A #digipres reading list for the total beginner

This is part of an an occasional series, “Digital Preservation For the Rest of Us”.

Sorry, Kassi, I know I said I’d post this days ago!

If you’re a digital preservation beginner, you might be looking for a great resource to help you catch up on where the sector is at. This brief post will include a few choice books and other resources for digipres beginners. They’re in no particular order, and are totally my own opinions.

For the complete beginner, it’s hard to go past the Digital Preservation Handbook, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition. It provides lots of accessible, non-technical introductions to the topic, as well as lots of videos, task lists and links to other resources. Have a read of the ‘Digital Preservation Briefing’‘ if you need a gentle introduction.

For a holistic view of digital preservation, I can’t go past The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation by Trevor Owens. The preprint is on LISSA right now, with the monograph due out in early 2018. It does a magnificent job of explaining not just the nuts and bolts of digipres, but the underlying philosophy and theory that informs our practice. I’ve been recommending this since the day the preprint went up, and I fully expect this will be a widely-used textbook for students in the field.

If you’re near a print library or repository of some kind, you probably want a few things from this pile:

In particular, I recommend Practical Digital Preservation: a how-to guide for organizations of any size by Adrian Brown (full of firm, practical advice), Is Digital Different? edited by Michael Moss, Barbara Endicott-Popovsky and Marc J. Dupuis (hint: yes) and, if you’re new to archives and preservation in general, Archives: principles and practices by Laura Millar (I have the 1st edition, but I hear the 2nd is even better).

Due out in March next year is the third edition of Preserving Digital Materials by Ross Harvey and Jaye Weatherburn. Both Australian authors (woo!), the book promises to be a one-stop shop for digital preservation practitioners. I’ll definitely be getting a copy of this when it comes out.

Re-collection: Art, New Media and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito examines the topic from a curatorial perspective, which may be more accessible to those with museum or gallery backgrounds. I admit I haven’t read this myself, so I’m recommending it sight unseen, but the authors definitely know their stuff.

Finally, for a light-hearted look at the access side of digital preservation, have a look at ‘Accessing born-digital content: a look at the challenges of born-digital content in our collection’ by the NLA’s Gareth Kay. It’s a nice illustration of why digital preservation matters—works will be lost forever if they’re not preserved!

I hope this list is a useful one! Let me know if I missed any good resources 🙂

Digital archiving for journalists and writers

This post is part of an occasional series, “Digital Preservation For the Rest of Us”.

Don’t let it happen to you. (Picture courtesy Pixabay.com, CC-0)

Background

Ever heard the saying ‘the internet is forever’? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The internet does retain a staggeringly huge amount of information, but it doesn’t always last.

In the last couple of days we’ve heard about the abrupt shutdown of news organisations DNAinfo and Gothamist, with the sites being summarily yanked off the internet. Within hours, people realised that if those sites were gone for good, journalists and other contributors would have no way of verifying their work history, and years of valuable local journalism could be lost.

It followed the ABC’s recent decision to remove a few years’ worth of At the Movies videos as part of a transition of older websites for programs that have ceased broadcasting. Researchers were horrified by the idea that the ABC could simply ‘erase history’ by removing content from the public internet. Many commented on the avalanche of link rot the ABC had created.

While the At the Movies website was archived by the NLA’s Pandora service, the videos themselves were not archived (presumably for space and technical reasons). The ABC have also publicly stated they intend to move older video content from past shows to a better online archive. Compare that with Gothamist, which has found itself at the mercy of the Internet Archive and cached Google search results. A fair amount of content had been saved to the Internet Archive, but there are likely still gaps. It also highlighted how many people weren’t keeping personal archives of their work.

Key lessons

The internet is not your archive. I can’t emphasise this enough. The public internet is not—and was never designed to be—a permanent archive. Websites can be put up or taken down at a moment’s notice. Just because something is online right now, doesn’t mean it will still be online tomorrow, or next week, or next year. We can’t expect corporations and private organisations to archive their published work in perpetuity and have it be the only copy. That’s what libraries and archives are for. (Libraries around the world undertake national web archiving programs, incuding the NLA and the Library of Congress, but they can’t collect everything, and most can only collect material published or produced in their country.)

You cannot rely on others to archive your work. You will need to do this yourself. The best way to capture content in perpetuity, whether it’s physical or virtual, is with a mix of public and private archiving. That is, with archival tools and collecting policies controlled by public entities, by private entities, and by you personally. If one fails, the other two should persist. If all three fail, you’ve probably got bigger things to worry about.

How to archive your online articles

Here’s a selection of free tools to help you capture and archive your digital content.

  • Save to Evernote. Evernote is a free cloud-based notes app for every platform you’d care to name. It’s good for notetaking, but the killer feature is its Web Clipper extension, the ability to scrape web pages and save them straight to a note. I use this religiously to keep all my internet detritus in one place, but you can use this to save copies of your online work.
  • Add to the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive, perhaps the most well-known digital archive, incorporates the Wayback Machine, a privately-run web archiving service hoovering up the web since 1996. You can add individual pages to the Archive in several ways, including by copying and pasting a URL into this page, or by using a clipping extension (available for Chrome, Safari and Firefox, with apps available for iOS and Android). The extension will also detect dead pages or 404s and offer to take you to an archived version of that page, which is an incredibly useful tool.
The Internet Archive web clipper. (Screenshot via Chrome clipper)
  • Create a personal web archive with Webrecorder. Webrecorder is an amazing web archiving tool built by Rhizome. You can navigate to the pages you wish to save, creating a personalied set of archived pages. You can then download this set to your computer, view it with the accompanying Webrecorder desktop app, and—this is the best bit—the pages behave exactly as they did when you saved them! Video, animations, dynamic pages—they all work (this isn’t always the case with the Wayback Machine). Great for multimedia artists and people who wish to browse their archived work in its natural habitat.
  • Use Save My News. Save My News, a nifty little service brought to you by Ben Welsh, combines the cloud storage of the Internet Archive with the handy custom lists of Evernote or Webrecorder. Simply login with Twitter, copy and paste a URL, and bam! Instantly saved in the Wayback Machine, neatly arranged in a list for your reference. So simple, even your dog could do it.
The Save My News interface. (Screenshot via http://www.savemy.news/)
  • Print articles to PDF. In a browser, simply choose to print your page (Ctrl-P / Command-P). Select the printer “Save as PDF” and choose where to save the file, creating a neat PDF copy of your work. Be aware that some articles may not look quite the same if you choose to print, and interactive features won’t translate well to a static format.
  • Print to actual paper, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you’re not entirely convinced by all thse new-fangled digital storage options, there’s always paper. Obviously your work will lose all those interactive features like scrolling and clicking, and the stylesheets might not come out right, but your paper copies may well outlast your hard drive.

Please feel free to share this post with anyone you think could use a personal archive of their own. Happy saving!

A sucker for knowledge

I realised last week I hadn’t written for GLAM Blog Club for a couple of months, and considering how much I admire newCardigan and their ethos I figured I should contribute to the conversation, instead of standing on the periphery. I also have several draft blog posts for which I can’t quite make the magic happen, so I might as well write about something simple—myself.

