Boss level

clump of mushrooms on a log

I spent all of last week trying to reflect on twelve months in this new job, in this new place, but I kept getting distracted by everything else going on. I have a lot of highly stressful things to deal with at the moment and my nervous system is absolutely shot to pieces but it’s like no! really! I promise I am happy here! Moving to Victoria is still the best thing I’ve ever done! I just would like things to stop happening to me please. I want the stability and quietude I came here for.

Strangely, for the most part, work is not one of those stressful things. My boss is retiring tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to working with my new interim boss, who also manages our discovery team. I feel like I’m achieving good things at work, like writing my first ever functioning Python script that wasn’t 100% cribbed from a tutorial (more like 85% cribbed from two tutorials, but hey! at least I understand what it does!) and overhauling our ebook and streaming media metadata management. I think I’m getting a bit better at this whole team leading thing? My team appear to not be completely miserable? People hide this sort of thing all the time though. Everyone has a lot on their plate.

I like working here. I like working somewhere that isn’t prestigious, because prestige is a scam, and I’ve learned the hard way that prestigious institutions often lean on that good name to justify treating their staff like crap. This place is largely unburdened by legacy and expectation, notwithstanding the fact we’re named after a notorious racist, and it employs people who punch above their weight and contribute a lot to the profession. I like that we aim high.

Clearly I don’t blog like I used to. I’m certainly a lot busier at work now, but I also have more institutional power and agency to do a little something about systemic problems. Public screaming has its uses but is also exhausting and corrosive. Turns out that if I speak with a normal inside voice, people still sometimes listen to me.

I sensed that I was likely to need more support this year so I signed up for the CAVAL Mentoring Program, this being the first year I’ve worked at a participating institution. My mentor has turned out to be an inspired match: she has the back-of-house library management experience that I requested, but also a lot of life experience that lately I’ve found deeply helpful.

She went to a lot of trouble last week to help me see myself in kinder ways. People often say to me ‘stop being so hard on yourself’ but I have no idea what that means, or how to do that, or why I would want to. My mentor didn’t say that. She affirmed that yes, I really have got a lot on my plate right now, and yes, it’s all a bit shit, and yes, being autistic without much practical support is an added layer of difficulty that most people don’t have. But she also pointed out to me that even as I hit roadblock after roadblock I’m still taking stock of where I might go next. I haven’t given up. I’m still figuring things out.

We also discussed how exhausting it is now to go to conferences, to simply sit in chairs and listen to people speak. I suggested that this feels particularly draining because not only are we expected to listen, but we must also be seen to be listening. It’s considered rude to fidget, or knit, or stare at the ceiling, or close one’s eyes, because most speakers would generally find this off-putting. We talked about this in a zoom call where she was knitting underneath the camera’s view and I kept the camera off entirely. I sat at my desk at home fidgeting with a pen and staring at the workmen tinkering with the gas mains out the front of my house. People at work have mostly stopped hassling me about turning my zoom camera on. I often think about how people say zoom meetings make it hard for them to read a room and receive implicit feedback from others. Being autistic means my whole life is like this.

Things are certainly better for me than they were twelve months ago but they are also always a lot. I hope we can all rest soon.

A metadata renaissance?

Lately I find myself donating many hours of my time to the ALIA Professional Pathways project, a multi-year effort to overhaul the education and accreditation of Australia’s library workers. I made a public submission to the initial stages of the project last year, commented privately on a draft version of the Frameworks Project Technical Report earlier this year (all 300+ pages of it!), attended a focus group a couple of weeks ago. The final version of the Technical Report was released this week, and includes this comment, attributed to me:

Concerns have long been expressed that the technical skills for cataloguers and metadata librarians are downplayed or even ignored by library educators and library managers (A. McCulloch, personal communication, January 16, 2022). [pages 32-33]

That paragraph includes assorted citations of competencies and skills frameworks for cataloguers and metadata librarians (contributed by yours truly), before going on to state that the rest of the Technical Report would discuss ‘selected frameworks pertaining to public libraries, academic and research libraries, health, legal and government library and information services’ as well as ‘staff working in school libraries, archives and records management’. So, not metadata librarians as a speciality, whose work often takes us across sectors.

I didn’t realise the report would cite me by name, and I worried about whether I had been too sharp in my feedback. But the last few weeks have demonstrated to me that I’m not wrong.


There is a huge disconnect between the core library skills and competencies outlined in reports like these—presumably informed by what library managers and educators say they want—and the skills and competencies that said managers are prepared to pay for and said educators are willing to teach. Sure, the Technical Report mentions metadata a fair few times, but largely in the context of related areas like research data management and digital humanities, rather than on-the-ground metadata work in libraries. Cataloguing was included in several core competencies lists for librarianship, but almost from muscle memory: a reflection of what libraries are ‘supposed’ to do, rather than what actually happens.

