I’m not always good with noise. My brain is regularly full of noise (anxiety) but can’t always process it (mild autism). Noise-cancelling headphones are my workplace saviour. Moving out of a flat on a four-lane road brought me desperate relief from traffic noise. Until recently I didn’t fully realise how much noise was in my life, and how much easier things are without it.
This month’s GLAM Blog Club theme is ‘Obsession’. I used to be obsessed with Twitter. It was the first thing I looked at when I woke up and the last thing I looked at before I fell asleep. I spent untold hours of my life firing little bursts of Opinion into my eyeballs like it somehow mattered. I fired off my own bursts right back. People liked the sound of them. I became a small Somebody in a small field. I kept going. Until about three weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped.
I decided to take myself on a twitter holiday. I reckon it’ll be permanent.
What began as an accessible and low-stress place to network with other librarians and share ideas has morphed into a high-stress horrorshow of anger, trauma, grief and drama. It’s not a healthy place to spend time. It’s where people go to start fights, let off steam, vent, have Opinions, scream. It’s also massively overstimulating. I popped back on briefly to attend the latest #auslibchat and immediately wished I hadn’t—not because of the chat itself, which was pleasant and informative, but because the website is designed to grab and hold your attention for as long as possible. My friend Hugh, who saw the light and quit Twitter long before I did, has likened it several times to a poker machine. It’s shamelessly addictive. You’ll never get back what you put in. The best thing to do is to cut your losses and go.
Everyone is angry and no one is listening.
I am very aware that I owe my career to Twitter. Being a small Somebody and giving myself a platform helped me meet lots of great people, grow new ideas, stand up for what’s right. It has made me the librarian I am today. But it is so bad for my brain now. Giving my account to a trusted friend and forcing myself to log the hell off has improved my mental health immensely. No more blasting fire and anger into my eyeballs. No more tediously scrolling past arcane fights and drama. No more unconsciously making space in my brain for whatever American Library Twitter™ reckons about something, whether it’s worth listening to or not.
Being extremely offline has meant I now have the brainspace to read and think more deeply. After years of being largely unable to do either I know this brainspace is a rare and precious gift. I don’t want, and can’t afford, to squander that gift on shouty pixel horror. Besides, my to-be-read pile is literally taller than I am. I also started noticing how much mainstream news content is either ‘Some people on the internet are angry about this thing’ or ‘Here’s something that went viral three days ago’. Making news from newsfeeds is called ‘juicing’ and there’s a lot of it. I left Twitter to escape all this stuff. Why does it persist in following me around?
In the short term I don’t see myself returning to Twitter. In the long term, once I figure out how, I intend to use it as a unidirectional broadcast platform, syndicating posts from this blog and making other announcements as the need arises. It does mean losing out on that sense of community and broader professional awareness that attracted me to Twitter in the first place, and a small part of me misses that. But I definitely don’t miss the nonstop screeching that now pervades the place. My brain can’t separate the signal from the noise, so I am forced to silence both in order to function.
I once described Twitter as ‘the introvert’s megaphone’. For a moment I wished I still felt that way about it, eager to find like-minded people in the shrieking cesspoool, able to use the site to my advantage. But times have changed. I’m not sure I’d recommend Twitter to new librarians anymore. Apparently one library school makes students create a Twitter account as part of an introductory course, which was probably a great idea five years ago but today feels like punishment. It reminds me of having to create bookmarks on del.icio.us during an undergradute French class ten years ago. I didn’t understand the point of spending time on dying websites. (Ironically, the WordPress auto-tweet function no longer works on this blog after I migrated it to a new server. So it might be a while before anyone sees this post. Sorry about that.)
For now, I find things out from assorted email newsletters (including the one I write for ACORD, you should totally sign up), RSS feeds and messages from friends. It’s kinda nice not being so plugged in all the time. It’s lovely to have a bit of peace and quiet.
Take off those headphones and let this world pour into you
Throw off those glasses and then you’ll start seeing
Forget those battles, those ones that mean nothing to you
Know you’re alive and just smile, you’ll start hearing
Somewhere out beneath the heavens and the atmosphere
Somewhere out among the silence there’s a voice
There’s a feeling that takes over and it has no fear
When you’re caught between the signal and the noise
You know how someone can make a throwaway comment that hits you right in the soul and you can’t let it go? That’s been my week. It’s been really horrible for my brain, trying desperately to process this thing and make sense of all these feelings. I’m not great at this at the best of times. It’s exhausting.
I attended a large and important meeting this week. Lots of very senior people were there: heads of NSLA libraries, university librarians, people on assorted committees, people whose opinions are considered particularly valuable. A handful of people reading this blog would have attended this meeting. I’m still not completely sure why I was invited. I think it’s because I’m a notorious pain in the arse, but I was also a bit chuffed to have been selected because of who I am, not because of what job I do. I was initially quite anxious about attending a meeting full of senior managers (one of them being my own). Turns out that was the least of my worries.
While in a breakout session, the topic of conversation turned to hiring processes. Two public library directors complained loudly about how they kept getting applications from, and I quote, ‘process driven’ ‘introverts’ with ‘no communication skills’ and that they wouldn’t want to hire someone ‘if they can’t even make eye contact’ with others. I am an introvert. I am process driven (insofar as I want to make bad processes better). Communicating with people face-to-face is hard and takes a lot of energy. And I can’t always manage to look people in the eye.
These public library directors may as well have been waving a sign saying ‘Neurodiverse applicants are not welcome here’. It felt like an absolute, crushing rejection of everything I am, everything I have achieved, everything I have worked so hard for. They said out loud that they didn’t want people like me. That there is no place for me in their libraries. That I don’t belong here.
The kicker? I used to work for one of these public library directors. But they didn’t know I was autistic, and at the time, neither did I.
Last year a hospital psychiatrist came into my room in the mental health unit to have a chat. She asked some weird questions about my living arrangements and how I felt about people in general (‘baffling’). She didn’t say where she was going with these questions, but I had a vague idea. Her senior colleague continued this line of conversation the next day (rather more kindly, it must be said). After a while she said to me, ‘Have you considered the possibility that you might be mildly autistic?’
I said yeah, actually, I had, but I hadn’t done anything about it ’cause I figured it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other. I’d kept filling in those online quizzes and ticking almost every box, but at perhaps half the strength, as if someone watered me down with a dose of the normals. I assumed it was mild enough that it didn’t impact me too much, and decided the pervasive stigma around autism outweighed any potential benefits of a formal diagnosis. Besides, it’s not like there’s a cure.
I was really thrown by the fact that the suggestion of mild autism came from the psychiatrists themselves. They knew next to nothing about my history. I hadn’t put the thought in their heads at all. But the more I thought about maybe being autistic, the more about me it explained. Having this knowledge changed my life. And I found myself wishing someone had told me this about myself twenty years ago.
I looked into getting a formal diagnosis. Accredited specialists have long waiting lists and charge over a thousand dollars for the privilege. The tests are pretty hard going. But as one of my psychologists explained to me, the diagnostic process for autism spectrum disorder is heavily weighted towards symptoms and behaviours displayed by white boys. Adults, women, people of colour and those with milder traits find it considerably harder to get diagnosed, because the tests aren’t designed to pick up on different manifestations of autism. Only in the last couple of years has this imbalance been recognised at all. Better testing is surely years away.
The other deeply problematic part of all this is one of the few real ‘treatments’ available: Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA.1 Essentially it teaches people how to ‘mask’, or hide, the symptoms of their autism. Supposedly this is so they can ‘fit in’ and ‘function’ in normal society, but it comes at immense cost to the autistic person, and makes little effort to understand the root cause of their behaviours. Keeping this mask on all day every day can be overwhelmingly difficult and require huge amounts of brain energy. A child might successfully mask all day at school and then have an exhausted meltdown at home, often unable to understand or verbalise why everything is so hard. ABA tells the autistic person that they are the problem. That they must contort themselves into the box society has made for them. That they have to do all the work to make others less uncomfortable with autism. That there’s no possibility of creating environments that are autism-friendly, where they don’t need to mask.
The creator of ABA, Ole Ivar Lovaas, expressly aimed to make autistic children ‘normal’. Contemporary scholars and activists have likened it to gay conversion therapy.2 I’ve had enough of society telling me not to be queer. I won’t tolerate it telling me not to be autistic, either.
Thing is, though, this isn’t the first time someone has said that people like me aren’t welcome in libraries. During a study visit undertaken as part of my library degree, the facilitating lecturer told our group that we needed certain attributes in order to be successful librarians and find work in the sector. I don’t recall precisely what she said, so I won’t put words in her mouth, but I know they were very similar to those listed by the public library managers the other day. I needed to be charismatic, I needed to be an extrovert, I needed to be a people person. I knew innately that I didn’t have any of the attributes she listed. And I almost quit my degree on the spot.