Like a great many librarians, I started out in life ‘loving books and reading’. We scorn LIS students who say this in interviews, forgetting that many of us were once the same way. Yet it’s true that there’s far more to librarianship than reader’s advisory, and I’ll be the first to emphasise this to prospective library workers. It’s one thing to recognise what brought you here, but quite another to think that that’s all there is.

For this blog post I fished out my application letter for my MIS, written in early 2014. It was a turbulent time for me. I was working as a call-centre operator, a horrible job with a 3-hour roundtrip commute, that I’d only taken in the first place because I’d been summarily let go from a mininum-wage warehouse gig five months earlier. Understandably I was keen to improve my lot, and cast about for jobs I thought I’d enjoy.

The letter brought back to me how much of my childhood I had spent in my school library, playing computer games, passive-aggressively rearranging books, chatting with the librarian about our shared love of teddy bears. Yet I’m struck by how little my letter followed the ‘loves books and reading’ trope. My early library experience didn’t revolve around books—it revolved around knowledge. Books, computer games, newspapers, you name it. I was a sucker for knowledge. I lapped up every bit of text I could get my hands on, not to escape my life but to enrich it. I wanted others to explore and enjoy knowledge like I had, no matter their age.

I finally realised that my ideal career had been staring me in the face this whole time.

I decided to become a librarian.

So I set about trying to make it happen. I learned I needed a master’s degree. I already had a bachelor’s in Classics and Ancient History, a discipline not known for its job prospects, so I was well-placed to deflect the inevitable ‘wow another useless degree!’ comments. I learned that the average age of librarians was… quite high, and that I would have to enrol in an online course. One came highly recommended by a friend of the family, though if I’d known then what I know now I think I would have chosen differently.

I titled my application letter ‘Why I’d Make A Great Librarian’, in a desperate act of self-confidence. I don’t know if I’d be that conceited about it now. I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘great’ librarian. I would say I’m ‘a librarian with a lot to offer’, letting my actions speak for themselves.

Looking back, I should have seen it coming. Of course I was going to wind up in metadata and collection development, with high school reminiscences like this:

Why were all these books, which were clearly relevant to my essay, at opposite ends of the library? Why did the library have such gaps in its collection? Why was there only one copy of Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero in the entire school, and why was it always borrowed by somebody else? (And why didn’t they use Library of Congress classification, which was, like, way better than Dewey?)

What a nerd I was. What a nerd I am. (For the record, I’m pretty sure LCC would have made fetching ancient history books worse, because the distance between B and P classes would be greater than between 800s and 900s, but I digress.)

To my astonishment, I was accepted into the MIS degree, and things began to look up. I had a couple of jobs in a large, swanky library, where I got a feel for how great (and how awful) librarianship can be, and about a year ago I started the job I have now. Quite how I got a professional-level role despite not having quite completed my MIS, I have no idea, but I’m acutely aware of how lucky I’ve been. I know so many people desperate to get into libraries and I’m sure people must think sometimes that I’ve just waltzed in. It’s difficult being a decade younger than the rest of my at-level colleagues, but what I lack in work experience I make up for with enthusiasm!

So here I am. I’ve taken a slightly more roundabout route to get here, but I feel my life experience has served me relatively well. If nothing else, I’ve come to appreciate the value of giving back. As a librarian, I would not only have the opportunity to organise, process and store ever-increasing amounts of information, but also the privilege of helping others find and draw on that information to improve themselves and society as a whole. Plus I would get to be around books and computers and knowledge all day!

Becoming a librarian has been one of the great joys of my life. I can’t think of any other career that would suit me better. I’m immensely thankful to those who helped me get where I am today, but especially to my mum, who surely must have wondered sometimes whether I’d ever get out of the call centre. I’m still a sucker for knowledge, but now I get paid to share that knowledge with others and help them find their own. It’s quite a privilege.

I didn’t think I’d make it. And yet, here I was.

How to catalogue a beer can

Stout is an optimal accompaniment to cataloguing. (Photograph by the author)

Documentary heritage is far more than just books. Working in a local history library, I come across a wide variety of items that help record the history and culture of my town. We tend not to collect realia (the local museum takes care of that) but occasionally some items are too good to pass up. Like a selection of beer cans and beer bottles! Craft breweries have really taken off here over the last few years, and there’s no better way to record that heritage than with the cans and bottles themselves.

No taxpayer money was spent on our beer collection—I personally drank every drop from these cans and bottles in order to catalogue them. How I suffer for my art.

This guide shares a few similarities with my recent post on cataloguing board games. Again, I’m assuming a basic familiarity with MARC, RDA, and the principles of cataloguing. This is also not an exhaustive, official, top-cataloguing-body-sanctioned guide. It’s simply how I would do it, and your mileage may vary. I hope you find it useful!

Fixed fields

For my collection of beer cans, I decided not to create a MARC record for each individual can in the interests of time and usability. So I’ll need a collection-level record for this group of objects that I, the cataloguer, have brought together. I’ve chosen to create one record for each brewery. Leader/07 is ‘r’ for realia (or ‘Three-dimensional artifact or naturally occurring object’ if you want to get personal) and Leader/08 is ‘c’ for collection. If I decided to create item-level records instead, I would use the far more common ‘m’ for monograph/item.

The 008 field uses the Visual Materials specifications. The important field here is 008/33 Type of Visual Material, which again is ‘r’ for realia. Code the date, government publication, etc fields as appropriate. Most other fields will either be blank or ‘n’ for not applicable. You can code 008/22 Target Audience as ‘e’ for Adult if you want a laugh, but I don’t think simply viewing an empty beer can is innately harmful to children, so feel free to leave that one blank if you wish.

Access points and title

Generally-speaking, collection-level records don’t come with a ready-made title, so be prepared to invent one. Something along the lines of ‘[brewery name] can and bottle collection’ is appropriate.

I thought long and hard about whether to use the brewery as a 110 or 710 (i.e. main or added entry), considering the collection is made up for cataloguing convenience. In the end, I figured the brewery is responsible for both the content of the resource (the beer) and its manifestation as a physical object (the can), so I decided to give the brewery the 110 and use the relator term $e creator (because $e manufacturer wasn’t quite right). There’s probably something in the RDA Toolkit about this, but I don’t have access to it so I didn’t read it! If you feel a 710 would be more appropriate, or if you want to slide into my Twitter DMs and tell me I’m totally wrong about access points, go right ahead 🙂 NB: This does not negate the need for a suitably descriptive collection title.

If using item-level records, put the beer’s name (if it has one) in 245 $a and the variety in 245 $b, as in 245 $a Forty acres : $b pale ale. If the beer doesn’t have a specific name, put the variety in 245 $a. This is another reason to use the brewery as the main entry, as the authorised access point will then include the brewery: $a Frogstomp Brewers. $t Imperial stout.

