‘Just’ a librarian

Today I read of the 130th birthday of the Central Library in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Disappointingly, it included this line from a branch manager:

“No longer are we just librarians. We do event planning, we are IT experts, and we are counsellors as well,” she says.

The branch manager interviewed in this story has worked in libraries for 27 years—so, as long as I’ve been alive. A certain generation gap is therefore expected. But I was bitterly disappointed to read her description of the librarians she leads.

We are not event planners. We are not IT experts. We are certainly not counsellors. We are not trained—or paid—to be these things. There are other people who are professionals in these areas. It is dishonest to represent ourselves to the public as something we’re not. Social workers in libraries are not a new idea. If your library gets a lot of queries that a social worker would be best-placed to answer… why not hire one? Why not make space? Why do librarians feel the need to be what we’re not? Why aren’t we good enough for ourselves? How would we feel if other professions borrowed the term ‘librarian’ and added it to their description because they have a shelf of books in their office?

I bristle at the suggestion that being a librarian is somehow not good enough. Being information conductors, book recommenders, storytime leaders, metadata stewards… these are good things to be. I am a cataloguer. And proud of it. I am not an event planner, or an IT expert, or a counsellor. When I sit at the circ desk I remain none of those things, even if patrons ask me questions that might require those skills.

By positing ourselves as ‘more than just librarians’, we implicitly devalue our skills and experience as library workers. Skills which, we keep hearing, are vital in our age of declining public information literacy and plummeting trust in politicians and the press. It also narrows the perception of what a librarian can or should be, as if library work and library skills can’t grow or adapt in line with the communities we serve. As if community outreach, fixing printers, or sensitive reference queries aren’t already part of the librarian skillset.

I didn’t sign up for a postgraduate degree in self-loathing. If this profession can’t learn to value itself, then I want no part of it.

I am proud to be a librarian. It’s taken me a while to be able to say that again, but I know there’s nothing else I would rather be. I know what skills I can offer the public, and where my limits are. Most importantly, I know when to refer a patron to someone better able to help. I don’t pretend to be something else. I am not ‘just’ a librarian. I am a librarian. With all the skills and knowledge that entails.

Being a librarian is good enough for me. It ought to be good enough for all of us.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 2

Here’s another completely irregular roundup of some cool online things I’ve been reading recently. I haven’t taken any trains anywhere, but I have been unwell a lot, which leaves plenty of time for reading and introspection. This collection of pocket detritus has a more techy flavour.

Ethira / Amalia Ulman, Net Art Anthology
Like Twitter, but with more void. Part of Rhizome‘s fantastic Net Art Anthology series, bringing defunct works of mobile and net art back to the living internet, Ethira (2013-2014) was an artist’s book contained in an iOS app—a social network where users could post completely anonymous messages, which vanished shortly afterwards. I love its anti-capitalist ethos, freeing users from the tyanny of their online selves, and relieving them of any ability to archive their experiences on the platform. I wish Ethira had not met the same fate as the messages it transmitted. I think I’d get a lot of use out of it.

How to Build a Low-Tech Website? / Kris De Decker, Low←Tech Magazine
Speaking of the living internet: we tend to forget just how bad modern computing is for the planet. Global network infrastructures use insane amounts of energy, with more and more of our computing moving to cloud-based interfaces. We have it in our heads that doing things electronically is better for our environment because it ‘saves paper’, yet we don’t think about the energy and materials required to build that electronic infrastructure.

This piece from Low←Tech Magazine discusses their efforts to move to a solar-powered web server (so the site may go offline if it’s raining in Barcelona) and to reduce the site’s carbon footprint by way of static-site generators and dithered images. It’s absolutely brilliant. It consciously puts its money where its mouth is (getting rid of Google Adsense was another energy-saving decision). But it also wrenches the site back from the endless void of cyberspace and firmly plants it in an earth-based space and time, resituating the virtual in the physical, and reminding the user that there is always an environmental cost to computing.

I’m reminded of my own failed attempts to move this site off WordPress and onto something more static (and hence sustainable). It doesn’t help that I learned all my web development skills from issues of Double Helix magazine when I was ten.

Announcing Get It to Te Papa: our televised quest to get under-appreciated Kiwi treasures into the national museum / Hayden Donnell, The Spinoff
When Aotearoa New Zealand journalist Hayden Donnell watched politician Steven Joyce get hit in the face with a sex toy, his first thought was, naturally, ‘That needs to be in Te Papa’, the country’s national museum. (Perhaps he was thinking #AllMuseumsAreSexMuseums?) Fast foward a couple of years and Donnell now has a TV series where he tries to accomplish exactly that, plus a few other cheerfully kitsch Kiwi treasures. His incredible zeal for hunting down cultural artefacts is infectious (who doesn’t love a ‘fully-fledged Te Papa truther’?), but I especially loved that the items he craved were meaningful to, and cherished by, ordinary people—not items of high art or distant culture. Keen to watch this one day.

