An entitlement to knowledge

The Seven Sisters, 2010, by Eileen Tjayanka Woods, Papulankutja Artists, acrylic on linen, 171 x 145 cm. National Museum of Australia. © Eileen Tjayanka Woods. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017.

Today I went to see the exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia. I was motivated to spend today somewhere airconditioned, and figured I could tick off this exhibition on my to-do list at the same time. As it turned out, I’m already planning a second visit.

Songlines is an incredible, spellbinding exhibition. I implore you, if you can, to see it before it closes on February 25. It’s an enthralling journey across space, time, culture, language and people, telling an Indigenous story in Indigenous ways—paintings, ceramics, carvings, song, dance, oral retelling, even a virtual reality experience depicting Cave Hill rock art. The saga of the Seven Sisters (Minyipuru in Martu country, Kungkarrangkalpa in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara [APY] country) incorporates essential knowledge for survival in the desert—the locations of waterholes, medicinal plants and food sources, sacred places, areas of risk, how to mitigate that risk.

I came to the exhibition with some awareness of Indigenous desert culture and left with an exponentially greater understanding of Martu and APY lore, culture and knowledge. I felt an incredible sorrow at what settler culture had inflicted on these people. An incredible awe at their continuing survival. An incredible gratitude that they had chosen to share this lore with Australia, and that I might experience it. An incredible sadness that their ways of life were imperiled to the point that APY elders considered it necessary to stage this exhibition at all.

Songlines also made clear that this story was being shared with me, with the public, with settler Australia, because the elders wanted it shared. That non-owners of the tjukurrpa (the Dreaming) were not necessarily entitled to this knowledge, and would not traditionally be privy to it. The concept of ‘entitlement to knowledge’ was fortunately not new to me, but I found myself returning to it during my almost three-hour stay in the exhibition space. It had represented a profound shift in my conceptualisation of self, both my personal white self and my professional librarian self.

Modern western librarianship has its roots in the Enlightenment ethos of the primacy of reason: rationalism, scepticism, empiricism, objectivism. All of those -isms naturally presuppose access to knowledge, which builds logical argument and constructs a rational worldview. The idea that an Enlightenment thinker might be, in their view, denied access to knowledge that might advance their philosophy… it would be inconceivable. It goes far deeper than ‘I don’t want to tell you because I’m a competing philosopher’. It’s an intrinsic entitlement to knowledge. A stauchly-held view that worldly knowledge is there, just there, for the taking.

This line of thinking has trickled down to us today. I spent my childhood voraciously consuming every book, newspaper, magazine and educational computer game I could get my hands on. I brought to librarianship the same thirst for knowledge that defined my early years. I saw nothing wrong with this. It wasn’t until very recently—say, the last 18 months or so—that I began learning far more about Indigenous epistemologies and methods of knowledge transmission, and in doing so beginning to question the very foundations of my profession.

What sorts of knowledge am I entitled to? If any? What knowledge should I be sharing, not sharing, promulgating, not promulgating, making findable, making secret? The idea that not all knowledge ought to be public knowledge, that not everything ought to be shared, is a seismic shift in western librarianship. Consider our current preoccupation with linked open data. Not all data is appropriately shared in these kinds of frameworks, which is why Indigenous data sovereignty is essential for any open data project. Knowledge is not always ours for the taking. Knowledge belongs to people, and their interests must always come first.

I picked up a book in the museum gift shop, Glenn Morrison’s Songlines and fault lines: epic walks of the Red Centre. I’ve accidentally read half of it already, though I had hoped to do it justice and soak up the book in one sitting. It’s a wonderful addition to my growing collection of books on psychogeography, a burgeoning interest of mine, which is basically a white way of trying to establish a (spiritual?) connection with places and with the landscape. I left the exhibition painfully aware of the connection I do not have with this land, partly because I’ve only recently tried to reconnect with walking and nature, and also because it’s not my land.

In any case, I look forward to returning to the Songlines exhibition. There’s so much more I could learn from it, for as long as it deigns to teach me.

The passionate armour

I recently came across one of those quote-retweet Twitter memes asking what my ambitions were for the next ten years. To my surprise, the first answer that came to mind was ‘spiritual enlightenment’. I’ve never been a religious person, but perhaps my subconscious is trying to tell me that I’m missing something. I then tried to come up with a more concrete response, but found I had difficulty picturing myself even being ten years older. I’d be thirty-six. I’m not ready to be middle-aged. Hell, I’m barely ready to be the age I am now.

Instead, I focused on the word ‘ambitions’. The meme was in response to ambitious women being stereotypically derided as ‘opportunistic’, ‘calculating’ and ‘conniving’. How dare we have goals for ourselves, that we might have to work hard to reach. I figured I wouldn’t describe myself as ambitious, but then I stopped to consider why. I think I generally associate ambition with a quest for power, or social status, or a certain celebrity. I don’t want any of these things for myself. I do, however, want them for my profession. I want libraries to reclaim their power, their status, their celebrity within the public consciousness.