Optionally, you could create a 490/830 series entry, if you expect to have multiple collections of this type and feel it would be useful to bring them all together. Suggestions include ‘[library name] beer can and bottle collection’ or ‘Breweries of [place] realia collection’.

Descriptive cataloguing

This is where the fun happens! You’ll want to be as descriptive and detailed as possible, given that these beer cans and bottles may well be unique to your library.

Start off by describing the cans in a 300: how many you have, what they look like, and how big they are. For example: $a [number] cans : $b various colours, $c 7 cm diameter x 13 cm.

While I am usually the sort of cataloguer who hates using 500 General Note fields, for special collections like these 500s are where it’s at. All the interesting little details will go here: things like additional can or bottle text (that isn’t clearly a title or variety), logos, motifs or other graphic design elements, and/or a short blurb about the collection itself.

Record the beers’ titles and varieties in a 505 Contents Note, like a table of contents. If it’s useful, consider including the colour or other identifying detail of the can or bottle in square brackets (to clarify that this information is not derived from transcribing the can itself).

As mentioned above, the brewery produces both the beer and the cans, so record details of manufacture in 264 #3, much like you would the publisher of a book.

If I were feeling cheeky, I might consider a 541 Immediate Source of Acquisition Note, if only so I could record 541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge $c donated privately after responsible drinking. (Probably a good idea to keep in-jokes of this kind for your local system, not the union catalogue.)

Use the 336 Content Type / 337 Media Type / 338 Carrier Type combo of ‘three-dimensional form’ / ‘unmediated’ / ‘object’, respectively, and a 043 geographic indicator if appropriate.

Subject indexing

You’ll almost certainly be including one or both of the topical terms Beer bottles and Beer cans. For these, you’ll need to include the form subdivision $v Specimens at the end of the string. Geographic subdivision is optional.
For example: 650 #0 $a Beer cans [$z Queensland $z Townsville] $v Specimens.
I would also recommend Breweries and Beer industry as a catch all, with geographic subdivision recommended. (I’m including both with an eye to broadening our collection to include distilleries of various kinds, where it would be helpful to disambiguate, say, Distilleries and Gin industry. Feel free to leave out the industry heading if you don’t feel it’s relevant to your needs.)

I really wanted to use a genre heading of some kind. Fortunately Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus provides the terms Aluminum cans and Bottles. Sadly there is no narrower ‘beer bottle’ term (for a usage example, see this item from the Scott Polar Research Institute).

Examples

NB: these are fictional entities and collections, do not search the ANBD, do not pass go, do not collect $200

Collection-level record

000 01078nrc a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Three Cheers Brewing Company $e creator
245 10 $a Three Cheers Brewing Co can collection.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. $b Three Cheers Brewing Company $c 2017.
300 ## $a 3 aluminium cans : $b chiefly silver with coloured elements ; 
       $c cylindrical, 7 cm diameter x 13 cm each.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a Title devised by cataloguer.
500 ## $a Collection of empty beer cans from Gosford-based brewery 
          Three Cheers.
500 ## $a "Proudly brewed in Gosford"--can.
505 0# $a Forty acres : pale ale [red can] -- 
          The penguin: cool lager [blue can] -- 
          Riptide : IPA [green can].
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer cans $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Aluminum cans. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Item-level record

000 01078nrm a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Frogstomp Brewers $e creator
245 10 $a Imperial stout / $c Frogstomp Brewers.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. $b Frogstomp Brewers $c 2017.
300 ## $a 1 glass bottle : $b brown with purple label and grey motifs ; 
       $c cylindrical, 6 cm diameter x 23 cm.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a From a collection of empty beer bottles from Gosford-based brewery 
          Frogstomp Brewers.
500 ## $a "Darker than midnight"--label on neck of bottle.
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer bottles $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Bottles. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Disrespect des fonds! ✊🏻 (or, Five things I learned from the NSLA digipres forum)

This week I went to the NSLA forum on day-to-day digital collecting and preservation, which began auspiciously enough:

The forum was an illuminating experience. I got a lot out of the event, including useful tips and programs I can incorporate into my workflow, and took so many notes I ran out of notebook! The below are my personal thoughts and observations of the event, which do not represent my employer (shout at me, not at them).

Reality isn’t keeping up with my user expectations and professional aspirations. When I first landed a library job (not the job I have now), I harboured grand dreams of preserving digital artefacts on a workplace’s asset management system, creating intricate descriptions of said digital artefacts, and excitedly sharing this knowledge with library users. I wound up being a shelver, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m still dreaming. I keep thinking libraries are far more advanced, digitally speaking, than where we actually are. Librarians, as a profession, struggle to accept the idea that society has moved on without us. Digital preservation is seemingly no exception.

It was refreshing to hear at this forum that people were once scared of digital. Scared for their jobs. Scared of new, ~uncontrolled~ sources of information. Scared by the idea of reimagining and reinventing their place within libraries and their library’s place within society. Plenty of people still think like this, but you’ll never hear them admit it.

Please don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot of innovation in this sector, incredible work by passionate people with limited resources. I was very impressed by several presentations showcasing new, systemic ways of appraising, preserving and delivering digital content. I just… kinda thought we had them already. Are my expectations too high, or are our standards too low?

Linear archival theory is doing the digital world, and our attempts to capture it, a great disservice. Archival theory is built on the foundational ideas of ‘original order’, ‘provenance’ and ‘respect des fonds’ (i.e. an appreciation of a record’s context and intended purpose). Now, I’m not an archivist, nor do I play one on television. But it isn’t hard to see where, in a digital world, these core archival concepts might start to fall down a bit.

Archivists (and librarians, for the most part) are used to thinking in linear terms. Boxed collections are measured in linear metres of shelf space, our finding aids are (by and large) designed to be read from top to bottom, and a manuscript item can only be in one folder at once. Linear thinking. Paper-based thinking. Ordered thinking.

Our digital universe doesn’t work like this. Disks can be read in any order. Hypertext lets us explore information in many dimensions. We have become random-access thinkers and, by extension, random-access hoarders. Archival concepts must accommodate these ways of thinking—not ‘disordered’, just ordered in other ways. We were invited to ‘disrespect des fonds’, and I think it’s a smashing idea. It’s time to think differently. To accommodate non-linear ideas of what constitutes ‘original order’ and what digital and intellectual context may shape the fonds of the future. Spatial thinking. Byte-based thinking. Still ordered thinking.

Jefferson Bailey wrote a wonderfully in-depth essay on disrespecting the fonds in 2013, and I was reminded of it several times during this forum. It’s well worth a read.

Systems can’t do digital preservation. Only you can. My workplace don’t have the luxury of a digital preservation system (yet) and our current digipres practice is extremely haphazard and conducted on a needs basis by… me. Eek. There’s no denying a system that takes care of basic fixity and AIP arrangement would make my life a lot easier. But that system still wouldn’t do my job for me. Systems can’t select or appraise. They can’t negotiate rights agreements with donors or keep themselves well fed with storage space. They don’t have an appreciation of strategic priorities or nuances of analytical metadata (subject headings and the like). That’s what I’m for. It’s important not to lose sight of the role of humans in what is (for those with the means) an increasingly automated process.