One of the people in my Professional Pathways focus group relayed a story about a pair of new graduates in their library service who had admitted that they didn’t know what metadata was and didn’t know how to catalogue. I think I responded with a surprise emoji, but truthfully it’s not that surprising. Elsewhere I had already anecdotally heard of many public library workers who have wound up with cataloguing duties but have chronically low levels of catalogue literacy. They don’t know enough about MARC to know what to do—and they know they don’t know—so they’re too scared to touch anything, and their data decays.

I know there’s only so much a university or TAFE institution can squeeze into a library course, and that our degree offerings are necessarily generalist owing to the small size of our sector, but these and other anecdata suggest that our current cataloguing education is insufficient. The Technical Report discusses the new BSB50520 Diploma of Library and Information Services training package, noting that ‘a group of detailed units relating to cataloguing activities have also been removed from the training package’ (page 210). It was hard to tell from the training.gov.au website what exactly had been removed; I could see only one unit of competency expressly relating to cataloguing in the new package, rather than two in the old. Either way, whittling down the level of data and catalogue literacy required of new library technicians will only worsen these problems.

The standard course offerings at all three remaining Australian LIS schools (Curtin, CSU, UniSA) include an entry-level metadata subject and a specialist cataloguing subject. By comparison, the University of Washington lists no fewer than six metadata-related courses in its handbook (admittedly they’re a much bigger school). Other library schools have more expansive metadata curricula: University College London makes a point of including ‘radical cataloguing’ in its syllabus, while Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand’s only graduate library school, teaches its specialist cataloguing students how to apply Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku, Māori Subject Headings.

I’m not sure new library graduates in Australia would commonly know what MarcEdit is, or understand the principles of how an ILS handles MARC records, or appreciate how to appropriately use AIATSIS subject headings. I taught myself everything I know about critical cataloguing (and have taught many others in turn). Our education still focuses on traditional cataloguing at the record level, but critical appraisal and batch remediation of metadata are increasingly important aspects of our work. It might be time for a new lens.

I continue to worry about whether librarianship considers itself a ‘technical’ profession. My experience suggests that it doesn’t, even though I’ve worked in ‘technical services’ for most of my career. The Technical Report mentions the technology competencies listed in the 2014 WebJunction Competency index for the library field whereby anything beyond ‘using email and the internet’ is expected to be the IT department’s responsibility, describing systems librarians as an ‘accident’ that would only happen in small libraries. It’s inaccurate and insulting, but it betrays a more disturbing truth about how some parts of this sector conceptualise librarianship as being solely a ‘customer service’ profession, excluding core infrastructural work from this definition. In this model, ‘IT people’ look after systems, acquisitions work is outsourced to vendors selecting whatever fits a ‘profile’ and catalogue records are commodified, purchased, uploaded as a one-and-done process, and left to decay. None of these workers would be considered ‘librarians’ because their technical work is pushed outside the physical and ontological bounds of the library. It therefore becomes ‘not library work’.

Cataloguing has had to persistently prove its worth over the years like no other area of librarianship. At one point people tried victim-blaming cataloguers for the fact nobody liked them, but more recent studies note that all library workers have a role to play in improving communication about, and perceptions of, cataloguing work (this feels rather like the famed ‘double empathy problem’ in autism studies). My work inhabits a third space, client-focused though not client-facing, deeply technical yet deeply personal. Metadata forms the nexus between a person and a resource, mediated through data and ontologies and systems, sometimes guided by a library worker but usually ‘discovered’ by users themselves. Encoding this knowledge is skilled, technical work. I know by now not to presume that such data curation is self-evidently important.

The Technical Report discusses ‘skills for future professional practice’ at considerable length—digital curation, data librarianship, digital humanities librarianship, information governance, et cetera—but they’re really future areas of practice underpinned by a solid foundation of technical skills, including (meta)data creation and maintenance, ontologies, data literacy, data ethics, database design and related systems architecture. Precisely the kinds of skills that cataloguers and metadata librarians ALREADY HAVE. The areas of practice listed in the Report appear to be more about building the next new shiny thing than about maintaining the umpteen broken shiny things that came before it, especially when this maintenance is already thinly resourced. For years it’s been fashionable to shit on cataloguers, and now you’re telling me that our skills are the future of librarianship? People sure do have a funny way of showing their appreciation.


And yet: am I wrong, now? Are things really, finally, slowly, starting to change? The success (ish) of the long-running campaign to Change the Subject and remove the term ‘Illegal aliens’ from the Library of Congress Subject Headings has fiercely demonstrated that cataloguing is power—and that libraries have the power to take matters into their own hands and use local headings when LCSH is no longer up to the task. Suddenly critical cataloguing is the hottest new library trend. Except now it’s been rebranded as ‘inclusive cataloguing’ or ‘reparative description’.

