Cò mise? = Who am I?

‘An nì a thig leis a’ ghaoith, falbhaidh e leis an uisge. What comes with the wind, will go with the rain.’ Wall print in the hallway of Museum nan Eilean Siar, Lews Castle, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais), September 2016. Photograph by the author

Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste.
It is better to have broken Gàidhlig than dead Gàidhlig.
— Scottish Gaelic proverb

An invitation by GLAM Blog Club to discuss ‘identity’ has taken me in all sorts of unexpected directions. For one thing, I was fortunate enough to finally attend a Cardi Party, held this month at the Melbourne Immigration Museum, which has helped shape my nebulous thoughts. I’ve also spent most of this week in bed, fighting off a nasty illness gifted me by the city of Melbourne. You know I’ll be back, though.

Talking about identity invariably entails talking about yourself. Who you are, where you have come from, where you are going, what you believe, and so on. Yet it should also entail talking about everyone else, because identities are shared just as much as they are kept to oneself. Whatever I am, someone else is also.

The extent to which we might choose our identities has occupied my thoughts for some time. Identities can be (and are) granted, revoked, adopted, rejected, gifted, stolen, bought and sold. We express our identities in myriad ways—culture, language, ethnicity, dress, official papers, unofficial papers, oral histories, written histories, birth ceremonies, burial rites. Some of these identities have been chosen for me. Some I cannot change. Many I have picked for myself. A few have been thrust upon me. A couple taken by force.

About a year or so ago I began casually learning Gaelic. Known to speakers as Gàidhlig, a language understood by 1.7% of the people of Scotland,1 threatened with extinction in the long term, and spoken by less than a thousand people in Australia,2 it may appear a strange choice of hobby. For various reasons I haven’t been learning as intensely as I once did, but I enjoy following Twitter accounts in the language (using my other account @lis_gaidhlig) and am pleasantly surprised by how much I understand. Gaelic is closely related to Irish (Gaeilge) and Manx (Gaelg) and is part of the Celtic family of languages. It is not to be confused with Scots, the Germanic language closely related to English.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why I chose Gaelic. While it wasn’t originally my idea, it became something in which I was intermittently interested. I no longer have access to the learners’ guides, yet I’ve found myself actually using my skills more than ever. Curiously, I don’t know if any of my ancestors ever actually spoke Gaelic (I think it’s likely, but I’d have to ask my grandmother); certainly nobody in my extended family currently speaks the language.

Writing this post represented the first time I started to think critically about my relationship with Gaelic. I began asking myself copious questions, most of which I couldn’t immediately answer. Did I choose Gaelic (or was Gaelic chosen for me) out of a genuine desire to reconnect with my Scottish roots? My (extremely) Scottish surname was handed down through my family’s 150-odd years of Australian habitation, and yet it was not the name I was born with. I chose this name, much as I chose my family. Does the name conceal other areas of Britain and Europe from which I am descended? Why did I choose this strand of ancestry and not others?

Is there a performative aspect to this exploration of my identity? Am I only aligning myself more with ‘Scottish’ because it’s politically expedient to not be ‘English’? Is it part of a quest for a more concrete ethnicity than ‘generic white Australian’? Am I echoing middle-class Lowland Scots in appropriating a culture and language which is no longer truly mine? Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland (today, chiefly the Hebrides) are cold, remote and economically disadvantaged. Is it my place to enjoy the good things without the bad?

Faerie Glen
Cold, remote, economically disadvantaged, yet still hauntingly beautiful. Faerie Glen, near Uig, Isle of Skye (Eilean Sgitheanach), August 2016. Photograph by the author

Am I looking for a point of difference? A homeland? A place I can point to, despite never having lived there, and say ‘That is my home’? I was privileged to visit Scotland last year, the realisation of a lifelong dream. When I first saw the outskirts of Edinburgh from the plane window, Scotland felt like the strange, exciting, foreign country it was. But it also felt like home. Should it have done?

Is it a response to becoming more educated and aware (some might say ‘woke’) about the black history of Australia, and in particular what Scottish settlers did to Aboriginal people? A reaction to the knowledge that the land I live on, the only home I have ever known, is not mine and was never ceded? A realisation that if I were to repatriate myself, to go back to where I came from, I’d better know where to start?

Moreover, had this sudden interest rendered me the Scottish equivalent of a ‘weeaboo’, because I drink whisky and Irn Bru, listen to a lot of Gaelic folk music and have strong views on Scottish independence? I decided it had not, chiefly because I don’t think everything from or about Scotland is automatically superior to non-Scottish equivalents. (Surprisingly, the thing I missed most about Australia when I visited Scotland was a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables!)

When asked, I don’t tell people that I’m Scottish, because I’m not. I’ve never lived in Scotland, I’ve visited only once, I don’t hold a passport and I don’t speak the language. I say I’m Australian and leave it at that. Occasionally I might get ‘where’s your family from’ (not the more insulting ‘where are you really from’ doled out to non-white people), at which point I might specify Scotland. Yet where is the line drawn between ‘having Scottish heritage’ (or any other ethnocultural affiliation) and ‘being Scottish’? At what point, if any, will I ever be ‘Scottish enough’?

Seeing the Highland tartan exhibit at the Immigration Museum brought a lot of these issues into sharp focus. The Clan MacDonald tartan, easily recognisable with its bold reds and muted greens, formed the backdrop to a medal made of silver, a first prize for dance at the Buninyong Highland Society in country Victoria. Inscribed on the obverse is a curious epigraph, left untranslated by curators: ‘Làmh na Ceartais’. The hand of justice. But for whom?