It’s also crucial for small- and medium-sized memory organisations, who will never have the resources enjoyed by NSLA members, to know that they don’t need a fancy system to preserve their digital heritage. So much digital preservation discussion is conducted in arcane, highly technical language, intelligible only to a small subset of information professionals. In order for digipres to gain any traction, it needs to be accessible by less skilled librarians, and even by non-professional library workers. I want the volunteers at the Woop Woop Historical Society, whose tech knowledge may extend only to sending emails and posting pics of the grandchildren on Facebook, to have an understanding of the basics of digipres and to be able to implement them. Distilling our communal knowledge down to this level promises to be almost as difficult as the process of preservation itself. But it’s vital work, and it can’t wait.

I have a lot of skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to bring to digital preservation. I didn’t present at the forum on account of a) a bad case of imposter syndrome and b) my workplace not having a whole lot to report in this area. I am also still a MIS student (yes! still!), am in a role where digipres is not explicitly part of my job description, and was almost certainly the youngest person in the room. All of those things worked together to convince me that I didn’t have anything worth saying.

However, I realised during the talks and discussions that far from being “just” a student, or “just” a local history librarian, or “just” a young’un, I actually have a lot to bring to the table:

  • I understand the broad lifecycle of digital preservation, from file creation to donation to fixity to ingest to preservation to access, and spend a lot of time contemplating the philosophy of what we do
  • I can catalogue, which I wasn’t expecting to be all that relevant to digipres, but it sounds like digitally-literate cataloguers are a rare breed, and
  • I can also learn quickly and methodically, such as last week when I successfully (and independently!) imaged and preserved a CD with BitCurator, for use by some student researchers. I learned how to do this via someone else’s notes from last year’s NSLA Digital Skills event, which I didn’t attend on account of being a shelver elsewhere.

Moreover, I’d like to think I know how much I don’t know; that is, there’s so much more for us as digipres practitioners to discover as well as learn from each other, and we can’t stop to even think that we know it all. It helped me gain a little self-esteem and reassure me that Australian digipres isn’t already full of people who have all the answers.

We can’t wait for everyone to get comfortable. Optical media won’t stop rotting while we learn how to deal with it. Film stocks won’t stop drowning in their own vinegar while we figure out what to do. Obscure file formats won’t give up their secrets of their own volition while we’re trying to nut them out. These problems are only going to get worse, irrespective of how quickly we as practitioners get our heads around them. Many of us are still grappling with digital preservation. Grappling. We’re still at the beginner stage.

There’s a very fine line between making people feel bad about the speed and scale of their own digipres programs, or about their personal knowledge, and encouraging them to keep looking to the horizon and recognise how far we all have to go. I say all this not to shame people, as I too am a beginner, but to express a broader worry about our ability as library employees to recognise and respond to digital change. By the sounds of it, some of our institutions are better at this than others.

In any case, I’d better get to work. I still need that floppy drive I’ve been dreaming about.

Further reading

Jefferson Bailey, Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives (2013 article in Archive Journal)

Trevor Owens, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (preprint: monograph coming 2018)

Response to ALIA’s updated statement on marriage equality

As I’m sure everyone has seen by now, the ALIA Board of Directors today made an additional statement on marriage equality. This statement was prompted, in large part, by the negative response from ALIA members to ALIA’s formal response to NGAC of 11 September (released online on 18 September), culminating in the open letter I wrote to the Board on Tuesday 19 September, and the further letters and feedback that followed.

(I feel like I need a timeline, to be honest.)

Firstly, I’d like to sincerely thank the ALIA Board for reading my letter and those sent by others (including James Nicholson and @Preprint_). I received the same email response that James did, which echoes the statement on the ALIA website.

I was heartened to see my letter strike such a chord with the Australian library community. I was especially thrilled to have inspired others to write to the Board as well, and to have helped fellow librarians to find their voice. I was so, so happy to see so many supportive Twitter comments and likes and retweets and engaged, thoughtful commentary.

However, I must admit I am not as thrilled by the Board’s statement as I would like to be. My views on this are quite complex, with my earlier attempts to condense them into 140 characters ending in complete failure. I want to be careful in how I phrase these views, and I apologise in advance if I am wordier than usual.

For perpetuity, the Board’s revised statement is as follows:

The ALIA Board agrees that the current Commonwealth legislation dealing with marriage is discriminatory, and that a yes response to the postal survey is required to right this discrimination. At a human level, we regret the divisions that are forming and the impact on the well-being of our Members. We believe the majority of our personal members will support a yes vote and we, as a Board, do so too.

We continue to encourage ALIA Members to participate in the postal survey; to support our LGBTQIA+ colleagues and clients; and to ensure that library users have access to the information they need to help them understand the issues.

Note that ALIA’s institutional position has not changed—that is, there isn’t one. Where the Board previously spoke as individuals, they have decided to speak together, and lend the weight of their collective Directorships to their speech. This statement, like the one before it, has come from the Board as people, not from ALIA as an institution. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

By comparison, Andrew Vann, the Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University (where I studied for my MIS) issued a searing, powerful statement affirming CSU’s support for marriage equality. Professor Vann clearly agonised over this statement and gave it a lot of thought, yet ultimately decided to commit not just himself as an individual, but the university ‘as a corporate body, an employer of staff and a community of students’ to supporting LGBTIQ scholars and the broader cause of marriage equality. It’s a beautiful piece and I can’t thank Professor Vann enough for writing it.

I love Professor Vann’s statement because it hits all the right notes. It affirms a university’s role as a defender of intellectual freedom and a place to discuss sometimes difficult ideas. It acknowledges the existence of other views and the right of people to hold and express those views. It also makes clear that if the university is to uphold its stated value of inclusivity, being neutral is simply not an option.

The Board’s revised statement does not do those things. The opening phrase ‘the ALIA Board agrees’ (with whom? with me, presumably) kinda gives away that this statement wasn’t ALIA’s idea. There is no mention of the existence of opposing views (a concession that, for the record, I would have completely supported) and no defence of the library as a space for the exploration of ideas.

Note also the expression of ‘regret [for] the divisions that are forming’ within Australian librarianship. This is not the first time the Board have brought this up; it was also mentioned in their response to Katie Miles-Barnes’ resignation from NGAC. I’d like to be wrong, but this tells me the Board are more preoccupied with the idea of librarians (publicly) disagreeing on this issue than on the issue itself. Because, you know, we were all one happy family before the postal survey was forced on this country, and librarianship totally wasn’t dying a slow death, right? Right?!

In what is surely a complete coincidence, NGAC advertised today for new members. There has been a lot of talk on Twitter over the last week about the relevance of ALIA to newer, more progressive librarians. The cynic in me suggests these advertisements were timed to capitalise on this wave of dissent, to provide a way for those disaffected librarians to contribute positively to the future of their organisation.