A Culture of ‘No’ / Nicole Eva, Journal of New Librarianship (via @clareifications)
I’ve never been one to take ‘no’ for an answer. Sadly, it’s an answer libraries hear—and give—all too frequently, usually for the wrong reasons. This fantastic article discusses academic libraries in particular and why they’re so keen to say ‘no’ to things. The author suspects it’s due to the kind of people who wind up in libraries in the first place, and frankly I’m inclined to agree. Despite the occasional eruption of socialist fury, we remain at heart a conservative profession, preferring steadiness and continuity over the kind of change that might just save our jobs. Nicole Eva’s palpable frustration has gifted us a whole article’s worth of pull quotes. I think I’ll be reading this again.

is death for WEB sites as us / Olia Lialina, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age
Remember Geocities? The beautiful, horrifying, free web hosting service where good taste and good web design went to die? It took until 2009 for Geocities to finally die, but in 2002 a series of deeply unpopular site decisions by its new owners Yahoo! caused hordes of angry <marquee> users and GIF enthusiasts to pack up and move elsewhere on the web. Drawing from the terabyte of Geocities data rescued by Archive Team and seeded on BitTorrent, net artist Olia Lialina (also featured on Net Art Anthology with her seminal 1996 work ‘My boyfriend came back from the war‘) illustrates how early web users fiercely defended their idiosyncratic online spaces, in the face of demands for conformity.

The archaeology of (flash) memory / Gabriel Moshenska, Post-Medieval Archaeology
Not open-access (but accessible remotely with an NLA library card) is this fascinating tale of a 2009-era USB stick buried at the edge of a school oval and unearthed three years later as part of landscaping works. Using archaeological methods, the author and team studied the USB stick and retrieved its contents, which included schoolwork files, music and videos, suggesting it belonged to a local schoolboy. This kind of digital archaeology will be familiar to most digital preservation professionals, but may well be new to researchers in other disciplines.

Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals / Madison Sullivan, ACRLog
I missed this brilliant piece in 2016, and I don’t want you to miss it either. Besides, it’s completely true. A lot of professionals are crackpots. People who go around demanding performative ‘professionalism’ but who are in fact contributing to isolating and toxic workplaces, where people feel unsafe to bring their whole selves to work. There ought to be no place for this in modern librarianship—we’re meant to all be in this together. Madison unfairly copped a lot of crap from librarians when this was first published, and sadly I can see why. I also see a lot of myself in this post, both the old and the new. I’m probably not the most professional librarian floating around, but I was, and still hope to be, one of those people ‘who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change’. Because deep down, I still think librarianship is something worth doing. I hope you do, too.

Turn and face the strange

If only everything were hunky dory.

This month, the denizens of GLAM Blog Club are asked to consider the strange. I should find this easy. I’ve built a career on cataloguing the strange things. But these days, I am a stranger to myself. Two months ago I had a nervous breakdown in the service of cataloguing. I’ve been unwell and in pain ever since, and modern medicine has few answers. I’m no longer in crisis, but I’m still not the cataloguer I used to be. I resent the circumstances that brought me here. What happened to good health and good spirits? Why isn’t the metadata mojo back yet? I don’t understand.

It’s so strange. And so frustrating.

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet

It’s difficult to inhabit this cloak of self because it used to be skin-tight. I radiated cataloguing enthusiasm, online and off. It came so naturally. It was awesome. These days it’s harder. I speak cataloguing fluently, but the words feel wooden, like someone else’s false teeth. It’s strange to feel this way. It’s not the natural order of things. Sometimes people talk to my old self, not knowing she’s a stranger to me now, and it stings in many places. It feels like a betrayal of those who follow my work, but I’ve been firmly told that it’s not, so I try to believe them. Can’t shake the shadow of false advertising.

So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

And yet all things must surely pass. What was once strange becomes normal, even valued. I’d like to think that two years of Cataloguing the Universe have swayed a few minds on the nature and value of library metadata, and shined a light on our (often invisible) labour. Most librarians probably still think cataloguing is a strange, dull thing performed by strange, dull people. That’s okay. At least now there’s a small corpus of posts on this blog that suggest otherwise, if they’re interested.

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same

Sometimes I feel a spark. On a path, in a pub, on the twitters. A spark of what I used to be, and what I might become. Putting the cloak back on and hoping I’ve grown to fit it. Accepting temporal realities while hoping to create others. Waving at my old self, though she’ll never wave back. Turning and facing the strange.

This week I plan to wear all my library-themed items of clothing to work. It’s at once a piece of 650 #0 $a Performance art, an excuse to show off 650 #0 $a Librarians $x Clothing, an attempt to change 650 #0 $a Catalogers $x Public opinion and a way to improve 600 00 $a Alissa $g (@lissertations) $x Health.1 It’s probably strange to even own library-themed t-shirts. It’s undoubtedly stranger to describe them using Library of Congress Subject Headings.

It comes so naturally. Why isn’t it real?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Just gonna have to be a different man

One day I will accept that the old me isn’t coming back. There might be a new and improved me in the future, who has recovered from ill-health and is ready to forge a new path. Someone who can draw on her experiences to create meaningful and long-lasting cataloguing reform. Someone who knows her limitations, and is prepared to do less for a time, if it means doing better later.

