Last year I met Hugh’s dad at a party. He initially mistook me for someone else but was polite enough to keep chatting to our table. I forget exactly how I was introduced—possibly as some kind of erstwhile twitter personality—but he ultimately told me, kindly but firmly, to ‘stop being so self-deprecating!’.
Not wishing to disappoint Papa Rundle, I had initially planned to write a triumphant overview of everything I achieved in 2019. I ended up with quite a long list. And yet I found myself at the end of the decade in much the same place I’d started it: having anxiety attacks and failing at parties. Things got worse. Things got better. Things got worse.
I worked myself to pieces last year and all I felt was failure. Haven’t we been here before?
At the start of the year, I had a lot to look forward to. After a tumultuous 2018 I took a month off work and fled to Tasmania. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I went to Mona Foma festival in Launceston, felt the warm embrace of nature at Cradle Mountain, admired the blowhole at Bicheno, explored the museums and pad thai establishments of Hobart. I became a #feralcataloguer. I drank my weight in Jive Honey Crunch, the best flavoured milk you’ve never had. I loved the island of lutruwita. I’d go back in an instant.
For the first time in my library career, I spent an entire calendar year working for the same organisation (a small, minor national library that shall remain nameless). Years of hope labour paid off when I was made permanent there in July, with the grandiose job title of ‘Metadata Coordinator’. Three weeks later I gained a temporary promotion to the web archiving team, where I’ve stayed ever since. Web archiving is a fascinating little area of GLAM work and I’ve really enjoyed my time in the team. I particularly enjoyed playing ScoMo Simulator on company time (and thanks to the Australian Web Archive, you can play it too).
I did, as usual, an absolutely ridiculous amount of PD. I ran a three-hour OpenRefine workshop at VALA Tech Camp and was on the committee for Tech Camp and generally helped make Tech Camp happen. Hugh and I both learned that running both a conference and a workshop at that conference is extremely stressful and that we really shouldn’t do that again. I promptly forgot this lesson in overscheduling and presented two full talks at the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium (NLS9), telling a packed room ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. It was the conference talk I’d always wanted to give, and it was a great success. I backed it up ninety minutes later with a talk about zines with Kassi.
I wrote 16 blog posts, including 7 for GLAM Blog Club. My favourite post was ‘The people’s cataloguer’, a wonderfully serendipitous (and extremely Tasmanian) tale of cataloguing 110 books that comprised The People’s Library, and in so doing becoming part of that library’s performance.
I attended five cardiparties, which I think is quite impressive considering I don’t live in any of the places they were held in. I saw the sights of Ballarat on foot in January, marvelled at the incredible Incendium Radical Library in Footscray in February, heard from Liz Stokes at the GLAMSLAM sideshow in Sydney in March, toured the Incinerator Gallery in Moonee Ponds in April, and was all along the water tower in Sale in November.
I catalogued a lot of books. I archived a lot of websites. I drank a lot of tea. I spent a lot of time on long-distance trains. Oh, and I shaved my head. Repeatedly. It was awesome.
I had some pretty crap life stuff happen too, though. I lost two extended family members: my cousin Tristan was killed in a motorcycle accident in June, and my favourite uncle Vince died suddenly in early January this year. On both occasions I was out of town and away from immediate family. The distance hurt more than I expected.
I also spent several months being various kinds of not-well, and not just because of the smoke haze choking the city. I set myself a lot of lessons. I didn’t learn any of them.
By any reasonable standard, I had a huge and fairly successful year. And yet so much of me is hyper-focused on all the things I failed at. I totally blanked on the cataloguing ethics group. People asked me to write for their blogs, invited me to contribute to their projects, emailed me looking for cataloguing advice etc and I just never got back to them. I couldn’t face my inbox. I couldn’t face next week. I was completely overwhelmed by everything and I dropped a lot of balls. Most of those balls were made of plastic, but a few were made of glass.
After many years part of me has finally realised that no matter how much I throw myself into library work, it will never fix the gaping holes in the rest of my life. I might have loved libraries, but libraries were never gonna love me back. I spent most of this past January considering whether I still wanted to be a librarian at all. It’s hard not to look at the state of the earth and wonder whether librarianship is really the best use of my time and talents. Honestly, I’m not sure it is any more. All other things being equal, sure, I’d love to sit around and tinker with metadata until I retire. But I don’t live in that world and there’s no point pretending I do.
I cannot keep working at the rate I have been because otherwise I will completely disintegrate. Nor do I want to keep doing so much library stuff at the expense of literally everything else. The environment doesn’t care what I put in a library catalogue. Something needs to change.
This year I have… well, I was going to say one goal. I have many goals and most of them are not for public consumption. But my biggest and most public goal is to do less, while doing better.
In 2019 I hoped to ‘to learn more about how my upbringing has shaped my inbuilt theories of knowledge’ and ‘learn more about nature from nature itself’. I tried to spend more time in nature, even as our climate is rapidly changing and the seasons are collapsing around us. I became a lot more aware of what, and how, different groups of people learn about the natural world. I had a lot of complex thoughts on this and neglected to properly write them down, so I want to come back to this in another post.
Ultimately I want to spend more time sipping peppermint tea on a train, learning this landscape and helping to heal it. I want to do less. I want to do better. I want to get better. And maybe then I’ll be a little less self-deprecating.
This article first appeared in inCite, the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association, January/February 2020, volume 41, issue 1/2, page 24.
Are you a critical librarian? You might already be, but maybe didn’t know your actions and philosophies fit within the name. Perhaps you’re the type to advocate for changes to subject headings, or your workplace is actively making library spaces more welcoming for disadvantaged people. Perhaps these are really the same thing.
For some, critical librarianship, or ‘critlib’, means bringing social justice principles to library work, such as a commitment to equality, diversity and solidarity with marginalised people. For others, it means aligning their library practice with critical theory, a ‘framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature’. These are related but distinct approaches to how libraries interact with their communities. It’s one thing to advocate for social justice in the library, but it’s quite another to use the tools of critical theory to explore why and where there is social injustice in the library in the first place.
Critical librarianship involves deep, considered analysis about the structure and theory of library work. It doesn’t mean criticising in a rude or disparaging way. Nor does it mean believing that libraries are necessarily bad. Critical librarianship aims to make the profession better by recognising harmful and oppressive structures, dismantling those structures and building better ones in their stead. We critique because we care.
All areas of library work can incorporate critical perspectives, including reference, information literacy, outreach, IT systems, collection development and cataloguing. Each area strives to recognise who is harmed by prevailing library practices, what message they send, and how they might be reformed.
For example, advocating for changes to subject headings, such as the notorious Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) ‘Illegal aliens’, involves recognising how terms like these reflect social and political mores of the United States Congress, the institution served by the Library of Congress and its subject headings. Australian libraries use these headings mostly out of convenience, but many terms are clearly inappropriate, such as ‘Dreamtime (Australian Aboriginal mythology)’. The equivalent term in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) subject headings is ‘Religion – Dreaming’, which repositions the Dreaming as contemporary spiritual practice and not ancient mythology.
Neither term is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but choosing to replace an LCSH term with an AIATSIS one demonstrates a recognition of the rights of Indigenous people to describe their culture their way, and the obligations of libraries to uphold those rights. It sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more welcoming and inclusive place. 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. It’s also the least we can do.
Bringing social justice to the library is deeply admirable. But critical librarianship should also involve bringing the library to social justice, listening to our communities, and incorporating critical theory into library practice. Perhaps you’re already doing these things. Turns out these practices have a name.
