Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line

Do you have fifty cents for the jukebox?

This month’s GLAM Blog Club topic (‘passion’) is, for me, a bit of a touchy subject. I’ve written before on people disagreeing with my passion choices, and the reactions I get from those who don’t understand why I care so much about librarianship.

These reactions fall into two groups: those who see a simple excess of passion in one area (which includes my work) and those who see a corresponding dearth of energy in other areas. ‘Get a hobby,’ they say. ‘Do something that isn’t work.’ I realised late last year that I really did have nothing in my life besides my job, which wasn’t healthy for a number of reasons, so I took up psychogeography and zinemaking. But I never lost sight of my true passion—librarianship. So this year, naturally, I’ve signed up for more library extra-curriculars than you can shake a stick at. I got a better job, too.

People, wasting away in paradise
Going backward, once in a while
Taking your time, give it a try

Many librarians are not as fortunate as I am. I have been richly rewarded for my passion. Yet I know so many brilliant people wasting away in their dream jobs. They have more to give, more to learn, more to change. More to accomplish. But the system is letting them down. So many passionate people hit the wall of library intransigence. They grow angry, frustrated and bitter. They burn out and lash out.

I can have all the brilliant ideas I want, but what chance do I have of actually making them happen? After all, I’m at the bottom of the ladder. I’m new and impatient. I don’t want to spend decades excavating the history of libraries, setting aside fossilised workflows and analysing collections with a stratigraphic eye. I don’t want to argue with brick walls. I don’t understand why people say ‘no’ all the time. It’s as if we forget who libraries are really for.

I also have to remember that I am but one person. And I owe it to those who’ve helped me get this far to not burn out in a fit of passion.

What do you believe, what do you believe
What do you believe is true
Nothing they say makes a difference this way
Nothing they say will do

Most librarians can understand being passionate about the profession, but far fewer understand why anyone would be so passionate about cataloguing. To them, I recommend Junli Diao’s Passion of a Young Cataloger. It bursts with the promise of spring, of those who know no frosts, only warmth and growth and sunshine.

It remains popular for librarians to deride their cataloguing colleagues as being persnickety old bags who can’t see the forest for the trees. Look, I’ll be the first to admit cataloguers have a bit of an image problem. But I’m a little tired of people bagging me out for pursuing a career in something I enjoy, and in which I excel. There’s so much potential in library data, so much scope for improvement and advancement. I’d love to bring you all with me.

Take all the trouble that you can afford
At least you won’t have time to be bored
At least you won’t have time to be bored

Isn’t that the problem with being passionate? I work hard, study hard, walk fast, break things. My reward is more work. More stuff. More things I said ‘yes’ to, because I can’t help expending my passionate energy in the same places. Wasn’t that a key lesson from NLS8? Say ‘yes’ to things. But also say ‘no’ to things if they’re not right for you. The issue is that everyone is right. I ought to diversify. But I also know I’m the sort of person who likes to focus on a few select things. Do them well, or don’t do them at all.

Oh the power and the passion
Oh the temper of the time
Oh the power and the passion

This is my situation. All passion and no power. Libraries everywhere remain in thrall to the burnt-out and jaded. It will take more energy than I can give to bring about meaningful, long-lasting change. Powerful people won’t do anything. Passionate people won’t stay.

I am free to invest my passion and my energies wherever I like. But I can no longer afford to give all of myself to my profession, lest I burn out too.

Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line

Using web archives for document supply—a case study

Today I was asked to help with a curly document supply request. A distance student was looking for a particular article, which my colleagues had been unable to locate. Usually we think of document supply as resource sharing, but today was really more about resource finding. It’s also similar to reference queries about how to find journal articles, which we get all the time.

It wound up being so difficult—and interesting!—that I thought others might like to know how it was done. This is also partly so that if my colleagues decide they want me to present a training session on this, I’ve already got the notes written up… teehee.

The request

The details I received looked like this:

Journal Title Risk & Regulation
Publisher CARR LSE
Volume / Issue Issue 3
Part Date Spring 2002
Call Number

Title Japan: Land of the Rising Audit?
Article Author Michael Power
Pages 10 ff

My colleagues initially thought this was a book chapter request, but the book they’d found didn’t quite match these details, at which point they roped me into the search.

Catalogue search

Step 1: Search our local catalogue. This is standard for all document supply requests—you’d be surprised how often people ask for things we already have. I consider it a learning and teaching opportunity (and sometimes also a reminder that print books and serials still exist). In this instance, we didn’t have anything with this title in our catalogue.

Step 2: Search Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue. If another Australian library held this serial, we would request it on the patron’s behalf through the Libraries Australia Document Delivery (LADD) system, of which most Australian libraries are a member. I didn’t have an ISSN, so I had to go on title alone.