It felt like she was trying to pre-emptively weed out students whom she thought weren’t likely to get hired. But I don’t understand why she felt the need to do this. Evidently the only work she could conceive of as ‘library work’ was front-of-house service delivery. She couldn’t fathom libraries also needing people in back-of-house roles that might better suit introverts, such as collection development, metadata management and systems librarianship. She couldn’t picture her graduates thriving in those sectors. And she couldn’t imagine that libraries would be prepared for pay for these skills.
This lack of imagination is holding our sector hostage. Library managers, especially in public libraries, often can’t conceive of infrastructure work as being ‘customer service’ and therefore choose not to resource it. It’s hard to think about what libraries could accomplish if they resourced this work and cultivated these skillsets, not because I can’t imagine it but because deep down I know it will never happen. We could become community open data stewards, we could make classification less racist and more meaningful to our user communities, we could actually make our catalogues intuitive and simple to use (what a concept!). We could do all kinds of great things.
Libraries can’t possibly become better and more diverse workplaces if managers only hire people who are just like them.3 The sheer breadth and variety of library work means that libraries need all kinds of different skillsets, backgrounds and life experiences. Public librarianship is more than just the desk: while the nature of front-of-house roles can present some challenges for neurodiverse staff, there’s no reason they can’t be supported to excel and thrive in their work.4 Besides, autistic people are great! We’re really good at spotting patterns and aberrations, keeping things organised, methodically solving problems, cutting through bullshit and getting to the point. I reckon every library needs someone like this on staff.
It’s hard for me to not take these kinds of bad opinions personally. It often takes my brain a while (hours, sometimes days) to catch onto the fact that somebody might be speaking in bad faith, or be looking for attention or validation, or have an axe to grind. (Once I realised that most of Twitter fell into those three categories the site became much more tolerable.) When people say things to me or a group I’m in, my first instinct is to believe them. It took a long time, but I ultimately managed to discard the lecturer whose words hurt so much. I hope to shortly evict the public library managers from my brain. I’ve spent a whole week trying to understand why I was so deeply upset by their comments. They don’t deserve any more of my energy.
It was broadly agreed at this large important meeting that libraries have a PR problem; the common impression of librarians and library work doesn’t match the realities of today’s library services. Addressing this problem was beyond the scope of the meeting, but I refuse to believe that any real ‘solution’ involves discouraging quieter types from a career in libraries. They are not the problem. Autistic and neurodivergent people are not the problem. Ableist and unimaginative library management is the problem. It amazes me what senior librarians think is acceptable to say out loud. Do they think we’re not listening?
A guest author writing pseudonymously for the ALSC blog notes:
In the library world, conversations about autism are often predictable. They focus on autistic children or adults as users, and the challenges that they may present. Much less common, it seems, are discussions of the positive contributions that autistic people can make to a library, as library users but also as front-line librarians.5
It’s one thing to proclaim that ‘Libraries are for everyone!’ and create sensory storytimes and other programs for neurodiverse children, but it’s quite another to actively dissuade neurodiverse people from working in the sector. As a child, the library was a safe, comfortable, familiar space where I could indulge my interests and be myself. As an adult, and a library worker, I use my skills and talents behind the scenes to help maintain these spaces online. Being potentially autistic doesn’t always feel like a ‘superpower’, but it enables me to do the work that I do, and maybe even to be good at it.
Yesterday I had the great privilege of attending the GO GLAM miniconf, held under the auspices of the Linux Australia conference. Hosted by the fabulous Bonnie Wildie and the indefatigable Hugh Rundle, GO GLAM brought the power and promise of open-source software to the GLAM sector. This miniconf has been run a couple of times before but this was my first visit. It was pretty damn good. I’m glad I started scribbling down notes, otherwise it would all be this massive blend of exhausted awesome.
The day began with an opening keynote by some guy called Cory Doctorow, but he wasn’t very interesting so I didn’t pay much attention. He did talk a lot about self-determination, and he did use the phrase ‘seizing the means of computation’ that I definitely want on a t-shirt, but there was a big ethics-of-care-sized gap at the centre of his keynote. I found myself wishing someone would use the words ‘self-determination’ and ‘social responsibility’ in the same talk.
Good tech platforms can exist, if we care enough to build them. As it happened, GO GLAM’s first speakers, a group of five mostly francophone and mostly Indigenous artists and coders from what is now eastern Canada, wound up doing almost exactly this. Natakanu, meaning ‘visit each other’ in the Innu language, is an ‘Indigenous-led, open source, peer to peer software project’, enabling First Nations communities to share art, data, files and stories without state surveillance, invasive tech platforms or an internet connection. I can’t express how brilliant this project is. I’m still so deeply awed and impressed by what this team have built.
Two things leapt out at me during this electrifying talk—that Natakanu is thoughtful, and that it is valuable. It consciously reflects First Nations knowledge cultures, echoing traditions of oral history, and exemplifying an ‘approach of de-colonized cyberspace’. Files are shared with ‘circles’, where everyone in a circle is assumed to be a trusted party, but each member of that circle can choose (or not) to share something further. Building a collective memory is made easier with Natakanu, but the responsibility of doing so continues to rest with those who use it.
Natakanu embodies—and makes space for—First Nations sovereignties, values and ethics of care. It’s technology by people, for people. It’s a precious thing, because our communities are precious, too. The Natakanu platform reflects what these communities care about. Western tech platforms care about other things, like shouting at the tops of your lungs to ten billion other people in an agora and algorithmically distorting individuals’ sense of reality. We implicitly accept these values by continuing to use these platforms. Our tech doesn’t care about us. We could build better tech, if we knew how, and we chose to. (There’s a reason I’ve been consciously trying to spend less time on Twitter and more time on Mastodon.) But more on computational literacy a little later.
A few people mentioned in the Q&A afterwards how they’d love to bring Natakanu to Indigenous Australian communities. I don’t doubt their intentions are good (and Hugh touched on this in the recap at the end of the day), but in my (white-ass) view the better thing is to empower communities here to build their own things that work for them. A key aspect of Reconciliation in this country is developing a sense of cultural humility, to recognise when your whitefella expertise might be valuable and to offer it, when to quietly get out of the way, and which decisions are actually yours to make. Or, as speaker Mauve Signweaver put it, ‘instead of telling them “tell us what you need and we’ll make it for you”, saying “Tell us what you need and we’ll help you make it”‘.
I can’t wait to rewatch this talk and catch up on some parts I know I missed. It was absolutely the highlight of the entire miniconf. I couldn’t believe they were first-time speakers! Can they do the keynote next year?
Metadata and systems might not last forever, but we can still try. I think it’s safe to say many attendees were very taken with Arkisto, the ‘open-source, standards-based framework for digital preservation’ presented by Mike Lynch. It’s a philosophical yet pragmatic solution to describing, packaging and contextualising research data. Arkisto’s framework appears particularly useful for rescuing and re-housing data from abandoned or obsolete platforms (such as an Omeka instance where the grant money has run out and the site is at risk of deletion).
Arkisto describes objects with RO-Crate (Research Object Crate, a derivative of Schema.org) and stores them in the Oxford Common File Layout, a filesystem that brings content and metadata together. It’s actively not a software platform and it’s not a replacement for traditional digipres activities like checksums. It’s a bit like applying the philosophy of static site generators to research data management; it’s a minimalist, long-term, sustainably-minded approach that manages data in line with the FAIR principles. It also recognises that researchers have short-term incentives not to adequately describe or contextualise their research data (no matter how much librarians exhort them to) and tries to make it easier for them.
The new PARADISEC catalogue includes Arkisto and an associated web interface, Oni, as part of its tech stack. I was very taken with the catalogue’s principle of ‘graceful degradation’—even if the search function ceases to operate, browsing and viewing items will still work. As a former web archivist I was heartened to see them holding this more limited functionality in mind, an astute recognition that all heritage, be it virtual, environmental or built, will eventually decay. So much of my web archiving work involved desperately patching dynamic websites into something that bore a passing resemblance to what they had once been. We might not always be able to save the infrastructure, but one hopes we can more often save the art, the data, the files, the stories. (Which reminds me, I’ve had Curated Decay on my to-read shelf for far too long.)
I shouldn’t have needed reminding of this, but sometimes I forget that metadata doesn’t begin and end with the library sector. It was a thrill to hear someone in a related field speaking my language! I wanna hang out with these people more often now.
