When Do We Become Experts?

An ACRL committee membership recently placed me and a handful of colleagues in the position to choose the recipients of two prestigious awards. As the secretary of the committee, I saw my role as a cross between an observer and cautious participant. Here I was, thrown into the big leagues, having to judge whether a particular publication was significant enough in its advancement of the field and I suddenly felt like a tee ball player stepping up to bat against Greg Maddox circa 1993. I felt as though I had a decent grasp of the field, but I began to wonder – at what point will I consider myself an expert?

I read through the nominations, all while taking diligent notes and creating my own scoring system. There were publications where I knew I’d read iterations of the same topics and projects, and then there were publications where I was blown away and knew there it was unique, innovative, and exactly what our profession needed. But then I’d wonder, “Do I really know? Sure, I read a lot of literature in graduate school and even more in the 2 and half years I’ve worked in the profession, but am I qualified enough to make an assessment on whether it’s award worthy or not?”

When the committee met to make the final decisions, I saw that I was right on target with the majority. Of course a few of my top choices were on the periphery, but a few were aligned with the majority of the committee as well. Consensus is a difficult thing, even in small groups, but the discussions which emerged surrounding professional disagreements highlighted the nuances in committee members’ individual expertise.

The entire experience was illuminating, not only as an introduction to ACRL committee work, but also for my own professional development. The nomination and decision process made me a bit uneasy at first, but I finished feeling more confident in my ability to critically examine literature in our field. I left understanding that although I’m not exactly an expert yet, I’m on my way and doing better than perhaps I thought.

So why does this matter in the bigger picture? My greatest struggle with my developing relationship with expertise centered around the idea of how I present my expertise to students and faculty. In the context of researching and helping students become information literate, I do feel as though I’m an expert. I don’t know where the disconnect is when it comes to information knowledge within my own profession. I don’t have the answer, but I’ll keep looking. And isn’t that what experts do – continually look for more knowledge to better answer the types of questions that really have no answers?

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