Tomorrow is a big day. I’ll be starting a new role at work. I’ll become what other libraries might call a systems librarian, in a new team, on a new floor, doing new and exciting work. Critically, I will stop being a cataloguer. Turns out I have some feelings about that.
My last day on Friday was ordinary enough. In honour of the occasion I wore my second-favourite library-themed outfit to work, a dress with LC call numbers on it, though I don’t think anyone noticed. I catalogued some books and did some advanced photocopier magic as a favour for my boss, for which I was paid in chocolate. I neglected to attend the morning tea for those of us leaving the section, partly because I was busy but mostly because I wasn’t in a great space for small talk. I’ve never felt like I belonged, here.
The restructure predated the pandemic and was meant to be over by July. It has instead lasted all year and will run into the next. You can imagine how stressful it’s been. Like everyone else in the placement pool, I was asked for my top three role preferences. Unlike most people, by all accounts, I got my first choice.
My new role joins an established team that used to be in the collections division but now sits in IT. The team maintains the catalogue and discovery layer, but also seems to get asked for reports and statistics a lot, which in turn involves a lot of funky database queries and data massaging. My new boss specialises in beautifully colour-coded spreadsheets. One of my new colleagues is a MarcEdit wizard. Everyone is a keen cyclist. I think I’ll like it here.
While I am a bit sad about no longer being a cataloguer, truth be told my professional interests have always lain in this kind of zoomed-out, macro-level work: analysing data at scale, maintaining and theorising the platforms and systems that house, shape and contextualise metadata. I’m a systems thinker with attention to detail, an unusual disposition for a cataloguer. Where others in this line of work have traditionally struggled to see the forest for the trees, I have spent aeons trying to make sense of the forest, from the canopy to the undergrowth, losing sight of how I was meant to be precisely recording only certain attributes of a given tree. Besides, those attributes wouldn’t even help someone find this particular tree. The directions were all wrong and the scientific name was meaningless to those who called the forest their home. Why can’t we describe this tree better?
…Sorry, you wanted this catalogued today? Yep sure I can do that.
And I can do that, but I can’t keep doing it in isolation, and I definitely can’t do it forever. Cataloguing is highly structured and solitary work, and in some ways it suits me down to the ground. But that structure is also the most frustrating aspect, that solitude the most soul-crushing. It might have been what I wanted, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for me.
The second-last book I catalogued on Friday was a biography of a nineteenth-century Queensland ship captain, written by his great-grandson. The author related in some detail how his ancestor was, among other things, a blackbirder for 14 years, ‘recruiting South Sea Islanders’ as if this were a fine and normal occupation and not at all kidnapping or indentured servitude no sir. The two catalogue records for this book on Libraries Australia reflected its deep whiteness and the banality of its horror. Neither featured the LCSH ‘Blackbirding’. Only one gave Australian South Sea Islanders their own heading.
I’ve catalogued more than my share of self-published biographies, histories and genealogies over the years. It is striking what this country chooses to forget. But I expect better from cataloguers whose job it is to contextualise this stuff. A primary tenet of cataloguing is to record what you see. But what if we’re as blind as the author? It’s this kind of thing that prompts me to think, well, maybe I wasn’t wasted in this job after all. Maybe I came here to notice these things, and to do better, and to demand better.
I’m looking forward to this new role. It’s no higher up the payscale, but it holds a lot of promise, and I hope to be happy there. At last I can climb one of these trees, and marvel at the forest.
Yeah, I know the deadline for submissions to the ALIA Future of LIS Education discussion paper was two days ago. I’ve been all of the usual things: busy, stressed, unwell, preparing to move house and reapplying for my own job in the same week. Small fry, really. I also coordinated a submission in my capacity as Information Officer for ACORD, the ALIA Community on Resource Description, which focused on matters of interest to the Australian cataloguing and metadata sector. But a few bigger thoughts kept gnawing at me, and I decided to write them up anyway now that I have a sliver of brainspace, for general consumption as well as for ALIA’s attention. These views are, as always, solely my own.
I’ll admit to not having been privy to a lot of the professional conversation on this topic, but much of what I did hear focused on the issue of library workers having library qualifications (or not). Most job ads I see these days ask for an ALIA-recognised qualification or equivalent experience. Employers are already recognising the many paths people take to a library career, but they’re also recognising that eligibility for Associate membership doesn’t really mean very much. Of the four libraries I’ve worked in, only one specifically said I needed to have a library degree. I didn’t have a library degree. I got the job anyway. 🤷🏻♀️
I think employers are also frustrated by library school graduates being unable to meet the immediate needs of contemporary libraries. The skills employers need are not the skills educators are teaching; I graduated two years ago and recall being very surprised by the chasm between what I was taught and what I was seeing with my own eyes at work.1 Our sector benefits hugely from the diverse educational backgrounds of its workers, be they graduates of university, TAFE, or the school of hard knocks.