That person is also a stranger. I can’t wait for us to meet.

I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time


  1. This is not my actual authorised access point. But I wish it were. 

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 1

Twenty bucks for hours of train disruption? What a steal!

Being a known article-hoarder, I was inspired recently to start cleaning out my piles of collected internet writing (I would not deign to call it an ‘archive’, it’s far too poorly organised). I’ve been posting some of the best articles to twitter using #emptythepocket, but each article’s presence in the collective consciousness of my followers is brief, and some articles deserve a longer digestion period.

Inspired by Hugh Rundle’s Marginalia series, here is a selection of articles I read—in this order—on the train to Melbourne. (Where possible I avoid flying, because it’s bad for the planet and also highly unpleasant.) It’s a nice summary of my reading interests: critical cataloguing, psychogeography, writings from friends, human ecology, and a great big rant about librarianship, because I love it and also hate it. So much.

Can walking be a feminist act? / Anna Chilvers, Caught by the River
This was a great piece on the fear felt by women walking the countryside, walking after dark, walking alone. We are afraid not of the unknown, but of known dangers—not of the wilderness, but of men. I was immediately reminded of the Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness project by Clare Archibald, as well as the zine A short nightwalk through Lyons from Saorsa Free Press (which may or may not be a side project of mine).

17 Days in Malaysia, Part One / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound 
I’d been following the goings-on at the 2018 IFLA conference on twitter (plus the occasional culinary delight) but I enjoyed the first part of Andrew’s longer-form wrap-up of his sojourn in Singapore and Malaysia. Didn’t envy him the tropical weather, though.

The New Ecological Situationists: On the Revolutionary Aesthetics of Climate Justice and Degrowth / Aaron Vansintjan, Never Apart
Aaron co-edits Uneven Earth, an environmental justice blog. He writes for Never Apart at the intersection of psychogeography and climate change nihilism, two particular interests of mine, and does so with grace and depth. The absurdity of most environmental action (no, you can’t just ‘shut down’ a power station) contrasts with an acknowledged need to completely transform our growth-minded society, if we are to survive. Here I first met Andre Gorz’s principle of décroissance, which has resonated with me deeply. (I’m also a big fan of his ‘cars are bad for everyone’ manifesto from 1972.)

Mat Santamouris: time to make buildings heat-safe. Now. / Dante Terzigni, The Fifth Estate
A quick read on the need for urban planners to ensure their buildings can withstand hotter temperatures, though talk of influencing the design of the new airport in Western Sydney ‘to increase climate change mitigation’ elicited a scoff. You want to mitigate climate change? Don’t build another freaking airport! Don’t fly! (She says, writing this post on a train because she’s given up flying) Don’t build the infrastructure to support atmospheric pollution on a global scale and then plant some trees around it! Climate change doesn’t work like that!

On truth in cataloging / Shanna Hollich, Shanna Makes
This is one of the best cataloguing pieces I’ve read in a long time. It’s everything I wish I’d said to Gordon Dunsire at ACOC. ‘[A]nyone who thinks “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” needs to come down off of their pretentious high horse and realize what cataloging truly is: a means of collecting and describing various pertinent information, data, and metadata about an object in a library collection […] to aid patrons and staff in finding materials.’ From 2015, it’s still a very hot topic in cataloguing with the reversal of the ‘fictional entities as authors’ rule in the new RDA. Thank you, Shanna. You are awesome, and this piece is amazing.

UX from a Technical Services Point of View / Shelley Gullikson and Emma Cross, Access Conf 2017 (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Another happy confluence of two topics close to my heart: user experience and technical services (which ought to be spoken about together far more often). To me, this paper screams ‘tech services! you’re doing it wrong!!’. Our cataloguing isn’t meeting the needs of users. Our systems aren’t surfacing what users will use to judge the usefulness of a record. (RDA is useless here! Subject headings are of minimal importance!) People use keyword search almost exclusively. Our info retrieval paradigms MUST adapt to this + present the most useful info first.

I was intrigued by the reactions to the UX study from tech services staff vs. the department head. I am on both sides: keyword searching is not a bad search, BUT it is not harnessing the intricate subject taxonomies that cataloguers have spent decades building, and will only skim the surface of records. (I mentioned this on my episode of Turbitt & Duck, and Karen Coyle has written on this extensively.) I do not believe in telling users that keyword searching is ‘wrong’, but we need to build our systems to better address the current deficiencies in keyword search. (Note I do not say ‘pressure our vendors to build our systems’. If we want anything done properly we’re gonna have to do it ourselves. And we should be doing it ourselves.)

‘Our students do their research online. Technical Services staff make decisions that affect how library resources are found online. So they are perfectly positioned to improve the user experience of our students.’ Say it with me: technical services is outreach!

Looking for Lorca / Steven Reese, Panorama Journal 
On the quest for the tomb of Federico García Lorca, a famed Spanish poet killed by nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and whose remains have never been found. It deftly wove several threads together—on how we gain and lose identities as we travel; on our presence inside the shell a name creates for us (for naming ‘is like a kind of death’); on Spain’s national reckoning with its fascist history, and the legislation of memory. I had never heard of Lorca or his poetry, but now I’m keen to read more.

