Being both: a follow-up

How the tables have turned!

When I posted my last blog entry a few weeks ago, I had no idea just how much attention it would get from the GLAM community, both in Australia and abroad. Some responders were in enthusiastic agreement, while others offered differing views. I think I hit a nerve, to be honest.

If I’d known beforehand how widely the post would be read, I probably would have written it a lot better. I was going to clarify a few points but, hilariously, something came up in the meantime that renders the article largely moot!

Finding myself between jobs and not expecting to secure employment anytime soon, I decided to fulfil a long-held dream of visiting Scotland, the land of my ancestors. If you haven’t been, go. It’s an amazing country with a fascinating history and proud, welcoming people. Surprisingly, the thing I missed most about Australia was a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables (my regular haggis consumption not quite cutting it, vitamin-wise). I’d applied for jobs before I left, of course, but figured I had no hope and resolved to enjoy my holiday.

While I was overseas, and to general astonishment, I received an email offering me a job with a local heritage library upon my return to Australia. I was so surprised I accepted on the spot, but honestly no amount of pondering would have changed my mind. I’ve now been back in the country and on the job for a few weeks, giving me a chance to evaluate what I’ve found myself doing all day.

‘Why can’t I do both?’ I asked the internet, plaintively. Well, now I am doing both. Our collection includes books, journals, archival manuscripts, ephemera, maps, plans, AV material and much else besides. I do reference, acquisitions and cataloguing, and will eventually be doing archival appraisal and digital preservation (yay!). No two days are the same, and I’ll never be short of work. And no, the irony of it all is not lost on me.

Do I consider myself a librarian or an archivist, then? Well, my email signature says ‘heritage librarian’ and my workplace says ‘library’, but with so much of our collection being original materials and manuscripts there’s plenty of crossover. It’s worth noting that the advert for this position invited those with ALIA and/or ASA qualifications to apply, which isn’t something I had seen before. If asked, I probably would respond with ‘heritage librarian’ and explain what that involves.

I stand by the assertion that those who consider themselves solely ‘librarians’ or ‘archivists’ are less likely to cross-pollinate with other disciplines (though I admit to having no empirical evidence to back this up) and I still think that the GLAM sector as a whole could really benefit from greater intermingling and sharing of ideas. But right now I’m stoked to have been given such an incredible opportunity. I look forward to wowing you all. 🙂

“You can be a librarian or an archivist, but not both”

Recently I joined the Australian Society of Archivists, the professional body for archivists in this country. More recently I attended the local chapter’s AGM at the invitation of its convenor. Despite a) not knowing a soul and b) being one of about three people in the room under the age of fifty, I felt right at home and was warmly welcomed by several members. I’m also informed I had the pleasure of briefly meeting a Noted Archives Bigwig™, though I only realised who he was after he’d shaken my hand!

Over the course of the evening I had the same conversation several times: that I had almost finished my MIS, I was currently between jobs, and I was very keen on digital preservation and related endeavours. I didn’t mind, though, because I was fortunate enough to meet some extremely interesting people, one of whom shared my interest in #digipres and had done a lot of work in the field. I mentioned that I was see-sawing between library work and archives work, and could see myself doing both long-term. She chuckled and replied that librarians would often see archives as ‘the dark side’, to which I responded that I hadn’t been in the field long enough to pick up such ‘bad habits’.

A few days later, I came across an interesting thought bubble on the number of LIS / GLAM conferences in Australia and, according to the author, a corresponding paucity of material to discuss. A biennial whole-sector GLAM conference was instead proposed, where professionals from all manner of cultural and memory institutions come together and cross-pollinate developments and ideas. I love the idea of a whole-sector GLAM conference, but I’m doubtful it will ever happen.

For all our talk of collaboration, GLAM professions in Australia are terribly siloed. I know precious few people who are members of both ALIA and ASA (I am, for the record) and I’m not sure the two organisations talk to each other all that much. I know libraries and archives do some things differently, but I’m not convinced it’s beneficial for users or staff. Should I have to choose between being a librarian and being an archivist? Why can’t I be both? Are the differences between the two so great that no one individual can do it all?

In an age where the proportion of digitised or born-digital items in library and archive collections is increasing steadily, both types of memory institution will need staff with the requisite skillset to accession, curate and preserve digital artefacts. While paper items are treated much differently in library collections vis-Ă -vis archival collections, with the former housed on shelves for public consumption and the latter in boxes in climate-controlled storerooms, there is no fundamental difference between, say, a RAID system in a library and one in an archive. Or one in a records management unit, or a museum, and so on. Discovery layers for these objects would also function in a similar way across different organisations.