This issue cuts both ways, however: I’ve written before on the ‘price of entry’ to the LIS field, where librarianship remains on the Government’s skills shortage list despite an apparent surplus of graduates. Employers say they want ‘job-ready’ grads, but what I suspect they really want is to not have to train people in the specialities of a particular role, especially as entry-level positions continue to disappear. At the same time, though, a comprehensive LIS education has a duty to balance employable skills with a solid theoretical grounding—in other words, to learn what to do, as well as why to do it. It can’t be solely about ‘what employers want’, otherwise our moribund industry would truly never change.
This comment on page 10 of the discussion paper was… uh, quite something:
During our discussions, there were different perspectives on the division between Librarians and Library Technicians. Some felt this was a necessary distinction; that Librarians should be conceptual thinkers and Library Technicians should have the technical expertise, for example with resource description and technology devices.
This distinction is hogwash. Our sector desperately needs people with both these qualities, who are conceptual thinkers with technical expertise. I am a professional cataloguer with a master’s degree. For better or worse, I never went to TAFE. I learned to catalogue the long way. I firmly believe it has made me a better cataloguer, more able to question and deconstruct our hallowed bibliographic standards, to call for change and to make it happen. To state that resource description does not require conceptual thinking is offensive to the cataloguing and metadata community. The idea that information technology does not require it either is even more ludicrous.
I suspect this view is based on a public library’s operating model, where library techs help senior citizens with their iPads while librarians are the ones in charge. The job title of ‘library technician’ has strayed so far from its original meaning that nowadays it seems to mean ‘TAFE-qualified lower-paid library worker’ irrespective of job function, and sits below ‘librarian’ in a workplace’s hierarchy. The word ‘technical’ has a long and twisted meaning in LIS (and yes, I’ve written about that too), but we can safely say that most library IT work is done by people earning far more than a library technician’s wage. It’s a confusing term both inside and outside the industry, and it needs to go. So too does the hierarchy.
Anyway, back to qualifications. The discussion I’ve been seeing is predicated on the idea that the only way to be an accredited library professional (that is, a ‘librarian’ and not a ‘library technician’) is by getting an accredited library degree. Currently that’s the case in Australia. But what if I told you… there is another way?
My primary recommendation for the future of LIS education in Australia is this: I would like ALIA to consider adopting the LIANZA Registration model of professional accreditation, focussing on accrediting the individual, as well as the institution.
Prospective library professionals in Aotearoa New Zealand have three options. They can:
A) Complete a recognised New Zealand library and information qualification;
B) Complete a recognised overseas library and information qualification; or
C) ‘Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the Body of Knowledge’, along with 3 years’ professional experience, plus either a pre-2007 NZ LIS qualification, or a bachelor’s degree in any discipline.
They must also be an individual member of a recognised library association in New Zealand (LIANZA recognises six, including itself), and pay an annual fee to LIANZA.
I’m fascinated by the potential of option C). A prospective applicant need never have set foot in a LIS classroom, but if they have already demonstrated their intellectual aptitude at the undergraduate level, gained substantial experience in library work, and can map their knowledge against recognised competencies, then they can gain professional recognition equal to that bestowed upon library school graduates. In no way does it devalue the hard work of those graduates; it acknowledges that there are many paths to the same goal, and respects professional learning in all its forms. It recognises that librarianship is a profession by mandating a professional-level (i.e. university) qualification.2 Crucially, it also better reflects what’s actually happening on the ground.
LIANZA’s eleven ‘Body of Knowledge’ competencies outline the key skills and responsibilities of contemporary library and information workers, and cover the same kinds of material that would be taught in library school. Of particular importance is BoK 11, ‘Awareness of indigenous (Māori) knowledge paradigms’. Every accredited library worker in New Zealand must demonstrate this competency. This is not the case in Australia, where LIS professionals can—and do—go their entire careers without knowing a single damn thing about First Nations knowledge systems. It’s one of many reasons why our profession is white as hell. It makes the task of developing and maintaining culturally safe libraries that much harder, for First Nations library users and workers alike. It also perpetuates a knowledge monoculture, which is actually really boring. I wish more of us could recognise First Nations knowledge of the land as a kind of library.
Like ALIA membership, LIANZA Registration is optional. The closest ALIA currently gets to option C) is Allied Field membership, which is very deliberately not the same as ALIA Associate membership, and renders the former ineligible for jobs that require the latter. Presumably ALIA is trying to protect the existing higher education pathway. But that pathway is already collapsing: two days before the close of submissions to this paper (so, four days ago), word spread of RMIT’s intention to close its library school and teach out its courses. The status of information studies at Monash University hangs by a thread. Both universities have been hard hit by the aftereffects of the coronavirus pandemic, including the collapse of international student income and the ineligibility of public higher education institutions for jobkeeper. And that’s even after the massive fee hikes to HECS-eligible humanities and social sciences courses, which includes librarianship (but not teacher librarianship, which is classed as education).