Highland medal
‘Medal – Buninyong Highland Society, First Prize Strathspeys & Reels, Australia, 1860’. Displayed at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, July 2017. Photograph by the author

While researching the background to this post I discovered two books that might help me answer some of my questions surrounding the legitimacy of my Scottish identity. The first is The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, a 2004 PhD thesis by St John Skilton. It documents the efforts of Scottish expats, descendants of immigrants and interested learners to keep the language alive an leth-chruinne a deas (in the Southern Hemisphere), as well as broader questions of Gaelic ethnicity in Australia and LOTE teaching traditions in Australian schools. At almost 400 pages it’s a hefty read, but one I intend to savour.

The second is Caledonia Australis, a 1984 book by Don Watson exploring the intersection of emigrant Scottish Highlanders and the indigenous Kurnai people of what is now Gippsland in western Victoria. Many Highland Scots were forced to emigrate after being thrown off their land by the English during the Highland Clearances. Those who sailed to Australia systematically dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land, just as the English had dispossessed the Highlanders of theirs. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of this book, and I regret that I could not incorporate its histories into this post.

For a final word on Gaelic identity, I turn to Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain, 1911-1996), one of the great Gaelic writers and poets. His thoughts on the topic (in English) were set to music in ‘Somhairle’ by the Gaelic electronic band Niteworks, whose album NW is one of my favourites. (I recently bought their gear on Bandcamp and conversed with one of the band members in Gaelic!) Sorley was an ardent defender of his culture and language in the face of English dominance and destruction. It seems only fitting that his words lend us a sense of his grim determination to survive, as well as that of his language.

Ever since I was a boy in Raasay
and became aware of the differences between the history I read in books
and the oral accounts I heard around me,
I have been very sceptical of what might be called received history;
the million people for instance who died in Ireland in the nineteenth century;
the million more who had to emigrate;
the thousands of families forced from their homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Why was all that?
Famine? Overpopulation? Improvement? The Industrial Revolution? Expansion overseas?
You see not many of these people understood such words,
they knew only Gaelic.
But we know now another set of words:
clearance, empire, profit, exploitation,
and today we live with the bitter legacy of that kind of history.
Our Gaelic language is threatened with extinction,
our way of life besieged by the forces of international big business,
our countries beggared by bad communication,
our culture is depreciated by the sentimentality of those who have gone away.
We have, I think, a deep sense of generation and community
but that has in so many ways been broken.
We have a history of resistance but now
mainly in the songs we sing.
Our children are bred for emigration.

  1. Scotland’s Census 2011: Gaelic report (part 1) (this encompasses all levels of fluency, so the number of true speakers is certainly lower) 
  2. The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, 2004, p. 183 (it’s closer to 800, and that was in 2003) 

Applied Pragmatic Cataloguing: a reading list

I’ve long been an advocate of what I call ‘pragmatic cataloguing’. You may know the phrase ‘user-centred cataloguing’, which is similar, but narrower in scope.

Being a pragmatic cataloguer involves taking a good hard look at:

  • what you record
  • where you record it
  • how many times you record it
  • what purpose you record it for
  • what terminology you use to record it and
  • whether a patron can fully access and use what you have recorded.

To give but two examples: a cataloguer may decide that the most appropriate LCSH for a work would be exclusionary and/or misleading to a patron, and so use another controlled vocabulary or some free text keywords instead. Longer-term, they might consider petitioning LC for a change of heading, but in order to best serve their patrons right now, they choose alternative headings from different sources, and inform the library employee in charge of cataloguing standards what they chose and why.

In another scenario, an audiovisual specialist cataloguer may have a large backlog and be pressed for time, yet must catalogue items from scratch. Their OPAC does not index, display or otherwise harness the detailed metadata for AV items (or indeed for any items) in the fixed fields of a MARC record. Knowing this, they may decide to skip the fixed field data entry and instead focus on fields that their OPAC can process and display to a user, even if this means creating an ‘incomplete’ record.

Normally I would sit down and write a long (and slightly inaccessible) essay about this topic, but why listen to my waffle when you can read the sources for yourself? I was inspired to collate a reading list by this delightful Twitter conversation. This list is surely incomplete, so I would welcome any suggestions for additional content. I hope you enjoy reading these articles and resources as much as I enjoyed finding them.

Where possible I’ve tried to use OA / freely available resources, because that’s chiefly what I have available to me at the moment, but some of these are paywalled and/or physical.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009a). Applying the User-Centered Paradigm to Cataloging Standards in Theory and Practice: Problems and Prospects. 2009, Vol 2:27-34. [Open access]

Gretchen Hoffman has written quite a lot in this space. This well-referenced, accessible article begins by pointing out that the term ‘user-centred cataloguing’ invariably runs into difficulty because cataloguers often do not know who their users are, and in today’s world a library’s users could be literally anybody. Standards have heretofore required cataloguers only to think about their users, not actually have a user-centred approach; cataloguers have in turn believed that adhering to standards will best serve users, eve when this is patently not the case. Hoffman suggests a rethink of the widespread practice of taking ‘master’ records (eg. OCLC, but also Libraries Australia) and adapting them for local use—such adaptations could be merged into national practice, or different ‘master’ records for, say, academic and school libraries could be considered.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009b). Meeting Users’ Needs in Cataloging: What is the Right Thing to Do?, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 47(7), pp. 631-641 [Not open access]

Hoffman’s CCQ article is a revised, expanded and slightly more biting version of the OA article reviewed above. Here she delves further into the topic of cataloguing ethics, concluding that cataloguers are behaving as if they have none, and broadens the suggestion of ‘domains’ of cataloguing based on the intended user (eg. academic and school libraries).

Barbara Tillett’s response to this (also in CCQ) is illuminating: having taken the article very much to heart (and understandably so), she hits out at Hoffman’s characterisation of cataloguers as ‘unethical’ and wishes the article were more ‘upbeat’. My personal thoughts on this could easily occupy another blog post; suffice it to say I’m less sympathetic to Tillett than most other cataloguers would be.

