Down for maintenance

Windows safe mode boot screen

Today it felt like my brain had booted in Safe Mode. As if a gauze bandage had been wrapped around my skull, and a small sign placed on the bridge of my nose: ‘Sorry, down for maintenance’. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’ve spent the last week struggling to write not one but two conference talks for NLS9, frantically trying to sort out everything that goes with an interstate trip, and worrying about whether I’ll have a job in September. My brain has a tendency to misfire at the best of times. Sometimes it decides not to fire at all.

A lot of my life feels like maintenance. Not just maintaining myself, which is sometimes effortless and sometimes all I can manage. But much of the work I do could be considered maintenance: creating and updating bibliographic metadata; cleaning, editing and tidying batches of that metadata; making small, incremental changes to a thesaurus; writing documentation; fixing mistakes from years ago. It’s seemingly routine, mundane, unglamorous labour, but it’s done with great care, and it makes a world of difference. Tech bros would have us ‘move fast and break things’. But someone has to fix those broken things and clean up after the latest innovation cyclone.

I recently learned of a network called ‘The Maintainers’, dedicated to supporting those who undertake maintenance work of all kinds: repairing vehicles, contributing to open-source software, maintaining public infrastructure, keeping everything ticking along. Their upcoming conference Maintainers III: Practice, Policy and Care features an ‘Information maintenance’ track, which called for memory and knowledge workers’ thoughts on ‘reformatting, repair, mending, migration, stabilization, preservation, teaching and storytelling’. It’s heartening to see the labour of maintenance in GLAM begin to be taken seriously. I look forward to following along in October.

The phrase ‘down for maintenance’ is twofold. Sometimes my brain packs it in and decides today is just not happening. But that’s okay, because maintenance is the crucial work that keeps us all running. I’m down for that.

The stories we tell ourselves

Sunrise over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, with the National Library on the right. Photo courtesy Glenn Martin Photography

Around 10.30pm last night I had a brainwave.

I lay in bed despairing at the election results, where a lot of money had swayed a few votes in a few seats in a manner not to my liking, when I suddenly remembered a book I needed to read. I’d had this book since February (courtesy of Hugh, who had read it in one sitting) but knew it would need to be read in a certain mood. Polemics are better heard, not seen, so I began to read the foreword aloud to myself.

‘Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to take away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.’

Rebecca Solnit wrote Hope in the Dark fifteen years ago, in part a response to the invasion of Iraq and the despair felt by millions who watched it unfold. The foreword to the third edition was written in 2015 and, to be honest, it shows. Yet it reminded me that one electoral result is not failure, that change is incremental, that we do not know the future for certain, and within that uncertainty there is space for hope.

Hope. Not optimism.

This is not a political blog, much as I have become a political person, and much as my employment brings with it certain restrictions on my political speech. But politics and librarianship go hand in hand. We fiercely defend the freedom to read, the freedom to collect, the freedom to describe, and the freedom of library users to go about their business unbothered by neo-Nazis. These all involve making political choices. We are not neutral spaces. We are not merely vessels for the stories of others—we have a role in amplifying those stories, and for telling stories of our own.

I keep coming back to what David Ritter said at GLAMSLAM, the recent one-day symposium for GLAM workers hosted by the Australian Centre for Public History. GLAMSLAM itself was a bit of a mixed bag for reasons that aren’t relevant right now, but I’m still glad I attended. I wrote a lot of notes during David’s keynote, titled ‘GLAM Power as clean energy? Bring it on!’. Reading over my scribbles, I can’t always tell where the speaker’s thoughts ended and mine began. But one paragraph stands out to me.

Yes! We can do the thing against the odds! // Convince people that human ingenuity can get us out of this mess. [Even if] it won’t get us out. It’s a future we won’t see. And perhaps, since we are the problem, we deserve to go. But he will never say that—we need to tell ourselves that humans can make change.
ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE

It was a rousing and inspiring speech, though my notes are peppered by a well-developed streak of misanthropic nihilism. David knew what story we needed to hear, and told it to a roomful of librarians and cultural heritage workers so that we might repeat the message. This is how we can use our GLAM Power™: by telling the stories that will drive the transition to a more just and liveable planet. To build a better future, we first need the ability to imagine it. (You can listen to David’s keynote on the GLAMcity podcast.)

David Ritter wasn’t the first person at GLAMSLAM to make the connection between libraries and public narrative. The New GLAM-er fringe event the day before included a speaker from a NSW regional public library (whose name I sadly neglected to write down), who came to librarianship with a PR degree. She emphasised the role of the library as a natural home for storytelling, but with facts to back those stories up. I can’t imagine ever working in public relations. I wouldn’t be able to tell a story I didn’t believe.

I often think about the stories we tell ourselves. But today I wonder about the stories we’re clearly not listening to, the stories going unheard. Libraries enthralled so many of us as children. Magical places of safety and story. These memories inspired many of us, me included, to pursue careers as library workers, to become story curators. But who is telling the stories we collect? Whose narratives go unrecorded? What relation do these stories bear to others’? To our environment? To our history? To others’ histories? What stories help us make sense of our lives? What choices do our stories prompt us to make? What do we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night?

Not all stories are hopeful. Some are actively harmful, told in bad faith, designed to mislead, deceive or frighten. I hope that we all might one day reconcile our stories with the abundant evidence available to us, weaving a stronger and more truthful set of inclusive narratives that lead us toward a better future. I hear librarians are quite good at that.

I find solace in nature and nature writing, grounding me in every sense. Last week I picked up the newest Griffith Review, Writing the country, which I’ve looked forward to for some time. David Ritter has an essay in it, ‘We all took a stand’, telling a remarkable, Solnit-esque story about how in 2010 the locals of Margaret River, Western Australia, took on the coal prospectors and won. We both marvelled at how this story isn’t more widely known. ‘As a movement it is so important that we narrate and remember every success. There is power in our stories if we choose to tell them.’