Without RMIT, there would remain just four universities offering library degrees in Australia: Curtin, Monash, UniSA, and Charles Sturt. Curtin has already cut its undergraduate LIS courses. Monash could be on the way out altogether. UniSA is a bit of a dark horse. And Charles Sturt, while by far the largest library school in Australia, is not immune from cost and enrolment pressures.
The discussion paper notes wryly on page 12:
ALIA’s priority has been, and continues to be, supporting our accredited courses. However, it would be negligent for the sector not to consider a ‘Plan B’ in the event of the university system failing us.
Through little fault of its own, the university system is clearly already failing the Australian library and information sector. The time for Plan B is now. Automatically enrolling ALIA members into the PD Scheme does not go far enough. It’s time for ALIA to move to an accreditation model that better recognises, and does justice to, the diversity of educational and life experience among Australian library professionals. It would mean a bit more work for ALIA, yes, but I’d like to think it would make ALIA professional membership a more attractive and meaningful option. Let’s make ALIA Associate status more widely available to graduate library workers across disciplines, by providing an equal pathway to professional recognition that won’t break the bank.
It’s worth mentioning that I had zero library experience when I began my MIS—which I hear is not uncommon—so my first impression of library work was in the (virtual) classroom. ↩
It occurred to me during a recent performance discussion that it’s not always obvious what I spend my time doing, both inside and outside the office. Thankfully my boss wasn’t accusing me of being a slacker (far from it!) but I did realise that maybe I need to talk about some of my library extracurriculars a bit more. There’s the library work I get paid to do, then there’s the library work I do in my spare time, and then there’s the library work I wish I could do but don’t have time for. This is sounding familiar, isn’t it?
A lot of what I do could probably be characterised as ‘hope labour’, a term I recently encountered at the other New Librarians’ Symposium (the one in the States):
“Hope Labour” is premised on the logic of ~invest in yourself and it will pay off~, often aligned with precarious work in libraries. Hope labour takes shape of extra-curricular committee work, continuing education, and pro-bono writing all on your own dime. #newlibsymp19
By doing oodles of extra professional development, one hopes that this labour will demonstrate one’s passion, commitment and skill, and therefore organisations will be more likely to hire people who have done this labour. That’s the idea, anyway. I mean, years of being a notorious twitter personality has opened a lot of doors, but writing this blog has surely helped too. Plus being on committees and doing loads of professional reading, compiling and presenting workshops, doing conference talks… I’m tired just thinking about it.
I did all of those things because I wanted to, not because I felt obliged. Most of me was simply excited to learn things and immerse myself in the library profession, like any enthusiastic new library worker. But I’m sure deep down I also thought all this hope labour would give me a competitive advantage. Ours is not exactly a growth industry, and my little metadata niche is shrinking even as the need for quality metadata is growing. I work with many people who more or less fell into library work, and decades ago you could do that. But not any more. Before I could convince employers to hire me, I would need to first demonstrate that the kinds of jobs I wanted should exist at all.
Last month I was successful in gaining a permanent position at work. (Yay!) The divisional email that went out cited both my achievements at work and my commitment to the profession as some of the reasons why I got the job. Part of me is relieved that my hope labour has paid off, but another part of me resents that it was seemingly necessary (and I wonder if other applicants felt the same way). After all, being able to do all these extracurriculars is a privilege. I have the time, energy, disposable income and absence of other commitments to be able to do all these things. My hard work has been richly rewarded; not everyone’s hard work is recognised in this way. I also put a lot of pressure on myself, which is great for my productivity but probably not so great for the rest of me.
Having said all that: I enjoy the extracurricular stuff I do. I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise. And I hope that being permanently employed will relieve some of that constant pressure to Be The Best Possible Candidate and enable me to focus my energies on what I find interesting, not just what I think will get me a job.
In no particular order, because it’s hard to explain all this to my boss, and because some of you might find it interesting, here are a few of those things:
VALA Committee: In late June I was elected to the VALA Committee for a two-year term. VALA (previously the Victorian Association for Library Automation) is ‘an independent Australian based not-for-profit organisation that actively supports the use and understanding of information technology in libraries and the GLAM sector’ according to our website. VALA is known mostly for its biennial Conference, which is coming up in February next year. I was heavily involved in VALA Tech Camp earlier this year and decided, after some encouragement, to contribute to the organisation in a more strategic capacity. Though I don’t have an IT background, my job does involve a lot of technical stuff, and I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I can be a technical professional even though I can’t code (but that’s probably a topic for another post). I’m looking forward to bringing my, uh, idiosyncratic perspective on library technology to the Committee.