This is quite an ambitious goal. It’s not as concrete as the other goals I set for myself this year. It’s really more of a guiding principle than a goal. But it aptly encompasses the kinds of things I’d like to achieve.

I think it’s fair to say I’m passionate about librarianship and the broader GLAM sector. ‘Passionate’ is an interesting descriptor. Sometimes it’s a compliment and sometimes it’s almost an insult, especially if one’s passion on a given topic is far and above the mean within one’s social group. I think it’s also fair to say I’m more passionate about librarianship than the average librarian. How can I demonstrate this passion in a meaningful and sustainable way (i.e. by not working myself to the bone)? To me, the obvious answer is to redirect some of my energies away from work and into professional development, or PD, so that I might become a better librarian.

The UK’s FLIP network, a social group for new professionals, recently blogged about PD and managing one’s mental health. It was an eminently sensible post, but something about it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think I was quite the post’s target market.

My twitter feedback could best be described as ‘polarised’. Some people praised my view while others defended their more moderate stance, as if passion and resilience couldn’t possibly coexist. As if librarianship is all I am, because it’s all Twitter ever sees of me. As if I had to be talked out of caring so much. It stung, and I found myself at a loss as to how to respond.

In saying ‘I fear that without [PD], people won’t take me seriously as a librarian’, I felt I was exposing a little of my inner self to the world. A part of me that remains bitterly insecure about my skills in this job. A part of me I’m not sure I was really ready to talk about. A part of me hiding underneath the passionate armour—that I care so deeply about what I do, and yet have so little faith in my own abilities, I’m not sure I can ever truly meet the ambitious goals I set for myself.

I have two options: care less, or believe more.

Which brings me back to seeking spiritual enlightenment. I still don’t think I’ll find religion anytime soon. But it’d be nice if I could scrounge up a little more self-belief. It ties into my existing goal for this year—to back myself. To know my own mind, my own strengths and weaknesses, my own path.

And to never, ever, stop caring.

2018: a year of expanding horizons

I have a good feeling about 2018. I suspect I’m one of the few people who does. I’ve long been of the view that things have to get worse before they get better, and last year was ‘worse’ by just about every metric, so I’m hopeful things will improve this year.

As suggested by GLAM Blog Club, I reflected on the goals I set myself last year:

  • ‘Improve my digital skills’: While I didn’t manage to learn SQL, I did attend an engaging talk on Python for beginners at VALA Tech Camp and acquired a couple of decent beginner programming books. I got much better at Markdown and Bash scripting, and did a lot of work with SKOS vocabularies. I had some fun with wget and other web archiving tools.
  • ‘Reconnect with long-form writing, which is worth paying for’: I definitely achieved this goal, thanks to a burgeoning interest in psychogeography and landscape writing. Among many others, I encountered the delightful print journal Elsewhere, the Dark Mountain Project and their recent compendium Walking on Lava, and Alastair Bonnett’s 2014 book Off the Map. I still acquired several unread books, but I made the time to devour several more
  • ‘Get some perspective’: Aside from a new perspective on landscape (embodied in the zines I began writing late last year), I’d like to think I broadened my perspective on several issues. I made a point of regularly reading the Guardian’s American series Burst your bubble, catering for a section of its readership newly bewildered by a rapid political transformation they didn’t see coming. I also read a lot more about Indigenous issues in Australia, in particular the excellent book Decolonizing Solidarity. I’d like to sincerely thank Nathan Sentance and Annelie de Villiers, whose writing and retweeting on these issues helped broaden my perspective immensely.

So what will I aim for this year? The ‘expanding horizons’ of the title refers not just to expanding my dislike of the Horizon ILS, which I will hopefully never have to use ever again, but of new opportunities in many aspects of my life. I feel I am at a crossroads. I intend to take a path where I might see far ahead of me. Already I have some concrete goals:

  • Submit papers to conferences: I recently learned the CILIP CIG conference is in Edinburgh this year, and seeing as I love a) metadata b) Scotland and c) conferences, this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. I don’t yet have a smashing idea for a topic, but I really hope I can think of something. I already have an idea for NLS9, which I can’t wait to work on.
  • Write more zines: I went on a walk last year and wrote a zine about it. It was the most creative thing I’d done in ages (and my family loved it!). I already have ideas for several more zines, which promise to broaden my physical and philosophical horizons. I’m so glad I discovered zines. They’ve been a great outlet in all sorts of ways.
  • Back myself: This was the main thing I learned in 2017—to have confidence in myself and my decisions, and to know when to change course. A lesson like this is only as good as its implementation.

As always, I aim to continue tweeting and blogging, as well as attending GLAM events where I can. 2018 will be a bit of a rebuilding year for me, but I hope to build something bigger and stronger that will serve me well for years to come.

