We all need somebody to lean on: and other things I learned at #NLS9

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.

hydrant with a placard saying 'caution hydrant may be under high pressure'
This was in the stairwell at the venue and, look, same

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?

Interior of the Museum of Economic Botany
Interior of the Museum of Economic Botany, essentially a giant wunderkammer

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


  1. Liz’s wrapup: ‘Absolute highlight of the conference proper’ 
  2. Nikki’s wrapup: ‘[O]ne of the most memorable and inspiring presentations for me’ 
  3. Sarah’s wrapup: ‘[P]ossibly the most directly relevant to my everyday work in acquisitions and cataloguing’ 
  4. Brendan’s wrapup: ‘After Alissa’s talk I was ready to dash to a computer and start passionately editing MARC records’ 
  5. Rebecca’s wrapup in InCite: ‘Alissa McCulloch was a big surprise and got me to care about metadata – the mere term had hitherto prompted my eyes to glaze over’ 
  6. I don’t care if it’s gauche to collect nice things my peers say about me and my work. This means more to me than any performance review. 

Hope labour

floating book among books

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):

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.

Cataloguing as a (customer) service

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:

After a short back-and-forth, Hugh responded:

To which I added:

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. Dearman, Rosemary. (1999). ‘Whose information universe? Customer services and cataloguing’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 222-231. 
  4. Sadly it’s not online :( 

We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript

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!).

The slides on their own are available here (pdf). Inspired / shamed by Nikki Andersen’s brilliant talk at NLS9 ‘Deviating with diversity, innovating with inclusion: a call for radical activism within libraries’, all the slide pics also include alt-text.

We Need To Talk About Cataloguing / Alissa McCulloch @lissertations / New Librarians' Symposium 9 Adelaide, 2019 / #NLS9s09
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.

Picture of me holding the book 'The Joy of Cataloguing' by Sanford Berman, captioned 'This is a really good book!'
(By the way, this is a real book, and it’s awesome.)

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.

'Oh... is that still a thing?'
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.

'Why store data about an object, when you have the object itself? Because without data about the objects contained in a space, any sufficiently complex space is indistinguishable from chaos.' —Jeffrey Pomerantz, Metadata (2015)
People ask, ‘Why store data about an object, when you have the object itself?’ And I go, ‘Because without data about the objects contained in a space, any sufficiently complex space is indistinguishable from chaos.’

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' versus 'Metadata'
‘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.

'That's great. Why should I care?'
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.

You know why you should care?

‘If you care about social justice or representation in libraries, you need to care about library metadata and how it is controlled.’ —Hugh Rundle, ‘Better out than in’ (2019)
Because ‘if you care about social justice or representation in libraries, you need to care about library metadata and how it is controlled’. I know how deeply many of us care about social justice in libraries. We want our spaces and services to be accessible, equitable and empowering to all users. This includes the catalogue. For many users, particularly in academic and TAFE libraries, the library’s online presence will often represent someone’s first interaction with the library. How does your library present itself online? If people go looking for resources about themselves, how will they see those resources described and contextualised?

Image of a white brunette woman standing among bookshelves reading, superimposed over which is the logo for Soutron Global and the words 'Cataloguing is more than merely ‘processing’ an item. Metadata gives voice to collected works, brings their form and meaning to the surface of discovery, so that collections might be found and enjoyed.—Alissa M.
A while ago I’d sat through one too many team meetings where someone described us as ‘just a processing team’ and vented on twitter, as is my style. I said,

‘Cataloguing is more than merely ‘processing’ an item. Metadata gives voice to collected works, brings their form and meaning to the surface of discovery, so that collections might be found and enjoyed.’

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:

Same image as the previous slide, but with the words 'CATALOGUING IS POWER' superimposed in red graffiti font
‘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.

‘In terms of organization and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.’ —Emily Drabinski, ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction’ (2013)
‘In terms of organisation and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.’ Now you can read ‘disciplinary’ two ways – once in the sense of an academic discipline, and again in the sense of punishment. Both of them relate to the wielding of power.

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.

‘When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself.’ —Emily Drabinski, ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction’ (2013)
‘When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself.’

