‘Congratulations – three months have passed! Time to check in and reflect on how things have been going,’ chirped the automated email. I looked over to the taskbar calendar for confirmation. Seriously? Already? I swear I only just got here.
It has been a very large three months. I spent the first month living in a highrise student residence, an experience I had mercifully skipped during my undergraduate years. It got very old very quickly, especially when the fire alarm went off three times in 24 hours (2am, 2.30am and 6pm) and lockdown meant I was confined to an apartment with a revolving door of total strangers. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It was a place to stay, but not a place to live. Especially at my age.
I finally found a permanent place to live after weeks of furious searching, a lovely older place in a nice part of town. A bigger house than I really need, but my rental budget goes a lot further here, and I decided after years of existing in a crappy shoebox flat that I wanted to live somewhere nice. Especially if I was going to be home all day.
People around here are fancy, but friendly. Friends had promised to help me move in, but lockdown forced them to cancel. I need another pair of hands to put the bedframe together, so I’ve been sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I also don’t have anywhere for visitors to sit. Probably just as well there aren’t any.
I was warmly welcomed into my new job, a delightfully non-toxic environment where for the first time in my career I feel my role ticks all the right boxes. I have plenty to do, but also a lot more agency over how I do it. I have supportive colleagues and a library-wide culture of deep care, for each other as well as the service we provide. I don’t have time to be bored, or to muse about how I would do things differently. I’m too busy actually doing them.
Every day here is a learning experience. I’m learning a whole new library management system, which is great in some ways and frustrating in others, as well as new and better ways of sourcing, processing, loading and maintaining bibliographic records. Most importantly, I’m learning how to manage a team—and do so remotely. (It’s fucking hard.) I recently farewelled a team member after 35 years of devoted service. I’ve never met her in person.
I see another human being in the flesh once a fortnight, for a masked-and-distanced lunch in the park. She’s the only person I knew in greater Geelong before I moved here. I am thankful for her company. I wish it weren’t all I had.
Like so many others in Victoria I feel myself languishing, watching the days flick from one lockdown to the next, not daring to raise hope for when I might see my friends again—the friends I moved here to be closer to. For me the difference between lockdown and not-lockdown is one of small tradeoffs; I can pop into the office to use the photocopier, but shopkeepers harass me more often for papers proving I don’t live in Melbourne. They expect to see a driver’s licence, which I don’t have, so instead I now carry my lease agreement everywhere. It’s getting a bit tiresome.
Here I continue the reclusive life I moved interstate to escape. I’m very used to being a shut-in who doesn’t leave the house and whose friends all live elsewhere. It makes the present more tolerable in some ways, but it’s hardly the dream I had looked forward to for so long.
And yet I am the happiest I have ever been. Despite our current troubles (and those of the organisation I now work for), I have more to look forward to here. I feel more settled and ready to do good things. I am no longer routinely plagued by horrific anxiety—I really don’t miss that—and there is more sunshine and nice old houses to look at. Plus everything is cheaper here. Even therapy.
I walked into the fancy grocer’s the other day and heard the shop radio playing a familiar song. You know, the football song. ‘I followed orders / God knows where I’ve been / but I woke up alone / all my wounds were clean / I’m still here / And I’m still a fool for the Holy Grail.’ Guess I’d better learn how football works. It’s that kind of town.
It’s been a few weeks since I uprooted myself from the only city I’ve ever lived in, quit my job at a prestigious but thoroughly miserable institution, said goodbye to my family and acquaintances, relocated interstate, and took up a new position as the metadata team leader at a regional academic library. I am beyond exhausted. I have never worked so hard, been to so many meetings, been welcomed so warmly, read so much documentation, been paid so much money, forgotten so many mealtimes (oops). But I have also never once regretted coming here. Moving to Victoria is the best personal and professional decision I have ever made. I hoped it would be. It’s been a long time coming.
My new job is a rare breed: a specialist metadata librarian, leading a team of specialist metadata librarians. Our work has changed significantly in the last couple of decades as academic libraries pivot to e-resources, where boutique item-level cataloguing has been largely replaced by scaled-up data enhancements (I almost wrote ‘enchantments’ here, and look, we are data wizards). The library’s priorities neatly line up with my own: ethical and culturally safe resource description, bibliographic identity management and other forms of authority control, untangling knotty workflows and making the most of our labour. I love working somewhere that cares this much about data quality.
I can’t believe how nice everyone is here. It’s like the whole library is structurally lovely. The ghosts of past experience tell me that I will surely regret this comment, but there are a lot of people at MPOW who have been there for decades—not because they’re unemployable elsewhere, but because it’s a genuinely nice place to work. I’ve had pockets of niceness in other jobs (including the last one), but this really is the first time I’ve experienced such an entirely warm, friendly, welcoming, functional, healthy workplace, amplified by strong, transparent, accountable senior leadership. It’s unreal. It’s amazing. I can’t believe I’ve been missing this all my life.
Some bits are proving as challenging as I expected, particularly the whole team leading thing. I had never managed so much as a sausage sizzle before I started this job, plus it’s not like I came with a lot of people skills built-in. Some of you might be asking ‘But how did you get a supervisory role with no supervisory experience?!’ (and, honestly, same) but I do know that I was hired partly for my technical skill, and partly because I seemed like someone who could learn the other stuff and contribute positively to team culture. I’ve had enough bad managers to know I never want to be like them, but I also have lots of support from my boss, my peer mentor (never had one of those before, it’s great) and my team. I hope I can do okay.
(I was astonished to learn that this blog already featured in my team’s professional reading list on our wiki. Hi team!)
I know this job isn’t the Holy Grail and my vocational awe is probably showing, but it really does feel like I’m living a dream. I think it will feel more real once I find somewhere to live (surprisingly difficult!) and start delving more deeply into the long list of projects that have awaited my arrival. This position had been vacant for close to eighteen months throughout Covid and Victoria’s extended lockdowns. There’s a lot that could use my attention. I can’t wait to get stuck in.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get my hands on this thing. I can’t believe I made it here. I can’t believe this is real.
A handful of Wednesdays ago I quit my job at a mildly prestigious library that shall remain nameless, after just over three years of employment. I wore my favourite cataloguing-themed t-shirt to work, bought one last book with my staff discount at the bookshop, and treated myself to a final helping of bain-marie slop at the cafeteria across the road. It still doesn’t seem entirely real that I’ve left. I still had so much to do.
The last six months have been the happiest and most fruitful of my entire career. I’ve absolutely loved being a systems librarian. I’ve had great fun crafting Access queries, running Perl scripts, devising Excel macros and more, while running complex data reports and conducting bulk data edits for business areas. I learned a heck of a lot about how data and systems work together (or not). But more than anything I’ve really loved my team. They’ve been wonderful people to work with, and I wish them every success.
I was a little surprised by how much time I spent saying ‘thank you’ during my last week. I’m not sure I expected to feel quite so grateful at the conclusion of my time there, but I guess I had a lot of complex feelings about the whole thing. Besides, it turned out I had a lot of people to thank: my wonderful boss Julie, my colleagues Sue and Brad, my director Simon, my previous director Libby, my old boss Cherie, good people like Ros H and Ros C and Catherine.
I wanted to finish that job feeling like I achieved something of lasting value. Instead I settled for starting something that will outlive me and hopefully become standard practice. Sure, helping implement a new service desk ticketing system was useful from an internal workflow perspective, but it’s not quite what I went there to do. Instead I called a meeting with a bunch of managers (well, my boss called it for me) to highlight several pieces of egregiously and systematically racist metadata in our catalogue, mostly relating to Indigenous Australians. Some of the old subject headings hadn’t been updated to the current terminology, while other headings should never have been in our catalogue in the first place. I outlined how my team could remediate these problems, but some policy decisions needed to be made first—ideally by those attending the meeting.
It’s a shame this meeting wound up happening on my last day. But the looks on the faces of my Indigenous colleagues convinced me I was doing the right thing. These terms should have been nuked from the catalogue twenty years ago, but the next best time to do that is now. I kinda felt like this shouldn’t have been up to me, a systems librarian, telling a roomful of people who all outranked me how to fix a data problem. But it needed doing, and I was in a team that had the technical ability to make the necessary changes. I regret that I won’t be around to see them happen.
Shortly after this meeting my director Simon was regaling us with an anecdote about longitudinal datasets; he has a background in statistics and often compares library metadata to things like the HILDA survey. But the key difference is that while HILDA’s questions and expected answers have changed over time in a discrete fashion, making it easier to see where such changes have occurred, library metadata corpora are a total mismash of standards and backgrounds, with each MARC field potentially having been added at a different time, in a different socio-cultural context, for a different purpose. Metadata librarians are grappling with the ongoing impact of data composition and recording choices made decades ago. We have virtually no version control (though it has been suggested) and little holistic understanding of our metadata’s temporal attributes. It makes retrospective #critcat efforts and other reparative description activities a lot harder, but it also hinders our ability to truly understand our descriptive past.