Institutions are hurriedly declaring their intentions to ‘decolonise the catalogue’ (a near-impossible task, given that Indigenous societies have not historically organised their knowledge this way) and are championing efforts to improve the description of First Nations materials. Adding AUSTLANG codes and AIATSIS subject headings is a part of this process, but the real work is in reframing descriptive elements of a catalogue record from a First Nations perspective, adding content warnings or explanatory notes, Traditional Knowledge Labels or keywords for First Nations concepts.

Other archaic or questionable Library of Congress Subject Headings, such as ‘Sexual minorities’ to describe the queer community or ‘East Indians’ to describe people from India (as opposed to ‘Indians’, which pejoratively describes Native Americans), could be replaced with terms from alternative vocabularies like Homosaurus, or with local headings. Edith Cowan University’s 2021 Library of the Future report includes as a priority ‘Update outdated or discriminatory cataloguing (i.e LGBTIQA+, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander)’ and Deakin University Library’s 2022 Strategic Plan includes a goal to enhance metadata with AUSTLANG codes and AIATSIS subject headings.1

Librarians increasingly recognise that our work is not neutral, that we imbue our values and ethics into all areas of professional practice, and that we make active decisions in favour of certain things and against others. This includes metadata. It means training and educating library workers at all levels to make the best decisions for their collections. We don’t all have to be hardcore cataloguers, just as we don’t all have to be maestros of children’s storytime. But our profession needs—and our communities deserve—a higher baseline of catalogue and metadata literacy.

I admit I felt a great sense of unease upon finishing the draft Technical Report. I struggled to see myself and my work reflected in Professional Pathways, to the point where I wondered whether I ought to join DAMA instead. I said all this to the project team, who graciously took my sternly-worded feedback on board. But the Technical Report is notable to me for what it didn’t say. Still I worry about our profession’s history and its deep-seated biases against cataloguers and cataloguing, that there remain people who still don’t think of what we do as real, core library work, who forget that yes, this is still a thing. I desperately want to be wrong about this. It really does feel like we are on the cusp of a metadata renaissance. But I can’t forget what led us here.


  1. Possibly as a result of this accidental speech

Making up for lost time

The time between Christmas and New Year’s traditionally goes a bit wonky. Routines and schedules are discarded, it’s totally fine to wear your pyjamas all day, people start to forget what day it is. Hang on, is it not March 2020 any more?

Everyone seems pretty miserable at the end of this year. Covid prevalence is high and consumer confidence is low. Governments the world over have largely stopped prioritising the people’s welfare above the drivers of capitalist greed. We were always already on our own, but now it’s official. Staying apart didn’t much keep us together, did it? I have a lot of experience being miserable (and worse), so you’d think I’d be helping myself to an extra serve of gloom.

Except… I am happy instead. It’s been a large year, and a dream come true.

In June I uprooted my entire life and moved to regional Victoria, taking on the role of metadata team leader within an academic library. I went up two or three pay grades in one hit (depending on how you count them) and had to very quickly learn how to manage a team, remotely, during assorted lockdowns, doing work that ideally would have been automated several years ago. I’m not a natural manager, and this was very hard work. I was technically ‘of no fixed address’ for several weeks, living in a student residence with overactive smoke alarms, before moving into a delightful little cottage that I’m slowly filling with houseplants.

My six-month stint as a systems librarian has turned out to be incredibly useful in my current metadata role. To an extent systems work and metadata work are two sides of the same coin; systems shape how (meta)data is recorded, but metadata shapes how systems are used. Interestingly, a lot of the work done by the metadata team here was done by the systems team (ie. by me) at my old job (batch MARC uploads, Serials Solutions updates, global updates etc). I think this is partly because Sierra has much more robust capabilities in this area than Voyager, and partly because my team are trusted (and paid) to not break the database.

I inherited quite a lot of ‘this is how we do things, they’re different to how everyone else does things, we’re special’ processes. I don’t doubt these workflows were genuinely innovative about fifteen years ago. My section’s ingrained philosophies of data quality are really quite fascinating. I just don’t agree with them, or feel that these manual workarounds are necessary. Delightfully, my fellow team leader agrees, and the two of us have been working on a large project to overhaul our metadata sources and structures. It turns out she and I have highly complementary skillsets: I write the talks and she does the talking. We’ve been getting rave reviews from our director and the University Librarian. I can’t tell you what an incredible thrill it is to get that kind of positive feedback and institutional support from senior management. I want everyone to experience this.

My position had been vacant for eighteen months before I joined, thanks to an ill-timed departure, a subsequent pandemic hiring freeze and multiple attempts at recruitment. The team had been largely running on autopilot, and I think some of the wider library had forgotten what a metadata team leader is, or should be. It’s been interesting getting a sense of what other people think my job is. I look forward to re-envisioning metadata work, implementing some long-overdue structural change before taking a closer look at how we can radically improve our corpus, while working closely with other areas to make our data work for them.


