See, this is what I should have sung at karaoke the other day. Or something by Erasure, since it turns out Andy Bell and I have the same vocal range (who doesn’t want a little respect?). But that’s for another blog club, while this month we take some time out from changing the world to write about it.
For the longest time, the words ‘change’ and ‘cataloguing’ haven’t sat well together. Cataloguers are stereotyped as change-averse pedants who prioritise rule-following over user-helping. You’ve all heard the joke about how many cataloguers it takes to change a lightbulb, I’m sure (WHAT?! CHANGE??!?!?!). Lord knows I’ve met enough people who embody this stereotype, much as I’d like to disclaim it. And yet, to me, change is the only constant. I’ve never known a professional existence where change has been optional, and so I accept it, and go with the flow.
I glance over to my copy of Radical cataloging: essays at the front, a 2007 compendium of critical and radical analysis of cataloguing in North America. A lot has changed in the eleven years since the book was published, the biggest change being the replacement of AACR2 with RDA. With that change came a complete overhaul in how catalogue data was meant to be theorised and perceived by cataloguers—no longer card-based, but element-based, with the promise of linking those elements together in new and exciting ways. For better or worse I learned to catalogue after the introduction of RDA, but I hear there was much wailing and teeth-gnashing as the changes were introduced. People seem over it now, though.
Many of the chapters in Radical cataloging don’t seem all that radical to me, now. Yes, LCSH is unfit for the myriad of purposes we’re now putting it to. Yes, controlled subject access is practically dead (but that’s because our systems don’t harness our data well enough, not because the data itself is suddenly worthless). Yes, we should bend and/or break cataloguing rules where there are clear benefits for users. Yes, cataloguing remains a necessary and sought-after skill. Change and deviation from established standards doesn’t seem as radical to me as perhaps it did to others a decade ago. I find myself disagreeing with, though nonetheless respecting, some of the deeply-held views about the value of a rigorously-constructed catalogue. But I was raised on Google, so what would I know?
People have written entire books about how cataloguers cope with change (and I’m kicking myself for not having read that one before writing this post). Tina Gross’ chapter ‘Who moved my pinakes?’ in Radical cataloging blasts the old stereotype out of the water—that cataloguers do not oppose change for change’s sake, but rather because proposed changes are not considered to be in users’ best interests. Joan E. Schuitema’s chapter ‘The current cataloging landscape: a therapist’s perspective’ from The psychology of librarianship examines cataloguers’ experiences of trauma as a direct result of having the professional rug pulled out from under them.
And yet I suspect it’s no accident that the LCSH ‘Change’ lists ‘Catastrophical, The’ as a related term. Not all change is catastrophical, but all catastrophes are change.
If it were up to me, I know what I’d change. I would work with systems librarians and developers to better integrate our existing name and subject taxonomies into keyword-search interfaces. I would ensure our data formats recorded each element of bibliographic information once per item, and once only. I would break the Anglophone world’s inexplicable dependence on LCSH and help each sector build new and better vocabularies. I would decentralise cataloguing, by which I mean I would work to ensure a library’s users had a direct say in how its collections were described. But most importantly, I would finish off the cataloguer stereotype once and for all.
That used to be us. I think you’ll find we’ve changed.
Most days I get enough sleep, eat a reasonable breakfast, get to work on time, look and feel on the surface like I’m awake, but it’s only a shell. It’s been a tough year. I’ve started a new job, I’ve been sick a lot, and I still can’t stop saying ‘yes’ to things.
When I’m in the right headspace, everything is doable, and I proudly tell people that I’d love to get things done for them. But when I’m in the wrong headspace, everything feels insurmountable, and I don’t want to tell people that because it makes me look like a fraud. I have little to no control over what headspace I wake up in on any given day. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is.
I have a lot on my plate at the moment. Most of it is library-related. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t talk about everything I’ve volunteered my time for, but I’m on a few LIS committees, I have three (!) conference / PD event presentations scheduled in the first half of next year, I do a lot of cataloguing reading and research, and I participate in a couple of miscellaneous LIS projects. I say this not to boast, nor to complain, but rather as an illustration of what happens when I say ‘yes’ to everything, because I’m still a little stunned that people ask me to do anything at all.
The problem is that whenever I look at my never-ending to-do list, my short-circuiting brain misinterprets ‘these are things you need to do’ as ‘these are things you need to do RIGHT NOW’. Consequently I panic a lot about how much I haven’t done. The problem is, as usual, a lack of temporal perspective. Some of the things aren’t due for another six months. They can wait. Other things are due last week, so they need more urgent attention.
me: I have so many things I want to do and so much on my plate and an endless stream of ideas, goals and projects
also me: I spend one day every weekend in bed because I’m too exhausted to get up
Did I mention how much I love what I do? I mean this sincerely. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing with my life. But I’m beginning to reach some hard limits on how much I can achieve as an individual. I resent these limits (because who doesn’t want to do all the things?!) while recognising that they are necessary (because we can’t do any of the things if we’re completely exhausted).
Shira Peltzman shared this wonderful flowchart with me, outlining how she decides whether to say yes or no to a professional opportunity. I’ve found it really helpful in evaluating all the things I’ve recently said ‘yes’ to, and whether I should perhaps have made other decisions. The flowchart is also Creative Commons-licensed so you can print it out and stick it next to your desk. Note that most of the arrows point to saying ‘no’. I think I’ll be referring to this flowchart a lot.