I was pleased to end my time there on a constructive note. But like I said, I have a lot of complex feelings about the last three years. I started out being one of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new professionals who didn’t have a whole lot else going for her, wanting to prove her passion and devotion to her dream job by working herself to death, thinking that maybe her job would start to love her back. Please don’t do what I did. I might not have realised at the time how harmful this mindset is, but I also did not realise that I deserved better from an employer. Whenever I think about my time there—barring the last six months—I can’t shake these feelings of deep unhappiness. I feel like I was thrown in the deep end right at the start and spent years desperately trying not to drown. I started thinking nobody would care if I did drown. I was lucky that the restructure threw me a life raft, but the damage was done.
Happily, I have much more to look forward to now. After a pandemic-induced false start I’m finally fulfilling a lifelong dream to move to Victoria, to be closer to friends and forests, and to take up a role as a metadata team leader at a regional academic library. Professionally I feel like I’m returning to my metadata spiritual home, and I like having the word ‘quality’ in my new job title. The ‘team leader’ part is slightly intimidating though—I have no supervisory experience whatsoever (and they know that) but it’s something I’m very keen to do right. Everyone I’ve met there so far has been really lovely. I can’t wait to start next week.
I’m glad to be ending this rather turbulent chapter of my life and beginning a new, hopefully calmer one. I took this job for many reasons, but I keep coming back to the potential I sensed in it. There’s so much possibility here. It’s very exciting.
You know what? I feel like we don’t talk enough about the structure of metadata. We’ve been talking a fair bit in recent years about offensive subject headings, inappropriately-used call numbers, for and against demographic details in name authority records. But my time as a systems librarian has reignited my deep interest in library data structures. Learning to write SQL queries and structure data in my head like our ILS does (that is, idiosyncratically) has meant I now spend most of my work days staring at spreadsheets. And I’ve started to wonder about some things.
How do our data structures and systems shape our data? How do MARC principles, informed by Western ways of knowing and speaking, influence our understanding and description of the books we catalogue? What biases and perspectives do our structures encode, perpetuate and privilege?
Consider the book Songspirals: sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines, joint-winner of the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards non-fiction category. The book is credited to the Gay’wu Group of Women, a collective of four sisters and their daughter from Yolŋu country in north-west Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and three ŋäpaki (non-Indigenous) academics with whom they have collaborated for many years. The book is told in the sisters’ voice, sharing women’s deep cultural knowledge and wisdom through five ‘songspirals’. Settler Australia might know these as ‘songlines’, a term popularised by Bruce Chatwin in his 1987 book The Songlines, but as the Gay’wu Group writes,
In this book we call them songspirals as they spiral out and spiral in, they go up and down, round and round, forever. They are a line within a cycle. They are infinite. They spiral, connecting and remaking. They twist and turn, they move and loop. This is like all our songs. Our songs are not a straight line. They do not move in one direction thorugh time and space. They are a map we follow through Country as they connect to other clans. Everything is connected, layered wth beauty. Each time we sing our songspirals we learn more, do deeper, spiral in and spiral out. (p. xvi)
A collective author like the Gay’wu Group of Women sits uncomfortably within Western resource description paradigms. Does RDA consider them a person, family or corporate body? Would MARC enter them as a personal name (100) or a corporate name (110)? Why are these my only options? Why are groups of people considered to be ‘corporate bodies’? Why are ‘families’ limited to those who share a surname?
I borrowed Songspirals from my local library a few weeks before I delightfully received a copy as a birthday present. Their new, shiny catalogue distinguishes one author from the rest, mirroring the main-versus-added-entry choice MARC forces us to make, but I was puzzled to find their choice of main author was one of the seven, Laklak Burarrwaŋa. Her name was misspelt as ‘Burarrwana, Laklak’, missing the letter eng ŋ, which represents a ‘ng’ sound in Yolŋu Matha. (This letter is not commonly found on a standard keyboard, and so Laklak’s surname could also be acceptably spelt ‘Burarrwanga’.) Did this record originate in a system incapable of supporting quote-unquote ‘special characters’? Was it originally encoded in MARC-8, which appears not to support the letter ŋ? Did a cataloguer misread the letter? Or could they simply not be bothered?
It’s a questionable choice of main entry, as the Gay’wu Group of Women are prominently credited on the cover, spine and title page as the book’s author. But knowing the history of cataloguing as I do, I suspect I know why this choice was made: an old rule from AACR2 preferred personal names over corporate names for main entries, as explained in this heirloom cataloguing manual from 2003. Corporate bodies were only treated as main entries in limited circumstances, largely relating to administrative materials, legal, governmental and religious works, conference proceedings (where a 111 conference main entry was not appropriate) and for works ‘that record the collective thought of the body (e.g. reports of commissions, committees, etc.; official statements of position on external policies)’. It’s a fascinating and bizarre set of proscriptions. At no point does the manual explain the logic or context behind these rules. They are simply The Rules, to be broken or ignored at the cataloguer’s peril.
I never learned AACR2 so this convention has never made much sense to me. But I can easily imagine an elder cataloguer examining this book and going ‘hmm, the Gay’wu Group of Women don’t fit into any of the corporate body main entry rules that AACR2 burned into my brain, the members are listed individually by name on the title page, I’ll pick the first name as the main entry’ and entering Laklak’s name almost by rote. I don’t think any Australian libraries still use AACR2, but old habits die hard. It’s ridiculous that we still have to think about these things. Don’t cataloguers have better things to do than contort our data into antique data structures?
The DDC call number, 305.89915, is a catch-all for ‘books on Indigenous Australian societies’ irrespective of topic. All kinds of books end up here: Singing Bones on ethnomusicology in Arnhem Land, Sand Talk on philosophy across the continent, Surviving New England on the Anaiwan genocide. I suppose I should be grateful Songspirals wasn’t classed in 398.2049915, the number for Aboriginal Australian ‘mythology and fairy tales’. But this book is truly interdisciplinary, transcending Dewey’s rigid classes of knowledge and encompassing all corners of the Yolŋu lifeworld. In DDC logic, it makes sense that this book would be classified in an interdisciplinary place. I guess I’m just tired of seeing 305.89915 used so indiscriminately. It doesn’t help that the -9915 suffix encompasses the entirety of Indigenous Australia, with no further enumeration of specific nations or groups.
What if… we stopped choosing only one number? What if we routinely classed multiple copies of books in multiple places? A copy in history, another in the social sciences, a third in music? What if those weren’t even the categories? What if our classification system were a spiral, with multiple lines of intellectual inquiry reaching out from a core of knowledge, instead of our current linear system of ascending numbers? I wonder where the Galiwin’ku Library would place this book, having replaced their simplified DDC with a more culturally intuitive arrangement. Perhaps we should follow their lead.
The item part of the spine label, ‘BURA’, reflects the initial choice of Laklak Burarrwaŋa for main entry. The practice of including the first three or four letters of the main entry, or otherwise constructing a Cutter number, for a spine label theoretically ensures that each physical item in a given library has a unique call number. Meanwhile the ‘CUL’ at the top stands for ‘Culture and society’, part of this library service’s continuing effort to genrefy its collections. Some branches (including my local) are still arranged in Dewey order, while others are grouped more thematically. It’s been this way for years. I kinda like that they haven’t picked one yet. It keeps things interesting.
Disgruntled with my local library’s cataloguing and the state of things in general, I next interrogated the Australian national union catalogue, Libraries Australia, which is now part of Trove. There are seven records for Songspirals in the database, two for the ebook and five for the paper book, collectively held by over 160 libraries across Australia. I’m not surprised to see so many records; Libraries Australia’s match-merge algorithm is notoriously wonky and often merges records incorrectly, which are a massive pain to sort out. I’d rather a dupe record than a bad merge.
The source record used by my local library appears to have been updated since they acquired the book, though the seven LA records can’t quite agree on whether Songspirals is one word or two (the text of the book spells it as one word). Pleasingly, Gay’wu Group of Women are now the main entry in all seven records (as a 110), although one uses the questionably inverted form ‘Women, Gay’wu Group of’. Some records list all eight women’s names in a 245 $c statement of responsibility field, while another lists them in a 500 general note field. Only one record gives each contributor a 700 added entry field, with the surnames painstakingly inverted; we can safely assume none of the contributors had name authority records created.
MARC makes this more complicated than it needs to be. Systems often can’t index names that aren’t in 1XX or 7XX fields. Perhaps name authority records could be automatically created, or close name matches proactively suggested? Could systems embed named-entity recognition, a form of AI, to extract and index names wherever they appear in a record? (One record spells Burarrwaŋa two different ways, neither with the letter ŋ. These kinds of simple errors don’t help.)
