[This—more or less—is the text of a keynote talk I delivered last week in Atlanta, at the 2014 DLF Forum: the annual gathering of the Digital Library Federation. DLF is one among several stellar programs at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I have the honor to serve as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow.]
So. We’re a bit more than halfway into this talk, and I’ve been addressing a variety of cultural changes leading to a troubling state of affairs. My goal in the rest of it will be to suggest to you a few intellectual frameworks on which we might hang alternate futures and prop up the counter-forces that are within our reach in the DLF community. Can we consider libraries themselves as models and starting-points for another way? Can a field that tends to welcome Jane and Johnny Do-It-Alls… (okay, that’s a hint, that’s the bastardized Latin translation of Johannes Factotum)—can a generalist profession help conceive of greater and nobler possibilities for expert knowledge? What would happen if we thought about the evolving relationship between generalist and expert understanding itself—that new relationship that is unfolding in our libraries—as a tide-turning force within the academy, and beyond? What would happen if we tried to harness it as an agent of social justice, or environmental change.
I also want to address scholarly and research expertise not in the schizophrenic fashion we often hear from conservative commentators—not, that is, in some kind of simultaneous eulogy about the ending of expertise in the face of a dumbed-down popular culture (on the one hand) and a rant (on the other) about its esoteric, taxpayer-swindling pointy-headed pointlessness. That’s because I find a multifarious expertise more vital and needed and—despite challenges—more cohesive and actionable and present than ever before. So, the ideas I’ll throw out are meant to orient us expert generalists toward the ends of expertise, its telos or purpose or goal.
But what is expertise, anyway? What do we mean by the word? Who designates, decides?