Generosity resides in all of us. My first impressions of Hugh Rundle’s talk were somewhat unfavourable—he only spent a couple of minutes talking about the bones of his project, a Library Map of every public library in Australia, and instead dedicated the bulk of his time to complaining about the poor quality of open datasets. Despite having had several sneak previews I was rather hoping to see more of the map itself, including its ‘white fragility mode’ and the prevalence of fine-free libraries across the country. Instead I felt a bit deflated by the persistent snark. Hugh was the only speaker to explicitly reference the miniconf’s fuller title of ‘Generous and Open GLAM’. But this felt like an ungenerous talk. Why did it bother me?
Perhaps it’s because Hugh is a close friend of mine, and I expected him to be as kind and generous about the failings of Data Vic as he is about my own. I’m not sure I held other speakers to that high a standard, but I don’t think anyone else was quite as mean about their data sources. I also hadn’t eaten a proper breakfast, so maybe I was just hangry, and I ought to give Hugh the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had a lot on his plate. I intend to rewatch this talk when the recordings come out, to see if I feel the same way about it on a full stomach. I hope I feel differently. The Library Map really is a great piece of software, and I don’t think Hugh quite did it justice.
Omg pull requests make sense now.Liz Stokes is absolutely delightful, and her talk ‘Once more, with feeling!’ was no exception. Her trademark cheerfulness, gentleness and generosity shone in this talk, where she explored what makes a comfortable learning environment for tech newbies, and demonstrated just such an environment by teaching us how GitHub pull requests worked. How did she know that I desperately needed to know this?! Pull requests had just never made sense to me—until that afternoon. You ‘fork’ a repository by copying it to your space, then make changes you think the original repo would benefit from, then leave a little note explaining what you did and ‘request’ that the original owner ‘pull’ your changes back into the repo. A pull request! Amazing! A spotlight shone upon my brain and angels trumpeted from the heavens. This made my whole day. Hark, the gift of knowledge!
Liz also touched on the value of learning how to ‘think computationally’, a skill I have come to deeply appreciate as I progress in my technical library career. I’ve attended multiple VALA Tech Camps (including as a presenter), I’ve done all sorts of workshops and webinars, I’ve tried learning to code umpteen times (and just the other day bought Julia Evans’ SQL zine Become a SELECT Star! because I think I’ll shortly need it for work), but nowhere did I ever formally learn the basics of computational thinking. Computers don’t think like humans do, and in order to tell computers what we want, we have to learn to speak their language. But so much learn-to-code instruction attempts to teach the language without the grammar.
I don’t have a computer science background—I have an undergraduate degree in classics, and am suddenly reminded of the innovative Traditional Grammar course that I took at ANU many years ago. Most students come to Classical Studies with little knowledge of grammar in any language; instead of throwing them headfirst into the intricacies of the ancient languages, they learn about the grammars of English, Latin and Ancient Greek first and together. This gives students a solid grounding of the mechanics of language, setting them up for success in future years. Programming languages need a course like Traditional Grammar. Just as classicists learn to think like Romans, prospective coders need to be explicitly taught how to think like computers. A kind of basic computational literacy course.
(Of all the things I thought I’d get out of the day, I didn’t expect a newfound admiration of Professor Elizabeth Minchin to be one of them.)
Online confs are awesome! Being somewhat late to the online conference party, GO GLAM was my first experience of an exclusively online conference. I’ve watched a handful of livestreams before, but it just isn’t the same. A bit like reading a photocopied book. I don’t think I had any particular expectations of LCA, but I figured I’ve sat in on enough zoom webinars, it’d be a bit like that, right? Wrong. The LCA audio-visual and conference tech stack was an absolute thing of beauty. Everything looked a million bucks, everything was simple and easy to use. It was a far more active watching experience than simply tucking into a livestream—the chat box on the right-hand side, plus the breakout Q&A areas, helped me feel as if I were truly part of the action. I didn’t usually have a lot to say past ‘That was awesome!’ but it was far less intimidating than raising my hand at an in-person Q&A or cold-tweeting a speaker after the fact.
As someone who is deeply introverted, probably neurodivergent and extremely online, virtual conferences like GO GLAM are so much more accessible than their real-life counterparts. I didn’t have to travel, get up early, put on my People Face™, spend hours in a bright and noisy conference hall, eat mediocre food, make painful small talk, take awkward pictures of slides and furiously live-tweet at the same time, massively exhaust myself and make a mad dash for the exit. Instead I could have a nap, grab another pot of tea, turn the lights down, share links in the chat, clap with emojis, watch people make great connections, take neat and tidy screenshots of slides, squeeze in a spot of Hammock Time and still be feeling excited by it all at the end of the day.
I’m sure people will want to return to some form of physical conferencing in the fullness of time, but I fervently hope that online conferencing becomes the new norm. This infrastructure exists, it costs a lot less than you think (certainly less than venue hire and catering), and it makes conferences accessible to people for whom the old normal just wasn’t working. Please don’t leave us behind when the world comes back.
It was intense and horrifying and miserable and lonely and exhausting. The world ended. And yet we’re still here.
I learned a lot this year. I learned that working from home is great, actually; that lockdown really isn’t that much different from my usual life, but it still sucks; that the sounds of forests are a better antidepressant than any medication; and that months after the most traumatic experience of my life it’s still so hard to say certain things out loud. I also learned that I often sound better than I feel. It still amazes me that I was able to write something as coherent as ‘The parting glass’ less than a week after leaving hospital, at the peak of the first wave, at the end of everything. I was desperate to be heard, to be known, to be cared for, to be safe. I still am. It’s a work in progress.
Among many other things I started a new job this year, thanks to my workplace’s pre-existing restructure. It’s kind of a systems librarian role, lots of data maintenance, gathering, querying, harmonisation. A new role in an old team, but I have been made so warmly welcome it’s like I’ve been there for years. I’m pleased that this work is being resourced (though I wish it weren’t at the expense of other areas). Quiet, routine, meaningful, honourable work, in the Maintainers tradition. The work that keeps everyone else working, though it’s hardly ‘essential’ in pandemic terms, and is 100% doable from home. I found myself drawing on the white paper ‘Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care’, embodying its values into my work.
I see my new role as a caretaker, a systems janitor, a data maintainer. My job is to nurture our data systems, help them grow, water them, prune them, compost them at an appropriate time. Our ILS is 17 years old and desperately needs replacing. We’ll take care of it as much as we can, while planning a new system that might flower for longer, and make better use of resources.
I love this job so much partly because I now get to work with some really excellent people, but also largely because this team are far better anchored in the bigger work of the library. Being a traditional cataloguer meant I had a very narrowly focused view of metadata. I dealt with records at the micro level, one item at a time, with little to no ability to see the bigger picture. It wasn’t that I couldn’t personally see it; rather, my job and team structure lacked that oversight. But now my role deals with metadata at the macro level, many thousands of records at once, where the system shapes our view. I find it deeply grounding as a metadata professional, seeing the ebb and flow of data, how it can help tell a greater story, how what we don’t record often says as much about an item, and about us, as what we do record. I’m hopeful we can make space for some work on identifying systemic biases in our metadata; our cataloguing policies mandate the use of AIATSIS headings and AUSTLANG codes for First Nations materials, but is that actually happening? How comprehensive is that data corpus?
I’m acutely mindful of not wanting to use these powers to dump on our put-upon cataloguers who already have loads of people telling them what to do and minimal agency over how they do it. Trust me, I used to be one of them. I don’t want to reinforce that cycle. I would much prefer to work with cataloguers and their supervisors to show them the big-picture insight that I didn’t have, to empower them to select the right vocabs for the right material, and to record what needs recording. In data, as in horticulture, many hands make light work.
I might have become a caretaker at work, but this year we were all also caretakers of each other. Taking care as well as giving care. It intrigues me that ‘caretaker’ and ‘caregiver’ mean broadly the same thing: the former is more detached, as if tending to a thing or an inanimate object, while the latter is closer, more familial: a responsible adult. To ‘take care’ means to look after oneself, while being a ‘caretaker’ means looking after something else. I am thankful to those who cared for me during my darkest hours. I have drawn great strength from the care of close friends, for whom my gratitude is everlasting. Without you I would not be here.
It’s safe to say my professional responsibilities took a back seat this year. I hope next year to get the ALIA ACORD comms up and running, complete some work for the VALA Committee, and sort out whatever else I said yes to. (Honestly I’ve completely forgotten.) I did give one talk this year, a presentation on critlib for the ANZTLA. I hope it can help grow some new conversations in the theological library sector.