Five records misspell the collective authors’ name as ‘GayWu Group of Women’, without the glottal stop and with a capital W, which seemed a curious mistake. I refused to believe that every single cataloguer who touched these records had blithely gotten this wrong, so I wondered if a system had forced this error. Two other records included the glottal stop, confirming LA systems could handle these characters, while a peek in the LA Cataloguing Client showed that this was a data error and not a display error in the LA search interface. While poking around the backend I noticed that all five misspelt records had at some point been through the WorldCat system, evidenced by various OCLC codes in the 040 field. Could this be an OCLC system problem? I don’t know for sure, but it warrants a closer look.
Several cataloguers went to the effort of including AUSTLANG codes in their records for Songspirals. Three records include a code for Yolŋu Matha in the 041 #7 language field, but only one record has a correctly-formed code, N230. The others have ‘NT230’, which is likely an overcorrection from people thinking the ‘N’ stands for ‘Northern Territory’, and is not a valid AUSTLANG code. While this mistake is simple and easily avoidable, it has also now propagated into hundreds of library catalogues. I wonder if more attentive systems could validate such language (041) or geographic (043) codes against controlled lists, including the MARCdefaults and AUSTLANG.
It’s worth noting that the library at AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, whose research arm maintains the AUSTLANG database, assigned the additional code N141 for the Gumatj language, a dialect of Yolŋu Matha1. I habitually defer to AIATSIS on matters of First Nations resource description: if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
Describing books using the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is often an exercise in frustration and futility, searching for concepts that don’t exist in the American psyche, but doing justice to the songlines with this vocabulary is flat out impossible. We are reduced to phrases like ‘Folk music, Aboriginal Australian’ and ‘Yolngu (Australian people) — Social life and customs’, flattening the spiral into the linear thinking of the coloniser’s language. From my whitefella cataloguer perspective, the closest LCSH probably gets is the notorious ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’ heading, which as I’ve written before is not appropriate in a contemporary catalogue, and which no LA record appears to have used. But I don’t think this omission is necessarily due to individual cataloguers’ ethics. Songspirals does not name the Dreaming, or discuss it as an academic pursuit. Rather, this book is the Dreaming. It feels a bit daft to say ‘it’s not a subject, it’s a genre’ but even this artificial distinction between what a book ‘is’ and what a book is ‘about’ feels deeply irrelevant to this work.
The English language fails me here. But it’s how I interpret the world. It shapes what I know. And it shapes how I catalogue.
Cataloguers are expected to judge books by their covers, quickly ascertaining the salient facts about a work and categorising it within the boundaries of their library’s chosen schemata. Without having read the book in its entirety, I could tell these records were wonky just by looking at them. But they are structurally wonky. Indigenous knowledge will always sit uncomfortably within Western descriptive practices. It’s more than deciding if something is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. It’s not about yelling at individual cataloguers, although some of these errors were clearly unforced. It’s hard to transcribe names accurately if our systems can’t cope with ‘special characters’ or to represent a work’s collaborative authorship if our data structures insist on privileging one author above all others. It’s difficult to represent the interdisciplinarity of a work if our policies dictate it can only be classified in one spot on a linear shelf. Systems caused these problems. But perhaps systems could help fix them, too.
Our sector chooses the data structures, encoding standards, controlled vocabularies and classification styles that we work within. These choices have consequences. We could make different choices if we wanted to. These things did not fall out of the sky; many people built these structures over many years. But our potential choices are each a product of their time, culture, context and ways of knowing. This doesn’t make them ‘bad’ options, but it does mean they may struggle to describe forms of knowledge so different from their own. Perhaps we could choose a different way.
At home, I keep meaning to organise my books properly but never seem to get round to it. I have a shelf of library books (mostly overdue), a shelf of recent acquisitions and a shelf of ‘books that vibe with my thinking of late, and which I ought to read soon’. At various points Songspirals has sat on all three. Perhaps the very notion of fixed metadata is inherently at odds with the cyclical and adaptive nature of songspirals, of oral histories passed down through the generations, layers of wisdom accumulating like layers of the Earth’s crust. Knowledge is always changing and adapting to the world around it. So, too, should our ways of describing that knowledge.
My initial training in assigning AUSTLANG codes recommended against using codes for languages where their entry in AUSTLANG was capitalised, as in ‘YOLNGU MATHA’. This indicates a language family, rather than a specific language, and further investigation may be needed. Songspirals itself refers to the language in the book as ‘Yolŋu matha’, so understandably cataloguers outside AIATSIS would have followed the book’s lead. ↩
I’m not always good with noise. My brain is regularly full of noise (anxiety) but can’t always process it (mild autism). Noise-cancelling headphones are my workplace saviour. Moving out of a flat on a four-lane road brought me desperate relief from traffic noise. Until recently I didn’t fully realise how much noise was in my life, and how much easier things are without it.
This month’s GLAM Blog Club theme is ‘Obsession’. I used to be obsessed with Twitter. It was the first thing I looked at when I woke up and the last thing I looked at before I fell asleep. I spent untold hours of my life firing little bursts of Opinion into my eyeballs like it somehow mattered. I fired off my own bursts right back. People liked the sound of them. I became a small Somebody in a small field. I kept going. Until about three weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped.
I decided to take myself on a twitter holiday. I reckon it’ll be permanent.
What began as an accessible and low-stress place to network with other librarians and share ideas has morphed into a high-stress horrorshow of anger, trauma, grief and drama. It’s not a healthy place to spend time. It’s where people go to start fights, let off steam, vent, have Opinions, scream. It’s also massively overstimulating. I popped back on briefly to attend the latest #auslibchat and immediately wished I hadn’t—not because of the chat itself, which was pleasant and informative, but because the website is designed to grab and hold your attention for as long as possible. My friend Hugh, who saw the light and quit Twitter long before I did, has likened it several times to a poker machine. It’s shamelessly addictive. You’ll never get back what you put in. The best thing to do is to cut your losses and go.
Everyone is angry and no one is listening.
I am very aware that I owe my career to Twitter. Being a small Somebody and giving myself a platform helped me meet lots of great people, grow new ideas, stand up for what’s right. It has made me the librarian I am today. But it is so bad for my brain now. Giving my account to a trusted friend and forcing myself to log the hell off has improved my mental health immensely. No more blasting fire and anger into my eyeballs. No more tediously scrolling past arcane fights and drama. No more unconsciously making space in my brain for whatever American Library Twitter™ reckons about something, whether it’s worth listening to or not.
Being extremely offline has meant I now have the brainspace to read and think more deeply. After years of being largely unable to do either I know this brainspace is a rare and precious gift. I don’t want, and can’t afford, to squander that gift on shouty pixel horror. Besides, my to-be-read pile is literally taller than I am. I also started noticing how much mainstream news content is either ‘Some people on the internet are angry about this thing’ or ‘Here’s something that went viral three days ago’. Making news from newsfeeds is called ‘juicing’ and there’s a lot of it. I left Twitter to escape all this stuff. Why does it persist in following me around?
In the short term I don’t see myself returning to Twitter. In the long term, once I figure out how, I intend to use it as a unidirectional broadcast platform, syndicating posts from this blog and making other announcements as the need arises. It does mean losing out on that sense of community and broader professional awareness that attracted me to Twitter in the first place, and a small part of me misses that. But I definitely don’t miss the nonstop screeching that now pervades the place. My brain can’t separate the signal from the noise, so I am forced to silence both in order to function.
I once described Twitter as ‘the introvert’s megaphone’. For a moment I wished I still felt that way about it, eager to find like-minded people in the shrieking cesspoool, able to use the site to my advantage. But times have changed. I’m not sure I’d recommend Twitter to new librarians anymore. Apparently one library school makes students create a Twitter account as part of an introductory course, which was probably a great idea five years ago but today feels like punishment. It reminds me of having to create bookmarks on del.icio.us during an undergradute French class ten years ago. I didn’t understand the point of spending time on dying websites. (Ironically, the WordPress auto-tweet function no longer works on this blog after I migrated it to a new server. So it might be a while before anyone sees this post. Sorry about that.)
For now, I find things out from assorted email newsletters (including the one I write for ACORD, you should totally sign up), RSS feeds and messages from friends. It’s kinda nice not being so plugged in all the time. It’s lovely to have a bit of peace and quiet.
