Saturday, August 3, 2013

The weirdness of being considered an "expert"

In my last 4 years of grad school and in my current job, which is a temporary assignment, I've been working at an archive for a research library.  I love the job, and would like to sign on permanently if it's possible (it might not be possible--budget cuts, etc.--but I'm not saying this as a complaint, just as a statement of realism).  One thing that's been hard to get used to with this job is that in some ways, I'm considered and even deferred to as, an "expert" in history. 

This isn't all that surprising or even all that new.  When I got the job 4 years ago, I was on the dissertation-writing stage of grad school and had already had my MA.  Now, I'm done with the dissertation.  I suppose that in the several years in which I was a TA, and the three semesters in which I was an adjunct, I was also deferred to as "an expert," or if not an "expert," as someone whose basic competence for doing the job adequately was assumed.

But although my supposed "expertise" is not entirely new, my job in the archives has ratcheted up the way in which people seem to see me as an "expert."  This was clear my first day on the job.  I was taken to the library's warehouse to look at the collection I and other grad students would be processing.  Part of the collection we had been given was pounds and pounds (or thousands and thousands) of receipts for petty purchases and sales conducted by the organization that had donated its records.  My bosses were discussing what to do with them, and they edged toward just having them returned to the donor as material not of interest to researchers.  My suggestion was that we could keep them and they'd be valuable evidence of the donor's day-to-day activity.

I've since come to believe that I was wrong.  And in fact, we did return them to the organization, which as far as I know plans to have them destroyed.  It's not that these receipts were useless.  In some ways, the profession of history is renewed periodically by people who use disregarded or supposedly useless items to construct insight into a given subject.  But frankly, and this is especially the case with 20th-century U.S. history artifacts and documents, the problem is space, or the cost of maintaining all these items, and any archivist who is honest has to acknowledge that certain potentially useless items must be destroyed or not archived just because there's too much other stuff that's more obviously useful.

My point, though, isn't that I was wrong, it's that when I made the suggestion, my bosses actually listened to it seriously and took it into consideration.  And the only real reason they had to do so is that I had the credentials as an aspiring "historian."

I've had that type of treatment at least on a monthly (and often on a weekly) basis at my job since then.  My opinion is asked because it is wanted on a variety of matters, and whether my advice is followed or not (it usually is), it's pretty clear to me that the opinion asker weighs my answer in whatever they decide, because I "know history" and because I "understand what researchers want and look for."

It's also gotten to the point that I'm discouraged from doing the more menial tasks in my workplace, such as paging books or doing photocopying for patrons.  I also have little direct supervision.  If what I'm doing at the time requires me to read a book or to visit a website, I can do it and not be self-conscious that one of my bosses will see me reading and or surfing the net and wonder what I'm up to.  In part, this has to do with the fact that I work at a public institution, which has dedicated funding streams and does not have to earn a profit, so that the archives get money (or not) based largely on factors independent of what gets done (or not) onsite.  (There are exceptions to this, of course, but that's part of what's happening.)

But the weird thing is, I don't really feel like an expert.  I'm not just being falsely modest, but I think a large part of what I do could be done by a very studious undergraduate senior, or by a well-educated layperson.  True, I probably know more about history than those folks would, and more about professional research.  And their learning curve might be steeper than mine was (and is....there's a heckuva lot I still don't know).  But I think that they could learn the ropes without overweening difficulty.

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