Good news: there is a record in LA for this serial, so I could confirm it exists. Bad news: no library in Australia holds it. (Records without holdings are common in LA, as many libraries use it as an acquisitions tool.)

Step 3: Search SUNCAT, the British serials union catalogue. I realised later that I didn’t really need to do this step, because the only extra info that LA didn’t have was a list of UK institutions that held copies. (Which I obviously couldn’t get at.) However, it wasn’t until this point that I noticed the note stating ‘Also available via the internet.’ Which got me thinking—is this an OA online journal? It would explain the lack of local holdings if it was just on the internet…

Web archive search

Step 4: Google the journal title. Yes, Google, like a real librarian.

There is a distinct possiblity that I own this particular shirt

Turns out the journal Risk & regulation is indeed published free and online by the London School of Economics, AND they have back issues online! … going back to 2003. The one I need is from 2002, because of course it is.

Step 5: Search the UK Web Archive. Knowing the journal was a) a UK title and b) online at some point, I then turned to web archives to find a copy. I searched on the article title, it being more distinctive than the journal title, and also because a more specific search would get me results faster. This brought me to an archived LSE news page from 2002.

The LSE news page provided a link to the journal page—but the UK Web Archive hadn’t preserved it! Argh!

Step 6: Search the Wayback Machine. All was not lost, however. Because I was now armed with a dead URL that had once linked to the journal page I needed, I could go straight to the Wayback Machine, part of the Internet Archive, and simply plug in the URL to find archived copies of that page. The Wayback Machine recently launched a keyword search functionality, but it’s still a work in progress. My experience suggests this site functions best when you know exactly where to look.

I had to fiddle around with the URL slightly, but I eventually got to the journal landing page. Remembering that I needed issue 3 from Spring 2002, I clicked on the link to the relevant PDF—also archived!—and quickly located the article.

Step 7: Email article to student and give them the the good news. They thanked me and asked how I found it, so I gave them a shorter version of the above in the hope they might find it useful in future. I made sure to reassure them that this kind of thing is quite difficult and there’s often not necessarily a single place to search (they had wondered what search terms they ought to have used) and if they were stuck in future, just ask a librarian—it’s what we’re for. 🙂

Conclusions

Web archives aren’t usually the search target of choice for reference and document supply staff, but they are an absolute goldmine of public information, particularly for older online serials that may have vanished from the live web. Many researchers (and librarians, for that matter) don’t know much about web archives, if anything, so cases like this are a great way to introduce people to these incredible resources.

This was also a bit of a proud moment for me, I won’t lie. It’s so good to have moments like this every now and again—it helps me demonstrate there’s still a place for professional document hunters.

Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate

Regular followers of my twitter account will know that I regularly complain about uniform titles. I know that’s not an RDA-approved term, but I don’t currently have the luxury of a wholly RDA-approved catalogue, and time passes particularly slowly in the tech services department. It’s also the term currently used for the 130 and 240 MARC fields, a format to which we remain shackled, and in which someone will probably write my eulogy.

In my view, uniform titles are some of the most misunderstood and misused fields in cataloguing. I say this not to look down on those who remain baffled (for I was myself baffled right up until last week) but because they don’t really serve the purpose for which they were intended. I’ve seen so many records with uniform titles they didn’t need, inserted by cataloguers who were no doubt simply following someone’s rules.

According to the 2005 revision of AACR2, a uniform title had the following functions:

Uniform title. 1. The particular title by which a work is to be identified for cataloguing purposes. 2. The particular title used to distinguish the heading for a work from the heading for a different work. 3. A conventional collective title used to collocate publications of an author, composer, or corporate body containing several works or extracts, etc., from several works (e.g., complete works, several works in a particular literary or musical form).1

In other words: a cataloguer might choose, create, or otherwise determine a particular title to associate with a given work; to disambiguate from other works of the same name; and to collocate works with different names within a title index. It’s a form of authority control; titles and author/title combinations are often given authority records of their own. (Hence the tie-in to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme, ‘control’.)

Association, disambiguation, collocation: that’s a lot to ask of one field, and I can grudgingly accept that most of it made sense within a book or card catalogue. Remember, this refers not to collocation of books on a shelf (that’s what classification schemes are for) but for collocation of entries within a catalogue. Until quite recently, a catalogue was simply a collection of indexes: title, author, subject. Librarians wanted these entries arranged in a particular order, and created filing rules to ensure this order was adhered to.