Because my paid library work now takes up 120% of my brain, my unpaid library work has taken a backseat. I only wrote a handful of blog posts, as GLAM Blog Club wound up due to lack of interest, and my attention was very much elsewhere. I think the biggest-impact post was probably ‘Libraries are for everyone! Except if you’re autistic’, which I wrote in February after a run-in with some awful library directors (one of whom I used to work for). If they think managing neurodiverse library workers is hard, they should try being one! Being an autistic team leader is even harder! I came across the anonymous blog Managing Whilst Autistic on my travels, which I’m hoping will uncover more advice on how to harness my strengths.

I also didn’t do any talks this year! Woohoo! Unless you count the impromptu talk to the entire library about ditching Dewey, oops. I think the bolded line on my About page stating ‘Please don’t ask me to do talks’ might have had something to do with it. It was great not being stressed about upcoming public speaking. Written pieces are more my thing. I also finished up on the VALA Committee after two years of contributing practically nothing (in my defence, I was very unwell for almost all of that time) and continued as Information Officer for ACORD, the ALIA Community on Resource Description.

I continued my streak of not finishing a single book this year (whatever! I’ve been busy) but I did start several excellent books, including The Flip by Jeffrey J. Kripal (seriously, read this book) and Anchored by Deb Dana. I also positively inhaled the ABC series Back to Nature, ostensibly about the great Australian outdoors, but really about the deep and continuing history of this continent, guided by First Nations land-carers.

So many of us have experienced close personal loss this year. I keep forgetting that this technically includes me: my estranged father died suddenly at the end of July, aged fifty-nine, apparently from a heart attack. I felt many complex things upon learning of his death, but sadness was not one of them. I felt angry, happy, resentful, bitter. Mostly I felt deeply liberated. I’m glad he’s dead. People don’t really know how to respond to that.

This year has been a lot but it’s also been the happiest year of my life. I am doing so much better here, closer to friends, in a healthier and more secure environment, with a more helpful therapist, hundreds of kilometres away from everything that sought to destroy me. I am acutely aware that most people have not been nearly as fortunate as I have. I feel like it’s becoming almost impolite to talk about how well I am now, in the face of so much misery and suffering and institutional indifference. Hundreds of people at MPOW lost their jobs this year. Everyone in Victoria has spent months in lockdown. We are all traumatised. We are all over it.

And yet… I have learned to focus on what I can control. I can enjoy my job, and my houseplants, and the sunshine. I can be a hermit in paradise. I can actively choose not to mask my autistic traits (it turns out). I don’t have to contort myself into something I think other people will like and fail miserably. I don’t have to read the news every day (it’s always the same news, but it’s also the wrong news, distracting us from the real crises).

My goals for the last few years have been along the lines of ‘try not to die’ and ‘go outside more’. I’m comfortable ticking those things off my list now, but I’m not yet sure what my new goals will be. Perhaps maintaining what I already have can be a goal in itself. It’s okay to make up for lost time.

Under new management

‘Congratulations – three months have passed! Time to check in and reflect on how things have been going,’ chirped the automated email. I looked over to the taskbar calendar for confirmation. Seriously? Already? I swear I only just got here.

It has been a very large three months. I spent the first month living in a highrise student residence, an experience I had mercifully skipped during my undergraduate years. It got very old very quickly, especially when the fire alarm went off three times in 24 hours (2am, 2.30am and 6pm) and lockdown meant I was confined to an apartment with a revolving door of total strangers. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It was a place to stay, but not a place to live. Especially at my age.

I finally found a permanent place to live after weeks of furious searching, a lovely older place in a nice part of town. A bigger house than I really need, but my rental budget goes a lot further here, and I decided after years of existing in a crappy shoebox flat that I wanted to live somewhere nice. Especially if I was going to be home all day.

People around here are fancy, but friendly. Friends had promised to help me move in, but lockdown forced them to cancel. I need another pair of hands to put the bedframe together, so I’ve been sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I also don’t have anywhere for visitors to sit. Probably just as well there aren’t any.

I was warmly welcomed into my new job, a delightfully non-toxic environment where for the first time in my career I feel my role ticks all the right boxes. I have plenty to do, but also a lot more agency over how I do it. I have supportive colleagues and a library-wide culture of deep care, for each other as well as the service we provide. I don’t have time to be bored, or to muse about how I would do things differently. I’m too busy actually doing them.

Every day here is a learning experience. I’m learning a whole new library management system, which is great in some ways and frustrating in others, as well as new and better ways of sourcing, processing, loading and maintaining bibliographic records. Most importantly, I’m learning how to manage a team—and do so remotely. (It’s fucking hard.) I recently farewelled a team member after 35 years of devoted service. I’ve never met her in person.

I see another human being in the flesh once a fortnight, for a masked-and-distanced lunch in the park. She’s the only person I knew in greater Geelong before I moved here. I am thankful for her company. I wish it weren’t all I had.

