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

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

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

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

I had packed four books for the trip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting my money where my mouth is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019: a year of knowing, more naturally

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The means to an end

you can do the thing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blowing with the wind of change

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.

On exhaustion

A stack of post-its saying Do Less
via @hugh@ausglam.space

I am tired.

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.

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. 🙂


  1. 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. 

Five things I learned from #SydCritLib, the Saturday School of Critical Librarianship

A priceless piece of critlib ephemera, now taped proudly to my wall

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:

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 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:

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.

‘Just’ a librarian

Today I read of the 130th birthday of the Central Library in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Disappointingly, it included this line from a branch manager:

“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.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 2

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.

Announcing Get It to Te Papa: our televised quest to get under-appreciated Kiwi treasures into the national museum / Hayden Donnell, The Spinoff
When Aotearoa New Zealand journalist Hayden Donnell watched politician Steven Joyce get hit in the face with a sex toy, his first thought was, naturally, ‘That needs to be in Te Papa’, the country’s national museum. (Perhaps he was thinking #AllMuseumsAreSexMuseums?) Fast foward a couple of years and Donnell now has a TV series where he tries to accomplish exactly that, plus a few other cheerfully kitsch Kiwi treasures. His incredible zeal for hunting down cultural artefacts is infectious (who doesn’t love a ‘fully-fledged Te Papa truther’?), but I especially loved that the items he craved were meaningful to, and cherished by, ordinary people—not items of high art or distant culture. Keen to watch this one day.

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.