We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript

This is the working transcript of ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’, a talk I gave at the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium in Adelaide, South Australia on Saturday 6th July 2019. I made some last-minute edits to the text and said a few things in the wrong order, but overall I pretty much stuck to script (which was very long, hence my conscious decision to talk too fast!).

The slides on their own are available here (pdf). Inspired / shamed by Nikki Andersen’s brilliant talk at NLS9 ‘Deviating with diversity, innovating with inclusion: a call for radical activism within libraries’, all the slide pics also include alt-text.

We Need To Talk About Cataloguing / Alissa McCulloch @lissertations / New Librarians' Symposium 9 Adelaide, 2019 / #NLS9s09
Thank you. I begin by acknowledging the traditional and continuing owners of the land on which we meet, the Kaurna people, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. This land always has been, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Library workers, students and allies, we need to talk. You’ve probably heard of this strange thing called ‘cataloguing’. You may even have met some of these strange people called ‘cataloguers’. But for many people in the library sector, that’s about all we can say. Many of us don’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk about areas of library practice that aren’t our own.

It’s not quite the talk I promised to give, but it’s a talk I think we need to have. About what this work entails, why it matters, and why you should care. Consider how, and to whom, we should start talking. Our colleagues, our supervisors, our vendors, ourselves.

My name is Alissa McCulloch. We need to talk about cataloguing.

Picture of me holding the book 'The Joy of Cataloguing' by Sanford Berman, captioned 'This is a really good book!'
(By the way, this is a real book, and it’s awesome.)

Firstly, a bit about me. I work at a small, minor national library that shall remain nameless, because I’m not speaking on behalf of my employer today (I just need to make that very clear, these are all my opinions, not theirs). I’ve been in libraries for around four years and have had a library degree for around six months. My work life consists mostly of cataloguing whatever turns up in the post.

You may have seen or heard me talk about cataloguing ad nauseam on podcasts, on my blog, or on twitter, because I LOVE CATALOGUING and it sparks SO MUCH joy and I think it’s amazing. Suffice to say my reputation precedes me. So perhaps some of what I’m about to say will not be a surprise to you. But I am surprised, quite often, by the reactions I get when I tell people what I do all day.

'Oh... is that still a thing?'
They go ‘Oh… is that still a thing?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, actually, it is still a thing’. People act like metadata grows on trees, that carefully classified shelves of books are ‘serendipitously’ arranged, that cataloguing is obsolete, that structured metadata is unnecessary in an age of keyword searches, that we’ve all been automated out of existence, that AI is coming for the few jobs we have left.

'Why store data about an object, when you have the object itself? Because without data about the objects contained in a space, any sufficiently complex space is indistinguishable from chaos.' —Jeffrey Pomerantz, Metadata (2015)
People ask, ‘Why store data about an object, when you have the object itself?’ And I go, ‘Because without data about the objects contained in a space, any sufficiently complex space is indistinguishable from chaos.’

It’s more than just ‘data about data’. It gives meaning and structure to a collection of items, whether that’s a simple website, Netflix, a corpus of research data or a library catalogue. Metadata forms a map, a guide, a way of making sense of the (in many cases) enormous collection of resources at a user’s disposal. A chaotic library is an unusable library.

'Cataloguing' versus 'Metadata'
‘Cataloguing’ doesn’t just mean painstaking creation of item-level metadata (although it can involve that, and it’s what I spend a lot of my time doing). It involves a lot of problem-solving, detective work, ethical decisions, standards interpretation, and data maintenance. If you like puzzles, you’ll love cataloguing. Modern metadata is all about connections. It’s relational, it’s often processed at great scale, it’s about making collections accessible wherever the user is.

You might hear these jobs described as ‘metadata librarians’ or similar. If given the choice, I would describe myself as a ‘cataloguer’. In fact, at my current job no one ever actually told me what my job title was, and I needed an email signature, so I picked ‘cataloguer’ and nobody seemed to mind.

But I specifically didn’t call this talk ‘We need to talk about metadata’. Don’t get me wrong, I could talk about metadata all day, but I deliberately said ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. The word’s kinda gone out of style. It’s old-fashioned, it’s a bit arcane, it’s not hip and modern and contemporary like ‘metadata’ is. But I’m the sort of person who likes to reclaim words, and I can reclaim this one, so I do.

Words mean things. But sometimes, if we want to, we can change those things.

'That's great. Why should I care?'
Once I’ve explained what I do for a living, people then go ‘That’s great. Why should I care?’. And it’s a good question. Why should you care? You’re all busy. You all have other jobs. You don’t have time to care about metadata.

You know why you should care?

‘If you care about social justice or representation in libraries, you need to care about library metadata and how it is controlled.’ —Hugh Rundle, ‘Better out than in’ (2019)
Because ‘if you care about social justice or representation in libraries, you need to care about library metadata and how it is controlled’. I know how deeply many of us care about social justice in libraries. We want our spaces and services to be accessible, equitable and empowering to all users. This includes the catalogue. For many users, particularly in academic and TAFE libraries, the library’s online presence will often represent someone’s first interaction with the library. How does your library present itself online? If people go looking for resources about themselves, how will they see those resources described and contextualised?

Image of a white brunette woman standing among bookshelves reading, superimposed over which is the logo for Soutron Global and the words 'Cataloguing is more than merely ‘processing’ an item. Metadata gives voice to collected works, brings their form and meaning to the surface of discovery, so that collections might be found and enjoyed.—Alissa M.
A while ago I’d sat through one too many team meetings where someone described us as ‘just a processing team’ and vented on twitter, as is my style. I said,

‘Cataloguing is more than merely ‘processing’ an item. Metadata gives voice to collected works, brings their form and meaning to the surface of discovery, so that collections might be found and enjoyed.’

For some reason, a library vendor in California took this tweet and made a shareable graphic meme thing out of it. I stand by what I said, but what really got me was that they left out the best part of the quote. The line immediately after this was:

Same image as the previous slide, but with the words 'CATALOGUING IS POWER' superimposed in red graffiti font
‘Cataloguing is power, and I will die on this hill!’