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.

Authority Control Freaks
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.

Radical Cataloguing? Critical Cataloguing?
Nah, it’s just common sense
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.

'Important, complex and broken'
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.

‘Information infrastructure, like all infrastructure, only becomes visible upon breakdown—as in frozen pipes or rifts between institutions. This reality often means that the people maintaining those infrastructures are also invisible.’ —The Information Maintainers, Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care (2019)
In their recent paper Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care, which I highly recommend reading, the Information Maintainers Collective wrote, ‘Information infrastructure, like all infrastructure, only becomes visible upon breakdown—as in frozen pipes or rifts between institutions. This reality often means that the people maintaining those infrastructures are also invisible.’

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.

‘But what about AI and machine learning?’
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.

At last year’s IFLA conference session on ‘Metadata and Machine Learning’, researchers from the National Library of Norway talked about their algorithm that assigns Dewey numbers ‘with increasing accuracy’. To them this means longer numbers, which isn’t quite how I would evaluate accuracy. But the point is: this algorithm is following existing rulesets on how to assign Dewey numbers. Think about: who makes those rules? Who designs Dewey? What does our continued use of this particular classification say about contemporary library practice?

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 you mean, ‘quality metadata’? ‘Standards-compliant’ doesn’t mean ‘useful’. Quality records are: informative, accessible, respectful, accurate, empowering
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?

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? Compare a record with the resource it describes. Right title? Right author? Right year? ‘Authority control’? How would a user describe this? Are those words or phrases in the record?
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?

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? Compare a record with your OPAC’s display. Is anything missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays strangely, or not at all? What is searchable? What facets are available?
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…

‘Tech services work requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and fearlessness in the face of power that needs education to understand why our jobs are important.’—A. Scarlet Galvan, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized’ (2018)
Because the thing is, ‘Tech services work requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and fearlessness in the face of power, that needs education to understand why our jobs are important.’

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?

Mind Your Language. What you can think about: How does bad metadata make your job harder? What problems or queries could be solved with better metadata?
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…!

Mind Your Language. What you can talk about: ‘Good metadata makes materials findable: it’s a return on investment’. ‘Just because LC uses this term, doesn’t mean we have to’
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?

Mind Your Language. What you can do: Suggest terminology or data enhancements to your vendor, such as Austlang codes from AIATSIS for First Nations language material. Join ACORD, the (new) ALIA Community on
Resource Description
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.

For example, you could encourage your cataloguers and/or vendors to include Austlang codes in records for materials in or about Australian First Nations languages. You could also encourage your systems librarian / ILS vendor to incorporate guided searching or faceting based on these codes into your system, for an even better user experience.

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.

You Can Change The Rules
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.

You Can BREAK The Rules
And if the rules aren’t working for you, break them.

Change has to start somewhere. So it can start with you.

Irradicalism

My Twitter bio currently describes me as ‘a radical cataloguer’. It seemed apt at the time: a neat way of summing up who I am, what I do, and what I stand for. But now, thanks to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme and a well-timed lunch with noted incendiary librarian Hugh, I’m having second thoughts about this whole ‘radical’ thing.

Now, this doesn’t mean changing my professional or political views, as strident and idiosyncratic as they are. It means rethinking what the word ‘radical’ actually means to me. What is radical, really?

Successive linguistics lecturers drilled into me the lesson that etymology is not semantics. A word’s origins may bear no relation to its current meaning. And yet being ‘radical’ entails, literally, going back to our roots. To consider the core or essence of something. The word came to English via the Latin radicalis, the adjectival form of radix, ‘root’. English regards Latin as an adstratum language, a more prestigious tongue from which we borrow liberally in an effort to appear learned. I suspect this desire to appear somewhat educated is why I ultimately settled on a Classics major.

I was going to talk briefly about ‘contemporary radicalism’ but realised I had no idea what that looked like. Different people, depending on their own views, will describe other views as ‘radical’. I wonder whether being ‘radical’ is more of a relative than an absolute phenomenon; that is, the description depends less on the viewpoint itself than on what surrounds it. I know the kinds of things I would consider ‘radical’ have changed dramatically over the last couple of years. That is, the things themselves haven’t changed, but my perception definitely has.

