How Librarians Prevent the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”

If you asked me five years ago what I would be doing now, I would have told you that it had something to do with a library or archive—specifically, at a university or maybe a historical society. From a very young age, I have been fascinated with learning. Prior to the technological explosion we have seen in the past two decades or so, outside of school you would learn by going to the library. So it was no surprise that after I finished my undergraduate degree, I headed to get my master’s degree in library science.

Yes, to be a librarian, you in fact need a master’s degree in library science or information science. And no, becoming a librarian has very little to do with reading books and so much more to do with technology, research, management, and customer service.

On the surface, my librarian background seems unrelated to my position at Food Insight, but looking closer, the skills I learned while in school effectively taught me how to communicate science-based information through social media, an integral part of my job.

Communicating accurate information in this day and age can be quite difficult. When anybody can create a website, and with many people unaware that Google is only a search engine that provides results based solely on keywords, not on the accuracy of the website, even the silliest, most obnoxious, and most factually incompetent websites can be seen as informative and accurate.

Combine this with the fact that most people don’t go through the effort of fact-checking, and you find that some people are trapped in the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”—i.e., the tendency of relatively unskilled people to overestimate their knowledge and abilities. I see this jarringly so with information on nutrition, dieting, agricultural technology, and food biotechnology.

If you were to go into a library and ask for information on those topics, you would be given significantly more accurate information than what you would find on many blogs and websites. Why? Because, it is a librarian’s duty to provide patrons with accurate and fact-based information regardless of his or her personal bias.

We are, in essence, trained to be ethical researchers. Our opinions should not affect our work or the ability to provide our patrons with topics outside of our comfort zone. Doing so not only goes against the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, but it could also potentially get us fired.

Many have the misconception that librarians only provide books for the public, but we do much more. There are different types of librarians—three, in particular.

Reference librarians are the most easily recognizable. They sit at the front desk at a library and ask you if you need help finding something. While many ignore them or ask them where a particular book is, their skills can be utilized in much more effective ways. If you have any research that you need to do, ask the reference librarian. She or he will ask you “reference questions” that provide them with an in-depth understanding of the type of information for which you’re looking. Ethically, we cannot influence those conclusions, only provide the information meaning you get the most objective, fact-based information possible.

Another type of librarian is an acquisitions librarian, or one who stocks the library with resources such as books, electronic resources, almanacs, periodicals, or videos. An acquisitions librarian goes through the process of finding accurate and fact-based sources for the library’s demographic. For example, for a law library, the acquisitions librarian finds legal sources pertaining to the work of attorneys.

Lastly, research librarians are those who just research. They’re often found working at think tanks, educational institutions, and special libraries like medical, legal, or business. The most famous research librarians (in my opinion) are those who work at the Congressional Research Service. Often times, research librarians have a second advanced degree in the topic in which they specialize.

So if you have any questions you want answered, go to a library. That’s my librarian pitch, but if you don’t want to go to a library, there are other tips for navigating the Internet to find accurate and fact-based information.

1. Authority on a topic: Why am I writing about library science and librarians? Because I have an MLS and have been a librarian. I have a lot more expertise on the subject than someone who read an article about it. The same should be said on any topic you’re researching. If you want to know about nutrition, you should be getting your advice from a registered dietitian, not necessarily a “nutritionist” whose background is in psychology. If you want to know about agriculture, talk to someone with a degree in agriculture, an ag economist, or someone who actually has a farm, not someone who has a small garden on their balcony.

2. Credible sources: Any time someone offers information, he or she needs to cite the sources that influenced his or her opinion. And when you’re online, that better come with links to the original source. If an article says “Originally reported by [insert newspaper name],” then there had better be a link going right back to that newspaper. Same with research studies. And make sure you actually click that link too. There have been a few times when I clicked on a link only to find that it doesn’t go to the original source, or the original source says nothing that the article insinuated.

3. Current information: It’s 2016—don’t cite something from 1973 unless you’re discussing history or historical trends. Also, in relation to research studies, if something has been redacted or disproven, don’t cite it either. It’s old and incorrect information that has been null and void many times over.

4. Plagiarism: Plagiarism is very much a no-no. Anything that has been plagiarized and isn’t correctly attributed is very suspect. Also, don’t fall for the “copy-and-paste list” with the author saying something like, “I didn’t know this” or “Wow, I’m going to avoid this.” I often see this in the form of “ingredients to avoid” lists. You can tell that the author(s) just took the information at face value without ever fact-checking.

All in all, librarians serve a great purpose, ensuring that the public is educated. By using my library expertise in my position, I get to provide people with fact-based information on topics they may not already understand. Not to mention, I get to learn something new each day.

Kamilah Guiden is the Digital Media Manager at Food Insight. She received her master’s in library science at Catholic University of America. She is an “embedded” librarian, or a librarian who applies her librarian expertise to a non-library field.