We as cataloguers have, as Hope Olson famously put it, ‘the power to name’. We decide what goes where, what’s shelved together, what’s shelved separately. We describe these things in the catalogue so that people can find them. The language used in and about cataloguing is tremendously important. If something is poorly-described, it might as well be invisible, both on a shelf and in a search engine.

Cataloguing is power. That power must be wielded responsibly.

‘In terms of organization and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.’ —Emily Drabinski, ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction’ (2013)
‘In terms of organisation and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.’ Now you can read ‘disciplinary’ two ways – once in the sense of an academic discipline, and again in the sense of punishment. Both of them relate to the wielding of power.

As humans, we are all shaped by language. Our everyday language changes through time, as social and cultural practices change, but library language changes far more slowly, when it changes at all. (We’ve been putting punctuation in weird places for a long time, too. Look, I’m sorry, but I will never care about where to put a full stop in a MARC record.)

Metadata is not fixed. Metadata is never ‘finished’. Metadata is contextual. Contested. Iterative. Always changing. ‘Corrections’ are not, and can never be, universal. An accepted term today might be a rejected term in thirty years’ time, and the process will begin again. The Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) for ‘People with disabilities’ is now on its fourth iteration, as the preferred language has changed over time. Previous versions of this heading used terms that would now be considered quite offensive.

We all need to look out for these things. Have new concepts arisen for which your library has no standardised heading? Has a word shifted meaning, such that it has ceased to be meaningful? Are users looking for resources by name, but finding nothing in our collections? Think of the power we have. Think of how we ought to wield that power.

‘When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself.’ —Emily Drabinski, ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction’ (2013)
‘When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself.’

What do I mean by that? Consider the widespread use in the English-speaking library world of Library of Congress Subject Headings, a standardised vocabulary originally designed by American librarians to meet the information needs of the United States Congress. Because the Library of Congress is the source of a lot of American copy cataloguing, their subject headings were widely adopted in the US, and later by other Anglophone countries. Most (though not all) Australian libraries use LCSH in some capacity. Has anyone stopped to think about how weird that is? We’re not the US Congress. We use different words and different spellings, we serve vastly different communities, we have our own information needs and information contexts that LCSH necessarily cannot meet.

Yanni Alexander Loukissas recently wrote a book titled ‘All Data Are Local’, which is sitting on my bedside table at home. I would extend that to ‘All Metadata Are Local’. And they should be. Each library serves a distinct community of users. Our metadata needs to speak their language.

Authority Control Freaks
Attitudes toward cataloguing itself are shaped by the language we as cataloguers use to describe our work. For example: a big part of cataloguing is about standardising names and subjects, and to a lesser degree titles, so that resources with or about those things can all be found in the one place! We call this authority control, which has gotta be one of the worst phrases in librarianship for two reasons:

A) whose ~authority~ is this done under? Who died and put us in charge? What gives us the right to decide what someone’s name is, or the best phrase to describe a certain topic? Why do we even have to choose just one? Why can’t we have several, equally valid terms?

B) Why do we have to ‘control’ everything? What need is there for this giant bibliographic power trip? Why can’t we let people decide these things for themselves, instead of us being authority control freaks?

This phrase says a lot about how we’ve historically thought about cataloguing: that we have authority, and that we are in control. Cataloguers haven’t been either of these things for a while. Which is great, because our survival depends on it.

Radical Cataloguing? Critical Cataloguing?
Nah, it’s just common sense
The outlook I’ve just described, and the outlook I bring to my work, is known as radical cataloguing. It’s a way of looking at cataloguing and metadata from a structural, systemic standpoint. Getting to the root of what—and who—our data is for, and making sure it meets our users’ needs.

It’s broadly similar to the contemporary movement called critical librarianship, of which critical cataloguing is a part, which aims, according to the critlib.org site ‘to [bring] social justice principles into our work in libraries’.

Critical and radical cataloguing can involve establishing local policies for catalogue records, working to improve common standards and practices, sometimes ignoring those standards and practices, and encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue.

It sounds quite cool, calling myself a radical cataloguer. But this work and this ethos have never felt all that radical to me. It feels normal, to me. It feels like common sense. It feels like bringing my values to work. Sometimes these align with traditional library values. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s all in the service of making the library better. Think of it as ‘evidence-based whinging’. It’s done in good faith, and it’s done for a purpose.

'Important, complex and broken'
Sadly, common sense isn’t as common as I’d like it to be. A recent article on tech news website The Verge described the terrible quality of metadata in the music industry, which meant people weren’t getting paid royalties for music they had written, performed, or contributed to. Bad metadata literally costs money. The author described metadata as ‘Important, complex and broken’. And I was like ‘yeah… I feel that’. A lot of what they said about commercial music metadata could just as easily be applied to the library world—infighting, governance issues, funding challenges, cultural differences and copyright laws.

This work is difficult, painstaking, often invisible and mostly thankless. But the results of not doing the work can be slow to manifest—you might be able to get by on deteriorating metadata quality for a while, but soon enough it’s gonna be a huge problem that will cost lots of money to fix, which you could have avoided with enough care, attention and maintenance.

‘Information infrastructure, like all infrastructure, only becomes visible upon breakdown—as in frozen pipes or rifts between institutions. This reality often means that the people maintaining those infrastructures are also invisible.’ —The Information Maintainers, Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care (2019)
In their recent paper Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care, which I highly recommend reading, the Information Maintainers Collective wrote, ‘Information infrastructure, like all infrastructure, only becomes visible upon breakdown—as in frozen pipes or rifts between institutions. This reality often means that the people maintaining those infrastructures are also invisible.’

It’s not about simply following rules and standards because that’s just how we do things, or have always done things. It’s about imbuing our information practice with an ethic of care. Thinking not just about what we do, but how and why we do it. Who benefits, who loses out, and what happens when and if the work stops being done. The ‘we’ in this instance is an information maintainer: a cataloguer, an eresources manager, a systems librarian. People. Not robots.

‘But what about AI and machine learning?’
People often try to replace me with a robot. They ask, sometimes innocuously and sometimes not, ‘But what about AI and machine learning?’

And I go, ‘It’s a great tool. But like any tool, it has to be used responsibly.’ Algorithms are as biased as the people who write them. We all have biases, we all look at the world a particular way. The key is ensuring that library automation of any kind is properly supervised and evaluated by real people. Metadata professionals with an ethical grounding. Cataloguers, of the past, present and future.