As I experienced what I can only describe as an ecological awakening over the last eighteen months or so (starting with David Wallace-Wells’ absolutely terrifying article ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, now expanded into a book I’m too scared to read), I made what most people would consider some fairly radical life choices. In particular, I stopped flying. I’ve done a lot of interstate travelling this year, all of it by train, bus or ferry. I’m very aware that the planes kept flying without me. But I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and financially support more sustainable forms of transport. It feels less radical, and more necessary, with each passing day.

I read an article just today on what climate scientists do to live more sustainable lives. Forsaking air travel was on almost everyone’s mind. If more people start doing something, does it inherently become less radical? Might we start to see greater shifts in what broader society considers ‘normal’, against which the ‘radical’ is compared?

Besides, can you really call yourself ‘radical’ with a straight face? I wonder if it’s like calling yourself an ‘ally’ to a marginalised or oppressed class of people. You don’t get to decide whether you’re an ally or not. They do, when your actions have spoken loud enough. It’s not a permanent adjective. It’s not a badge you get to keep. It’s something you do, not something you are. A continual state of mind and being, not a fixed point in time.

I look at the kind of work I do in libraries, at so-called ‘radical cataloguing’. I’ll be touching on this in my upcoming NLS9 talk (spoiler!) but while many people both inside and outside library land might look at my cataloguing ethos and go ‘Oof, that’s pretty radical’, I’m increasingly convinced that nothing I do in libraries should be considered radical at all. It only feels radical because it’s seemingly so unusual. Thinking of metadata and systems librarianship as not just user-centred, but user-facing. Recognising the cataloguer’s power to name and actively looking to cede that power to the people and groups we describe. Encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue. This shouldn’t be radical. This should be completely normal.

But what if it becomes normal? What, then, would be considered ‘radical’? If radicalism is relative, what new, progressive, revolutionary ideas might emerge, in our sector and in many others?

I genuinely can’t wait to find out. But first, the Overland train to Adelaide on Tuesday. And perhaps a new Twitter bio.

Down for maintenance

Windows safe mode boot screen

Today it felt like my brain had booted in Safe Mode. As if a gauze bandage had been wrapped around my skull, and a small sign placed on the bridge of my nose: ‘Sorry, down for maintenance’. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’ve spent the last week struggling to write not one but two conference talks for NLS9, frantically trying to sort out everything that goes with an interstate trip, and worrying about whether I’ll have a job in September. My brain has a tendency to misfire at the best of times. Sometimes it decides not to fire at all.

A lot of my life feels like maintenance. Not just maintaining myself, which is sometimes effortless and sometimes all I can manage. But much of the work I do could be considered maintenance: creating and updating bibliographic metadata; cleaning, editing and tidying batches of that metadata; making small, incremental changes to a thesaurus; writing documentation; fixing mistakes from years ago. It’s seemingly routine, mundane, unglamorous labour, but it’s done with great care, and it makes a world of difference. Tech bros would have us ‘move fast and break things’. But someone has to fix those broken things and clean up after the latest innovation cyclone.

I recently learned of a network called ‘The Maintainers’, dedicated to supporting those who undertake maintenance work of all kinds: repairing vehicles, contributing to open-source software, maintaining public infrastructure, keeping everything ticking along. Their upcoming conference Maintainers III: Practice, Policy and Care features an ‘Information maintenance’ track, which called for memory and knowledge workers’ thoughts on ‘reformatting, repair, mending, migration, stabilization, preservation, teaching and storytelling’. It’s heartening to see the labour of maintenance in GLAM begin to be taken seriously. I look forward to following along in October.

The phrase ‘down for maintenance’ is twofold. Sometimes my brain packs it in and decides today is just not happening. But that’s okay, because maintenance is the crucial work that keeps us all running. I’m down for that.

The stories we tell ourselves

Sunrise over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, with the National Library on the right. Photo courtesy Glenn Martin Photography

Around 10.30pm last night I had a brainwave.

