Being a librarian makes me happy. Yes it does. I’m one of those lucky people for whom ‘things I love doing’ and ‘things I can get paid for’ intersect to a great extent. I love organising information and describing resources and connecting people to what they’re looking for. People pay me to do that! I am incredibly fortunate to do what I love.
This certainly doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t criticise libraries. Our profession has plenty of systemic problems. The glacial pace of progress is incredibly frustrating, and some days I wonder why I bother. But at the end of the day, I chose this job. I chose this life. And I chose it because it suits me down to the ground.
In some quarters of librarianship I don’t think it’s fashionable to love being a librarian. I sense a growing divide between library lovers and library critics, and it feels increasingly dfficult to be both. I feel like some of us become so wrapped up in our criticism and bitterness that we forget why we became librarians in the first place. I was that person, for a time. I wasn’t in a good place. I saw a lot of what librarianship ought not to be, and I was despondent about the future.
I look at where I am now, in a happy workplace filled with good people, and I am hopeful again. I see my work making a difference, from improving catalogue access points to tracking down an article for document delivery to upgrading a libguide to miraculously finding a misshelved book. I feel our efforts push the boundary of what librarianship can be. I give to the team and the team gives back. I am so lucky. I am SO lucky.
I maintain that there is a lot to love about libraries. I will defend this profession with my dying breath. My passion for librarianship won’t stop me from criticising it, but nor will my criticism of librarianship blind me to my passion. I can do both. I can be both. I love what I do. And I never want to stop.
I did a lot of watching this month. It never sits well with me, watching. It’s too passive. I want to jump up and do things. Make things. Break things. Change things.
This month, I was excited to attend my second ever CardiParty: the exhibition Unfinished Business at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. I grew up in a household that couldn’t have cared less about art, and here I was, visiting art galleries on my weekend off. Feminist art galleries. On my birthday, no less!
The gallery was chock-a-block with eye-catching, provocative art, but my favourite piece was I am with you, a 7 square-metre collage of fake protest posters featuring real slogans. I wanted them on a t-shirt. I think I said to Kassi I wanted to decorate my house with everything in the room (though on reflection I think I might pass on the metal sculpture of the inside of someone’s vagina).
Despite having the artistic capability of a garden snail I was filled with a strange compulsion to do art. Watching art created by other people suddenly wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what I might do—I had no experience of doing it. I had this incredible need to express myself, artistically. To create, somehow. To be more than words.
Perhaps my brain processed that as ‘Well, you’re no good at art, but what are you good at? PANICKING’ and I promptly had a sub-acute panic episode at the cardiparty afterlunch, followed later that night by a second episode so acute I called triple-zero and asked them to come round and make sure I wasn’t dying, please. It was horrendous. I think I’d prefer art.
The next day I visited the NGV Triennial, because everyone on twitter told me to. I was pleasantly surprised by the interactivity of the art. Pieces so close you were encouraged to touch them, art that took up entire rooms, things you could lie down on and soak up. Art you could feel. One installation was set up like an ordinary loungeroom, with a real person watching a video of their choice. I’ve no idea what was playing when I visited, but it looked like some kind of hair metal concert.
I stepped around a few corners and into a dark hallway. Beyond, I caught a glimpse of Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement, an enthralling installation by Japanese art collective teamLab. Sensors track the movement of your feet and project little dancing lights around them, a contrast against the whirls of blue projected on the floor. It was incredible. It felt like seeing Dust for the first time.
The room filled me with a profound sense of worth, of purpose, of wholeness, of consciousness. It was healing, it was overpowering and it was very real. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to watch the lights forever, wanted the vortex to swallow me whole. A picture doesn’t do it justice. Experience the room, if you can. But be careful, there’s a warning just outside not to stay in too long, because it can make you dizzy.
I think I would like to include more art in my life. But I don’t want to watch art. I want to do art, even if it’s terrible. I want to squeeze art through my fingers and throw art all over the house and fling myself in a pool filled with art.
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.
As an extremely neurotic librarian who also does loads of PD in her own time, I feel like this article is telling me something I don’t want to hear. For me, PD is proof that I care about this profession. I fear that without it, people won’t take me seriously as a librarian. https://t.co/BDGiJZW7YL
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.
I know lots of library people who’ve stepped back, so to speak, because they’re burnt out or overwhelmed or bitter or jaded. They implore me not to make their mistakes. But the idea that I should stop caring so much about librarianship is anathema to me.