In 2020 I somehow wrote 15 blog posts, including five for GLAM Blog Club. Usually I’d note my favourite post of the year, but honestly writing anything was so difficult that I’m nominating them all. I think ‘The martyr complex’ hit a nerve, though. I despair for library workers overseas, still having to open their doors to the public in manifestly unsafe conditions. Apparently CILIP CEO Nick Poole has been reading this blog, so if you see this, Mr Poole, you must call for the urgent closure of all public libraries in Tier 4. Nobody ever died from not having a book to read.
I’m saying this out loud because I need to, as much as I want to: next year I am absolutely doing less library professional busywork. It has to stop. I know I’ve said this before—my goal for 2020 was ‘to do less while doing better’ and look how that panned out—but I actually am gonna do it now. I need less of all this in my life. Less computers. More nature. Less doomscrolling. More reading. Less zooming. More walking. Less horror. More consciousness. Less overwhelm. More saying no to things. Please don’t take it to heart if you hear me say no a bit more next year. It’s not you, it’s me.
In part I can promise these good things to myself because I live in a city that currently has one covid case. One. A single one. Life is relatively normal here, barely anyone wears a mask (though I did get yelled at by an old man the other day for not keeping 1.5 metres away from him… on a bus). I have mental space for this stuff in a way the northern hemisphere does not. In some ways it feels like living in a postmodern remake of On the Beach, but as difficult as my life is right now, it could all have been so much worse.
The pandemic accelerated social changes I had already seen coming. I had long ago vowed to live a smaller life. I gave up flying almost three years ago for climate reasons, deciding instead to explore my own country, understand more deeply my own city and surroundings, while trying to detach myself from endless grim horrors abroad. I am powerless to help and can only absorb so much. I am needed here. I can do good here, now, in this place, in this time.
Logically I know my good fortune, but my brain persists in telling me otherwise. I was already very unwell at the start of this year; in many ways the coronavirus outbreak was the final straw. This time last year I was having a panic attack in a friend’s backyard. This time nine months ago I was being admitted to the psych ward. My illness was life-threatening. I did not expect to see Christmas.
To the extent I have any goals for next year—other than continuing to not die—I hope to do more of the things I enjoy, rather than reading about them in books. Books have long been my way of making sense of the world; according to my mother I learned to read at the age of 2 1/2 and would happy babble away reading the newspaper (sometimes I even understood it, too). Books make sense in a way people never have. Books are solid, portable, dependable, usually upfront about things, and even if they’re not it can occasionally be fun to decode or divine their real meaning. Books generally have a point. People often have no point and are seldom upfront about things. It makes life deeply frustrating.
Another book I acquired just before lockdown was Lucy Jones’ Losing Eden: how our minds need the wild. It’s still in a moving box, stored away due to lack of shelf space. But I’m sure the author would be just as happy if people took her message to heart and ventured outside a bit more anyway. I couldn’t face it during April, when going outside was dumb and illegal, but perhaps this coming year, in my suspiciously covid-free paradise, would be a good time to revisit.
My goal is not to lessen my reading. I didn’t finish a single book this year. And that’s okay because I kinda had bigger things to deal with. But instead of reading about the delights of nature, I think I would prefer to experience them myself. Like many in the book professions, I have a terrible habit of buying really interesting-looking books, placing them on a shelf, and then acting as if I have read them and absorbed their wisdom by osmosis. I would like to read more, but I would also like to go outside more, walk more, take flower photos more, cycle more, do the things instead of reading about them. I hope to take care of myself. I hope to take care of others. I hope others might still take care of me.
This is the prepared transcript of ‘Knowledge is power: an introduction to critical librarianship’, a talk I was invited to give at a professional development day for the NSW branch of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association (ANZTLA). It was my first time delivering a virtual talk, which I found a lot less stressful than doing a regular talk because there’s no roomful of people creating a tense atmosphere. The Q&A was great and overall it was a really nice experience.
You will note that this is a very gentle talk. I was acutely aware that for a lot of attendees I represented their first experience of critlib theory and practice; a search of the literature for ‘critical librarianship’ and ‘theological libraries’ brought up precisely zero results, which strongly suggests to me that critlib isn’t (yet) a thing in this sector. I wrote this talk for a very particular audience. I tried to meet them where they are by using rather less fiery rhetoric than I’m known for, in an effort to ameliorate, rather than alienate. It’s broadly based on the article ‘Recognising critical librarianship’, which I wrote for inCite in January. I hope I could help kickstart some new conversations for theological librarians.
Thank you all for having me. It’s an honour to be invited to speak today. I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands we’re meeting on, and in particular the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, custodians of the land I live and work on, which we now know as Canberra. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who have joined us today.
My name is Alissa McCulloch and I believe that knowledge is power. The knowledge held by libraries, and distributed through the work of librarians like yourselves, can empower our users to do incredible things.
But knowledge, much like power, is not evenly distributed. Librarianship is steeped in tradition, but those traditions aren’t all worth keeping. The structure of librarianship can work to exclude, marginalise and harm people even before they’ve walked in the door. We like to think of libraries as spaces where everyone is welcome. But not everyone is made welcome in a library. What can we do about that?
We can start by exploring something called critical librarianship. You might also hear this referred to as #critlib. Applying a different ethical lens to the work we do every day. Doing things differently, in order to do them better.
Before I go on, I do need to emphasise that this talk represents solely my own opinions. These views are all mine and definitely not my employer’s! (But I think they’re pretty good views, so you know what, maybe they should be.)
The term ‘critical librarianship’ has come to describe two related but distinct approaches to library work. The first is the idea of ‘bringing social justice to library work’, or, How might libraries advance social justice issues, or achieve social justice goals? How can we make librarianship fairer, more accessible, and more equal to all our users?
Throughout this talk I’ll use the words ‘librarian’ and ‘library worker’ interchangeably: critical librarianship applies to, and can be practised by, everyone who works in libraries.
In other words: it’s one thing to advocate for social justice in libraries, but it’s quite another to think about where and why is there social injustice in libraries in the first place.
Overdue fines, for instance. We’ve been fining people forever as an incentive to get them to return their books on time. We kept doing it because we thought it was effective, but it turns out the evidence for this is ambivalent at best. More importantly, in many cases fines can actively deter people from wanting to use the library, particularly low-income people who might already have racked up a heap of fines they can’t repay, or are scared of doing so (or their children doing so by accident). The kinds of people who can least afford to pay library fines are often the kinds of people the library most wants to attract—people who may also have lower literacy levels, who have small children, who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and (in academic libraries at least) people who might be first-in-family to attend university, or who might otherwise be struggling academically. Library fines are a social justice issue. It’s great that many public libraries have gotten rid of library fines, but I’m not so sure that many academic and research libraries have followed in their stead.
Much as we might like to sometimes, as librarians we can’t fix everything. We can’t solve these kinds of systemic injustices out there in the world. We can’t address the factors that contribute to library users being unable to pay their library fines. But we can do something about how those injustices manifest in the library. We can counteract that here, in this space that we maintain, in this time that we have. (We can do that by getting rid of library fines in the first place.)
Let’s come now to some key tenets of critical librarianship, which include:
Bringing progressive values to professional practice—using libraries and library work to build a more equal and just society, and to actively address systemic harms as they manifest in the library (so things like systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and so on).
Part of this means actively questioning existing library structures, standards and workflows, and doing so through a particular ethical lens. Not just going ‘why do we do that thing’ or ‘how can we do this better’, which should be a normal part of good library practice, but ‘who does this harm’ or ‘whose interests are best served by us doing this thing’?
Being a librarian doesn’t automatically make us better or more virtuous people. It just means we get paid to help people find stuff. It’s not a calling. It’s not the priesthood. It’s just a job. (But it’s a job worth doing well, and in some respects worth doing differently)
There is no such thing as library neutrality—libraries are not, and cannot be, neutral. The core business of librarianship involves making a lot of moral and ethical decisions, such as ‘do we buy this book’ or ‘do we let this group use a meeting room’ or ‘do we pay this vendor this amount of money’. Those decisions are made in line with a given set of values. Not making a decision is a value choice. Trying to present ‘both sides’ of a given issue is also a value choice. I might disagree with a lot of traditional library values, but they are not the bastions of righteous neutrality they claim to be. Critlib values are a bit more upfront about this fact.
Traditional library values, like the ones you and I were taught in library school, place a high premium on things like intellectual freedom and Western liberalism. We say we’re not just about books anymore, but libraries are a key part of a book-based knowledge system. For the most part, the knowledge we store and deliver, and the knowledge we tend to trust, is stuff that’s been written down, and a traditional library is a building where that written-down knowledge is kept and safeguarded.