I lay in bed despairing at the election results, where a lot of money had swayed a few votes in a few seats in a manner not to my liking, when I suddenly remembered a book I needed to read. I’d had this book since February (courtesy of Hugh, who had read it in one sitting) but knew it would need to be read in a certain mood. Polemics are better heard, not seen, so I began to read the foreword aloud to myself.

‘Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to take away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.’

Rebecca Solnit wrote Hope in the Dark fifteen years ago, in part a response to the invasion of Iraq and the despair felt by millions who watched it unfold. The foreword to the third edition was written in 2015 and, to be honest, it shows. Yet it reminded me that one electoral result is not failure, that change is incremental, that we do not know the future for certain, and within that uncertainty there is space for hope.

Hope. Not optimism.

This is not a political blog, much as I have become a political person, and much as my employment brings with it certain restrictions on my political speech. But politics and librarianship go hand in hand. We fiercely defend the freedom to read, the freedom to collect, the freedom to describe, and the freedom of library users to go about their business unbothered by neo-Nazis. These all involve making political choices. We are not neutral spaces. We are not merely vessels for the stories of others—we have a role in amplifying those stories, and for telling stories of our own.

I keep coming back to what David Ritter said at GLAMSLAM, the recent one-day symposium for GLAM workers hosted by the Australian Centre for Public History. GLAMSLAM itself was a bit of a mixed bag for reasons that aren’t relevant right now, but I’m still glad I attended. I wrote a lot of notes during David’s keynote, titled ‘GLAM Power as clean energy? Bring it on!’. Reading over my scribbles, I can’t always tell where the speaker’s thoughts ended and mine began. But one paragraph stands out to me.

Yes! We can do the thing against the odds! // Convince people that human ingenuity can get us out of this mess. [Even if] it won’t get us out. It’s a future we won’t see. And perhaps, since we are the problem, we deserve to go. But he will never say that—we need to tell ourselves that humans can make change.
ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE

It was a rousing and inspiring speech, though my notes are peppered by a well-developed streak of misanthropic nihilism. David knew what story we needed to hear, and told it to a roomful of librarians and cultural heritage workers so that we might repeat the message. This is how we can use our GLAM Power™: by telling the stories that will drive the transition to a more just and liveable planet. To build a better future, we first need the ability to imagine it. (You can listen to David’s keynote on the GLAMcity podcast.)

David Ritter wasn’t the first person at GLAMSLAM to make the connection between libraries and public narrative. The New GLAM-er fringe event the day before included a speaker from a NSW regional public library (whose name I sadly neglected to write down), who came to librarianship with a PR degree. She emphasised the role of the library as a natural home for storytelling, but with facts to back those stories up. I can’t imagine ever working in public relations. I wouldn’t be able to tell a story I didn’t believe.

I often think about the stories we tell ourselves. But today I wonder about the stories we’re clearly not listening to, the stories going unheard. Libraries enthralled so many of us as children. Magical places of safety and story. These memories inspired many of us, me included, to pursue careers as library workers, to become story curators. But who is telling the stories we collect? Whose narratives go unrecorded? What relation do these stories bear to others’? To our environment? To our history? To others’ histories? What stories help us make sense of our lives? What choices do our stories prompt us to make? What do we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night?

Not all stories are hopeful. Some are actively harmful, told in bad faith, designed to mislead, deceive or frighten. I hope that we all might one day reconcile our stories with the abundant evidence available to us, weaving a stronger and more truthful set of inclusive narratives that lead us toward a better future. I hear librarians are quite good at that.

I find solace in nature and nature writing, grounding me in every sense. Last week I picked up the newest Griffith Review, Writing the country, which I’ve looked forward to for some time. David Ritter has an essay in it, ‘We all took a stand’, telling a remarkable, Solnit-esque story about how in 2010 the locals of Margaret River, Western Australia, took on the coal prospectors and won. We both marvelled at how this story isn’t more widely known. ‘As a movement it is so important that we narrate and remember every success. There is power in our stories if we choose to tell them.’