Cataloging Ethics Committee, Resource Discovery and Accessibility Working Group: Back in April a call went out on several cataloguing listservs (none of which I regularly read, because life’s too short) for people interested in formulating a Code of Ethics for cataloguers, in response to a clear need for ethical guidance in this work. The Steering Committee is a joint project of the American, British and Canadian cataloguing associations (whose full names are too long to include here), but despite not being from any of those countries I was happily accepted into a working group anyway. Along with a dozen or so people from around the world, I’ll be working on ethical guidance for ‘descriptive cataloging and types of materials catalogers deal with regularly as well as data interoperability’. Ethical decision-making comes up regularly in areas like authority control, classification and subject headings (and there are working groups for those too) but ethical descriptive cataloguing is not something I had given a lot of thought to, so excitingly that will change very soon! Our final report to the Steering Committee is due in November, with published guidance sometime next year. Though I joined the group in a personal capacity, I’m hoping this work is something ALIA and/or ACORD will take an interest in.
ALIA Community on Resource Description: Okay, so I’m not actually on this committee (and nor have I written my EOI yet, eek), but I hope to be! And you could be too, because EOIs for ACORD Committee are now open! Replacing the Australian Committee on Cataloguing (ACOC), this new community is open for all to join, and will consist of both a formal Committee and an informal Special Interest Group. I mentioned this group at the end of my NLS9 presentation as ‘a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all’. You don’t have to be working as a cataloguer. You don’t even need to be an ALIA member. But you do need to have an interest in metadata. I hope I piqued some of that interest at NLS9—here’s your chance to make things happen.
ACTive ALIA: The committee for Canberra’s local ALIA group (trust me, the name wasn’t my idea) currently consists of me and this bloke, who is also on too many other committees so we get along great. Canberra is a weird place to run an ALIA group because all the individual sectors here seem to want to do their own thing, so it’s harder to bring everyone together for some cross-sector networking. It’s also hard getting people to turn up, though that problem is definitely not unique to us. I’m hoping to help make some cool things happen later this year, but if you’ve got better ideas, feel free to drop us a line.
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.
Hello Twitter! Doing my own PR is hard. Excited to start following others in the library and info. science field! But first, a pot of tea.
(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.
Most days I get enough sleep, eat a reasonable breakfast, get to work on time, look and feel on the surface like I’m awake, but it’s only a shell. It’s been a tough year. I’ve started a new job, I’ve been sick a lot, and I still can’t stop saying ‘yes’ to things.
When I’m in the right headspace, everything is doable, and I proudly tell people that I’d love to get things done for them. But when I’m in the wrong headspace, everything feels insurmountable, and I don’t want to tell people that because it makes me look like a fraud. I have little to no control over what headspace I wake up in on any given day. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is.
I have a lot on my plate at the moment. Most of it is library-related. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t talk about everything I’ve volunteered my time for, but I’m on a few LIS committees, I have three (!) conference / PD event presentations scheduled in the first half of next year, I do a lot of cataloguing reading and research, and I participate in a couple of miscellaneous LIS projects. I say this not to boast, nor to complain, but rather as an illustration of what happens when I say ‘yes’ to everything, because I’m still a little stunned that people ask me to do anything at all.
The problem is that whenever I look at my never-ending to-do list, my short-circuiting brain misinterprets ‘these are things you need to do’ as ‘these are things you need to do RIGHT NOW’. Consequently I panic a lot about how much I haven’t done. The problem is, as usual, a lack of temporal perspective. Some of the things aren’t due for another six months. They can wait. Other things are due last week, so they need more urgent attention.
me: I have so many things I want to do and so much on my plate and an endless stream of ideas, goals and projects
also me: I spend one day every weekend in bed because I’m too exhausted to get up
Did I mention how much I love what I do? I mean this sincerely. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing with my life. But I’m beginning to reach some hard limits on how much I can achieve as an individual. I resent these limits (because who doesn’t want to do all the things?!) while recognising that they are necessary (because we can’t do any of the things if we’re completely exhausted).
Shira Peltzman shared this wonderful flowchart with me, outlining how she decides whether to say yes or no to a professional opportunity. I’ve found it really helpful in evaluating all the things I’ve recently said ‘yes’ to, and whether I should perhaps have made other decisions. The flowchart is also Creative Commons-licensed so you can print it out and stick it next to your desk. Note that most of the arrows point to saying ‘no’. I think I’ll be referring to this flowchart a lot.
There’s a great Mastodon bot called Wollstonecraft BOM, a weather bot for a Sydney suburb I have never been to. Every few hours it spits out some weather data and a forecast, but it also includes a lovely little platitude at the end as a mood-booster, and I follow the account purely for this reason. While I was drafting this post a week ago it said to me, ‘You’re doing the best you can, and good people know it.’ I try to remind myself of this a lot, that I am doing the best I can, even if some days that best is not very good.