At Alex Bayley’s invitation, I compiled a short list of books that collectively explain, or at least excuse, the inside of my head. Books that say more about me than my resume. Well, my resume suggests I’m a chronic library overachiever, so here are some books that are not about libraries. I think it ended up mostly being an excuse to tell embarrassing bookish anecdotes about my childhood.
This list does not, and necessarily cannot, reflect the many periods of my life where I was so unwell I stopped being able to read books at all. Instead being portals of wonder, books became piles of words I couldn’t process. For someone who learned to read precociously early this has had a profound effect on my reading habits. I’ve become a slower and choosier reader. Words take longer to sink in, now.
At the moment, the inside of my head is mostly white noise and static. This list represents what my brain normally looks like when it’s not trying to eat itself.
These also aren’t in any particular order, except I read the ‘earlier’ books, uh, earlier.
His Dark Materials / Philip Pullman
A primary school classmate who shared my name but spelt it wrong insisted our teacher read Northern Lights to us as part of class storytime. I was captivated. Mum bought me the trilogy for Christmas that year. I thought it was brilliant, full of suspense and intrigue and characters that felt real, and also not real. Looking back I think I read the series a touch too early; virtually all the adult references and a lot of the deeper mythology went way over my head. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation. I think I’d prefer to keep my imagination intact.
Antimatter: the ultimate mirror / Gordon Fraser
This was my favourite book when I was ten years old. I’m not even joking. I made a habit of going to the same shelf in the local public library and continually borrowing the same book on particle physics because I found it all so fascinating. I recall liking this book because it had less maths and more science, which I guess means the prose was engaging enough that I could skip the more mathsy parts.
One day someone else borrowed the book and returned it to a different library. I was devastated. I didn’t know how holds worked. I think I waited for the book to come back of its own accord. I’m not sure it ever did. They’ve weeded it now.
A young person’s guide to philosophy / Jeremy Weate
When I was nine I won a prize in the MS Readathon for reading the most books in the whole of the ACT. They abolished the prize the year after I won it, possibly because they could tell I rorted the system by reading all of my younger brother’s thoroughly boring Thomas the Tank Engine readers. (Mum foolishly agreed to pay me by the book.) The prize was a $20 gift voucher at Angus & Robertson.
Normal children would probably have bought a novel or two. I bought an illustrated philosophy book instead, and got the bookshop staff to photocopy the prize gift voucher and paste it in the front. I liked reading about Hypatia. She was illustrated wearing a purple toga and riding a chariot. I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Descartes sitting in the stove was markedly less appealing.
Sand Talk / Tyson Yunkaporta
I haven’t finished reading this yet but I also haven’t been able to shut up about it. It’s incredible. The sharp and clear-eyed prose belies a geo-socio-temporal intricacy that whitefella here can only begin to grasp, of the deep patterns that inform Indigenous knowledge, and how recognising, appreciating and ultimately following those knowledge paradigms might help us all live better on this land.
Nothing I say here will do this book justice. It’s one of the best things I’ve started reading in years.
Hope in the Dark / Rebecca Solnit
I now read this book medicinally. Take a chapter at bedtime, when the news is grim. It won’t fix the news, and it might not fix you, but it will give you some perspective back. I experience time differently when I’m unwell; my perspective narrows, time grows shorter and greyer, I forget the past and can’t see the future. Sometimes Hope in the Dark is a distraction, and sometimes that’s all I need, but other times it helps me contextualise things, reminds me that in many ways we have been here before. Perhaps we all ‘oppose the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too would survive in the world’.
I notice Hugh also included this book in his bibliography. I’ve still got his copy. I’ll return it soon, I promise. Just as soon as hope comes back.
The Anthrobscene / Jussi Parikka Once upon a time we were all told that doing things electronically was good for the planet because it saved trees. We now know that’s not true, right? Everything that goes into a computer is mined from the ground, and this book combines media studies and earth science in exploring the effects of modern computing on the planet and the materiality of our digital habitat.
To be honest, I didn’t understand most of this book the first time I read it, largely because I found the prose is exceedingly dense. I learned a lot from it on subsequent reads, but I also learned that it was okay to finish a book and say, ‘I just didn’t get that.’
‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ / David Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker
This article radicalised me. I know this is a book list and not an article list, but this piece changed me utterly. I read it only once, on a nondescript evening in March or April last year. It terrified me half to death. I haven’t read it since. It sparked an extended period of climate anxiety, during which time I was convinced there wasn’t gonna be a next year why were all these people making life plans so far ahead didn’t they know the world was ending, but it also galvanised me into seeking the truth. I came out the other end with a very different perspective on ecology, society, and democracy.
‘Time to a Pin-Oak’ / Katie Holten and Chelsea Steinauder-Scudder, Emergence Magazine The first five issues of Emergence were published in an enormous print volume so I’m counting it as a book.
I first met the word ‘dendrochronology’ on paper at age four, defined in my favourite compendium of miscellaneous facts as ‘dating by counting tree rings’. Unfortunately for me I didn’t hear the word spoken aloud for another twenty years, so I went around proudly telling everyone about ‘dend-roch-ron-ology’ and how nobody needed a calendar, only a tree. No wonder I got picked on at school.
The word stayed with me, though, and I rediscovered its magic through the magnificent Emergence Magazine, easily one of my favourite things to read, a nourishing blend of ecology, culture and spirituality. ‘Time to a Pin-Oak’ mirrors the birth of the universe with the birth of an oak tree, situating our short lives within the unfathomable vastness of the universe. I find this kind of temporal context deeply grounding and comforting. I love everything about Emergence.
That big report we’ve been waiting for has come out (mb you’ve seen it) / Bailey Sharp
In my head I call this ‘the synoptic zine’ because it has a dark wordless synoptic chart on the cover. I lost my shit the first time I read this. I was deep diving into one of Kassi’s latest zine hauls and I stopped everything and goggled at how real it felt. It’s a greyscale comic about the likely end of the world and how our children and their children, amorphous blobs the lot of them, might cope (or not) with the circumstances they will inherit. It hit me in every feel I had.
This later turned up in my zine cataloguing in-tray at work (it might have been from someone’s Other Worlds haul, but don’t quote me on that). I’ve never catalogued a zine so attentively. I made sure the word ‘synoptic’ was in the record. I’d never find it otherwise.
On anxiety: an anthology / 3 of Cups Press I find this by turns a harrowing and soothing book, a crowdsourced compendium of contributions from mostly England. It came into my life at the end of 2018, the year of climate anxiety and employment anxiety and illness anxiety. I was a mess. I wanted to be heard, and this book hears me. Sometimes that’s all you can do for an anxious person. To say ‘I hear you’ and maybe ‘I feel this too’ and hopefully ‘You’re going to be okay’.
I resonated with ‘Stress reduction for companion birds’ and ‘(F)logging on’. The comic ‘Me I.R.L.’ is by a librarian. I, too, am often a rainy cloud.
6. There is no business as usual in a #ClimateEmergency. We urgently need government to develop a national resilience framework to look after our people and our country as the climate damage worsens. This needs to cover every community and every sector.
All around me, people act like it’s business as usual. My city is shrouded in smoke. So many people around our region keeping fires at bay. I keep waking up with a crackling throat and a tightness in my chest. And yet the library is all Christmas and the news is all Pravda. I wonder sometimes what planet I’m on.
‘Resilience’ and I are strange bedfellows. On one hand, I am acutely aware of the sheer neoliberal hubris involved in pushing resilience mantras onto people facing structural harm, inter-generational trauma, or planetary apocalypse, as if an inability to cope with those things is simply a personal failing. Coping is a bandaid. Coping doesn’t fix the cause. Coping won’t make it stop.