Like so many others in Victoria I feel myself languishing, watching the days flick from one lockdown to the next, not daring to raise hope for when I might see my friends again—the friends I moved here to be closer to. For me the difference between lockdown and not-lockdown is one of small tradeoffs; I can pop into the office to use the photocopier, but shopkeepers harass me more often for papers proving I don’t live in Melbourne. They expect to see a driver’s licence, which I don’t have, so instead I now carry my lease agreement everywhere. It’s getting a bit tiresome.

Here I continue the reclusive life I moved interstate to escape. I’m very used to being a shut-in who doesn’t leave the house and whose friends all live elsewhere. It makes the present more tolerable in some ways, but it’s hardly the dream I had looked forward to for so long.

And yet I am the happiest I have ever been. Despite our current troubles (and those of the organisation I now work for), I have more to look forward to here. I feel more settled and ready to do good things. I am no longer routinely plagued by horrific anxiety—I really don’t miss that—and there is more sunshine and nice old houses to look at. Plus everything is cheaper here. Even therapy.

It’s good to be here.

The strangest dream

A cloudy sunset through rain-streaked glass, looking out over Geelong West from the eleventh floor of a high-rise student residence, July 2021. Photograph by the author

I walked into the fancy grocer’s the other day and heard the shop radio playing a familiar song. You know, the football song. ‘I followed orders / God knows where I’ve been / but I woke up alone / all my wounds were clean / I’m still here / And I’m still a fool for the Holy Grail.’ Guess I’d better learn how football works. It’s that kind of town.

It’s been a few weeks since I uprooted myself from the only city I’ve ever lived in, quit my job at a prestigious but thoroughly miserable institution, said goodbye to my family and acquaintances, relocated interstate, and took up a new position as the metadata team leader at a regional academic library. I am beyond exhausted. I have never worked so hard, been to so many meetings, been welcomed so warmly, read so much documentation, been paid so much money, forgotten so many mealtimes (oops). But I have also never once regretted coming here. Moving to Victoria is the best personal and professional decision I have ever made. I hoped it would be. It’s been a long time coming.

My new job is a rare breed: a specialist metadata librarian, leading a team of specialist metadata librarians. Our work has changed significantly in the last couple of decades as academic libraries pivot to e-resources, where boutique item-level cataloguing has been largely replaced by scaled-up data enhancements (I almost wrote ‘enchantments’ here, and look, we are data wizards). The library’s priorities neatly line up with my own: ethical and culturally safe resource description, bibliographic identity management and other forms of authority control, untangling knotty workflows and making the most of our labour. I love working somewhere that cares this much about data quality.

I can’t believe how nice everyone is here. It’s like the whole library is structurally lovely. The ghosts of past experience tell me that I will surely regret this comment, but there are a lot of people at MPOW who have been there for decades—not because they’re unemployable elsewhere, but because it’s a genuinely nice place to work. I’ve had pockets of niceness in other jobs (including the last one), but this really is the first time I’ve experienced such an entirely warm, friendly, welcoming, functional, healthy workplace, amplified by strong, transparent, accountable senior leadership. It’s unreal. It’s amazing. I can’t believe I’ve been missing this all my life.

Some bits are proving as challenging as I expected, particularly the whole team leading thing. I had never managed so much as a sausage sizzle before I started this job, plus it’s not like I came with a lot of people skills built-in. Some of you might be asking ‘But how did you get a supervisory role with no supervisory experience?!’ (and, honestly, same) but I do know that I was hired partly for my technical skill, and partly because I seemed like someone who could learn the other stuff and contribute positively to team culture. I’ve had enough bad managers to know I never want to be like them, but I also have lots of support from my boss, my peer mentor (never had one of those before, it’s great) and my team. I hope I can do okay.

(I was astonished to learn that this blog already featured in my team’s professional reading list on our wiki. Hi team!)

I know this job isn’t the Holy Grail and my vocational awe is probably showing, but it really does feel like I’m living a dream. I think it will feel more real once I find somewhere to live (surprisingly difficult!) and start delving more deeply into the long list of projects that have awaited my arrival. This position had been vacant for close to eighteen months throughout Covid and Victoria’s extended lockdowns. There’s a lot that could use my attention. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get my hands on this thing. I can’t believe I made it here. I can’t believe this is real.

Don’t dream it’s over; or, A return to cataloguing

A double rainbow joins the National Book Church™ and the National Science Temple™ against a backdrop of dark clouds, November 2018. Photograph by the author

A handful of Wednesdays ago I quit my job at a mildly prestigious library that shall remain nameless, after just over three years of employment. I wore my favourite cataloguing-themed t-shirt to work, bought one last book with my staff discount at the bookshop, and treated myself to a final helping of bain-marie slop at the cafeteria across the road. It still doesn’t seem entirely real that I’ve left. I still had so much to do.