Hugh is notorious for annotating his books, so I took this as permission to read Hope in the Dark with a pencil in my hand. The book felt like an emergency bandage for an open wound, holding in all my emotions to stop them from falling out. Many passages were already underlined, asterisked, or pencilled in the margins. I’m not sure how long I can staunch this flow; at some point I will mourn the future it clearly wasn’t time for. But one sentence neatly encapsulated my current goal. I underlined it, with a sharper pencil.

The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Or, as David himself tweeted earlier today, in an eloquent and uplifting thread I saw just a moment ago:

Great change is non-linear. History is unpredictable. Elections come and elections go but we must retain belief in what is possible and execute our best plans to make it so.

The introvert’s megaphone

Tag yourself, I’m the fail whale. (From an image by Yiying Liu)

I can’t remember exactly why I joined Twitter. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve been on that website in one form or another since 2009, mostly to lurk behind locked accounts, but in October 2015 I decided to start tweeting for real. I was partway through my library degree, I had recently begun my first job in a library (albeit in an admin role) and I think I was feeling somewhat isolated. I’m sure my lecturers mentioned Twitter was where all the library conversations were happening. So I decided to join in.

Still #onbrand after all these years.

(For those wondering where my handle came from: I think I spotted someone else’s typo somewhere and ran with it. People address me as ‘lissertations’ all the time. I have no issue with it. 😄)

Three-and-a-half years and over 14,000 tweets later, I’d like to think it was worth it. Saying ‘I have learned so much from other people on twitter’ feels hollow. It has completely transformed my ways of seeing and thinking about the world, about librarianship, about our past and our future. I’ve read so many insightful articles, posted by so many incredible people. I thought I had a handle on how the world ought to work. Boy, was I wrong.

Twitter has long been touted as the social network of choice for library and information workers, but different people use it in different ways. You’ve got your lurkers, your occasional users, your influencers, your trolls, your personal brand maintainers, your organisational accounts that shitpost more often than they realpost, your crossposters from Linkedin or Instagram, your ‘I only tweet at conferences’ types, your backchannellers, your agitators, your real people, your fake people, your twitterbots. I probably fall into several of those categories, but above all else I try to be honest online. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I have always been an opinionated introvert, but too often the opinions can get lost in IRL networking situations because people are hard and scary. Twitter has helped me to network and communicate with an audience that doesn’t need to know I’m an introvert. For me, it’s the perfect megaphone.

I am acutely aware that at this point I basically owe my career to this platform. Because of Twitter, thousands of people know who I am, hundreds of people have read my blog posts or heard me speak, dozens of people have met me at conferences, a handful of people have become my closest friends, and at least two people have offered me employment. I absolutely would not be where I am today if it weren’t for being on Twitter. My presence there has helped me get a foot in the door, at a time when breaking into the library industry is harder than ever.

And yet I have achieved this through somewhat unconventional means. We’ve all read articles like ’15 Twitter Tips for Librarians’ and ‘Top tips for using social media for professional networking’. I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything these articles tell you not to do. I don’t use a picture of myself as my avatar (and never will), I seldom use hashtags, I have no social media strategy besides ‘these are my opinions today’, I follow whoever I want and not who the ‘influencers’ are, I tweet about all sorts of non-LIS topics (principally environmentalism), I blur the line between ‘professional’ and ‘personal’, and I overshare all the damn time.

That’s not to say you should necessarily follow my lead, or that the above articles are bad. The advice in them is simply not to my taste, with one major exception: I absolutely adhere to Kate Davis’ rule of ‘Don’t retweet without reading (unless you make it clear you haven’t read it yet)’. In this era of abundant bullshit, we have a responsibility as information professionals not to share or spread harmful, inaccurate or offensive content. All our retweets are endorsements. If I share something, I am sending a message that I vouch for its integrity. I want my word to mean something, both online and off.

Because I have become such an outsized Twitter Personality™, which I’m not sure resembles my actual personality all that much, I sometimes feel obliged to keep tweeting and maintaining a presence, even when I feel I have nothing to say. I have also found myself composing tweets in my head before I’ve even reached for my phone, rearranging an anecdote for maximum likes, retweets and dopamine hits. It’s all a bit sad, really. Aside from an extremely private Mastodon account, Twitter is the only social media I have. It’s easy to develop a certain tunnel vision when you’re on the site for too long, mindlessly scrolling because it feels weird not to. It’s easy to be a bit too online.

Some of you might be unsure about joining Twitter, considering most people these days associate it with a certain American president. I want to be clear: most of Twitter is an absolute binfire. It’s abhorrent. It’s a cesspool. It’s home to some of the worst people on the entire internet. But library twitter is different. It’s full of people who are passionate about libraries, having the best and most urgent conversations, sharing the most important ideas, making the most fruitful connections. You don’t need to be #onhere as often as I am in order to get something out of this platform. Make Twitter work for you, not the other way around, and it can help you do incredible things.

Five things I taught at #VALATechCamp

A couple of weeks ago (only a couple of weeks?!) I was a part of the 2019 VALA Tech Camp, a two-day event in Melbourne for tech-inclined librarians and library-inclined techies. Usually these posts are a variation on ‘Five things I learned at [event]’, but this time I actually did some of the teaching, so here are five things I taught. It was a very different experience to the 2017 Tech Camp—I definitely learned some things as well…

OpenRefine is magic! Been there, done that, wore the t-shirt. I presented a three-hour workshop on OpenRefine, the world’s greatest free and open-source data cleaning and editing program, to upwards of 37 keen participants. Assisted by the unbelievably calm Alexis Tindall, who had generously agreed a few weeks earlier to help a total stranger, I took our intrepid data wranglers through the main features of OpenRefine: importing and exporting data; faceting, filtering, clustering and editing data; transforming data using inbuilt scripting language GREL; and reconciling data against an external source. I demonstrated on both a CSV file and a gently-massaged MARC file, thinking participants could possibly use OpenRefine for both file formats.