But at the same time: we can’t build futures we can’t imagine. Many people turn to fiction for inspiration and guidance, particularly speculative fiction and various futurism genres. I’m not much of a fiction reader1, so instead I turn to works of natural history and new nature writing, to know what has come before us, and what might be next. Truth hurts. And yet it comforts me.
If we yield to panic, we lose that ability to see into the distance, even as that distance is shrouded in ash.
From here, the future looks grim. Despite the desperate need for whole-scale systematic change, I have no faith that those with the power to enact such change will do so. We cannot wait for promised technologies, promised public policy, or a promised saviour to rescue us from this mess. We may not even be able to rescue ourselves. But trying is the only option available to us. And we must try together.
This is essentially the plot of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, a book I’ve turned to a few times this year, and which I should probably purchase instead of hoarding a friend’s copy. I find myself taking a chapter as medicine when it all seems particularly awful. Most things are terrible. But not everything. And in the space between there is room to act.
Because my eyesight is dreadful I own three pairs of glasses, yet I see most things through a library lens. It’s tempting to imagine the library as a microcosm of its broader society: a magical place where we might build better social relations or knowledge arrangements. But the longer I spend in librarianship, the more I see our structural problems replicated beyond the microcosm. We can’t solve them in isolation.
Most of the problems with librarianship that we want to solve are bigger than the industry or profession itself.
I look outside, I read the news, I hear the anguish of those all around me, I think about what I’m not hearing, and I wonder… why am I even at work? Is it because the air is nicer inside? Is it so I can delude myself that what I do here will matter in the long term? Is it even mattering now? Is it all just so much busywork while we wait for the world to end?
I’m a web archivist. I’m also an environmentalist. I’m probably a hypocrite.
The internet doesn’t exist in the ether… it exists in server farms. In triplicate or more. That use massive amounts of carbon to construct, outfit, and run. Digital isn’t low impact, it’s actually quite high impact. https://t.co/xBo2eYEOmw
We also shouldn’t try to save everything as long as the internet is fossil fueled (which it mostly is). Your WARCs and AIPs/DIPs/SIPs and disk images have their own carbon footprints. https://t.co/7Ac9QXMlGQ
In addition to being hugely carbon-intensive (irrespective of whether or not it’s powered by renewable energy), global computing consumes huge amounts of natural resources, including oil and rare-earth minerals, and produces colossal amounts of waste. Supposedly ‘green’ technology is costing the earth. Absolutely everything about web archiving is unsustainable. I wonder if it could ever become sustainable. I don’t like our chances.
I say this as someone whose job relies on these same technologies + infrastructures. I’m as complicit as anyone.
But instead of asking ‘how can we make [thing] better for the planet’ we must instead ask ‘should [thing] continue at all’—and be prepared for the answer to be ‘no’.
So what do we do next? I know I ended my last blog post with ‘I don’t have the answers’, and despite the professional vexation of remaining answerless, here I am still searching. I’m not a climate scientist or a political ecologist or someone with decades of direct and relevant life experience. Instead here I am, adrift in a sea of reckons.
The easterly smokewind—the muril bulyaŋgaŋ, as the Ngunnawal might call it—forms a kind of hideous poetry. Where it used to bring cool relief of an evening, the easterly now carries smoke from fires between us and the ocean. I dread the breeze, now. It’s all wrong. It’s not normal. I resent what the climate is doing to us. I grieve for what we have done to the climate.
We all have to face ourselves in the mirror. I wonder who I want to see, what kind of person I hope to become, forged as we all are by our hideous circumstances. What would I see in the mirror of Erised? A perfect catalogue? A temperate forest? A group of friends? Or would I be grateful to see anything beyond a shimmering void?
I am sad, weary, listless, lonely, tired. I see few lights on the horizon, and I’m meant to be one of the lucky ones. I often think about giving up. And then I take stock, and I dream. I dream of building strong, resourceful, resilient communities. I dream of rewilding barren landscapes, following Indigenous caretakers in restoring biodiversity and ecological health. I dream of being able to open my windows in the evening and not be ambushed by smoke haze. I dream of solidarity with each other and the land. I dream of finding answers. I dream of doing the impossible. I dream of not doing this alone.
We are indeed through the looking-glass. But it needn’t be a one-way trip.
This was the primary reason why I opted out of ALIA SNGG’s book secret santa this year. I have very niche reading tastes, am extremely hard to buy for, and also suck at readers’ advisory. 🙃 ↩
Last night, LIS student Megan Chorusch decided she’d had enough, and told the library sector something it needed to hear.
LIS Volunteering – A Thread. Since I started my Masters of Information Studies, I have been aware that I would likely need to volunteer wherever I could to increase my employability in the library industry.
I’ll let you read the thread for yourself. I am furious that our sector is putting people in this position. So many prospective library workers are making huge sacrifices in the pursuit of jobs that simply are not there. Megan’s story is heartbreaking—yet all too common.
For many, the prospect of library work is deeply appealing. In theory, library work offers the chance of being able to help people, to connect them with information and knowledge, to not have to sell them stuff, to do something meaningful and honourable with your life. Many see librarianship as more than just a job. This is vocational awe, a cruel deception our industry clings to, painting itself as inherently good and wonderful and therefore beyond reproach. Very quickly this turns into ‘you should do this work because you love it, and not because it pays’. Very quickly the goalposts start shifting, as more and more people seek this kind of work. Entry-level positions suddenly ask for years of experience. Then those positions start paying less. Then they vanish altogether.
What do we tell people who are looking to get into the library industry? We tell them to volunteer. We tell them to work for free. We tell them to try and get casual or part-time employment. We tell them, in short, to devalue and exploit themselves before the sector does it for them. Librarianship, historically a profession deemed suitable for women, has never been a high-paying industry. I don’t know anyone who became a librarian for the money, and I know a lot of librarians.
But what we’re really telling prospective library workers, as I have written before and as plenty have pointed out before me, is that if you can’t afford to volunteer or work casual hours then there is no place for you here. Many LIS students are mature-age, perhaps re-entering the workforce after having children, or perhaps looking for a career change. Many have families, mortgages, caring responsibilities, financial pressures. Many others come from working-class backgrounds, have a disability, are Indigenous, live in regional areas, are marginalised in the job market in so many other ways. They can’t afford to work for free or for so little. And they shouldn’t have to.
This story belongs to so many of us. My twitter feed is full of tales very similar to Megan’s. ‘I’ve recently decided not to go on with my information management studies.’ ‘I am having to go to tafe to do an admin course because I need to work.’ ‘I have three volunteer roles with ALIA, and still no one wants me with no experience.’ Megan’s thread has resonated with many library students and new graduates who don’t see a future for themselves in the industry. And they’re the ones who care enough about libraries to tweet about them! Their despair is palpable. I wish I could do something to help.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a permanent full-time job in a library that many people would give their right arm to work for. I don’t have dependants or a mortgage. I didn’t have to volunteer for organisations that were capable of paying me (and I could make a conscious decision not to do this). All I had to do was blog and tweet and write and present and be on committees and have a ~presence~ and perform huge amounts of hope labour in order to get where I am, never mind where I hope to be. It’s a hell of a lot of work. I love what I do, and I am acutely aware of my good fortune, but the hustle feels never-ending.
Something is not right here. On one hand we have new graduates at all levels crying out for any kind of library work, and on the other we have employers claiming the job market isn’t supplying them with what they’re looking for. The Department of Employment’s Job Outlook for librarians is rosy, but the Outlook for library assistants and library technicians is grim. Many degree-qualified librarians instead find themselves in library technician or assistant roles (when they can find work at all), consequently crowding out those with TAFE qualifications. Many areas, particularly major cities, will refuse to consider your application unless and until you have that piece of paper… but then they’ll reject you anyway because you’ll have no experience.