The last six months have been the happiest and most fruitful of my entire career. I’ve absolutely loved being a systems librarian. I’ve had great fun crafting Access queries, running Perl scripts, devising Excel macros and more, while running complex data reports and conducting bulk data edits for business areas. I learned a heck of a lot about how data and systems work together (or not). But more than anything I’ve really loved my team. They’ve been wonderful people to work with, and I wish them every success.

I was a little surprised by how much time I spent saying ‘thank you’ during my last week. I’m not sure I expected to feel quite so grateful at the conclusion of my time there, but I guess I had a lot of complex feelings about the whole thing. Besides, it turned out I had a lot of people to thank: my wonderful boss Julie, my colleagues Sue and Brad, my director Simon, my previous director Libby, my old boss Cherie, good people like Ros H and Ros C and Catherine.

I wanted to finish that job feeling like I achieved something of lasting value. Instead I settled for starting something that will outlive me and hopefully become standard practice. Sure, helping implement a new service desk ticketing system was useful from an internal workflow perspective, but it’s not quite what I went there to do. Instead I called a meeting with a bunch of managers (well, my boss called it for me) to highlight several pieces of egregiously and systematically racist metadata in our catalogue, mostly relating to Indigenous Australians. Some of the old subject headings hadn’t been updated to the current terminology, while other headings should never have been in our catalogue in the first place. I outlined how my team could remediate these problems, but some policy decisions needed to be made first—ideally by those attending the meeting.

It’s a shame this meeting wound up happening on my last day. But the looks on the faces of my Indigenous colleagues convinced me I was doing the right thing. These terms should have been nuked from the catalogue twenty years ago, but the next best time to do that is now. I kinda felt like this shouldn’t have been up to me, a systems librarian, telling a roomful of people who all outranked me how to fix a data problem. But it needed doing, and I was in a team that had the technical ability to make the necessary changes. I regret that I won’t be around to see them happen.

Shortly after this meeting my director Simon was regaling us with an anecdote about longitudinal datasets; he has a background in statistics and often compares library metadata to things like the HILDA survey. But the key difference is that while HILDA’s questions and expected answers have changed over time in a discrete fashion, making it easier to see where such changes have occurred, library metadata corpora are a total mismash of standards and backgrounds, with each MARC field potentially having been added at a different time, in a different socio-cultural context, for a different purpose. Metadata librarians are grappling with the ongoing impact of data composition and recording choices made decades ago. We have virtually no version control (though it has been suggested) and little holistic understanding of our metadata’s temporal attributes. It makes retrospective #critcat efforts and other reparative description activities a lot harder, but it also hinders our ability to truly understand our descriptive past.

I was pleased to end my time there on a constructive note. But like I said, I have a lot of complex feelings about the last three years. I started out being one of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new professionals who didn’t have a whole lot else going for her, wanting to prove her passion and devotion to her dream job by working herself to death, thinking that maybe her job would start to love her back. Please don’t do what I did. I might not have realised at the time how harmful this mindset is, but I also did not realise that I deserved better from an employer. Whenever I think about my time there—barring the last six months—I can’t shake these feelings of deep unhappiness. I feel like I was thrown in the deep end right at the start and spent years desperately trying not to drown. I started thinking nobody would care if I did drown. I was lucky that the restructure threw me a life raft, but the damage was done.

Happily, I have much more to look forward to now. After a pandemic-induced false start I’m finally fulfilling a lifelong dream to move to Victoria, to be closer to friends and forests, and to take up a role as a metadata team leader at a regional academic library. Professionally I feel like I’m returning to my metadata spiritual home, and I like having the word ‘quality’ in my new job title. The ‘team leader’ part is slightly intimidating though—I have no supervisory experience whatsoever (and they know that) but it’s something I’m very keen to do right. Everyone I’ve met there so far has been really lovely. I can’t wait to start next week.

I’m glad to be ending this rather turbulent chapter of my life and beginning a new, hopefully calmer one. I took this job for many reasons, but I keep coming back to the potential I sensed in it. There’s so much possibility here. It’s very exciting.

The signal and the noise

We’re all goin’ on a twitter holiday
No more tweetin’ for a week or two
Fun and laughter on a twitter holiday
No more tweetin’ for me or you
For a week or two

(With apologies to Cliff Richard, who seemingly had the right idea)

I’m not always good with noise. My brain is regularly full of noise (anxiety) but can’t always process it (mild autism). Noise-cancelling headphones are my workplace saviour. Moving out of a flat on a four-lane road brought me desperate relief from traffic noise. Until recently I didn’t fully realise how much noise was in my life, and how much easier things are without it.

This month’s GLAM Blog Club theme is ‘Obsession’. I used to be obsessed with Twitter. It was the first thing I looked at when I woke up and the last thing I looked at before I fell asleep. I spent untold hours of my life firing little bursts of Opinion into my eyeballs like it somehow mattered. I fired off my own bursts right back. People liked the sound of them. I became a small Somebody in a small field. I kept going. Until about three weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped.