Baia, Wendy (2008). ‘User-centred serials cataloging’. In Roberto, K.R. (ed.) Radical cataloging: essays at the front. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland &​ Co. [Not open access]

The Google Books preview of this chapter is incomplete, and so must my annotation be also. Baia clearly shares my enthusiasm for flexible cataloguing practices and disdain for those who can’t see past the rulebook. Her chief bugbear is successive entry serials cataloguing, whereby a new record must be created whenever a main entry changes (author / title / uniform title). Users hate this because it means various ‘bits’ of a serial are strewn throughout the catalogue, yet cataloguers persist in doing it anyway. The end of the chapter includes a very helpful bullet point list of characteristics a user-centred serials cataloguer ought to possess, which largely boil down to pragmatism, open-mindedness and a user-focussed approach.

Baia, Wendy & Randall, Kevin M. & Leathern, Cecilia (1998) Creativity in Serials Cataloging, The Serials Librarian, 34(3-4), 313-321 [Open access]

An earlier article from Baia expands on her notion of ‘creative cataloguing’, outlining what a serial record catalogued according to latest entry rules might look like. This article is old, and the example of course is an AACR2 record, but the theory holds true.

Drabenstott, Karen, Simcox. Schelle and Fenton, Eileen (1999). End-User Understanding of Subject Headings in Library Catalogs. Library Resources and Technical Services, 43(3), pp. 140-160. [Open access]

This article outlines a study of adults’ and children’s understanding of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the assignment thereof. Participants were issued questionnaires at selected public libraries in the U.S with a set of headings, and were asked to interpret what they meant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people weren’t very successful at this; less than half of the LCSH corpus were interpreted ‘correctly’ (i.e. in accordance with the opinion of an expert subject cataloguer). Prime reasons for this included the difficulty of vocabulary and the obtuse structure of LCSH subdivisions. Is LCSH an appropriate controlled vocabulary, if users don’t understand what headings mean?
While the structure of LCSH has remained more or less the same since this study was carried out, the introduction of faceted (i.e. not subdivided) vocabs like FAST may improve comprehension of headings by end users.

Hufford, Jon R. (2007). The Pragmatic Basis of Catalog Codes: Has the User Been Ignored?. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University. [Open access]

The gist of this article is basically ‘People who invented cataloguing codes did so without doing any UX research whatsoever’. Serving as a general history of the topic, Hufford illustrates how professional librarians (read: white, male, educated, nominally Christian librarians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries devised lengthy, arcane rules for establishing name and title headings, while failing to consider the needs of users. Whether this failure was conscious or subconscious is not explored, but considering a library’s userbase at the time probably roughly mirrored the librarians who ran it, staff may well have considered themselves ideally placed to decide what would suit users best.

Morris, Ruth (1994). Towards a User-Centred Information Service. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45(1), pp. 20-30. [Open access]

It’s not often I read articles saying LIS needs more theory, but Morris’ 1994 piece argues quite strongly for a better theoretical and conceptual understanding of what a ‘user-centred service’ might mean, so that librarians might begin to provide one. Yes, begin. (sigh) Beginning with an intro to the constructivist theory of LIS research and discussing the theories of four prominent researchers, Morris then deconstructs each aspect of librarians’ interactions with the public.
The section on cataloguing talks about getting users to stop ‘constantly constructing and reconstructing reality’ when considering search terms, and encouraging them to think outside the box. It also discusses the user unfriendliness of internal cataloguing notes on the whereabouts of an item.

Olson, Hope A. and Schlegl, Rose (2001). Standardization, Objectivity, and User Focus: A Meta-Analysis of Subject Access Critiques. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 32(2),
pp. 61-80 [Not open access]

Olson and Schlegl explore the difficulty of locating various critiques of indexing and classification that have taken place over the years (with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability etc.) because the databases that index this information adhere to the same biases and paucity of headings that the critiques themselves discuss. The reference list to this article encompasses some of these articles, which are good reads in their own right. (Alarmingly, their research database has vanished from the Web, and is not available in the Wayback Machine.)
Apropos of nothing, I love their phrase ‘exploited serendipity’ (p. 64). I think I might borrow it for a future post!

Deodato, Joseph (2007) Deconstructing the Library with Jacques Derrida: Creating Space for the Other in Bibliographic Description and Classification. In Leckie, Gloria J., Given, Lisa M., and Buschman, John (eds.) Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, pp. 75-87. [Chapter is open access]

Finally, because who can resist a little existential philosophy with their cataloguing (I know I can’t), Deodato takes us through an exploration of deconstructivist French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and his theories as they might apply to librarianship. It is, by definition, not an easy read, as Derrida’s work seeks to illustrate the plurality and ambiguity of meaning. This represents a challenge to LIS notions of a fixed relationship between meaning and text, as expressed in subject headings and classification schemes. The article also dissects inherent bias in LCSH and the resultant ethical responsiblity of cataloguers to recognise and address these biases. It’s an excellent, if slightly heavy, article.

Five things I learned from #VALATechCamp

VALA Tech Camp logo

A few days ago I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural VALA Tech Camp, a two-day symposium for librarians in tech and technologists in libraries. I learnt a lot and had an excellent time, thanks in large part to the Herculean efforts of the organising committee. Below are a few scattered and not entirely comprehensive thoughts on the event:

Coding is easy! Coding is hard! When the committee asked for suggestions on what to include in the camp, I asked for fairly basic stuff—an intro to Python, for example, for those of us at the n00b end of the spectrum. A 2-hour crash course in Python wound up being the first event on day 1, so I felt more or less obliged to attend. I had previously tried several times to teach myself Python (out of books, on Codecademy, from YouTube videos) but had realised I needed an actual person to teach me the basics.
By the end of the session I had achieved the following:

I was not expecting 56 people to be so supportive of my own personal Wow! signal, so that was super nice. The workshop really did feel like the booster I needed to get me started in Python.
Later in the day (and continuing on day 2) was ‘Hacky Hour’, essentially free time to work on coding projects. I started out doing some web scraping with ParseHub and Beautiful Soup, then got bored and wound up with a Trove API key trying to rewrite Libraries Australia SOLR queries as Trove API queries (with mixed results), then got bored again and started writing a Bash script to extract metadata from a PDF into a CSV or TXT file.
The latter occupied my time and imagination even after I returned to the hotel, culminating in me figuring out how to export metadata from a PDF to a CSV, then to OpenRefine, then to MARC! I was thrilled to have actually achieved something concrete that I could take back to work and actually use. If that was all I got out of VALA tech camp, it would have been worth it.