ALIA’s education, skills and employment trend reports have consistently claimed that the wave of retiring baby boomers will create spaces for new librarians. I got my foot in the door at MPOW because of just such a retiring baby boomer, but more often than not retirees take their jobs with them. Natural attrition. Efficiency dividends. Doing more with less. It’s all so familiar.
I don’t know who to believe—the Job Outlook, the professional association, the universities, the TAFE institutions. For a profession so attached to ideals of truth, integrity and knowledge, it sure does feel like someone is lying to us.
Like Megan, I don’t know what I want to achieve with this post. I won’t pretend to have the answers, much as I wish I could help those locked out of library work. I’m not a manager. I can’t hire anybody. Very few of us can make permanent, well-paid, entry-level library jobs appear out of thin air. The industry is plagued with structural issues no one person can possibly address.
Yet we cannot expect people to make these kinds of sacrifices for low-paid, entry-level library work. Free labour should not be the price of entry. That is, assuming we can even find an entryway.
Megan writes in closing: ‘Even if I didn’t think [volunteer work] would better my job prospects, I’d still probably do it because I love it there. But the thought of needing to and recognising that I have to prioritise gaining experience before I even graduate. That’s where my frustration lies.’
I hear you, Megan. And I’m sorry it’s come to this.
This month’s GLAM Blog Club theme is the delightfully adaptable ‘question’. Next month’s #auslibchat theme is the equally interesting ‘Library Roles’. These have both wound up being quite timely, for reasons I probably shouldn’t discuss on the open internet, but I do have some questions about my role as a librarian with a technical bent.
I’m trying to get out of my perfectionist shell, so these are more free-flowing thoughts than I would normally commit to pixels. I should also mention I had a coconut margarita for dinner this evening, and I’m in a bit of a mood.
Back in the olden days, back-of-house library functions like cataloguing, acquisitions, et cetera were broadly known as ‘technical services’. When I started in libraries just over four years ago this term baffled me. I supposedly worked in this kind of area, but it felt like a hangover phrase from The Time Before Computers. Nothing ‘technical’ about serials check-in, I thought. Technical people worked in the systems department. Or in web publishing. Or in IT, which sat outside the library itself.
Four roles and three workplaces later, I still don’t work in any of those areas, but I also still don’t know how I feel about the phrase ‘technical services’. For context, I currently work as a web archivist, which is easily one of the best and coolest jobs I will ever have. I have the rare pleasure of a role that combines curatorial, technical and metadata aspects, in a team full of good people who know their stuff. I love (almost) every second. I haven’t been this happy at work since I spent 5 1/2 years running an ice-cream shop on weekends. I’ve been meaning to blog for ages about how awesome my current job is. I should get on that.
Notably, I am the only woman in a team of five people, and it’s taken some getting used to. Anecdotally, cataloguing and other ‘technical services’ are female-dominated, with a greater proportion of people from non-Anglo backgrounds (mostly due to the need for vernacular language skills). Yet library IT, like IT everywhere, is male-dominated. It’s not good enough for organisations like ALIA to blithely state that the LIS sector needs to hire more men. We need to look at the distribution of genders within the sector. IT pays good money. Cataloguing doesn’t. Librarianship has historically been a feminised profession, an ‘acceptable’ career path for women. It’s hard not to wonder whether tech services would be taken more seriously if more men were doing it.
But I also wonder whether I got into librarianship because it seemed like a safe and acceptable way for me, a white woman, to be technical. Being a systems thinker, I’ve always looked at how things work together, taking a broad view of the forest and its ecosystem while also occasionally delighting in a particular tree. Libraries are just one big system, right? But that system has to be meaningful to people, too, and it’s what I find most interesting about being a cataloguer.
As a technically-minded librarian I often feel like I inhabit a kind of liminal space. I don’t feel technical enough for IT—largely because I’m not much of a coder—yet I feel almost too technical for a lot of library work. Most library jobs these days are not conceived as being ‘technical’ roles. Library schools push a front-of-house mindset almost from day one. My study visit cohort were firmly told what attributes we needed in order to succeed in libraries, and I didn’t feel like I had any of them. I was a natural introvert, not very good at people, quite fond of books and reading thanks, drawn to computers and systems. I vividly remember walking the streets of suburban Perth on the brink of tears because I felt like I didn’t fit the mould the lecturer had set for us. I spent the rest of the visit wondering whether I had made the biggest mistake of my life by enrolling in library school. I seriously considered giving it all away.
I know now, of course, that the lecturer was rude, crude and totally wrong. I do have what it takes to be a librarian. Just not the kind of librarian she was thinking of. But the idea persists that librarians are not technical people, or that the heart of librarianship is not—or should not—be a technical one. We’ve been technical for decades. We were one of the first professions to embrace the possibilities of automation. (We’re still dealing with some of those possibilities now. Ask any cataloguer about whether MARC has died yet.) What happened to that? Where did that power go? Where has that technical skill and ability ended up? And why has the section known as ‘technical services’ not been at the centre of this change?
Too library for the tech staff, too techy for the library. It’s hard not to feel as if I will one day be made to choose between them.
And I will refuse to choose.
Our profession needs all the techy librarians it can get. People who speak library AND speak IT. People with the ethical grounding of librarianship, who may or may not work back-of-house, but who can also critically assess and use technology, ensuring it functions in accordance with the values of this profession. No siloing. No separating. No boundaries. And I say all this not just because I’m on the committee of VALA, a library technology organisation that was literally founded to bring librarians and technologists together, nor because I’m trying to shore up my own career prospects in an uncertain world. I say this because I want library automation to happen BY us, not TO us. I want librarians to be able to take control of their own technological destinies. I want equitable cataloguing to be supported by equitable systems. I want us to be able to speak tech, so we can either tell tech what to do, or feel suitably empowered to do it ourselves.
It’s not technical services as we’ve traditionally known it. But a lot of library traditions are changing.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
James and I learned that SLSA’s Mortlock Chamber has great acoustics. It made up a little for having been too tired for karaoke earlier in the week. A little free wine didn’t hurt, either.
A couple of months ago I went to Adelaide for the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium, along with loads of other cool library people. I gave two conference talks—my first and my second—on topics close to my heart. I learned so much from so many people. I had a pretty good time.
I also spent that weekend processing the news that my cousin, who a few days earlier had been critically injured in a motorcycle accident in Brisbane, was almost certainly going to die. We all hoped against hope for a different outcome. I felt terrible for enjoying myself so far away. Mum reassured me it was okay to keep doing my thing. I tried not to think about it. I didn’t tell anyone.
Tristan died of his injuries the following Wednesday, the day I got back to work. We weren’t close, but we were the same age, and he died without warning. I put off writing this post for several weeks because every time I thought about the conference I instead thought about my cousin dying, and I hoped that in time, the two events would separate in my memory. They haven’t quite, and I’m not sure they ever really will, but it feels like enough time has passed that I can write up a post, and do them both justice.
Here are some slightly disjointed reflections on NLS9, a truly inspiring conference. I just wish they weren’t the only things I remembered.
Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you won’t let show
I did the thing! I swallowed my nerves, stood up in front of a packed room and said ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. It was the conference talk I’d always wanted to give. A strident, blistering, passionate speech about the importance of library metadata and the people who make it happen. Several1 people2 later3 said4 it was the highlight5 of their weekend.6 I won’t lie—it was the highlight of mine, too.
I knew I would speak too fast and try to cram too much into my allotted twenty minutes, but I tried to compensate by being Really Enthusiastic. I knew this was my big chance to show a different side to cataloguing and metadata, a sector not known for its visibility or charisma, and perhaps encourage some of the audience to get involved in this work. I also coined the phrase ‘evidence-based whinging’ and I’m really hoping someone uses it soon!