I learned a heck of a lot about OpenRefine in the course of writing the workshop slides and teaching materials. (You can view them on this GitHub repository.) It was a privilege to be able to share this knowledge with others, even if I spoke too quickly and seemed a touch nervous. Everyone was keen to learn, asked lots of questions, and looked like they got something out of the session, which is exactly what I had been hoping for.

‘I don’t know. But I will find out, and get back to you.’ The first step towards learning is to know that you don’t know something, right? It’s okay to not know things. I stated at the outset that neither Alexis nor I were experts, and that I was here in the spirit of peer-based learning. If you know the thing, you can teach the thing, etc. Though this was not a formal Library Carpentry workshop, I was inspired by the Library Carpentry ethos of peer-based learning, as introduced to me by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones at the LC workshop at NLS8. To think that was my first experience of OpenRefine, less than two years ago, and here I am teaching a workshop of my own… it’s been a wild ride.

As it happened, a couple of people asked questions I didn’t immediately have the answers to. I managed to answer one during the workshop, to the delight of the asker, while the other two are still awaiting my email. (Sorry! I am bad with email! I will get back to you, I promise!)

We can do the thing! (But we probably shouldn’t have.) Hugh and I both presented workshops while also being on the organising committee. I think we separately realised that trying to do both was a very bad idea, and that future committee members should not be allowed to do this. At the time, offering to run the workshop myself seemed easier than asking someone else to do it. I know better now!

Tech Camp was my first experience on an organising committee of this kind. It was also my first experience presenting a formal workshop or talk to a paying audience. I had never done either of these stressful things before, and here I was doing both of them at once. Did I mention I have an anxiety disorder? Fellow committee member Matthias remarked ‘You were playing on hard mode!’ and while I hadn’t thought of it that way, I definitely made it harder for myself than I needed to. I referred in 2017 to ‘the Herculean efforts of the organising committee’—I no longer consider this hyperbole. Running the 2019 camp has been a tremendous learning experience, and it’s opened a few doors for me professionally, but my stress levels were absolutely unreal. I think I could have managed solely being a committee member, or solely presenting a workshop (just). I barely managed to do both.

But I did everything I could. I lunched in the breakout room, I took my meds beforehand, people recognised when I needed company and also when I needed space, and overall it wasn’t a total disaster. To the extent I could control my symptoms I recognised that freaking out would accomplish nothing, so instead I tried to approach the workshop like a wave. It was gonna come anyway, and it would engulf me, and I would feel like drowning for a brief second, and then it would be over, and the sun would still be shining. Just let it crash over me. Just let it happen.

This is for the benefit of those who saw me present and perhaps thought I was handling things just fine. I’m told I looked a lot less stressed than I felt, which is… handy, I guess, but I’m not in the habit of airbrushing.

Our speaker / committee gifts were little cartoon avatars of ourselves. I love mine because thanks to the rosy cheeks it looks really stressed, and therefore quite lifelike.

Just say no to mornings. You may have noticed I was meant to emcee the morning session on day 2 but mysteriously failed to appear. I was late and missed the start, meaning someone else had to fill in, and was so embarrassed I hovered in the foyer until the session was over. This was a fail on my part, but also hopefully it’ll teach event organisers not to expect anything of me until after 9am. (To my relief, my next speaking commitment at NLS9 is scheduled for after 11am. I am so not a morning person.)

I did an SQL thing! This is me cheating and using an ‘I taught myself’ literary device, haha. Having finally dispensed with my teaching responsibilities on day 1, I resolved to learn more things on day 2. The other workshop I attended was on SQL, by Arjen Lentz and Donna Benjamin. I had a feeling I would like SQL if only I had an idea of how to use it, and this workshop was a great introduction. Being a native English speaker, the syntax of SQL just makes sense, as it’s designed to.

I was particularly tickled by Arjen setting the scene with a very quick introduction to set theory. I inexplicably spent a term in year 7 learning set theory, ostensibly because my school had run out of space for all the fun electives and threw two classes’ worth of smart kids in extension maths instead. Until this session it had never once been useful. Now, suddenly, sixteen years later, it was exactly what I needed to know! And it was useful because SQL requires you to envision a particular data structure in order to query it, to hold a table in your head even if it’s not graphically represented. Including or excluding aspects of that dataset entails using terms like LEFT JOIN, which make more sense if you think of data as being inside or outside a set. Or a venn diagram.

I thought it worth looking back at my experiences of the 2017 Tech Camp and comparing them with this year’s. Obviously I was a lot greener around the edges two years ago, and a close reading suggests I gained just as much in worldview expansions as I did in practical tech skills. Some of our short talks this year, such as Katrina Grant on digital mapping and Adam Bell on digital preservation, were aimed at showing attendees what is or might be possible. I did learn less this year, simply because I taught more (and stressed more), but even though I’ve had a library degree for less than six months I already feel less like a ‘n00b’ (as I described myself) and more like a newly-established technical librarian. After all, new professionals tend to be the ones attending workshops, not teaching them.

I love how past me wrote, in closing:

On a much smaller scale, I found myself much more able to get out there and do things I find really difficult. Yes, I can go and make small talk to people! Yes, I can summon the courage to thank people for writing things that have meant a lot to me! Yes, I can do the thing! Yes I can.