There’s a huge gap between what tech can do and what people think tech can do. Ingrid Mason spoke at length about the gap in not just digital literacy, but digital infrastructure literacy. You might know how to use wifi, but would you know how to fix your wifi if it broke? (I know I wouldn’t, and I’m more tech literate than the average person.)
There’s also the problem of extremely clever people constantly creating new ways to do things and new ways to solve problems, including library problems, but how much of that knowledge trickles down to us at the coalface? It’s something I’m keen to explore and maybe, hopefully, change.

I was surprised by how much I already knew. One of my problems in tech is that I know I have a very uneven skillset. I am a total Python n00b, yet I can cobble together a Bash script. I’m totally across LOD and RDF triples, but didn’t know how SPARQL worked (until I attended the SPARQL talk!) I understood the mechanics of web scraping, but not how to properly harness web scraping tools. Even the talks where I came armed with a little background knowledge (like UX, APIs, the importance of good documentation) I left feeling twice as knowledgeable, which is an excellent outcome.
I particularly enjoyed the SPARQL talk because it explained linked data concepts in a way ordinary people could understand. Their use of Wikidata as an example SPARQL interface was an inspired choice—I felt it helped make an otherwise arcane and distant concept really concrete and accessible to a lay user.

Tech people are less intimidating than I thought. The attendee profile of VALA Tech Camp certainly skewed older, maler and more experienced than NLS8, which at first was a bit scary for this young, female n00b, but this is precisely why I went in the first place: to learn, and to find out what others are doing. I struck up some great convos with attendees of all genders doing excellent things. I wound up on an all-ladies table for the first Hacky Hour, the ‘Number 1 Ladies Solving Each Other’s Data Collection Problems’ table (moniker by me). In each situation people were only too happy to help and to chat.
Interestingly, I realised that in order for me to do better in tech, I would probably feel more comfortable in a women-only environment, like PyLadies or RubyGirls or something. I’ll look into local chapters and see if I could contribute. Seeing other women do super well in library tech was really empowering and wonderful, and I’d love to see more of it.

You can do the thing! 👍 Several short talks focussed on getting out there and just making stuff happen, including Justine on podcasting in libraries and Athina on running a cryptoparty in a public library. It was really inspiring to hear of people taking initiative and making excellent things happen.
On a much smaller scale, I found myself much more able to get out there and do things I find really difficult. Yes, I can go and make small talk to people! Yes, I can summon the courage to thank people for writing things that have meant a lot to me! Yes, I can do the thing! Yes I can.

Yes I can.

You don’t scare me! I’m a librarian!

Being a librarian, I have discovered, comes with a lot of advantages. I can defeat Google with my superior searching and indexing skills for the benefit of patrons everywhere. I can talk proudly about how hard I work to make my library a better place. I can shush with impunity (only because our ref desk is in a designated quiet space). I can meet other librarians and know we’ll have something in common. Above all, I can sleep at night, knowing my job is intrinsically good and whole and meaningful.

See, I used to fear all of these things. I once thought Google was as good as it got, and I didn’t want to ask for help. I never wanted to talk about my work in case I appeared boastful, egotistic or fake. I used to hate shushing people, for fear it would perpetuate librarian stereotypes. Other people terrify me, so networking was (and is) painful and scary. And I’ve worked jobs that I was scared to go to, because the job crushed and violated my morals each and every day, and there was no end in sight.

So how did I do it?

Obviously I didn’t come straight into libraryland knowing this stuff. It wasn’t until I started my MIS, and received explicit instruction to this effect, that I realised the extent of my poor search habits, that there was something beyond Google (don’t look at me like that, I’m a millennial). I finally realised I hadn’t necessarily been doing it wrong, but that I could be doing it so much better. Search prefixes. Boolean. Union catalogues. Discovery layers. Trove. OMG. So empowering. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone (even if they weren’t interested). I found myself full of something I hadn’t known existed: ‘information confidence’. Not confidence in myself, necessarily, but confidence in my ability to locate, distil and critically examine information. It’s a good feeling.

You’ll have noticed I tweet a lot about cool stuff other people are doing, but not a lot about cool stuff I’m doing. This is partly because I can’t talk about things at work that aren’t yet public, and also because I’m keen to not humblebrag about how great / busy / exhausted I am. But recently I’ve become much more aware of the importance of highlighting librarian labour. Every aspect of library work—reference, acquisitions, programs, cataloguing, outreach, shelving, the lot—is valuable. Some parts of that work (programs, outreach) are more visible than others (acquisitions, cataloguing). Some of that work is valued differently (by management, and also by payroll). Being primarily a back-of-house worker, I need to work harder at demonstrating how hard I work and what I do to make collections accessible and discoverable by our users. It’s critically important not to minimise the length of time or amount of money one spends doing something, lest others think they, too, could achieve it in that timeframe and with that budget. I always used to diminish myself when talking about my work. Now I talk about my efforts with pride. It’s a powerful feeling.