Back yourself (or, Five things I accomplished in 2017)

In the absence of any collaborative material to write about for GLAM Blog Club (sorry), my thoughts turned to a year in review post. My 2017 was, like many people’s (and the planet’s), a year of extremes. Lots of really good things happened to me. Lots of really awful things happened to me. I can only hope I learned from the bad and made the most of the good. I learned a lot this year, but most of those lessons essentially boiled down to one thing: Back yourself.

This doesn’t mean ‘I’m always right’ or ‘I am untouchable’. I spent a lot of this year questioning my judgment, which admittedly in parts was fairly terrible. It’s more along the lines of ‘Think things through, come to a position on something and own it, and if you change your mind, own that too’. It also means ‘Know your own worth—don’t listen to those who don’t value you’.

I’m finishing the year in a very different position from when I started it. It’s slightly mind-boggling just how much I accomplished in 2017. Below is a brief overview:

  • New job! I quit my (permanent) job as a local history librarian and took up a new (temporary) gig as a tech services officer in a law library. Wait, what?! Most new grads would give their right arms for a permanent gig, and here I am giving mine away!? It sounds crazy on paper, especially because I know very little about law, but I’m confident it was the right decision for me. Time will tell whether I can parlay that into other opportunities.
  • So much networking! For an introvert with no social skills and an intermittent anxiety disorder, I sure went to a lot of stuff this year. I attended NLS8, VALA Tech Camp, the NSLA digipres forum, local ALIA SNGG events, a newCardigan meetup and much more. I met loads of people (many of whom, disconcertingly enough, already knew who I was!). I tweeted my little heart out. I have over 700 followers! How the heck did that happen?
  • Lots of writing! I wrote 18 blog posts in 2017, including eight for GLAM Blog Club, an excellent initiative from newCardigan. My two favourite blog posts this year were ‘Cò mise? = Who am I?’ and ‘How to catalogue a beer can’. I also wrote two pieces for professional journals, both of which are slated for publication in the new year. (Don’t worry, I’ll be telling everybody when they’re out!)
  • Almost a degree! I finally finished all the coursework for my MIS, but couldn’t quite make the professional placement happen. If anyone wants me in their library or GLAM institution for free for three weeks, or alternatively knows someone in Scotland who wants some free labour from a neach-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig, hit me up 🙂
  • Speaking up! In September, I wrote an open letter to the ALIA Board of Directors regarding their public position on marriage equality, after sustained lobbying from NGAC and others. I’m not much of a public letter-writer and I usually keep my political opinions off the internet, but this time I decided to speak up for a cause that mattered to me. It was my first real experience of advocacy within LIS. I’d like to think it made a bit of a difference.

If nothing else, 2017 has been a year of intense personal growth. Professionally and personally, I’m determined to start 2018 in a better place.

I’m determined to back myself.

Bringing a balance to cataloguing

Today I learned that the old-fashioned cataloguer is not, in fact, extinct. You know the one: the process-driven, rules-focused, slavish adherent to The Done Thing who can’t handle change and can’t see the forest for the trees. I thought they were all gone. Turns out they’re still out there.

At first I was disappointed to find this out, as I’ve made a point lately of trying to smash these stereotypes about cataloguers. But then I remembered people I’ve met who have the opposite problem: people who don’t care enough, who see no value in structured, tidy metadata, who are, in fact, so user-focused that they forget what their users might actually want.

I’d like to think the optimal position is somewhere in the middle. I like a cataloguing rule as much as anyone, but I also like breaking them if it results in a better user experience, or if the rule doesn’t result in a net gain for staff. There is a balance to be found in cataloguing, a compromise between what the rules want and what a user wants. Pragmatic cataloguing, if you will. It’s entirely possible to create beautiful, 100% RDA-compliant MARC records that are also functionally useless. It’s also possible to break almost every rule in the RDA Toolkit and yet present a functional, accessible, meaningful catalogue. I’ll pick the latter every time.

These needs must also be balanced with what your ILS and OPAC are capable of. I recently discovered a former OPAC didn’t display 545 (Biographical or Historical Data) fields, which I had used in MARC records for archival and manuscript collections. I was extremely annoyed by the failure of our OPAC to do this, but I was also annoyed at myself for not discovering it sooner, and not habitually looking at the records I create from the user’s perspective. I resolved instead to use a field the OPAC did display, like a 500 or 520, so that the information would be accessible to the user. Yes, it’s breaking a rule, and I would rather not have to compensate for an OPAC’s failings, but I’ll do it if I need to.

Cataloguing rules still have their place, but I feel it’s important to take a pragmatic approach to metadata creation. The rules are a guide only. Do what you feel is best for your users, and bring a little balance into the world. 🙂

A #digipres reading list for the total beginner

This is part of an an occasional series, “Digital Preservation For the Rest of Us”.