Hugh is notorious for annotating his books, so I took this as permission to read Hope in the Dark with a pencil in my hand. The book felt like an emergency bandage for an open wound, holding in all my emotions to stop them from falling out. Many passages were already underlined, asterisked, or pencilled in the margins. I’m not sure how long I can staunch this flow; at some point I will mourn the future it clearly wasn’t time for. But one sentence neatly encapsulated my current goal. I underlined it, with a sharper pencil.

The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Or, as David himself tweeted earlier today, in an eloquent and uplifting thread I saw just a moment ago:

Great change is non-linear. History is unpredictable. Elections come and elections go but we must retain belief in what is possible and execute our best plans to make it so.

The introvert’s megaphone

Tag yourself, I’m the fail whale. (From an image by Yiying Liu)

I can’t remember exactly why I joined Twitter. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve been on that website in one form or another since 2009, mostly to lurk behind locked accounts, but in October 2015 I decided to start tweeting for real. I was partway through my library degree, I had recently begun my first job in a library (albeit in an admin role) and I think I was feeling somewhat isolated. I’m sure my lecturers mentioned Twitter was where all the library conversations were happening. So I decided to join in.

Still #onbrand after all these years.

(For those wondering where my handle came from: I think I spotted someone else’s typo somewhere and ran with it. People address me as ‘lissertations’ all the time. I have no issue with it. ?)

Three-and-a-half years and over 14,000 tweets later, I’d like to think it was worth it. Saying ‘I have learned so much from other people on twitter’ feels hollow. It has completely transformed my ways of seeing and thinking about the world, about librarianship, about our past and our future. I’ve read so many insightful articles, posted by so many incredible people. I thought I had a handle on how the world ought to work. Boy, was I wrong.

Twitter has long been touted as the social network of choice for library and information workers, but different people use it in different ways. You’ve got your lurkers, your occasional users, your influencers, your trolls, your personal brand maintainers, your organisational accounts that shitpost more often than they realpost, your crossposters from Linkedin or Instagram, your ‘I only tweet at conferences’ types, your backchannellers, your agitators, your real people, your fake people, your twitterbots. I probably fall into several of those categories, but above all else I try to be honest online. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I have always been an opinionated introvert, but too often the opinions can get lost in IRL networking situations because people are hard and scary. Twitter has helped me to network and communicate with an audience that doesn’t need to know I’m an introvert. For me, it’s the perfect megaphone.

I am acutely aware that at this point I basically owe my career to this platform. Because of Twitter, thousands of people know who I am, hundreds of people have read my blog posts or heard me speak, dozens of people have met me at conferences, a handful of people have become my closest friends, and at least two people have offered me employment. I absolutely would not be where I am today if it weren’t for being on Twitter. My presence there has helped me get a foot in the door, at a time when breaking into the library industry is harder than ever.

And yet I have achieved this through somewhat unconventional means. We’ve all read articles like ’15 Twitter Tips for Librarians’ and ‘Top tips for using social media for professional networking’. I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything these articles tell you not to do. I don’t use a picture of myself as my avatar (and never will), I seldom use hashtags, I have no social media strategy besides ‘these are my opinions today’, I follow whoever I want and not who the ‘influencers’ are, I tweet about all sorts of non-LIS topics (principally environmentalism), I blur the line between ‘professional’ and ‘personal’, and I overshare all the damn time.

That’s not to say you should necessarily follow my lead, or that the above articles are bad. The advice in them is simply not to my taste, with one major exception: I absolutely adhere to Kate Davis’ rule of ‘Don’t retweet without reading (unless you make it clear you haven’t read it yet)’. In this era of abundant bullshit, we have a responsibility as information professionals not to share or spread harmful, inaccurate or offensive content. All our retweets are endorsements. If I share something, I am sending a message that I vouch for its integrity. I want my word to mean something, both online and off.

Because I have become such an outsized Twitter Personality™, which I’m not sure resembles my actual personality all that much, I sometimes feel obliged to keep tweeting and maintaining a presence, even when I feel I have nothing to say. I have also found myself composing tweets in my head before I’ve even reached for my phone, rearranging an anecdote for maximum likes, retweets and dopamine hits. It’s all a bit sad, really. Aside from an extremely private Mastodon account, Twitter is the only social media I have. It’s easy to develop a certain tunnel vision when you’re on the site for too long, mindlessly scrolling because it feels weird not to. It’s easy to be a bit too online.