Recently, I’ve had to up my shushing skills. Our reference desk is situated, oddly, in our library’s ‘quiet space’. People really value this space, and so I’ve had to get used to enforcing the quiet by way of a good shush. I don’t like doing it. I used to hate having to go up to noisy chatters or loud call-takers and ask them to keep the noise down and take the call outside. But at least it no longer scares me. Being a staff member affords me certain privileges within the library, and shushing is one of them. (Others include being able to evacuate people in a fire drill and using the exalted Staff Toaster™ for lunchtime jaffles.) I’ve only really gotten better at shushing through experience. I now know how best to phrase a shush, from a pointed smile to a simple ‘shhh’ to a polite ‘hey can you try and keep the noise down, this is a quiet space’ to a firm ‘take the call outside, please’ (and they know I’m not asking). It’s a comfortable feeling.

People scare me. People are weird, unpredictable, incomprehensible things. I always look the wrong way and say the wrong things. I can’t people. It’s a known fact. So naturally a big part of librarianship (as with many other professions) is networking with fellow library workers and people in related fields. ‘Why did I choose this career?!’ I say to myself, perhaps not as regularly as I used to. ‘Nobody told me there would be so much socialising!’ The best way to overcome this fear, it turns out, was to face it head-on. Knowing that I find this sort of thing hard and scary, I deliberately inserted myself into situations where I would be forced to network and make small talk. I did this at ALIA meetings, at ASA meetings, at NDF and at NLS8. People seemed to want to talk to me back, so I took that as a sign I wasn’t doing everything totally wrong. I still don’t always know when to stop talking, and I can’t always tell when someone would, politely, like to talk to someone else. But I definitely know I’ve gotten better at this. It’s an incredible feeling.

I’m exceptionally lucky to have a job that comes with a good set of morals. I haven’t always been so fortunate—I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in call centres, I’ve worked in warehouses and I’ve worked in some questionable pizza joints. To be clear: blue-collar, low-skill jobs are not in and of themselves morally deficient, and I would never judge someone for working in these fields to support themselves. But all of the above places existed either to sell a product or to make people’s lives miserable, and I feared for my health and my sanity while I worked in them. Libraries, on the other hand, exist to make people happy. We exist to enrich the populace, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We offer a place to rest, to study, to discover, to chase small children around beanbags. We are here for you. All of you. And we don’t charge a cent. (Except maybe for photocopies.) How could I ever fear a place like this? How could I ever again be scared of going to work? For as long as I’m in the library sector, I don’t think I’ll be scared of my own job. And that’s a great feeling.

It’s a great comfort to look back on things I used to fear so much and know that the fear is largely gone. Don’t worry, there are still non-library-related things I’m scared of (heights, mostly). But on the whole, conquering these fears has made me a better, more confident, more engaging and more effective librarian.

And that’s a wonderful feeling.

Five things I learned from #NLS8

It’s the Wednesday after the weekend before, and I’m exhausted just thinking about NLS8 (the ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium in Canberra, which I attended last weekend). To be honest, I’m exhausted just thinking about a lot of things. I wasn’t clever enough to get the following Monday off work, so I’ve been showing up all week with a head full of ideas and a to-do list as long as your arm. I usually drink tea at our weekly morning meeting, but this week I drank Berocca instead.

I’m overjoyed to report that I had an absolute ball at NLS8. It was a great use of a weekend that I would otherwise have spent doing very little. I also definitely got out of the conference what I had hoped to: I networked with like-minded and similarly-aged people, I attended all bar one of the events I wanted (and that one was due to a clash), and I had an unseemly amount of fun. I also learnt a lot, too. Here is a selection of those things:

My reputation precedes me! Despite having a kaleidoscopic swirlygig for a face and not specifying my surname, my hometown or my place of employment anywhere on the internet, I was astonished by how many people recognised who I was, and who seemed pleased to meet me. My prodigious use of Twitter accounted for most of this. In fact, I had at least three conversations broadly modelled on the following:

Me: Hi, I’m Alissa! 😄
Them: Oh, hi! … *double-take* Do you tweet? 🤔
Me: … yes 😔

I also had several people tell me how much they enjoyed my blog, which was just such a huge thrill. I heard that people like that I generally say what I think, which is not usually what the library industry wants to hear. In all honesty, though, I don’t have the good sense to know when to shut up. I have always been quite a blunt person, though I’m trying to learn how to be more polite while still being direct and to the point. Let me know if I’m failing miserably!

NLS8 really focussed on teaching useful skills. I had chosen talks and workshops with a practical bent, as I was very keen to come out of NLS8 with an expanded toolbox of concrete, applicable skills that I could use at work. Accordingly, the Library Carpentry workshop by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones, which taught the basics of OpenRefine, fit this bill perfectly. By the end of the session I felt like I could not only use OpenRefine confidently and to great effect, but that I knew exactly how I would do so at work the following Monday! (My notes for this session included ‘Dead useful!’, ‘The data cleaning tool I knew existed but didn’t know how to use!’ and ‘Such great teaching too!’) I also enjoyed Jade Koekoe‘s session on DIY Marketing for Libraries, a topic I know absolutely nothing about. Despite not having a creative bone in my body I managed to make a infographic in Canva, a tool I shall certainly use again.

I met some wonderful people whom I really admire. I had the pleasure of meeting ILN co-founder, keynote speaker and all-around gem Clare McKenzie (who was inexplicably keen to meet me too!). We had a great chat about the awesomeness that is New Zealand’s National Digital Forum and the GLAM Digitisation Google+ group that we co-moderate. I also followed Clare’s keynote advice and told a few people that I love their work, including Matthew, who does some great digitisation and digipres stuff; Nathan, who runs an absolutely fantastic blog on archival decolonialism (seriously, read it); and Katie, who is one of the nicest and coolest people I’ve ever met, and who also creates some bangin’ #critlib zines.