Believing that citation should be feminist praxis, I took enormous pleasure in quoting my library heroes, bringing their work to a new audience. I have been deeply influenced by critical and radical library thinkers, both abroad and at home (though mostly abroad, it must be said), whose writings and actions make our sector a better place. I hope one day to be half as good a librarian as they each have been. For the moment, I’ll settle for quoting them adoringly in conference talks.
Thank you, audience and tweeters and delayed talk-readers, for supporting me. It certainly felt like I made a good impression. 🙂
People really like zines, I guess. Approximately ninety minutes later, noted zine boss Kassi Grace and I co-presented ‘Photocopying the revolution’, about librarians making zines and changing the world. Kassi talked about zine history and incorporating zinemaking into her professional practice. I talked about how libraries collect, catalogue and preserve zines.
While I read my cataloguing talk mostly word-for-word, with the zine talk I tried out a slightly looser approach, with a few ad-libs. I don’t think this style works for me—my brain seems to like full sentences on a page, and I don’t make the best jokes when I’m nervous. Kassi was awesome, though, and the talk seemed quite well-received. We threw in a plug for our collaborative conference zine at the end (I say ‘our’, it was Kassi’s idea, she did all the work), which turned out to be a great memento of the event.
Giving two talks at one conference was a lot of work. More than I anticipated, I think. They both came out okay, but next time I’ll stick to one talk per conference. And I’ll finish writing it more than 24 hours in advance.
Libraries are for people, not for machines. I later realised that the presentations I remembered best had followed an implicit theme of human-centred library practice: James Nicholson’s polemic on ridding the world of library fines and Nikki Andersen’s deeply inspiring call for radical inclusion and empathy in libraries were particular highlights. In addition, keynotes Sarah Brown and Eva Balan-Vnuk spoke of our technology-augmented present and future, which already excludes and marginalises by design. Though I don’t think it was mentioned by name, all these talks incorporated elements of design thinking, which seeks to make the library work for people, not the other way around.
It really was wonderful to see so many speakers implicitly, and independently, come to the same conclusion: our libraries are not about performance metrics, they are not about perfect data, they are not about profits. Libraries are about people. Let’s make them welcome.
Talking about a revolution no longer feels like a whisper. NLS9 felt like a critical mass of new, progressive, energised library workers who were ready to Get Shit Done. I said as much in my zine page, which I scribbled out at work three days later because it was my zine and I could do that (though given everything else I had going on, it was absolutely the last thing I felt like writing). I wrote of finding my people, and though I mostly hung around (and fangirled at) those I already knew, I had the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends. It’s hard to keep that momentum going, though, once we’ve all dispersed back to our respective workplaces. Twitter helps a little, but I wonder if there are other ways to connect and organise between conferences.
I also learned that eggnog-flavoured milk is a thing in South Australia, that Flic French and I missed our true calling as Hollywood scriptwriters (look, I’d watch a show about someone using AACR2 as a grimoire), and that Kyla Stephan spins an excellent yarn. Ask her what she did on her birthday this year (though perhaps not at work!).
Sustainability or bust. Like many other attendees, I was deeply impressed by the conference’s environmental consciousness. Co-convenor Pixie Stardust’s zeal for sustainability and low-impact conferencing hit me right in the feels. It felt like they thought of absolutely everything—reusable crockery, no plastic packaging, like… six different kinds of rubbish / compost / recycling bins, plant-based catering, local suppliers, you name it. That cannot have been simple to organise, and yet they pulled it off. Even the leftover pizza was donated to local shelters. It was a powerful demonstration that yes, it can be done, and it set a standard for all conferences to follow.
Unlike many other attendees, I did not fly to NLS9. Taking the train from Canberra to Adelaide (via Melbourne) is a four-day round-trip, but considering my penchant for slower and less carbon-intensive travel, plus my desire to ride the Overland before it possibly closes for good, it was time very well spent. I live-tweeted the Melbourne to Adelaide leg and discovered Michael Barry also had the same idea!
While in Adelaide I continued to ferment some thoughts I’ve been having all year about environmental theories of knowledge. I visited the incredible Museum of Economic Botany (now sponsored by a mining company, natch), a treasure trove of ethnobotanical knowledge. I thought about how many thousands of years it would have taken humanity to gain that knowledge. Here it all sat, in an old wooden hall, that I could wander around in for free. I found myself wishing it were all contained neatly in a book. I tried to work past my knowledge biases. How did we come to know all these things? Why don’t we all value this knowledge?
Jacinta Koolmatrie’s keynote, ‘Libraries and land’, brought the point home to many of us. For Aboriginal people, and for her people, the Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri nations, the land is their library. By destroying the land, we, settlers, are destroying their library, their sources and repositories of knowledge. Aboriginal people didn’t need libraries until the colonists showed up. Ours is not the only method of preserving knowledge, nor is it necessarily the best method. I would like to see more critical (self-)reflection on this in future conference talks.
I know I learned more, saw more, reflected on more during this conference. It was wonderful. But it was also tinged with sorrow. For the longest time part of it felt like it wasn’t my story to tell. Perhaps I could eventually have talked about NLS9 without including those details. But it wouldn’t have been the whole story. And after all, that’s what we’re about as librarians, right? We’re not just storytellers, but storykeepers.
Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow
It occurred to me during a recent performance discussion that it’s not always obvious what I spend my time doing, both inside and outside the office. Thankfully my boss wasn’t accusing me of being a slacker (far from it!) but I did realise that maybe I need to talk about some of my library extracurriculars a bit more. There’s the library work I get paid to do, then there’s the library work I do in my spare time, and then there’s the library work I wish I could do but don’t have time for. This is sounding familiar, isn’t it?
A lot of what I do could probably be characterised as ‘hope labour’, a term I recently encountered at the other New Librarians’ Symposium (the one in the States):
“Hope Labour” is premised on the logic of ~invest in yourself and it will pay off~, often aligned with precarious work in libraries. Hope labour takes shape of extra-curricular committee work, continuing education, and pro-bono writing all on your own dime. #newlibsymp19
By doing oodles of extra professional development, one hopes that this labour will demonstrate one’s passion, commitment and skill, and therefore organisations will be more likely to hire people who have done this labour. That’s the idea, anyway. I mean, years of being a notorious twitter personality has opened a lot of doors, but writing this blog has surely helped too. Plus being on committees and doing loads of professional reading, compiling and presenting workshops, doing conference talks… I’m tired just thinking about it.
I did all of those things because I wanted to, not because I felt obliged. Most of me was simply excited to learn things and immerse myself in the library profession, like any enthusiastic new library worker. But I’m sure deep down I also thought all this hope labour would give me a competitive advantage. Ours is not exactly a growth industry, and my little metadata niche is shrinking even as the need for quality metadata is growing. I work with many people who more or less fell into library work, and decades ago you could do that. But not any more. Before I could convince employers to hire me, I would need to first demonstrate that the kinds of jobs I wanted should exist at all.
Last month I was successful in gaining a permanent position at work. (Yay!) The divisional email that went out cited both my achievements at work and my commitment to the profession as some of the reasons why I got the job. Part of me is relieved that my hope labour has paid off, but another part of me resents that it was seemingly necessary (and I wonder if other applicants felt the same way). After all, being able to do all these extracurriculars is a privilege. I have the time, energy, disposable income and absence of other commitments to be able to do all these things. My hard work has been richly rewarded; not everyone’s hard work is recognised in this way. I also put a lot of pressure on myself, which is great for my productivity but probably not so great for the rest of me.