Contextualizing the “Marketplace of Ideas” in Libraries / Nailisa Tanner, Journal of Radical Librarianship 
I was super looking forward to this article but found that Pocket hadn’t saved it properly, so I had to wait for the next train station (ergo mobile reception) to redownload. I napped for an hour, then read this article, and I’m glad I napped first—it’s quite heavy reading, but absolutely worth it.

Defenders of intellectual freedom in libraries often use the phrase ‘marketplace of ideas’, which ‘evokes the image of a process in which rational consumers choose from among the ideas presented to them in an environment of unrestricted competition. In this line of argument, it follows that truth and reason will emerge automatically’. Now, we have all met library users. We all read the news. We all know that this does not happen. So why do we continue to structure our libraries as if this will happen?

The week of this trip ALIA launched their newest FAIR campaign, ‘Truth Information Knowledge (TIK)’, positing librarianship as a trusted profession. Sigh. I’ve written on this misplaced trust before, as have plenty of others. How committed are we to enforcing the Enlightenment?

Various forms of liberalism posit that Truth will out, but a market-based mechanism brings about precisely the opposite outcome, that the prevailing View is that which best exploits the market conditions. Libraries are in a position to set those market conditions—and so influence the outcome. Is it (or is it not) in accordance with our professional ethics to set the scene for a flourishing of ideas that grow our society, not seek to tear it apart?


I hope you enjoyed this #emptythepocket roundup as much as I enjoyed sitting on a train for six-and-a-half hours compiling it. Perhaps next time I hop on a train there’ll be another one…

The serial place collector

This is not even half of it honestly you should see my book pile

For this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme of ‘collect’, I glanced over at my tottering ‘to-read pile that was sitting on a table but is now a table itself’. It’s perhaps an unusual pile. For one thing, I seldom read novels. Instead I’m drawn to narrative non-fiction, short stories and poetry. Stories about natural history, eco-friendly travel, walking, ecology, place, psychogeography, re-knowing our planet and watching helplessly as it changes. Stories that feel real.

Interestingly, that to-read pile has quite a number of print serials on place and nature writing. (Developing a magazine habit is a bit of a family tradition.) Currently I’m absorbed in volume 4 of Elementum, which arrived last week (don’t ask me how much the postage was!), as well as back issues of Elsewhere, which I hope to write for one day.

I did a brief analysis of my print serial collection in Libraries Australia and found only one title held in any Australian library: the Melbourne-based Lindsay, who have fulfilled their legal deposit obligations with the NLA. Considering the vast majority of these journals are published abroad I’m not terribly surprised. Perhaps when I die, some nature-inclined library here will take an interest in the rest of my collection. Perhaps not.

Then again, it’s not like online nature and place journals are well-represented in libraries either. There are lots of excellent blogs, often written and maintained by one person, as well as lush online magazines that make the most of the browser and create an immersive reading experience. Yet the long-term survival of many is largely dependent on the Internet Archive, which doesn’t quite feel like enough. My current personal favourite online journal is Emergence Magazine, ‘a journal of ecology, culture and spirituality’ with some seriously impressive writing, visuals and web design.

You know you want to read it, like, right now.

I’ve also been enjoying Plumwood Mountain, ‘an Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’. Australian publications of this type seem to be harder to find. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re thin on the ground; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places.

Naturally, I’d like to collect Plumwood Mountain, or hope that a library could do so for me. I have a few options: I can manually save every page to the Internet Archive (highly time-consuming); I can manually save every page locally using Webrecorder (also highly time-consuming); or I can submit the site to Pandora and hope the author acquiesces. If she doesn’t, well, I tried. (Did you know anyone can suggest sites to Pandora for collection? Be aware that if you put someone’s email address in the form, it’ll send them an email.)

How can libraries collect emailed serials? In my past life as a local history librarian we dealt with this mostly by printing them out, which is obviously not ideal. To the best of my knowledge, newsletters hosted on platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact aren’t harvestable by web archiving crawlers. Collection of these emails by libraries would therefore depend on either the publisher depositing a clean HTML or PDF version, or preserving the email files as part of an archive of someone’s inbox (which is very difficult, highly labour-intensive and not ideal for everyday access). We can’t rely on online platforms being available forever. We need to figure out a way to collect and preserve this content from the browser.

I desperately want someone to archive the full run of In Wild Air, a weekly emailed serial from 2016 to 2018 by Blue Mountains-based creative Heath Killen, each week featuring six things that made a guest tick. I loved this newsletter. Every Monday I took a leisurely walk through someone’s psyche. It was brilliant. I love basically everything Heath does. But if I were to ask Pandora to crawl that website, all it would collect is the index of names. The content itself is hosted on MailChimp—beyond the crawler’s reach.

I wonder if this proliferation of Anglophone ecoliterature is decidedly English in origin—the place, as well as the language. Settlers in Australia brought English concepts of geography with them (as explored in J.M. Arthur’s 2003 book The default country) and tried, unsuccessfully, to apply them to the Australian landscape. How else could you justify calling Weereewa / Lake George a ‘lake’ or Lhere Mparntwe / Todd River a ‘river’?