At last year’s IFLA conference session on ‘Metadata and Machine Learning’, researchers from the National Library of Norway talked about their algorithm that assigns Dewey numbers ‘with increasing accuracy’. To them this means longer numbers, which isn’t quite how I would evaluate accuracy. But the point is: this algorithm is following existing rulesets on how to assign Dewey numbers. Think about: who makes those rules? Who designs Dewey? What does our continued use of this particular classification say about contemporary library practice?

Dewey is a product of its time. But it’s also a product of our time. Dewey is now in its 23rd edition, maintained by paid staff and volunteers from around the world. AI can’t do this. It can’t write its own rules. And it can’t be left unsupervised, because it won’t produce quality metadata.

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? ‘Standards-compliant’ doesn’t mean ‘useful’. Quality records are: informative, accessible, respectful, accurate, empowering
What do I mean when I say ‘quality metadata’?

I don’t think about ‘quality’ the way most other people think about ‘quality’. People think ‘quality’ means total adherence to local, national and international policies and standards. A record can do all of those things and still be functionally useless. I don’t consider that ‘quality’.

To me, a ‘quality’ record is informative, accessible, respectful, accurate and empowering. You won’t find these ideals in RDA, or in the MARC standards, or in BIBFRAME. You’ll find them in your community. Those of you who work in libraries should have an idea of the kinds of materials your patrons are looking for, and how your library might provide them. Is your metadata a help or a hindrance? Are you describing materials the way your patrons might describe them? Are people asking you for help because your catalogue has failed them?

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? Compare a record with the resource it describes. Right title? Right author? Right year? ‘Authority control’? How would a user describe this? Are those words or phrases in the record?
I know most of you are not cataloguers. Many of you undoubtedly work for libraries that outsource most or all of their cataloguing. Records appear in your system by what looks like magic but is probably a Z39.50 connection. You may well have no way of knowing what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ metadata. Here are some brief tips for you!

Compare a record with the resource it describes. Are the title, author and year correct? Does your system disambiguate different authors with the same name? I know I said I hate the phrase ‘authority control’, but you still gotta do it, the work still needs to be done. How would a user describe this item? Are those words or phrases in the record? What kinds of people use your library? Will these words meet their needs? Are they current? Offensive? Relevant?

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? Compare a record with your OPAC’s display. Is anything missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays strangely, or not at all? What is searchable? What facets are available?
Next, compare that record with how your OPAC displays it. Backend versus frontend. Have a look at a MARC record, even if it looks like a bunch of numbers and dollar signs. Is anything obviously missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays oddly, or not at all? Have a play around with the OPAC. Are some fields searchable but not others? Does your system support faceted browsing, like Trove does? If so, what facets are available?

I once worked for a library whose ILS didn’t display the 545 field, used for biographical and historical data in manuscript records. I’d been using this field for months. Why didn’t I know that my ILS did this stupid thing? How might I have worked around it?

If any problems appear with your library’s data, think about how you might advocate for getting them fixed…

‘Tech services work requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and fearlessness in the face of power that needs education to understand why our jobs are important.’—A. Scarlet Galvan, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized’ (2018)
Because the thing is, ‘Tech services work requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and fearlessness in the face of power, that needs education to understand why our jobs are important.’

We are constantly having to advocate for our jobs. I’m doing it right now. Right here, with this talk. And not just because my contract is up in two months and I need all the help I can get. But because without people like me shouting from the rooftops, our work is practically invisible. We are the people behind the curtain. We have to keep telling managers why quality metadata matters. But I am only one person, and I can only shout so loud. Cataloguers need your help, gathered library workers, students and allies, to talk about cataloguing.

So what should we say?

Mind Your Language. What you can think about: How does bad metadata make your job harder? What problems or queries could be solved with better metadata?
The key is to mind your language.

Firstly, what can you think about?

How does bad metadata make your job harder? What kinds of questions do you get asked that better metadata would be able to answer? Such as: ‘A friend recommended a book to me, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was blue, and it had birds on the cover. I think it was set in Queensland?’ We don’t routinely add metadata for a book’s colour in a catalogue record, it’s not searchable, but people ask questions like this all the time. Perhaps AI could help us with this metadata…!

Mind Your Language. What you can talk about: ‘Good metadata makes materials findable: it’s a return on investment’. ‘Just because LC uses this term, doesn’t mean we have to’
Secondly, what can you talk about?

Appeal to your managers’ financial sensibilities. ‘Hey, we spent a lot of money on these materials. If people can’t find them, that’s money down the drain. Good metadata makes those materials findable: it’s a return on investment.’ Talk about how much time and effort is wasted dealing with bad vendor metadata, and how that staff time could be better spent on other metadata tasks. I’m sure you’ve got plenty.

Alternatively, appeal to their morals and sense of social justice. If they have one. You could say, ‘We have a lot of refugees and asylum seekers in our community, and books about people in this situation often use the phrase “Illegal aliens”. This sounds kinda dehumanising to me, do we have to use this term?’ And if they say ‘But it’s in LCSH, and that’s what we follow’ you can say ‘well… so? Just because LC does it, doesn’t mean we have to’. You can change that subject heading locally to whatever you want, or get your vendor to do it. It’s already happening in American libraries. It could just as easily happen here.

Being a radical cataloguer doesn’t mean rewriting a whole record from scratch—if good copy exists, it makes sense to use it. But do so with a critical eye. How will this metadata help my users? How will it help my colleagues do their jobs in reference, circulation, instruction or document supply? Is it fit for purpose?

Mind Your Language. What you can do: Suggest terminology or data enhancements to your vendor, such as Austlang codes from AIATSIS for First Nations language material. Join ACORD, the (new) ALIA Community on
Resource Description
And lastly, what can you do?

Make suggestions internally and externally about what problems could be solved with better metadata. What kinds of patrons ask what kinds of questions or search for what kinds of materials. What your catalogue doesn’t include. What it could start including.

For example, you could encourage your cataloguers and/or vendors to include Austlang codes in records for materials in or about Australian First Nations languages. You could also encourage your systems librarian / ILS vendor to incorporate guided searching or faceting based on these codes into your system, for an even better user experience.