Part of me wanted to spike this blog post, that being tired isn’t a good look, professionally. But I want to talk about this stuff. It’s important that we aren’t all hiding behind veneers of perfection, telling the world we have it together while over-caffeinating ourselves into oblivion1, because not talking about being tired is part of how we all became tired in the first place. By admitting our exhaustion, we recognise that things aren’t quite right, and we begin the difficult process of balancing ourselves.
Recently I was made an offer. Quite a good offer. And my response, after considerable thought, was ‘Yes… but’. I never used to ask for concessions or amendments, and I’m not a natural negotiator, but reaching hard limits necessarily entails making sure I don’t exceed them. I’m a little impressed with myself, and very grateful that the offerer was prepared to accommodate me.
I’m still tired, but now I’m looking forward to next year because of all the things I’ve said ‘yes’ to, not in spite of them. I hope this means I’ll find myself in better headspaces, where more good things can happen. 🙂
I was recently forced to give up caffeine cold-turkey for medical reasons. I miss Lady Grey tea really quite a lot, but I think not being able to push myself beyond my natural limits has actually helped me recalibrate. This is a personal view. Your mileage may vary. ↩
This month, the denizens of GLAM Blog Club are asked to consider the strange. I should find this easy. I’ve built a career on cataloguing the strange things. But these days, I am a stranger to myself. Two months ago I had a nervous breakdown in the service of cataloguing. I’ve been unwell and in pain ever since, and modern medicine has few answers. I’m no longer in crisis, but I’m still not the cataloguer I used to be. I resent the circumstances that brought me here. What happened to good health and good spirits? Why isn’t the metadata mojo back yet? I don’t understand.
It’s so strange. And so frustrating.
I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
It’s difficult to inhabit this cloak of self because it used to be skin-tight. I radiated cataloguing enthusiasm, online and off. It came so naturally. It was awesome. These days it’s harder. I speak cataloguing fluently, but the words feel wooden, like someone else’s false teeth. It’s strange to feel this way. It’s not the natural order of things. Sometimes people talk to my old self, not knowing she’s a stranger to me now, and it stings in many places. It feels like a betrayal of those who follow my work, but I’ve been firmly told that it’s not, so I try to believe them. Can’t shake the shadow of false advertising.
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
And yet all things must surely pass. What was once strange becomes normal, even valued. I’d like to think that two years of Cataloguing the Universe have swayed a few minds on the nature and value of library metadata, and shined a light on our (often invisible) labour. Most librarians probably still think cataloguing is a strange, dull thing performed by strange, dull people. That’s okay. At least now there’s a small corpus of posts on this blog that suggest otherwise, if they’re interested.
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
Sometimes I feel a spark. On a path, in a pub, on the twitters. A spark of what I used to be, and what I might become. Putting the cloak back on and hoping I’ve grown to fit it. Accepting temporal realities while hoping to create others. Waving at my old self, though she’ll never wave back. Turning and facing the strange.
This week I plan to wear all my library-themed items of clothing to work. It’s at once a piece of 650 #0 $a Performance art, an excuse to show off 650 #0 $a Librarians $x Clothing, an attempt to change 650 #0 $a Catalogers $x Public opinion and a way to improve 600 00 $a Alissa $g (@lissertations) $x Health.1 It’s probably strange to even own library-themed t-shirts. It’s undoubtedly stranger to describe them using Library of Congress Subject Headings.
It comes so naturally. Why isn’t it real?
(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
One day I will accept that the old me isn’t coming back. There might be a new and improved me in the future, who has recovered from ill-health and is ready to forge a new path. Someone who can draw on her experiences to create meaningful and long-lasting cataloguing reform. Someone who knows her limitations, and is prepared to do less for a time, if it means doing better later.
That person is also a stranger. I can’t wait for us to meet.
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time
This is not my actual authorised access point. But I wish it were. ↩
It has been a very difficult couple of weeks. I have not been my usual self. I can blame cataloguing for most of it. I could also partly blame #APLIC18, the recent tripartite LIS conference on the Gold Coast, which a lot of my friends attended and which stoked a serious case of epic fomo. But that’s very much a background issue. It’s taken me a while to process everything that’s gone on and try to find a more well-lit path. I’m aware half the office reads this blog, but at the same time, there’s nothing here I wouldn’t say to my boss. So here goes.
I am not my work. Any more. Last week was quite bad. I had an unexpected encounter with traumatic and poorly-phrased LCSH, which I am looking to change. I was also very ill, both physically and mentally, and spent a lot of time in bed. I have struggled recently with a sudden and severe change in my relationship to my work, as well as how I approach cataloguing, because cataloguing is my life, and also my job. I found it harder to enjoy. I had trouble getting up in the morning. I felt my perspective narrowing. I leaned very heavily on friends for support. Last Wednesday, I hit the wall. And the wall collapsed on top of me.