A collection selection

These are a few of my favourite journals. Please be aware that this list, though reasonably culturally competent, is white as hell. I’d really like to address that. A lot of these are based in Britain, where the nature writing crowd is overwhelmingly white, but I’m very keen to expand my collection to include more Indigenous perspectives. I’d also like to highlight the upcoming Willowherb Review, an online journal for nature writers of colour, which promises to be very good.

Print journals

Online journals and blogs

Catharsis: and other things I learned while being #APLICLeftBehind

It has been a very difficult couple of weeks. I have not been my usual self. I can blame cataloguing for most of it. I could also partly blame #APLIC18, the recent tripartite LIS conference on the Gold Coast, which a lot of my friends attended and which stoked a serious case of epic fomo. But that’s very much a background issue. It’s taken me a while to process everything that’s gone on and try to find a more well-lit path. I’m aware half the office reads this blog, but at the same time, there’s nothing here I wouldn’t say to my boss. So here goes.

I am not my work. Any more. Last week was quite bad. I had an unexpected encounter with traumatic and poorly-phrased LCSH, which I am looking to change. I was also very ill, both physically and mentally, and spent a lot of time in bed. I have struggled recently with a sudden and severe change in my relationship to my work, as well as how I approach cataloguing, because cataloguing is my life, and also my job. I found it harder to enjoy. I had trouble getting up in the morning. I felt my perspective narrowing. I leaned very heavily on friends for support. Last Wednesday, I hit the wall. And the wall collapsed on top of me.

I know, intellectually, that it isn’t healthy to derive so much personal fulfilment and meaning from one’s work. And yet I do it anyway, because I have learned this about myself, that I operate this way. I used to love cataloguing. Used to. I don’t love it, currently. It grieves me that I say this. I hate that I have become this person.

I now speak about my passion for cataloguing in the past tense, and it kills me.

I would like the old me to come back. I think it could happen. Perhaps it is already starting to happen, a little. I don’t know how long it might take (days? weeks? months?) or how it might come about. But I would like to try and rekindle my love of cataloguing, because without it I don’t recognise myself. I feel hollow and without purpose. It’s a hole that my other interests can’t quite fill.

Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have learned a lot about myself over the past few weeks. I had previously thought I was okay at cataloguing, having more or less staked my career on it. I recently received a lot of feedback that suggested otherwise. I looked for a sign that I was doing something (anything!) right, that I was not completely hopeless at what I thought I was good at. A sign did not appear. I worried that I had somehow lied to everyone. It was imposter syndrome writ large.

Most people will read this and say ‘honestly, Alissa, what did you expect? What did you think cataloguing entailed? It’s standards all the way down’. I am not a hardcore standards enforcer and I never have been. My perspective on cataloguing is informed by user needs. What do users need from our catalogue? What metadata will connect an item with a search string? How can we best describe items (especially non-online resources) in meaningful and accessible ways? I believe breaking rules makes records better. I also don’t care about a lot of things that other cataloguers care deeply about, like ISBD punctuation, a perfect set of fixed fields, or the exact phrasing of where a title statement has come from (‘Title from cover’, not ‘Cover title’, apparently!). A catalogue should only ever be a glorified finding aid. It does not need to be a work of art in its own right.

Obviously I would like to be a better cataloguer. I would also like to go to work and feel as if I can do something right. It has been immensely difficult reconciling this poor feedback with my previous estimations of my cataloguing ability, and by extension my estimations of myself as a person. To be fair, most of my errors are of the cosmetic variety, or relate to institution-specific policies that are new to me, rather than deeper systemic problems with access points and descriptions. But a perfectly standards-compliant record can also be functionally useless, and a colossal waste of a cataloguer’s time to produce. I still take my errors to heart. It took me three weeks to get a record past the quality checker. I will never be perfect. I should probably stop trying to be perfect.

It has been a hard lesson, though.

Invite yourself to the party. In an effort to ameliorate said conference fomo and improve my mood, I started a hashtag on twitter for those of us who couldn’t attend APLIC but wanted to be involved anyway. #APLICLeftBehind became a meeting point for people keen to have their say, while also serving as a useful heads-up to attendees that we were commentating from afar. I loved that non-attendees from all sorts of places popped in and kept it going, even when I wasn’t in a position to say much. The hashtag will even be making an appearance in the forthcoming (entirely unofficial) APLIC zine, curated by Rebel GLAM. And it didn’t cost me a cent.

I have nothing to lose but my chains. They say libraries gave us power, but then work came and made us free. Many of us become librarians because we want to make a difference, to give back to our communities, to enrich the intellectual and social lives of library users everywere. Librarianship is heavy with ideology, tradition and dogma, and it weighs us down. I don’t think I expected to spend so much of my professional time a) navel-gazing b) fighting the man or c) thinking quite seriously about giving it all away. I certainly never expected I would lose my passion for cataloguing so quickly, and so severely.