I never want to stop caring. I never want to stop reading, discovering, growing, exploring, developing, sharing. I never want to become a jobsworth out of a need for self-preservation. And if caring in my own time makes me an overenthusiastic fool, so be it.
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.
‘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.
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. 🙂
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.
The biggest issue is 90% of LIS students ‘love books and reading’. They think a library will have retained its childhood magic for adults
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.
Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste.
It is better to have broken Gàidhlig than dead Gàidhlig.
— Scottish Gaelic proverb
An invitation by GLAM Blog Club to discuss ‘identity’ has taken me in all sorts of unexpected directions. For one thing, I was fortunate enough to finally attend a Cardi Party, held this month at the Melbourne Immigration Museum, which has helped shape my nebulous thoughts. I’ve also spent most of this week in bed, fighting off a nasty illness gifted me by the city of Melbourne. You know I’ll be back, though.
Talking about identity invariably entails talking about yourself. Who you are, where you have come from, where you are going, what you believe, and so on. Yet it should also entail talking about everyone else, because identities are shared just as much as they are kept to oneself. Whatever I am, someone else is also.
The extent to which we might choose our identities has occupied my thoughts for some time. Identities can be (and are) granted, revoked, adopted, rejected, gifted, stolen, bought and sold. We express our identities in myriad ways—culture, language, ethnicity, dress, official papers, unofficial papers, oral histories, written histories, birth ceremonies, burial rites. Some of these identities have been chosen for me. Some I cannot change. Many I have picked for myself. A few have been thrust upon me. A couple taken by force.
About a year or so ago I began casually learning Gaelic. Known to speakers as Gàidhlig, a language understood by 1.7% of the people of Scotland,1 threatened with extinction in the long term, and spoken by less than a thousand people in Australia,2 it may appear a strange choice of hobby. For various reasons I haven’t been learning as intensely as I once did, but I enjoy following Twitter accounts in the language (using my other account @lis_gaidhlig) and am pleasantly surprised by how much I understand. Gaelic is closely related to Irish (Gaeilge) and Manx (Gaelg) and is part of the Celtic family of languages. It is not to be confused with Scots, the Germanic language closely related to English.
You’d be forgiven for wondering why I chose Gaelic. While it wasn’t originally my idea, it became something in which I was intermittently interested. I no longer have access to the learners’ guides, yet I’ve found myself actually using my skills more than ever. Curiously, I don’t know if any of my ancestors ever actually spoke Gaelic (I think it’s likely, but I’d have to ask my grandmother); certainly nobody in my extended family currently speaks the language.
Writing this post represented the first time I started to think critically about my relationship with Gaelic. I began asking myself copious questions, most of which I couldn’t immediately answer. Did I choose Gaelic (or was Gaelic chosen for me) out of a genuine desire to reconnect with my Scottish roots? My (extremely) Scottish surname was handed down through my family’s 150-odd years of Australian habitation, and yet it was not the name I was born with. I chose this name, much as I chose my family. Does the name conceal other areas of Britain and Europe from which I am descended? Why did I choose this strand of ancestry and not others?
Is there a performative aspect to this exploration of my identity? Am I only aligning myself more with ‘Scottish’ because it’s politically expedient to not be ‘English’? Is it part of a quest for a more concrete ethnicity than ‘generic white Australian’? Am I echoing middle-class Lowland Scots in appropriating a culture and language which is no longer truly mine? Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland (today, chiefly the Hebrides) are cold, remote and economically disadvantaged. Is it my place to enjoy the good things without the bad?
Am I looking for a point of difference? A homeland? A place I can point to, despite never having lived there, and say ‘That is my home’? I was privileged to visit Scotland last year, the realisation of a lifelong dream. When I first saw the outskirts of Edinburgh from the plane window, Scotland felt like the strange, exciting, foreign country it was. But it also felt like home. Should it have done?
Is it a response to becoming more educated and aware (some might say ‘woke’) about the black history of Australia, and in particular what Scottish settlers did to Aboriginal people? A reaction to the knowledge that the land I live on, the only home I have ever known, is not mine and was never ceded? A realisation that if I were to repatriate myself, to go back to where I came from, I’d better know where to start?