Some of you might be unsure about joining Twitter, considering most people these days associate it with a certain American president. I want to be clear: most of Twitter is an absolute binfire. It’s abhorrent. It’s a cesspool. It’s home to some of the worst people on the entire internet. But library twitter is different. It’s full of people who are passionate about libraries, having the best and most urgent conversations, sharing the most important ideas, making the most fruitful connections. You don’t need to be #onhere as often as I am in order to get something out of this platform. Make Twitter work for you, not the other way around, and it can help you do incredible things.

Five things I taught at #VALATechCamp

A couple of weeks ago (only a couple of weeks?!) I was a part of the 2019 VALA Tech Camp, a two-day event in Melbourne for tech-inclined librarians and library-inclined techies. Usually these posts are a variation on ‘Five things I learned at [event]’, but this time I actually did some of the teaching, so here are five things I taught. It was a very different experience to the 2017 Tech Camp—I definitely learned some things as well…

OpenRefine is magic! Been there, done that, wore the t-shirt. I presented a three-hour workshop on OpenRefine, the world’s greatest free and open-source data cleaning and editing program, to upwards of 37 keen participants. Assisted by the unbelievably calm Alexis Tindall, who had generously agreed a few weeks earlier to help a total stranger, I took our intrepid data wranglers through the main features of OpenRefine: importing and exporting data; faceting, filtering, clustering and editing data; transforming data using inbuilt scripting language GREL; and reconciling data against an external source. I demonstrated on both a CSV file and a gently-massaged MARC file, thinking participants could possibly use OpenRefine for both file formats.

I learned a heck of a lot about OpenRefine in the course of writing the workshop slides and teaching materials. (You can view them on this GitHub repository.) It was a privilege to be able to share this knowledge with others, even if I spoke too quickly and seemed a touch nervous. Everyone was keen to learn, asked lots of questions, and looked like they got something out of the session, which is exactly what I had been hoping for.

‘I don’t know. But I will find out, and get back to you.’ The first step towards learning is to know that you don’t know something, right? It’s okay to not know things. I stated at the outset that neither Alexis nor I were experts, and that I was here in the spirit of peer-based learning. If you know the thing, you can teach the thing, etc. Though this was not a formal Library Carpentry workshop, I was inspired by the Library Carpentry ethos of peer-based learning, as introduced to me by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones at the LC workshop at NLS8. To think that was my first experience of OpenRefine, less than two years ago, and here I am teaching a workshop of my own… it’s been a wild ride.

As it happened, a couple of people asked questions I didn’t immediately have the answers to. I managed to answer one during the workshop, to the delight of the asker, while the other two are still awaiting my email. (Sorry! I am bad with email! I will get back to you, I promise!)

We can do the thing! (But we probably shouldn’t have.) Hugh and I both presented workshops while also being on the organising committee. I think we separately realised that trying to do both was a very bad idea, and that future committee members should not be allowed to do this. At the time, offering to run the workshop myself seemed easier than asking someone else to do it. I know better now!

Tech Camp was my first experience on an organising committee of this kind. It was also my first experience presenting a formal workshop or talk to a paying audience. I had never done either of these stressful things before, and here I was doing both of them at once. Did I mention I have an anxiety disorder? Fellow committee member Matthias remarked ‘You were playing on hard mode!’ and while I hadn’t thought of it that way, I definitely made it harder for myself than I needed to. I referred in 2017 to ‘the Herculean efforts of the organising committee’—I no longer consider this hyperbole. Running the 2019 camp has been a tremendous learning experience, and it’s opened a few doors for me professionally, but my stress levels were absolutely unreal. I think I could have managed solely being a committee member, or solely presenting a workshop (just). I barely managed to do both.

But I did everything I could. I lunched in the breakout room, I took my meds beforehand, people recognised when I needed company and also when I needed space, and overall it wasn’t a total disaster. To the extent I could control my symptoms I recognised that freaking out would accomplish nothing, so instead I tried to approach the workshop like a wave. It was gonna come anyway, and it would engulf me, and I would feel like drowning for a brief second, and then it would be over, and the sun would still be shining. Just let it crash over me. Just let it happen.