I was once asked, long before all this blew up, if I were interested in joining NGAC when the opportunity arose. I was then, as I am now, reluctant to join an organisation and advocate from within, when I felt I could be more effective working from the outside. (I was also hesitant to give up some of my hard-won internet semi-anonymity.) ALIA’s treatment of NGAC over the last month has only cemented my position. Sustained lobbying by NGAC and the resignation of an NGAC member over this issue were not met with an appropriate response. It took a few letters from ordinary Personal Members, and a flood of Twitter discussion, to galvanise the Board into taking a stand.

I truly feel that ALIA’s response is not enough. I wanted ALIA as an institution to take a position. It didn’t happen. But this new statement of support from the Board is more than we had. NGAC, Katie, yours truly and many others have worked hard to make it happen. I am grateful that the Board took the time to read and discuss my letter, and I am gratified that they have responded at all.

If nothing else, it demonstrates that this system works. Andrew talked today about the value of remaining an ALIA member, a topic on which I continue to seesaw. It’s true that I couldn’t have written my letter were I not an ALIA member. I know it spoke for librarians who, for various reasons, are not ALIA members themselves. Yet I find it difficult to support an organisation that had to be cajoled into supporting its members. I wonder if other groups are a better fit for me.

I’ll finish by clarifying an important point. I am not a queer person. I am, so far as I know, a straight person. This fight is not about me. It is about you, rainbow librarians of Australia, who deserve all the love and support and empathy and advocacy I can muster. I was not asked to fight this battle. I choose to fight it because it’s the right thing to do. I can shout pretty loud, so I choose to use my voice to amplify others.

I’ve made my point. I’ve cast my vote. I encourage you all to do the same.

Please vote yes. 🙂

An open letter to the ALIA Board of Directors on marriage equality

Board of Directors
Australian Library and Information Association
PO Box 6335
Kingston ACT 2604

By email: aliaboard@alia.org.au

19 September 2017

To the ALIA Board of Directors

I write regarding your recent statements on marriage equality in Australia, a topic currently the subject of a voluntary postal survey, to be issued to Australians on the electoral roll. While I have debated writing you for several days, your response to NGAC dated 11 September 2017 and released by NGAC on 18 September has compelled me to speak.

As a Personal Member of ALIA, I am extremely disappointed by your handling of this issue. It has been apparent from the outset that ALIA, as a professional organisation, clearly cannot bring itself to say ‘We support marriage equality’. Your actions are a source of intense professional shame.

Your stated reasons for this reticence demonstrate ALIA’s priorities loud and clear—that you prioritise the interests of Institutional Members (including faith libraries, whom you did consult) over those of Personal Members (including the ALIA LGBTQ SIG, whom you did not consult). You prioritise the rights of members ‘to hold an alternative opinion’ on what you claimed to agree was a human rights issue. You consider this topic so important that you relegate your recent statements on it to the ALIA FAIR Twitter account, which has just 12% of the followers of ALIA’s main account, and which seemingly enables ALIA to distance itself from its own political advocacy. Even then those statements are issued from individual Directors, not the Board itself.

You have gone out of your way to disassociate ALIA from any statements of support made by Directors, members, SIGs or committees. This suggests that ALIA is fearful of potential backlash from opponents of marriage equality. I don’t want my professional organisation to be so terrified of backlash that it refuses to stand for anything. I want ALIA to take a stand. I want ALIA to speak for me.

Compare your statements with those of the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) and Professional Historians Australia (PHA). The ASA’s statement demonstrated their willingness to stand up for their members and the wider LGBTIQ community. PHA’s statement went even further, recognising the work of LGBTIQ individuals in historical pursuits and the right of all Australians to be regarded as equals before the law. Neither statement told their members how to vote, yet both organisations affirmed their support for marriage equality and the welfare of their members. There is nothing stopping ALIA from taking a similar approach.

Your responses to this issue smack of an organisation trying desperately to be neutral. To please all parties. To tick all boxes. Yet this survey presents us as voters with only two boxes, and we may tick only one. To abstain—to claim neutrality—is to do just as much harm as it would to vote no, for abstention is both an implicit endorsement of the status quo and a sign that you do not consider this issue important enough for you to voice an opinion.

Librarianship is not, has never been, and will never be a neutral profession.

You campaigned for months for the release of Ukrainian librarian Natalya Sharina from house arrest. The language you used then to defend her was noticeably stronger than the language you use now to defend your own members. You were not neutral on that issue—because being neutral would have been inconsistent with library values.

ALIA’s core values include a commitment to ‘respect for the diversity and individuality of all people’. The debate on the scope of Australia’s marriage laws—for that is all it is—presents a golden opportunity for you to walk that walk. To respect the diversity of library workers and library users alike. To support the right of all couples to have their relationships recognised by law. Your actions so far have sent a very clear message that you do not respect our diversity, and by extension, that you do not respect us.

It is not too late for you to set this right. The survey is still in progress, and you have ample opportunity to show your support for, and solidarity with, LGBTIQ library workers and library users. You do not have to tell people how to vote. You can acknowledge the breadth of opinion on this issue, and how the influence of Institutional Members had previously guided your stance. All you have to do is issue a brief statement affirming ALIA’s position, as informed by NGAC and Personal Members across Australia. It can, in fact, be four words long.

‘We support marriage equality.’

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Alissa M.
ALIA Member

Flatland and the limits of fiction

The original cover of Flatland (image courtesy ArchDaily.com)

The other day I decided I’d better get started on the books in my enormous to-read pile, preferably before I have to return half of them to the library I work at. The topmost book just happened to be Flatland: a romance of many dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926). A colleague had recommended it to me as part of a potential display on ‘flat’ books. (We share a building with a public library branch, and I was thinking of doing a book display which, for once, had nothing to do with local history. I seem to recall being in a flat mood at the time.)

I hadn’t even opened the cover when I was distracted by the book’s call number. This happens to me a lot.

530.
11
ABBO

Flatland, as far as I can ascertain, is a work of fiction, and has been since 1884. Why was it classed in non-fiction? Is this a common view? Who made this decision, and why did they make it?

Firstly, let’s examine this number. DDC 530.11 is the home of general relativity, among such physics luminaries as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Knauss and Brian Cox (whose works on the subject are definitely not fiction). Einstein popularised (and drew on others’ efforts in consolidating) the theory of general relativity in 1915.1 That is, over thirty years after Flatland was published. How can this be?

Is it because Flatland is primarily about science, and the term ‘science fiction’ didn’t exist when the book was published? Did the cataloguer of this particular item even know it was a work of fiction? I flipped the book over and read the synopsis. “Flatland (1884) is an influentual mathematical fantasy […] A classic of early science fiction.” Hmm. Looks fairly clearcut to me. Maybe they weren’t in a synopsis-reading mood.

I then looked at the book’s CiP details. Which call numbers did they provide?

PR4000              823.
.A22                8
F53
2009

‘Aha!’ I exclaimed, to nobody in particular. So even the CiP cataloguer knew it was fiction, and classified it as such! The LCC call number PR4000 is English literature > 19th century, 1770/1800-1890/1900 > Individual authors (with A22 F53 presumably being the cutter for Abbott, Edwin. Flatland), while DDC 823.8 is Victorian-era English literature. I’m beginning to get a bit cross at our cataloguer by this point, who seemingly hasn’t read either the synopsis or the CiP data.