It’s okay to say no. Several speakers, most notably keynote Mylee Joseph, followed a running theme of exhorting delegates to get out there and say ‘yes!’ to things. Go for that job for which you satisfy almost all the criteria, put your hand up for a volunteer role, collaborate with people across teams, workplaces and professions, that kind of thing. Yet we were also encouraged to recognise our limits and say ‘no’ to things that weren’t right for us or that we didn’t have time for. I wound up saying no on two occasions to things I might otherwise, in a different time and a different place, have said yes to. The first was an invitation to be more involved in an ALIA Students and New Graduates group, whose events I attend semi-regularly. I was in fact asked several times but said no to each, reasoning that I have more than enough on my plate right now, and social organising has never been my forte anyway. The second was an invite from aforementioned idol Clare McKenzie for a selfie for our Google+ group. Despite admiring Clare a great deal and not wanting to disappoint, the group is public-facing and our (meaning my) photo would have been visible to the entire internet. I have very strict rules for myself (and have done for several years) about not putting my face online, which meant I had to say no to her offer. I felt really bad afterwards, but I know I would have felt worse had I done something that was so contrary to my values, and which I couldn’t undo.

NLS8 helped affirm a lot of my values, about librarianship and also about other things. For many attendees, the keynote speech from library evangelist R. David Lankes was undoubtedly a revelatory experience in their library careers. Lankes says a lot of things that chafe a little against the library establishment, including (paraphrasing) ‘Information literacy makes people feel better about their lousy skills’ and ‘Data often says far more about who it’s collected by than who it’s about’. His talk was all the confirmation I needed of the virtue of maintaining personal privacy online and limiting my exposure on social media. It was gratifying and reassuring that very little of the content of his keynote was news to me. I’m very aware of the risks posed by the internet: to librarianship, to information literacy and to us as human beings, and I’ve spent years ranting about them to anyone who will listen. (One of the umpteen books on my to-read list, incidentally, is called The Internet Is Not The Answer.) I’m so glad my fellow delegates had the opportunity to hear Lankes’ speech.

For my part, I spent the following session in the breakout room, trying to reconcile these progressive values of new librarianship with the unbridled capitalism that underlies so much of our profession, particularly in areas such as vendor negotiation. I had attended a workshop the previous day on the work of special libraries, hosted by GRAIL, who are part of the State Library of Queensland. The workshop was well run and I found it very informative and highly illuminating. I left the workshop with a far greater appreciation of the realities of special libraries—but I also thought that some of those realities kinda suck, especially the bits about paying extravagant amounts of money for resources the library doesn’t even own. I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear of the necessity of justifying the library’s services in purely dollar terms. These are our realities right now, but it doesn’t always have to be this way.

NLS8 really was all about the future, which I’m excited to be a part of. I left the NLA feeling re-invigorated and re-energised about my chosen career. I hope we can all take the positive energy from NLS8 and sustain it in our regular LIS practice. The future of our profession depends on it.

What I’m looking forward to at #NLS8

To a chorus of shrugs, I have managed to resurrect this blog and make a few cosmetic changes. I literally have a pile of papers on my desk with ideas for future blog posts, harried Opinions scribbled thereon. I do wonder what I was thinking when I wrote some of them down. “The dangers of personal branding” “Representing draft–final relationships in LRM and Bibframe” “But why do we hate serials???”

In case you thought this made me a dull person, some of you may soon have the chance to let me know in person. The ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium is coming up this Friday to Sunday, and I’ll be in attendance. Now in its eighth iteration, NLS8 has been spoken of quite warmly by previous attendees, and it looks to be a fun and informative conference. Loads of people I know are going. (By ‘know’, I mean ‘follow on Twitter’.)

As expected, many of the attendees will be LIS students, many others new graduates / new professionals, and a few others serial attendees who can’t get enough of NLS. I’m in the slightly odd situation of being both a student and a new professional; I was astonishingly fortunate enough to score a professional-level library job despite not yet having that bit of paper. Some days I can’t believe my luck. Other days I can believe it, because I know the refreshing perspectives that new professionals bring to LIS, and I’d like to think I’m good at what I do.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to networking and socialising with people my own age. I’m the youngest professional-level librarian at MPOW by over a decade, and sometimes the generation gap is painfully obvious. It’ll be really nice to meet library-inclined people at similar stages in their career and see how they’re faring, and maybe snag a few tips.

I had a hard time deciding which talks and workshops I would attend, because so many of the speakers are so good! I’m particularly keen for (in chronological order)

  • Getting down and dirty: modern realities of special libraries (Angela Vilkins, Cassie Pummell, Anna Landy & Amy Walduck)
  • Increasing digital preservation skills in libraries (Kimberley Dye)
  • DIY marketing for libraries (the indefatigable Jade Koekoe)
  • #auslibchat and social librarians (Elizabeth Alvey, James McGoran & Katie Miles-Barnes)
  • and whichever workshop on Sunday session 3 is not full, because I desperately want to attend all five! (Sam Searle, Irma Birchall, Sharee Cordes, Madelin Meddlycott & Michael Hawks, Andrew Kelly)

Finally, I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to getting out of my little office and doing something fun. I’ve found myself with a lot on my plate this week (some good, some bad, some planned, some unexpected) and it’ll be nice to leave that all behind for a couple of days, listening to impassioned speakers and chatting with fellow new professionals. Honestly I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my weekend doing.

(Except maybe sleeping. I love sleeping.)

The cataloguer’s dungeon

These things keep me up at night. I would usually feel guilty for not worrying about climate change and the impending extinction of humanity, but I did that last month. So I’m letting it slide.

Like any normal twenty-something alone on a Saturday night, I found myself idly browsing my workplace’s catalogue for something to read. My literary diet has long had a nihilistic flavour—the top two books in a tottering pile to my immediate left are The Shock of the Anthropocene and The World Without Us (the latter recommended by Hugh), both sobering warnings on the fate of our planet. I thought I might try something fictional and/or optimistic for a change, but instead wound up on the entry for the film adaptation of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a true story of a murder at a dinner party. How uplifting.