To me, it would make perfect sense for GLAM digitalists of all types to come together and swap stories. New Zealand’s National Digital Forum (NDF) fulfils this role perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, I’m planning to attend their conference in Wellington in November. (The conference outline looked amazing!) I really wish a similar organisation existed in Australia, but again I can’t see it happening. Unless I create it myself in my capacity as your local Over-Enthusiastic New Professional™.

We speak often of the ‘digital divide’ between those with access to the internet and those without, but a divide exists too between the GLAM professions. Archivists and librarians don’t appear to collaborate very much, which is a disappointment and something I’d dearly like to change. Perhaps I’ll become neither a librarian nor an archivist, but rather an Inter-GLAM Liaison Officer or somesuch, bringing light, a feather-duster and some government funding to ‘the dark side’. Wouldn’t that be something?

Dear five-year-old me: you’ll never leave school

When I was five, my teacher went around my kindergarten class asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of the girls, as I recall, wanted to be hairdressers. Instead I proudly proclaimed that I wanted to be the first woman on the moon. Never mind the fact my eyesight is terrible and I get motion sickness on everything that moves. I was obsessed with space and I wanted to be an astronaut.

I’m pretty sure I got laughed out of class. My mum believed in me, though.

Twenty years later, I’m comfortable with my decision not to pursue a career in astronomy. Instead, I’m a few short months away from a professional qualification in librarianship. Yet I’m increasingly pessimistic about what that qualification will do for my career prospects. Sure, an MIS will adequately prepare me for a career in cataloguing or other technical services (in the library sense of the term). But recently I’ve found my interests heading more in the direction of systems librarianship, online information provision and digital preservation. And I’m no longer convinced an MIS alone will get me a job in those fields.

Undoubtedly some of this pessimism springs from the fact I’m currently between jobs. I’m in no position to be picky about what I accept, and I’m very aware that as a new professional I’m expected to spend some time in bottom-rung jobs, grinding, until someone retires and everyone levels up. Plenty of people have their degrees and work in non-LIS fields. At least I still have a few months before I graduate.

Recently I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading Bill LeFurgy’s insightful 2011 blog post ‘What skills does a digital librarian or archivist need?‘ and browsing the websites of various digital preservation thinktanks. Combined with some valuable insight from followers on Twitter (for which many thanks!), I’ve begun mulling over what sorts of attributes I ought to have in order to make it in the digital GLAM sphere.

  • Appreciation of library and archival principles — I’m looking at my copy of Laura Millar’s ‘Archives: principles and practices‘ right now and I know I’d never be a good archivist without it. With a solid grounding in theory and framework I know that digital archiving still adheres to many of the ground rules for paper or physical archiving. This kind of thing is library school bread and butter.

  • Quickly learn new skills — this is a given in a profession fighting for its very existence. Every year more workflows move online, more material is added to (and removed from) the web, more file formats and media types are created. As new ways of research, outreach and preservation are invented, staff need to not just ‘keep up’ but actively be on top of new developments in the field. Perhaps even doing the developing themselves!

  • Be able to code in Python/PHP/Ruby/HTML/SQL/etc etc — this is where LIS programs on their own tend to fall down. Countless job adverts note their preference for a candidate who can code, but LIS students from non-STEM backgrounds (of which I am one) are likely to graduate with an awareness of current technology but no concrete coding skills. Web development is an elective at CSU, which I opted not to take on account of I can already write HTML and CSS reasonably well, but students are left to develop more technical skills on their own. I’m thrilled to have recently discovered The Programming Historian, which blends programming skills with cultural heritage corpora to make digital humanities accessible to all. People don’t go to library school to learn to code, but the world is increasingly expecting library students to acquire these skills.

  • Bridge the digital divide — by which I mean digital archivists need to be able not just to immerse themselves in this strange new digital world, but relate it back to archive users and researchers who may not be technologically literate. Self-service information provision will not be the answer for all users; some people will still need the assistance of a professional to find what they need. Sustaining the human face of digital memory institutions is essential if we still want to have jobs in ten years.

While writing this post I came across A Snapshot of a 21st-Century Librarian, a fascinating account of a research librarian’s work in an academic library. Pointedly, she mentioned taking graduate classes even as a tenure-track librarian to keep up with the changes in her field. I can easily see myself taking a similar path — whatever the MIS hasn’t taught me, I’ll need to learn elsewhere. I do, however, feel like I have a lot of catching-up to do. Five-year-old me would have been aghast at the idea of never leaving school, but then again, five-year-old me had no conception of what a digital archivist is, much less the idea that I could one day become one. Being an astronaut would have looked like a pretty safe bet.