I’m still no good at small talk, but I did succeed at far bigger things, and I am proud of myself. This was really difficult and a steep learning curve, and yet I still managed to do the thing. I could not have done it without the help and support of the Tech Camp committee, the VALA Secretariat, my helper Alexis, my poor colleagues who sat through an in-progress version of the workshop and didn’t say it was dreadful, and the workshop attendees who took the materials and ran with them. Yes, I can do the thing. Yes I can.

Yes I can.

The people’s cataloguer

Last week at work I had one of the most incredibly serendipitous experiences of my library career. It was a beautiful illustration of why I became a librarian. To not only collect and preserve people’s stories, but to sometimes be part of them, and weave a broader tale.

It began in early January, when 110 books turned up from the same publisher. Being in the legal deposit business, my job is to catalogue whatever turns up in the post. Any genre, subject, author, publisher, size, format, you name it, I deal with it. (Unless it’s a serial.) We often get large boxes of books from publishers, but this particular enormous haul intrigued me. I volunteered to catalogue the lot. What can I say, I’m a sucker for punishment. And I wanted something fun to do before I went on holidays.

I slowly realised I held an entire library in my processing trolley. A living, breathing library.

The People’s Library.

As displayed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, September 2018. Image courtesy Garland Magazine

It all started a few years ago in Iceland, where apparently one in ten people publish a book in their lifetime. Margaret Woodward and Justy Phillips, co-founders of Tasmanian arts collective A Published Event, found themselves in Iceland in 2012 doing arty things. They wondered whether there was a similar latent writing community in Tasmania, which is around the same size. Most of us would probably have pondered this for a short while and left it at that. But not these two. They decided to create a kind of performance library, soliciting unpublished manuscripts from would-be Tasmanian authors and publishing a whole lot of them in one go. Giving a voice to people who might otherwise never have published a book. Creating a kind of ‘time capsule’ showcasing Tasmanian life and writing during the late twenty-teens. It’s huge. It’s faintly ridiculous. And it’s completely awesome.

The People’s Library comprises 113 books. Their authors range in age from 15 to 94. All live in Tasmania, from all kinds of backgrounds, writing all sorts of things. Novels by first-time authors. Anthologies by U3A writers’ groups. Memoirs. Poetry. Non-fiction. Experimental literature. An opera about Sir Douglas Mawson, no less. Each assigned a cover colour from Werner’s nomenclature of colours, creating a beautiful rainbow effect when the books are lined up in order on a shelf.

The People’s Library was installed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, in September 2018. Authors read, performed and gave life to their stories. There were panels, responsive art pieces, readers-in-residence (and also readers-in-bed). The books took centre stage. None were for sale—this was a library, after all.

Then it came to us. To me. Cataloguing these wonders took me a full, magnificent week. They were a joy to process. I learned so much about Tasmania, about total strangers, about the limits of the written word, and even about myself. I realised we were missing three of the books, so an email was sent politely requesting copies. I returned after a month’s holiday (in Tasmania, as it happened) to an email from the publishers, promising to send the missing books and wanting to know more about how the Library was catalogued. Omg. A genuine interest in cataloging. Nobody ever asks me how I’ve catalogued their books unless they’re complaining about it, so I was very excited. I promptly wrote back with probably too much detail, which amusingly made its way back to some of the authors. Many of them were thrilled that we had collected and preserved their books.

And then I thought no more of it until last Wednesday, when I sat at the reference desk for my weekly shift. Not all cataloguers do shifts in the reading rooms, but some of us do. It was one of the first things I asked to do when I started this job, because I want to keep in touch with how people actually use and experience the library, and how the metadata I create might be a help or a hindrance.

I noticed a few volumes of The People’s Library on the collection shelves, ready for a reader to peruse. Occasionally people actually read the books I catalogue, which is always nice. I hastily arranged the volumes in colour order. The reader arrived and I retrieved the books. As I carried over the last handful I remarked, ‘I catalogued these books, they’re awesome.’ The reader looked at me oddly. ‘Are you… oh, you’re the one who sent us that lovely email!’

One half of A Published Event. In town for other reasons, but who had popped in to admire her handiwork. I had no idea she was coming, let alone during the two hours a week I spend on the desk. To have come all that way, to read some of the books she had given life to, and to have been greeted by the very same person who had lovingly catalogued them, and who only briefly sits at the reference desk… Absolute serendipity. You couldn’t have written it.

The fact it had taken me a week to catalogue the Library was cause for amusement. As part of the Library’s performance at Salamanca Arts Centre, four readers-in-residence had each read some of the books, also for a week, and produced a digest summarising what they had read and learned. In a way, she supposed I became the fifth reader-in-residence, and the catalogue records for these books constituted a fifth digest. An incredible way that librarians not only collect and preserve stories, but can sometimes be part of them. By cataloguing The People’s Library I became a part of its performance, weaving a broader tale, ensuring the voices of over a hundred Tasmanians can be read and heard by all who visit us. I felt honoured to be a part of this work.

I already can’t wait to peruse A Published Event’s next library, Lost Rocks, a collection of 40 ‘fictionellas’ borne from an almost-empty rock board picked up at the tip shop in Glenorchy. ‘A slow-publishing event of mineralogical, metaphysical and metallurgical telling.’ It doesn’t get better than this.

On the nature of information: the best of #emptythepocket, issue 4

Reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit at Cataract Gorge, Launceston, January 2019. Photograph by the author

I got a lot out of a month’s holiday in Tasmania and in Melbourne, but perhaps the greatest gift was being able to read again. I don’t mean that I was previously illiterate, but rather that I no longer had the energy or interest in reading anything for longer than five minutes. I was (and still am) surrounded by books I longed to read, but knew I lacked the brainspace to absorb and make sense of them, and so I didn’t try.