There’s a great Mastodon bot called Wollstonecraft BOM, a weather bot for a Sydney suburb I have never been to. Every few hours it spits out some weather data and a forecast, but it also includes a lovely little platitude at the end as a mood-booster, and I follow the account purely for this reason. While I was drafting this post a week ago it said to me, ‘You’re doing the best you can, and good people know it.’ I try to remind myself of this a lot, that I am doing the best I can, even if some days that best is not very good.
Part of me wanted to spike this blog post, that being tired isn’t a good look, professionally. But I want to talk about this stuff. It’s important that we aren’t all hiding behind veneers of perfection, telling the world we have it together while over-caffeinating ourselves into oblivion1, because not talking about being tired is part of how we all became tired in the first place. By admitting our exhaustion, we recognise that things aren’t quite right, and we begin the difficult process of balancing ourselves.
Recently I was made an offer. Quite a good offer. And my response, after considerable thought, was ‘Yes… but’. I never used to ask for concessions or amendments, and I’m not a natural negotiator, but reaching hard limits necessarily entails making sure I don’t exceed them. I’m a little impressed with myself, and very grateful that the offerer was prepared to accommodate me.
I’m still tired, but now I’m looking forward to next year because of all the things I’ve said ‘yes’ to, not in spite of them. I hope this means I’ll find myself in better headspaces, where more good things can happen. 🙂
I was recently forced to give up caffeine cold-turkey for medical reasons. I miss Lady Grey tea really quite a lot, but I think not being able to push myself beyond my natural limits has actually helped me recalibrate. This is a personal view. Your mileage may vary. ↩
ALIA Sydney recently hosted their first Saturday School of Critical Librarianship, a gathering for critically- and radically-minded librarians to talk shop and take stock. It was a seriously full-on day. I spent most of today sleeping it off, and there’s a worryingly large memory gap where a lot of yesterday should have been. But I did remember to jot down a few not-terribly-insightful thoughts.
We are worthy. I awoke in a spaceship at sunrise, to a blistering Twitter discussion on the merits of metadata. (Sounds blissful, really.) I was staying in a capsule hotel, because it turns out Sydney has one and I wanted to try it out, but it was very poorly ventilated and I didn’t get a great sleep. The hot topic of discussion at 6am turned out to be the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), broadly the American equivalent of Trove or Europeana, laying off several staff, apparently including their metadata librarian. Cue spirited conversation about the value institutions place, or don’t place, on their metadata workers. Perversely it was a bit of a personal mood boost:
Honestly existential cataloguing angst at 6am on a Saturday having slept in a spaceship is the mood boost I needed to explain to a bunch of people today why this shit matters. Genuinely. Metadata is just as important as other facets of LIS, and today I’m gonna demonstrate why.
We are facilitators. The word ‘facilitator’ kept cropping up, and it wasn’t just because a few of us had been asked to ‘facilitate’, or lend our expertise to, various breakout sessions. Instead the word arose organically as a way to describe how we might envision a future, more critical (or radical) librarianship. Historically our profession has been structured around either having the answers or knowing where to find them (that is, in our collections), but might we instead take our lead from our patrons and communities? Whether it’s building collections, planning programs or cataloguing our library’s contents, there’s a lot to be said for not just listening to, or consulting with, our patrons—but actively listening to how their collections and programs and knowledge and memory ought to be managed, which we could then use our LIS skills to make happen.
We are, um, not all cataloguers. I stayed for all three iterations of the rotating breakout discussions on cataloguing, as I had been asked to help guide this discussion (I tried to move to another topic but found myself blurting out ‘my people need me’). I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I did a very good job. I wish I’d been better prepared and had more structured discussion topics. As it was, the conversation drifted from cataloguing into collection development, preservation of time-based media art, and systems librarianship. This suggested to me that people didn’t really know what to say, or felt they had nothing to say, or waited for me to do all the talking (and I still feel like I talked too much). But perhaps that in turn suggests that critical tech services in general is under-theorised and under-discussed, especially in Australia, and especially by non-tech services staff.
I was reluctant to steer the conversation back to cataloguing, figuring that people were talking about what was interesting and meaningful to them. If you were hoping I would do more active facilitating then I am sorry. But I hope people enjoyed the discussions nonetheless.
We are critical radical librarians! So this happened:
I think my group(s) have decided that instead of ‘critical librarianship’, a very American term, they’d prefer ‘radical librarianship’. Less negative-sounding, more empowering, inspires action #SydCritLib
I know there was more to this conversation that my poor memory chose not to retain, but I found it interesting that we chose to critique the very name of our fledgling local movement. I think a few attendees took ‘critical’ to mean ‘criticising everything, unproductively’, rather than the more nuanced meaning assigned it by critical theory. The hashtag-critlib movement began in the United States, I understand principally from infolit and instruction librarians in university libraries, and it is running the risk of becoming a bit cliquey. I also had Nora Almeida’s chapter ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’ from the LJP critlib book in the back of my head during this discussion. Personally, I think ‘radical librarianship’ sounds friendlier and has a more activist tone. But I also really liked Andrew’s take on it from afar:
It’s a good point – though I like the association of “critical” with being inward-looking and identifying the things that need to change internally. I feel that, too often “radical” is associated with changing the external world to meet a fixed agenda.
We can’t do it all. I really liked a point Kirsty Thorpe made about gaining power through focus—as library workers, choosing an area to focus on and directing energies towards making that area better, focusing on a couple of select things we can do, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly on things we can’t.