Sorry, Kassi, I know I said I’d post this days ago!

If you’re a digital preservation beginner, you might be looking for a great resource to help you catch up on where the sector is at. This brief post will include a few choice books and other resources for digipres beginners. They’re in no particular order, and are totally my own opinions.

For the complete beginner, it’s hard to go past the Digital Preservation Handbook, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition. It provides lots of accessible, non-technical introductions to the topic, as well as lots of videos, task lists and links to other resources. Have a read of the ‘Digital Preservation Briefing’‘ if you need a gentle introduction.

For a holistic view of digital preservation, I can’t go past The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation by Trevor Owens. The preprint is on LISSA right now, with the monograph due out in early 2018. It does a magnificent job of explaining not just the nuts and bolts of digipres, but the underlying philosophy and theory that informs our practice. I’ve been recommending this since the day the preprint went up, and I fully expect this will be a widely-used textbook for students in the field.

If you’re near a print library or repository of some kind, you probably want a few things from this pile:

In particular, I recommend Practical Digital Preservation: a how-to guide for organizations of any size by Adrian Brown (full of firm, practical advice), Is Digital Different? edited by Michael Moss, Barbara Endicott-Popovsky and Marc J. Dupuis (hint: yes) and, if you’re new to archives and preservation in general, Archives: principles and practices by Laura Millar (I have the 1st edition, but I hear the 2nd is even better).

Due out in March next year is the third edition of Preserving Digital Materials by Ross Harvey and Jaye Weatherburn. Both Australian authors (woo!), the book promises to be a one-stop shop for digital preservation practitioners. I’ll definitely be getting a copy of this when it comes out.

Re-collection: Art, New Media and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito examines the topic from a curatorial perspective, which may be more accessible to those with museum or gallery backgrounds. I admit I haven’t read this myself, so I’m recommending it sight unseen, but the authors definitely know their stuff.

Finally, for a light-hearted look at the access side of digital preservation, have a look at ‘Accessing born-digital content: a look at the challenges of born-digital content in our collection’ by the NLA’s Gareth Kay. It’s a nice illustration of why digital preservation matters—works will be lost forever if they’re not preserved!

I hope this list is a useful one! Let me know if I missed any good resources 🙂

Digital archiving for journalists and writers

This post is part of an occasional series, “Digital Preservation For the Rest of Us”.

Don’t let it happen to you. (Picture courtesy Pixabay.com, CC-0)

Background

Ever heard the saying ‘the internet is forever’? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The internet does retain a staggeringly huge amount of information, but it doesn’t always last.

In the last couple of days we’ve heard about the abrupt shutdown of news organisations DNAinfo and Gothamist, with the sites being summarily yanked off the internet. Within hours, people realised that if those sites were gone for good, journalists and other contributors would have no way of verifying their work history, and years of valuable local journalism could be lost.

It followed the ABC’s recent decision to remove a few years’ worth of At the Movies videos as part of a transition of older websites for programs that have ceased broadcasting. Researchers were horrified by the idea that the ABC could simply ‘erase history’ by removing content from the public internet. Many commented on the avalanche of link rot the ABC had created.

While the At the Movies website was archived by the NLA’s Pandora service, the videos themselves were not archived (presumably for space and technical reasons). The ABC have also publicly stated they intend to move older video content from past shows to a better online archive. Compare that with Gothamist, which has found itself at the mercy of the Internet Archive and cached Google search results. A fair amount of content had been saved to the Internet Archive, but there are likely still gaps. It also highlighted how many people weren’t keeping personal archives of their work.

Key lessons

The internet is not your archive. I can’t emphasise this enough. The public internet is not—and was never designed to be—a permanent archive. Websites can be put up or taken down at a moment’s notice. Just because something is online right now, doesn’t mean it will still be online tomorrow, or next week, or next year. We can’t expect corporations and private organisations to archive their published work in perpetuity and have it be the only copy. That’s what libraries and archives are for. (Libraries around the world undertake national web archiving programs, incuding the NLA and the Library of Congress, but they can’t collect everything, and most can only collect material published or produced in their country.)

You cannot rely on others to archive your work. You will need to do this yourself. The best way to capture content in perpetuity, whether it’s physical or virtual, is with a mix of public and private archiving. That is, with archival tools and collecting policies controlled by public entities, by private entities, and by you personally. If one fails, the other two should persist. If all three fail, you’ve probably got bigger things to worry about.

How to archive your online articles

Here’s a selection of free tools to help you capture and archive your digital content.