I’ve now spent over an hour investigating this book. I haven’t even started reading it yet.

Interestingly, the CiP for this work was done by Library and Archives Canada, as the editor of this particular version is Canadian. Hmm. Did Library of Congress treat this book differently? (No offence, Canada)

I had a peek at the Libraries Australia record for this edition. This record is an LC copycat job, using the original Canadian data, but making a few slight changes…

QA699              530.
.A13               11
2010b

Bingo!! So that’s why the cataloguer of my copy of Flatland thought it was non-fiction—because Library of Congress did too! … Or did they?

While DDC 520.11 is for relativity, as discussed above, LCC QA699 includes a fascinating—and critical—scope note: Geometry > Hyperspace > Popular works. Fiction (Including Flatland, fourth dimension)

According to LC, it is so crucial that Flatland be classed with non-fiction works on hyperspace that it’s literally namechecked in the scope note! This is amazing! But why did they do that? And why was this logic reproduced in DDC?

I then decided to browse LC’s collections at QA699 to see what else was there. The most recent work appeared to date from 1971, with the bulk of works (excluding revised and edited editions, of which the book in my hand is one) dating from the late 19th and early 20th century.

A quick scan of works in QA699 suggested almost all of them were indexed with the LCSH $a Fourth dimension. The scope note for this heading reads: Here are entered philosophical and imaginative works.
Mathematical works are entered under Hyperspace.

LC holds 100 items with this heading, but it also holds 5 items indexed $a Fourth dimension $v Fiction, which are not classed in QA699. These items include a book about Flatland: the movie edition (2008) and four novels published in the 21st century.

So what is this telling me? Flatland, according to LC, is a ‘philosophical’ or ‘imaginative work’, which suggests they think it’s too intellectual to be considered merely a work of fiction. But this seems like a load of crap to me. Isn’t all fiction inherently ‘imaginative work’? Is Flatland accorded this kind of respect because it’s old, was written by a white man, and has increased in intellectual stature over time? Did the cataloguer at LC who originally wrote the QA699 scope note (however many years ago that was, and may or may not have been the same cataloguer who processed Flatland) decide that this work was not mere literature, fit for the P class, but a higher-order piece of writing that ought to reside near the subjects it fictionalised?

Hmph. This reeks of classism to me.

But it also explains why the book in my hand has the entirely inappropriate DDC call number 530.11: the cataloguer at LC probably looked up the closest thing to ‘Hyperspace’ in DDC (that being ‘Relativity’), either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the ‘Fiction’ aspect of QA699, classed the book where DDC said to and moved on with their life, with dozens of subsequent copy cataloguers not knowing, not caring, or not being paid enough to reconsider this choice. I’ve stopped being cross at our cataloguer, who clearly saw no reason not to defy the ANBD record. I can understand where they were coming from.

For me, the question now becomes: will I change it locally? Technically I have this ability, but because it’s not a local history book I’m supposed to refer it to our collections team. They have way more important things to do than change the call number of a perfectly findable item, especially because nobody’s yet complained about it.

I’ll think about what to do next. For now, though, after several hours of investigation and writing, I might actually get started on the book.

I think it’s the least I could do.


  1. For a longer explanation of why I didn’t just say ‘invented’ like everyone else, see this piece on ‘Who invented relativity?’ http://www.mathpages.com/rr/s8-08/8-08.htm 

Cataloguing tabletop games: an introduction

A closeup of the Settlers of Catan board. (Picture courtesy CatanShop.com)

In my apparent capacity as Oz library twitter’s Resident Cataloguing Boffin™, I was recently asked if I had any thoughts on cataloguing tabletop games. My first thought was ‘A tabletop game about cataloguing? That’s the nerdiest thing I’ve ever heard (and I’ve played the Wikipedia card game1)! Also, sign me the hell up!’ My second thought was ‘Oh, right, metadata about tabletop games. Actually, you know what, I know nothing about this.’ Naturally, my third thought was ‘But I will find out!’

This post is not a professional guide to best-practice tabletop game cataloguing, rather a collection of stray thoughts with a couple of sample records at the end. I’m trying to get out of the habit of needing to write absolutely perfect blog posts—often a work in progress is good enough!

NB: I’m assuming that if you’re interested in this post, you probably have at least a basic understanding of how MARC works, such as fields for authors, titles and publishers. Therefore I’m focussing on aspects of tabletop game cataloguing that differ from your standard books / serials / online resources dealio.

As it turns out, most of the literature on games cataloguing relates to video games. OLAC has produced an excellent guide to video game cataloguing, which I highly recommend if you’re in need of guidance. For tabletop games specifically, however, the pickings are a lot thinner. Slouski et al. say as much in their EBLIP article.2

Descriptive cataloguing

The most important field in a tabletop game record is the 300 field. Here is where the physical components of the game are recorded in detail: boards, pieces, dice, cards, everything.

Ideally there would be defined MARC fields for game duration and number of players, but there aren’t, so they get thrown in a 500 field. (This is the sort of thing where a dedicated schema for games would be really handy. I know there’s a schema for video games3, but again, not much for physical games. If anyone’s got plans to invent one, I’m super interested!)

If the game publisher has a specific internal catalogue number for the game, record it in 028, along with a designator: 028 50 $a 3061 $b Mayfair Games

In a bygone age, I might fret about assigning a 100/110 (main author) field at all, considering games are almost always better known by their title than the name of their creator. Fortunately we live in a more enlightened age where the dictionary catalogue is dead, long live keyword search, so I’m not worrying about a game’s authorised access point potentially being a little obscure.

Content, media, carrier types

McGrath suggests using 336 ## $a tactile three-dimensional form solely for objects intended exclusively to be perceived through touch, and items with some visual content.4 This would be used in conjunction with 337 ## $a unmediated and 338 ## $a object. In addition to these fields, I’ve seen 380 ## $a Board game5 suggested in accordance with RDA 6.3. I can see the point for items of realia without appropriate genre/form terms, but considering a 380 in many instances would duplicate a 655 I’m not sure I’d bother, to be honest. Your mileage may vary.

Subject indexing

LCSH doesn’t make this easy for cataloguers, either. Would you believe there is no accepted form subdivision for board or tabletop games? There’s one for computer games: sensibly enough, it’s $v Computer games. I’ve seen $x Games used a bit, but this isn’t a valid heading for tabletop games (for one thing, that’s a topical subdivision, not a form one).

In the meantime, in accordance with my penchant for pragmatic cataloguing, I’m going to go ahead and invent my own subdivision! If your library is a stickler for LC rules, perhaps don’t try this at home, but maybe someone will suggest this subdivision to LC. (Also, if you’re contributing records to OCLC, Libraries Australia or other union catalogue, definitely don’t try this at home, or the software will convert it to the above-mentioned $x Games invalid subdivision.)6 I’ll be using $v Games, in conjunction with the existing genre/form terms 655 #7 $a Board games and 655 #7 $a Puzzles and games.7 If the difference between these two genre terms is not meaningful to your users, feel free to choose one or the other for local use.