If everything I’ve talked about sounds fascinating and you want more, consider joining ACORD, the new ALIA Community on Resource Description. It’s so new it doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’s slated to launch later this month, and there’s an article about it in the July issue of InCite. I’m hoping ACORD will be a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all.

You Can Change The Rules
It can be hard to make these kinds of suggestions in your workplace, much less change international rules and standards. But you can do it. You can be part of this change. And the first step is talking about it. If you have an opinion on anything I’ve spoken about today, get talking, get writing, get tweeting, get involved with ACORD, which liaises with the committees overseeing all these rules and policies.

These rules were made by people. They can be changed by people.

You Can BREAK The Rules
And if the rules aren’t working for you, break them.

Change has to start somewhere. So it can start with you.

The people’s cataloguer

Last week at work I had one of the most incredibly serendipitous experiences of my library career. It was a beautiful illustration of why I became a librarian. To not only collect and preserve people’s stories, but to sometimes be part of them, and weave a broader tale.

It began in early January, when 110 books turned up from the same publisher. Being in the legal deposit business, my job is to catalogue whatever turns up in the post. Any genre, subject, author, publisher, size, format, you name it, I deal with it. (Unless it’s a serial.) We often get large boxes of books from publishers, but this particular enormous haul intrigued me. I volunteered to catalogue the lot. What can I say, I’m a sucker for punishment. And I wanted something fun to do before I went on holidays.

I slowly realised I held an entire library in my processing trolley. A living, breathing library.

The People’s Library.

As displayed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, September 2018. Image courtesy Garland Magazine

It all started a few years ago in Iceland, where apparently one in ten people publish a book in their lifetime. Margaret Woodward and Justy Phillips, co-founders of Tasmanian arts collective A Published Event, found themselves in Iceland in 2012 doing arty things. They wondered whether there was a similar latent writing community in Tasmania, which is around the same size. Most of us would probably have pondered this for a short while and left it at that. But not these two. They decided to create a kind of performance library, soliciting unpublished manuscripts from would-be Tasmanian authors and publishing a whole lot of them in one go. Giving a voice to people who might otherwise never have published a book. Creating a kind of ‘time capsule’ showcasing Tasmanian life and writing during the late twenty-teens. It’s huge. It’s faintly ridiculous. And it’s completely awesome.

The People’s Library comprises 113 books. Their authors range in age from 15 to 94. All live in Tasmania, from all kinds of backgrounds, writing all sorts of things. Novels by first-time authors. Anthologies by U3A writers’ groups. Memoirs. Poetry. Non-fiction. Experimental literature. An opera about Sir Douglas Mawson, no less. Each assigned a cover colour from Werner’s nomenclature of colours, creating a beautiful rainbow effect when the books are lined up in order on a shelf.

The People’s Library was installed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, in September 2018. Authors read, performed and gave life to their stories. There were panels, responsive art pieces, readers-in-residence (and also readers-in-bed). The books took centre stage. None were for sale—this was a library, after all.

Then it came to us. To me. Cataloguing these wonders took me a full, magnificent week. They were a joy to process. I learned so much about Tasmania, about total strangers, about the limits of the written word, and even about myself. I realised we were missing three of the books, so an email was sent politely requesting copies. I returned after a month’s holiday (in Tasmania, as it happened) to an email from the publishers, promising to send the missing books and wanting to know more about how the Library was catalogued. Omg. A genuine interest in cataloging. Nobody ever asks me how I’ve catalogued their books unless they’re complaining about it, so I was very excited. I promptly wrote back with probably too much detail, which amusingly made its way back to some of the authors. Many of them were thrilled that we had collected and preserved their books.

And then I thought no more of it until last Wednesday, when I sat at the reference desk for my weekly shift. Not all cataloguers do shifts in the reading rooms, but some of us do. It was one of the first things I asked to do when I started this job, because I want to keep in touch with how people actually use and experience the library, and how the metadata I create might be a help or a hindrance.

I noticed a few volumes of The People’s Library on the collection shelves, ready for a reader to peruse. Occasionally people actually read the books I catalogue, which is always nice. I hastily arranged the volumes in colour order. The reader arrived and I retrieved the books. As I carried over the last handful I remarked, ‘I catalogued these books, they’re awesome.’ The reader looked at me oddly. ‘Are you… oh, you’re the one who sent us that lovely email!’

One half of A Published Event. In town for other reasons, but who had popped in to admire her handiwork. I had no idea she was coming, let alone during the two hours a week I spend on the desk. To have come all that way, to read some of the books she had given life to, and to have been greeted by the very same person who had lovingly catalogued them, and who only briefly sits at the reference desk… Absolute serendipity. You couldn’t have written it.

The fact it had taken me a week to catalogue the Library was cause for amusement. As part of the Library’s performance at Salamanca Arts Centre, four readers-in-residence had each read some of the books, also for a week, and produced a digest summarising what they had read and learned. In a way, she supposed I became the fifth reader-in-residence, and the catalogue records for these books constituted a fifth digest. An incredible way that librarians not only collect and preserve stories, but can sometimes be part of them. By cataloguing The People’s Library I became a part of its performance, weaving a broader tale, ensuring the voices of over a hundred Tasmanians can be read and heard by all who visit us. I felt honoured to be a part of this work.

I already can’t wait to peruse A Published Event’s next library, Lost Rocks, a collection of 40 ‘fictionellas’ borne from an almost-empty rock board picked up at the tip shop in Glenorchy. ‘A slow-publishing event of mineralogical, metaphysical and metallurgical telling.’ It doesn’t get better than this.

Blowing with the wind of change

See, this is what I should have sung at karaoke the other day. Or something by Erasure, since it turns out Andy Bell and I have the same vocal range (who doesn’t want a little respect?). But that’s for another blog club, while this month we take some time out from changing the world to write about it.

For the longest time, the words ‘change’ and ‘cataloguing’ haven’t sat well together. Cataloguers are stereotyped as change-averse pedants who prioritise rule-following over user-helping. You’ve all heard the joke about how many cataloguers it takes to change a lightbulb, I’m sure (WHAT?! CHANGE??!?!?!). Lord knows I’ve met enough people who embody this stereotype, much as I’d like to disclaim it. And yet, to me, change is the only constant. I’ve never known a professional existence where change has been optional, and so I accept it, and go with the flow.