Time away from work and the internet, and within nature, restored me to something like my former self. I realised I wanted to read again. I had forgotten what this felt like. My body had forgotten how to want to read books all day, and to be able to read books all day, and not have this gnawing pit of sad exhausted panic undercutting every paragraph. I hadn’t realised how profound a loss this was until I got it back.

I had packed four books for the trip:

  • one I immediately lent to a friend (Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum)
  • one I didn’t get around to reading because I was too busy enjoying myself (Terra, volume 14 of the Dark Mountain Project)
  • one I read to contextualise that enjoyment (Into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor)
  • and one I made a point of reading only in picturesque places (A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit). It’s an incredible book. I read it at Lake Wendouree, Ballarat; at Buckley Falls, Geelong; at Cataract Gorge, Launceston; at the blowhole in Bicheno. As it happened I read the last one and a half chapters of Field Guide on foot and on a tram, reaching the final line as I reached my final destination, bursting into the most hipster cafe in Fitzroy high as a kite on philosophy and the possible. Brunch was good that day.

Thankfully this spark has remained as I settle back into work and the internet. I still have loads of physical books to read, but I’m also finally making headway on my overstuffed Pocket account. Realising that it’s far easier to choose what to read when your selection is limited, my friend and comrade Hugh recently built an accidental serendipity machine called pocket-snack. It’s an experimental Python script for one’s pocket that presents you with a few randomly selected links per day, out of the several hundred you probably have saved (I had well over a thousand before we got the script to work). It’s helped me clear out stuff that it turns out I wasn’t actually interested in or that was no longer relevant to me, which freed up some brainspace for more worthwhile items. Emptying the pocket has truly never been so enjoyable.

Below are a few gems from the last little while, subconsciously themed around ‘the nature of information’:

Animism, Tree-consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory / Bron Taylor, Humans and Nature
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read The Overstory, the Booker-nominated 2018 novel whose central premise is that ‘entities in nature, and life itself, have agency, purpose, and personhood—and we have ethical obligations to all such persons.’ I’d had it in the back of my head to read at some point, noting that I seldom read fiction of any kind, and already have a to-read list as tall as I am. This review, however, propelled The Overstory to the top of my list.

I have a half-finished zine entitled ‘Five Epiphanies in Tasmania’. I’ve had a hard time pinning down the third, an experience in Ballroom Forest that I’ve likened to a moment of religious ecstasy. Reconciling this with my lifelong atheism has been somewhat challenging—whoever heard of an irreligious mystic? It seems my answer lies not in formal religious traditions, but in a kind of nature spirituality that recognises the consciousness of plants, natural features, and ultimately nature itself. Crucially, it also incorporates the responsibility of humankind to care for nature, while not situating ourselves above it. Review author Bron Taylor has dubbed this spirituality ‘dark green religion’, and his definition thereof is worth quoting at length:

It was within this complicated milieu that, over time, I began to notice patterns. These I eventually developed into the notion of dark green religion. This notion refers to diverse social phenomena in which people have animistic perceptions, emphasize ecological interdependence and mutual dependence, develop deep feelings of belonging and connection to nature, and understand the biosphere as a sacred, Gaia-like superorganism. These sorts of nature-based spiritualities generally cohere with and draw on evolutionary and ecological understandings and therefore stress continuity and kinship among all organisms. Uniting these Gaian and animistic perceptions is generally a deep sense of humility about the human place in the universe and suspicions of anthropocentric conceits, wherein human beings consider themselves to be superior to other living things and the only ones whose interests are morally significant.

To learn that this worldview not only had a name, but was a Thing that others felt and lived and wrote novels about, was overwhelming. I was slightly late to work from reading this article. I regret nothing.

If the map becomes the territory then we will be lost / Mita Williams, Librarian of Things
This sounds like a geography article but it’s not—Mita Williams, a scholarly communication librarian based in Canada, writes on how social graphs and scholcomm ecosystems are beginning to shape, rather than merely guide access to, academic output. The big 3 companies (Clarivate, Elsevier and Springer-Nature) are integrating their component services more and more tightly, which has the effect of widely automating—and locking humans, especially librarians, out of—the scholarly publishing process. Mita also discusses a higher education funding mechanism in Ontario that sounds a bit like the UK’s REF (Research Excellence Framework), in that it determines how much money is allocated to various institutions on the basis of some highly exclusionary and frustrating metrics.

Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.

I won’t pretend to be anything near an expert on scholcomm but this all sounds fairly… rubbish. No wonder people want to dump Elsevier.

Computational Landscape Architecture / Geoff Manaugh, BLDGBLOG
I love trees. I also love wifi. But the two are strange bedfellows. This article explores the impact different species of tree might have on phone and internet reception, leading to ‘the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping […] according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi’ and the potential use of pot plants in electronic subterfuge. I mean, Geoff also links to an article from Popular Science suggesting wifi is responsible for mass radiation poisoning in Dutch street trees, so I’m not entirely convinced wifiscaping is a good idea, but it’s yet another reminder that computing, like the rest of human ingenuity, exists within nature and not above it.

PROSPEKT. Organising information is never innocent / Regine, We Make Money Not Art
I initially read this before going on holidays, but VR performance artist Geraldine Juárez has some incisive comments for the GLAM sector that I thought deserve a wider audience. The bulk of this article discusses PROSPEKT, her 2018 performance situated within the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, Sweden. The first paragraph, however, is a neat summary of her 2017 essay ‘Intercolonial Technogalactic’ [large PDF, begins page 152]. In it, Juárez critiques the activities of the Google Cultural Institute, which has digitised and published online thousands of museum-held cultural artefacts from around the world, but which curiously offers very little information about its own origins. (It was intended as part of a PR move against French publishers who were suing Google in 2011 over Google Books and breaches of copyright.)