Having said all that: I enjoy the extracurricular stuff I do. I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise. And I hope that being permanently employed will relieve some of that constant pressure to Be The Best Possible Candidate and enable me to focus my energies on what I find interesting, not just what I think will get me a job.
In no particular order, because it’s hard to explain all this to my boss, and because some of you might find it interesting, here are a few of those things:
VALA Committee: In late June I was elected to the VALA Committee for a two-year term. VALA (previously the Victorian Association for Library Automation) is ‘an independent Australian based not-for-profit organisation that actively supports the use and understanding of information technology in libraries and the GLAM sector’ according to our website. VALA is known mostly for its biennial Conference, which is coming up in February next year. I was heavily involved in VALA Tech Camp earlier this year and decided, after some encouragement, to contribute to the organisation in a more strategic capacity. Though I don’t have an IT background, my job does involve a lot of technical stuff, and I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I can be a technical professional even though I can’t code (but that’s probably a topic for another post). I’m looking forward to bringing my, uh, idiosyncratic perspective on library technology to the Committee.
Cataloging Ethics Committee, Resource Discovery and Accessibility Working Group: Back in April a call went out on several cataloguing listservs (none of which I regularly read, because life’s too short) for people interested in formulating a Code of Ethics for cataloguers, in response to a clear need for ethical guidance in this work. The Steering Committee is a joint project of the American, British and Canadian cataloguing associations (whose full names are too long to include here), but despite not being from any of those countries I was happily accepted into a working group anyway. Along with a dozen or so people from around the world, I’ll be working on ethical guidance for ‘descriptive cataloging and types of materials catalogers deal with regularly as well as data interoperability’. Ethical decision-making comes up regularly in areas like authority control, classification and subject headings (and there are working groups for those too) but ethical descriptive cataloguing is not something I had given a lot of thought to, so excitingly that will change very soon! Our final report to the Steering Committee is due in November, with published guidance sometime next year. Though I joined the group in a personal capacity, I’m hoping this work is something ALIA and/or ACORD will take an interest in.
ALIA Community on Resource Description: Okay, so I’m not actually on this committee (and nor have I written my EOI yet, eek), but I hope to be! And you could be too, because EOIs for ACORD Committee are now open! Replacing the Australian Committee on Cataloguing (ACOC), this new community is open for all to join, and will consist of both a formal Committee and an informal Special Interest Group. I mentioned this group at the end of my NLS9 presentation as ‘a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all’. You don’t have to be working as a cataloguer. You don’t even need to be an ALIA member. But you do need to have an interest in metadata. I hope I piqued some of that interest at NLS9—here’s your chance to make things happen.
ACTive ALIA: The committee for Canberra’s local ALIA group (trust me, the name wasn’t my idea) currently consists of me and this bloke, who is also on too many other committees so we get along great. Canberra is a weird place to run an ALIA group because all the individual sectors here seem to want to do their own thing, so it’s harder to bring everyone together for some cross-sector networking. It’s also hard getting people to turn up, though that problem is definitely not unique to us. I’m hoping to help make some cool things happen later this year, but if you’ve got better ideas, feel free to drop us a line.
A librarian’s innate desire to help is often redirected into a desire to provide great customer service. That is, until what constitutes ‘customer service’ changes, and suddenly what some kinds of librarians do isn’t considered ‘helpful’ enough. I’m sure I had something else in mind when I suggested the theme ‘help’ for GLAM Blog Club. But one of Danielle’s tweets today set a different set of cogs in motion:
Every public library collection job I've seen, they never talk about discovery, only ever about buying. Surely the two are linked or if not should be.
Yes. You can’t manage a lending collection properly if you don’t look at how it is used. You can’t analyse how it’s used without understanding how it’s discovered. You can’t analyse how it’s discovered without understanding how it’s catalogued.
And you can't do any of these things without in-house technical and collections expertise, which so many public libraries seem to think they can outsource or eliminate (because it's not considered 'customer service') https://t.co/38J2eSPNWW
A public library director once told me to my face that he wasn’t interested in hiring cataloguers. I don’t recall exactly how he phrased his justification (though I do recall my response being ‘I’m sorry to hear that’) but he clearly conceptualised his library as a ‘customer service’ organisation, where that phrase meant ‘an exclusive focus on front-of-house activities and services’. Collection development, systems administration and cataloguing, collectively ‘technical services’ in library parlance, are not commonly viewed as opportunities for great customer service. Instead they’re seen as something that can (and should) be outsourced in the interests of ‘efficiency’.
Brisbane City Council Library Service abolished their in-house tech services department twenty years ago and, oddly, chose to present about it at the 13th National Cataloguing Conference. The library moved entirely to shelf-ready stock and turfed all their cataloguers.1 The writeup in Cataloguing Australia notes (emphasis mine):
This driver of customer service is paramount at Brisbane City Council and Library Services. All our restructuring and re-engineering has been predicated on the assumption that it will provide better customer service and responsiveness. The wider implication of no longer having a Technical Services Section is that Library Services is now solely a customer service branch. There is no longer a back room mentality, and the expectation is that staff spend 80% of their working day in direct customer service.2
To be fair, a typical late-nineties tech services department probably wasn’t all that user-focused. But I reckon it could have been, if management had chosen to imbue that customer service ethos into all areas of library administration, not just the face-to-face parts. I can see I’ll be shouting ‘CATALOGUING IS POWER’ until the day I die. I’ll never understand why so many libraries, especially public libraries, willingly throw this power away. What do we lose from ‘efficiency’? What do we lose, when we lose the people who are paid to care?
I have worked for, patronised, and otherwise dealt with far too many libraries that are not resourced to care about the integrity and usefulness of their metadata, collections or systems. These things are clearly not prioritised by decision-makers, and so they are outsourced, often with little oversight. This is not good customer service. This does not help. Having a crappy website or an unusuable catalogue sends a strong message that the only patrons the library cares about are those accessing the library in person. Has the internet taught us nothing? Have twenty-plus years of ‘everything is online now’ not compelled us to create the best online presences possible for our libraries? To curate the best online and electronic collections? To boost our SEO (search engine optimisation) using well-structured, highly detailed metadata? To develop and deploy systems that don’t make people jump through endless hoops, divulge their personal data, or give up entirely in frustration and turn to a paid competitor? Why do I know so many librarians who use Audible instead of Overdrive? Who are we really competing against?
I abhor the practice of referring to library users as ‘customers’. Customers, by definition, purchase. The library has nothing to sell. The library invites the community it serves to make use of its facilities, collections and knowledge. These services are not without cost, but they are, proudly, free to the user. In lieu of ‘customer’, I prefer the term ‘library user’ or sometimes ‘patron’. The library I work for uses ‘reader’, supposing the majority of our visitors are, in fact, here to read.
Save for the two hours a week I choose to spend on a reference desk, my job is not directly user-facing. But it is user-focused. Everything I do as a librarian, I do for my library’s users (and, through the power of co-operative cataloguing, the users of hundreds of other libraries). I don’t catalogue for the catalogue’s sake. I catalogue so people can find things. Most people will never know how my cataloguing has helped them. I’m okay with that. I don’t need to be sitting in front of a library user for my work, and my help, to be valuable.
The above-mentioned issue of Cataloguing Australia, the journal’s last, also featured a paper from the then-Customer Services Manager at CAVAL. To my surprise and absolute delight, she took a similar view to me of customer service and cataloguing:
Let me begin, as we should all begin, by looking at our customers. Even if we never see them, we should never forget who they are. […] When you are making a map of the heavens, you need to be aware of whether you are doing this for a child, an astrologer, a serious astronomer or a Star Trek fan. Each one of those maps is useless to any of the other groups. So, too, with our catalogue records. For our customers are infinitely more varied than those for star maps.3
The entire article is a joy.4 It’s full of sensible, user-focused thinking (seemingly a rarity in 1999) and it’s easily my new favourite piece of professional literature. But I’m intrigued by the fact it came from a vendor. By outsourcing so much of our technical services work, has our sector also outsourced the capacity to think of this work as inherently ‘customer’-focused? A vendor’s ‘customers’ are libraries themselves—does this change a catalogue record’s intended audience?