This was part of a broader discussion near the end of the day about power, and it prompted me to reflect on how much power I have within LIS. At my workplace, an institution fond of bureaucracy, I often feel powerless because all the decisions are made above me and I can’t change established practices or standards. Yet people from elsewhere look at me and go ‘You work where!? You have so much power! You can get things done!’ Plus I have managed to accomplish a couple of things in cataloguing entirely independently of wherever I have worked. And I wondered if this meant I had power because… people think I do? As in, they recognise power in me and they act accordingly? (Is this Schrödinger’s power?!) So what can I do with this power that I may or may not have, to push for change within LIS, and within my institution?
Also, we give a crap. We all showed up on a Saturday, some of us (including me) having come from out of town, because we care about our profession and we want to do better and do differently. There was a lot of talk about further critlib schools in Sydney, as well as opportunities to coalesce around shared or common goals. I really hope these come to fruition, because there’s really nothing like an in-person gathering to network with like-minded people and galvanise us into action. But next time I’m in Sydney, I think I’ll stay somewhere with functioning windows. And maybe a door.
“No longer are we just librarians. We do event planning, we are IT experts, and we are counsellors as well,” she says.
The branch manager interviewed in this story has worked in libraries for 27 years—so, as long as I’ve been alive. A certain generation gap is therefore expected. But I was bitterly disappointed to read her description of the librarians she leads.
We are not event planners. We are not IT experts. We are certainly not counsellors. We are not trained—or paid—to be these things. There are other people who are professionals in these areas. It is dishonest to represent ourselves to the public as something we’re not. Social workers in libraries are not a new idea. If your library gets a lot of queries that a social worker would be best-placed to answer… why not hire one? Why not make space? Why do librarians feel the need to be what we’re not? Why aren’t we good enough for ourselves? How would we feel if other professions borrowed the term ‘librarian’ and added it to their description because they have a shelf of books in their office?
I bristle at the suggestion that being a librarian is somehow not good enough. Being information conductors, book recommenders, storytime leaders, metadata stewards… these are good things to be. I am a cataloguer. And proud of it. I am not an event planner, or an IT expert, or a counsellor. When I sit at the circ desk I remain none of those things, even if patrons ask me questions that might require those skills.
By positing ourselves as ‘more than just librarians’, we implicitly devalue our skills and experience as library workers. Skills which, we keep hearing, are vital in our age of declining public information literacy and plummeting trust in politicians and the press. It also narrows the perception of what a librarian can or should be, as if library work and library skills can’t grow or adapt in line with the communities we serve. As if community outreach, fixing printers, or sensitive reference queries aren’t already part of the librarian skillset.
I didn’t sign up for a postgraduate degree in self-loathing. If this profession can’t learn to value itself, then I want no part of it.
I am proud to be a librarian. It’s taken me a while to be able to say that again, but I know there’s nothing else I would rather be. I know what skills I can offer the public, and where my limits are. Most importantly, I know when to refer a patron to someone better able to help. I don’t pretend to be something else. I am not ‘just’ a librarian. I am a librarian. With all the skills and knowledge that entails.
Being a librarian is good enough for me. It ought to be good enough for all of us.
Here’s another completely irregular roundup of some cool online things I’ve been reading recently. I haven’t taken any trains anywhere, but I have been unwell a lot, which leaves plenty of time for reading and introspection. This collection of pocket detritus has a more techy flavour.
Ethira / Amalia Ulman, Net Art Anthology
Like Twitter, but with more void. Part of Rhizome‘s fantastic Net Art Anthology series, bringing defunct works of mobile and net art back to the living internet, Ethira (2013-2014) was an artist’s book contained in an iOS app—a social network where users could post completely anonymous messages, which vanished shortly afterwards. I love its anti-capitalist ethos, freeing users from the tyanny of their online selves, and relieving them of any ability to archive their experiences on the platform. I wish Ethira had not met the same fate as the messages it transmitted. I think I’d get a lot of use out of it.
How to Build a Low-Tech Website? / Kris De Decker, Low←Tech Magazine
Speaking of the living internet: we tend to forget just how bad modern computing is for the planet. Global network infrastructures use insane amounts of energy, with more and more of our computing moving to cloud-based interfaces. We have it in our heads that doing things electronically is better for our environment because it ‘saves paper’, yet we don’t think about the energy and materials required to build that electronic infrastructure.
This piece from Low←Tech Magazine discusses their efforts to move to a solar-powered web server (so the site may go offline if it’s raining in Barcelona) and to reduce the site’s carbon footprint by way of static-site generators and dithered images. It’s absolutely brilliant. It consciously puts its money where its mouth is (getting rid of Google Adsense was another energy-saving decision). But it also wrenches the site back from the endless void of cyberspace and firmly plants it in an earth-based space and time, resituating the virtual in the physical, and reminding the user that there is always an environmental cost to computing.
I’m reminded of my own failed attempts to move this site off WordPress and onto something more static (and hence sustainable). It doesn’t help that I learned all my web development skills from issues of Double Helix magazine when I was ten.
A Culture of ‘No’ / Nicole Eva, Journal of New Librarianship (via @clareifications) I’ve never been one to take ‘no’ for an answer. Sadly, it’s an answer libraries hear—and give—all too frequently, usually for the wrong reasons. This fantastic article discusses academic libraries in particular and why they’re so keen to say ‘no’ to things. The author suspects it’s due to the kind of people who wind up in libraries in the first place, and frankly I’m inclined to agree. Despite the occasional eruption of socialist fury, we remain at heart a conservative profession, preferring steadiness and continuity over the kind of change that might just save our jobs. Nicole Eva’s palpable frustration has gifted us a whole article’s worth of pull quotes. I think I’ll be reading this again.
is death for WEB sites as us / Olia Lialina, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age
Remember Geocities? The beautiful, horrifying, free web hosting service where good taste and good web design went to die? It took until 2009 for Geocities to finally die, but in 2002 a series of deeply unpopular site decisions by its new owners Yahoo! caused hordes of angry <marquee> users and GIF enthusiasts to pack up and move elsewhere on the web. Drawing from the terabyte of Geocities data rescued by Archive Team and seeded on BitTorrent, net artist Olia Lialina (also featured on Net Art Anthology with her seminal 1996 work ‘My boyfriend came back from the war‘) illustrates how early web users fiercely defended their idiosyncratic online spaces, in the face of demands for conformity.