She notes that Google views libraries, museums and other cultural institutions not as true collaborative partners but as ‘gatekeepers of world cultures’: repositories of content to be mined and paywalled. Google reproduces the power structures and cultural biases that gave rise to it, prizing European high culture above all else, and viewing publicly-funded institutions as beacons of ‘inefficiency’ that need ‘disrupting’ by private enterprise. All information is organised for a purpose. It is never innocent. It is never neutral.

The colonial gaze was determined to scan the surface looking for specimens for study, fixing them as objects out of time and out of place, in the same way that digital documents offer imagings of the world at a distance via screens. This is a prospecting gaze – a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value.

While re-reading this article I was violently reminded of a series of uncomfortable experiences at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. I’ve never been wild about taxidermy, but TMAG’s hall of lovingly stuffed creatures, with mammals, birds and insects wrenched from their natural homes and drowned in formaldehyde, made me deeply uncomfortable. These poor animals deserve to return to the earth, not spend the next three eternities in suspended animation for the amusement of humans.

Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees / Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Real Life
This piece has had such an impact on how I think about cataloguing that I’m including it again. It reminded me that the very notion of cataloguing and classification has deeply imperialist foundations that bode ill for our efforts at more inclusive collection description. It also reminded me of how my dear mother, a keen gardener, was able to identify every plant photo I texted to her during my trip. Sometimes it’s far better to ask mum than ask Google. Or an app reliant on crowdsourcing and machine learning.

The “herborizer,” a 17th-century nature enthusiast “armed with nothing more than a collector’s bag, a notebook, and some specimen bottles, desiring nothing more than a few peaceful hours alone with the bugs and flowers,” was the passive cousin of the conquistador or the diplomat […] His harmless assertion of taxonomical hegemony over Europe and her colonies actually produced commercially exploitable knowledge for the empire’s gain. He was a researcher, classifying, collecting, qualifying and quantifying imperial loot.

By cataloguing nature in ways that privileged only select facets of a living thing (those that could be seen, felt, or observed in isolation from its natural habitat), the burgeoning fields of taxonomy and scientific classification enabled Enlightenment-era Europeans to distance themselves from the natural world they ravaged. It continues to enable users of the aforementioned plant-identifying app, which propagates this classificatory, imperialist method of coming to know the earth. Taxonomy, with its discrete categories and precise hierarchies, primes us to see nature as a resource, as something to be mined, prospected and extracted for humanity’s benefit (such as improving our wifi). ‘It teaches us to see other life as proximate to us, rather than knowing ourselves as an extension of it.’

The antithesis of Bron Taylor’s dark green religion. The very anthropocentrism to which Richard Powers’ The Overstory stands opposed.

I titled this blog Cataloguing the Universe because it reflected a childhood impulse to never stop learning about the world, about space and time, about my place on this planet. Library catalogues have always been, for me, a path to knowledge: first as I browsed them, now as I contribute to their upkeep. It’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve learned how taxonomies and classification systems reflect the views, biases and priorities of those who create them. It’s only within the last hour that I’ve realised the binary character of natural history classification is echoed within my work as a cataloguer. I can assign a book only one call number. I can either include or not include a subject heading—no parts, shades or relevance rankings, no way to indicate just how well a work relates to the subjects I decide it’s about. It’s not a good system. How can I smash it?

This notion of cataloguing as a means of collecting and producing knowledge, like everything else about the culture I was raised in, is inherently Eurocentric and deeply flawed. I couldn’t quite articulate this in late January, but I can now. This is why I wanted to learn differently this year. To overcome my ecological illiteracy borne from spending 28 years inside on someone else’s land. To learn different ways of seeing the world, so that I might address the harm my settler presence has caused.

The article’s conclusion suggests the first step is ‘to take off our lenses and reckon with the humbling, bewildering condition of unknowing, to [quell] the appetite for legibility of the world that leaves us at a comfortable distance from what we cannot understand.’ I don’t think I’m comfortable enough yet with my own ignorance. I have so much to unlearn.

Putting my money where my mouth is

This month for GLAM Blog Club we are invited to consider what it means to ‘donate’—our time, our labour, our organs, our money. To give freely with no expectation of return. Supposedly. In practice, sums of money are moved around all the time under the cover of ‘donations’, when they’re really a method of currying favour with the powerful.

Coincidentally, my ALIA membership is up for renewal this month. Having finally gotten around to graduating at the end of last year, my membership dues are now at the ‘Associate (New Graduate)’ level, and at $199 have doubled from the ‘Student’ level dues I was previously paying. I am under no illusions that giving ALIA more money will somehow increase my influence within the organisation. They know exactly who I am. But because paying dues is a requirement of membership, it’s not really a donation. More like a payment in anticipation of services rendered.

So what services do I want? I decided to continue receiving InCite online, rather than in print (though I wouldn’t mind a copy of the issue with my face in it, I think my mum would like that). I’ll keep reading the ALIA Weekly, PD Postings and RecruitLIS newsletters. I’ll go to local ALIA events, but I’ll probably also have to help organise them, and it’s a bit disheartening when few to no people show up.

But I know my membership is not just about me. It’s about our profession as a whole. It’s about ALIA’s leadership of the Australian library sector and the tone they set for the national discourse. Their embodiment of the values and ethics of librarianship. Their support for various parts of the sector in the face of social, governmental, financial and ethical challenges.

