Finding my voice

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…

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.

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.

What is a student worth?

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.

Soup day

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.

Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line

Do you have fifty cents for the jukebox?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line

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

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

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

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

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

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

The passionate armour

I recently came across one of those quote-retweet Twitter memes asking what my ambitions were for the next ten years. To my surprise, the first answer that came to mind was ‘spiritual enlightenment’. I’ve never been a religious person, but perhaps my subconscious is trying to tell me that I’m missing something. I then tried to come up with a more concrete response, but found I had difficulty picturing myself even being ten years older. I’d be thirty-six. I’m not ready to be middle-aged. Hell, I’m barely ready to be the age I am now.

Instead, I focused on the word ‘ambitions’. The meme was in response to ambitious women being stereotypically derided as ‘opportunistic’, ‘calculating’ and ‘conniving’. How dare we have goals for ourselves, that we might have to work hard to reach. I figured I wouldn’t describe myself as ambitious, but then I stopped to consider why. I think I generally associate ambition with a quest for power, or social status, or a certain celebrity. I don’t want any of these things for myself. I do, however, want them for my profession. I want libraries to reclaim their power, their status, their celebrity within the public consciousness.

This is quite an ambitious goal. It’s not as concrete as the other goals I set for myself this year. It’s really more of a guiding principle than a goal. But it aptly encompasses the kinds of things I’d like to achieve.

I think it’s fair to say I’m passionate about librarianship and the broader GLAM sector. ‘Passionate’ is an interesting descriptor. Sometimes it’s a compliment and sometimes it’s almost an insult, especially if one’s passion on a given topic is far and above the mean within one’s social group. I think it’s also fair to say I’m more passionate about librarianship than the average librarian. How can I demonstrate this passion in a meaningful and sustainable way (i.e. by not working myself to the bone)? To me, the obvious answer is to redirect some of my energies away from work and into professional development, or PD, so that I might become a better librarian.

The UK’s FLIP network, a social group for new professionals, recently blogged about PD and managing one’s mental health. It was an eminently sensible post, but something about it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think I was quite the post’s target market.

My twitter feedback could best be described as ‘polarised’. Some people praised my view while others defended their more moderate stance, as if passion and resilience couldn’t possibly coexist. As if librarianship is all I am, because it’s all Twitter ever sees of me. As if I had to be talked out of caring so much. It stung, and I found myself at a loss as to how to respond.

In saying ‘I fear that without [PD], people won’t take me seriously as a librarian’, I felt I was exposing a little of my inner self to the world. A part of me that remains bitterly insecure about my skills in this job. A part of me I’m not sure I was really ready to talk about. A part of me hiding underneath the passionate armour—that I care so deeply about what I do, and yet have so little faith in my own abilities, I’m not sure I can ever truly meet the ambitious goals I set for myself.

I have two options: care less, or believe more.

Which brings me back to seeking spiritual enlightenment. I still don’t think I’ll find religion anytime soon. But it’d be nice if I could scrounge up a little more self-belief. It ties into my existing goal for this year—to back myself. To know my own mind, my own strengths and weaknesses, my own path.

And to never, ever, stop caring.

Back yourself (or, Five things I accomplished in 2017)

In the absence of any collaborative material to write about for GLAM Blog Club (sorry), my thoughts turned to a year in review post. My 2017 was, like many people’s (and the planet’s), a year of extremes. Lots of really good things happened to me. Lots of really awful things happened to me. I can only hope I learned from the bad and made the most of the good. I learned a lot this year, but most of those lessons essentially boiled down to one thing: Back yourself.

This doesn’t mean ‘I’m always right’ or ‘I am untouchable’. I spent a lot of this year questioning my judgment, which admittedly in parts was fairly terrible. It’s more along the lines of ‘Think things through, come to a position on something and own it, and if you change your mind, own that too’. It also means ‘Know your own worth—don’t listen to those who don’t value you’.