This is for the benefit of those who saw me present and perhaps thought I was handling things just fine. I’m told I looked a lot less stressed than I felt, which is… handy, I guess, but I’m not in the habit of airbrushing.

Our speaker / committee gifts were little cartoon avatars of ourselves. I love mine because thanks to the rosy cheeks it looks really stressed, and therefore quite lifelike.

Just say no to mornings. You may have noticed I was meant to emcee the morning session on day 2 but mysteriously failed to appear. I was late and missed the start, meaning someone else had to fill in, and was so embarrassed I hovered in the foyer until the session was over. This was a fail on my part, but also hopefully it’ll teach event organisers not to expect anything of me until after 9am. (To my relief, my next speaking commitment at NLS9 is scheduled for after 11am. I am so not a morning person.)

I did an SQL thing! This is me cheating and using an ‘I taught myself’ literary device, haha. Having finally dispensed with my teaching responsibilities on day 1, I resolved to learn more things on day 2. The other workshop I attended was on SQL, by Arjen Lentz and Donna Benjamin. I had a feeling I would like SQL if only I had an idea of how to use it, and this workshop was a great introduction. Being a native English speaker, the syntax of SQL just makes sense, as it’s designed to.

I was particularly tickled by Arjen setting the scene with a very quick introduction to set theory. I inexplicably spent a term in year 7 learning set theory, ostensibly because my school had run out of space for all the fun electives and threw two classes’ worth of smart kids in extension maths instead. Until this session it had never once been useful. Now, suddenly, sixteen years later, it was exactly what I needed to know! And it was useful because SQL requires you to envision a particular data structure in order to query it, to hold a table in your head even if it’s not graphically represented. Including or excluding aspects of that dataset entails using terms like LEFT JOIN, which make more sense if you think of data as being inside or outside a set. Or a venn diagram.

I thought it worth looking back at my experiences of the 2017 Tech Camp and comparing them with this year’s. Obviously I was a lot greener around the edges two years ago, and a close reading suggests I gained just as much in worldview expansions as I did in practical tech skills. Some of our short talks this year, such as Katrina Grant on digital mapping and Adam Bell on digital preservation, were aimed at showing attendees what is or might be possible. I did learn less this year, simply because I taught more (and stressed more), but even though I’ve had a library degree for less than six months I already feel less like a ‘n00b’ (as I described myself) and more like a newly-established technical librarian. After all, new professionals tend to be the ones attending workshops, not teaching them.

I love how past me wrote, in closing:

On a much smaller scale, I found myself much more able to get out there and do things I find really difficult. Yes, I can go and make small talk to people! Yes, I can summon the courage to thank people for writing things that have meant a lot to me! Yes, I can do the thing! Yes I can.

I’m still no good at small talk, but I did succeed at far bigger things, and I am proud of myself. This was really difficult and a steep learning curve, and yet I still managed to do the thing. I could not have done it without the help and support of the Tech Camp committee, the VALA Secretariat, my helper Alexis, my poor colleagues who sat through an in-progress version of the workshop and didn’t say it was dreadful, and the workshop attendees who took the materials and ran with them. Yes, I can do the thing. Yes I can.

Yes I can.

The people’s cataloguer

Last week at work I had one of the most incredibly serendipitous experiences of my library career. It was a beautiful illustration of why I became a librarian. To not only collect and preserve people’s stories, but to sometimes be part of them, and weave a broader tale.

It began in early January, when 110 books turned up from the same publisher. Being in the legal deposit business, my job is to catalogue whatever turns up in the post. Any genre, subject, author, publisher, size, format, you name it, I deal with it. (Unless it’s a serial.) We often get large boxes of books from publishers, but this particular enormous haul intrigued me. I volunteered to catalogue the lot. What can I say, I’m a sucker for punishment. And I wanted something fun to do before I went on holidays.

I slowly realised I held an entire library in my processing trolley. A living, breathing library.

The People’s Library.