  • Save to Evernote. Evernote is a free cloud-based notes app for every platform you’d care to name. It’s good for notetaking, but the killer feature is its Web Clipper extension, the ability to scrape web pages and save them straight to a note. I use this religiously to keep all my internet detritus in one place, but you can use this to save copies of your online work.
  • Add to the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive, perhaps the most well-known digital archive, incorporates the Wayback Machine, a privately-run web archiving service hoovering up the web since 1996. You can add individual pages to the Archive in several ways, including by copying and pasting a URL into this page, or by using a clipping extension (available for Chrome, Safari and Firefox, with apps available for iOS and Android). The extension will also detect dead pages or 404s and offer to take you to an archived version of that page, which is an incredibly useful tool.
The Internet Archive web clipper. (Screenshot via Chrome clipper)
  • Create a personal web archive with Webrecorder. Webrecorder is an amazing web archiving tool built by Rhizome. You can navigate to the pages you wish to save, creating a personalied set of archived pages. You can then download this set to your computer, view it with the accompanying Webrecorder desktop app, and—this is the best bit—the pages behave exactly as they did when you saved them! Video, animations, dynamic pages—they all work (this isn’t always the case with the Wayback Machine). Great for multimedia artists and people who wish to browse their archived work in its natural habitat.
  • Use Save My News. Save My News, a nifty little service brought to you by Ben Welsh, combines the cloud storage of the Internet Archive with the handy custom lists of Evernote or Webrecorder. Simply login with Twitter, copy and paste a URL, and bam! Instantly saved in the Wayback Machine, neatly arranged in a list for your reference. So simple, even your dog could do it.
The Save My News interface. (Screenshot via http://www.savemy.news/)
  • Print articles to PDF. In a browser, simply choose to print your page (Ctrl-P / Command-P). Select the printer “Save as PDF” and choose where to save the file, creating a neat PDF copy of your work. Be aware that some articles may not look quite the same if you choose to print, and interactive features won’t translate well to a static format.
  • Print to actual paper, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you’re not entirely convinced by all thse new-fangled digital storage options, there’s always paper. Obviously your work will lose all those interactive features like scrolling and clicking, and the stylesheets might not come out right, but your paper copies may well outlast your hard drive.

Please feel free to share this post with anyone you think could use a personal archive of their own. Happy saving!

A sucker for knowledge

I realised last week I hadn’t written for GLAM Blog Club for a couple of months, and considering how much I admire newCardigan and their ethos I figured I should contribute to the conversation, instead of standing on the periphery. I also have several draft blog posts for which I can’t quite make the magic happen, so I might as well write about something simple—myself.

Like a great many librarians, I started out in life ‘loving books and reading’. We scorn LIS students who say this in interviews, forgetting that many of us were once the same way. Yet it’s true that there’s far more to librarianship than reader’s advisory, and I’ll be the first to emphasise this to prospective library workers. It’s one thing to recognise what brought you here, but quite another to think that that’s all there is.

For this blog post I fished out my application letter for my MIS, written in early 2014. It was a turbulent time for me. I was working as a call-centre operator, a horrible job with a 3-hour roundtrip commute, that I’d only taken in the first place because I’d been summarily let go from a mininum-wage warehouse gig five months earlier. Understandably I was keen to improve my lot, and cast about for jobs I thought I’d enjoy.

The letter brought back to me how much of my childhood I had spent in my school library, playing computer games, passive-aggressively rearranging books, chatting with the librarian about our shared love of teddy bears. Yet I’m struck by how little my letter followed the ‘loves books and reading’ trope. My early library experience didn’t revolve around books—it revolved around knowledge. Books, computer games, newspapers, you name it. I was a sucker for knowledge. I lapped up every bit of text I could get my hands on, not to escape my life but to enrich it. I wanted others to explore and enjoy knowledge like I had, no matter their age.

I finally realised that my ideal career had been staring me in the face this whole time.

I decided to become a librarian.

So I set about trying to make it happen. I learned I needed a master’s degree. I already had a bachelor’s in Classics and Ancient History, a discipline not known for its job prospects, so I was well-placed to deflect the inevitable ‘wow another useless degree!’ comments. I learned that the average age of librarians was… quite high, and that I would have to enrol in an online course. One came highly recommended by a friend of the family, though if I’d known then what I know now I think I would have chosen differently.

I titled my application letter ‘Why I’d Make A Great Librarian’, in a desperate act of self-confidence. I don’t know if I’d be that conceited about it now. I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘great’ librarian. I would say I’m ‘a librarian with a lot to offer’, letting my actions speak for themselves.

Looking back, I should have seen it coming. Of course I was going to wind up in metadata and collection development, with high school reminiscences like this:

Why were all these books, which were clearly relevant to my essay, at opposite ends of the library? Why did the library have such gaps in its collection? Why was there only one copy of Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero in the entire school, and why was it always borrowed by somebody else? (And why didn’t they use Library of Congress classification, which was, like, way better than Dewey?)

What a nerd I was. What a nerd I am. (For the record, I’m pretty sure LCC would have made fetching ancient history books worse, because the distance between B and P classes would be greater than between 800s and 900s, but I digress.)

