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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acquisitions Battle: Library v. Archives

I get a real kick out of spending other people’s money. Acquisitions take up a lot of my time at work these days; I’m responsible for, among many other things, acquiring works by local authors and material about the history and culture of our city. Naturally, our budget is minuscule. Every dollar has to be spent wisely, and if we can acquire something for free, we go for it. 

The other day I was surprised to receive a couple of short films produced by one of the local community service organisations, featuring a few locals talking about their lives. I had no real reason to be surprised; after all, I’d asked them to send me a copy. What did surprise me was that the two films were on USB flash drives, one for each film. Somehow I’d been expecting a DVD. Another community service org had graciously sent me a DVD of one of their recent film projects, and I suppose I hadn’t considered the fact that not all organisations distributed their AV material the same way.

Our immediate problem was deciding whether or not the USB flash drives constituted library or archive material. While we make a point of collecting both, the line is somewhat blurry; some material accepted as part of a manuscript deposit occasionally duplicates library closed stack holdings and vice versa. Generally speaking, if an item has been formally published it goes into the library collection and is catalogued in the usual way. If it hasn’t been published it is treated as archive material and is subject to appraisal, copyright clearance etc. and has a finding aid created for it. 

Is a USB flash drive considered ‘published’ material? One drive had the (newer) film’s title printed on the side, clearly indicating an intent to distribute. The other drive was a generic one and held the older film. Neither had an ISBN or other barcode, and could only be obtained by directly contacting the community organisation that produced them. The films themselves had been uploaded to YouTube by the community organisation, also suggesting that the participants had consented to their recordings being widely disseminated.

Because the DVD we received had been (almost automatically) treated as library material and given to our long-suffering cataloguer, I began to wonder whether the USB drives should be treated the same way. After all, if we had received DVDs instead of flash media, I wouldn’t have thought twice about adding them to the library stack. 

However, I ultimately decided, in consultation with my superior, to add the USB flash drives to our archival collections. The lack of ISBN or any kind of commercial packaging was a factor, but the decider was the realisation that write-protecting flash drives is close to impossible. Even if we were to add the drives to our library stack and only permit users to use them in the building, we would have no way of knowing whether someone was tampering with the drive while they used it. A professionally-produced DVD is a read-only medium, which I think we would feel better about having in the library collection.

The major downside to classifying the drives as archive material is that it means a lot more work for us. Naturally, I hadn’t thought to request a deed of gift or copyright clearances from the community organisation, so we’ll have to chase that up. If they in turn didn’t ask the participants to sign anything (which is unlikely but possible), that will also create some difficulties. And of course, at some point I’ll have to copy the contents of the drives to our rudimentary digital preservation setup. I’ve wound up being responsible for that too, but that’s a story for another time. 

Being both: a follow-up

How the tables have turned!

When I posted my last blog entry a few weeks ago, I had no idea just how much attention it would get from the GLAM community, both in Australia and abroad. Some responders were in enthusiastic agreement, while others offered differing views. I think I hit a nerve, to be honest.

If I’d known beforehand how widely the post would be read, I probably would have written it a lot better. I was going to clarify a few points but, hilariously, something came up in the meantime that renders the article largely moot!

Finding myself between jobs and not expecting to secure employment anytime soon, I decided to fulfil a long-held dream of visiting Scotland, the land of my ancestors. If you haven’t been, go. It’s an amazing country with a fascinating history and proud, welcoming people. Surprisingly, the thing I missed most about Australia was a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables (my regular haggis consumption not quite cutting it, vitamin-wise). I’d applied for jobs before I left, of course, but figured I had no hope and resolved to enjoy my holiday.

While I was overseas, and to general astonishment, I received an email offering me a job with a local heritage library upon my return to Australia. I was so surprised I accepted on the spot, but honestly no amount of pondering would have changed my mind. I’ve now been back in the country and on the job for a few weeks, giving me a chance to evaluate what I’ve found myself doing all day.