During the development of MARC in the 1960s (led by the incredible Henriette Avram), a format originally designed to automate the production of catalogue cards, the layout of a MARC record mirrored the layout of an AACR-compliant catalogue card.2 The first paragraph, mapped to the 1XX set of tags, included the main entry—an author, corporate body or meeting, but also uniform titles where the work in question had no author, but another, different, title proper. The second paragraph featured the title proper and edition statements, and were recorded in the 2XX set of tags. Because a uniform title could conceivably end up in multiple places on a catalogue card, depending on whether there was an author attached, the developers opted to create two fields.

(In the first example, it’s considered advantageous to have all the Bibles entered directly under title, collocated in the title index, then disambiguated by language, version, year [in that order]. In the second example, we already have an author, but the item in hand has a different title to that by which it is more commonly known.)

130 1# $a Bible. $l English. $s New Revised Standard. $f 2003 
245 14 The new interpreter's study Bible : $b New Revised Standard version 
       with the Apocrypha. 

-------------------

100 1# $a Xenophon $e author.
240 10 $a Hellenica. $l English.
245 12 $a A history of my times / $c Xenophon ; translated by Rex Warner.

Apropos of nothing, this also explains how the title statement, arguably the best-known MARC tag, was assigned the odd number 245:

To represent the second paragraph of the catalog card (title and edition), the MARC developers logically chose the 200 range of tag numbers. Because they had reached 130 in the first paragraph, and were trying to proceed by tens, the first choice for the title tag was 240. Continuing by tens, the 250 for edition and 260 for publication information were also defined. Law librarians, however, asked where the uniform filing title, which they used for filing, should be placed. Since uniform title preceded title proper on catalog cards, it seemed logical to maintain this arrangement in the MARC record, so the 240 was reassigned for uniform title, and the 245 tag (halfway between the filing title and the edition) was created for the title proper.3

Law librarians: warping MARC logic since 1965.

Anyway, back to titles. When I was learning to catalogue, I struggled with the reasoning behind uniform titles, as I had no concept of a title index to base them on. Never having used a card catalogue in my life, I saw no reason why anyone would use a browse function instead of a keyword search. (I stand by this view.) Even the idea of collocation doesn’t work in a keyword-based OPAC setting, because I can dive straight to the record I want, with no reason (or, indeed, ability) to view records on either side in any index. Viewing a list of records in browse mode is so… old-fashioned. (Besides, if there is no reason to do this, there is also no reason to create uniquely identifying main entry headings… (taps noggin))

The main cause of my frequent twitter complaints about uniform titles are the preponderance of unnecessary titles in our catalogue, specifically those relating to online resources. Because MARC-based catalogues entail a flat record structure, we can’t (yet) nest different expressions of a work, to use RDA parlance, within a work-level authority record. Instead we’re stuck with one record per manifestation, whose titles we have to disambiguate. Because so many resources exist in both print and online versions, and often a library has access to both, the obvious differentiating factor is whether it’s online or not. Therefore a resource might be titled: 130 1# $a Economist (Online) to distinguish it from the print version.

The problem is when cataloguers take this to mean that every online resource must be so titled, even when it has no print equivalent. This has the effect of 1) cluttering the catalogue with unnecessary uniform titles and 2) furthering the antiquated narrative that print resources are the norm, and online is the exception. There’s no point in creating 130 1# $a Digital humanities quarterly (Online) if it has only ever existed in an online format.

Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate! (sigh)

Tell you what, I can’t wait for my wholly RDA-compliant, IFLA-LRM-based, fully FRBR-ised catalogue of the future (now with 25% more acronyms!). I look forward to being able to bring expressions together under a work-level authority, and have this tree display intuitively in an OPAC. I look forward to not having to use titles as disambiguators for indexing purposes. I look forward to relinquishing some of my control over the form and display of titles within a catalogue.4

I look forward to dispensing with uniform titles, for they have well and truly reached their use-by date.


  1. As reproduced in the RDA Toolkit, accessed 29 April 2018. 
  2. For more on this fascinating topic, see Jo Calk & Bob Persing (2000). From Catalog Card to MARC, The Serials Librarian, 38:3-4, 349-355. DOI: 10.1300/J123v38n03_20 
  3. Ibid, p. 351. 
  4. For more on the history of uniform titles, see Jean Weihs & Lynne C. Howarth (2008). Uniform Titles From AACR to RDA, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 46:4, 362-384, DOI: 10.1080/01639370802322853 

I have some thoughts about ILL and document supply

During the last few weeks I’ve been helping out the Document Delivery (DocDel) team at work with some of their workload, chiefly processing other libraries’ physical items in and out, plus a bit of journal article delivery from our collections to other libraries. I am an almost complete newcomer to the inter-library loan and document supply side of the library business, and it’s been very interesting to see how the sausage gets made, so to speak.