These are the services I anticipate. I hope one day to see the ALIA CEO give a speech akin to that recently given by CILIP CEO Nick Poole. He admitted, frankly and refreshingly, that the CILIP of today is not what CILIP ought to be. He pledged to transform the UK’s library and information association into a dynamic, forward-thinking body that collectivises and amplifies the wishes and concerns of its members. ‘The work of becoming an activist organisation, an organisation that campaigns for and celebrates social justice, belongs to us all.’

ALIA is not an activist organisation. I strongly believe it should be one. And yet ALIA belongs to us all, or at least those of us who are members. It’s ultimately why I choose to remain a member, because that $199 gets me a seat at the table. I might not like much of what is being served, but I at least have the ability to demand something else. If enough of us make these demands, the menu might just change.

I also recently donated, freely and with no expectation of return, to two GLAM organisations whose values I share: the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, a community archive of LGBTIQ materials and histories based in Melbourne, and newCardigan, a progressive GLAM collective based in Melbourne and Perth. (Regular readers may be familiar with my strain of cardivangelism.) Both organisations are run by volunteers, doing good work in and for their communities, and could use any funds you can spare.

While cleaning my house earlier today I found my ALIA member’s pin, after many years of forgetting I owned one. I decided to affix it to my Badge Hat, between the ‘Libraries are not neutral’ and ‘GLAM Pride Vic’ badges. I like seeing ALIA in this context. I hope to continue seeing it in many others.

2019: a year of knowing, more naturally

A view of Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain, TAS, January 2019. Photograph by the author

How good is not having phone reception?! One of the best things about spending two weeks in Tasmania has been the amount of time I’ve been completely cut off from the world. A forcible disconnect. A respite for the extremely online. It’s been fantastic. (Bushfires, not so much. A lot of haze, and a close call in Zeehan. But we all got out okay.)

Anyway, being Offline and Elsewhere has helped me reset my thinking a bit, which was one of my primary motivations for going on holiday in the first place. I’ve tried to make a point of not keeping up with library twitter while on holiday, but I have since wound up at the house of a cardiCore member, and I figure I now have no excuse not to write a post!

So here we are. I’m realising I don’t necessarily know what I want to learn yet—but I know I want to learn things differently. In particular, I want to immerse myself in different ways of learning and knowing that don’t involve a book. This goes against my entire upbringing. I’ve only ever been able to learn things out of books. Consequently I missed a few things that can’t be learnt from a book (charisma, extroversion etc).

In particular, I hope to come to know nature more deeply than what books can teach me. One of the few articles I read in Tasmania was the absolutely brilliant ‘Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees’ by Ana Cecilia Alvarez, a deep dive on how Enlightenment-era Europeans came to know nature by cataloguing it, by way of taxonomy and scientific classification, and how that in turn enabled them to distance themselves from nature. Taxonomy tells us nothing about the interplay of nature, of ecology, of ecosystems, of the ecosymmetry that gives rise to life on Earth. This knowledge predates the book and all human attempts at organising knowledge. The world’s languages are shaped by our landscapes. Our speech and our thoughts are a product of the places we inhabit.

I want to learn more about how my upbringing has shaped my inbuilt theories of knowledge—as a white woman, in a settler-colonial society, who learned to read prodigiously early, and whose personal and professional backgrounds privileged the book as a source of knowledge. I also want to learn more about nature from nature itself. How might I know a tree? I look forward to finding out.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 3

Today I realised I had 1,025 items saved to my Pocket account, which is a bit much. I wrote earlier this year about my article ecosystem, but it’s fallen apart a bit, because I never seem to get around to actually reading everything I save. I decided to clean out these items, deleting articles I was never really going to read, and sharing those that left an impression.

Architecture and Appropriation / Louis Mokak, Assemble Papers
First published in Caliper, this short piece speaks to how First Nations ‘culture is not a research topic, thematic concern or an anthropological curiosity’, yet is still treated as such by scientific lines of enquiry. The author, a Djugun architecture student, reflects on the power structures that underpin his chosen profession, and where cultural appropriation might be replaced with a more equitable exchange.

The Soviet web: the tale of how the USSR almost invented the internet / Justin Reynolds, Calvert Journal
This article on socialist cybernetics, in particular the Chilean Project Cybersyn and the Soviet OGAS, outlined how communist countries looked to emerging computing technologies to assist in centralised control of the economy. Crucially, the ‘internet’ of the title refers not to a publicly-accessible web of information, but a network of computers that would relay data on production output to central planning. They almost created a nation-wide computer network, but the Americans beat them to it, and look where that’s gotten us…

Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient? / Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360
Newsflash: the internet is terrible for the environment! As I highlighted in the last #emptythepocket roundup, we as a society have collectively forgotten that ‘that ethereal place where we store our data, stream our movies, and email the world has a physical presence’. And it’s filthy. The electricity that powers cloud computing is frequently drawn from non-renewable sources, with data centres using insane amounts of energy in cooling and airconditioning. Every internet-connected keystroke has an environmental cost. We outsource so much of our data infrastructure to ‘the cloud’, and assume that someone else will take care of all that pesky maintenance and environmental sustainability for us, that most of us have no idea what the internet is doing to the planet. (I’m hoping to soon read J.R. Carpenter’s book The Gathering Cloud, an intriguing work of ‘media meteorology’.)

Librarian or librarian: Which Do You Want to Be? / Jessica Olin, Letters to a Young Librarian
Our endgame as librarians / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound
I am hugely, immensely, absolutely guilty of being a Librarian with a capital L. And yet it’s something I’ve largely refused to feel guilty about, because that’s a decision I’ve made for myself, in deciding what I want to do with my life and how best to use my skills and talents for the greater good. But it also means I’m up to my eyeballs in Librarian Culture, and when it almost drowned me earlier this year I realised it comprised such a large chunk of Me that I didn’t quite know what was left. Like Jessica, I also don’t want to look back on my mid-twenties and regret being such a Librarian, when I could also have been (just?) a librarian, with time and energy for other things. But do I want that? Would I ever be happy not throwing myself into my work?