The archaeology of (flash) memory / Gabriel Moshenska, Post-Medieval Archaeology Not open-access (but accessible remotely with an NLA library card) is this fascinating tale of a 2009-era USB stick buried at the edge of a school oval and unearthed three years later as part of landscaping works. Using archaeological methods, the author and team studied the USB stick and retrieved its contents, which included schoolwork files, music and videos, suggesting it belonged to a local schoolboy. This kind of digital archaeology will be familiar to most digital preservation professionals, but may well be new to researchers in other disciplines.
Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals / Madison Sullivan, ACRLog
I missed this brilliant piece in 2016, and I don’t want you to miss it either. Besides, it’s completely true. A lot of professionals are crackpots. People who go around demanding performative ‘professionalism’ but who are in fact contributing to isolating and toxic workplaces, where people feel unsafe to bring their whole selves to work. There ought to be no place for this in modern librarianship—we’re meant to all be in this together. Madison unfairly copped a lot of crap from librarians when this was first published, and sadly I can see why. I also see a lot of myself in this post, both the old and the new. I’m probably not the most professional librarian floating around, but I was, and still hope to be, one of those people ‘who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change’. Because deep down, I still think librarianship is something worth doing. I hope you do, too.
This month, the denizens of GLAM Blog Club are asked to consider the strange. I should find this easy. I’ve built a career on cataloguing the strange things. But these days, I am a stranger to myself. Two months ago I had a nervous breakdown in the service of cataloguing. I’ve been unwell and in pain ever since, and modern medicine has few answers. I’m no longer in crisis, but I’m still not the cataloguer I used to be. I resent the circumstances that brought me here. What happened to good health and good spirits? Why isn’t the metadata mojo back yet? I don’t understand.
It’s so strange. And so frustrating.
I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
It’s difficult to inhabit this cloak of self because it used to be skin-tight. I radiated cataloguing enthusiasm, online and off. It came so naturally. It was awesome. These days it’s harder. I speak cataloguing fluently, but the words feel wooden, like someone else’s false teeth. It’s strange to feel this way. It’s not the natural order of things. Sometimes people talk to my old self, not knowing she’s a stranger to me now, and it stings in many places. It feels like a betrayal of those who follow my work, but I’ve been firmly told that it’s not, so I try to believe them. Can’t shake the shadow of false advertising.
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
And yet all things must surely pass. What was once strange becomes normal, even valued. I’d like to think that two years of Cataloguing the Universe have swayed a few minds on the nature and value of library metadata, and shined a light on our (often invisible) labour. Most librarians probably still think cataloguing is a strange, dull thing performed by strange, dull people. That’s okay. At least now there’s a small corpus of posts on this blog that suggest otherwise, if they’re interested.
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
Sometimes I feel a spark. On a path, in a pub, on the twitters. A spark of what I used to be, and what I might become. Putting the cloak back on and hoping I’ve grown to fit it. Accepting temporal realities while hoping to create others. Waving at my old self, though she’ll never wave back. Turning and facing the strange.
This week I plan to wear all my library-themed items of clothing to work. It’s at once a piece of 650 #0 $a Performance art, an excuse to show off 650 #0 $a Librarians $x Clothing, an attempt to change 650 #0 $a Catalogers $x Public opinion and a way to improve 600 00 $a Alissa $g (@lissertations) $x Health.1 It’s probably strange to even own library-themed t-shirts. It’s undoubtedly stranger to describe them using Library of Congress Subject Headings.
It comes so naturally. Why isn’t it real?
(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
One day I will accept that the old me isn’t coming back. There might be a new and improved me in the future, who has recovered from ill-health and is ready to forge a new path. Someone who can draw on her experiences to create meaningful and long-lasting cataloguing reform. Someone who knows her limitations, and is prepared to do less for a time, if it means doing better later.
That person is also a stranger. I can’t wait for us to meet.
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time
This is not my actual authorised access point. But I wish it were. ↩
Being a known article-hoarder, I was inspired recently to start cleaning out my piles of collected internet writing (I would not deign to call it an ‘archive’, it’s far too poorly organised). I’ve been posting some of the best articles to twitter using #emptythepocket, but each article’s presence in the collective consciousness of my followers is brief, and some articles deserve a longer digestion period.
Inspired by Hugh Rundle’s Marginaliaseries, here is a selection of articles I read—in this order—on the train to Melbourne. (Where possible I avoid flying, because it’s bad for the planet and also highly unpleasant.) It’s a nice summary of my reading interests: critical cataloguing, psychogeography, writings from friends, human ecology, and a great big rant about librarianship, because I love it and also hate it. So much.
Can walking be a feminist act? / Anna Chilvers, Caught by the River
This was a great piece on the fear felt by women walking the countryside, walking after dark, walking alone. We are afraid not of the unknown, but of known dangers—not of the wilderness, but of men. I was immediately reminded of the Lone Women in Flashes of Wildernessproject by Clare Archibald, as well as the zine A short nightwalk through Lyons from Saorsa Free Press (which may or may not be a side project of mine).