Knowing the Share It! Resource Sharing Futures conference is coming up in a month’s time; noting that all the speakers are managers rather than coalface staff; and wondering if a newcomer’s experience of resource sharing work might be valuable, I decided to jot down my experiences of working in DocDel for the first time.

As always, these views are entirely my own and not those of my employer (but hey, if you wanna send me to #shareit2018 I won’t say no).

  • Resource sharing is surprisingly labour-intensive. I was astonished to find out just how much human intervention goes into an ILL request. When someone lodges a request through the online portal, or gives up and emails, or can’t wait until yesterday and calls up directly, that request is handled by at least three different people:

1) branch staffer at lending library receives book request, confirms book is present, retrieves book, applies book strap, posts book, tells ILL system this has been done
2) docdel staffer at receiving library receives book, applies second book strap with a barcode, writes down patron details on bookmark for easy reference, pops bookmark in book, sends book to pickup branch, tells ILL system this has been done
3) branch staffer at receiving library uses bookmark to locate book on hold shelf, checks out book to patron

And that’s if everything works properly. None of the above is particularly difficult work, but there are a lot of moving parts, and a lot to get right. It’s hard to automate attaching a barcode strap to a book, but we also have to include a little paper note reminding circ staff to change the item’s due date, and I despair every time I reach for a paperclip.

Within consortia using the same ILS, internal resource sharing has a lot less overhead. The BONUS+ consortium, comprising Australian and New Zealand university libraries running an Innovative system (Millennium or Sierra), allows patrons to request items from participating libraries without needing the involvement of document supply staff. The kicker is that you can use the lending library’s barcode without having to attach a new one, because all the ILSs can talk to each other. It’s brilliant! It also shifts a fair bit of the resource sharing workload from DocDel to branch library staff, who incorporate it into their usual circ workflows.

  • Human labour is often compensating for poor metadata and system design. In any given day, I routinely deny over 80% of article requests. It’s not because I get a kick out of saying no, but rather that the system we use, which hooks into the Libraries Australia Document Delivery network, thinks our collection includes items it doesn’t. From what I can tell, it matches a request to a holding library using a title, author, ISBN, ISSN, or a combination of these. It doesn’t appear to consider our actual holdings of a journal (i.e. the span of years or issues we have) or whether our licensing agreements permit supply of electronic items.

Having said that, our electronic journals have their holdings data recorded in an 856 $z field. Having this data in free text rather than fixed or coded fields surely makes it far harder for an ILL system to figure out what we actually hold. The licensing information is not recorded in a MARC format, is almost certainly inaccessible to the ILL system, and would differ hugely between libraries. Consequently I waste large amounts of time figuring out that no, we can’t actually supply items after all. It would be far better—not to mention faster—for all involved if the system knew not to ask us in the first place.

My colleagues in DocDel work very hard, but I can’t help but feel a lot of their labour is wasted. Surely we can do better?

  • Resource sharing is interesting and engaging work. While I wish I didn’t have to think so hard about whether or not we can supply an article, there’s still a lot of problem-solving in document supply, especially for rare and unusual materials. Most of that work is handled by the DocDel team leader, who understandably hasn’t let me anywhere near it yet. People ask for all sorts of weird stuff—theses, manuscripts, books that no library in Australia has, increasingly esoteric foreign-language films… if nothing else, it’s a great insight into certain academics’ current research interests. I can almost guess who has requested certain items just by looking at them!
  • For undergraduates, ILL and document supply are irrelevant. For higher degree students and staff, they’re a lifesaver. I never used ILL as an undergrad, chiefly because they were gonna charge me for it, and I was too broke for that. Ten years and two degrees later, I’m far more aware of the resources beyond my library’s walls, but I’m not sure all our patrons are. If users consider the first page of discovery layer search results to be the sum total of a library’s resource provision—and let’s be honest, most of them do—what incentive do they have to look elsewhere, or ask a librarian for help, or stumble upon that wondrous part of the library website titled ‘Document Supply’? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most of our fervent ILL users discovered the service by accident. It’s usually followed by a ‘Where has this been all my life?!’ moment. It’s been right here, the whole time, but we could do with some more advertising. Also a better funnel for disappointed catalogue users.
  • There will always be a need for resource sharing services. In an age of open-access, preprint servers and Sci-Hub, where lots of people go out of their way to make their work (and others’) available online for free, plenty of people are questioning the need for library resource sharing services at all. As I see it, there are two main problems: people don’t know resource sharing exists; and when they do know, they often aren’t prepared to wait. Document supply is not a quick process—quite apart from being at the mercy of Australia Post, the use of substandard ILL systems and reliance on human labour means stuff just takes a while. That might work for document supply staff, but it doesn’t work for users.