Take off those headphones and let this world pour into you
Throw off those glasses and then you’ll start seeing
Forget those battles, those ones that mean nothing to you
Know you’re alive and just smile, you’ll start hearing
Somewhere out beneath the heavens and the atmosphere
Somewhere out among the silence there’s a voice
There’s a feeling that takes over and it has no fear
When you’re caught between the signal and the noise
You know how someone can make a throwaway comment that hits you right in the soul and you can’t let it go? That’s been my week. It’s been really horrible for my brain, trying desperately to process this thing and make sense of all these feelings. I’m not great at this at the best of times. It’s exhausting.
I attended a large and important meeting this week. Lots of very senior people were there: heads of NSLA libraries, university librarians, people on assorted committees, people whose opinions are considered particularly valuable. A handful of people reading this blog would have attended this meeting. I’m still not completely sure why I was invited. I think it’s because I’m a notorious pain in the arse, but I was also a bit chuffed to have been selected because of who I am, not because of what job I do. I was initially quite anxious about attending a meeting full of senior managers (one of them being my own). Turns out that was the least of my worries.
While in a breakout session, the topic of conversation turned to hiring processes. Two public library directors complained loudly about how they kept getting applications from, and I quote, ‘process driven’ ‘introverts’ with ‘no communication skills’ and that they wouldn’t want to hire someone ‘if they can’t even make eye contact’ with others. I am an introvert. I am process driven (insofar as I want to make bad processes better). Communicating with people face-to-face is hard and takes a lot of energy. And I can’t always manage to look people in the eye.
These public library directors may as well have been waving a sign saying ‘Neurodiverse applicants are not welcome here’. It felt like an absolute, crushing rejection of everything I am, everything I have achieved, everything I have worked so hard for. They said out loud that they didn’t want people like me. That there is no place for me in their libraries. That I don’t belong here.
The kicker? I used to work for one of these public library directors. But they didn’t know I was autistic, and at the time, neither did I.
Last year a hospital psychiatrist came into my room in the mental health unit to have a chat. She asked some weird questions about my living arrangements and how I felt about people in general (‘baffling’). She didn’t say where she was going with these questions, but I had a vague idea. Her senior colleague continued this line of conversation the next day (rather more kindly, it must be said). After a while she said to me, ‘Have you considered the possibility that you might be mildly autistic?’
I said yeah, actually, I had, but I hadn’t done anything about it ’cause I figured it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other. I’d kept filling in those online quizzes and ticking almost every box, but at perhaps half the strength, as if someone watered me down with a dose of the normals. I assumed it was mild enough that it didn’t impact me too much, and decided the pervasive stigma around autism outweighed any potential benefits of a formal diagnosis. Besides, it’s not like there’s a cure.
I was really thrown by the fact that the suggestion of mild autism came from the psychiatrists themselves. They knew next to nothing about my history. I hadn’t put the thought in their heads at all. But the more I thought about maybe being autistic, the more about me it explained. Having this knowledge changed my life. And I found myself wishing someone had told me this about myself twenty years ago.
I looked into getting a formal diagnosis. Accredited specialists have long waiting lists and charge over a thousand dollars for the privilege. The tests are pretty hard going. But as one of my psychologists explained to me, the diagnostic process for autism spectrum disorder is heavily weighted towards symptoms and behaviours displayed by white boys. Adults, women, people of colour and those with milder traits find it considerably harder to get diagnosed, because the tests aren’t designed to pick up on different manifestations of autism. Only in the last couple of years has this imbalance been recognised at all. Better testing is surely years away.
The other deeply problematic part of all this is one of the few real ‘treatments’ available: Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA.1 Essentially it teaches people how to ‘mask’, or hide, the symptoms of their autism. Supposedly this is so they can ‘fit in’ and ‘function’ in normal society, but it comes at immense cost to the autistic person, and makes little effort to understand the root cause of their behaviours. Keeping this mask on all day every day can be overwhelmingly difficult and require huge amounts of brain energy. A child might successfully mask all day at school and then have an exhausted meltdown at home, often unable to understand or verbalise why everything is so hard. ABA tells the autistic person that they are the problem. That they must contort themselves into the box society has made for them. That they have to do all the work to make others less uncomfortable with autism. That there’s no possibility of creating environments that are autism-friendly, where they don’t need to mask.
The creator of ABA, Ole Ivar Lovaas, expressly aimed to make autistic children ‘normal’. Contemporary scholars and activists have likened it to gay conversion therapy.2 I’ve had enough of society telling me not to be queer. I won’t tolerate it telling me not to be autistic, either.
Thing is, though, this isn’t the first time someone has said that people like me aren’t welcome in libraries. During a study visit undertaken as part of my library degree, the facilitating lecturer told our group that we needed certain attributes in order to be successful librarians and find work in the sector. I don’t recall precisely what she said, so I won’t put words in her mouth, but I know they were very similar to those listed by the public library managers the other day. I needed to be charismatic, I needed to be an extrovert, I needed to be a people person. I knew innately that I didn’t have any of the attributes she listed. And I almost quit my degree on the spot.
It felt like she was trying to pre-emptively weed out students whom she thought weren’t likely to get hired. But I don’t understand why she felt the need to do this. Evidently the only work she could conceive of as ‘library work’ was front-of-house service delivery. She couldn’t fathom libraries also needing people in back-of-house roles that might better suit introverts, such as collection development, metadata management and systems librarianship. She couldn’t picture her graduates thriving in those sectors. And she couldn’t imagine that libraries would be prepared for pay for these skills.
This lack of imagination is holding our sector hostage. Library managers, especially in public libraries, often can’t conceive of infrastructure work as being ‘customer service’ and therefore choose not to resource it. It’s hard to think about what libraries could accomplish if they resourced this work and cultivated these skillsets, not because I can’t imagine it but because deep down I know it will never happen. We could become community open data stewards, we could make classification less racist and more meaningful to our user communities, we could actually make our catalogues intuitive and simple to use (what a concept!). We could do all kinds of great things.
Libraries can’t possibly become better and more diverse workplaces if managers only hire people who are just like them.3 The sheer breadth and variety of library work means that libraries need all kinds of different skillsets, backgrounds and life experiences. Public librarianship is more than just the desk: while the nature of front-of-house roles can present some challenges for neurodiverse staff, there’s no reason they can’t be supported to excel and thrive in their work.4 Besides, autistic people are great! We’re really good at spotting patterns and aberrations, keeping things organised, methodically solving problems, cutting through bullshit and getting to the point. I reckon every library needs someone like this on staff.
It’s hard for me to not take these kinds of bad opinions personally. It often takes my brain a while (hours, sometimes days) to catch onto the fact that somebody might be speaking in bad faith, or be looking for attention or validation, or have an axe to grind. (Once I realised that most of Twitter fell into those three categories the site became much more tolerable.) When people say things to me or a group I’m in, my first instinct is to believe them. It took a long time, but I ultimately managed to discard the lecturer whose words hurt so much. I hope to shortly evict the public library managers from my brain. I’ve spent a whole week trying to understand why I was so deeply upset by their comments. They don’t deserve any more of my energy.
It was broadly agreed at this large important meeting that libraries have a PR problem; the common impression of librarians and library work doesn’t match the realities of today’s library services. Addressing this problem was beyond the scope of the meeting, but I refuse to believe that any real ‘solution’ involves discouraging quieter types from a career in libraries. They are not the problem. Autistic and neurodivergent people are not the problem. Ableist and unimaginative library management is the problem. It amazes me what senior librarians think is acceptable to say out loud. Do they think we’re not listening?
A guest author writing pseudonymously for the ALSC blog notes:
In the library world, conversations about autism are often predictable. They focus on autistic children or adults as users, and the challenges that they may present. Much less common, it seems, are discussions of the positive contributions that autistic people can make to a library, as library users but also as front-line librarians.5
It’s one thing to proclaim that ‘Libraries are for everyone!’ and create sensory storytimes and other programs for neurodiverse children, but it’s quite another to actively dissuade neurodiverse people from working in the sector. As a child, the library was a safe, comfortable, familiar space where I could indulge my interests and be myself. As an adult, and a library worker, I use my skills and talents behind the scenes to help maintain these spaces online. Being potentially autistic doesn’t always feel like a ‘superpower’, but it enables me to do the work that I do, and maybe even to be good at it.
Yesterday I had the great privilege of attending the GO GLAM miniconf, held under the auspices of the Linux Australia conference. Hosted by the fabulous Bonnie Wildie and the indefatigable Hugh Rundle, GO GLAM brought the power and promise of open-source software to the GLAM sector. This miniconf has been run a couple of times before but this was my first visit. It was pretty damn good. I’m glad I started scribbling down notes, otherwise it would all be this massive blend of exhausted awesome.
The day began with an opening keynote by some guy called Cory Doctorow, but he wasn’t very interesting so I didn’t pay much attention. He did talk a lot about self-determination, and he did use the phrase ‘seizing the means of computation’ that I definitely want on a t-shirt, but there was a big ethics-of-care-sized gap at the centre of his keynote. I found myself wishing someone would use the words ‘self-determination’ and ‘social responsibility’ in the same talk.