Personally, I’m not wild about the topic/genre crossover in LCSH; that is, I would personally prefer a heading like 650 #0 $a Logic puzzles to feature items about logic puzzles, rather than items that are logic puzzles. But maybe that’s what users want. I could be totally off base with this. Let me know!

Sample record 1: Settlers of Catan

The below example is adapted from Libraries Australia record 59644071, itself likely imported from another union catalogue and created by an unknown library. I was going to catalogue this from scratch but discovered someone else had done the hard yards for me 🙂 The copy record is surprisingly good, I’ve only needed to make a few adjustments.

000 01765crm a2200397 i 4500
005 20170306145003.0
008 121024s2012    ilu||| g          gneng d
020 ## $a 1569052018
020 ## $a 9781569052013
028 50 $a 3061 $b Mayfair Games
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e RDA
082 04 $a 794 $2 23
100 1# $a Teuber, Klaus, $d 1952-, $e designer.
245 14 $a The settlers of Catan / $c Klaus Teuber.
246 30 $a Catan.
264 #1 $a Skokie, IL : $b Mayfair Games, $c [2012]
300 ## $a 1 game (19 terrain hexes, 6 sea frame pieces, 9 harbor pieces, 18 circular
    number tokens, 95 resource cards, 25 development cards, 4 building cost cards,
    2 special cards, 16 cities, 20 settlements, 60 roads, 2 dice, 1 robber),
    1 game rules and almanac booklet : $b cardboard, wood ; $c box 24 x 30 x 8 cm.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b n $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
500 ## $a For 3-4 players.
500 ## $a Duration of play: 60 minutes.
500 ## $a Detailed description of contents on box.
520 ## $a Summary: "In The Settlers of Catan you control a group of settlers trying to
    tame the wilds on the remote but rich island of Catan. Start by revealing 
    Catan's many harbors and regions: plains, meadows, mountains, hills, forests
    & desert. The random mix creates a different board for virtually every 
    game"--Container.
521 ## $a Ages 10 and up.
650 #0 $a Competition $v Games.
650 #0 $a Natural resources $v Games.
650 #0 $a Colonists $v Games.
655 #7 $a Board games. $2 lcgft
710 2# $a Mayfair Games Inc. $e publisher.

Sample record 2: Tantrix

The below example is adapted from Libraries Australia record 41011711, which looks to have been imported from OCLC. The original was an AACR2 record and in worse shape, so I’ve upgraded it to RDA. (Apropos of nothing, this is a great game.)

000 01592crm a2200349 a 4500
005 20160113135201.0
008 060612m19912003nz |||            gneng d
040 ## $a ABCS $b eng $e RDA
082 04 $a 794 $2 23
100 1# $a McManaway, Mike. $e designer
245 10 $a Tantrix / $c created by Mike McManaway.
250 ## $a 8th edition.
264 #1 $a New Zealand : $b Tantrix Games International, $c c1991-2003.
300 ## $a 1 game (56 bakelite tiles) ; $c in plastic hexagonal travel bag, approx 
    16 x 16 x 4 cm + $e Instruction booklet, (48 pages : illustrations ; 13 cm)
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b n $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
500 ## $a "Tantrix was invented [in 1987] by Mike McManaway...This 8th edition 
    now includes contributions from all over the world." -- booklet, page 4.
500 ## $a For 2-4 players.
520 ## $a The game consists of 56 Bakelite tiles with painted links of red, green, 
    blue, and yellow. Each tile is unique, and with all the tiles you can play 
    both the solitaire puzzles and the multiplayer game. The Tantrix game 
    includes 25 Tantrix puzzles and a strategy game.
650 #0 $a Mathematical recreations $v Games.
650 #0 $a Logic, Symbolic and mathematical $v Games.
650 #0 $a Logic puzzles.
650 #0 $a Educational games $x Study and teaching (primary).
655 #7 $a Puzzles and games. $2 lcgft
710 2# $a Tantrix Games Australia. $e publisher

Final comments

I hope someone out there finds this post helpful 🙂 With libraries diversifying their collections to appeal to a broader cross-section of their userbase, non-traditional items like board games may become more integral to a library service. It’s all well and good to acquire cool things like these, but if your users can’t find them, they may as well be hidden entirely. I’m also very interested in any comments or suggestions you may have: drop me a line on Twitter @lissertations or by email (hello AT lissertations DOT net).

Thanks for reading, and happy cataloguing!


  1. I’d just like to point out how stupendously difficult this thing is to google. I don’t often wish the internet had a left-aligned browse search, but today I did. 
  2. Slobuski, T., Robson, D., & Bentley, P. (2017). Arranging the Pieces: A Survey of Library Practices Related to a Tabletop Game Collection. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 12(1), 2. http://dx.doi.org/10.18438/b84c96 
  3. Lee, J.H., Perti, A., & Clarke, R.I. (2014). UW/SIMM Video Game Metadata Schema
    Version 2.0.
    Retrieved from http://gamer.ischool.uw.edu/official_release/ 
  4. McGrath, K. (2012). Cataloging Three Dimensional Objects and Kits with RDA. Slides accompanying a talk delivered March 28, 2012. Retrieved from http://downloads.alcts.ala.org/ce/03282012_RDA_3D_Kits_Slides.pdf 
  5. McGrath, op. cit., slide 63 
  6. Many thanks to Netanel Ganin for making this excellent point on Twitter. 
  7. It’s worth noting that 655 #7 $a Board games was only added to LCGFT in June this year (at Netanel’s suggestion, cheers!), and isn’t yet listed on the Free LCGFT on LC’s website. It was seemingly extensively used as a genre/form term for years before that, though. 

Cò mise? = Who am I?

‘An nì a thig leis a’ ghaoith, falbhaidh e leis an uisge. What comes with the wind, will go with the rain.’ Wall print in the hallway of Museum nan Eilean Siar, Lews Castle, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais), September 2016. Photograph by the author

Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste.
It is better to have broken Gàidhlig than dead Gàidhlig.
— Scottish Gaelic proverb

An invitation by GLAM Blog Club to discuss ‘identity’ has taken me in all sorts of unexpected directions. For one thing, I was fortunate enough to finally attend a Cardi Party, held this month at the Melbourne Immigration Museum, which has helped shape my nebulous thoughts. I’ve also spent most of this week in bed, fighting off a nasty illness gifted me by the city of Melbourne. You know I’ll be back, though.

Talking about identity invariably entails talking about yourself. Who you are, where you have come from, where you are going, what you believe, and so on. Yet it should also entail talking about everyone else, because identities are shared just as much as they are kept to oneself. Whatever I am, someone else is also.

The extent to which we might choose our identities has occupied my thoughts for some time. Identities can be (and are) granted, revoked, adopted, rejected, gifted, stolen, bought and sold. We express our identities in myriad ways—culture, language, ethnicity, dress, official papers, unofficial papers, oral histories, written histories, birth ceremonies, burial rites. Some of these identities have been chosen for me. Some I cannot change. Many I have picked for myself. A few have been thrust upon me. A couple taken by force.