I decided to take myself on a twitter holiday. I reckon it’ll be permanent.

What began as an accessible and low-stress place to network with other librarians and share ideas has morphed into a high-stress horrorshow of anger, trauma, grief and drama. It’s not a healthy place to spend time. It’s where people go to start fights, let off steam, vent, have Opinions, scream. It’s also massively overstimulating. I popped back on briefly to attend the latest #auslibchat and immediately wished I hadn’t—not because of the chat itself, which was pleasant and informative, but because the website is designed to grab and hold your attention for as long as possible. My friend Hugh, who saw the light and quit Twitter long before I did, has likened it several times to a poker machine. It’s shamelessly addictive. You’ll never get back what you put in. The best thing to do is to cut your losses and go.

Everyone is angry and no one is listening.

I am very aware that I owe my career to Twitter. Being a small Somebody and giving myself a platform helped me meet lots of great people, grow new ideas, stand up for what’s right. It has made me the librarian I am today. But it is so bad for my brain now. Giving my account to a trusted friend and forcing myself to log the hell off has improved my mental health immensely. No more blasting fire and anger into my eyeballs. No more tediously scrolling past arcane fights and drama. No more unconsciously making space in my brain for whatever American Library Twitter™ reckons about something, whether it’s worth listening to or not.

Being extremely offline has meant I now have the brainspace to read and think more deeply. After years of being largely unable to do either I know this brainspace is a rare and precious gift. I don’t want, and can’t afford, to squander that gift on shouty pixel horror. Besides, my to-be-read pile is literally taller than I am. I also started noticing how much mainstream news content is either ‘Some people on the internet are angry about this thing’ or ‘Here’s something that went viral three days ago’. Making news from newsfeeds is called ‘juicing’ and there’s a lot of it. I left Twitter to escape all this stuff. Why does it persist in following me around?

As Information Officer for ACORD, the ALIA Community on Resource Description, I manage the Twitter account that was my idea in the first place. I logged on there today to share our committee survey of Australia’s cataloguing and metadata community (it’d be really helpful if you did it, cheers). Yet somehow an account that only follows 16 others, most of them assorted professional bodies, still has inflammatory content in its main feed. How does this happen? How can I escape it?

In the short term I don’t see myself returning to Twitter. In the long term, once I figure out how, I intend to use it as a unidirectional broadcast platform, syndicating posts from this blog and making other announcements as the need arises. It does mean losing out on that sense of community and broader professional awareness that attracted me to Twitter in the first place, and a small part of me misses that. But I definitely don’t miss the nonstop screeching that now pervades the place. My brain can’t separate the signal from the noise, so I am forced to silence both in order to function.

I once described Twitter as ‘the introvert’s megaphone’. For a moment I wished I still felt that way about it, eager to find like-minded people in the shrieking cesspoool, able to use the site to my advantage. But times have changed. I’m not sure I’d recommend Twitter to new librarians anymore. Apparently one library school makes students create a Twitter account as part of an introductory course, which was probably a great idea five years ago but today feels like punishment. It reminds me of having to create bookmarks on del.icio.us during an undergradute French class ten years ago. I didn’t understand the point of spending time on dying websites. (Ironically, the WordPress auto-tweet function no longer works on this blog after I migrated it to a new server. So it might be a while before anyone sees this post. Sorry about that.)

For now, I find things out from assorted email newsletters (including the one I write for ACORD, you should totally sign up), RSS feeds and messages from friends. It’s kinda nice not being so plugged in all the time. It’s lovely to have a bit of peace and quiet.

Take off those headphones and let this world pour into you
Throw off those glasses and then you’ll start seeing
Forget those battles, those ones that mean nothing to you
Know you’re alive and just smile, you’ll start hearing

Somewhere out beneath the heavens and the atmosphere
Somewhere out among the silence there’s a voice
There’s a feeling that takes over and it has no fear
When you’re caught between the signal and the noise

A farewell to cataloguing

A tree in a clearing

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.

Some thoughts on the future of LIS education in Australia

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.

A chart detailing the routes by which an applicant can achieve LIANZA Registration
A chart detailing the routes by which an applicant can achieve LIANZA Registration. Image courtesy LIANZA. (Click to embiggen)

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. This concern was publicly raised by Charles Sturt University’s School of Information Studies in its response to the discussion paper

Hope labour

floating book among books

It occurred to me during a recent performance discussion that it’s not always obvious what I spend my time doing, both inside and outside the office. Thankfully my boss wasn’t accusing me of being a slacker (far from it!) but I did realise that maybe I need to talk about some of my library extracurriculars a bit more. There’s the library work I get paid to do, then there’s the library work I do in my spare time, and then there’s the library work I wish I could do but don’t have time for. This is sounding familiar, isn’t it?