Moreover, had this sudden interest rendered me the Scottish equivalent of a ‘weeaboo’, because I drink whisky and Irn Bru, listen to a lot of Gaelic folk music and have strong views on Scottish independence? I decided it had not, chiefly because I don’t think everything from or about Scotland is automatically superior to non-Scottish equivalents. (Surprisingly, the thing I missed most about Australia when I visited Scotland was a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables!)
When asked, I don’t tell people that I’m Scottish, because I’m not. I’ve never lived in Scotland, I’ve visited only once, I don’t hold a passport and I don’t speak the language. I say I’m Australian and leave it at that. Occasionally I might get ‘where’s your family from’ (not the more insulting ‘where are you really from’ doled out to non-white people), at which point I might specify Scotland. Yet where is the line drawn between ‘having Scottish heritage’ (or any other ethnocultural affiliation) and ‘being Scottish’? At what point, if any, will I ever be ‘Scottish enough’?
Seeing the Highland tartan exhibit at the Immigration Museum brought a lot of these issues into sharp focus. The Clan MacDonald tartan, easily recognisable with its bold reds and muted greens, formed the backdrop to a medal made of silver, a first prize for dance at the Buninyong Highland Society in country Victoria. Inscribed on the obverse is a curious epigraph, left untranslated by curators: ‘Làmh na Ceartais’. The hand of justice. But for whom?
While researching the background to this post I discovered two books that might help me answer some of my questions surrounding the legitimacy of my Scottish identity. The first is The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, a 2004 PhD thesis by St John Skilton. It documents the efforts of Scottish expats, descendants of immigrants and interested learners to keep the language alive an leth-chruinne a deas (in the Southern Hemisphere), as well as broader questions of Gaelic ethnicity in Australia and LOTE teaching traditions in Australian schools. At almost 400 pages it’s a hefty read, but one I intend to savour.
The second is Caledonia Australis, a 1984 book by Don Watson exploring the intersection of emigrant Scottish Highlanders and the indigenous Kurnai people of what is now Gippsland in eastern Victoria. Many Highland Scots were forced to emigrate after being thrown off their land by the English during the Highland Clearances. Those who sailed to Australia systematically dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land, just as the English had dispossessed the Highlanders of theirs. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of this book, and I regret that I could not incorporate its histories into this post.
For a final word on Gaelic identity, I turn to Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain, 1911-1996), one of the great Gaelic writers and poets. His thoughts on the topic (in English) were set to music in ‘Somhairle’ by the Gaelic electronic band Niteworks, whose album NW is one of my favourites. (I recently bought their gear on Bandcamp and conversed with one of the band members in Gaelic!) Sorley was an ardent defender of his culture and language in the face of English dominance and destruction. It seems only fitting that his words lend us a sense of his grim determination to survive, as well as that of his language.
Ever since I was a boy in Raasay
and became aware of the differences between the history I read in books
and the oral accounts I heard around me,
I have been very sceptical of what might be called received history;
the million people for instance who died in Ireland in the nineteenth century;
the million more who had to emigrate;
the thousands of families forced from their homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Why was all that?
Famine? Overpopulation? Improvement? The Industrial Revolution? Expansion overseas?
You see not many of these people understood such words,
they knew only Gaelic.
But we know now another set of words:
clearance, empire, profit, exploitation,
and today we live with the bitter legacy of that kind of history.
Our Gaelic language is threatened with extinction,
our way of life besieged by the forces of international big business,
our countries beggared by bad communication,
our culture is depreciated by the sentimentality of those who have gone away.
We have, I think, a deep sense of generation and community
but that has in so many ways been broken.
We have a history of resistance but now
mainly in the songs we sing.
Our children are bred for emigration.
Being a librarian, I have discovered, comes with a lot of advantages. I can defeat Google with my superior searching and indexing skills for the benefit of patrons everywhere. I can talk proudly about how hard I work to make my library a better place. I can shush with impunity (only because our ref desk is in a designated quiet space). I can meet other librarians and know we’ll have something in common. Above all, I can sleep at night, knowing my job is intrinsically good and whole and meaningful.
See, I used to fear all of these things. I once thought Google was as good as it got, and I didn’t want to ask for help. I never wanted to talk about my work in case I appeared boastful, egotistic or fake. I used to hate shushing people, for fear it would perpetuate librarian stereotypes. Other people terrify me, so networking was (and is) painful and scary. And I’ve worked jobs that I was scared to go to, because the job crushed and violated my morals each and every day, and there was no end in sight.
So how did I do it?