‘Why can’t I do both?’ I asked the internet, plaintively. Well, now I am doing both. Our collection includes books, journals, archival manuscripts, ephemera, maps, plans, AV material and much else besides. I do reference, acquisitions and cataloguing, and will eventually be doing archival appraisal and digital preservation (yay!). No two days are the same, and I’ll never be short of work. And no, the irony of it all is not lost on me.

Do I consider myself a librarian or an archivist, then? Well, my email signature says ‘heritage librarian’ and my workplace says ‘library’, but with so much of our collection being original materials and manuscripts there’s plenty of crossover. It’s worth noting that the advert for this position invited those with ALIA and/or ASA qualifications to apply, which isn’t something I had seen before. If asked, I probably would respond with ‘heritage librarian’ and explain what that involves.

I stand by the assertion that those who consider themselves solely ‘librarians’ or ‘archivists’ are less likely to cross-pollinate with other disciplines (though I admit to having no empirical evidence to back this up) and I still think that the GLAM sector as a whole could really benefit from greater intermingling and sharing of ideas. But right now I’m stoked to have been given such an incredible opportunity. I look forward to wowing you all. 🙂

“You can be a librarian or an archivist, but not both”

Recently I joined the Australian Society of Archivists, the professional body for archivists in this country. More recently I attended the local chapter’s AGM at the invitation of its convenor. Despite a) not knowing a soul and b) being one of about three people in the room under the age of fifty, I felt right at home and was warmly welcomed by several members. I’m also informed I had the pleasure of briefly meeting a Noted Archives Bigwig™, though I only realised who he was after he’d shaken my hand!

Over the course of the evening I had the same conversation several times: that I had almost finished my MIS, I was currently between jobs, and I was very keen on digital preservation and related endeavours. I didn’t mind, though, because I was fortunate enough to meet some extremely interesting people, one of whom shared my interest in #digipres and had done a lot of work in the field. I mentioned that I was see-sawing between library work and archives work, and could see myself doing both long-term. She chuckled and replied that librarians would often see archives as ‘the dark side’, to which I responded that I hadn’t been in the field long enough to pick up such ‘bad habits’.

A few days later, I came across an interesting thought bubble on the number of LIS / GLAM conferences in Australia and, according to the author, a corresponding paucity of material to discuss. A biennial whole-sector GLAM conference was instead proposed, where professionals from all manner of cultural and memory institutions come together and cross-pollinate developments and ideas. I love the idea of a whole-sector GLAM conference, but I’m doubtful it will ever happen.

For all our talk of collaboration, GLAM professions in Australia are terribly siloed. I know precious few people who are members of both ALIA and ASA (I am, for the record) and I’m not sure the two organisations talk to each other all that much. I know libraries and archives do some things differently, but I’m not convinced it’s beneficial for users or staff. Should I have to choose between being a librarian and being an archivist? Why can’t I be both? Are the differences between the two so great that no one individual can do it all?

In an age where the proportion of digitised or born-digital items in library and archive collections is increasing steadily, both types of memory institution will need staff with the requisite skillset to accession, curate and preserve digital artefacts. While paper items are treated much differently in library collections vis-à-vis archival collections, with the former housed on shelves for public consumption and the latter in boxes in climate-controlled storerooms, there is no fundamental difference between, say, a RAID system in a library and one in an archive. Or one in a records management unit, or a museum, and so on. Discovery layers for these objects would also function in a similar way across different organisations.

To me, it would make perfect sense for GLAM digitalists of all types to come together and swap stories. New Zealand’s National Digital Forum (NDF) fulfils this role perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, I’m planning to attend their conference in Wellington in November. (The conference outline looked amazing!) I really wish a similar organisation existed in Australia, but again I can’t see it happening. Unless I create it myself in my capacity as your local Over-Enthusiastic New Professional™.

We speak often of the ‘digital divide’ between those with access to the internet and those without, but a divide exists too between the GLAM professions. Archivists and librarians don’t appear to collaborate very much, which is a disappointment and something I’d dearly like to change. Perhaps I’ll become neither a librarian nor an archivist, but rather an Inter-GLAM Liaison Officer or somesuch, bringing light, a feather-duster and some government funding to ‘the dark side’. Wouldn’t that be something?