No matter how often we might hear it, we will never have everything available for free on the internet. As long as there are paywalls, print books and rare items, there will be a need for resource sharing. But our systems and processes must improve. Placing a request and waiting for an item has a decidedly old-fashioned sheen to it. Like I said, I am new to this work, and I don’t profess to have any of the answers. But I sure wouldn’t mind trying to come up with some.

Classifying works on Indigenous Australian languages in DDC, UDC, LCC and Bliss

Wiradjuri to English dictionary

It’s no secret that the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is racist, sexist, classist and every other -ist under the sun. I can’t truly say it’s of its time, because it’s still in wide use. Libraries around the world use DDC as their main classification system for physical materials. Aren’t we supposed to be better than that?

As a former local history librarian, our collecting remit naturally included materials by, for and about the various Aboriginal nations on whose land our city was built. In particular, my former workplace has a modest collection of works about local Aboriginal languages, both in-language and in English. Unfortunately they are a DDC library, and so these materials are all classified with the same call number. In a bigger library with materials on many different Indigenous languages, this would render the call number virtually useless.

In the interests of advocating for a better solution (not just for me personally but for other DDC libraries), I thought it might be interesting to briefly compare and contrast how Indigenous Australian languages are treated by four widely used general classification systems Dewey Decimal (DDC), Universal Decimal (UDC), Library of Congress (LCC) and Bliss. (Okay, so Bliss isn’t as widely used, but it deserves some attention.)

DDC: 499.15 (source: DDC 22, hardcopy)
– Treated as an afterthought. After devoting the majority of the 400s and Table 4 to Romance languages, the rest of the world is unceremoniously shoved in the 490s at the end of the schedule. The entirety of Indigenous Australian languages are accorded /9915 in Table 4. Clearly inadequate to describe the language diversity of an entire continent

UDC: 811.72 (source)
– UDC is broadly based on DDC but with a few major structural changes; here, languages and literature are co-located, and the 4XX schedule is not used.
– ‘Australian languages’ more clearly integrated into Table 1c, but again there is no subdivision or faceting for any individual regions or languages

LCC: PL7001-7101 (source, p. 324)
– PL LANGUAGES OF EASTERN ASIA, AFRICA, OCEANIA > Languages of Oceania > Austronesian, Papuan, and Australian languages > Australian languages
– This schedule is a bit better thought out, and less squashed. Also specifically lists about three dozen individual languages (though not my local ones, sigh)
– Individual languages are cuttered, not classified by any real measure—still essentially lumping all Australian languages together as one entity, which taxonomically isn’t much better than DDC / UDC, but if you needed to create a local cutter for a particular language that wouldn’t be difficult

Bliss: XJE (source, p. 43)
– X classification is still in draft (after all these years) so I will give the authors a pass on this, but just FYI: ‘Austronesian languages’ ≠ ‘Australian languages’. The former refers to a language family roughly around the Mekong Delta.
– Astonishingly—and I was really not expecting to see this in Bliss, of all places—the authors have actually properly classified individual languages! It’s a bit piecemeal, to be sure: initially a prefixing / suffixing divide, then the prefixed ones by multiple, dual or non-classifying (in a linguistic sense), followed by suffixing languages by geographic region. It is… idiosyncratic, but it’s a damn sight better than anything the other three came up with. I appreciate that this was given serious thought

In summary, it looks like Bliss is your best bet for classifying materials related to Aboriginal Australian languages. But if you’re in a position to create a local, culturally appropriate classification system (as is being done up in Galiwin’ku), totally go for it!

I love being a librarian and I’m not even sorry

Being a librarian makes me happy. Yes it does. I’m one of those lucky people for whom ‘things I love doing’ and ‘things I can get paid for’ intersect to a great extent. I love organising information and describing resources and connecting people to what they’re looking for. People pay me to do that! I am incredibly fortunate to do what I love.

This certainly doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t criticise libraries. Our profession has plenty of systemic problems. The glacial pace of progress is incredibly frustrating, and some days I wonder why I bother. But at the end of the day, I chose this job. I chose this life. And I chose it because it suits me down to the ground.

In some quarters of librarianship I don’t think it’s fashionable to love being a librarian. I sense a growing divide between library lovers and library critics, and it feels increasingly dfficult to be both. I feel like some of us become so wrapped up in our criticism and bitterness that we forget why we became librarians in the first place. I was that person, for a time. I wasn’t in a good place. I saw a lot of what librarianship ought not to be, and I was despondent about the future.

I look at where I am now, in a happy workplace filled with good people, and I am hopeful again. I see my work making a difference, from improving catalogue access points to tracking down an article for document delivery to upgrading a libguide to miraculously finding a misshelved book. I feel our efforts push the boundary of what librarianship can be. I give to the team and the team gives back. I am so lucky. I am SO lucky.