Critical library values, on the other hand, focus on things like harm reduction (which I’ll come back to a bit later) and progressive, socialist values (which you might think of as being a bit ‘left-wing’ but I don’t think the left wing–right wing dichotomy is terribly useful these days). Critical librarianship recognises the validity and deep importance of Indigenous and other non-Western knowledge systems, that oral histories and Dreaming stories are valid sources of truth and knowledge, just as much as books. I’ll never forget Jacinta Koolmatrie, an Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri woman, teaching her audience at the New Librarians’ Symposium last year that for Aboriginal people, the land is their library, that knowledge and wisdom inheres in the landscape, and it deserves our care and protection in the same way libraries do. The recent loss of Djab Wurrung sacred Directions trees east of Ararat in Victoria is just as great a cultural loss as the destruction of a library.
Sometimes people can misinterpret the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical librarianship’, and think that we’re all just about having a big whinge, or that it’s a professional excuse to be rude or disparaging about library work. And I just want to make clear that that’s not what we’re about.
It’s about making the profession better by recognising harmful practices and oppressive structures, dismantling those things and building better ones in their stead. It’s about leaving the profession in a better state than when we found it. We critique because we care. I have a lot of feelings about librarianship! And I care very deeply about what I do. If people didn’t care so deeply about the profession, we wouldn’t be spending all this energy on making all this noise and doing all this work.
Over the next few slides I’ll take you through some of the ways critical librarianship intersects with my work. I’ve spent my career largely in back-of-house roles, what you might traditionally call ‘technical services’, so things like collection development, cataloguing, and my newest role in library systems. Naturally critlib happens front-of-house too! And there is quite a lot of literature on critical reference and critical information literacy. But I’ll leave that analysis to others.
Critlib comes up most often, and is probably most immediately visible, in the realm of collection development and acquisitions—looking at the materials your library collects and provides. Think for a moment about who your library collects. Are the bulk of your materials written or created by old white guys? Now I get that in a theological library, the answer is likely to be yes. Think about how many of your materials are written or created by women? People of colour? Indigenous people? Queer people? Disabled people? Combinations thereof? It’s not just about a variety of theoretical or academic views, and it’s also not about collecting other voices for the sake of it. It’s about making different perspectives and life experiences visible in your library’s collection. It sends a message that the library doesn’t just belong to old white guys—that it belongs to all whose views and life experiences are included here.
It’s one thing to have materials representing the diversity of human experience, but it also matters what those materials say. It’s no good having materials about Indigenous issues that were all written by white people thirty years ago, or things about homosexuality written by straight people who deny our humanity. The adage of ‘nothing about us without us’ holds especially true.
Theological libraries are naturally quite specialised and so you’re unlikely to be collecting material that doesn’t fit your collection development policy. A book on landscape architecture or whale-watching might be very interesting, but not relevant to the work of your institution. If you choose not to purchase it, it’s not censorship. It’s a curatorial decision. Whale-watching’s not in the CDP.
Similarly, a public library (in my view) should not feel obliged to purchase a copy of a text by a far-right provocateur if they feel that doing so would not be in their community’s best interests, or would cause demonstrable harm. They’re not denying their community the ability to read the book—they’re simply choosing not to stock it. In this instance, they’re applying the concept of harm minimisation to library collection development, prioritising community wellbeing and cohesion over the intellectual freedom of an individual. This situation might be different in an academic library, where they may feel the research value of such a book outweighs the potential harm it could cause. Potentially this decision could be contextualised in the book’s catalogue record, which I’ll come to in a second. But these are individual curatorial decisions for each library. They are made in accordance with that library’s values, and they are certainly not neutral.
Now, you might hear this and go ‘well how is that any different to, say, a parent demanding a school or public library remove a picture book about gay parents, claiming it is harming their child’? How is that different to the library I’ve just described deciding to remove, or not purchase, a hateful rant by a far-right author? Besides, shouldn’t we be trying to present ‘both sides’ of an issue, for balance? My answer to this is: by retaining the book about gay parents we are affirming their humanity and place in society; we recognise that they are not seeking to harm anyone just by existing; and we are validating their story. By not purchasing the far-right book we are doing the opposite; we are choosing not to do those things. We’re not censoring the book—we’re just not validating it. False balance is harmful and does our users a deep disservice. That’s a values decision, and if it were up to me it’s one I would stand by.
Or, put slightly differently… ‘something to offend everyone’ is not a collection development policy.
Until last week I was a full-time cataloguer, so critical cataloguing and metadata is kind of my speciality. I’m endlessly fascinated by how libraries describe and arrange their collections, whether it be on a shelf or on a screen.
As many of you will likely be aware, the religion section of the Dewey Decimal Classification has traditionally allocated quite a lot of space to Christianity and comparatively little space to other religions. You may be interested to know that the editors recently released an optional alternative arrangement for the 200s, which attempts to address some of these structural biases and make the distribution of religions a little more equitable.
Dewey has also historically copped a lot of flak for classifying works on Indigenous and First Nations spirituality, including Dreaming and creation stories, as ‘folk tales’ in 398.2 and not in the religion section. Dewey itself has instructed since about the mid-90s that such works should be considered religious, and classified as such. The fact this grievance has persisted for so long suggests a pattern of unconscious bias on the part of the cataloguer—they might not have recognised Indigenous spirituality as a ‘religion’ in the Western sense, and so didn’t classify this stuff there. But this lack of recognition is very obvious to Indigenous people, and it matters.
By the way, has anyone ever thought about how weird it is that we use Library of Congress Subject Headings? Like, we’re not the Library of Congress, we’re not Americans, we’re not government librarians, but we use their vocabulary and we inherit their biases. We do this mostly out of convenience and because it’s more efficient to use somebody else’s record, but I often wonder how useful or meaningful this language is in Australian libraries. I’d love to see more widespread use of things like the AIATSIS vocabularies for Indigenous content, which are designed to reflect an Indigenous worldview, and specify—that is, give names to, and therefore surface in catalogue records—issues and concepts of importance to Indigenous Australians.
For example, consider the difference between these two headings for Indigenous Australian creation and origin stories. LCSH calls these ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’, while AIATSIS uses the faceted term ‘Religion — Dreaming’. Now, neither of these terms is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but while the LCSH term is pretty clearly from a Western perspective classifying these stories as mythology and not religion, the AIATSIS term does the opposite, in line with Indigenous conceptions of their lore, and recognising their right to describe their culture their way. Using these terms in a library catalogue sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more culturally safe place for Indigenous people. It’s about taking social justice principles of diversity and inclusion, applying critical theory to our controlled vocabularies, and ultimately making better choices in the service of our users. This is critical librarianship. And in my opinion, it’s also the least we can do.
While researching this talk I was really struck by how so many of these historical biases would have traditionally really suited theological libraries—lots of classification real estate for Christianity, detailed LCSH subdivisions for the heading ‘Jesus Christ’, and so on. But I don’t work in a theological library, and I don’t know if that still holds or not.
This week I’ve actually started a new job as a systems librarian, so I’m particularly interested in this facet of critical librarianship. We might not immediately think of systems as being particularly problematic, but systems reflect the biases and perspectives of the people who build them, and to a lesser extent those of people who buy them.
For example, most library catalogues and discovery systems will allow you to rank results based on ‘relevance’. How, exactly, does the system determine what is relevant? How much potential is there for bias in those search results, either because your metadata is incomplete, outdated or otherwise unhelpful; because your system autocompletes what other people search for, and people search for really racist and awful things; or because your system vendor also owns one of the publishers whose content it aggregates, and it suits them to bump that content that they own up the rankings a bit? This happens, believe it or not—there’s a whole book on this topic called ‘Masked by Trust: Bias in Library Discovery’ by Matthew Reidsma, which is excellent (and also sitting in a moving box behind me).
We could also consider the kinds of data that library systems ask for and keep about people. When you sign up new users to the library, which fields are compulsory? Do they have to specify their gender, for instance? Why does the library need to know this about somebody in order to loan them books? What kind of data are we keeping about the books people borrow, their circulation history? How long do we keep it for? Who has access to it? Would we have to give that data to the police if they asked, or had a warrant? (If we didn’t keep that data, we couldn’t then give it to the police, hey.) Is your system vendor quietly siphoning off that circulation data in the background to feed it to their book recommendation algorithm? Do we want them to do that? My local public library actually does this and I really wish they didn’t, to be honest, it makes me very uncomfortable, and frankly it makes me not want to go there.
