A couple of people were very quick to criticize this statement in my last post: “But it seems to me that for advanced research a librarian who knows nothing about the topic itself won’t be very useful.” The offending implication is that reference librarians who aren’t subject specialists or who don’t have advanced degrees can’t do good reference work, which isn’t the case, with the related and quite good point that a big part of reference work is negotiating with the patron, not just having a lot of knowledge about a subject.
Points happily granted.
So I want to revise my question. It might help to make a few distinctions. First, by area, I mean one of the general large divisions in academia: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, etc. These could also perhaps be called cultures, following C.P. Snow. These areas, or cultures, have different methods, objects of study, assumptions, foundations, and shared knowledge.
By field, I mean a subdivision within that area: English, Sociology, Physics, etc. I also want to distinguish between queries which have a definite answer–no matter how complex–and more substantial help providing guidance on a research project, work that is necessarily more open-ended. For the sake of argument, let’s call these reference help and research help, even though in practice we know they’re mingled and we’re fine just calling them reference. I make this distinction because there is an obvious difference between answering a question and providing guidance in a research project. I was and am talking about research help.
My revised question is: When providing advanced research help, do you think reference librarians in general (or you in particular) are equally effective in both 1) areas or fields they know well, and 2) areas and fields about which they know nothing?
A follow-up question could be, how do you know, given that often you don’t know what you don’t know? (For example, I know that I know almost nothing about engineering, but I know there is such a field and roughly what it does. However, there must be gobs of subjects that I’m not even aware of, and thus I don’t even know which of them I don’t know about.) This question could probably be studied empirically with various reference assessment tools, but I’ll leave that job for the tenure-track librarians.
For my own part, I think I’m less effective the further I get from my area of greatest knowledge–the humanities. In fact, there are areas, such as engineering, about which I know so little that I wouldn’t know if I were providing effective research help at all. My knowledge about the field is so limited that I don’t see how I could possibly feel confident. The assumptions, approaches, methods, etc. are so foreign to my education that I have no subjective way of measuring my effectiveness. In fact, the further one gets from the humanities, the less it even makes sense to talk about research help. Natural scientists don’t do much of their research in the library, but in the lab. For the humanist, the library is the lab.
This changes as the areas move closer to the humanities. There are fields within the social sciences I’ve studied from interest or enjoyment, especially political science and sociology. The field of law is similar for me. In those fields, I’ve learned enough to have some idea of what I don’t know. I understand my strengths and weaknesses, and thus I have some way of knowing how effective my research help can be. I know when it’s time to refer to someone with greater knowledge. Political theory and qualitative sociology? I’ll give it a whirl and feel comfortable. Economic data? Referral time.
For the humanities, there is hardly a field about which I don’t have at least some minimal knowledge. For this area, I will include literature, history, philosophy, and religion. I know a lot about these fields because I’ve been reading widely–if not always deeply–for over twenty years. And to be clear, I’m not talking about credentials and degrees, but just knowledge. One of my commenters rightly pointed out that a PhD and no communication skills a bad reference librarian makes. I agree. I don’t have a PhD. I just read a lot of books and am intensely curious about the subjects. In the humanities, I know very well my strengths and weaknesses. I have a very good idea about what I don’t know.
This plays out when I work with students. The farther the research project is from my main area of knowledge, the less comfortable I am that my work is effective. I’m not even sure how I’d know. And what’s more, the work I can do in other areas takes longer for me and for the patron, and I still can’t guarantee my effectiveness, because I don’t know enough about the fields to know what I’m missing.
Thus, my own answer to the question is, No. I don’t think reference librarians are equally effective for research help in areas they know well and areas about which they know nothing. Also, outside of an independent assessment, I don’t see how anyone could possibly know if they were, given what they don’t know they don’t know.
And if the answer generally is, No, then that lends support to my previous speculations that both background knowledge and swotting up for a research consultation make one’s research help more effective. The more I know about a topic, about its context, its background, the better I am able to offer guidance, discuss alternative research strategies, and recommend sources. Perhaps I am the exception, though. Perhaps most other librarians believe they are equally effective in all areas. I tend to think that if one is really equally effective in every area, then it really means one is ineffective in every area, but I could be wrong.