I’m at the stage where I can catalogue more or less on autopilot (allowing for time to go back and correct my inevitable punctuation errors). I don’t want to be this person. I want to care deeply about my work. I want to fill my cataloguing with care and zest and a desire to do better. I don’t want to be crying while reading my old posts and tweets, remembering the cataloguer I used to be, and wondering where that went. If I can rekindle the passion for metadata that got me here—and right now that is a big if—I hope to free myself as much as possible from the expectations of other people and structures, and devote my energies to where I can get things done. It’s almost as if the structure and nature of librarianship sets us all up to fail, and that if we don’t realise this, we’re not paying enough attention.

People tell me I am more than my cataloguing. They’re not letting me fail. I wish I could repay this faith, but right now all I can offer is my gratitude. I don’t want to perpetuate a charade. I can’t keep pretending that everything is fine. I am not the cataloguer I used to be. But maybe, one day, I will be a better cataloguer. And I will have learned a few things.

Cataloguing trauma [content warning: self-harm]

Content warning: This post discusses self-harm, mental illness and institutional indifference to trauma.

That the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are a biased, offensive and wholly outdated set of controlled terms is not a new concept in cataloguing. Plenty has been written on the innumerable ways LCSH describes people, places and concepts in ways that do not belong in a modern library catalogue. I hope plenty has also been written on the trauma this can cause library users (though I confess at the moment I can’t find much). But today I need to talk about a couple of terms in particular, terms that hit a little too close to home, and which I never want to see in a catalogue ever again. I need to talk about the trauma this causes me, a cataloguer. I need to talk. LCSH needs to listen.

Today on my cataloguing pile, there appeared a book on dealing with depression and mental illness. I won’t identify the book or its author, but it was a wonderfully helpful book that encouraged its reader to write in it and make it their own. This being a library copy, our readers naturally can’t do that, but I guess they could photocopy parts of the book if they needed. The author clearly had lived experience of these issues and sought to write a book that might help someone who is struggling, as they had once done.

One section of the book discusses what to do if the reader feels a need to self-harm. It includes things like ‘glue your fingers together and pick at that instead’, ‘count from 100 backwards and start again if you lose track’ and ‘make a list of people you can talk to, and don’t feel bad about talking to them’. To another cataloguer, it might have seemed like a minor portion of a book that is substantially about other things. To me, this topic is so important, and the advice so genuinely helpful, that I decided it needed surfacing in the catalogue record. In particular, I decided it merited its own subject heading.

Looking up ‘Self-harm’ in LCSH brought me to these terms:

Self-harm, Deliberate
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm, Non-fatal
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
USE Self-mutilation

The entry for ‘Parasuicide’ reads:

Parasuicide  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on deliberate acts of selfharm in which there is no intent to die. Works on attempted suicide are entered under Suicidal behavior.
UF Deliberate self-harm
Harm, Deliberate self
Non-fatal self-harm
Parasuicidal behavior
Self-harm, Deliberate
Self-harm, Non-fatal
BT Self-destructive behavior
RT Suicidal behavior

The entry for ‘Self-mutilation’ reads:

Self-mutilation  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on behaviors by which individuals intentionally cause damage to their bodies. Works on stereotyped behaviors by which individuals unintentionally cause damage to their bodies are entered under Self-injurious behavior. Works on nonstereotyped behaviors and cognitions by which individuals directly or indirectly cause harm to themselves are entered under Self-destructive behavior.
UF Automutilation
Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
Self-injurious behavior (Self-mutilation)
Self-injury (Self-mutilation)
BT Malingering
Mutilation
Self-destructive behavior
NT Cutting (Self-mutilation)
Self-torture

I hit the roof.

I read these and said, out loud, to an empty office: ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.’ I skipped right past the dubious non-preferred terms (UFs), the distant and unfeeling scope notes, the questionable broader terms (‘Malingering’? Really?!). I zeroed in on the terms that someone, somewhere, in another place and another time, had decided were the right words to use to describe someone harming themselves.

Describing these acts as ‘Parasuicide’ is not helpful. I say this both as a cataloguer and as someone with lived experience of the acts in question. This is not good enough. This term needs to go.

People searching for works on this topic almost certainly be using the keyword ‘Self-harm’ or a close variation. If they’re using keyword search instead of subject search (and they will be, because nobody uses subject search anymore except librarians), these works will not appear in search results. They would have to know the particular term used by LCSH, thereby negating the point of having non-preferred terms in the first place, and be willing to overlook the inappropriateness of this term. I doubt anyone with an information need on this topic would be willing to overlook this. Certainly I’m not.

The scope notes for ‘Parasuicide’ are almost exclusively drawn from medical reference sources, suggesting the term is used in a medical context. Yet the term does not appear in the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), used by most medical and health libraries. MeSH instead groups the concepts expressed by the LCSH terms ‘Parasuicide’ and ‘Self-mutilation’ together under ‘Self-injurious behavior‘, with a much more cogent hierarchy and set of non-preferred terms. MeSH restricts the term ‘Self-mutilation‘ to ‘the act of injuring one’s own body to the extent of cutting off or permanently destroying a limb or other essential part of a body’, with the implication that this is deliberate.