Good tech platforms can exist, if we care enough to build them. As it happened, GO GLAM’s first speakers, a group of five mostly francophone and mostly Indigenous artists and coders from what is now eastern Canada, wound up doing almost exactly this. Natakanu, meaning ‘visit each other’ in the Innu language, is an ‘Indigenous-led, open source, peer to peer software project’, enabling First Nations communities to share art, data, files and stories without state surveillance, invasive tech platforms or an internet connection. I can’t express how brilliant this project is. I’m still so deeply awed and impressed by what this team have built.
Two things leapt out at me during this electrifying talk—that Natakanu is thoughtful, and that it is valuable. It consciously reflects First Nations knowledge cultures, echoing traditions of oral history, and exemplifying an ‘approach of de-colonized cyberspace’. Files are shared with ‘circles’, where everyone in a circle is assumed to be a trusted party, but each member of that circle can choose (or not) to share something further. Building a collective memory is made easier with Natakanu, but the responsibility of doing so continues to rest with those who use it.
Natakanu embodies—and makes space for—First Nations sovereignties, values and ethics of care. It’s technology by people, for people. It’s a precious thing, because our communities are precious, too. The Natakanu platform reflects what these communities care about. Western tech platforms care about other things, like shouting at the tops of your lungs to ten billion other people in an agora and algorithmically distorting individuals’ sense of reality. We implicitly accept these values by continuing to use these platforms. Our tech doesn’t care about us. We could build better tech, if we knew how, and we chose to. (There’s a reason I’ve been consciously trying to spend less time on Twitter and more time on Mastodon.) But more on computational literacy a little later.
A few people mentioned in the Q&A afterwards how they’d love to bring Natakanu to Indigenous Australian communities. I don’t doubt their intentions are good (and Hugh touched on this in the recap at the end of the day), but in my (white-ass) view the better thing is to empower communities here to build their own things that work for them. A key aspect of Reconciliation in this country is developing a sense of cultural humility, to recognise when your whitefella expertise might be valuable and to offer it, when to quietly get out of the way, and which decisions are actually yours to make. Or, as speaker Mauve Signweaver put it, ‘instead of telling them “tell us what you need and we’ll make it for you”, saying “Tell us what you need and we’ll help you make it”‘.
I can’t wait to rewatch this talk and catch up on some parts I know I missed. It was absolutely the highlight of the entire miniconf. I couldn’t believe they were first-time speakers! Can they do the keynote next year?
Metadata and systems might not last forever, but we can still try. I think it’s safe to say many attendees were very taken with Arkisto, the ‘open-source, standards-based framework for digital preservation’ presented by Mike Lynch. It’s a philosophical yet pragmatic solution to describing, packaging and contextualising research data. Arkisto’s framework appears particularly useful for rescuing and re-housing data from abandoned or obsolete platforms (such as an Omeka instance where the grant money has run out and the site is at risk of deletion).
Arkisto describes objects with RO-Crate (Research Object Crate, a derivative of Schema.org) and stores them in the Oxford Common File Layout, a filesystem that brings content and metadata together. It’s actively not a software platform and it’s not a replacement for traditional digipres activities like checksums. It’s a bit like applying the philosophy of static site generators to research data management; it’s a minimalist, long-term, sustainably-minded approach that manages data in line with the FAIR principles. It also recognises that researchers have short-term incentives not to adequately describe or contextualise their research data (no matter how much librarians exhort them to) and tries to make it easier for them.
The new PARADISEC catalogue includes Arkisto and an associated web interface, Oni, as part of its tech stack. I was very taken with the catalogue’s principle of ‘graceful degradation’—even if the search function ceases to operate, browsing and viewing items will still work. As a former web archivist I was heartened to see them holding this more limited functionality in mind, an astute recognition that all heritage, be it virtual, environmental or built, will eventually decay. So much of my web archiving work involved desperately patching dynamic websites into something that bore a passing resemblance to what they had once been. We might not always be able to save the infrastructure, but one hopes we can more often save the art, the data, the files, the stories. (Which reminds me, I’ve had Curated Decay on my to-read shelf for far too long.)
I shouldn’t have needed reminding of this, but sometimes I forget that metadata doesn’t begin and end with the library sector. It was a thrill to hear someone in a related field speaking my language! I wanna hang out with these people more often now.
Generosity resides in all of us. My first impressions of Hugh Rundle’s talk were somewhat unfavourable—he only spent a couple of minutes talking about the bones of his project, a Library Map of every public library in Australia, and instead dedicated the bulk of his time to complaining about the poor quality of open datasets. Despite having had several sneak previews I was rather hoping to see more of the map itself, including its ‘white fragility mode’ and the prevalence of fine-free libraries across the country. Instead I felt a bit deflated by the persistent snark. Hugh was the only speaker to explicitly reference the miniconf’s fuller title of ‘Generous and Open GLAM’. But this felt like an ungenerous talk. Why did it bother me?
Perhaps it’s because Hugh is a close friend of mine, and I expected him to be as kind and generous about the failings of Data Vic as he is about my own. I’m not sure I held other speakers to that high a standard, but I don’t think anyone else was quite as mean about their data sources. I also hadn’t eaten a proper breakfast, so maybe I was just hangry, and I ought to give Hugh the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had a lot on his plate. I intend to rewatch this talk when the recordings come out, to see if I feel the same way about it on a full stomach. I hope I feel differently. The Library Map really is a great piece of software, and I don’t think Hugh quite did it justice.
Omg pull requests make sense now.Liz Stokes is absolutely delightful, and her talk ‘Once more, with feeling!’ was no exception. Her trademark cheerfulness, gentleness and generosity shone in this talk, where she explored what makes a comfortable learning environment for tech newbies, and demonstrated just such an environment by teaching us how GitHub pull requests worked. How did she know that I desperately needed to know this?! Pull requests had just never made sense to me—until that afternoon. You ‘fork’ a repository by copying it to your space, then make changes you think the original repo would benefit from, then leave a little note explaining what you did and ‘request’ that the original owner ‘pull’ your changes back into the repo. A pull request! Amazing! A spotlight shone upon my brain and angels trumpeted from the heavens. This made my whole day. Hark, the gift of knowledge!
Liz also touched on the value of learning how to ‘think computationally’, a skill I have come to deeply appreciate as I progress in my technical library career. I’ve attended multiple VALA Tech Camps (including as a presenter), I’ve done all sorts of workshops and webinars, I’ve tried learning to code umpteen times (and just the other day bought Julia Evans’ SQL zine Become a SELECT Star! because I think I’ll shortly need it for work), but nowhere did I ever formally learn the basics of computational thinking. Computers don’t think like humans do, and in order to tell computers what we want, we have to learn to speak their language. But so much learn-to-code instruction attempts to teach the language without the grammar.
I don’t have a computer science background—I have an undergraduate degree in classics, and am suddenly reminded of the innovative Traditional Grammar course that I took at ANU many years ago. Most students come to Classical Studies with little knowledge of grammar in any language; instead of throwing them headfirst into the intricacies of the ancient languages, they learn about the grammars of English, Latin and Ancient Greek first and together. This gives students a solid grounding of the mechanics of language, setting them up for success in future years. Programming languages need a course like Traditional Grammar. Just as classicists learn to think like Romans, prospective coders need to be explicitly taught how to think like computers. A kind of basic computational literacy course.
(Of all the things I thought I’d get out of the day, I didn’t expect a newfound admiration of Professor Elizabeth Minchin to be one of them.)
Online confs are awesome! Being somewhat late to the online conference party, GO GLAM was my first experience of an exclusively online conference. I’ve watched a handful of livestreams before, but it just isn’t the same. A bit like reading a photocopied book. I don’t think I had any particular expectations of LCA, but I figured I’ve sat in on enough zoom webinars, it’d be a bit like that, right? Wrong. The LCA audio-visual and conference tech stack was an absolute thing of beauty. Everything looked a million bucks, everything was simple and easy to use. It was a far more active watching experience than simply tucking into a livestream—the chat box on the right-hand side, plus the breakout Q&A areas, helped me feel as if I were truly part of the action. I didn’t usually have a lot to say past ‘That was awesome!’ but it was far less intimidating than raising my hand at an in-person Q&A or cold-tweeting a speaker after the fact.
As someone who is deeply introverted, probably neurodivergent and extremely online, virtual conferences like GO GLAM are so much more accessible than their real-life counterparts. I didn’t have to travel, get up early, put on my People Face™, spend hours in a bright and noisy conference hall, eat mediocre food, make painful small talk, take awkward pictures of slides and furiously live-tweet at the same time, massively exhaust myself and make a mad dash for the exit. Instead I could have a nap, grab another pot of tea, turn the lights down, share links in the chat, clap with emojis, watch people make great connections, take neat and tidy screenshots of slides, squeeze in a spot of Hammock Time and still be feeling excited by it all at the end of the day.