17 Days in Malaysia, Part One / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound
I’d been following the goings-on at the 2018 IFLA conference on twitter (plus the occasional culinary delight) but I enjoyed the first part of Andrew’s longer-form wrap-up of his sojourn in Singapore and Malaysia. Didn’t envy him the tropical weather, though.
The New Ecological Situationists: On the Revolutionary Aesthetics of Climate Justice and Degrowth / Aaron Vansintjan, Never Apart
Aaron co-edits Uneven Earth, an environmental justice blog. He writes for Never Apart at the intersection of psychogeography and climate change nihilism, two particular interests of mine, and does so with grace and depth. The absurdity of most environmental action (no, you can’t just ‘shut down’ a power station) contrasts with an acknowledged need to completely transform our growth-minded society, if we are to survive. Here I first met Andre Gorz’s principle of décroissance, which has resonated with me deeply. (I’m also a big fan of his ‘cars are bad for everyone’ manifesto from 1972.)
Mat Santamouris: time to make buildings heat-safe. Now. / Dante Terzigni, The Fifth Estate
A quick read on the need for urban planners to ensure their buildings can withstand hotter temperatures, though talk of influencing the design of the new airport in Western Sydney ‘to increase climate change mitigation’ elicited a scoff. You want to mitigate climate change? Don’t build another freaking airport! Don’t fly! (She says, writing this post on a train because she’s given up flying) Don’t build the infrastructure to support atmospheric pollution on a global scale and then plant some trees around it! Climate change doesn’t work like that!
On truth in cataloging / Shanna Hollich, Shanna Makes
This is one of the best cataloguing pieces I’ve read in a long time. It’s everythingI wish I’d said to Gordon Dunsire at ACOC. ‘[A]nyone who thinks “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” needs to come down off of their pretentious high horse and realize what cataloging truly is: a means of collecting and describing various pertinent information, data, and metadata about an object in a library collection […] to aid patrons and staff in finding materials.’ From 2015, it’s still a very hot topic in cataloguing with the reversal of the ‘fictional entities as authors’ rule in the new RDA. Thank you, Shanna. You are awesome, and this piece is amazing.
UX from a Technical Services Point of View / Shelley Gullikson and Emma Cross, Access Conf 2017 (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Another happy confluence of two topics close to my heart: user experience and technical services (which ought to be spoken about together far more often). To me, this paper screams ‘tech services! you’re doing it wrong!!’. Our cataloguing isn’t meeting the needs of users. Our systems aren’t surfacing what users will use to judge the usefulness of a record. (RDA is useless here! Subject headings are of minimal importance!) People use keyword search almost exclusively. Our info retrieval paradigms MUST adapt to this + present the most useful info first.
I was intrigued by the reactions to the UX study from tech services staff vs. the department head. I am on both sides: keyword searching is not a bad search, BUT it is not harnessing the intricate subject taxonomies that cataloguers have spent decades building, and will only skim the surface of records. (I mentioned this on my episode of Turbitt & Duck, and Karen Coyle has written on this extensively.) I do not believe in telling users that keyword searching is ‘wrong’, but we need to build our systems to better address the current deficiencies in keyword search. (Note I do not say ‘pressure our vendors to build our systems’. If we want anything done properly we’re gonna have to do it ourselves. And we should be doing it ourselves.)
‘Our students do their research online. Technical Services staff make decisions that affect how library resources are found online. So they are perfectly positioned to improve the user experience of our students.’ Say it with me: technical services is outreach!
Looking for Lorca / Steven Reese, Panorama Journal
On the quest for the tomb of Federico García Lorca, a famed Spanish poet killed by nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and whose remains have never been found. It deftly wove several threads together—on how we gain and lose identities as we travel; on our presence inside the shell a name creates for us (for naming ‘is like a kind of death’); on Spain’s national reckoning with its fascist history, and the legislation of memory. I had never heard of Lorca or his poetry, but now I’m keen to read more.
Contextualizing the “Marketplace of Ideas” in Libraries / Nailisa Tanner, Journal of Radical Librarianship
I was super looking forward to this article but found that Pocket hadn’t saved it properly, so I had to wait for the next train station (ergo mobile reception) to redownload. I napped for an hour, then read this article, and I’m glad I napped first—it’s quite heavy reading, but absolutely worth it.
Defenders of intellectual freedom in libraries often use the phrase ‘marketplace of ideas’, which ‘evokes the image of a process in which rational consumers choose from among the ideas presented to them in an environment of unrestricted competition. In this line of argument, it follows that truth and reason will emerge automatically’. Now, we have all met library users. We all read the news. We all know that this does not happen. So why do we continue to structure our libraries as if this will happen?
Librarians upheld segregation. Librarians upheld homophobia in our classification and catalogues. Librarians have been historically complicit in reasons to not be trusted. Do NOT trust me just because I’m a librarian. https://t.co/TAyv1Zh8Qy
Various forms of liberalism posit that Truth will out, but a market-based mechanism brings about precisely the opposite outcome, that the prevailing View is that which best exploits the market conditions. Libraries are in a position to set those market conditions—and so influence the outcome. Is it (or is it not) in accordance with our professional ethics to set the scene for a flourishing of ideas that grow our society, not seek to tear it apart?
I hope you enjoyed this #emptythepocket roundup as much as I enjoyed sitting on a train for six-and-a-half hours compiling it. Perhaps next time I hop on a train there’ll be another one…
For this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme of ‘collect’, I glanced over at my tottering ‘to-read pile that was sitting on a table but is now a table itself’. It’s perhaps an unusual pile. For one thing, I seldom read novels. Instead I’m drawn to narrative non-fiction, short stories and poetry. Stories about natural history, eco-friendly travel, walking, ecology, place, psychogeography, re-knowing our planet and watching helplessly as it changes. Stories that feel real.