I glance over to my copy of Radical cataloging: essays at the front, a 2007 compendium of critical and radical analysis of cataloguing in North America. A lot has changed in the eleven years since the book was published, the biggest change being the replacement of AACR2 with RDA. With that change came a complete overhaul in how catalogue data was meant to be theorised and perceived by cataloguers—no longer card-based, but element-based, with the promise of linking those elements together in new and exciting ways. For better or worse I learned to catalogue after the introduction of RDA, but I hear there was much wailing and teeth-gnashing as the changes were introduced. People seem over it now, though.

Many of the chapters in Radical cataloging don’t seem all that radical to me, now. Yes, LCSH is unfit for the myriad of purposes we’re now putting it to. Yes, controlled subject access is practically dead (but that’s because our systems don’t harness our data well enough, not because the data itself is suddenly worthless). Yes, we should bend and/or break cataloguing rules where there are clear benefits for users. Yes, cataloguing remains a necessary and sought-after skill. Change and deviation from established standards doesn’t seem as radical to me as perhaps it did to others a decade ago. I find myself disagreeing with, though nonetheless respecting, some of the deeply-held views about the value of a rigorously-constructed catalogue. But I was raised on Google, so what would I know?

People have written entire books about how cataloguers cope with change (and I’m kicking myself for not having read that one before writing this post). Tina Gross’ chapter ‘Who moved my pinakes?’ in Radical cataloging blasts the old stereotype out of the water—that cataloguers do not oppose change for change’s sake, but rather because proposed changes are not considered to be in users’ best interests. Joan E. Schuitema’s chapter ‘The current cataloging landscape: a therapist’s perspective’ from The psychology of librarianship examines cataloguers’ experiences of trauma as a direct result of having the professional rug pulled out from under them.

And yet I suspect it’s no accident that the LCSH ‘Change’ lists ‘Catastrophical, The’ as a related term. Not all change is catastrophical, but all catastrophes are change.

If it were up to me, I know what I’d change. I would work with systems librarians and developers to better integrate our existing name and subject taxonomies into keyword-search interfaces. I would ensure our data formats recorded each element of bibliographic information once per item, and once only. I would break the Anglophone world’s inexplicable dependence on LCSH and help each sector build new and better vocabularies. I would decentralise cataloguing, by which I mean I would work to ensure a library’s users had a direct say in how its collections were described. But most importantly, I would finish off the cataloguer stereotype once and for all.

That used to be us. I think you’ll find we’ve changed.

Five things I learned from #SydCritLib, the Saturday School of Critical Librarianship

A priceless piece of critlib ephemera, now taped proudly to my wall

ALIA Sydney recently hosted their first Saturday School of Critical Librarianship, a gathering for critically- and radically-minded librarians to talk shop and take stock. It was a seriously full-on day. I spent most of today sleeping it off, and there’s a worryingly large memory gap where a lot of yesterday should have been. But I did remember to jot down a few not-terribly-insightful thoughts.

We are worthy. I awoke in a spaceship at sunrise, to a blistering Twitter discussion on the merits of metadata. (Sounds blissful, really.) I was staying in a capsule hotel, because it turns out Sydney has one and I wanted to try it out, but it was very poorly ventilated and I didn’t get a great sleep. The hot topic of discussion at 6am turned out to be the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), broadly the American equivalent of Trove or Europeana, laying off several staff, apparently including their metadata librarian. Cue spirited conversation about the value institutions place, or don’t place, on their metadata workers. Perversely it was a bit of a personal mood boost:

We are facilitators. The word ‘facilitator’ kept cropping up, and it wasn’t just because a few of us had been asked to ‘facilitate’, or lend our expertise to, various breakout sessions. Instead the word arose organically as a way to describe how we might envision a future, more critical (or radical) librarianship. Historically our profession has been structured around either having the answers or knowing where to find them (that is, in our collections), but might we instead take our lead from our patrons and communities? Whether it’s building collections, planning programs or cataloguing our library’s contents, there’s a lot to be said for not just listening to, or consulting with, our patrons—but actively listening to how their collections and programs and knowledge and memory ought to be managed, which we could then use our LIS skills to make happen.

We are, um, not all cataloguers. I stayed for all three iterations of the rotating breakout discussions on cataloguing, as I had been asked to help guide this discussion (I tried to move to another topic but found myself blurting out ‘my people need me’). I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I did a very good job. I wish I’d been better prepared and had more structured discussion topics. As it was, the conversation drifted from cataloguing into collection development, preservation of time-based media art, and systems librarianship. This suggested to me that people didn’t really know what to say, or felt they had nothing to say, or waited for me to do all the talking (and I still feel like I talked too much). But perhaps that in turn suggests that critical tech services in general is under-theorised and under-discussed, especially in Australia, and especially by non-tech services staff.

I was reluctant to steer the conversation back to cataloguing, figuring that people were talking about what was interesting and meaningful to them. If you were hoping I would do more active facilitating then I am sorry. But I hope people enjoyed the discussions nonetheless.

We are critical radical librarians! So this happened:

I know there was more to this conversation that my poor memory chose not to retain, but I found it interesting that we chose to critique the very name of our fledgling local movement. I think a few attendees took ‘critical’ to mean ‘criticising everything, unproductively’, rather than the more nuanced meaning assigned it by critical theory. The hashtag-critlib movement began in the United States, I understand principally from infolit and instruction librarians in university libraries, and it is running the risk of becoming a bit cliquey. I also had Nora Almeida’s chapter ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’ from the LJP critlib book in the back of my head during this discussion. Personally, I think ‘radical librarianship’ sounds friendlier and has a more activist tone. But I also really liked Andrew’s take on it from afar:

We can’t do it all. I really liked a point Kirsty Thorpe made about gaining power through focus—as library workers, choosing an area to focus on and directing energies towards making that area better, focusing on a couple of select things we can do, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly on things we can’t.