Being a cataloguer and therefore not a normal person, I noticed a lack of added entries for this record. In English, this refers to additional people, entities or works associated with a work (but which are not subjects of the record). A record can only have one main entry, but it can have as many added entries as you want (this is a limitation of the MARC data format). Usually this means additional authors, translators, actors, directors, issuing bodies and so on. An added entry can also be a work which has been adapted by another work. For the film Joe Cinque’s Consolation, I was expecting to see an entry for the book of the same name, written by Helen Garner.

I flipped to the MARC view, which (to me) often makes more sense than the public view. Lo and behold, there was the added entry:

700 1# $i Motion picture adaptation of (work). $a Garner, Helen, $d 1942-. $t Joe Cinque's consolation.

I checked another DVD record with fewer subject headings, in case space was causing a display issue. Nothing. I checked a few books. Still nothing. How had I never noticed this? I tried to console myself by reasoning that I never use the OPAC for work purposes, always the staff backend, which does display 7XX fields in the bibliographic record. Nobody told me these entries don’t appear to the public! Our ILS is 14 years old and slated for replacement, but it should have been able to cope with added entries right out of the box. It copes with RDA… ish… but doesn’t do anything particularly useful with the new information RDA provides.

By now wondering if this was a common problem, I looked at a couple of other libraries that held this DVD. Some displayed the full added entry, some omitted the ‘Motion picture adaptation’ part, and others used only the author’s name without the book title (which is less useful if you have no idea who Helen Garner is, and there’s no relationship designator to tell you). One library, clearly a SirsiDynix Symphony setup, displayed almost nothing unless I clicked on ‘Catalogue Record’, the contents of which will mean almost nothing to a casual user.

I returned to our catalogue, flipped back to non-MARC view and tried a general keyword search with another added entry (an actor’s name). This brought up the record for the DVD, but gave me no clue whatsoever as to why that record had appeared. How… unintuitive.

At this point, I began to feel greatly deceived. Why am I being paid to create metadata that the public can’t even see?

I looked at the MARC record again. How many other useful fields weren’t being displayed? How much information in fixed fields could actually be used in a query? For this particular DVD record, non-displayed useful fields included:

  • creator/producer note (508)
  • performers note (511) and
  • added entries for the actors and directors, as well as the original book (700 and 710).

By looking at this record, a user would have no way of knowing the director and main actors in the film, despite this information being encoded twice in the MARC record (once in a note and once as an added entry). It’s the kind of information I would be looking for if I were an OPAC user. Other libraries were, however, much better at displaying this data.

For the last several months I’ve been happily typing away in my little cataloguer’s dungeon, oblivious to the utter uselessness of many of the records I create. Well, actually, that’s not strictly fair—the records themselves are fine, but the system that manages them is not. Yes, we’ve been promised a new ILS sometime soon. But this added-entry problem has been around for 14 years. Either nobody noticed, or nobody cared, or nobody had the skill to do anything, or nobody was game to take on our vendor and ask for a solution, or nobody even saw it as a problem that needed fixing.

There are several problems here. Cataloguers (me included) should have an understanding of how their records will appear to an end-user. Systems librarians and administrators should be aware of what sort of data a) their cataloguers are producing and b) their users are looking for, and ensure that the OPAC’s offering meets all needs. Users should be empowered to give feedback about their discovery experience and know that their feedback will be taken seriously. Vendors should perhaps be selling less terrible products. Management should perhaps be buying less terrible products.

In the immediate term, it means I have to re-evaluate my use of added entries vis-à-vis general note (500) fields to ensure maximum usefulness for the end user. It bothers me greatly that I have to do this. MARC has an abundance of clearly defined fields for a reason. It should be up to the system to display them appropriately, not up to me to compensate for the system’s failings.

I looked again at the record for Joe Cinque’s Consolation, by now a source of great frustration when all I wanted was something fun to read. Buried in the Notes section, in tiny font, were the words: ‘Based on the book by Helen Garner’. Thankyou record, you came through after all. But why was this info in the Notes field at all? We can do so much better than this…

(To be continued)

There will be no GLAM 3017, because we will all be dead

I try not to think about where humanity might be in a thousand years. Based on our current trajectory, the most likely answer is ‘extinct’. Our current rate of consumption and pollution is not sustainable for anywhere near that length of time. When resources run out, there will inevitably be fierce wars over what little is left. Civilisation will end one of two ways: with a bang, or a whimper.

When we are all gone, we will leave behind an unfathomable amount of stuff. Priceless treasures representing the pinnacle of humanity, through personal possessions and records of ordinary people, to mountains of rubbish and items of no assigned value. All of this stuff will begin to degrade. Bespoke climate-controlled environments will no longer protect precious materials; our natural environment will likely not be conducive to long-term preservation, either. It is inevitable great works will be lost.

I’ve had Abby Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More on my to-read pile for several months. I won’t get it read anytime soon, sadly, but her book touches on similar themes. Rumsey appears more optimistic than me; her book explores how people a thousand years from now will remember the early 21st century. I can’t help but admire her belief that humanity will exist at all.

This is a pessimistic worldview, to be sure. After all, modern capitalism is predicated on people buying stuff, which is in turn predicated on the constant production of stuff. Increasingly this ‘stuff’ is made from non-renewable materials, and sooner or later those materials will run out. Capitalism presents no incentive to preserve our scarce resources, because if a resource remains in the ground then less (or no) money can be made from it. The only real hope of changing this state of affairs lies in revolution, and that won’t be popular.

If, by some miracle, homo sapiens survives to 3017, it will not be a pleasant world. With the exhaustion of mineral resources will come a need to recycle or perish. If our choice becomes book-burning or starvation (we’ve all seen that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, right?), I doubt many would pick the latter. Technology will not save us. Our electronic memory will be irretrievable, our physical memory decayed if not destroyed. Perhaps our surviving collective descendants will despair at our modern habits of storing vast amounts of information on fragile pieces of metal and plastic, which require significant infrastructure to be accessed and read. A book (which, to be fair, we are also producing plenty of) requires nothing but a pair of functioning eyeballs.