Interestingly, that to-read pile has quite a number of print serials on place and nature writing. (Developing a magazine habit is a bit of a family tradition.) Currently I’m absorbed in volume 4 of Elementum, which arrived last week (don’t ask me how much the postage was!), as well as back issues of Elsewhere, which I hope to write for one day.
I did a brief analysis of my print serial collection in Libraries Australia and found only one title held in any Australian library: the Melbourne-based Lindsay, who have fulfilled their legal deposit obligations with the NLA. Considering the vast majority of these journals are published abroad I’m not terribly surprised. Perhaps when I die, some nature-inclined library here will take an interest in the rest of my collection. Perhaps not.
Then again, it’s not like online nature and place journals are well-represented in libraries either. There are lots of excellent blogs, often written and maintained by one person, as well as lush online magazines that make the most of the browser and create an immersive reading experience. Yet the long-term survival of many is largely dependent on the Internet Archive, which doesn’t quite feel like enough. My current personal favourite online journal is Emergence Magazine, ‘a journal of ecology, culture and spirituality’ with some seriously impressive writing, visuals and web design.
I’ve also been enjoying Plumwood Mountain, ‘an Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’. Australian publications of this type seem to be harder to find. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re thin on the ground; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places.
Naturally, I’d like to collect Plumwood Mountain, or hope that a library could do so for me. I have a few options: I can manually save every page to the Internet Archive (highly time-consuming); I can manually save every page locally using Webrecorder (also highly time-consuming); or I can submit the site to Pandora and hope the author acquiesces. If she doesn’t, well, I tried. (Did you know anyone can suggest sites to Pandora for collection? Be aware that if you put someone’s email address in the form, it’ll send them an email.)
How can libraries collect emailed serials? In my past life as a local history librarian we dealt with this mostly by printing them out, which is obviously not ideal. To the best of my knowledge, newsletters hosted on platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact aren’t harvestable by web archiving crawlers. Collection of these emails by libraries would therefore depend on either the publisher depositing a clean HTML or PDF version, or preserving the email files as part of an archive of someone’s inbox (which is very difficult, highly labour-intensive and not ideal for everyday access). We can’t rely on online platforms being available forever. We need to figure out a way to collect and preserve this content from the browser.
I desperately want someone to archive the full run of In Wild Air, a weekly emailed serial from 2016 to 2018 by Blue Mountains-based creative Heath Killen, each week featuring six things that made a guest tick. I loved this newsletter. Every Monday I took a leisurely walk through someone’s psyche. It was brilliant. I love basically everything Heath does. But if I were to ask Pandora to crawl that website, all it would collect is the index of names. The content itself is hosted on MailChimp—beyond the crawler’s reach.
I wonder if this proliferation of Anglophone ecoliterature is decidedly English in origin—the place, as well as the language. Settlers in Australia brought English concepts of geography with them (as explored in J.M. Arthur’s 2003 book The default country) and tried, unsuccessfully, to apply them to the Australian landscape. How else could you justify calling Weereewa / Lake George a ‘lake’ or Lhere Mparntwe / Todd River a ‘river’?
A collection selection
These are a few of my favourite journals. Please be aware that this list, though reasonably culturally competent, is white as hell. I’d really like to address that. A lot of these are based in Britain, where the nature writing crowd is overwhelmingly white, but I’m very keen to expand my collection to include more Indigenous perspectives. I’d also like to highlight the upcoming Willowherb Review, an online journal for nature writers of colour, which promises to be very good.
On Monday 13th August I attended the ‘Resource description in the 21st century’ seminar at the NLA, organised by the Australian Committee on Cataloguing (ACOC). It came at an interesting time for me, looking to regain some of my lost passion for this work, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how energised I felt at the end of the day. As always, the below observations and symptoms of foot-in-mouth syndrome are entirely my own. (MPOW were very keen that I emphasise this. :P)
Tweeting is good. This was the first seminar / conference / extended PD activity I went to where I primarily tweeted my notes, rather than scribbling them down. (The scribbles I did make were exactly that—largely unintelligible!) I found tweeting-as-notetaking to be an excellent way to record and synthesise my experiences of the day—not only was I recording and distilling what the speakers were saying, but I was also interpreting and annotating them for the benefit of those not attending. I was also doing so in 280 characters a pop, so my observations were necessarily brief. I’m sure someone once told me the best way to learn something is to teach it, and it definitely felt like I was doing that, to a degree—not so much teaching as relaying information in bite-size chunks. The #ACOC18 hashtag is mostly me, with contributions from Edith, Monika, Melissa and Cherie.
I did get, by the end of the day, some fairly severe shoulder and thumb cramps. Maybe it’s a hitherto unknown condition, ‘tweeter’s shoulder’.
Free Snoopy! So this happened:
I asked Gordon about Snoopy. He is concerned that including fictitious entities as people will muck up the data + misrepresent the true authorship of a book. I disagree with the answer but I respect his time and expertise in responding to me. #ACOC18
(My hands are shaking so badly atm. I think Gordon is tired of having this conversation. But I remain firm that we mislead users and do them a disservice by not including fictitious entities as authors. Some of our users are children. They just want books by Snoopy.) #ACOC18
I had a bit of an argument with Gordon Dunsire, the chair of the RDA Steering Committee, about IFLA-LRM’s prohibition on recording fictitious entities as Agents (that is, as authors of books), which has been replicated in RDA.1 Gordon had used books by Snoopy the cartoon dog as an example, so I went with that. I asked about the RSC’s thought process behind accepting the LRM decision, while offering the view that such a policy was not in the best interests of library users. It was a… robust conversation. Attendees described it to me as ‘controversial’ and ‘the highlight of their day’! I have somehow become someone who courts cataloguing controversy wherever they go. I don’t know how this happened. I’m supposed to be a professional introvert.