To my astonishment, I was accepted into the MIS degree, and things began to look up. I had a couple of jobs in a large, swanky library, where I got a feel for how great (and how awful) librarianship can be, and about a year ago I started the job I have now. Quite how I got a professional-level role despite not having quite completed my MIS, I have no idea, but I’m acutely aware of how lucky I’ve been. I know so many people desperate to get into libraries and I’m sure people must think sometimes that I’ve just waltzed in. It’s difficult being a decade younger than the rest of my at-level colleagues, but what I lack in work experience I make up for with enthusiasm!

So here I am. I’ve taken a slightly more roundabout route to get here, but I feel my life experience has served me relatively well. If nothing else, I’ve come to appreciate the value of giving back. As a librarian, I would not only have the opportunity to organise, process and store ever-increasing amounts of information, but also the privilege of helping others find and draw on that information to improve themselves and society as a whole. Plus I would get to be around books and computers and knowledge all day!

Becoming a librarian has been one of the great joys of my life. I can’t think of any other career that would suit me better. I’m immensely thankful to those who helped me get where I am today, but especially to my mum, who surely must have wondered sometimes whether I’d ever get out of the call centre. I’m still a sucker for knowledge, but now I get paid to share that knowledge with others and help them find their own. It’s quite a privilege.

I didn’t think I’d make it. And yet, here I was.

How to catalogue a beer can

Stout is an optimal accompaniment to cataloguing. (Photograph by the author)

Documentary heritage is far more than just books. Working in a local history library, I come across a wide variety of items that help record the history and culture of my town. We tend not to collect realia (the local museum takes care of that) but occasionally some items are too good to pass up. Like a selection of beer cans and beer bottles! Craft breweries have really taken off here over the last few years, and there’s no better way to record that heritage than with the cans and bottles themselves.

No taxpayer money was spent on our beer collection—I personally drank every drop from these cans and bottles in order to catalogue them. How I suffer for my art.

This guide shares a few similarities with my recent post on cataloguing board games. Again, I’m assuming a basic familiarity with MARC, RDA, and the principles of cataloguing. This is also not an exhaustive, official, top-cataloguing-body-sanctioned guide. It’s simply how I would do it, and your mileage may vary. I hope you find it useful!

Fixed fields

For my collection of beer cans, I decided not to create a MARC record for each individual can in the interests of time and usability. So I’ll need a collection-level record for this group of objects that I, the cataloguer, have brought together. I’ve chosen to create one record for each brewery. Leader/07 is ‘r’ for realia (or ‘Three-dimensional artifact or naturally occurring object’ if you want to get personal) and Leader/08 is ‘c’ for collection. If I decided to create item-level records instead, I would use the far more common ‘m’ for monograph/item.

The 008 field uses the Visual Materials specifications. The important field here is 008/33 Type of Visual Material, which again is ‘r’ for realia. Code the date, government publication, etc fields as appropriate. Most other fields will either be blank or ‘n’ for not applicable. You can code 008/22 Target Audience as ‘e’ for Adult if you want a laugh, but I don’t think simply viewing an empty beer can is innately harmful to children, so feel free to leave that one blank if you wish.

Access points and title

Generally-speaking, collection-level records don’t come with a ready-made title, so be prepared to invent one. Something along the lines of ‘[brewery name] can and bottle collection’ is appropriate.

I thought long and hard about whether to use the brewery as a 110 or 710 (i.e. main or added entry), considering the collection is made up for cataloguing convenience. In the end, I figured the brewery is responsible for both the content of the resource (the beer) and its manifestation as a physical object (the can), so I decided to give the brewery the 110 and use the relator term $e creator (because $e manufacturer wasn’t quite right). There’s probably something in the RDA Toolkit about this, but I don’t have access to it so I didn’t read it! If you feel a 710 would be more appropriate, or if you want to slide into my Twitter DMs and tell me I’m totally wrong about access points, go right ahead 🙂 NB: This does not negate the need for a suitably descriptive collection title.

If using item-level records, put the beer’s name (if it has one) in 245 $a and the variety in 245 $b, as in 245 $a Forty acres : $b pale ale. If the beer doesn’t have a specific name, put the variety in 245 $a. This is another reason to use the brewery as the main entry, as the authorised access point will then include the brewery: $a Frogstomp Brewers. $t Imperial stout.

Optionally, you could create a 490/830 series entry, if you expect to have multiple collections of this type and feel it would be useful to bring them all together. Suggestions include ‘[library name] beer can and bottle collection’ or ‘Breweries of [place] realia collection’.

Descriptive cataloguing

This is where the fun happens! You’ll want to be as descriptive and detailed as possible, given that these beer cans and bottles may well be unique to your library.

Start off by describing the cans in a 300: how many you have, what they look like, and how big they are. For example: $a [number] cans : $b various colours, $c 7 cm diameter x 13 cm.