I maintain that there is a lot to love about libraries. I will defend this profession with my dying breath. My passion for librarianship won’t stop me from criticising it, but nor will my criticism of librarianship blind me to my passion. I can do both. I can be both. I love what I do. And I never want to stop.

Games without frontiers

With warning / No warning
Peter Gabriel has a song for everything.

I hope you’ve read the recent articles about Cambridge Analytica, the secretive data-mining and -laundering firm that used data illicitly extracted from millions of Facebook profiles to microtarget American voters, and ultimately interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. I learned a lot the other day, including a troubling new-to-me phrase: ‘information operations’. Information as a cyberweapon, against which the public has little to no defence. In many cases, individuals have no idea that they have been targeted at all.

I look at this news as an ‘information professional’, long on morals and short on pay, and I despair. We are powerless against information mercenaries who will acquire personal data by any means and sell it to anyone. We are pawns in international cyber-wargames. How can we possibly arm people against threats like this? How are we defending our communities against this onslaught?

Our profession relies on the goodwill of people, chiefly middle-aged white women, who just want a comfortable job and a secure income. Fighting is a risk few librarians are prepared to take. Fewer still are adequately prepared. How often have you heard people say ‘ooh, I’d like a nice quiet library job’? Who wants a flaming argument at the reference desk with someone neck-deep in their News Feed? How many of us have shared inflammatory content on social media, unaware of how it came to us in the first place? Who among us knows where our patron data is going? (Hint: it’s going to Big Vendor, and we’re not calling them out on it)

What can we do? What good are our morals if we have no impact?

The March/April issue of ALIA’s member magazine InCite is themed ‘Libraries in the post truth society’. The day before deadline, I decided to write a short piece. That’s me on page 24. I’m surprised it was published, to be honest. I don’t think it’s my best work. But it’s also the most optimistic take I could possibly come up with (and believe me, I tried!). InCite readers want optimism, positivity, progress. They don’t want to hear about the slow disintegration of civic society and the planet at large. They don’t want to know how much Facebook has on them. They don’t think about the nature of their library’s relationship with their vendors. It’s not going to help them get through the day.

We seem to want it both ways. We painstakingly teach fake news detection strategies to people who aren’t listening. We want people to trust us. Yet we’re still buying (crappy) library software from commercial entities that naturally place profit above privacy. We’re still using Facebook to promote our libraries, even as we discover what happens to the data of Facebook users. Personally, I quite like the idea of a profession with an inbuilt set of morals and ethics. (I know there are varying views on this.) But we certainly don’t always act in ethical ways.

Librarianship is not innocent. We are complicit in the takeup of unequal systems and unethical practices. The sooner we all take a good hard look at ourselves, our society, and the Delete button on our workplace Facebook accounts, the better. We cannot hope to defend—and change—a world we don’t understand.

Art // attack

SCREAMING INTERNALLY
Same.
(Sarah Goffman, I am with you (2017), at the ACCA)

I did a lot of watching this month. It never sits well with me, watching. It’s too passive. I want to jump up and do things. Make things. Break things. Change things.

This month, I was excited to attend my second ever CardiParty: the exhibition Unfinished Business at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. I grew up in a household that couldn’t have cared less about art, and here I was, visiting art galleries on my weekend off. Feminist art galleries. On my birthday, no less!

The gallery was chock-a-block with eye-catching, provocative art, but my favourite piece was I am with you, a 7 square-metre collage of fake protest posters featuring real slogans. I wanted them on a t-shirt. I think I said to Kassi I wanted to decorate my house with everything in the room (though on reflection I think I might pass on the metal sculpture of the inside of someone’s vagina).

Despite having the artistic capability of a garden snail I was filled with a strange compulsion to do art. Watching art created by other people suddenly wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what I might do—I had no experience of doing it. I had this incredible need to express myself, artistically. To create, somehow. To be more than words.

Perhaps my brain processed that as ‘Well, you’re no good at art, but what are you good at? PANICKING’ and I promptly had a sub-acute panic episode at the cardiparty afterlunch, followed later that night by a second episode so acute I called triple-zero and asked them to come round and make sure I wasn’t dying, please. It was horrendous. I think I’d prefer art.

The next day I visited the NGV Triennial, because everyone on twitter told me to. I was pleasantly surprised by the interactivity of the art. Pieces so close you were encouraged to touch them, art that took up entire rooms, things you could lie down on and soak up. Art you could feel. One installation was set up like an ordinary loungeroom, with a real person watching a video of their choice. I’ve no idea what was playing when I visited, but it looked like some kind of hair metal concert.