A tech services worker might ask ‘How can I help?’, as I so often greet people on the desk, but libraries need to be structurally capable of accepting that help, and cultivating it in-house. By reframing our conception of cataloguing as an inherently user-focused (or customer-focused) activity, libraries can ensure we’re providing the right metadata to create the right map, in order to help the right people find the right materials. After all, we’re here to help.
The author mentions ‘we now have no cataloguers on our staff’ so I guess they were either made redundant or reassigned to other, non-cataloguing duties, though two staff were put in charge of quality checking vendor records. ↩
Mackenzie, Christine. (1999). ‘The end of the world as we know it? Outsourcing at Brisbane City Council Library Service’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 184-187. ↩
Dearman, Rosemary. (1999). ‘Whose information universe? Customer services and cataloguing’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 222-231. ↩
This is the working transcript of ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’, a talk I gave at the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium in Adelaide, South Australia on Saturday 6th July 2019. I made some last-minute edits to the text and said a few things in the wrong order, but overall I pretty much stuck to script (which was very long, hence my conscious decision to talk too fast!).
Thank you. I begin by acknowledging the traditional and continuing owners of the land on which we meet, the Kaurna people, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. This land always has been, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
Library workers, students and allies, we need to talk. You’ve probably heard of this strange thing called ‘cataloguing’. You may even have met some of these strange people called ‘cataloguers’. But for many people in the library sector, that’s about all we can say. Many of us don’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk about areas of library practice that aren’t our own.
It’s not quite the talk I promised to give, but it’s a talk I think we need to have. About what this work entails, why it matters, and why you should care. Consider how, and to whom, we should start talking. Our colleagues, our supervisors, our vendors, ourselves.
My name is Alissa McCulloch. We need to talk about cataloguing.
Firstly, a bit about me. I work at a small, minor national library that shall remain nameless, because I’m not speaking on behalf of my employer today (I just need to make that very clear, these are all my opinions, not theirs). I’ve been in libraries for around four years and have had a library degree for around six months. My work life consists mostly of cataloguing whatever turns up in the post.
You may have seen or heard me talk about cataloguing ad nauseam on podcasts, on my blog, or on twitter, because I LOVE CATALOGUING and it sparks SO MUCH joy and I think it’s amazing. Suffice to say my reputation precedes me. So perhaps some of what I’m about to say will not be a surprise to you. But I am surprised, quite often, by the reactions I get when I tell people what I do all day.
They go ‘Oh… is that still a thing?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, actually, it is still a thing’. People act like metadata grows on trees, that carefully classified shelves of books are ‘serendipitously’ arranged, that cataloguing is obsolete, that structured metadata is unnecessary in an age of keyword searches, that we’ve all been automated out of existence, that AI is coming for the few jobs we have left.
It’s more than just ‘data about data’. It gives meaning and structure to a collection of items, whether that’s a simple website, Netflix, a corpus of research data or a library catalogue. Metadata forms a map, a guide, a way of making sense of the (in many cases) enormous collection of resources at a user’s disposal. A chaotic library is an unusable library.
‘Cataloguing’ doesn’t just mean painstaking creation of item-level metadata (although it can involve that, and it’s what I spend a lot of my time doing). It involves a lot of problem-solving, detective work, ethical decisions, standards interpretation, and data maintenance. If you like puzzles, you’ll love cataloguing. Modern metadata is all about connections. It’s relational, it’s often processed at great scale, it’s about making collections accessible wherever the user is.
You might hear these jobs described as ‘metadata librarians’ or similar. If given the choice, I would describe myself as a ‘cataloguer’. In fact, at my current job no one ever actually told me what my job title was, and I needed an email signature, so I picked ‘cataloguer’ and nobody seemed to mind.
But I specifically didn’t call this talk ‘We need to talk about metadata’. Don’t get me wrong, I could talk about metadata all day, but I deliberately said ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. The word’s kinda gone out of style. It’s old-fashioned, it’s a bit arcane, it’s not hip and modern and contemporary like ‘metadata’ is. But I’m the sort of person who likes to reclaim words, and I can reclaim this one, so I do.
Words mean things. But sometimes, if we want to, we can change those things.
Once I’ve explained what I do for a living, people then go ‘That’s great. Why should I care?’. And it’s a good question. Why should you care? You’re all busy. You all have other jobs. You don’t have time to care about metadata.
For some reason, a library vendor in California took this tweet and made a shareable graphic meme thing out of it. I stand by what I said, but what really got me was that they left out the best part of the quote. The line immediately after this was:
‘Cataloguing is power, and I will die on this hill!’
We as cataloguers have, as Hope Olson famously put it, ‘the power to name’. We decide what goes where, what’s shelved together, what’s shelved separately. We describe these things in the catalogue so that people can find them. The language used in and about cataloguing is tremendously important. If something is poorly-described, it might as well be invisible, both on a shelf and in a search engine.
Cataloguing is power. That power must be wielded responsibly.
As humans, we are all shaped by language. Our everyday language changes through time, as social and cultural practices change, but library language changes far more slowly, when it changes at all. (We’ve been putting punctuation in weird places for a long time, too. Look, I’m sorry, but I will never care about where to put a full stop in a MARC record.)
Metadata is not fixed. Metadata is never ‘finished’. Metadata is contextual. Contested. Iterative. Always changing. ‘Corrections’ are not, and can never be, universal. An accepted term today might be a rejected term in thirty years’ time, and the process will begin again. The Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) for ‘People with disabilities’ is now on its fourth iteration, as the preferred language has changed over time. Previous versions of this heading used terms that would now be considered quite offensive.
We all need to look out for these things. Have new concepts arisen for which your library has no standardised heading? Has a word shifted meaning, such that it has ceased to be meaningful? Are users looking for resources by name, but finding nothing in our collections? Think of the power we have. Think of how we ought to wield that power.
What do I mean by that? Consider the widespread use in the English-speaking library world of Library of Congress Subject Headings, a standardised vocabulary originally designed by American librarians to meet the information needs of the United States Congress. Because the Library of Congress is the source of a lot of American copy cataloguing, their subject headings were widely adopted in the US, and later by other Anglophone countries. Most (though not all) Australian libraries use LCSH in some capacity. Has anyone stopped to think about how weird that is? We’re not the US Congress. We use different words and different spellings, we serve vastly different communities, we have our own information needs and information contexts that LCSH necessarily cannot meet.
Yanni Alexander Loukissas recently wrote a book titled ‘All Data Are Local’, which is sitting on my bedside table at home. I would extend that to ‘All Metadata Are Local’. And they should be. Each library serves a distinct community of users. Our metadata needs to speak their language.
Attitudes toward cataloguing itself are shaped by the language we as cataloguers use to describe our work. For example: a big part of cataloguing is about standardising names and subjects, and to a lesser degree titles, so that resources with or about those things can all be found in the one place! We call this authority control, which has gotta be one of the worst phrases in librarianship for two reasons:
A) whose ~authority~ is this done under? Who died and put us in charge? What gives us the right to decide what someone’s name is, or the best phrase to describe a certain topic? Why do we even have to choose just one? Why can’t we have several, equally valid terms?
B) Why do we have to ‘control’ everything? What need is there for this giant bibliographic power trip? Why can’t we let people decide these things for themselves, instead of us being authority control freaks?