While I am usually the sort of cataloguer who hates using 500 General Note fields, for special collections like these 500s are where it’s at. All the interesting little details will go here: things like additional can or bottle text (that isn’t clearly a title or variety), logos, motifs or other graphic design elements, and/or a short blurb about the collection itself.

Record the beers’ titles and varieties in a 505 Contents Note, like a table of contents. If it’s useful, consider including the colour or other identifying detail of the can or bottle in square brackets (to clarify that this information is not derived from transcribing the can itself).

As mentioned above, the brewery produces both the beer and the cans, so record details of manufacture in 264 #3, much like you would the publisher of a book.

If I were feeling cheeky, I might consider a 541 Immediate Source of Acquisition Note, if only so I could record 541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge $c donated privately after responsible drinking. (Probably a good idea to keep in-jokes of this kind for your local system, not the union catalogue.)

Use the 336 Content Type / 337 Media Type / 338 Carrier Type combo of ‘three-dimensional form’ / ‘unmediated’ / ‘object’, respectively, and a 043 geographic indicator if appropriate.

Subject indexing

You’ll almost certainly be including one or both of the topical terms Beer bottles and Beer cans. For these, you’ll need to include the form subdivision $v Specimens at the end of the string. Geographic subdivision is optional.
For example: 650 #0 $a Beer cans [$z Queensland $z Townsville] $v Specimens.
I would also recommend Breweries and Beer industry as a catch all, with geographic subdivision recommended. (I’m including both with an eye to broadening our collection to include distilleries of various kinds, where it would be helpful to disambiguate, say, Distilleries and Gin industry. Feel free to leave out the industry heading if you don’t feel it’s relevant to your needs.)

I really wanted to use a genre heading of some kind. Fortunately Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus provides the terms Aluminum cans and Bottles. Sadly there is no narrower ‘beer bottle’ term (for a usage example, see this item from the Scott Polar Research Institute).

Examples

NB: these are fictional entities and collections, do not search the ANBD, do not pass go, do not collect $200

Collection-level record

000 01078nrc a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Three Cheers Brewing Company $e creator
245 10 $a Three Cheers Brewing Co can collection.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. $b Three Cheers Brewing Company $c 2017.
300 ## $a 3 aluminium cans : $b chiefly silver with coloured elements ; 
       $c cylindrical, 7 cm diameter x 13 cm each.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a Title devised by cataloguer.
500 ## $a Collection of empty beer cans from Gosford-based brewery 
          Three Cheers.
500 ## $a "Proudly brewed in Gosford"--can.
505 0# $a Forty acres : pale ale [red can] -- 
          The penguin: cool lager [blue can] -- 
          Riptide : IPA [green can].
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer cans $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Aluminum cans. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Item-level record

000 01078nrm a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Frogstomp Brewers $e creator
245 10 $a Imperial stout / $c Frogstomp Brewers.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. $b Frogstomp Brewers $c 2017.
300 ## $a 1 glass bottle : $b brown with purple label and grey motifs ; 
       $c cylindrical, 6 cm diameter x 23 cm.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a From a collection of empty beer bottles from Gosford-based brewery 
          Frogstomp Brewers.
500 ## $a "Darker than midnight"--label on neck of bottle.
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer bottles $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Bottles. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Disrespect des fonds! ✊🏻 (or, Five things I learned from the NSLA digipres forum)

This week I went to the NSLA forum on day-to-day digital collecting and preservation, which began auspiciously enough:

The forum was an illuminating experience. I got a lot out of the event, including useful tips and programs I can incorporate into my workflow, and took so many notes I ran out of notebook! The below are my personal thoughts and observations of the event, which do not represent my employer (shout at me, not at them).

Reality isn’t keeping up with my user expectations and professional aspirations. When I first landed a library job (not the job I have now), I harboured grand dreams of preserving digital artefacts on a workplace’s asset management system, creating intricate descriptions of said digital artefacts, and excitedly sharing this knowledge with library users. I wound up being a shelver, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m still dreaming. I keep thinking libraries are far more advanced, digitally speaking, than where we actually are. Librarians, as a profession, struggle to accept the idea that society has moved on without us. Digital preservation is seemingly no exception.

It was refreshing to hear at this forum that people were once scared of digital. Scared for their jobs. Scared of new, ~uncontrolled~ sources of information. Scared by the idea of reimagining and reinventing their place within libraries and their library’s place within society. Plenty of people still think like this, but you’ll never hear them admit it.

Please don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot of innovation in this sector, incredible work by passionate people with limited resources. I was very impressed by several presentations showcasing new, systemic ways of appraising, preserving and delivering digital content. I just… kinda thought we had them already. Are my expectations too high, or are our standards too low?

Linear archival theory is doing the digital world, and our attempts to capture it, a great disservice. Archival theory is built on the foundational ideas of ‘original order’, ‘provenance’ and ‘respect des fonds’ (i.e. an appreciation of a record’s context and intended purpose). Now, I’m not an archivist, nor do I play one on television. But it isn’t hard to see where, in a digital world, these core archival concepts might start to fall down a bit.