I stepped around a few corners and into a dark hallway. Beyond, I caught a glimpse of Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement, an enthralling installation by Japanese art collective teamLab. Sensors track the movement of your feet and project little dancing lights around them, a contrast against the whirls of blue projected on the floor. It was incredible. It felt like seeing Dust for the first time.

The room filled me with a profound sense of worth, of purpose, of wholeness, of consciousness. It was healing, it was overpowering and it was very real. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to watch the lights forever, wanted the vortex to swallow me whole. A picture doesn’t do it justice. Experience the room, if you can. But be careful, there’s a warning just outside not to stay in too long, because it can make you dizzy.

I think I would like to include more art in my life. But I don’t want to watch art. I want to do art, even if it’s terrible. I want to squeeze art through my fingers and throw art all over the house and fling myself in a pool filled with art.

Do art. Make art. Break art. Change art.

And maybe scream a little less, internally.

The curse of reference anxiety

This week, I’ve been wrested from the safety of my office workspace, surrounded by trolleys and paperwork, and thrust into the bustling atmosphere of a law library reference desk. It’s the start of semester so there are new students everywhere, wanting to know where the loos are, how they can find short-loan textbooks, and why the printers aren’t working.

I’m no stranger to reference, but I am a stranger to law students. I have a rudimentary understanding of Australia’s legal system, but I couldn’t use LexisNexis properly if you paid me. And people are paying me. I borrowed an old copy of the first-year intro to law textbook and a legal research guide, hoping I might learn enough to be useful while on the desk, but I know it won’t be enough. I also don’t know anything about fixing printer problems, and we had a lot of those today.

Now, I know I wasn’t hired to be a law reference librarian. If asked, I wouldn’t describe myself as a law librarian at all. I’m a cataloguer working in a law library. My strengths and interests lie elsewhere. I’ve also only been in this position for less than three months—I can’t possibly be expected to know all this stuff.

But it doesn’t help when someone comes to the desk and asks a question I can’t answer.

I wondered today whether ‘reference anxiety’ was a thing. Whether I might add it to my burgeoning collection of anxieties. I have anxiety. I’ve had it for years. It’s been exacerbated recently by a succession of personal problems—I can’t help but bring it to work.

Turns out reference anxiety is very real. A 2010 article1 [non-OA] by Adam Bennington in Searcher examined the causes of reference anxiety and its effect on librarians, along with some tips on when to cut your losses and accept an incomplete or unsatisfactory answer.

It still hurts, though.

You are the information professional after all, the expert searcher, the experienced librarian, the ultimate information broker. People come to you because Google couldn’t cut it. Not only do you want to help, but you want to help legitimize the profession by showing the client you can find anything.

When the searcher can’t uncover the answer, feelings of guilt, shame, and doubt in his or her professional worth can grow acute, especially in newly minted information professionals.

Don’t I know it.

If someone comes to the desk with a circ query, or a catalogue query, or a ‘where are the loos’ query, I know I can handle those, and my confidence is obvious. On the flipside, if someone asks me about finding cases, or choosing the right book for their essay question, or even how to fix the damn printers, I freeze. Not only can I not help them, I don’t even know where to look. If all three reference librarians are unavailable, I’m out of luck. I could ask the reference seekers to send an email and ensure someone gets back to them, but people need their printing right now, and they don’t teach printer repair in library school.

My heart rate goes through the roof. I can’t breathe, suddenly. My brain is going in ever-tightening circles. I can’t help them. What the hell am I here for?

We speak often about people who become overwhelmed by libraries and librarians, and the resultant user anxiety that creates. We call it, reasonably enough, ‘library anxiety’. Librarians bend over backwards to alleviate the fears of users who aren’t used to asking questions of people, not the internet, and we strive to make the library a welcoming and productive place. But that necessitates a certain level of reference skill.

I don’t have that skill, and I know I’m not expected to, but I like working here, and I want to do right by our users, my colleagues and my boss. I want to make sure every patron leaves with something. Whether that’s a case citation, or an email address for further help, or the number for the IT helpdesk.

Managing my anxiety enough to get them that something remains a work in progress. But all I can do is try. Perhaps after I’m done with the first-year law textbook, I’ll pick up a printer manual as well.


  1. Bennington, A. (2010). A practical guide to coping with reference anxiety disorder. Searcher, 18(3), 22-25,54. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/221110022 

Five things I didn’t learn at #VALA2018 (because I didn’t go)

VALA2018 logo with sadface

This is my actual face.

I was sad to miss VALA this year. I had long dreamt of attending this huge library technology conference, seeing my favourite people, learning about what others are achieving in this space. The lineup looked amazing, and I’m sure I would have had a whale of a time. But I didn’t have a spare thousand bucks (!) to drop on a ticket. My workplace, where I am on a temporary contract in a non-library-technology role, would not have financed it either. So I didn’t go.