This phrase says a lot about how we’ve historically thought about cataloguing: that we have authority, and that we are in control. Cataloguers haven’t been either of these things for a while. Which is great, because our survival depends on it.
The outlook I’ve just described, and the outlook I bring to my work, is known as radical cataloguing. It’s a way of looking at cataloguing and metadata from a structural, systemic standpoint. Getting to the root of what—and who—our data is for, and making sure it meets our users’ needs.
It’s broadly similar to the contemporary movement called critical librarianship, of which critical cataloguing is a part, which aims, according to the critlib.org site ‘to [bring] social justice principles into our work in libraries’.
Critical and radical cataloguing can involve establishing local policies for catalogue records, working to improve common standards and practices, sometimes ignoring those standards and practices, and encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue.
It sounds quite cool, calling myself a radical cataloguer. But this work and this ethos have never felt all that radical to me. It feels normal, to me. It feels like common sense. It feels like bringing my values to work. Sometimes these align with traditional library values. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s all in the service of making the library better. Think of it as ‘evidence-based whinging’. It’s done in good faith, and it’s done for a purpose.
Sadly, common sense isn’t as common as I’d like it to be. A recent article on tech news website The Verge described the terrible quality of metadata in the music industry, which meant people weren’t getting paid royalties for music they had written, performed, or contributed to. Bad metadata literally costs money. The author described metadata as ‘Important, complex and broken’. And I was like ‘yeah… I feel that’. A lot of what they said about commercial music metadata could just as easily be applied to the library world—infighting, governance issues, funding challenges, cultural differences and copyright laws.
This work is difficult, painstaking, often invisible and mostly thankless. But the results of not doing the work can be slow to manifest—you might be able to get by on deteriorating metadata quality for a while, but soon enough it’s gonna be a huge problem that will cost lots of money to fix, which you could have avoided with enough care, attention and maintenance.
It’s not about simply following rules and standards because that’s just how we do things, or have always done things. It’s about imbuing our information practice with an ethic of care. Thinking not just about what we do, but how and why we do it. Who benefits, who loses out, and what happens when and if the work stops being done. The ‘we’ in this instance is an information maintainer: a cataloguer, an eresources manager, a systems librarian. People. Not robots.
People often try to replace me with a robot. They ask, sometimes innocuously and sometimes not, ‘But what about AI and machine learning?’
And I go, ‘It’s a great tool. But like any tool, it has to be used responsibly.’ Algorithms are as biased as the people who write them. We all have biases, we all look at the world a particular way. The key is ensuring that library automation of any kind is properly supervised and evaluated by real people. Metadata professionals with an ethical grounding. Cataloguers, of the past, present and future.
Dewey is a product of its time. But it’s also a product of our time. Dewey is now in its 23rd edition, maintained by paid staff and volunteers from around the world. AI can’t do this. It can’t write its own rules. And it can’t be left unsupervised, because it won’t produce quality metadata.
What do I mean when I say ‘quality metadata’?
I don’t think about ‘quality’ the way most other people think about ‘quality’. People think ‘quality’ means total adherence to local, national and international policies and standards. A record can do all of those things and still be functionally useless. I don’t consider that ‘quality’.
To me, a ‘quality’ record is informative, accessible, respectful, accurate and empowering. You won’t find these ideals in RDA, or in the MARC standards, or in BIBFRAME. You’ll find them in your community. Those of you who work in libraries should have an idea of the kinds of materials your patrons are looking for, and how your library might provide them. Is your metadata a help or a hindrance? Are you describing materials the way your patrons might describe them? Are people asking you for help because your catalogue has failed them?
I know most of you are not cataloguers. Many of you undoubtedly work for libraries that outsource most or all of their cataloguing. Records appear in your system by what looks like magic but is probably a Z39.50 connection. You may well have no way of knowing what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ metadata. Here are some brief tips for you!
Compare a record with the resource it describes. Are the title, author and year correct? Does your system disambiguate different authors with the same name? I know I said I hate the phrase ‘authority control’, but you still gotta do it, the work still needs to be done. How would a user describe this item? Are those words or phrases in the record? What kinds of people use your library? Will these words meet their needs? Are they current? Offensive? Relevant?
Next, compare that record with how your OPAC displays it. Backend versus frontend. Have a look at a MARC record, even if it looks like a bunch of numbers and dollar signs. Is anything obviously missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays oddly, or not at all? Have a play around with the OPAC. Are some fields searchable but not others? Does your system support faceted browsing, like Trove does? If so, what facets are available?
I once worked for a library whose ILS didn’t display the 545 field, used for biographical and historical data in manuscript records. I’d been using this field for months. Why didn’t I know that my ILS did this stupid thing? How might I have worked around it?
If any problems appear with your library’s data, think about how you might advocate for getting them fixed…
We are constantly having to advocate for our jobs. I’m doing it right now. Right here, with this talk. And not just because my contract is up in two months and I need all the help I can get. But because without people like me shouting from the rooftops, our work is practically invisible. We are the people behind the curtain. We have to keep telling managers why quality metadata matters. But I am only one person, and I can only shout so loud. Cataloguers need your help, gathered library workers, students and allies, to talk about cataloguing.
So what should we say?
The key is to mind your language.
Firstly, what can you think about?
How does bad metadata make your job harder? What kinds of questions do you get asked that better metadata would be able to answer? Such as: ‘A friend recommended a book to me, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was blue, and it had birds on the cover. I think it was set in Queensland?’ We don’t routinely add metadata for a book’s colour in a catalogue record, it’s not searchable, but people ask questions like this all the time. Perhaps AI could help us with this metadata…!
Secondly, what can you talk about?
Appeal to your managers’ financial sensibilities. ‘Hey, we spent a lot of money on these materials. If people can’t find them, that’s money down the drain. Good metadata makes those materials findable: it’s a return on investment.’ Talk about how much time and effort is wasted dealing with bad vendor metadata, and how that staff time could be better spent on other metadata tasks. I’m sure you’ve got plenty.
Alternatively, appeal to their morals and sense of social justice. If they have one. You could say, ‘We have a lot of refugees and asylum seekers in our community, and books about people in this situation often use the phrase “Illegal aliens”. This sounds kinda dehumanising to me, do we have to use this term?’ And if they say ‘But it’s in LCSH, and that’s what we follow’ you can say ‘well… so? Just because LC does it, doesn’t mean we have to’. You can change that subject heading locally to whatever you want, or get your vendor to do it. It’s already happening in American libraries. It could just as easily happen here.
Being a radical cataloguer doesn’t mean rewriting a whole record from scratch—if good copy exists, it makes sense to use it. But do so with a critical eye. How will this metadata help my users? How will it help my colleagues do their jobs in reference, circulation, instruction or document supply? Is it fit for purpose?
And lastly, what can you do?
Make suggestions internally and externally about what problems could be solved with better metadata. What kinds of patrons ask what kinds of questions or search for what kinds of materials. What your catalogue doesn’t include. What it could start including.
If everything I’ve talked about sounds fascinating and you want more, consider joining ACORD, the new ALIA Community on Resource Description. It’s so new it doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’s slated to launch later this month, and there’s an article about it in the July issue of InCite. I’m hoping ACORD will be a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all.
It can be hard to make these kinds of suggestions in your workplace, much less change international rules and standards. But you can do it. You can be part of this change. And the first step is talking about it. If you have an opinion on anything I’ve spoken about today, get talking, get writing, get tweeting, get involved with ACORD, which liaises with the committees overseeing all these rules and policies.
These rules were made by people. They can be changed by people.
And if the rules aren’t working for you, break them.
Change has to start somewhere. So it can start with you.