I’m sure people will want to return to some form of physical conferencing in the fullness of time, but I fervently hope that online conferencing becomes the new norm. This infrastructure exists, it costs a lot less than you think (certainly less than venue hire and catering), and it makes conferences accessible to people for whom the old normal just wasn’t working. Please don’t leave us behind when the world comes back.
It was intense and horrifying and miserable and lonely and exhausting. The world ended. And yet we’re still here.
I learned a lot this year. I learned that working from home is great, actually; that lockdown really isn’t that much different from my usual life, but it still sucks; that the sounds of forests are a better antidepressant than any medication; and that months after the most traumatic experience of my life it’s still so hard to say certain things out loud. I also learned that I often sound better than I feel. It still amazes me that I was able to write something as coherent as ‘The parting glass’ less than a week after leaving hospital, at the peak of the first wave, at the end of everything. I was desperate to be heard, to be known, to be cared for, to be safe. I still am. It’s a work in progress.
Among many other things I started a new job this year, thanks to my workplace’s pre-existing restructure. It’s kind of a systems librarian role, lots of data maintenance, gathering, querying, harmonisation. A new role in an old team, but I have been made so warmly welcome it’s like I’ve been there for years. I’m pleased that this work is being resourced (though I wish it weren’t at the expense of other areas). Quiet, routine, meaningful, honourable work, in the Maintainers tradition. The work that keeps everyone else working, though it’s hardly ‘essential’ in pandemic terms, and is 100% doable from home. I found myself drawing on the white paper ‘Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care’, embodying its values into my work.
I see my new role as a caretaker, a systems janitor, a data maintainer. My job is to nurture our data systems, help them grow, water them, prune them, compost them at an appropriate time. Our ILS is 17 years old and desperately needs replacing. We’ll take care of it as much as we can, while planning a new system that might flower for longer, and make better use of resources.
I love this job so much partly because I now get to work with some really excellent people, but also largely because this team are far better anchored in the bigger work of the library. Being a traditional cataloguer meant I had a very narrowly focused view of metadata. I dealt with records at the micro level, one item at a time, with little to no ability to see the bigger picture. It wasn’t that I couldn’t personally see it; rather, my job and team structure lacked that oversight. But now my role deals with metadata at the macro level, many thousands of records at once, where the system shapes our view. I find it deeply grounding as a metadata professional, seeing the ebb and flow of data, how it can help tell a greater story, how what we don’t record often says as much about an item, and about us, as what we do record. I’m hopeful we can make space for some work on identifying systemic biases in our metadata; our cataloguing policies mandate the use of AIATSIS headings and AUSTLANG codes for First Nations materials, but is that actually happening? How comprehensive is that data corpus?
I’m acutely mindful of not wanting to use these powers to dump on our put-upon cataloguers who already have loads of people telling them what to do and minimal agency over how they do it. Trust me, I used to be one of them. I don’t want to reinforce that cycle. I would much prefer to work with cataloguers and their supervisors to show them the big-picture insight that I didn’t have, to empower them to select the right vocabs for the right material, and to record what needs recording. In data, as in horticulture, many hands make light work.
I might have become a caretaker at work, but this year we were all also caretakers of each other. Taking care as well as giving care. It intrigues me that ‘caretaker’ and ‘caregiver’ mean broadly the same thing: the former is more detached, as if tending to a thing or an inanimate object, while the latter is closer, more familial: a responsible adult. To ‘take care’ means to look after oneself, while being a ‘caretaker’ means looking after something else. I am thankful to those who cared for me during my darkest hours. I have drawn great strength from the care of close friends, for whom my gratitude is everlasting. Without you I would not be here.
It’s safe to say my professional responsibilities took a back seat this year. I hope next year to get the ALIA ACORD comms up and running, complete some work for the VALA Committee, and sort out whatever else I said yes to. (Honestly I’ve completely forgotten.) I did give one talk this year, a presentation on critlib for the ANZTLA. I hope it can help grow some new conversations in the theological library sector.
In 2020 I somehow wrote 15 blog posts, including five for GLAM Blog Club. Usually I’d note my favourite post of the year, but honestly writing anything was so difficult that I’m nominating them all. I think ‘The martyr complex’ hit a nerve, though. I despair for library workers overseas, still having to open their doors to the public in manifestly unsafe conditions. Apparently CILIP CEO Nick Poole has been reading this blog, so if you see this, Mr Poole, you must call for the urgent closure of all public libraries in Tier 4. Nobody ever died from not having a book to read.
I’m saying this out loud because I need to, as much as I want to: next year I am absolutely doing less library professional busywork. It has to stop. I know I’ve said this before—my goal for 2020 was ‘to do less while doing better’ and look how that panned out—but I actually am gonna do it now. I need less of all this in my life. Less computers. More nature. Less doomscrolling. More reading. Less zooming. More walking. Less horror. More consciousness. Less overwhelm. More saying no to things. Please don’t take it to heart if you hear me say no a bit more next year. It’s not you, it’s me.
In part I can promise these good things to myself because I live in a city that currently has one covid case. One. A single one. Life is relatively normal here, barely anyone wears a mask (though I did get yelled at by an old man the other day for not keeping 1.5 metres away from him… on a bus). I have mental space for this stuff in a way the northern hemisphere does not. In some ways it feels like living in a postmodern remake of On the Beach, but as difficult as my life is right now, it could all have been so much worse.
The pandemic accelerated social changes I had already seen coming. I had long ago vowed to live a smaller life. I gave up flying almost three years ago for climate reasons, deciding instead to explore my own country, understand more deeply my own city and surroundings, while trying to detach myself from endless grim horrors abroad. I am powerless to help and can only absorb so much. I am needed here. I can do good here, now, in this place, in this time.
Logically I know my good fortune, but my brain persists in telling me otherwise. I was already very unwell at the start of this year; in many ways the coronavirus outbreak was the final straw. This time last year I was having a panic attack in a friend’s backyard. This time nine months ago I was being admitted to the psych ward. My illness was life-threatening. I did not expect to see Christmas.
To the extent I have any goals for next year—other than continuing to not die—I hope to do more of the things I enjoy, rather than reading about them in books. Books have long been my way of making sense of the world; according to my mother I learned to read at the age of 2 1/2 and would happy babble away reading the newspaper (sometimes I even understood it, too). Books make sense in a way people never have. Books are solid, portable, dependable, usually upfront about things, and even if they’re not it can occasionally be fun to decode or divine their real meaning. Books generally have a point. People often have no point and are seldom upfront about things. It makes life deeply frustrating.
Another book I acquired just before lockdown was Lucy Jones’ Losing Eden: how our minds need the wild. It’s still in a moving box, stored away due to lack of shelf space. But I’m sure the author would be just as happy if people took her message to heart and ventured outside a bit more anyway. I couldn’t face it during April, when going outside was dumb and illegal, but perhaps this coming year, in my suspiciously covid-free paradise, would be a good time to revisit.
My goal is not to lessen my reading. I didn’t finish a single book this year. And that’s okay because I kinda had bigger things to deal with. But instead of reading about the delights of nature, I think I would prefer to experience them myself. Like many in the book professions, I have a terrible habit of buying really interesting-looking books, placing them on a shelf, and then acting as if I have read them and absorbed their wisdom by osmosis. I would like to read more, but I would also like to go outside more, walk more, take flower photos more, cycle more, do the things instead of reading about them. I hope to take care of myself. I hope to take care of others. I hope others might still take care of me.
This is the prepared transcript of ‘Knowledge is power: an introduction to critical librarianship’, a talk I was invited to give at a professional development day for the NSW branch of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association (ANZTLA). It was my first time delivering a virtual talk, which I found a lot less stressful than doing a regular talk because there’s no roomful of people creating a tense atmosphere. The Q&A was great and overall it was a really nice experience.
You will note that this is a very gentle talk. I was acutely aware that for a lot of attendees I represented their first experience of critlib theory and practice; a search of the literature for ‘critical librarianship’ and ‘theological libraries’ brought up precisely zero results, which strongly suggests to me that critlib isn’t (yet) a thing in this sector. I wrote this talk for a very particular audience. I tried to meet them where they are by using rather less fiery rhetoric than I’m known for, in an effort to ameliorate, rather than alienate. It’s broadly based on the article ‘Recognising critical librarianship’, which I wrote for inCite in January. I hope I could help kickstart some new conversations for theological librarians.
