An entitlement to knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m determined to back myself.

2017: the year of learning dangerously

I have a lot to get done this year. I’d like to graduate at some point, I’m drowning in work (as usual) and my house is a tip, but there are plenty of broader goals to set. I’m pleased that #GLAMblogclub is now a thing and look forward to the benefits it will bring to the local GLAM blogging industry.

The below is essentially a public to-do list for myself. I hope to be productive enough to actually tick these off in December, which would be most satisfying.

Improve my digital skills

For all my fascination with digital preservation, digital archiving and digital librarianship, my skills in this area are sadly deficient. There’s a lot I don’t know and a lot I’m having to teach myself. Learning on the job is fun, but I know I need to up my game.

I’ve resolved to learn SQL this year, largely because it would be directly relevant to my job—there’s a lot of metadata work in my future and being able to craft my own queries would be very useful. A friend has expressed interest in taking a Python class, so we’ll see if that leads somewhere. I know I’ll have to bite the bullet and get a new computer this year, so perhaps I’ll be brave enough to take the plunge and install Ubuntu.

I’m also hoping to improve my command line skills to be able to do more fun web archiving things, as well as take advantage of the incredible tools at Documenting the Now and the Programming Historian.

Reconnect with long-form writing, which is worth paying for

I have a terrible habit the Japanese call 積ん読 [tsundoku], acquiring books and then not reading them. I am surrounded by books I bought, snaffled, borrowed from the library and was given as gifts. Strictly speaking I have plenty of time to read them, but I usually end up doing things that require a shorter attention span.

This year, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. As I write this, my desk holds no fewer than eleven thirteen unread books (plus two unwatched DVDs and one unheard album). I’m going to try reading at least two books a month, one at a time. Right now I’ve just begun reading Sisters of the revolution: a feminist speculative fiction anthology, which is comprised of bite-size chunks I can happily digest. I generally don’t read fiction very often, but I’m enjoying this book.

In addition, I intend to get my journal subscriptions in order. Open-access publishing is truly revolutionary and I am grateful for such excellent OA LIS journals as Weave, code4lib, Practical Technology for Archives and the Journal of New Librarianship (neatly syndicated by, among other handles, @OALISjrnls). However, I am firmly of the belief that good writing is worth paying for, and that people should not feel obliged to contribute their labour for free. To that end, I’d like to subscribe to a couple of long-form print journals this year. I’m not sure what yet. Something considered, something literary, something thoughtful. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Get some perspective

One of the hallmarks of our era is the modern human’s inability, generally speaking, to see things from another’s point of view. Social media (especially Facebook) excels at crafting a world where the news is just as you’d like it, full of stories it hopes you find agreeable. No longer are we assured that our family, friends and colleagues are all reading the same news (if they read the news at all); nor can we be sure that what they do read has any truth to it. The truth of a story appears, for all intents and purposes, to be less important than the emotions it might cause. My profession is reeling from the apparent common disregard for verifiable information and considered thought.

Like most people, I’m quite accomplished at avoiding news I don’t want to hear. On one hand, I consider it a duty of my profession to be well-informed about the world; on the other, moving to a remote Scottish island is looking more and more attractive (and it’s not just for the climate). This makes for a comfortable existence. It’s gotta stop.

I lead a privileged life: doing a job I love, in a country led by someone who is not a far-right nationalist, with all the food, shelter and self-actualisation I could want. Most humans are not nearly as fortunate as I am. Consequently, I have a particular set of views about most issues. I’m learning the hard way that a lot of people see the world very differently from how I see it. I cannot hope to influence that which I do not understand—so I’d better start trying to see things from the other side. (I don’t yet have a metric by which I might measure my progress, but I’ll think of one.)

It’s time to get some perspective. It’s time to learn dangerously.

‘They said it couldn’t happen here.’

I haven’t yet finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. I’ve been trying to read it for months. I borrowed it from the library twice and still haven’t made it to the last page. I know how it ends, though, and it leaves more questions than answers.

Written between the world wars and at a time when Hitler’s true motives were unknown to most Americans, the novel describes the rise of a fascist American demagogue who turns the United States into a dictatorship. It’s an unsettling read. Until yesterday, it was speculative fiction. Now, it’s almost an instruction manual.

Sorry, Sinclair. Turns out it can happen here.


Today I attended a symposium on digital collections. I’d been really excited about going, and I wound up getting a lot out of the day, but this morning my heart just wasn’t in it. As I walked from the bus stop to the venue my thoughts were, naturally enough, given over to the news from America and what that would mean for me, an educated twenty-something white lady from the Antipodes.

In the last eight years, has American politics directly affected my day-to-day life? No. Has it affected the laws I live under and the way I view government? A little bit, but overall not much. Will the new administration affect my day-to-day life? Possibly, but there’s an ocean and layers of government between us, not all members of which will be receptive to his ideas. I’m fortunate to be so far away.

Am I in any position to affect or change anything in America? Concretely? Practically? No. No I am not.

But what can I do? I can act locally. I can ensure that what has come to pass abroad does not rear its ugly head in my city. I can support, with my time and/or money, causes and organisations that seek to better our society for all who live here. I can raise awareness of good people doing, saying and thinking good things. 

Most of all, I can use my skills as an archivist and a librarian to take information and information literacy to the masses. If people are gonna get all their information from Google and Facebook, let’s try to make that information reliable and accurate, and show people what they might be missing. If people are currently inclined to believe everything they hear, let’s gently educate them of the perils of that habit. If people are being ill-treated as a direct result of the election, let’s show them how they can record and preserve their experiences.

I can’t change the world, but I can record it.

