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.

🎶 Mama, don’t taaaake my MIS awaaaay 🎶

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

(With apologies to Paul Simon)

I am a terrible student.

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

But that’s not how I roll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things I learned from #NDFNZ

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Digital Forum 2016 conference in Wellington, New Zealand. It was my first ever conference and I had an absolute ball. Despite being a self-funded participant I thought it was an excellent use of my time, funds and annual leave. I got a lot out of the conference and would love to go again next year! Here are my five take-home thoughts, brought to you by a late-night flight home:

People are keen for practical ways to implement the Next Big Thing. The ‘Digitisation 101’ pre-conference workshop was heavily waitlisted; I was only able to attend after a last-minute venue change to a bigger room (cheers #eqnz). Similarly, a breakout session on practical implementations of linked open data (LOD) was standing-room only. By this point, most GLAM tech people have at least heard of things like ‘linked open data’ and ‘digital preservation’ but remain baffled as to how to actually implement these in their workplaces. It was great to see some practical solutions being demonstrated, using freely available online tools that people can tinker with in their own time. (I plan to go into more detail on those LOD solutions in a later post.)

Contextualising visual objects in museums and galleries has incredible potential. I know I wasn’t the only person in Te Papa’s lecture theatre furiously scribbling notes with one hand and furiously tweeting with the other (I’m @lissertations, for those playing along at home). The ‘second screen’ phenomenon, whereby people will watch a TV show, sporting event or lecture while simultaneously on their phones tweeting / snapchatting / etc., has given cultural institutions pause as to how they can best capture their visitors’ attention on both fronts. Auckland and Christchurch Art Galleries gave separate but closely related talks on contextualising their visual collections with digital text, audio and virtual reality. People no longer view an artwork or a museum object solely in the context afforded it by the curators. They’re reacting to it in the digital backchannels of social media, reading what others have to say and adding their own interpretations. 

#NDFAU needs to happen. Seriously. As a first-time attendee and one of very few delegates not from New Zealand, I was awestruck by how collaborative and congenial the atmosphere was at Te Papa (no doubt helped by the fact half of NZ knows each other on a first-name basis). Indeed, I chose to go to NDF in the first place because I loved the idea of technologists from different GLAM sectors collaborating and learning from each other. The potential to export NDF across the ditch is obvious, and I’m determined to make it happen. Yes, I’ve had a few comments about NDF being ‘hard to export’ but I’m not someone from NSLA or GLAM Peak trying to implement a digital forum by fiat. I’m a techy student librarian at the bottom of the totem pole who still has some of that New Professional Enthusiasm™. I’m also not someone who reacts well to being told ‘no’. It’s well past time to bring Australian GLAM tech people together and start some real conversations. (If you’re interested in helping me make this a reality, hit me up!)

The GLAM sector is crying out for digitally skilled students and new grads, but too many are graduating without these skills. I am proof positive of this. I am a 100% self-taught GLAM technologist. My MIS course does not place a high priority on tech skills, despite the huge need for them in the sector; I get the distinct impression that the administrators are comfortable teaching a horrendously dated curriculum and have no real wish to innovate. We can no longer assume that LIS grads who need tech skills will be motivated enough to teach themselves (although I am), nor that not every grad will need to know how to code. It needs to be baked into every LIS curriculum in Australia. If that makes the courses too challenging for some students, well, too bad. It’s not like they can opt-out of technology at work.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to sit in Te Papa’s theatre and meeting rooms, listening to talk after talk from people who love the intersection of GLAM and technology as much as I do. People who have great ideas and manage to make them happen. People who want to change the world. People who stand up and empower us all. Matthew Oliver’s closing speech was deeply inspiring: a tale of hope in a time of trouble. It gave me the confidence to acknowledge that no, all is not right with the world at the moment. We as librarians and archivists and museum curators and gallery hosts—as custodians of national memory—have a crucial role to play in researching, recording and retaining the events of our present, so that they do not become the events of our future.