This was part of a broader discussion near the end of the day about power, and it prompted me to reflect on how much power I have within LIS. At my workplace, an institution fond of bureaucracy, I often feel powerless because all the decisions are made above me and I can’t change established practices or standards. Yet people from elsewhere look at me and go ‘You work where!? You have so much power! You can get things done!’ Plus I have managed to accomplish a couple of things in cataloguing entirely independently of wherever I have worked. And I wondered if this meant I had power because… people think I do? As in, they recognise power in me and they act accordingly? (Is this Schrödinger’s power?!) So what can I do with this power that I may or may not have, to push for change within LIS, and within my institution?

Also, we give a crap. We all showed up on a Saturday, some of us (including me) having come from out of town, because we care about our profession and we want to do better and do differently. There was a lot of talk about further critlib schools in Sydney, as well as opportunities to coalesce around shared or common goals. I really hope these come to fruition, because there’s really nothing like an in-person gathering to network with like-minded people and galvanise us into action. But next time I’m in Sydney, I think I’ll stay somewhere with functioning windows. And maybe a door.

Cataloguing trauma [content warning: self-harm]

Content warning: This post discusses self-harm, mental illness and institutional indifference to trauma.

That the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are a biased, offensive and wholly outdated set of controlled terms is not a new concept in cataloguing. Plenty has been written on the innumerable ways LCSH describes people, places and concepts in ways that do not belong in a modern library catalogue. I hope plenty has also been written on the trauma this can cause library users (though I confess at the moment I can’t find much). But today I need to talk about a couple of terms in particular, terms that hit a little too close to home, and which I never want to see in a catalogue ever again. I need to talk about the trauma this causes me, a cataloguer. I need to talk. LCSH needs to listen.

Today on my cataloguing pile, there appeared a book on dealing with depression and mental illness. I won’t identify the book or its author, but it was a wonderfully helpful book that encouraged its reader to write in it and make it their own. This being a library copy, our readers naturally can’t do that, but I guess they could photocopy parts of the book if they needed. The author clearly had lived experience of these issues and sought to write a book that might help someone who is struggling, as they had once done.

One section of the book discusses what to do if the reader feels a need to self-harm. It includes things like ‘glue your fingers together and pick at that instead’, ‘count from 100 backwards and start again if you lose track’ and ‘make a list of people you can talk to, and don’t feel bad about talking to them’. To another cataloguer, it might have seemed like a minor portion of a book that is substantially about other things. To me, this topic is so important, and the advice so genuinely helpful, that I decided it needed surfacing in the catalogue record. In particular, I decided it merited its own subject heading.

Looking up ‘Self-harm’ in LCSH brought me to these terms:

Self-harm, Deliberate
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm, Non-fatal
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
USE Self-mutilation

The entry for ‘Parasuicide’ reads:

Parasuicide  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on deliberate acts of selfharm in which there is no intent to die. Works on attempted suicide are entered under Suicidal behavior.
UF Deliberate self-harm
Harm, Deliberate self
Non-fatal self-harm
Parasuicidal behavior
Self-harm, Deliberate
Self-harm, Non-fatal
BT Self-destructive behavior
RT Suicidal behavior

The entry for ‘Self-mutilation’ reads:

Self-mutilation  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on behaviors by which individuals intentionally cause damage to their bodies. Works on stereotyped behaviors by which individuals unintentionally cause damage to their bodies are entered under Self-injurious behavior. Works on nonstereotyped behaviors and cognitions by which individuals directly or indirectly cause harm to themselves are entered under Self-destructive behavior.
UF Automutilation
Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
Self-injurious behavior (Self-mutilation)
Self-injury (Self-mutilation)
BT Malingering
Self-destructive behavior
NT Cutting (Self-mutilation)

I hit the roof.

I read these and said, out loud, to an empty office: ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.’ I skipped right past the dubious non-preferred terms (UFs), the distant and unfeeling scope notes, the questionable broader terms (‘Malingering’? Really?!). I zeroed in on the terms that someone, somewhere, in another place and another time, had decided were the right words to use to describe someone harming themselves.

Describing these acts as ‘Parasuicide’ is not helpful. I say this both as a cataloguer and as someone with lived experience of the acts in question. This is not good enough. This term needs to go.

People searching for works on this topic almost certainly be using the keyword ‘Self-harm’ or a close variation. If they’re using keyword search instead of subject search (and they will be, because nobody uses subject search anymore except librarians), these works will not appear in search results. They would have to know the particular term used by LCSH, thereby negating the point of having non-preferred terms in the first place, and be willing to overlook the inappropriateness of this term. I doubt anyone with an information need on this topic would be willing to overlook this. Certainly I’m not.

The scope notes for ‘Parasuicide’ are almost exclusively drawn from medical reference sources, suggesting the term is used in a medical context. Yet the term does not appear in the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), used by most medical and health libraries. MeSH instead groups the concepts expressed by the LCSH terms ‘Parasuicide’ and ‘Self-mutilation’ together under ‘Self-injurious behavior‘, with a much more cogent hierarchy and set of non-preferred terms. MeSH restricts the term ‘Self-mutilation‘ to ‘the act of injuring one’s own body to the extent of cutting off or permanently destroying a limb or other essential part of a body’, with the implication that this is deliberate.

Because my library catalogues for a general audience, using LCSH and not MeSH, I would argue it is inappropriate to base a term on medical sources. We should instead be using general ones, using terms ordinary people would use. In an LCSH library, who is most likely to need information on this topic? How do they need it described? I would think the likeliest people are those experiencing ideations of self-harm, or people who know someone in this situation. Why does LCSH draw a distinction between ‘self-harm caused by mental illness’ and ‘self-harm caused for other reasons, including supposedly for attention’, and, from an information retrieval perspective, does this distinction matter? Would works intended for a general audience be more likely to use one term over another? What harm might this cause?

This book is primarily about helping sufferers help themselves. I would like to index it $a Self-harm $x Prevention $v Popular works (leaving aside for now the issues of having a specific form heading for ‘books for ordinary people’). Instead I will almost certainly have to use the heading $a Parasuicide $x Prevention $v Popular works, or perhaps I’ll go one step higher and use the broader term to both these headings, $a Self-destructive behavior. Even though that doesn’t really cover it, and doesn’t bring out the specific issue that I wanted the heading to address.