We want our library systems to have the same kinds of values that we have as people. But more often than not libraries end up functioning in ways that suit our systems. To me, that seems a bit backward. I firmly believe that systems should work for people, not the other way around.
To me, this sentiment lies at the heart of critical librarianship. So much of this discourse gets tied up in misunderstandings over whether libraries are, or should be, political. You’ll notice I’ve avoided using the word ‘political’ in this talk for this reason, because people interpret the question of whether libraries should be political to mean ‘supporting one political party over another’ or ‘supporting the activities of government’, and that’s not what critlib means. Everything I’ve outlined today is a political act. Many of them are progressive acts. But they are not partisan acts. They are acts that are conscious of the power they wield, and consciously try to direct that power in support of building libraries that better reflect and support the communities they serve. These acts are steeped in an ethic of care. Libraries do not exist in a moral and political vacuum. We are part of society, too. And we as library workers can do our bit to help make our society better.
It has taken a very long time for organisations like ALA to come to this party. I have lost almost all hope that ALIA will ever show up, but we will welcome them when they do. There’s a lot of work ahead. Let’s get started.
I’ve been thinking about this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme (‘invalid’) all month, though as usual I’m writing this post with hours to spare. ‘Invalid’ is one of those neat words with two pronunciations and two different, but related, meanings. ˈɪnvəlɪd. ɪnˈvalɪd. Which to write about? This year I’ve been both, but together they characterise something else: a lack of agency.
Events of this cursed year have robbed us of our agency: collectively isolated, forbidden by law to leave home unless for a specified purpose, unable to live our lives in ways we might ourselves choose. These events didn’t necessarily invalidate us, but they did invalid a lot of us, directly and indirectly. I’ve spent almost all year being an invalid to varying degrees. I’ve needed a lot of looking after. I’ve thought a lot about the rights and abilities of the chronically ill and disabled to make decisions about our own lives. I consider myself lucky to have retained those rights when they counted, but there’s a lot I couldn’t do, and it frustrated me deeply.
My illness conspired to strip me of my agency. So did my work, in a way.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this about cataloguing. I suspect it didn’t quite catalyse until I moved roles last week, where I now work with metadata very differently. I had no control over the material I processed—being in the legal deposit business meant I catalogued whatever turned up in the post—and no control over any of the structures, systems or standards that governed my work. We’ve all heard cataloguing described as ‘glorified data entry’, yet cataloguers have virtually no say in the design of the form, or how their painstakingly-entered data is used.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t always like this. Cataloguers designed traditional catalogue cards and wrote maddeningly specific rules on how to squeeze as much information as possible on a three-by-five-inch index card. Cataloguers devised added entries and filing rules. From this angle, it feels like the cataloguers of yesteryear had far greater agency over their work. Cataloguing rules were still necessary (and strictly enforced), but there was far greater scope and possibility for local practices, as locally-produced cards weren’t often distributed beyond their immediate library. More to the point, this structural work was conducted by cataloguers themselves, and it feels as if there were more opportunities to shape cataloguing policies at various levels.
Modern library systems are very different. It feels like there is no overlap whatsoever between system designers, system developers, and system data managers. Our data formats, our descriptive standards, our implementation policies, our controlled vocabularies, our classification systems: none of these are up to us. The advent of library automation in the latter half of the 20th century brought computer science into libraries, and with it computer scientists and IT professionals. People, usually men, with very different ideas about data and a dislinclination to listen to those who’ve been there before. Our sphere of influence shrank as our data and systems were ruthlessly standardised—by other people, who were suddenly more ‘technical’ than we were.
You’d be forgiven for guffawing slightly at this point, muttering something about cataloguers being on a power trip. Certainly the stereotype of cataloguers as rules-obsessed authority control freaks has some merit behind it. But I’ve come to understand that many cataloguers are like this because it’s just about the only aspect of their work that they can control. For many people, blindly enforcing cataloguing rules with scant regard for local sensitivities is the only agency they have left.
Contemporary cataloguing practice is characterised by a lack of influence over what data to record, how that data is processed and displayed, and the extent to which that data is shared. It doesn’t invalidate our data, but it does call into question how cataloguers can best fulfil their professional responsibilities. I want to be clear that this is a systemic problem, by no means unique to me and my career history. But I do wonder if other metadata librarians feel this as keenly as I have. Do others chafe against a monolithic metadata enterprise over which they have zero control? Does the supposed interoperability of our data instead consign it to irrelevance? Does our drive for efficiency compromise our values? Would our libraries be better if library workers had greater control over their data systems?
I’m lucky to be in a better place now. My new job grants me considerable agency, my health continues to gradually improve, and my bad days now are still better than my good days three months ago. But I’ve been an ˈɪnvəlɪd, an ill person, working with ɪnˈvalɪd data, which didn’t fit the system. For much of this year I had almost no agency in either my personal or professional life. It’s hard to live like that. I hope not to make a habit of it, but there’s a lot beyond my control.
Tomorrow is a big day. I’ll be starting a new role at work. I’ll become what other libraries might call a systems librarian, in a new team, on a new floor, doing new and exciting work. Critically, I will stop being a cataloguer. Turns out I have some feelings about that.
My last day on Friday was ordinary enough. In honour of the occasion I wore my second-favourite library-themed outfit to work, a dress with LC call numbers on it, though I don’t think anyone noticed. I catalogued some books and did some advanced photocopier magic as a favour for my boss, for which I was paid in chocolate. I neglected to attend the morning tea for those of us leaving the section, partly because I was busy but mostly because I wasn’t in a great space for small talk. I’ve never felt like I belonged, here.
The restructure predated the pandemic and was meant to be over by July. It has instead lasted all year and will run into the next. You can imagine how stressful it’s been. Like everyone else in the placement pool, I was asked for my top three role preferences. Unlike most people, by all accounts, I got my first choice.
My new role joins an established team that used to be in the collections division but now sits in IT. The team maintains the catalogue and discovery layer, but also seems to get asked for reports and statistics a lot, which in turn involves a lot of funky database queries and data massaging. My new boss specialises in beautifully colour-coded spreadsheets. One of my new colleagues is a MarcEdit wizard. Everyone is a keen cyclist. I think I’ll like it here.
While I am a bit sad about no longer being a cataloguer, truth be told my professional interests have always lain in this kind of zoomed-out, macro-level work: analysing data at scale, maintaining and theorising the platforms and systems that house, shape and contextualise metadata. I’m a systems thinker with attention to detail, an unusual disposition for a cataloguer. Where others in this line of work have traditionally struggled to see the forest for the trees, I have spent aeons trying to make sense of the forest, from the canopy to the undergrowth, losing sight of how I was meant to be precisely recording only certain attributes of a given tree. Besides, those attributes wouldn’t even help someone find this particular tree. The directions were all wrong and the scientific name was meaningless to those who called the forest their home. Why can’t we describe this tree better?
…Sorry, you wanted this catalogued today? Yep sure I can do that.
And I can do that, but I can’t keep doing it in isolation, and I definitely can’t do it forever. Cataloguing is highly structured and solitary work, and in some ways it suits me down to the ground. But that structure is also the most frustrating aspect, that solitude the most soul-crushing. It might have been what I wanted, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for me.
The second-last book I catalogued on Friday was a biography of a nineteenth-century Queensland ship captain, written by his great-grandson. The author related in some detail how his ancestor was, among other things, a blackbirder for 14 years, ‘recruiting South Sea Islanders’ as if this were a fine and normal occupation and not at all kidnapping or indentured servitude no sir. The two catalogue records for this book on Libraries Australia reflected its deep whiteness and the banality of its horror. Neither featured the LCSH ‘Blackbirding’. Only one gave Australian South Sea Islanders their own heading.
I’ve catalogued more than my share of self-published biographies, histories and genealogies over the years. It is striking what this country chooses to forget. But I expect better from cataloguers whose job it is to contextualise this stuff. A primary tenet of cataloguing is to record what you see. But what if we’re as blind as the author? It’s this kind of thing that prompts me to think, well, maybe I wasn’t wasted in this job after all. Maybe I came here to notice these things, and to do better, and to demand better.
I’m looking forward to this new role. It’s no higher up the payscale, but it holds a lot of promise, and I hope to be happy there. At last I can climb one of these trees, and marvel at the forest.
Yeah, I know the deadline for submissions to the ALIA Future of LIS Education discussion paper was two days ago. I’ve been all of the usual things: busy, stressed, unwell, preparing to move house and reapplying for my own job in the same week. Small fry, really. I also coordinated a submission in my capacity as Information Officer for ACORD, the ALIA Community on Resource Description, which focused on matters of interest to the Australian cataloguing and metadata sector. But a few bigger thoughts kept gnawing at me, and I decided to write them up anyway now that I have a sliver of brainspace, for general consumption as well as for ALIA’s attention. These views are, as always, solely my own.