I got home at around midnight Wednesday and was at work the following morning, so my conference hot takes were decidedly lukewarm by this point. The above are by no means everything that NDF had to say, just those I listened to the most. I hope to one day have something worth saying at a conference like NDF.

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?

Dear five-year-old me: you’ll never leave school

When I was five, my teacher went around my kindergarten class asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of the girls, as I recall, wanted to be hairdressers. Instead I proudly proclaimed that I wanted to be the first woman on the moon. Never mind the fact my eyesight is terrible and I get motion sickness on everything that moves. I was obsessed with space and I wanted to be an astronaut.

I’m pretty sure I got laughed out of class. My mum believed in me, though.

Twenty years later, I’m comfortable with my decision not to pursue a career in astronomy. Instead, I’m a few short months away from a professional qualification in librarianship. Yet I’m increasingly pessimistic about what that qualification will do for my career prospects. Sure, an MIS will adequately prepare me for a career in cataloguing or other technical services (in the library sense of the term). But recently I’ve found my interests heading more in the direction of systems librarianship, online information provision and digital preservation. And I’m no longer convinced an MIS alone will get me a job in those fields.

Undoubtedly some of this pessimism springs from the fact I’m currently between jobs. I’m in no position to be picky about what I accept, and I’m very aware that as a new professional I’m expected to spend some time in bottom-rung jobs, grinding, until someone retires and everyone levels up. Plenty of people have their degrees and work in non-LIS fields. At least I still have a few months before I graduate.

Recently I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading Bill LeFurgy’s insightful 2011 blog post ‘What skills does a digital librarian or archivist need?‘ and browsing the websites of various digital preservation thinktanks. Combined with some valuable insight from followers on Twitter (for which many thanks!), I’ve begun mulling over what sorts of attributes I ought to have in order to make it in the digital GLAM sphere.

  • Appreciation of library and archival principles — I’m looking at my copy of Laura Millar’s ‘Archives: principles and practices‘ right now and I know I’d never be a good archivist without it. With a solid grounding in theory and framework I know that digital archiving still adheres to many of the ground rules for paper or physical archiving. This kind of thing is library school bread and butter.

  • Quickly learn new skills — this is a given in a profession fighting for its very existence. Every year more workflows move online, more material is added to (and removed from) the web, more file formats and media types are created. As new ways of research, outreach and preservation are invented, staff need to not just ‘keep up’ but actively be on top of new developments in the field. Perhaps even doing the developing themselves!

  • Be able to code in Python/PHP/Ruby/HTML/SQL/etc etc — this is where LIS programs on their own tend to fall down. Countless job adverts note their preference for a candidate who can code, but LIS students from non-STEM backgrounds (of which I am one) are likely to graduate with an awareness of current technology but no concrete coding skills. Web development is an elective at CSU, which I opted not to take on account of I can already write HTML and CSS reasonably well, but students are left to develop more technical skills on their own. I’m thrilled to have recently discovered The Programming Historian, which blends programming skills with cultural heritage corpora to make digital humanities accessible to all. People don’t go to library school to learn to code, but the world is increasingly expecting library students to acquire these skills.

  • Bridge the digital divide — by which I mean digital archivists need to be able not just to immerse themselves in this strange new digital world, but relate it back to archive users and researchers who may not be technologically literate. Self-service information provision will not be the answer for all users; some people will still need the assistance of a professional to find what they need. Sustaining the human face of digital memory institutions is essential if we still want to have jobs in ten years.

While writing this post I came across A Snapshot of a 21st-Century Librarian, a fascinating account of a research librarian’s work in an academic library. Pointedly, she mentioned taking graduate classes even as a tenure-track librarian to keep up with the changes in her field. I can easily see myself taking a similar path — whatever the MIS hasn’t taught me, I’ll need to learn elsewhere. I do, however, feel like I have a lot of catching-up to do. Five-year-old me would have been aghast at the idea of never leaving school, but then again, five-year-old me had no conception of what a digital archivist is, much less the idea that I could one day become one. Being an astronaut would have looked like a pretty safe bet.