I’d really like to believe that our species will survive, but nothing so far has convinced me. Knowledge and memory—and the externalisation thereof—are uniquely human traits. Without people to inhabit library buildings, without people to read books, without people to create and disseminate knowledge… our planet will be truly devoid.

Then again, we live in a time of information abundance, and look where it’s gotten us. Perhaps we’re reaping what we sow.

A wordless speech

microphone pointing straight at camera

I have a cold.

It’s a bizarre sort of cold, all in my head and only half my nose. Thinking is harder with a cold. Moving, walking, making tea, doing housework on my day off, all requiring more energy than I can spare. It’s not helped by the fact I have poor circulation and a freezing house. Winter has come early this year.

I managed to read a book today. I really haven’t read enough books recently. Prose adds colour to my monochrome thoughts, shaped as they are by work emails, reports, grey literature and online news articles. My current literary diet is mostly (auto)biographies. Tales of real people straddle the divide between fiction and non-fiction–each person’s truth is their own.

Mr Rundle has reminded all of us that VALA2018 abstracts are closing soon. Yikes. I’ve had a reminder in my work calendar for months. This week has a big banner shouting ‘VALA ABSTRACTS CLOSE NEXT WEEK’. I was excited to learn that e-posters are a thing at this conference–it seems more manageable than a full paper and presentation.

I’m keen to write. The problem is that I’m not doing anything remotely interesting.

Conferences are for learning about all the cool things other people are doing. New developments in the field. Shiny toys from upstart companies. Vendors looking to sell you shit you don’t need at prices you can’t resist. Plus networking, which I expect will be easier at NLS8 than it was at NDF. Thanks to Twitter I feel like I know half the attendees already.

Despite being a mouthy LIS n00b I feel like I have nothing to say. I can’t talk about the interesting things going on at work and the non-interesting things are… just that. I can’t shake the feeling that I truly know nothing about linked data or digipres, and in any case I’m currently making no practical contribution to the field. I have nothing at all to contribute to VALA2018. It saddens me a little.

I’d have to get permission from my employer to submit anything, which I suspect would be difficult. I make no secret of my frustration with the political machinations of library work and it’s cost me opportunities in the past. My workplace needs all the promotion it can get, but who would trust me to deliver the message?

If, by some miracle, I come up with an idea before next Wednesday, then maybe I can pull something out of a hat. But I’m not optimistic. Oh well. There’s always next year.

🎶 Mama, don’t taaaake my MIS awaaaay 🎶

When I think back on all the crap I learned in GLAM school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

(With apologies to Paul Simon)

I am a terrible student.

There’s no getting around the fact that my grades aren’t too flash and I don’t focus on study as much as I ought to. I’m also perilously close to graduating and I’m fairly sure some of my lecturers have come across this blog. So it would be in my interests to make some fairly tame comments about the state of lecturing at my university (which, despite it being listed in my Twitter bio, I will not name) and leave it at that.

But that’s not how I roll.

Before I get stuck in, I feel it’s important to distinguish things I wish I had learnt at GLAM school from things I wish GLAM school had taught me. The former places the onus of education on the student, the latter on the educator. If I knew in late 2013 what I know now, I would have structured my LIS education very differently–different courses, different degree structure, perhaps a different uni. Many, but not all, of the gaps in my knowledge are due to poor subject choice and insufficient application on my part.

There’s also a lot to be said for letting the student focus on areas of LIS that interest them. I have a great many interests and skillsets, but children’s librarianship (for example) is not one of them. Being forced to undertake a children’s lit subject would have absolutely killed my enthusiasm and interest in librarianship. Yes, I now work for a public library. No, the irony is not lost on me. Plenty of people have no aptitude for hardcore cataloguing or research methods, and forcing these on students is a recipe for disaster. Oddly, cataloguing is an elective but research methods are mandatory.

A common response to this question when asked of librarians is ‘I wish I’d done cataloguing’. I did cataloguing. I was sent on another cataloguing course by work. I love cataloguing. I now catalogue professionally (though this is only a portion of my job). I am also aware that cataloguers as we know them are a dying breed, and it’s not because most are approaching retirement age.

I’m pretty sure I’ve declared previously that cataloguing should be a mandatory subject, but I’ve since changed my mind: a practical appreciation of metadata ought to be an integral part of all LIS courses. An introductory metadata course was a compulsory part of my degree, but common consensus was that it was a bit too high-level to be of much use to people. Focus on ‘what is MARC?’, basic DDC and LoC schedules and a couple of subject thesauri, and students will be streets ahead.

Introductory scripting and coding courses should be offered as electives in all LIS courses. My uni offers a ‘fundamentals of web design’ class that I purposely didn’t take because I can already speak HTML and CSS reasonably well, but nothing AFAIK is offered in actual programming. Considering a portion of my work right now involves Python and bash scripting, which I’m currently learning out of a book, I know I would have found such a course terrifically useful (and why I’m keen as mustard for VALA tech camp). As I’ve pontificated before, there is a huge need for tech-literate librarians. LIS courses are, for the most part, not filling this need.

I know I would also have really appreciated practical training in library applications and technologies. Alone of all my courses, the cataloguing elective (taught by the indefatigable Lynn Farkas) featured hands-on experience with WebDewey and Cataloger’s Desktop: real tools used by real cataloguers. (But not me, sigh.) Yet I don’t recall a single course actually discussing in any depth what an ILS is, or how to use one. Acquisitions backends. Practical digital archiving. Getting stuff into Trove. How to do all of those things on a $0 budget. This is the kind of knowledge LIS workers need. Even if they don’t yet know they need it.

Yes, I should have paid more attention in GLAM school. But GLAM school needs to meet its students halfway and provide a practical, up-to-date, evidence-based curriculum that adequately prepares students for the realities of life in this sector.

Theory won’t pay the rent. But practical knowledge just might.