with anyone. Which is to say, our knowledge is often hidden from view, stored in our heads and computers. Virtually all of us remain priceless, untapped repositories of information.
I suggest we start by constructing a searchable database of the subject knowledge within our own library staff, and then extend it to include all the expertise that all the people in our entire organization are willing to answer questions about. We could then make it accessible to everybody in the organization, probably on a closed intranet rather than our open web site, since people who are willing to share their expertise with colleagues may not wish to assist students all over the world who want help on their term papers.
I think that would be an immense service not just to the library, where it would help us find answers to reference questions, but to our entire organization. Such a database would not only help people get their questions answered in the most timely manner, but it could facilitate the cross-fertilization of ideas, the formation of trust and respect across departmental and hierarchical lines, and team-building and collaboration.
The simple printed book is much more conducive to promoting thinking than the sophisticated Web. If a book does not provide all the information that one needs, some of the information has to be deduced and some of it has to be imagined. When people do not get answers to their questions by reading one book, they have to read a second or third book to find the answers. The book is also a slow medium. By the time a person buys, borrows or finds another book that has the answer to a question, he or she also has had the time to think about it more thoroughly and perhaps even refine the question. The time spent in thought will in many instances enable a person to generate an answer to the question that aroused his or her curiosity in the first place.
From Thinkers to Clickers: The World Wide Web and the Transformation of the Essence of Being Human
By M.O. Thirunarayanan. Ubiquity, May 13-19, 2003 http://www.acm.org/ubiquity/views/m_thirunarayanan_8.html
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