I know, intellectually, that it isn’t healthy to derive so much personal fulfilment and meaning from one’s work. And yet I do it anyway, because I have learned this about myself, that I operate this way. I used to love cataloguing. Used to. I don’t love it, currently. It grieves me that I say this. I hate that I have become this person.
I now speak about my passion for cataloguing in the past tense, and it kills me.
I would like the old me to come back. I think it could happen. Perhaps it is already starting to happen, a little. I don’t know how long it might take (days? weeks? months?) or how it might come about. But I would like to try and rekindle my love of cataloguing, because without it I don’t recognise myself. I feel hollow and without purpose. It’s a hole that my other interests can’t quite fill.
Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have learned a lot about myself over the past few weeks. I had previously thought I was okay at cataloguing, having more or less staked my career on it. I recently received a lot of feedback that suggested otherwise. I looked for a sign that I was doing something (anything!) right, that I was not completely hopeless at what I thought I was good at. A sign did not appear. I worried that I had somehow lied to everyone. It was imposter syndrome writ large.
Most people will read this and say ‘honestly, Alissa, what did you expect? What did you think cataloguing entailed? It’s standards all the way down’. I am not a hardcore standards enforcer and I never have been. My perspective on cataloguing is informed by user needs. What do users need from our catalogue? What metadata will connect an item with a search string? How can we best describe items (especially non-online resources) in meaningful and accessible ways? I believe breaking rules makes records better. I also don’t care about a lot of things that other cataloguers care deeply about, like ISBD punctuation, a perfect set of fixed fields, or the exact phrasing of where a title statement has come from (‘Title from cover’, not ‘Cover title’, apparently!). A catalogue should only ever be a glorified finding aid. It does not need to be a work of art in its own right.
Obviously I would like to be a better cataloguer. I would also like to go to work and feel as if I can do something right. It has been immensely difficult reconciling this poor feedback with my previous estimations of my cataloguing ability, and by extension my estimations of myself as a person. To be fair, most of my errors are of the cosmetic variety, or relate to institution-specific policies that are new to me, rather than deeper systemic problems with access points and descriptions. But a perfectly standards-compliant record can also be functionally useless, and a colossal waste of a cataloguer’s time to produce. I still take my errors to heart. It took me three weeks to get a record past the quality checker. I will never be perfect. I should probably stop trying to be perfect.
It has been a hard lesson, though.
Invite yourself to the party. In an effort to ameliorate said conference fomo and improve my mood, I started a hashtag on twitter for those of us who couldn’t attend APLIC but wanted to be involved anyway. #APLICLeftBehind became a meeting point for people keen to have their say, while also serving as a useful heads-up to attendees that we were commentating from afar. I loved that non-attendees from all sorts of places popped in and kept it going, even when I wasn’t in a position to say much. The hashtag will even be making an appearance in the forthcoming (entirely unofficial) APLIC zine, curated by Rebel GLAM. And it didn’t cost me a cent.
I have nothing to lose but my chains. They say libraries gave us power, but then work came and made us free. Many of us become librarians because we want to make a difference, to give back to our communities, to enrich the intellectual and social lives of library users everywere. Librarianship is heavy with ideology, tradition and dogma, and it weighs us down. I don’t think I expected to spend so much of my professional time a) navel-gazing b) fighting the man or c) thinking quite seriously about giving it all away. I certainly never expected I would lose my passion for cataloguing so quickly, and so severely.
I’m at the stage where I can catalogue more or less on autopilot (allowing for time to go back and correct my inevitable punctuation errors). I don’t want to be this person. I want to care deeply about my work. I want to fill my cataloguing with care and zest and a desire to do better. I don’t want to be crying while reading my old posts and tweets, remembering the cataloguer I used to be, and wondering where that went. If I can rekindle the passion for metadata that got me here—and right now that is a big if—I hope to free myself as much as possible from the expectations of other people and structures, and devote my energies to where I can get things done. It’s almost as if the structure and nature of librarianship sets us all up to fail, and that if we don’t realise this, we’re not paying enough attention.
People tell me I am more than my cataloguing. They’re not letting me fail. I wish I could repay this faith, but right now all I can offer is my gratitude. I don’t want to perpetuate a charade. I can’t keep pretending that everything is fine. I am not the cataloguer I used to be. But maybe, one day, I will be a better cataloguer. And I will have learned a few things.
I’ve done a lot of talking over the last couple of weeks. So much, in fact, that I have been richly rewarded with a persistent hacking cough and the subsequent loss of half my vocal range. (It’s put a serious dent in my karaoke plans.) A lot has gone into helping me find my voice, learning when and how to deploy it, knowing when to stop talking, and realising my limits. A lot went into losing my voice, too.