Because my library catalogues for a general audience, using LCSH and not MeSH, I would argue it is inappropriate to base a term on medical sources. We should instead be using general ones, using terms ordinary people would use. In an LCSH library, who is most likely to need information on this topic? How do they need it described? I would think the likeliest people are those experiencing ideations of self-harm, or people who know someone in this situation. Why does LCSH draw a distinction between ‘self-harm caused by mental illness’ and ‘self-harm caused for other reasons, including supposedly for attention’, and, from an information retrieval perspective, does this distinction matter? Would works intended for a general audience be more likely to use one term over another? What harm might this cause?

This book is primarily about helping sufferers help themselves. I would like to index it $a Self-harm $x Prevention $v Popular works (leaving aside for now the issues of having a specific form heading for ‘books for ordinary people’). Instead I will almost certainly have to use the heading $a Parasuicide $x Prevention $v Popular works, or perhaps I’ll go one step higher and use the broader term to both these headings, $a Self-destructive behavior. Even though that doesn’t really cover it, and doesn’t bring out the specific issue that I wanted the heading to address.

When I tweeted the other day that ‘Cataloguing is power’, this is what I meant! We have the power to guide users to the materials they’re looking for, via the words and phrases we use. Cataloguers have a responsibility to use terms that are meaningful to their users, especially when their userbase is the general public, and to take a stand against terms in their controlled vocabulary that are no longer appropriate.

I have a greater ability than most people to advocate for change in subject headings. I would like to see the heading ‘Parasuicide’ changed to one of its non-preferred terms that includes the phrase ‘Self-harm’. Ideally this term and ‘Self-mutilation’ would be combined, akin to the MeSH term ‘Self-injurious behavior’, with the accompanying taxonomy. But this won’t happen overnight. It certainly won’t happen in time for me to finish cataloguing this book. My workplace is very strict on adherence to standards and my options for deviation are limited. I might include some key phrases in a summary field, so that a keyword search would pick them up and bring this book to the people who need it most.

This post is a direct result of my emotional response to these headings. It is informed by my own lived experience of mental illness. It is the trauma of cataloguing, just as it is cataloguing that trauma. It is a traumatic response. I had this response at 5.30pm when the office was virtually empty, so everyone I might have talked to had already left for the day. Perhaps that was for the best. Instead I’ve been able to direct my energy into researching these headings and formulating options for change. I also bought myself some chocolate, which definitely helped.

I needed to talk. You, the reader, have generously listened. Now LCSH needs to listen, and reflect, and change.

Finding my voice

I’ve done a lot of talking over the last couple of weeks. So much, in fact, that I have been richly rewarded with a persistent hacking cough and the subsequent loss of half my vocal range. (It’s put a serious dent in my karaoke plans.) A lot has gone into helping me find my voice, learning when and how to deploy it, knowing when to stop talking, and realising my limits. A lot went into losing my voice, too.

Joining the fishpond

As you may already have heard, I was the featured guest on episode 18 of the Turbitt & Duck podcast, hosted by dynamic library duo Sally Turbitt and Amy Walduck. You may remember Sally and Amy as the NLS8 co-convenors, who have decided to use their powers for good and amplify a range of GLAM voices via their fortnightly podcast. Sally asked me at #coGLAM18 if I was interested in being on the show, and I said yes on the condition that I didn’t have to provide a photo of my face…

Inexplicably, the episode has been getting rave reviews! I’m thrilled that people seem to have genuinely enjoyed spending an hour and 15 minutes listening to me talk about cataloguing—it’s a subject not usually renowed for attracting people’s attention. I also enjoyed making ‘Bibliographic Data Wizard’ a thing. I think I need it on a t-shirt. Or my email signature.

Despite my cheerful and engaged exterior, I was extremely anxious during recording. Making this podcast was one of the most stressful things I have ever done. This is through absolutely no fault of Sally and Amy’s, who went out of their way to help me feel comfortable and reassured, and who could tell I was a long way out of my comfort zone. The episode you’re listening to is actually the second take—it got so bad I asked to pause the recording after a good half-hour of talking, and we agreed to start over. Getting through recording took a long time and was incredibly draining. (I don’t know how Sally and Amy do this every fortnight—they have souls of steel!) I’m not sure how I sound on the podcast, not being a reliable judge of my own voice, but if I sound stressed or nervous or jittery, it’s because I am. Outreach doesn’t come naturally to me, but here I am doing it anyway. I’m glad I did the podcast, and I’m hugely grateful to Sally and Amy for the opportunity (and for your support!), but I’m not sure I could record another one for a long while.

I also want to reiterate the advice I gave to students and new graduates about using your voices for good. Never be afraid to speak up. Speak up and out and loudly, because you are the future. Talk about what doesn’t make sense. Talk about things in libraries you think are weird, or old, or strange, or stupid, because without your input, more experienced practitioners often won’t realise there is a problem at all. For better or worse, they rely on people speaking up. If speaking out loud is as hard for you as it is for me, hop on twitter, set up a blog, join some library facebook groups. Don’t keep your opinions to yourself—let them out, nurture them, help them grow.