Gordon pointed out that we could still use Snoopy as an access point in a record, but it wouldn’t be as a formal Agent. Or ‘Snoopy’ would end up being a Nomen (that is, a pseudonym, or a non-preferred name) for whichever real person actually wrote the book—‘Charles Schultz’ or an anonymous ghostwriter or team thereof. Gordon’s concern is with maintaining a clean dataset, and also something about all this being a variety of fake news (the idea being that we would be wilfully misrepresenting a book’s true authorship to our users).
In my view, it would be even worse to have to create all these unknown Agent entities for fictitious characters who are presented by works as supposedly being their author. The only purpose I can see this serving is to create a totally logically consistent data set anchored in the real world, purely for the benefit of a small subset of cataloguers and perhaps a smaller subset of researchers. The bibliographic universe doesn’t work like that. Our users don’t work like that. If we are to catalogue the item in hand—a maxim my workplace strictly enforces—then that entails taking what a book says about itself at face value. It might be real. It might not be. It doesn’t always matter. Rare books might need this kind of provenance attention. Mass-market children’s paperbacks don’t.
Accept entropy. Embrace chaos. Free Snoopy.
The future is bright, and also a long way off. Several speakers were at pains to emphasise that the future is not in metadata at the record level. Our future is in bulk uploads, editing, mass cataloguing and metadata management. A lot of cataloguers will be uneasy with this change, and it will probably not suit all sectors (especially rare books and more unique items). This is the kind of metadata future I want to be involved in. I just want to be involved in it now, and not in however many years when our systems are finally capable of more than just MARC. I have previously expressed my impatience with how long linked data is taking to actually happen. I am sick of waiting.
Ebe exhorted us to read Hugh Rundle’s 2015 post ‘Burn it all down’, so I did. Little has changed. The fire smoulders. Unlike Hugh, I don’t believe the age of cataloguers is over. But the age of handcrafted, bespoke, record-level metadata is almost over, which is the work cataloguers are used to doing (which is what I think Hugh was trying to say). I lean more towards reinventing or reclaiming the name ‘cataloguer’, rather than admitting defeat and styling myself a ‘metadata librarian’ (or, for that matter, ‘bibliographic data wizard’). Cataloguers will continue to do this work, using some of the skills we already have. As Melissa said, paying people with brains the size of planets to sit there and transcribe text is insanity. Make better use of us, and we will do amazing things.
RDA, meet Bibframe. I learned that the LRM / RDA community and the Bibframe community aren’t really talking to each other. It points to a growing issue of different standards developers working in isolation from each other and only really collaborating at the end, in sort of a ‘So, you’re gonna accept all this work I did, right?’ kind of way. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, because I suppose the alternative would be a highly centralised development approach (which is what produced MARC, and look where that got us). I was surprised by it, though. It would be like the authors of MARC and AACR2 not talking to each other, which would be inconceivable considering how tightly intertwined the two are.
They don’t need our standards. I get that Gordon has his heart set on a unified LAM metadata element set but I just can’t get behind it. For one thing, where’s the use case? Who else would use a library-developed schema for their non-library collections? Archives don’t need our leftovers—they’ve already got several competing standards, including ISAD(G), ISO 15489 DACS, RAD and others, and they’re all working fine. Rare books will keep using the awesome DCRM and museums already have CIDOC-CRM (apparently interoperable with IFLA-LRM) so they don’t need our thing either.
I don’t understand this blind pursuit of a cross-GLAM metadata model, when the whole reason we are still constituent GLAM sectors and not one big information management / cultural heritage conglomerate is because we have different use cases, different collections, different user needs regarding the description of those collections. (I was reminded of the numerous conversations at FutureGLAM on this topic.) What purpose does one model serve? Besides, isn’t one of the features of linked data that we can pick and choose elements and schemas that suit our collections?2 Why must we all be the same? Why are we bending over backwards to develop a schema that meets others’ needs, but not our own?
Still on the 'it's not just for libraries' bandwagon. I am firmly opposed to any standard for library resource description that does not prioritise libraries–and library users. LRM and RDA ain't it. Sorry, Gordon. #ACOC18
Are you there, cataloguing? It’s me, Alissa. Attending the ACOC seminar helped reawaken a little of the passion for cataloguing that I thought I’d lost. But it’s definitely changed, and I have changed with it. I’m still here, still standing, but a bit more weathered, and a bit less shiny. A lot less blindly optimistic. Cataloguing is still something I’m quite good at, knowledgeable about, adept in… but it feels less like my whole self, like there is still a hole in my soul. Maybe this is a new phase, a levelling-up, where I become a little more hardened and a little less magical. I don’t like it much.
Keeping this up will be the hard part. I’m straight back into a cataloguing environment with systems and standards that aren’t what they could be. I can’t do anything about that, but I can do something about how I react to and process these things. To an extent I’m just gonna have to lump it, and that is hard, but I also need to make sure I’m keeping up with new developments, poking my head above the parapet, looking out for what might be on the horizon.