This realisation has helped me process the news from abroad. At first, like most people, I was upset, anxious and terrified. Deep down I still am all those things, but I can’t be those forever, and my privilege enables me to focus on practical steps. The world needs people who can document these uncertain times. I can only hope to be one of those people. Without hope, we are truly finished.

Post-factualism

I ought to have known I could never write an apolitical blog. After all, I don’t live and work in a bubble and neither do you. The actions of our leaders and leadership aspirants affect us all, in both professional and personal spheres.

I am not British, though I am of British ancestry (largely from Scotland). I have never been to Britain. Yet the shock decision of a majority of Britons to leave the European Union and the consequential political chaos of Brexit has made headline news around the world. I’ve found myself powerfully interested. Among the mass of economic and political analysis, dissecting what went wrong and what is still to come, there lies an uncomfortable observation.

It wasn’t just that white working-class voters didn’t engage with the Remain camp’s policies. It wasn’t that there was no truth to their claims or those of the Leave camp, but that the truth was now of secondary importance. People weren’t interested in the truth. Either they had no particular desire to learn, to discover, to find out more, or society at large was sending a clear message that it was no longer necessary. This wave of anti-intellectualism convinced people that ‘experts’ could be safely ignored.

Among the rush of pithy Brexit tweets was one, which I have sadly since lost but will now paraphrase, proclaiming that in our age of post-factualism the library is now clearly more important than ever. The level of obliviousness in this tweet stunned me. People are already surrounded by information in multiple formats: print, online, image, audio, video. Incredible amounts of information on almost any conceivable topic is already available via the internet, which itself is more widely accessible than ever. Why would people go to the library, which requires some effort, for something the internet can already provide for much less effort?

Moreover, does the aforementioned tweet author labour under the misapprehension that librarians are curators of all this online knowledge? Do they really think confused voters will approach a librarian looking for voting advice (or indeed advice on any other political topic)? Perhaps this is the case in some libraries, but I’ve yet to come across it—and I’ve worked in libraries with a heavy focus on politics. Most of our users knew what they wanted and were not interested in alternative views.

If libraries really are the saviour of popular ignorance, then we as librarians have a lot of work to do.

‘Librarian’ is not a dirty word

Being at the end of all the serials routing lists at work, I noticed only today a thought-provoking editorial in the March/April edition of Online Searcher about renaming and rebranding exercises on the part of various professional organisations. Words like ‘library’ and ‘records manager’ are out and ‘information’ is in.

Marydee Ojala’s editorial reads, in part:

[W]hat information professionals do doesn’t necessarily happen in a library. We need to embrace information as fully as we embrace libraries and librarians. We need to position ourselves as being in the forefront of the information economy, not necessarily by discarding the “L” word but by proclaiming our role as information experts.

Immediately, by using ‘the “L” word’, the reader conceptualises the word negatively. They don’t need to know what the word actually is to subconsciously think of it as a bad thing. The word ‘library’ isn’t exactly in vogue at the moment, I get that, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the term. Libraries are not bad places. Librarian is not a dirty word.

By replacing ‘library’ with ‘information’ in the titles of professional associations, university departments and the like, we risk further removing what we do from what the public thinks we do. Public libraries and school libraries are still called exactly that. The public knows what a library is. If the public notion of what libraries do is inaccurate, then that’s up to us to fix. When asked my occupation, I proudly respond with ‘librarian!’ and promptly dispel the notion that I sit on my rear end all day doing reader’s advisory. I would never rebrand myself as an ‘information professional’, because that could mean absolutely anything.

It’s very true that many trained librarians do not work in libraries, or that their work would not traditionally be considered ‘library’ work. It’s also true that (thankfully) I’m not in the position of having to beg for funding from bean-counters who truly do not understand what libraries do, and for whom alternative terminology is obligatory. But completely removing the ‘library’ from librarianship is not the answer. Our profession will not solve its image problem by running away from the word altogether. Instead, we ought to redefine what ‘library’ means so that it loses its tired, dusty, archaic senses and becomes a vibrant word again. Libraries encompass more than just dispensing information—why not embrace all aspects of an essential profession?

Being a paid-up member of the Australian Library and Information Association, formerly the Library Association of Australia and before that the Australian Institute of Librarians, I think the organisation is doing okay in balancing the future of our profession with its roots. I would, however, be firmly against the removal of ‘library’ should it ever come up.

Our future may well be in information, but the “L” word is ours for the reclaiming.

References
Ojala, M. (2016). Future, thy name is information. Online Searcher, 40(2), 4. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1777697608

That thing that I do

Venn diagram - passion, mission, profession, vocation

Strangers have so far tended to view my BA in classics and my forthcoming MIS in librarianship as an intriguing tag-team of useless degrees. They say ‘Oh, I always thought being a librarian would be a cool job’, before smugly informing me of their success in a field I find utterly boring. I, too, thought librarianship would be awesome, but unlike them I went and made it happen.

Like many library students, I was that child who spent almost every lunchtime in the library, poring over (and ‘helpfully’ rearranging) books and playing computer games of dubious educational value. I learnt to read long before I started school and was encouraged by my doting mother, who made sure there were always plenty of books in our house. Yet I didn’t decide to become a librarian until just after I’d finished my undergrad, around the time I left a particularly unsatisfying job and realised I could do better.

Unlike many library students, I’ve been fortunate enough to find work in my field while studying. For an ‘obsolete’ profession, there sure is a lot of competition for library jobs! These days, I can’t imagine not being a librarian. It feels like what I was born to do. I love finding information, I love classifying it, preserving it, archiving it, rescuing it, presenting it to whoever is in need of it. Like Haribo gummi bears, knowledge is strangely addictive and I can’t get enough.