Instead, I attended vicariously through Twitter, where the @VALAlib account (ably run by @mpfl) live-tweeted throughout the conference. The organising committee also posted all the conference papers online before the conference, which turned out to be a boon for cross-pollination!

Somehow, between eyeballing the #VALA2018 hashtag and sitting at work trying to get work done, I managed to learn a few things… or not:

  • Everyone is off-message. If everyone at a conference agreed on everything, it would be incredibly dull. Yet I was struck by how often I seemed to hear conflicting messages in rapid succession. One minute we’re told that we don’t need 100% accuracy in our metadata. The next minute we’re told about all the wonderful things linked data can achieve, which depends on accurate linking and relationship-building. Which is it? Linked data is useless if it isn’t accurate, and such is the nature of digital that it’s either accurate or it’s not. There’s not a lot of room for error.

People were also deeply conflicted about vendors. Some people said we should love vendors. Some people were a lot less complimentary about vendors. Some people appreciated the people who work for vendors but not the socio-political circumstances that enable this work. Because I wasn’t caught up in conference frenzy, where you nod along to and agree with and blindly tweet everything that is said to you, I found I noticed these contradictions a lot more.

  • Do everything. Or not. We’re in a tough spot, skill-wise. We’re constantly encouraged to invest in our own professional development, in many instances by learning to code. On the other, we hear that upskilling ourselves in multiple areas is actually doing us a professional disservice, as an increase in skill is generally not matched by an increase in pay. Code is useful, code is good. Except if too many people learn to code, then it’s bad.

I agree that not all librarians would find coding skills useful or necessary in their work. But with library services becoming increasingly top-heavy, with less skilled staff continuing to lose their jobs, with the industry contracting, with the job outlook for librarians looking rather bleak, with our future becoming increasingly reliant on technology whether we like it or not, wouldn’t you want to make yourself as employable as possible, and learn some code basics?

  • Show me the money! The conference was also filled with exhortations to do things. Make that bibliographic data linked open data! Surface those ‘hidden’ local history collections! Don’t put up with crappy products and services from vendors! Yes! Sure! I will totally do all these things with no additional budget, no staffing, and on top of my existing responsiblities!!!1!

On one level, conferences aren’t meant to be realistic. Presenters will usually highlight the good things they do and gloss over the bad things it took to get there. (Andrew Kelly’s talk was a notable exception, and I’m sure there were others.) We’re meant to leave conferences hyped up and enthused and ready to make change happen in our workplaces and communities. But I brought a much higher dose of cynicism and realism to my remote conference experience. I can’t implement any of these radical and awesome ideas, or in fact any ideas at all, without additional funding, staffing, support and time. Or a permanent job.

  • Technical services librarianship is public work, and deserves to be valued. Finding myself a bitter, cynical husk at the end of this post, I decided to watch Angela Galvan’s heavily livetweeted keynote, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized’. I hoped it would energise me again. I wanted to reconnect with why my work matters, why tech services is not dead, why I spent three days lurking the backchannel of this conference in the first place.

It was immensely gratifying to hear Angela speak of tech services as ‘public’ work. Our direct patron interactions may be limited, but the interfaces and discovery systems we create, maintain and troubleshoot are the centre of most patrons’ experiences of a library. They may never visit us in person. They may never speak to a staff member. But they’re using our catalogue, our databases, our libguides, our websites. Those things don’t build themselves. They exist because a lot of people worked very hard (and a small number of people paid a lot of money).

The characterisation of tech services workers as the ‘backend’ of libraries is increasingly inaccurate. The metadata I work with is viewed by thousands of people. If they can’t access an online resource, it’s my job to rectify it. I may not get to decide what the library purchases and how much they’re willing to pay, but I can decide how that resource is presented to patrons. I game the search results all the time. I edit metadata every day to make it better and clearer for patrons to use. I may not be public-facing, but my work certainly is, and it’s about time library administrators really acknowledged this. A little self-esteem is a wonderful thing.

(Not gonna lie, I was also extremely here for the LexisNexis joke. Next week, part of my ref desk work will likely involve advising first-year law students how LexisNexis works. I hope they don’t ask me. I have no idea.)

  • Go in person next time. In the end, I was surprised by how much I got out of a conference I didn’t attend. I definitely learned more, but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I would have if I’d been there in person. I also missed out on all the networking and socialising, which many people say is the best part of conferences, and to be honest it felt a bit sad watching all these people have fun at an event I couldn’t go to. I’m very glad that the conference papers were uploaded ahead of time and I would encourage the VALA committee to consider doing this again.

But next time, I think I’d rather just go.