ACOC helped me see the future of cataloguing. I hope that in some small way I can help make that future happen. 🙂
This comes up so often at seminars like this it’s made IFLA’s list of frequently raised gripes. (Also, LRM instructions can have citation numbering but RDA can’t, apparently. I decided to save my thoughts on that for another time.) ↩
It has been a very difficult couple of weeks. I have not been my usual self. I can blame cataloguing for most of it. I could also partly blame #APLIC18, the recent tripartite LIS conference on the Gold Coast, which a lot of my friends attended and which stoked a serious case of epic fomo. But that’s very much a background issue. It’s taken me a while to process everything that’s gone on and try to find a more well-lit path. I’m aware half the office reads this blog, but at the same time, there’s nothing here I wouldn’t say to my boss. So here goes.
I am not my work. Any more. Last week was quite bad. I had an unexpected encounter with traumatic and poorly-phrased LCSH, which I am looking to change. I was also very ill, both physically and mentally, and spent a lot of time in bed. I have struggled recently with a sudden and severe change in my relationship to my work, as well as how I approach cataloguing, because cataloguing is my life, and also my job. I found it harder to enjoy. I had trouble getting up in the morning. I felt my perspective narrowing. I leaned very heavily on friends for support. Last Wednesday, I hit the wall. And the wall collapsed on top of me.
I know, intellectually, that it isn’t healthy to derive so much personal fulfilment and meaning from one’s work. And yet I do it anyway, because I have learned this about myself, that I operate this way. I used to love cataloguing. Used to. I don’t love it, currently. It grieves me that I say this. I hate that I have become this person.
I now speak about my passion for cataloguing in the past tense, and it kills me.
I would like the old me to come back. I think it could happen. Perhaps it is already starting to happen, a little. I don’t know how long it might take (days? weeks? months?) or how it might come about. But I would like to try and rekindle my love of cataloguing, because without it I don’t recognise myself. I feel hollow and without purpose. It’s a hole that my other interests can’t quite fill.
Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have learned a lot about myself over the past few weeks. I had previously thought I was okay at cataloguing, having more or less staked my career on it. I recently received a lot of feedback that suggested otherwise. I looked for a sign that I was doing something (anything!) right, that I was not completely hopeless at what I thought I was good at. A sign did not appear. I worried that I had somehow lied to everyone. It was imposter syndrome writ large.
Most people will read this and say ‘honestly, Alissa, what did you expect? What did you think cataloguing entailed? It’s standards all the way down’. I am not a hardcore standards enforcer and I never have been. My perspective on cataloguing is informed by user needs. What do users need from our catalogue? What metadata will connect an item with a search string? How can we best describe items (especially non-online resources) in meaningful and accessible ways? I believe breaking rules makes records better. I also don’t care about a lot of things that other cataloguers care deeply about, like ISBD punctuation, a perfect set of fixed fields, or the exact phrasing of where a title statement has come from (‘Title from cover’, not ‘Cover title’, apparently!). A catalogue should only ever be a glorified finding aid. It does not need to be a work of art in its own right.
Obviously I would like to be a better cataloguer. I would also like to go to work and feel as if I can do something right. It has been immensely difficult reconciling this poor feedback with my previous estimations of my cataloguing ability, and by extension my estimations of myself as a person. To be fair, most of my errors are of the cosmetic variety, or relate to institution-specific policies that are new to me, rather than deeper systemic problems with access points and descriptions. But a perfectly standards-compliant record can also be functionally useless, and a colossal waste of a cataloguer’s time to produce. I still take my errors to heart. It took me three weeks to get a record past the quality checker. I will never be perfect. I should probably stop trying to be perfect.
It has been a hard lesson, though.
Invite yourself to the party. In an effort to ameliorate said conference fomo and improve my mood, I started a hashtag on twitter for those of us who couldn’t attend APLIC but wanted to be involved anyway. #APLICLeftBehind became a meeting point for people keen to have their say, while also serving as a useful heads-up to attendees that we were commentating from afar. I loved that non-attendees from all sorts of places popped in and kept it going, even when I wasn’t in a position to say much. The hashtag will even be making an appearance in the forthcoming (entirely unofficial) APLIC zine, curated by Rebel GLAM. And it didn’t cost me a cent.
I have nothing to lose but my chains. They say libraries gave us power, but then work came and made us free. Many of us become librarians because we want to make a difference, to give back to our communities, to enrich the intellectual and social lives of library users everywere. Librarianship is heavy with ideology, tradition and dogma, and it weighs us down. I don’t think I expected to spend so much of my professional time a) navel-gazing b) fighting the man or c) thinking quite seriously about giving it all away. I certainly never expected I would lose my passion for cataloguing so quickly, and so severely.
I’m at the stage where I can catalogue more or less on autopilot (allowing for time to go back and correct my inevitable punctuation errors). I don’t want to be this person. I want to care deeply about my work. I want to fill my cataloguing with care and zest and a desire to do better. I don’t want to be crying while reading my old posts and tweets, remembering the cataloguer I used to be, and wondering where that went. If I can rekindle the passion for metadata that got me here—and right now that is a big if—I hope to free myself as much as possible from the expectations of other people and structures, and devote my energies to where I can get things done. It’s almost as if the structure and nature of librarianship sets us all up to fail, and that if we don’t realise this, we’re not paying enough attention.
People tell me I am more than my cataloguing. They’re not letting me fail. I wish I could repay this faith, but right now all I can offer is my gratitude. I don’t want to perpetuate a charade. I can’t keep pretending that everything is fine. I am not the cataloguer I used to be. But maybe, one day, I will be a better cataloguer. And I will have learned a few things.