When I tweeted the other day that ‘Cataloguing is power’, this is what I meant! We have the power to guide users to the materials they’re looking for, via the words and phrases we use. Cataloguers have a responsibility to use terms that are meaningful to their users, especially when their userbase is the general public, and to take a stand against terms in their controlled vocabulary that are no longer appropriate.

I have a greater ability than most people to advocate for change in subject headings. I would like to see the heading ‘Parasuicide’ changed to one of its non-preferred terms that includes the phrase ‘Self-harm’. Ideally this term and ‘Self-mutilation’ would be combined, akin to the MeSH term ‘Self-injurious behavior’, with the accompanying taxonomy. But this won’t happen overnight. It certainly won’t happen in time for me to finish cataloguing this book. My workplace is very strict on adherence to standards and my options for deviation are limited. I might include some key phrases in a summary field, so that a keyword search would pick them up and bring this book to the people who need it most.

This post is a direct result of my emotional response to these headings. It is informed by my own lived experience of mental illness. It is the trauma of cataloguing, just as it is cataloguing that trauma. It is a traumatic response. I had this response at 5.30pm when the office was virtually empty, so everyone I might have talked to had already left for the day. Perhaps that was for the best. Instead I’ve been able to direct my energy into researching these headings and formulating options for change. I also bought myself some chocolate, which definitely helped.

I needed to talk. You, the reader, have generously listened. Now LCSH needs to listen, and reflect, and change.

How to catalogue a podcast

The other day I decided to catalogue a podcast, mostly because Hugh gave me the idea. I cast about for a suitable work and I figured—why not catalogue cardiCast? I’m not a huge podcast listener, but I’ve really grown to enjoy the mix of live cardiParty recordings and interviews with selected guests.

Resources for cataloguing podcasts are thin on the ground, so I thought I’d share my take. This is not an officially-sanctioned, PCC-compliant guide or anything, just the views of a simple cataloguer who does this for fun.

Be careful what you wish for, etc.

Fixed fields

This is gonna get technical. Let’s look at the Leader fields, first:

LDR/07 = (i), non-musical sound recording
LDR/08 = (s), serial

There’s not a lot of records on the ANBD with that particular combination. The closest I found to a podcast record was ‘Surgical news extra’, an audio accompaniment to an existing textual serial. (The cataloguer at SLV who created this is clearly a talented individual, they did a really good job!)

As far as the cataloguer is concerned, there are three aspects to a podcast: its audio content (spoken word, non-musical sound recording); its computer content (digital file, stored and accessed online); and its seriality (continuing resource, issued in discrete episodes as part of a broader whole).

Capturing these three aspects requires a lot of fixed field data, most of which (sadly) an ILS will never use. We will need the following:

Generally speaking, “the 008 and 006 are regarded as containing “bibliographic” information about a work, while the 007 is regarded as carrying information about the “physical” characteristics of the item”. I could go into exhaustive detail about each byte, but if you really want to know you’ll have clicked on the above hyperlinks already, so why reinvent the wheel?

Two aspects of fixed field entry stood out as being particularly tricky:

  • 008/24-29, ‘Accompanying matter’ [to sound recordings]: this is really intended for physical accompaniments, not digital ones. ‘Show notes on iTunes’ doesn’t really fit any of the given options, so despite having six bytes to play with I settled for only one, ‘f’ (Biography of performer or history of ensemble), as the show notes (either in iTunes as embedded metadata or on the newCardigan website) usually have a brief explainer about who’s talking and what the topic is.
  • 008/30-31, ‘Literary text for sound recordings’: I have two bytes to fill. Here I have to think quite deeply about the nature of cardiCast. I have a reasonably good list of options, but ‘cardiParties’ isn’t one of them. Nor can I record anything specific about the live nature of many podcast recordings. I eventually settled on ‘l’ (lectures, speeches) and ‘t’ (interviews).

Title and access points

Pleasingly, the title (as spoken by Justine at the beginning of each episode) actually fits really neatly into the ISBD syntax, as transcribed in the 245 field:

[Title] $a cardiCast :
[Subtitle] $b a GLAM podcast /
[Statement of responsibility] $c brought to you by newCardigan.

I really wanted to know whether I could keep newCardigan’s distinctive camelCase in the title and access points, or whether I had to refer to the work as ‘Cardicast’ and the producer as ‘Newcardigan’. Fortunately the RDA toolkit saw my dilemma coming, and handily permits the retention of unusual capitalisation if it is the most commonly-known form.

Names of Agents and Places
For names with unusual capitalization, follow the capitalization of the commonly known form.
eg. eBay (Firm)

Titles of Manifestations
Unusual capitalization. For titles with unusual capitalization, follow the capitalization of the title as found on the source of information.
eg. eBay bargain shopping for dummies; SympoTIC ’06

I ran the catalogue record past the cardiCore before writing this post, to make sure I’d gotten the metadata itself correct. They agreed that Justine (as host) and Clare (as the sound editor) deserved added entries of their own. MARC accommodates this quite readily, simply by giving them each a 700 and a $e relator term from the exhaustive list. Naturally, newCardigan is accommodated in a 710 field.

Descriptive elements

Because nobody is actually going to read those fixed fields I just spent two hours painstakingly creating, I’m now going to fill in my 3XX and 5XX fields with all sorts of descriptive data about the podcast: how often it comes out (field 310), whether it’s streamable or downloadable (or both, in this instance), when it began (field 362), and what kind of content I can expect from the podcast (field 520).

Field 508 (Creation/Production Credits Note) enables me to credit the podcast as a newCardigan production and expand on Justine and Clare’s roles, while field 511 (Participant or Performer Note) notes that each episode has a different guest. I’ve also noted in field 588 where my descriptions have come from. This isn’t mandatory, but for a resource with no defined title page or home page it can be useful to know where the metadata came from.

The RDA content/media/carrier types are surprisingly simple: ‘spoken word’ content, ‘audio’ and ‘computer’ medium (so 2 fields) and ‘online resource’ carrier.