Thank you all for having me. It’s an honour to be invited to speak today. I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands we’re meeting on, and in particular the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, custodians of the land I live and work on, which we now know as Canberra. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who have joined us today.
My name is Alissa McCulloch and I believe that knowledge is power. The knowledge held by libraries, and distributed through the work of librarians like yourselves, can empower our users to do incredible things.
But knowledge, much like power, is not evenly distributed. Librarianship is steeped in tradition, but those traditions aren’t all worth keeping. The structure of librarianship can work to exclude, marginalise and harm people even before they’ve walked in the door. We like to think of libraries as spaces where everyone is welcome. But not everyone is made welcome in a library. What can we do about that?
We can start by exploring something called critical librarianship. You might also hear this referred to as #critlib. Applying a different ethical lens to the work we do every day. Doing things differently, in order to do them better.
Before I go on, I do need to emphasise that this talk represents solely my own opinions. These views are all mine and definitely not my employer’s! (But I think they’re pretty good views, so you know what, maybe they should be.)
The term ‘critical librarianship’ has come to describe two related but distinct approaches to library work. The first is the idea of ‘bringing social justice to library work’, or, How might libraries advance social justice issues, or achieve social justice goals? How can we make librarianship fairer, more accessible, and more equal to all our users?
Throughout this talk I’ll use the words ‘librarian’ and ‘library worker’ interchangeably: critical librarianship applies to, and can be practised by, everyone who works in libraries.
In other words: it’s one thing to advocate for social justice in libraries, but it’s quite another to think about where and why is there social injustice in libraries in the first place.
Overdue fines, for instance. We’ve been fining people forever as an incentive to get them to return their books on time. We kept doing it because we thought it was effective, but it turns out the evidence for this is ambivalent at best. More importantly, in many cases fines can actively deter people from wanting to use the library, particularly low-income people who might already have racked up a heap of fines they can’t repay, or are scared of doing so (or their children doing so by accident). The kinds of people who can least afford to pay library fines are often the kinds of people the library most wants to attract—people who may also have lower literacy levels, who have small children, who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and (in academic libraries at least) people who might be first-in-family to attend university, or who might otherwise be struggling academically. Library fines are a social justice issue. It’s great that many public libraries have gotten rid of library fines, but I’m not so sure that many academic and research libraries have followed in their stead.
Much as we might like to sometimes, as librarians we can’t fix everything. We can’t solve these kinds of systemic injustices out there in the world. We can’t address the factors that contribute to library users being unable to pay their library fines. But we can do something about how those injustices manifest in the library. We can counteract that here, in this space that we maintain, in this time that we have. (We can do that by getting rid of library fines in the first place.)
Let’s come now to some key tenets of critical librarianship, which include:
Bringing progressive values to professional practice—using libraries and library work to build a more equal and just society, and to actively address systemic harms as they manifest in the library (so things like systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and so on).
Part of this means actively questioning existing library structures, standards and workflows, and doing so through a particular ethical lens. Not just going ‘why do we do that thing’ or ‘how can we do this better’, which should be a normal part of good library practice, but ‘who does this harm’ or ‘whose interests are best served by us doing this thing’?
Being a librarian doesn’t automatically make us better or more virtuous people. It just means we get paid to help people find stuff. It’s not a calling. It’s not the priesthood. It’s just a job. (But it’s a job worth doing well, and in some respects worth doing differently)
There is no such thing as library neutrality—libraries are not, and cannot be, neutral. The core business of librarianship involves making a lot of moral and ethical decisions, such as ‘do we buy this book’ or ‘do we let this group use a meeting room’ or ‘do we pay this vendor this amount of money’. Those decisions are made in line with a given set of values. Not making a decision is a value choice. Trying to present ‘both sides’ of a given issue is also a value choice. I might disagree with a lot of traditional library values, but they are not the bastions of righteous neutrality they claim to be. Critlib values are a bit more upfront about this fact.
Traditional library values, like the ones you and I were taught in library school, place a high premium on things like intellectual freedom and Western liberalism. We say we’re not just about books anymore, but libraries are a key part of a book-based knowledge system. For the most part, the knowledge we store and deliver, and the knowledge we tend to trust, is stuff that’s been written down, and a traditional library is a building where that written-down knowledge is kept and safeguarded.
Critical library values, on the other hand, focus on things like harm reduction (which I’ll come back to a bit later) and progressive, socialist values (which you might think of as being a bit ‘left-wing’ but I don’t think the left wing–right wing dichotomy is terribly useful these days). Critical librarianship recognises the validity and deep importance of Indigenous and other non-Western knowledge systems, that oral histories and Dreaming stories are valid sources of truth and knowledge, just as much as books. I’ll never forget Jacinta Koolmatrie, an Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri woman, teaching her audience at the New Librarians’ Symposium last year that for Aboriginal people, the land is their library, that knowledge and wisdom inheres in the landscape, and it deserves our care and protection in the same way libraries do. The recent loss of Djab Wurrung sacred Directions trees east of Ararat in Victoria is just as great a cultural loss as the destruction of a library.
Sometimes people can misinterpret the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical librarianship’, and think that we’re all just about having a big whinge, or that it’s a professional excuse to be rude or disparaging about library work. And I just want to make clear that that’s not what we’re about.
It’s about making the profession better by recognising harmful practices and oppressive structures, dismantling those things and building better ones in their stead. It’s about leaving the profession in a better state than when we found it. We critique because we care. I have a lot of feelings about librarianship! And I care very deeply about what I do. If people didn’t care so deeply about the profession, we wouldn’t be spending all this energy on making all this noise and doing all this work.
Over the next few slides I’ll take you through some of the ways critical librarianship intersects with my work. I’ve spent my career largely in back-of-house roles, what you might traditionally call ‘technical services’, so things like collection development, cataloguing, and my newest role in library systems. Naturally critlib happens front-of-house too! And there is quite a lot of literature on critical reference and critical information literacy. But I’ll leave that analysis to others.
Critlib comes up most often, and is probably most immediately visible, in the realm of collection development and acquisitions—looking at the materials your library collects and provides. Think for a moment about who your library collects. Are the bulk of your materials written or created by old white guys? Now I get that in a theological library, the answer is likely to be yes. Think about how many of your materials are written or created by women? People of colour? Indigenous people? Queer people? Disabled people? Combinations thereof? It’s not just about a variety of theoretical or academic views, and it’s also not about collecting other voices for the sake of it. It’s about making different perspectives and life experiences visible in your library’s collection. It sends a message that the library doesn’t just belong to old white guys—that it belongs to all whose views and life experiences are included here.
It’s one thing to have materials representing the diversity of human experience, but it also matters what those materials say. It’s no good having materials about Indigenous issues that were all written by white people thirty years ago, or things about homosexuality written by straight people who deny our humanity. The adage of ‘nothing about us without us’ holds especially true.
Theological libraries are naturally quite specialised and so you’re unlikely to be collecting material that doesn’t fit your collection development policy. A book on landscape architecture or whale-watching might be very interesting, but not relevant to the work of your institution. If you choose not to purchase it, it’s not censorship. It’s a curatorial decision. Whale-watching’s not in the CDP.
Similarly, a public library (in my view) should not feel obliged to purchase a copy of a text by a far-right provocateur if they feel that doing so would not be in their community’s best interests, or would cause demonstrable harm. They’re not denying their community the ability to read the book—they’re simply choosing not to stock it. In this instance, they’re applying the concept of harm minimisation to library collection development, prioritising community wellbeing and cohesion over the intellectual freedom of an individual. This situation might be different in an academic library, where they may feel the research value of such a book outweighs the potential harm it could cause. Potentially this decision could be contextualised in the book’s catalogue record, which I’ll come to in a second. But these are individual curatorial decisions for each library. They are made in accordance with that library’s values, and they are certainly not neutral.
Now, you might hear this and go ‘well how is that any different to, say, a parent demanding a school or public library remove a picture book about gay parents, claiming it is harming their child’? How is that different to the library I’ve just described deciding to remove, or not purchase, a hateful rant by a far-right author? Besides, shouldn’t we be trying to present ‘both sides’ of an issue, for balance? My answer to this is: by retaining the book about gay parents we are affirming their humanity and place in society; we recognise that they are not seeking to harm anyone just by existing; and we are validating their story. By not purchasing the far-right book we are doing the opposite; we are choosing not to do those things. We’re not censoring the book—we’re just not validating it. False balance is harmful and does our users a deep disservice. That’s a values decision, and if it were up to me it’s one I would stand by.
Or, put slightly differently… ‘something to offend everyone’ is not a collection development policy.
Until last week I was a full-time cataloguer, so critical cataloguing and metadata is kind of my speciality. I’m endlessly fascinated by how libraries describe and arrange their collections, whether it be on a shelf or on a screen.