Joining the fishpond
As you may already have heard, I was the featured guest on episode 18 of the Turbitt & Duck podcast, hosted by dynamic library duo Sally Turbitt and Amy Walduck. You may remember Sally and Amy as the NLS8 co-convenors, who have decided to use their powers for good and amplify a range of GLAM voices via their fortnightly podcast. Sally asked me at #coGLAM18 if I was interested in being on the show, and I said yes on the condition that I didn’t have to provide a photo of my face…
I love how so far nobody has batted an eyelid about the fact I look like a fried egg with a face drawn on in tomato sauce. ?? https://t.co/TxgrPvtRx8
Inexplicably, the episode has been getting rave reviews! I’m thrilled that people seem to have genuinely enjoyed spending an hour and 15 minutes listening to me talk about cataloguing—it’s a subject not usually renowed for attracting people’s attention. I also enjoyed making ‘Bibliographic Data Wizard’ a thing. I think I need it on a t-shirt. Or my email signature.
Despite my cheerful and engaged exterior, I was extremely anxious during recording. Making this podcast was one of the most stressful things I have ever done. This is through absolutely no fault of Sally and Amy’s, who went out of their way to help me feel comfortable and reassured, and who could tell I was a long way out of my comfort zone. The episode you’re listening to is actually the second take—it got so bad I asked to pause the recording after a good half-hour of talking, and we agreed to start over. Getting through recording took a long time and was incredibly draining. (I don’t know how Sally and Amy do this every fortnight—they have souls of steel!) I’m not sure how I sound on the podcast, not being a reliable judge of my own voice, but if I sound stressed or nervous or jittery, it’s because I am. Outreach doesn’t come naturally to me, but here I am doing it anyway. I’m glad I did the podcast, and I’m hugely grateful to Sally and Amy for the opportunity (and for your support!), but I’m not sure I could record another one for a long while.
I also want to reiterate the advice I gave to students and new graduates about using your voices for good. Never be afraid to speak up. Speak up and out and loudly, because you are the future. Talk about what doesn’t make sense. Talk about things in libraries you think are weird, or old, or strange, or stupid, because without your input, more experienced practitioners often won’t realise there is a problem at all. For better or worse, they rely on people speaking up. If speaking out loud is as hard for you as it is for me, hop on twitter, set up a blog, join some library facebook groups. Don’t keep your opinions to yourself—let them out, nurture them, help them grow.
Talking out loud
A couple of months ago I was, erm, volunteered into giving a talk at my (now former) workplace about using web archives for reference queries, based on a blog post I wrote on the subject. I must admit I wasn’t wild about the idea but resolved to do it anyway, largely because invites had already been sent out, and also because I figured I wouldn’t get better at stuff I don’t practise.
True to form, I asked the internet for help. I was blown away by the quantity and quality of advice I received on effective public speaking and the calming of nerves—your suggestions made a big difference, and I am truly grateful. 🙂 Open up the thread below and have a read. I thoroughly recommend it.
Twitter, how do you give talks and speeches without having a panic attack? I need your wisdom and guidance. Tell me your secrets!!
It didn’t stop me being super nervous on the day of the presentation, though. My colleague was gracious enough to admit that if she’d realised how anxious I would be about presenting, she might have reconsidered volunteering me for it, but she did take care of the IT and the room booking and getting people to show up (she’s quite good at that). I’m sure I spoke too fast and looked very nervous, but the attendees seemed to enjoy the talk, and a couple of people asked for the slides afterwards. I even managed a small web archive hiccup with a well-timed ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ screenshot. #smooth
Overall, while I’m glad the presentation went well, the idea of public speaking wasn’t something I was keen to repeat. So what did I do? Submitted an abstract for a big fancy conference. I was encouraged to do this by well-meaning people on twitter, even as I felt I wasn’t quite ready, that the conference wasn’t a good fit for me, that my proposal was shallow and ill-considered. I went ahead and submitted.
I withdrew from this conference last week. I had come to realise that between the web archives talk and the podcast recording, public speaking or presenting of any kind was, for the moment, beyond my capabilities. And the podcast wasn’t even that public. I recorded Turbitt & Duck in my dressing gown, in my house, with a pot of tea and two very supportive ladies for company. On paper it couldn’t have been more comfy. But other people can only do so much to help me overcome my nerves. At root it’s a me problem. It’s my own personal inability to cope with suddenly having an audience listening to my every word, probably livetweeting it, being on the spot and needing to instantly have an answer. I can’t do it. It is beyond me. So, for the moment, I’m quitting while I’m ahead.
Having said all that: my next big professional goal is to present at NLS9, on a topic close to my heart. It’ll be a friendly and supportive audience. I’ve already got half the talk written. I am super motivated to make this happen, and it’s far enough away that I’m hopeful of conquering my fear of professional public speaking beforehand. If I don’t succeed… well, there’s always twitter. Or tranquilliser.