Obviously I didn’t come straight into libraryland knowing this stuff. It wasn’t until I started my MIS, and received explicit instruction to this effect, that I realised the extent of my poor search habits, that there was something beyond Google (don’t look at me like that, I’m a millennial). I finally realised I hadn’t necessarily been doing it wrong, but that I could be doing it so much better. Search prefixes. Boolean. Union catalogues. Discovery layers. Trove. OMG. So empowering. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone (even if they weren’t interested). I found myself full of something I hadn’t known existed: ‘information confidence’. Not confidence in myself, necessarily, but confidence in my ability to locate, distil and critically examine information. It’s a good feeling.
You’ll have noticed I tweet a lot about cool stuff other people are doing, but not a lot about cool stuff I’m doing. This is partly because I can’t talk about things at work that aren’t yet public, and also because I’m keen to not humblebrag about how great / busy / exhausted I am. But recently I’ve become much more aware of the importance of highlighting librarian labour. Every aspect of library work—reference, acquisitions, programs, cataloguing, outreach, shelving, the lot—is valuable. Some parts of that work (programs, outreach) are more visible than others (acquisitions, cataloguing). Some of that work is valued differently (by management, and also by payroll). Being primarily a back-of-house worker, I need to work harder at demonstrating how hard I work and what I do to make collections accessible and discoverable by our users. It’s critically important not to minimise the length of time or amount of money one spends doing something, lest others think they, too, could achieve it in that timeframe and with that budget. I always used to diminish myself when talking about my work. Now I talk about my efforts with pride. It’s a powerful feeling.
Recently, I’ve had to up my shushing skills. Our reference desk is situated, oddly, in our library’s ‘quiet space’. People really value this space, and so I’ve had to get used to enforcing the quiet by way of a good shush. I don’t like doing it. I used to hate having to go up to noisy chatters or loud call-takers and ask them to keep the noise down and take the call outside. But at least it no longer scares me. Being a staff member affords me certain privileges within the library, and shushing is one of them. (Others include being able to evacuate people in a fire drill and using the exalted Staff Toaster™ for lunchtime jaffles.) I’ve only really gotten better at shushing through experience. I now know how best to phrase a shush, from a pointed smile to a simple ‘shhh’ to a polite ‘hey can you try and keep the noise down, this is a quiet space’ to a firm ‘take the call outside, please’ (and they know I’m not asking). It’s a comfortable feeling.
People scare me. People are weird, unpredictable, incomprehensible things. I always look the wrong way and say the wrong things. I can’t people. It’s a known fact. So naturally a big part of librarianship (as with many other professions) is networking with fellow library workers and people in related fields. ‘Why did I choose this career?!’ I say to myself, perhaps not as regularly as I used to. ‘Nobody told me there would be so much socialising!’ The best way to overcome this fear, it turns out, was to face it head-on. Knowing that I find this sort of thing hard and scary, I deliberately inserted myself into situations where I would be forced to network and make small talk. I did this at ALIA meetings, at ASA meetings, at NDF and at NLS8. People seemed to want to talk to me back, so I took that as a sign I wasn’t doing everything totally wrong. I still don’t always know when to stop talking, and I can’t always tell when someone would, politely, like to talk to someone else. But I definitely know I’ve gotten better at this. It’s an incredible feeling.
I’m exceptionally lucky to have a job that comes with a good set of morals. I haven’t always been so fortunate—I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in call centres, I’ve worked in warehouses and I’ve worked in some questionable pizza joints. To be clear: blue-collar, low-skill jobs are not in and of themselves morally deficient, and I would never judge someone for working in these fields to support themselves. But all of the above places existed either to sell a product or to make people’s lives miserable, and I feared for my health and my sanity while I worked in them. Libraries, on the other hand, exist to make people happy. We exist to enrich the populace, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We offer a place to rest, to study, to discover, to chase small children around beanbags. We are here for you. All of you. And we don’t charge a cent. (Except maybe for photocopies.) How could I ever fear a place like this? How could I ever again be scared of going to work? For as long as I’m in the library sector, I don’t think I’ll be scared of my own job. And that’s a great feeling.
It’s a great comfort to look back on things I used to fear so much and know that the fear is largely gone. Don’t worry, there are still non-library-related things I’m scared of (heights, mostly). But on the whole, conquering these fears has made me a better, more confident, more engaging and more effective librarian.
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.
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.