I’ll admit to not having been privy to a lot of the professional conversation on this topic, but much of what I did hear focused on the issue of library workers having library qualifications (or not). Most job ads I see these days ask for an ALIA-recognised qualification or equivalent experience. Employers are already recognising the many paths people take to a library career, but they’re also recognising that eligibility for Associate membership doesn’t really mean very much. Of the four libraries I’ve worked in, only one specifically said I needed to have a library degree. I didn’t have a library degree. I got the job anyway. 🤷🏻♀️
I think employers are also frustrated by library school graduates being unable to meet the immediate needs of contemporary libraries. The skills employers need are not the skills educators are teaching; I graduated two years ago and recall being very surprised by the chasm between what I was taught and what I was seeing with my own eyes at work.1 Our sector benefits hugely from the diverse educational backgrounds of its workers, be they graduates of university, TAFE, or the school of hard knocks.
This issue cuts both ways, however: I’ve written before on the ‘price of entry’ to the LIS field, where librarianship remains on the Government’s skills shortage list despite an apparent surplus of graduates. Employers say they want ‘job-ready’ grads, but what I suspect they really want is to not have to train people in the specialities of a particular role, especially as entry-level positions continue to disappear. At the same time, though, a comprehensive LIS education has a duty to balance employable skills with a solid theoretical grounding—in other words, to learn what to do, as well as why to do it. It can’t be solely about ‘what employers want’, otherwise our moribund industry would truly never change.
This comment on page 10 of the discussion paper was… uh, quite something:
During our discussions, there were different perspectives on the division between Librarians and Library Technicians. Some felt this was a necessary distinction; that Librarians should be conceptual thinkers and Library Technicians should have the technical expertise, for example with resource description and technology devices.
This distinction is hogwash. Our sector desperately needs people with both these qualities, who are conceptual thinkers with technical expertise. I am a professional cataloguer with a master’s degree. For better or worse, I never went to TAFE. I learned to catalogue the long way. I firmly believe it has made me a better cataloguer, more able to question and deconstruct our hallowed bibliographic standards, to call for change and to make it happen. To state that resource description does not require conceptual thinking is offensive to the cataloguing and metadata community. The idea that information technology does not require it either is even more ludicrous.
I suspect this view is based on a public library’s operating model, where library techs help senior citizens with their iPads while librarians are the ones in charge. The job title of ‘library technician’ has strayed so far from its original meaning that nowadays it seems to mean ‘TAFE-qualified lower-paid library worker’ irrespective of job function, and sits below ‘librarian’ in a workplace’s hierarchy. The word ‘technical’ has a long and twisted meaning in LIS (and yes, I’ve written about that too), but we can safely say that most library IT work is done by people earning far more than a library technician’s wage. It’s a confusing term both inside and outside the industry, and it needs to go. So too does the hierarchy.
Anyway, back to qualifications. The discussion I’ve been seeing is predicated on the idea that the only way to be an accredited library professional (that is, a ‘librarian’ and not a ‘library technician’) is by getting an accredited library degree. Currently that’s the case in Australia. But what if I told you… there is another way?
My primary recommendation for the future of LIS education in Australia is this: I would like ALIA to consider adopting the LIANZA Registration model of professional accreditation, focussing on accrediting the individual, as well as the institution.
Prospective library professionals in Aotearoa New Zealand have three options. They can:
A) Complete a recognised New Zealand library and information qualification;
B) Complete a recognised overseas library and information qualification; or
C) ‘Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the Body of Knowledge’, along with 3 years’ professional experience, plus either a pre-2007 NZ LIS qualification, or a bachelor’s degree in any discipline.
They must also be an individual member of a recognised library association in New Zealand (LIANZA recognises six, including itself), and pay an annual fee to LIANZA.
I’m fascinated by the potential of option C). A prospective applicant need never have set foot in a LIS classroom, but if they have already demonstrated their intellectual aptitude at the undergraduate level, gained substantial experience in library work, and can map their knowledge against recognised competencies, then they can gain professional recognition equal to that bestowed upon library school graduates. In no way does it devalue the hard work of those graduates; it acknowledges that there are many paths to the same goal, and respects professional learning in all its forms. It recognises that librarianship is a profession by mandating a professional-level (i.e. university) qualification.2 Crucially, it also better reflects what’s actually happening on the ground.
LIANZA’s eleven ‘Body of Knowledge’ competencies outline the key skills and responsibilities of contemporary library and information workers, and cover the same kinds of material that would be taught in library school. Of particular importance is BoK 11, ‘Awareness of indigenous (Māori) knowledge paradigms’. Every accredited library worker in New Zealand must demonstrate this competency. This is not the case in Australia, where LIS professionals can—and do—go their entire careers without knowing a single damn thing about First Nations knowledge systems. It’s one of many reasons why our profession is white as hell. It makes the task of developing and maintaining culturally safe libraries that much harder, for First Nations library users and workers alike. It also perpetuates a knowledge monoculture, which is actually really boring. I wish more of us could recognise First Nations knowledge of the land as a kind of library.
Like ALIA membership, LIANZA Registration is optional. The closest ALIA currently gets to option C) is Allied Field membership, which is very deliberately not the same as ALIA Associate membership, and renders the former ineligible for jobs that require the latter. Presumably ALIA is trying to protect the existing higher education pathway. But that pathway is already collapsing: two days before the close of submissions to this paper (so, four days ago), word spread of RMIT’s intention to close its library school and teach out its courses. The status of information studies at Monash University hangs by a thread. Both universities have been hard hit by the aftereffects of the coronavirus pandemic, including the collapse of international student income and the ineligibility of public higher education institutions for jobkeeper. And that’s even after the massive fee hikes to HECS-eligible humanities and social sciences courses, which includes librarianship (but not teacher librarianship, which is classed as education).
Without RMIT, there would remain just four universities offering library degrees in Australia: Curtin, Monash, UniSA, and Charles Sturt. Curtin has already cut its undergraduate LIS courses. Monash could be on the way out altogether. UniSA is a bit of a dark horse. And Charles Sturt, while by far the largest library school in Australia, is not immune from cost and enrolment pressures.
The discussion paper notes wryly on page 12:
ALIA’s priority has been, and continues to be, supporting our accredited courses. However, it would be negligent for the sector not to consider a ‘Plan B’ in the event of the university system failing us.
Through little fault of its own, the university system is clearly already failing the Australian library and information sector. The time for Plan B is now. Automatically enrolling ALIA members into the PD Scheme does not go far enough. It’s time for ALIA to move to an accreditation model that better recognises, and does justice to, the diversity of educational and life experience among Australian library professionals. It would mean a bit more work for ALIA, yes, but I’d like to think it would make ALIA professional membership a more attractive and meaningful option. Let’s make ALIA Associate status more widely available to graduate library workers across disciplines, by providing an equal pathway to professional recognition that won’t break the bank.
It’s worth mentioning that I had zero library experience when I began my MIS—which I hear is not uncommon—so my first impression of library work was in the (virtual) classroom. ↩
It’s been a while since I catalogued much of anything, so it’s quite nice to be (intermittently) back in the office doing this work. I would have been happy enough dealing with the usual print monographs, but recently two jigsaw puzzles wound up on my desk: one featuring a beautiful contemporary Aboriginal artwork, Diverse Women, and the other featuring the infamous mechanical stomach at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), Cloaca Professional. My boss knows I love cataloguing weird stuff and also nobody else wanted to deal with these for some reason, so I volunteered to take one for the team.
The majority of our jigsaw puzzle collection, if it can really be called that, is either cartographic (map-based) or an added extra that came with a book. These two puzzles were neither of those things, so there wasn’t a whole lot of precedent in the collection for how best to process them. I had a peek at the OLAC guidelines but was hoping for something a bit more accessible, so I thought I might as well write it myself. Besides, when the next jigsaw inevitably winds up on my (or your) desk this way perhaps we’ll be a little bit consistent. (I also figured I could shoehorn this into this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme, ‘Discovery’.)
As always, these observations are all mine and not those of my employer. I swear I’m not writing blog posts on company time, honest.
Fortunately someone scrounged up for me a cataloguing template for jigsaw puzzles. Unfortunately this template was really intended for map-based jigsaws, and as such was coded as a cartographic resource (‘m’ in LDR/08). In my mind regular jigsaws are realia, so I coded these records as such (‘r’ in LDR/08), taking out the map-specific fields as I went.