As displayed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, September 2018. Image courtesy Garland Magazine

It all started a few years ago in Iceland, where apparently one in ten people publish a book in their lifetime. Margaret Woodward and Justy Phillips, co-founders of Tasmanian arts collective A Published Event, found themselves in Iceland in 2012 doing arty things. They wondered whether there was a similar latent writing community in Tasmania, which is around the same size. Most of us would probably have pondered this for a short while and left it at that. But not these two. They decided to create a kind of performance library, soliciting unpublished manuscripts from would-be Tasmanian authors and publishing a whole lot of them in one go. Giving a voice to people who might otherwise never have published a book. Creating a kind of ‘time capsule’ showcasing Tasmanian life and writing during the late twenty-teens. It’s huge. It’s faintly ridiculous. And it’s completely awesome.

The People’s Library comprises 113 books. Their authors range in age from 15 to 94. All live in Tasmania, from all kinds of backgrounds, writing all sorts of things. Novels by first-time authors. Anthologies by U3A writers’ groups. Memoirs. Poetry. Non-fiction. Experimental literature. An opera about Sir Douglas Mawson, no less. Each assigned a cover colour from Werner’s nomenclature of colours, creating a beautiful rainbow effect when the books are lined up in order on a shelf.

The People’s Library was installed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, in September 2018. Authors read, performed and gave life to their stories. There were panels, responsive art pieces, readers-in-residence (and also readers-in-bed). The books took centre stage. None were for sale—this was a library, after all.

Then it came to us. To me. Cataloguing these wonders took me a full, magnificent week. They were a joy to process. I learned so much about Tasmania, about total strangers, about the limits of the written word, and even about myself. I realised we were missing three of the books, so an email was sent politely requesting copies. I returned after a month’s holiday (in Tasmania, as it happened) to an email from the publishers, promising to send the missing books and wanting to know more about how the Library was catalogued. Omg. A genuine interest in cataloging. Nobody ever asks me how I’ve catalogued their books unless they’re complaining about it, so I was very excited. I promptly wrote back with probably too much detail, which amusingly made its way back to some of the authors. Many of them were thrilled that we had collected and preserved their books.

And then I thought no more of it until last Wednesday, when I sat at the reference desk for my weekly shift. Not all cataloguers do shifts in the reading rooms, but some of us do. It was one of the first things I asked to do when I started this job, because I want to keep in touch with how people actually use and experience the library, and how the metadata I create might be a help or a hindrance.

I noticed a few volumes of The People’s Library on the collection shelves, ready for a reader to peruse. Occasionally people actually read the books I catalogue, which is always nice. I hastily arranged the volumes in colour order. The reader arrived and I retrieved the books. As I carried over the last handful I remarked, ‘I catalogued these books, they’re awesome.’ The reader looked at me oddly. ‘Are you… oh, you’re the one who sent us that lovely email!’

One half of A Published Event. In town for other reasons, but who had popped in to admire her handiwork. I had no idea she was coming, let alone during the two hours a week I spend on the desk. To have come all that way, to read some of the books she had given life to, and to have been greeted by the very same person who had lovingly catalogued them, and who only briefly sits at the reference desk… Absolute serendipity. You couldn’t have written it.

The fact it had taken me a week to catalogue the Library was cause for amusement. As part of the Library’s performance at Salamanca Arts Centre, four readers-in-residence had each read some of the books, also for a week, and produced a digest summarising what they had read and learned. In a way, she supposed I became the fifth reader-in-residence, and the catalogue records for these books constituted a fifth digest. An incredible way that librarians not only collect and preserve stories, but can sometimes be part of them. By cataloguing The People’s Library I became a part of its performance, weaving a broader tale, ensuring the voices of over a hundred Tasmanians can be read and heard by all who visit us. I felt honoured to be a part of this work.

I already can’t wait to peruse A Published Event’s next library, Lost Rocks, a collection of 40 ‘fictionellas’ borne from an almost-empty rock board picked up at the tip shop in Glenorchy. ‘A slow-publishing event of mineralogical, metaphysical and metallurgical telling.’ It doesn’t get better than this.