Category: Academic Libraries

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


Mob Indexing and the Need for New Information Literacies

I like the ring of it: mob indexing. It really adds a sense of thrilling adventure to what may be universally understood as a very sober, methodical task: indexing.  Random people from all over cyberspace (non-experts!) casually adding tags (keywords) to digital artifacts: photos, blog posts, books, documents, links, etc.- sounds like a messy, dangerous experiment, but it’s happening all the time.

Social tagging originated as a way for individuals to make sense of their growing collection of digital artifacts in a personally meaningful way, using their own keywords (vs. wading through and trying to ‘learn’ a complicated taxonomy created by ‘an expert’ ).  When tagging went social, particularly with the advent of del.ici.ous in 2003, personal ‘collections’ became vastly more discoverable.  This growth in findability deepened the sharing aspect of the World Wide Web, enabling people to discover new content, ideas and mentors, in a straightforward manner, using intuitive natural language.

By ‘following’ someone who collects links or photos that align with your own interests, you have in effect, gained a new mentor, or teacher.  And since people use different tags for the same content, you will also discover new points-of-view, ‘broadening your horizons’ so-to-speak. What you have then, is the beginnings of a nice little Personal Learning Network (PLN), the keystone element of infinite, life-long learning.

Social Tagging Woordle

In this era of participatory culture, there is a need for new information literacies. Web 2.0 tools give everyone the chance to develop a PLN, but students need guidelines to tap into them safely and effectively. When students:

  • can make use of tag clouds to improve their search queries;

  • are able to decipher when controlled vocabularies are more effective than subject searches;

  • can develop information organization strategies using tagging in conjunction with a more structured taxonomy;

  • understand that information is socially created, that research is no longer a solitary act, and that they will need to create and actively participate in communities of knowledge to be successful,

then they are better prepared to participate productively in a world of infinite learning.

Students need to understand how participatory technologies in general, and tagging in particular, work and how to put them to use.  The growth of social media and web 2.0 technologies has forever changed the information environment and information literacy instruction must reflect such changes (Farkas, 2012). Indeed, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Task Force for updating information literacy (IL) competency standards is looking closely at new ways knowledge  is created and disseminated, and aims to develop new definitions of IL that focus on student participation in creating new content.  Human inquiry, during a time in which anyone can be both consumer and producer of information which is in turn, available to anyone, anywhere , at any time, requires a new set of “sociotechnical” skills and tagging is  one of them (Tuominen et al., as cited in Farkas, 2012).

Pulling from a vast array of extant social tagging resources, I developed an instructional unit that works as a supplement to a broader information literacy (IL) program aimed at upper division college students.  The intent of the unit is to teach students the role social tagging plays in information organization and retrieval and to introduce the concept of folksonomies and the shifting authority structures with the rise of web 2.0 technologies.  If you’re interested, here’s the link to my narrated slides , but be forewarned: it’s a bit long (almost 20 min). My plan to create a streamlined version has yet to be realized.


Association of College and Research Libraries (2013). Retrieved from

Farkas, M. (2012). Participatory technologies, pedagogy 2.0 and information literacy. Library Hi Tech, 30(1), 82-94.