I learned that the 008 for cartographic resources has a specific byte for jigsaws (‘l’ in 008/73). The 008 for realia1, however, is less specific; I settled on coding these as ‘games’ (‘g’ in 008/23), which apparently includes puzzles. This seems an unfortunate gap, but I was unwilling to add a cartographic 006 field just for this one byte, as it has a negligible impact on discovery. Also neither of these things are maps.
Title and access points
Both puzzle boxes featured easily identifiable titles, recorded in a 245 as usual: $a Diverse women and $a Cloaca jigsaw puzzle.
Access points, however, were trickier. A quick Google for ‘Rachel Sarra diverse women’ only returned results that related to the puzzle, which implied that Diverse Women was primarily intended for release as a puzzle, and existed publicly only in this form. I contrasted this with Cloaca Professional, which was already well-known as a public artwork, and of which a photograph was used for the Cloaca jigsaw. Diverse Women artist Rachael Sarra was credited on the puzzle box (garnering a 245 $c); so was Cloaca Professional creator Wim Delvoye, but as that artwork’s creator, not of the puzzle itself.
This suggested to me that the Diverse Women jigsaw is a standalone work, while the Cloaca jigsaw is a derivative work of a different, pre-existing (art)work. I gave Rachael Sarra the 100 field (with the $e artist reationship designator) and was going to only give Wim Delvoye the 700 field (as part of a name/title authorised access point; that is, $a Delvoye, Wim, 1965- $t Cloaca professional), but after thinking about it for way too long I decided to give him the 100 field as well in his own right, to aid discovery of his works. For some reason I kept thinking I could only give him either the 100 or the 700, but not both? I don’t know why I thought that. Perhaps I was taught it at some point.
It’s important to remember that this kind of nuanced distinction is practically meaningless for modern-day search and retrieval, but cataloguers care quite deeply about this stuff because the MARC standard forces us to. I wish it weren’t necessary.
I also gave Mona a 710 added entry, as they were intellectually responsible for the puzzle’s production. I’ve never really understood why publishers don’t get 710 fields, or why the 260/264 $b isn’t routinely indexed. I feel like that would be a useful feature. Probably too useful, I suppose.
A description of the box and its contents was added in a 300 contents field. Interestingly the Diverse Women puzzle has an ISBN (a use for which this persistent identifier was probably not designed), so it went in the 020 field as usual. I did wonder if there was a controlled vocabulary for the 020 $q but the Library of Congress MARC documentation said there wasn’t, so I just made something up. Nice to be able to do that in catalogue records occasionally.
Neither puzzle gave an age range, so I didn’t include a 521 Target Audience Note (though the difficulty of Cloaca in particular suggests these are aimed at adults). However, both puzzles included specific copyright statements, which I felt it important to reproduce in a grandly-named 542 Information Relating to Copyright Status Note.
Diverse Women came with a summary on the back of the box; the Cloaca jigsaw featured one on the Mona online shop, in their trademark irreverent style. Both were duly copied into the 520 summary field.
I admit I was initially at a loss as to how to index these puzzles, especially the Cloaca puzzle. Just how does one represent ‘jigsaw puzzle of a photograph of a mechanical digestive system’ in LCSH? For better or worse I am paid to figure out these things, eventually settling on the delightful (and new to our catalogue) ‘Scatology in art’ for Cloaca, and ‘Jigsaw puzzle art’ for Diverse Women.
The Diverse Women puzzle was additionally indexed using an AIATSIS subject heading, in line with MPOW’s cataloguing policy for First Nations materials (it’s a great policy and your library should do this too). I tossed up whether to include a heading for the Goreng Goreng people, as the box notes that Rachel is a Goreng Goreng woman but the resource isn’t strictly about the Goreng Goreng. As a white woman I’m not the best person to be making that decision, but I also didn’t want to bother my Indigenous colleagues about every single little thing related to cataloguing Indigenous resources. I ultimately decided not to include the heading, choosing instead to fully transcribe the artist credits on the box in the 245 $c. if a future cataloguer disagrees, they can always add the heading in later.
The Library of Congress Genre/Form Terms vocabulary features the term ‘Jigsaw puzzles’, so that was included in a 655 field in each record. MPOW doesn’t routinely use the 380 Form of Work field and it’s not indexed in our system, but you could use this field instead if you prefer.
These may or may not precisely match what’s on the ANBD, but should give you a pretty good idea of what goes where. (I reserve the right to edit these later and fix my inevitable errors, haha.)2
Strictly speaking this is the Visual Materials 008, but it covers realia too. ↩
You may notice, as I belatedly did, that Libraries Tasmania also have a copy of the Cloaca jigsaw puzzle. They did things slightly differently to me (and may have convinced me to give Wim Delvoye the 100 field) but life would be boring if we all catalogued the same way :) ↩
For a few months in late March, nobody knew what day it was. For a few weeks in mid-Victoria, nobody knows what August it is. I worry that further lockdown has warped the spacetime of greater Melbourne, that they will emerge from this black hole slightly older than the rest of us. As Westerners, we’re not used to this. But time has always been a malleable thing.
Industrialised society rather fancied itself the master of time. Clocks enabled the division of time into ever-smaller portions, into which workers were expected to cram ever-greater amounts of work. Watches, and later mobile phones, ensured we could always know our exact temporal position. I hate them, honestly. A year ago from a friend I borrowed 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, a polemic on the possibilities of chronotopic anti-capitalism. Sadly I only ever got halfway through; the dense, archaic prose had put me to sleep.
We speak of the beforetimes as a distinct epoch: a time where time made sense to us. As we were forced to abandon our daily routines, so we also lost our larger-scale markers of time—commuting to work, a midday meal, after-school pickup. Five of those in a week and we’ve made it to the weekend. Without those markers, every day was a weekend. But every day was also a work day. Every day was all the time. And the news became ever more deranged.
Yet the autumn leaves kept falling. Temperatures kept dropping. Day-lengths kept shortening. Time moved on, regardless. But we didn’t feel it that way.
I have a complicated relationship with time. For one thing, it doesn’t move in a straight line like most people think it does. Time forms great circles across the cosmos, guiding the Earth and all its lifeforms in cycles lasting many thousands of years. We’re all familiar with timelines, but such diagrams are deceptively linear, overly short and fixated on dates.
One of the hallmarks of my depression is that I lose the ability to see into the future: the worse the illness, the shorter the timescale. Life beyond is unknowable, hidden behind an impenetrable fog, as if time will simply cease to exist. My future has felt as long as five decades and as short as five minutes. There is no such thing as forever.
Perhaps it’s because I experienced both times at the same time, but to me corona time felt very similar to depression time. There is no real future, just an eternal present. Everything is too much. Seconds last for hours. Days last for weeks. We are dislocated from our regular chronologies. We feel temporally seasick. We struggle, though we don’t realise it, to weave ourselves back into the fabric of time. We yearn for something that might reconnect us with a greater existence. The key difference, of course, being that everyone else is experiencing corona time too, and they’re not used to time behaving this way.
A lot of people have written a lot about pandemic time, but they are mostly people for whom time was always already linear. A crucial exception: Diné poet Jake Skeets, whose expansive piece ‘The Other House’ speaks to Indigenous temporalities and cosmologies in our times of apocalypse.
Two years ago, when the world shrank to the size of my bedroom and I was utterly convinced that there would be no next year, I found deep comfort in the idea of deep time. I saw, to paraphrase Anna Spargo-Ryan, the fabric of time split in front of my eyes while I waited for help that never came. (It never came because I never asked; our society expects those least capable of self-reliance and self-advocacy to do these exact things in their darkest moments.) I found myself at the bottom of a large temporal hole, terrified into oblivion by the horrors of climate catastrophe. I lost all perspective of what had already happened, and what still awaited us. Time existed in zero dimensions.
Recovering from depression is an exercise in lengthening time, in re-placing oneself within and across the cosmos. I found solace in deep histories spanning tens of thousands of years. Knowing someone’s ancestors had walked this land for that long; knowing my own ancestors had walked faraway lands for almost as long. I felt part of something much greater than my own tiny golden speck of existence. It was a comfort to know the stars had been here long before me, and would be here long after me, too.
It may seem disjointed from the current Melburnian folk horror, the fear of being trapped in time, of being forgotten by the wider world, of existing in too tightly wound a time loop, of ‘living a life that resembles death’. It might feel like the darkest timeline, but there is hope to be found in our tangle of loose temporal threads. Perhaps, as Skeets writes, ‘maybe an answer lies within the reimagining of hope through the reimagining of time’.