Archivists (and librarians, for the most part) are used to thinking in linear terms. Boxed collections are measured in linear metres of shelf space, our finding aids are (by and large) designed to be read from top to bottom, and a manuscript item can only be in one folder at once. Linear thinking. Paper-based thinking. Ordered thinking.

Our digital universe doesn’t work like this. Disks can be read in any order. Hypertext lets us explore information in many dimensions. We have become random-access thinkers and, by extension, random-access hoarders. Archival concepts must accommodate these ways of thinking—not ‘disordered’, just ordered in other ways. We were invited to ‘disrespect des fonds’, and I think it’s a smashing idea. It’s time to think differently. To accommodate non-linear ideas of what constitutes ‘original order’ and what digital and intellectual context may shape the fonds of the future. Spatial thinking. Byte-based thinking. Still ordered thinking.

Jefferson Bailey wrote a wonderfully in-depth essay on disrespecting the fonds in 2013, and I was reminded of it several times during this forum. It’s well worth a read.

Systems can’t do digital preservation. Only you can. My workplace don’t have the luxury of a digital preservation system (yet) and our current digipres practice is extremely haphazard and conducted on a needs basis by… me. Eek. There’s no denying a system that takes care of basic fixity and AIP arrangement would make my life a lot easier. But that system still wouldn’t do my job for me. Systems can’t select or appraise. They can’t negotiate rights agreements with donors or keep themselves well fed with storage space. They don’t have an appreciation of strategic priorities or nuances of analytical metadata (subject headings and the like). That’s what I’m for. It’s important not to lose sight of the role of humans in what is (for those with the means) an increasingly automated process.

It’s also crucial for small- and medium-sized memory organisations, who will never have the resources enjoyed by NSLA members, to know that they don’t need a fancy system to preserve their digital heritage. So much digital preservation discussion is conducted in arcane, highly technical language, intelligible only to a small subset of information professionals. In order for digipres to gain any traction, it needs to be accessible by less skilled librarians, and even by non-professional library workers. I want the volunteers at the Woop Woop Historical Society, whose tech knowledge may extend only to sending emails and posting pics of the grandchildren on Facebook, to have an understanding of the basics of digipres and to be able to implement them. Distilling our communal knowledge down to this level promises to be almost as difficult as the process of preservation itself. But it’s vital work, and it can’t wait.

I have a lot of skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to bring to digital preservation. I didn’t present at the forum on account of a) a bad case of imposter syndrome and b) my workplace not having a whole lot to report in this area. I am also still a MIS student (yes! still!), am in a role where digipres is not explicitly part of my job description, and was almost certainly the youngest person in the room. All of those things worked together to convince me that I didn’t have anything worth saying.

However, I realised during the talks and discussions that far from being “just” a student, or “just” a local history librarian, or “just” a young’un, I actually have a lot to bring to the table:

  • I understand the broad lifecycle of digital preservation, from file creation to donation to fixity to ingest to preservation to access, and spend a lot of time contemplating the philosophy of what we do
  • I can catalogue, which I wasn’t expecting to be all that relevant to digipres, but it sounds like digitally-literate cataloguers are a rare breed, and
  • I can also learn quickly and methodically, such as last week when I successfully (and independently!) imaged and preserved a CD with BitCurator, for use by some student researchers. I learned how to do this via someone else’s notes from last year’s NSLA Digital Skills event, which I didn’t attend on account of being a shelver elsewhere.

Moreover, I’d like to think I know how much I don’t know; that is, there’s so much more for us as digipres practitioners to discover as well as learn from each other, and we can’t stop to even think that we know it all. It helped me gain a little self-esteem and reassure me that Australian digipres isn’t already full of people who have all the answers.

We can’t wait for everyone to get comfortable. Optical media won’t stop rotting while we learn how to deal with it. Film stocks won’t stop drowning in their own vinegar while we figure out what to do. Obscure file formats won’t give up their secrets of their own volition while we’re trying to nut them out. These problems are only going to get worse, irrespective of how quickly we as practitioners get our heads around them. Many of us are still grappling with digital preservation. Grappling. We’re still at the beginner stage.

There’s a very fine line between making people feel bad about the speed and scale of their own digipres programs, or about their personal knowledge, and encouraging them to keep looking to the horizon and recognise how far we all have to go. I say all this not to shame people, as I too am a beginner, but to express a broader worry about our ability as library employees to recognise and respond to digital change. By the sounds of it, some of our institutions are better at this than others.

In any case, I’d better get to work. I still need that floppy drive I’ve been dreaming about.

Further reading

Jefferson Bailey, Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives (2013 article in Archive Journal)

Trevor Owens, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (preprint: monograph coming 2018)