Andrew posted on a similar topic as I was reading Jessica’s post. Andrew and I have collectively spent a lot of time this year being capitalised Librarians, giving a shit, and pondering our respective powers and places within LIS. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it alone, and sometimes we can’t do much of anything. But we can try, and plan, and agitate, and celebrate all successes no matter how small. And I know I can do it from the position I’m currently in—employed on a fixed-term contract, in a non-management role, in a team that doesn’t share my views on… virtually everything, with the ink still wet on my library degree, armed only with a twitter account and my wits. Nobody else will change our sector for the better, so we might as well do it ourselves. Just so long as that’s not the only thing we do. (I was also reminded of Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s code4lib editorial on being a selfish librarian, which is a good read.)

Contraflow / Clare Archibald, Walking Heads
At this point I inverted my pocket so the oldest items were at the top. The most interesting old thing was this psychogeographic drift in a multi-storey carpark. As a lifelong non-driver I rarely have cause to be in these buildings, so reading Clare’s pedestrian exploration of this car-shaped space was spooky in lots of ways. It becomes less about the carpark itself than about Clare’s memories of carparks in general, concrete and acid, cracks and headlights. Cars are awful. I don’t know why we persist with them.

‘I felt betrayed by the physical and emotional hardship’ / Agustin Chevez, SBS Insight
As a product of the Enlightenment, LIS prides itself on being a rational profession, based on truth and evidence. But what if it’s really the absurd that will save us? Recent PhD graduate Agustin Chevez found himself seized by a need to walk from Sydney to Melbourne, and decided to do so, but a month of walking had seemingly produced nothing. Tired and unsure, he stopped by the side of the road, only to realise that ‘once artificial intelligence has modelled every possible rational scenario, absurdity might surface as our last standing trait’. The absurdity of his situation liberated him, and inspired him to continue his walk. The clickbaity title does this piece a great disservice—it’s an inspiring treatise on the value of irrationality and solitude. I could do with a long walk myself…

The means to an end

you can do the thing!

I have all sorts of opinions about 2018. I anticipated that it would be a rebuilding year, that I hoped ‘to build something bigger and stronger’, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I might build. I figured I’d be busy, and wow was I busy! I didn’t expect to be so unwell for so much of it, but I suppose whatever hasn’t killed me has only made me stronger. I’m glad I’ve recovered, because I’ve got too much to do.

I read some incredible things this year. I read that the revolution will not be standardized. I read about what the library was, is, and will be. I read about how work makes me sick, three months before the fact. I read about the social ideology of the motorcar, and how it has crippled our cities. I read, apprehensively, about a storm blown from paradise.

I wrote some pretty good things this year, too, including a piece on fake news for inCite and a book review published in Archives and Manuscripts. I contributed a page to the first Auslib zine. I also wrote 34 blog posts, including 10 for GLAM Blog Club. I think my favourite post is actually ‘Five things I didn’t learn at #VALA2018 (because I didn’t go)’, where I discussed the experience of ‘attending’ a (brilliant) conference by lurking its hashtag, but soup day will always have a special place in my heart.

I also did a lot of PD stuff. Probably too much. I was a guest on the Turbitt & Duck podcast, where I raved for an hour about cataloguing. I gave a talk at work about web archives and document delivery. I went to coGLAMeration in Sydney, FutureGLAM in Melbourne, the ACOC seminar in Canberra, critlib school in Sydney again. I got a colonial-era Indigenous name heading changed—one small step in decolonising / Indigenising the catalogue. I was on the VALA Tech Camp committee, co-ran ACTive ALIA, was in the ALIA mentoring scheme, did #auslibchat most months. I attended three cardiParties, all interstate. I graduated with a MIS from Charles Sturt University (finally rendering me eligible for the ALIA PD scheme!) and participated in a review of their information studies courses. Oh, and I got a new job. But you all know how that went.

Most importantly, though, I met the gold-plated Chiko roll at the Museum of the Riverina. It made my whole year.

Gold-plated chiko roll
My life is complete. 😍 (A huge thanks to Sam for making this happen!)

Did I accomplish my goals for this year? Back in January I outlined three goals for 2018: ‘submit more papers to conferences’, ‘write more zines’ and ‘back myself’. I didn’t quite make the CILIP CIG conference in Dùn Èideann, but I was accepted to present at NLS9 next July, and I’ll be running a thing at [spoiler!] early next year. I did write a couple more zines, though they weren’t library related, and also weren’t very happy (I’d like to write happier zines next year).

But did I back myself? I had to stop and think about this one. I feel like I was better able this year to stand my ground and listen to my instincts. I didn’t talk myself out of speaking up when things weren’t going well. I also kept talking, both online and off, about aspects of professional practice that matter to me. I decided I was okay with being a notorious cataloguing personality, because I finally felt like I could back it up.

Honestly it’s no wonder I’m exhausted. So exhausted, in fact, I’m taking a holiday. I’m looking forward to shortly spending a month tootling around the countryside, doing things more slowly, extricating myself from library land for a time. I love what I do, even when it exhausts me, and I feel like this blog is a great way of documenting and communicating my work. I’m sure next year will be just as busy, but I hope to be less overwhelmed by it all. I would like more of a balance.

Lastly, I’d like to take a moment to thank, from the bottom of my heart, each and every one of you. You who read this blog, you who chat to me on twitter, you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at PD events, you who write so well on your own blogs and twitters, you who encouraged me to do more and be more, you who were there for me when I said I wasn’t okay. You know who you are. I couldn’t have done all this without you.

Here’s to doing it all again next year… well, most of it.