Talking out loud

A couple of months ago I was, erm, volunteered into giving a talk at my (now former) workplace about using web archives for reference queries, based on a blog post I wrote on the subject. I must admit I wasn’t wild about the idea but resolved to do it anyway, largely because invites had already been sent out, and also because I figured I wouldn’t get better at stuff I don’t practise.

True to form, I asked the internet for help. I was blown away by the quantity and quality of advice I received on effective public speaking and the calming of nerves—your suggestions made a big difference, and I am truly grateful. 🙂 Open up the thread below and have a read. I thoroughly recommend it.

It didn’t stop me being super nervous on the day of the presentation, though. My colleague was gracious enough to admit that if she’d realised how anxious I would be about presenting, she might have reconsidered volunteering me for it, but she did take care of the IT and the room booking and getting people to show up (she’s quite good at that). I’m sure I spoke too fast and looked very nervous, but the attendees seemed to enjoy the talk, and a couple of people asked for the slides afterwards. I even managed a small web archive hiccup with a well-timed ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ screenshot. #smooth

Overall, while I’m glad the presentation went well, the idea of public speaking wasn’t something I was keen to repeat. So what did I do? Submitted an abstract for a big fancy conference. I was encouraged to do this by well-meaning people on twitter, even as I felt I wasn’t quite ready, that the conference wasn’t a good fit for me, that my proposal was shallow and ill-considered. I went ahead and submitted.

I withdrew from this conference last week. I had come to realise that between the web archives talk and the podcast recording, public speaking or presenting of any kind was, for the moment, beyond my capabilities. And the podcast wasn’t even that public. I recorded Turbitt & Duck in my dressing gown, in my house, with a pot of tea and two very supportive ladies for company. On paper it couldn’t have been more comfy. But other people can only do so much to help me overcome my nerves. At root it’s a me problem. It’s my own personal inability to cope with suddenly having an audience listening to my every word, probably livetweeting it, being on the spot and needing to instantly have an answer. I can’t do it. It is beyond me. So, for the moment, I’m quitting while I’m ahead.

Having said all that: my next big professional goal is to present at NLS9, on a topic close to my heart. It’ll be a friendly and supportive audience. I’ve already got half the talk written. I am super motivated to make this happen, and it’s far enough away that I’m hopeful of conquering my fear of professional public speaking beforehand. If I don’t succeed… well, there’s always twitter. Or tranquilliser.

Zines: the cataloguer’s outlet

When considering this month’s GLAM Blog Club topic of ‘create’, my mind immediately turned to zines. Zines are a great creative outlet, as a way to see and be seen by like-minded individuals. They’re also a neat way of escaping and subverting surveillance capitalism, by returning to paper and making the results available offline, for free or cheap.

NLA and SLV have extensive zine collections. You can also pick some up from Sticky Institute, the world’s greatest zine shop, or from individual zine makers and distributors. Zinemakers often swap or trade zines—if you have zines, I’ll happily fling you one of mine your way.

My current work in progress is Hello MARC : a zine about cataloguing. I posted a preview on twitter a week or so ago and it went gangbusters! I was also very surprised by the response from areas of American cataloguing twitter I didn’t know existed. Cataloguers tend not to get much love, either from the public or from other librarians, so it’s nice to be able to contribute something positive to cataloguer culture. When I tweeted about the zine I had considered it finished, but I’ve since decided it needs some revision, so hopefully it will be released in a week or so.

Yes there is a mistake in the 100 first indicator it’s driving me nuts I’ll fix it

It helps if you’re arty, and it helps if you can draw. I have zero artistic talent so I create zines in other ways. Hello MARC was created entirely in Canva, a free online graphic design tool to help non-arty people like me create arty things. It also helps that a zine about cataloguing standards is largely text-based.

Speaking of cataloguing standards, did you know there is a Zine Union Catalog? Zine librarians and archivists are collaborating on a worldwide shared catalogue of zines, so that disparate zine collections might be found and explored in one place. There’s even a bespoke metadata schema for zines, xZINECOREx, based on the Dublin Core standard. (I won’t lie, I geeked out super hard when I found out about this. And there are people with ‘zine librarian’ in their job title?! Omg. Life goals.)

There is some disagreement on whether PDF zines are actually zines (some people consider the paper part to be a core aspect of a zine) but I disagree. I view zines as discrete works, either monographic or serial, intended as an underground publication, for a specific audience. They’re messy, often intensely personal, and not designed for mass consumption. I specifically chose to distribute Hello MARC online so that it might reach the most people, but I’ve since had enough requests for a print run that I’ll be doing one of those too. I even had a request from a zine librarian in the States!

I’ve found zinemaking incredibly therapeutic. I’ve recently spent way too much time and energy worrying about climate change, to the point where I couldn’t function because I had lost all sense of temporal perspective. Zines help bring me back to the here and now, the realm of things I can reasonably and personally accomplish, the community of good people who look out for me. They’re a concrete distraction and a source of great personal achievement. I recommend zines to everyone. Yes, even you.