About a year or so ago I began casually learning Gaelic. Known to speakers as Gàidhlig, a language understood by 1.7% of the people of Scotland,1 threatened with extinction in the long term, and spoken by less than a thousand people in Australia,2 it may appear a strange choice of hobby. For various reasons I haven’t been learning as intensely as I once did, but I enjoy following Twitter accounts in the language (using my other account @lis_gaidhlig) and am pleasantly surprised by how much I understand. Gaelic is closely related to Irish (Gaeilge) and Manx (Gaelg) and is part of the Celtic family of languages. It is not to be confused with Scots, the Germanic language closely related to English.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why I chose Gaelic. While it wasn’t originally my idea, it became something in which I was intermittently interested. I no longer have access to the learners’ guides, yet I’ve found myself actually using my skills more than ever. Curiously, I don’t know if any of my ancestors ever actually spoke Gaelic (I think it’s likely, but I’d have to ask my grandmother); certainly nobody in my extended family currently speaks the language.

Writing this post represented the first time I started to think critically about my relationship with Gaelic. I began asking myself copious questions, most of which I couldn’t immediately answer. Did I choose Gaelic (or was Gaelic chosen for me) out of a genuine desire to reconnect with my Scottish roots? My (extremely) Scottish surname was handed down through my family’s 150-odd years of Australian habitation, and yet it was not the name I was born with. I chose this name, much as I chose my family. Does the name conceal other areas of Britain and Europe from which I am descended? Why did I choose this strand of ancestry and not others?

Is there a performative aspect to this exploration of my identity? Am I only aligning myself more with ‘Scottish’ because it’s politically expedient to not be ‘English’? Is it part of a quest for a more concrete ethnicity than ‘generic white Australian’? Am I echoing middle-class Lowland Scots in appropriating a culture and language which is no longer truly mine? Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland (today, chiefly the Hebrides) are cold, remote and economically disadvantaged. Is it my place to enjoy the good things without the bad?

Faerie Glen
Cold, remote, economically disadvantaged, yet still hauntingly beautiful. Faerie Glen, near Uig, Isle of Skye (Eilean Sgitheanach), August 2016. Photograph by the author

Am I looking for a point of difference? A homeland? A place I can point to, despite never having lived there, and say ‘That is my home’? I was privileged to visit Scotland last year, the realisation of a lifelong dream. When I first saw the outskirts of Edinburgh from the plane window, Scotland felt like the strange, exciting, foreign country it was. But it also felt like home. Should it have done?

Is it a response to becoming more educated and aware (some might say ‘woke’) about the black history of Australia, and in particular what Scottish settlers did to Aboriginal people? A reaction to the knowledge that the land I live on, the only home I have ever known, is not mine and was never ceded? A realisation that if I were to repatriate myself, to go back to where I came from, I’d better know where to start?

Moreover, had this sudden interest rendered me the Scottish equivalent of a ‘weeaboo’, because I drink whisky and Irn Bru, listen to a lot of Gaelic folk music and have strong views on Scottish independence? I decided it had not, chiefly because I don’t think everything from or about Scotland is automatically superior to non-Scottish equivalents. (Surprisingly, the thing I missed most about Australia when I visited Scotland was a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables!)

When asked, I don’t tell people that I’m Scottish, because I’m not. I’ve never lived in Scotland, I’ve visited only once, I don’t hold a passport and I don’t speak the language. I say I’m Australian and leave it at that. Occasionally I might get ‘where’s your family from’ (not the more insulting ‘where are you really from’ doled out to non-white people), at which point I might specify Scotland. Yet where is the line drawn between ‘having Scottish heritage’ (or any other ethnocultural affiliation) and ‘being Scottish’? At what point, if any, will I ever be ‘Scottish enough’?

Seeing the Highland tartan exhibit at the Immigration Museum brought a lot of these issues into sharp focus. The Clan MacDonald tartan, easily recognisable with its bold reds and muted greens, formed the backdrop to a medal made of silver, a first prize for dance at the Buninyong Highland Society in country Victoria. Inscribed on the obverse is a curious epigraph, left untranslated by curators: ‘Làmh na Ceartais’. The hand of justice. But for whom?

Highland medal
‘Medal – Buninyong Highland Society, First Prize Strathspeys & Reels, Australia, 1860’. Displayed at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, July 2017. Photograph by the author

While researching the background to this post I discovered two books that might help me answer some of my questions surrounding the legitimacy of my Scottish identity. The first is The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, a 2004 PhD thesis by St John Skilton. It documents the efforts of Scottish expats, descendants of immigrants and interested learners to keep the language alive an leth-chruinne a deas (in the Southern Hemisphere), as well as broader questions of Gaelic ethnicity in Australia and LOTE teaching traditions in Australian schools. At almost 400 pages it’s a hefty read, but one I intend to savour.

The second is Caledonia Australis, a 1984 book by Don Watson exploring the intersection of emigrant Scottish Highlanders and the indigenous Kurnai people of what is now Gippsland in eastern Victoria. Many Highland Scots were forced to emigrate after being thrown off their land by the English during the Highland Clearances. Those who sailed to Australia systematically dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land, just as the English had dispossessed the Highlanders of theirs. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of this book, and I regret that I could not incorporate its histories into this post.

For a final word on Gaelic identity, I turn to Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain, 1911-1996), one of the great Gaelic writers and poets. His thoughts on the topic (in English) were set to music in ‘Somhairle’ by the Gaelic electronic band Niteworks, whose album NW is one of my favourites. (I recently bought their gear on Bandcamp and conversed with one of the band members in Gaelic!) Sorley was an ardent defender of his culture and language in the face of English dominance and destruction. It seems only fitting that his words lend us a sense of his grim determination to survive, as well as that of his language.

Ever since I was a boy in Raasay
and became aware of the differences between the history I read in books
and the oral accounts I heard around me,
I have been very sceptical of what might be called received history;
the million people for instance who died in Ireland in the nineteenth century;
the million more who had to emigrate;
the thousands of families forced from their homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Why was all that?
Famine? Overpopulation? Improvement? The Industrial Revolution? Expansion overseas?
You see not many of these people understood such words,
they knew only Gaelic.
But we know now another set of words:
clearance, empire, profit, exploitation,
and today we live with the bitter legacy of that kind of history.
Our Gaelic language is threatened with extinction,
our way of life besieged by the forces of international big business,
our countries beggared by bad communication,
our culture is depreciated by the sentimentality of those who have gone away.
We have, I think, a deep sense of generation and community
but that has in so many ways been broken.
We have a history of resistance but now
mainly in the songs we sing.
Our children are bred for emigration.


  1. Scotland’s Census 2011: Gaelic report (part 1) (this encompasses all levels of fluency, so the number of true speakers is certainly lower) 
  2. The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, 2004, p. 183 (it’s closer to 800, and that was in 2003)