A lot of what I do could probably be characterised as ‘hope labour’, a term I recently encountered at the other New Librarians’ Symposium (the one in the States):

By doing oodles of extra professional development, one hopes that this labour will demonstrate one’s passion, commitment and skill, and therefore organisations will be more likely to hire people who have done this labour. That’s the idea, anyway. I mean, years of being a notorious twitter personality has opened a lot of doors, but writing this blog has surely helped too. Plus being on committees and doing loads of professional reading, compiling and presenting workshops, doing conference talks… I’m tired just thinking about it.

I did all of those things because I wanted to, not because I felt obliged. Most of me was simply excited to learn things and immerse myself in the library profession, like any enthusiastic new library worker. But I’m sure deep down I also thought all this hope labour would give me a competitive advantage. Ours is not exactly a growth industry, and my little metadata niche is shrinking even as the need for quality metadata is growing. I work with many people who more or less fell into library work, and decades ago you could do that. But not any more. Before I could convince employers to hire me, I would need to first demonstrate that the kinds of jobs I wanted should exist at all.

Last month I was successful in gaining a permanent position at work. (Yay!) The divisional email that went out cited both my achievements at work and my commitment to the profession as some of the reasons why I got the job. Part of me is relieved that my hope labour has paid off, but another part of me resents that it was seemingly necessary (and I wonder if other applicants felt the same way). After all, being able to do all these extracurriculars is a privilege. I have the time, energy, disposable income and absence of other commitments to be able to do all these things. My hard work has been richly rewarded; not everyone’s hard work is recognised in this way. I also put a lot of pressure on myself, which is great for my productivity but probably not so great for the rest of me.

Having said all that: I enjoy the extracurricular stuff I do. I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise. And I hope that being permanently employed will relieve some of that constant pressure to Be The Best Possible Candidate and enable me to focus my energies on what I find interesting, not just what I think will get me a job.

In no particular order, because it’s hard to explain all this to my boss, and because some of you might find it interesting, here are a few of those things:

VALA Committee: In late June I was elected to the VALA Committee for a two-year term. VALA (previously the Victorian Association for Library Automation) is ‘an independent Australian based not-for-profit organisation that actively supports the use and understanding of information technology in libraries and the GLAM sector’ according to our website. VALA is known mostly for its biennial Conference, which is coming up in February next year. I was heavily involved in VALA Tech Camp earlier this year and decided, after some encouragement, to contribute to the organisation in a more strategic capacity. Though I don’t have an IT background, my job does involve a lot of technical stuff, and I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I can be a technical professional even though I can’t code (but that’s probably a topic for another post). I’m looking forward to bringing my, uh, idiosyncratic perspective on library technology to the Committee.

Cataloging Ethics Committee, Resource Discovery and Accessibility Working Group: Back in April a call went out on several cataloguing listservs (none of which I regularly read, because life’s too short) for people interested in formulating a Code of Ethics for cataloguers, in response to a clear need for ethical guidance in this work. The Steering Committee is a joint project of the American, British and Canadian cataloguing associations (whose full names are too long to include here), but despite not being from any of those countries I was happily accepted into a working group anyway. Along with a dozen or so people from around the world, I’ll be working on ethical guidance for ‘descriptive cataloging and types of materials catalogers deal with regularly as well as data interoperability’. Ethical decision-making comes up regularly in areas like authority control, classification and subject headings (and there are working groups for those too) but ethical descriptive cataloguing is not something I had given a lot of thought to, so excitingly that will change very soon! Our final report to the Steering Committee is due in November, with published guidance sometime next year. Though I joined the group in a personal capacity, I’m hoping this work is something ALIA and/or ACORD will take an interest in.

ALIA Community on Resource Description: Okay, so I’m not actually on this committee (and nor have I written my EOI yet, eek), but I hope to be! And you could be too, because EOIs for ACORD Committee are now open! Replacing the Australian Committee on Cataloguing (ACOC), this new community is open for all to join, and will consist of both a formal Committee and an informal Special Interest Group. I mentioned this group at the end of my NLS9 presentation as ‘a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all’. You don’t have to be working as a cataloguer. You don’t even need to be an ALIA member. But you do need to have an interest in metadata. I hope I piqued some of that interest at NLS9—here’s your chance to make things happen.

ACTive ALIA: The committee for Canberra’s local ALIA group (trust me, the name wasn’t my idea) currently consists of me and this bloke, who is also on too many other committees so we get along great. Canberra is a weird place to run an ALIA group because all the individual sectors here seem to want to do their own thing, so it’s harder to bring everyone together for some cross-sector networking. It’s also hard getting people to turn up, though that problem is definitely not unique to us. I’m hoping to help make some cool things happen later this year, but if you’ve got better ideas, feel free to drop us a line.