As many of you will likely be aware, the religion section of the Dewey Decimal Classification has traditionally allocated quite a lot of space to Christianity and comparatively little space to other religions. You may be interested to know that the editors recently released an optional alternative arrangement for the 200s, which attempts to address some of these structural biases and make the distribution of religions a little more equitable.
Dewey has also historically copped a lot of flak for classifying works on Indigenous and First Nations spirituality, including Dreaming and creation stories, as ‘folk tales’ in 398.2 and not in the religion section. Dewey itself has instructed since about the mid-90s that such works should be considered religious, and classified as such. The fact this grievance has persisted for so long suggests a pattern of unconscious bias on the part of the cataloguer—they might not have recognised Indigenous spirituality as a ‘religion’ in the Western sense, and so didn’t classify this stuff there. But this lack of recognition is very obvious to Indigenous people, and it matters.
By the way, has anyone ever thought about how weird it is that we use Library of Congress Subject Headings? Like, we’re not the Library of Congress, we’re not Americans, we’re not government librarians, but we use their vocabulary and we inherit their biases. We do this mostly out of convenience and because it’s more efficient to use somebody else’s record, but I often wonder how useful or meaningful this language is in Australian libraries. I’d love to see more widespread use of things like the AIATSIS vocabularies for Indigenous content, which are designed to reflect an Indigenous worldview, and specify—that is, give names to, and therefore surface in catalogue records—issues and concepts of importance to Indigenous Australians.
For example, consider the difference between these two headings for Indigenous Australian creation and origin stories. LCSH calls these ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’, while AIATSIS uses the faceted term ‘Religion — Dreaming’. Now, neither of these terms is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but while the LCSH term is pretty clearly from a Western perspective classifying these stories as mythology and not religion, the AIATSIS term does the opposite, in line with Indigenous conceptions of their lore, and recognising their right to describe their culture their way. Using these terms in a library catalogue sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more culturally safe place for Indigenous people. It’s about taking social justice principles of diversity and inclusion, applying critical theory to our controlled vocabularies, and ultimately making better choices in the service of our users. This is critical librarianship. And in my opinion, it’s also the least we can do.
While researching this talk I was really struck by how so many of these historical biases would have traditionally really suited theological libraries—lots of classification real estate for Christianity, detailed LCSH subdivisions for the heading ‘Jesus Christ’, and so on. But I don’t work in a theological library, and I don’t know if that still holds or not.
This week I’ve actually started a new job as a systems librarian, so I’m particularly interested in this facet of critical librarianship. We might not immediately think of systems as being particularly problematic, but systems reflect the biases and perspectives of the people who build them, and to a lesser extent those of people who buy them.
For example, most library catalogues and discovery systems will allow you to rank results based on ‘relevance’. How, exactly, does the system determine what is relevant? How much potential is there for bias in those search results, either because your metadata is incomplete, outdated or otherwise unhelpful; because your system autocompletes what other people search for, and people search for really racist and awful things; or because your system vendor also owns one of the publishers whose content it aggregates, and it suits them to bump that content that they own up the rankings a bit? This happens, believe it or not—there’s a whole book on this topic called ‘Masked by Trust: Bias in Library Discovery’ by Matthew Reidsma, which is excellent (and also sitting in a moving box behind me).
We could also consider the kinds of data that library systems ask for and keep about people. When you sign up new users to the library, which fields are compulsory? Do they have to specify their gender, for instance? Why does the library need to know this about somebody in order to loan them books? What kind of data are we keeping about the books people borrow, their circulation history? How long do we keep it for? Who has access to it? Would we have to give that data to the police if they asked, or had a warrant? (If we didn’t keep that data, we couldn’t then give it to the police, hey.) Is your system vendor quietly siphoning off that circulation data in the background to feed it to their book recommendation algorithm? Do we want them to do that? My local public library actually does this and I really wish they didn’t, to be honest, it makes me very uncomfortable, and frankly it makes me not want to go there.
We want our library systems to have the same kinds of values that we have as people. But more often than not libraries end up functioning in ways that suit our systems. To me, that seems a bit backward. I firmly believe that systems should work for people, not the other way around.
To me, this sentiment lies at the heart of critical librarianship. So much of this discourse gets tied up in misunderstandings over whether libraries are, or should be, political. You’ll notice I’ve avoided using the word ‘political’ in this talk for this reason, because people interpret the question of whether libraries should be political to mean ‘supporting one political party over another’ or ‘supporting the activities of government’, and that’s not what critlib means. Everything I’ve outlined today is a political act. Many of them are progressive acts. But they are not partisan acts. They are acts that are conscious of the power they wield, and consciously try to direct that power in support of building libraries that better reflect and support the communities they serve. These acts are steeped in an ethic of care. Libraries do not exist in a moral and political vacuum. We are part of society, too. And we as library workers can do our bit to help make our society better.
It has taken a very long time for organisations like ALA to come to this party. I have lost almost all hope that ALIA will ever show up, but we will welcome them when they do. There’s a lot of work ahead. Let’s get started.
I’ve been thinking about this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme (‘invalid’) all month, though as usual I’m writing this post with hours to spare. ‘Invalid’ is one of those neat words with two pronunciations and two different, but related, meanings. ˈɪnvəlɪd. ɪnˈvalɪd. Which to write about? This year I’ve been both, but together they characterise something else: a lack of agency.
Events of this cursed year have robbed us of our agency: collectively isolated, forbidden by law to leave home unless for a specified purpose, unable to live our lives in ways we might ourselves choose. These events didn’t necessarily invalidate us, but they did invalid a lot of us, directly and indirectly. I’ve spent almost all year being an invalid to varying degrees. I’ve needed a lot of looking after. I’ve thought a lot about the rights and abilities of the chronically ill and disabled to make decisions about our own lives. I consider myself lucky to have retained those rights when they counted, but there’s a lot I couldn’t do, and it frustrated me deeply.
My illness conspired to strip me of my agency. So did my work, in a way.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this about cataloguing. I suspect it didn’t quite catalyse until I moved roles last week, where I now work with metadata very differently. I had no control over the material I processed—being in the legal deposit business meant I catalogued whatever turned up in the post—and no control over any of the structures, systems or standards that governed my work. We’ve all heard cataloguing described as ‘glorified data entry’, yet cataloguers have virtually no say in the design of the form, or how their painstakingly-entered data is used.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t always like this. Cataloguers designed traditional catalogue cards and wrote maddeningly specific rules on how to squeeze as much information as possible on a three-by-five-inch index card. Cataloguers devised added entries and filing rules. From this angle, it feels like the cataloguers of yesteryear had far greater agency over their work. Cataloguing rules were still necessary (and strictly enforced), but there was far greater scope and possibility for local practices, as locally-produced cards weren’t often distributed beyond their immediate library. More to the point, this structural work was conducted by cataloguers themselves, and it feels as if there were more opportunities to shape cataloguing policies at various levels.
Modern library systems are very different. It feels like there is no overlap whatsoever between system designers, system developers, and system data managers. Our data formats, our descriptive standards, our implementation policies, our controlled vocabularies, our classification systems: none of these are up to us. The advent of library automation in the latter half of the 20th century brought computer science into libraries, and with it computer scientists and IT professionals. People, usually men, with very different ideas about data and a dislinclination to listen to those who’ve been there before. Our sphere of influence shrank as our data and systems were ruthlessly standardised—by other people, who were suddenly more ‘technical’ than we were.
You’d be forgiven for guffawing slightly at this point, muttering something about cataloguers being on a power trip. Certainly the stereotype of cataloguers as rules-obsessed authority control freaks has some merit behind it. But I’ve come to understand that many cataloguers are like this because it’s just about the only aspect of their work that they can control. For many people, blindly enforcing cataloguing rules with scant regard for local sensitivities is the only agency they have left.
Contemporary cataloguing practice is characterised by a lack of influence over what data to record, how that data is processed and displayed, and the extent to which that data is shared. It doesn’t invalidate our data, but it does call into question how cataloguers can best fulfil their professional responsibilities. I want to be clear that this is a systemic problem, by no means unique to me and my career history. But I do wonder if other metadata librarians feel this as keenly as I have. Do others chafe against a monolithic metadata enterprise over which they have zero control? Does the supposed interoperability of our data instead consign it to irrelevance? Does our drive for efficiency compromise our values? Would our libraries be better if library workers had greater control over their data systems?
I’m lucky to be in a better place now. My new job grants me considerable agency, my health continues to gradually improve, and my bad days now are still better than my good days three months ago. But I’ve been an ˈɪnvəlɪd, an ill person, working with ɪnˈvalɪd data, which didn’t fit the system. For much of this year I had almost no agency in either my personal or professional life. It’s hard to live like that. I hope not to make a habit of it, but there’s a lot beyond my control.