This morning, as I was getting off the bus and into the rain, I tweeted about the first day of my professional placement. This tweet turned into a giant thread about the nature of work experience within LIS, whether placements should be compulsory and/or paid, and the difficulties inherent in taking time off paid work or other responsibilities. I am slightly stunned by the response it got. I hope this doesn’t make me some kind of influencer. :/
You might have to click on a few different tweets to see all the responses. I was typing on my phone and so was slower to respond. Plus I was, yanno, doing a placement. I’m concerned that some of my thoughts on the topic may have been buried or misinterpreted, so here is a very quick overview. I also want to make very clear that my views on this topic are, as always, my own. They are definitely not those of my former employer, my placement host, my future employer or my uni.
In short: I have no issue with work experience or professional placements. I fully appreciate that for many LIS students, a placement may be the only practical experience they get before they graduate. Placements can lead to great networking or job opportunities, and we all know how hard entry-level jobs are to find these days. Plus with so many of us studying online (me included), every little bit of library experience helps. Many students find their placements to be enriching and rewarding experiences that allow them to apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical setting.
I do have an issue with unpaid placements—if they are unpaid, they should not be compulsory. Being a student is financially precarious enough as it is. By forcing students to attend unpaid work experience, we are implicitly sending the message that their labour is worth nothing. That in order to be professionally recognised and accredited, they need to have invested their time, energy and enthusiasm in a host organisation that couldn’t even be bothered paying them. That they ought to have enough funds from somewhere else to support themselves, and that if they don’t, they’re not welcome here. This kind of attitude only further entrenches the class inequality within LIS. The payment wouldn’t have to be much—even a small stipend would help immensely. Something to take the sting out of that fortnight’s rent.
In addition, being on placement should not be an excuse for the host organisation to use the student as free labour doing the crappy jobs. I am fortunate that this is not the case for me. I am doing my placement in a well-regarded institution, doing some interesting stuff. I also had to quit my job in order to do it. I am sandwiching my placement in between short-term contracts; scheduling has been very difficult for me, and I don’t even have children or caring responsibilities (it must be ten times harder for those who do!). I am also fortunate to have good finances, a second job, and a week’s worth of annual leave payout. Plenty of students don’t have this to fall back on.
The issue of who would pay a placement stipend is a tricky one. I believe organisations who take placement students should consider a stipend part of the cost of doing business. After all, most hosts are already investing staff time (ergo money) in training the student and showing them the ropes. The flipside, of course, is that places that can’t afford to pay students will simply stop offering placements, and only the richest libraries will take students. I’m not convinced. I think they would find a way—after all, students are going to be running this profession one day, and wouldn’t you want to make sure you taught them the right things?
I’m glad that we’re talking about unpaid placements. I hope that our conversations today might be a catalyst, however small, for some reform in this area. Professional placements are not, strictly speaking, work—but they prepare students for the world of work in LIS. And they are worth paying for.
On this we agree. 🙂 I would like to spend some time thinking of a potential viable model. But at the end of the day, if students can’t afford to do pracs they won’t study. Demographically speaking, they’re the students we can least afford to lose.
Today was my workplace’s annual soup day. It’s, uh, what it says on the tin—people bring in soup, bread rolls or other accompaniments, and eat them around a table. It’s apparently a long-running tradition. A moveable feast. It so happened to be freezing and rainy: perfect soup weather. My physical and mental health has been pretty bad this week and I’ve had a lot on my plate, so I was really looking forward to simple, filling fare that I didn’t have to cook. It became apparent that making soup myself would far exceed my available spoons, so I opted to bring cheese and crackers instead. I was determined to bring something. I am notorious for forgetting morning teas, and I’m not much of a cook.
The soups themselves were fantastic, with the sweet potato and chilli a highlight (and that’s not just because my boss made it). But I wanted to talk about what soup day represents. It’s a beautiful communal food-based midwinter gathering. The staffroom was too small so we moved out into the back of the library, a dingy, freezing room with compactuses on three sides staring us down. The ten or so of us, sitting along a table sharing soup and stories. Genial, free-flowing, hilarious conversation. Conviviality. Community. A cohesive whole. It’s the kind of social inclusion twitter just can’t provide. The kind of tight-knit workplace so many of us long for.
The kind of thing I know I will really miss.
As of today I’m officially off the payroll. I’ll be back next Monday. Elsewhere. It’s complicated. I have to squash a professional placement in between contracts so that I might finally graduate, so I’ll be hiding in document supply for the next three weeks. Law technical services has been very good to me, and I’ve been very happy here. I’ll really miss this place, these people, this work. I’d stay longer if I could.
But most of all I’ll miss soup day. I might have to take a little with me, to the next library… a few kilometres down the road.