I’m finishing the year in a very different position from when I started it. It’s slightly mind-boggling just how much I accomplished in 2017. Below is a brief overview:

  • New job! I quit my (permanent) job as a local history librarian and took up a new (temporary) gig as a tech services officer in a law library. Wait, what?! Most new grads would give their right arms for a permanent gig, and here I am giving mine away!? It sounds crazy on paper, especially because I know very little about law, but I’m confident it was the right decision for me. Time will tell whether I can parlay that into other opportunities.
  • So much networking! For an introvert with no social skills and an intermittent anxiety disorder, I sure went to a lot of stuff this year. I attended NLS8, VALA Tech Camp, the NSLA digipres forum, local ALIA SNGG events, a newCardigan meetup and much more. I met loads of people (many of whom, disconcertingly enough, already knew who I was!). I tweeted my little heart out. I have over 700 followers! How the heck did that happen?
  • Lots of writing! I wrote 18 blog posts in 2017, including eight for GLAM Blog Club, an excellent initiative from newCardigan. My two favourite blog posts this year were ‘Cò mise? = Who am I?’ and ‘How to catalogue a beer can’. I also wrote two pieces for professional journals, both of which are slated for publication in the new year. (Don’t worry, I’ll be telling everybody when they’re out!)
  • Almost a degree! I finally finished all the coursework for my MIS, but couldn’t quite make the professional placement happen. If anyone wants me in their library or GLAM institution for free for three weeks, or alternatively knows someone in Scotland who wants some free labour from a neach-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig, hit me up 🙂
  • Speaking up! In September, I wrote an open letter to the ALIA Board of Directors regarding their public position on marriage equality, after sustained lobbying from NGAC and others. I’m not much of a public letter-writer and I usually keep my political opinions off the internet, but this time I decided to speak up for a cause that mattered to me. It was my first real experience of advocacy within LIS. I’d like to think it made a bit of a difference.

If nothing else, 2017 has been a year of intense personal growth. Professionally and personally, I’m determined to start 2018 in a better place.

I’m determined to back myself.

A sucker for knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

I decided to become a librarian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🎶 Mama, don’t taaaake my MIS awaaaay 🎶

When I think back on all the crap I learned in GLAM school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

(With apologies to Paul Simon)

I am a terrible student.

There’s no getting around the fact that my grades aren’t too flash and I don’t focus on study as much as I ought to. I’m also perilously close to graduating and I’m fairly sure some of my lecturers have come across this blog. So it would be in my interests to make some fairly tame comments about the state of lecturing at my university (which, despite it being listed in my Twitter bio, I will not name) and leave it at that.

But that’s not how I roll.

Before I get stuck in, I feel it’s important to distinguish things I wish I had learnt at GLAM school from things I wish GLAM school had taught me. The former places the onus of education on the student, the latter on the educator. If I knew in late 2013 what I know now, I would have structured my LIS education very differently–different courses, different degree structure, perhaps a different uni. Many, but not all, of the gaps in my knowledge are due to poor subject choice and insufficient application on my part.

There’s also a lot to be said for letting the student focus on areas of LIS that interest them. I have a great many interests and skillsets, but children’s librarianship (for example) is not one of them. Being forced to undertake a children’s lit subject would have absolutely killed my enthusiasm and interest in librarianship. Yes, I now work for a public library. No, the irony is not lost on me. Plenty of people have no aptitude for hardcore cataloguing or research methods, and forcing these on students is a recipe for disaster. Oddly, cataloguing is an elective but research methods are mandatory.

A common response to this question when asked of librarians is ‘I wish I’d done cataloguing’. I did cataloguing. I was sent on another cataloguing course by work. I love cataloguing. I now catalogue professionally (though this is only a portion of my job). I am also aware that cataloguers as we know them are a dying breed, and it’s not because most are approaching retirement age.

I’m pretty sure I’ve declared previously that cataloguing should be a mandatory subject, but I’ve since changed my mind: a practical appreciation of metadata ought to be an integral part of all LIS courses. An introductory metadata course was a compulsory part of my degree, but common consensus was that it was a bit too high-level to be of much use to people. Focus on ‘what is MARC?’, basic DDC and LoC schedules and a couple of subject thesauri, and students will be streets ahead.

Introductory scripting and coding courses should be offered as electives in all LIS courses. My uni offers a ‘fundamentals of web design’ class that I purposely didn’t take because I can already speak HTML and CSS reasonably well, but nothing AFAIK is offered in actual programming. Considering a portion of my work right now involves Python and bash scripting, which I’m currently learning out of a book, I know I would have found such a course terrifically useful (and why I’m keen as mustard for VALA tech camp). As I’ve pontificated before, there is a huge need for tech-literate librarians. LIS courses are, for the most part, not filling this need.

I know I would also have really appreciated practical training in library applications and technologies. Alone of all my courses, the cataloguing elective (taught by the indefatigable Lynn Farkas) featured hands-on experience with WebDewey and Cataloger’s Desktop: real tools used by real cataloguers. (But not me, sigh.) Yet I don’t recall a single course actually discussing in any depth what an ILS is, or how to use one. Acquisitions backends. Practical digital archiving. Getting stuff into Trove. How to do all of those things on a $0 budget. This is the kind of knowledge LIS workers need. Even if they don’t yet know they need it.

