The Posture of Non-Expertise at the Reference Desk

high horse

Stover’s (2004) suggestion that we “posture” as non-experts somehow implies that we are, in fact, experts, but should try not to show it so that we can successfully gain the trust of the patron. This idea is considered postmodern because it rejects the role of the expert that was so central to modernist philosophy. Once-upon-a time it was a good thing to be a technocrat; there was a great amount of esteem associated with possessing information that others didn’t have, or with being the gatekeeper to otherwise inaccessible knowledge. The philosophical underpinnings of modernism date back to positivism and the belief that one could master a specific domain of knowledge or practice in a very objective way; that they could see it for exactly what it was, could define all its boundaries and could thus objectify it (Stover, 2004). In this scenario, both patrons and librarians are seen as separate and distinct from the information being sought, yet a clear hierarchy is established when the reference librarian is the only one imbued with the power and status to interact with it using specialized jargon on cryptic databases from computers behind big, tall desks.

Postmodern philosophy on the other hand, is based on relativism: different people ascribe meaning in different ways, and knowledge is continuously being constructed and reconstructed (Stover, 2014). In this way, both patron and librarian are part of the knowledge construction process; they are not separate from it. The reference librarian does not have a defacto ownership over ‘knowledge.’ Instead, her expertise is revealed by her success or failure to communicate; to maintain a dialog in partnership with the patron. As Stover says, expertise “is a type of interaction rather than embedded in a person” (Stover, 2014, p. 278). In this scenario, a patron’s natural-language search query is no longer deemed ‘wrong’ but rather ‘realistic’; the solution morphs from ‘fixing’ the patron’s ‘unsophisticated’ query to building-upon it and developing it into something more nuanced and targeted than either of them could have created alone.

Thus, Stover (2014) shows us how philosophy informs practice, but how entrenched are postmodern ideas in reality? What is driving this shift from librarian as detached expert to librarian as partner? Technology has been instrumental in the way we practice librarianship and does much to change our expectations of librarians. Information is no longer scarce. A tiny little thing called a hyperlink revolutionized our relationship with information and enabled us to connect with others and to add to the body of information in ways that were previously unimaginable. Google, a private company, defines the information search and retrieval landscape. Simultaneously, new publishing models and open access repositories are realigning the ownership of knowledge and information. Online user reviews like what we see on Amazon and Yelp empower consumers like never before. All of these things work to undermine traditional authority structures and the top-down flow of information. They all play a part in the patron’s expectations for what a library is and does. To the extent that we are living in an increasingly participatory culture, with expectations for new levels of transparency in our basic institutions, including business and government, the role of the reference librarian as co-collaborator rather than gatekeeper is a natural result that is entirely consistent with postmodern philosophy.

Stover (2014) suggests that positioning ourselves on equal footing with our patrons will help us realign with the fundamental values of user-centered service. I think this is a valuable stance for increasing the approachability of reference librarians, since the patience, friendliness, and humility it will require to successfully collaborate with patrons will necessarily make us more approachable and can only help us to serve them better- by almost any measure. If you consider the 55%, or ‘half-right’ rule which has reigned under the positivist/modernist approach to reference librarianship, then surely there’s room for improvement. We never really had all the right answers all of the time anyway.

But, does posturing as a non-expert undermine our professionalism? Doesn’t graduate school confer some kind of special status to my professional life? Well, perhaps and perhaps. Query negotiation- the very kernel of what of reference librarians do- has been described as “one of the most complex acts of communication” (Dervin & Dewdney, 1986, p. 506). I think that’s why we need a master’s degree; we need to draw on wide-ranging theoretical concepts to think our way through the complexities; it’s not a prescribed process. We can never be experts on everything, so it’s not the degree itself that makes us “professionals”, but rather our ability to apply the myriad of things we learned in the MLIS program thoughtfully and appropriately in response to ever-changing conditions. The degree itself is not a proxy for success.

Certainly, part of gaining a patron’s trust involves signaling that you are trustworthy, which may mean that some people will trust you simply because you have a master’s degree, but I think most people will be more likely to trust you if they like the way they’re being treated by you. Using their name, listening carefully, being personally engaged in the interaction, refraining from using technical jargon (unless they use that themselves, of course), treating them with respect, and keeping an open mind go a long way towards instilling trust. Hence, the degree is necessary, but not sufficient. So, does this affect my view of what it means to be a reference librarian? Yes, absolutely. As a reference librarian, I will never be able to know or ‘possess’ all knowledge (whew! dodged that bullet!); the technical skills and theoretical principles I will have acquired through my credential can be used to help people; the quality of this help will depend largely on my attitude and interpersonal skills. It’s a tall order, but one I find worthy of respect. If that makes me postmodern, so be it; I never really wanted to ride that high horse anyway.


Dervin, D. & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. RQ, 25 (4). 506-513. Retrieved from (Links to an external site.)

Stover, M. (2004). Reference librarian as non-expert: A post-modern approach to expertise. Reference Librarian, 87/88. 273-300.  Retrieved from
Edited by Tracy Micka on Feb 25 at 11:10am


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