Yes, I should have paid more attention in GLAM school. But GLAM school needs to meet its students halfway and provide a practical, up-to-date, evidence-based curriculum that adequately prepares students for the realities of life in this sector.

Theory won’t pay the rent. But practical knowledge just might.

Five things I learned from #NDFNZ

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Digital Forum 2016 conference in Wellington, New Zealand. It was my first ever conference and I had an absolute ball. Despite being a self-funded participant I thought it was an excellent use of my time, funds and annual leave. I got a lot out of the conference and would love to go again next year! Here are my five take-home thoughts, brought to you by a late-night flight home:

People are keen for practical ways to implement the Next Big Thing. The ‘Digitisation 101’ pre-conference workshop was heavily waitlisted; I was only able to attend after a last-minute venue change to a bigger room (cheers #eqnz). Similarly, a breakout session on practical implementations of linked open data (LOD) was standing-room only. By this point, most GLAM tech people have at least heard of things like ‘linked open data’ and ‘digital preservation’ but remain baffled as to how to actually implement these in their workplaces. It was great to see some practical solutions being demonstrated, using freely available online tools that people can tinker with in their own time. (I plan to go into more detail on those LOD solutions in a later post.)

Contextualising visual objects in museums and galleries has incredible potential. I know I wasn’t the only person in Te Papa’s lecture theatre furiously scribbling notes with one hand and furiously tweeting with the other (I’m @lissertations, for those playing along at home). The ‘second screen’ phenomenon, whereby people will watch a TV show, sporting event or lecture while simultaneously on their phones tweeting / snapchatting / etc., has given cultural institutions pause as to how they can best capture their visitors’ attention on both fronts. Auckland and Christchurch Art Galleries gave separate but closely related talks on contextualising their visual collections with digital text, audio and virtual reality. People no longer view an artwork or a museum object solely in the context afforded it by the curators. They’re reacting to it in the digital backchannels of social media, reading what others have to say and adding their own interpretations. 

#NDFAU needs to happen. Seriously. As a first-time attendee and one of very few delegates not from New Zealand, I was awestruck by how collaborative and congenial the atmosphere was at Te Papa (no doubt helped by the fact half of NZ knows each other on a first-name basis). Indeed, I chose to go to NDF in the first place because I loved the idea of technologists from different GLAM sectors collaborating and learning from each other. The potential to export NDF across the ditch is obvious, and I’m determined to make it happen. Yes, I’ve had a few comments about NDF being ‘hard to export’ but I’m not someone from NSLA or GLAM Peak trying to implement a digital forum by fiat. I’m a techy student librarian at the bottom of the totem pole who still has some of that New Professional Enthusiasm™. I’m also not someone who reacts well to being told ‘no’. It’s well past time to bring Australian GLAM tech people together and start some real conversations. (If you’re interested in helping me make this a reality, hit me up!)

The GLAM sector is crying out for digitally skilled students and new grads, but too many are graduating without these skills. I am proof positive of this. I am a 100% self-taught GLAM technologist. My MIS course does not place a high priority on tech skills, despite the huge need for them in the sector; I get the distinct impression that the administrators are comfortable teaching a horrendously dated curriculum and have no real wish to innovate. We can no longer assume that LIS grads who need tech skills will be motivated enough to teach themselves (although I am), nor that not every grad will need to know how to code. It needs to be baked into every LIS curriculum in Australia. If that makes the courses too challenging for some students, well, too bad. It’s not like they can opt-out of technology at work.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to sit in Te Papa’s theatre and meeting rooms, listening to talk after talk from people who love the intersection of GLAM and technology as much as I do. People who have great ideas and manage to make them happen. People who want to change the world. People who stand up and empower us all. Matthew Oliver’s closing speech was deeply inspiring: a tale of hope in a time of trouble. It gave me the confidence to acknowledge that no, all is not right with the world at the moment. We as librarians and archivists and museum curators and gallery hosts—as custodians of national memory—have a crucial role to play in researching, recording and retaining the events of our present, so that they do not become the events of our future.

I got home at around midnight Wednesday and was at work the following morning, so my conference hot takes were decidedly lukewarm by this point. The above are by no means everything that NDF had to say, just those I listened to the most. I hope to one day have something worth saying at a conference like NDF.