Subject headings

This podcast was difficult to index, chiefly because at first I wound up with too many overly-specific headings. I would have preferred an overarching $a GLAM industry $v Periodicals and $a GLAM workers $v Interviews but LCSH doesn’t have anything like that, so I had to split up the GLAM into its constituent sectors. I’m also not sure how I feel about $v Periodicals for continuing resources of this type. I think it’s the lack of print, textual content that bothers me a little. But it works, it has precedent elsewhere and I don’t have any better ideas. Perhaps in future $v Podcasts will become a form subdivision, just as it is already a genre/form term. Or we’ll abolish form subdivisions altogether. That’d be good.

In LCSH, ‘Galleries’ is a UF for ‘Art museums’, in case you were wondering.

Example record

NB: I originally wrote this in MarcEdit and painstakingly inserted all the spaces between subfields (don’t tell me, there’s a regex for that). The slash characters represent a blank space.

LDR  01880cis a2200433 i 4500
006  m\\\\\o\\h\\\\\\\\
006  ser\\\o\\\\\\\\\a2
007  cr\nua\\\auuuu
007  sr\zunnnnnzneu
008  180614c20169999vrannn\fo\\\\\\lt\\\eng\d
040  \\ $a ABCD $b eng $e RDA $d ABCD
042  \\ $a anuc
043  \\ $a u-at---
245  00 $a cardiCast : $b a GLAM podcast / $c brought to you by newCardigan.
246  3\ $a Cardi Cast
264  \1 $a Melbourne, Vic.: $b newCardigan, $c 2016-
300  \\ $a 1 online resource (audio files).
310  \\ $a Fortnightly
336  \\ $a spoken word $b spw $2 rdacontent
337  \\ $a audio $b s $2 rdamedia
337  \\ $a computer $b c $2 rdamedia
338  \\ $a online resource $b cr $2 rdacarrier
347  \\ $a audio file $b MP3 $2 rda
362  1\ $a Began in 2016.
500  \\ $a Available as streaming audio or as downloadable MP3 files.
500  \\ $a Resource website includes episode listing and links to individual downloads.
508  \\ $a Hosted by Justine Hanna ; sound editing by Clare Presser. A corporate 
           production of the newCardigan GLAM collective. 
511  \\ $a Each episode features a different speaker or interviewee.
520  \\ $a "cardiCast is a GLAM podcast published every fortnight. Hear a recording of 
           a previous cardiParty, or interviews with interesting GLAM people from 
           around Australia and the world."--newCardigan website.
588  \\ $a Description based on episode 32 and information from the newCardigan 
           website. Title from spoken introduction of episode 32 (accessed 
           June 14, 2018).
610  20 $a newCardigan $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Art museums $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Libraries $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Archives $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Museums $v Periodicals
655  \7 $a Podcasts $2 lcgft
700  1\ $a Hanna, Justine $e host
700  1\ $a Presser, Clare $e recording engineer
710  2\ $a newCardigan $e producer
856  40 $z Website with links to episodes and accompanying text 
        $u https://newcardigan.org/category/cardicast/

Indigenous names in authority records: the case of Jandamarra

UPDATE (20 June 2018): This has now been addressed! I noticed a couple of days ago that the NLA have updated this authority record, such that it now follows the AIATSIS example, “Jandamarra, approximately 1870-1897.” (The Libraries Australia heading and Trove duplicate issue both remain, but I understand they are managed by different areas within NLA.) While I was not directly informed of the NLA’s decision to update Jandamarra’s authority record, I am thrilled that they have done so. Thank you, NLA cataloguers, for making this necessary change.

A selection of books about Jandamarra. (Picture courtesy AIATSIS)

It’s all well and good for librarians to talk about decolonisation, but we need to put our money where our mouths are. Cataloguers are no exception—we decide how resources are described and accessed. We dictate the effectiveness of a search strategy. We alone have the power to name.1

Being the sort of person who browses library catalogues for fun, I wound up on a NLA record for a play about Jandamarra, the Bunuba resistance fighter. Except the subject headings in this record didn’t name him at all. Instead they named some bloke called ‘Pigeon’.

100 0# $a Pigeon, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Jandamarra


Apparently ‘Pigeon’ was a name given to Jandamarra by a white pastoralist.2 The 15 books held by the NLA with this subject heading overwhelmingly refer to a man named Jandamarra. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is under this name. The Canberra street named in his honour uses this name. Why doesn’t the NLA use this name?

The whole thing couldn’t be more colonial if it tried.3 A colonial institution (the library) referring to an Indigenous man by a colonial name (‘Pigeon’) and qualifying it with his year of death in a colonial calendar (1897). Jandamarra’s authority record represents his name and life as it was known to white people. How would the Bunuba describe him? Would they use the name ‘Jandamarra’ at all? What could a more culturally appropriate authority record look like? How might we disambiguate people without reference to colonial names, occupations or calendars?4

100 0# $a Jandamarra $c (Bunuba man)
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d -1897

As a white cataloguer I firmly believe a change needs to be made. Such a change would have greater impact if it were also made in Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue (on which more later). The name ‘Pigeon’ is also used there, identically to its use in the NLA’s catalogue.

Let’s fix that

The issue then becomes: how might I make this change? More importantly, how might the community suggest a change? There is a way to suggest changes to name headings on the ANBD, but it’s very difficult to find—the Libraries Australia reftracker includes two options for ‘Propose a LCSH change’ and ‘Propose a new LCSH’ (where ‘LCSH’, apparently, includes all headings, name and subject alike). The form states that the info you provide goes straight to LC (that is, it’s not evaluated locally). It also immediately starts demanding my name, my NUC code, tells me to choose my 1XX heading, include 670 source citations, LC pattern or SCM memo, use for, broader term, related term??

I am a fluent MARC speaker and I know a 680 when I see one, but I have never dared fill out that form. I can’t see how an ordinary person would ever be able to suggest a formal change for Australian usage. Crowdsourcing initiatives like Violet Fox’s Cataloging Lab (which, for the record, I love), are necessarily US-centric and wouldn’t immediately address a local problem. Besides, the guidelines for establishing name authorities in the ANBD expressly state that Australian entities are exempt from the ‘let LC decide’ policy.

Besides, even if we were able to navigate the form and suggest a change, what would the change be? For guidance, I looked to AIATSIS’ catalogue. Sensibly, and in delightful accordance with RDA, they have opted to use 100 0# $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897 as the preferred form. I figure if it’s good enough for AIATSIS, it’s good enough for me.

Wondering what other libraries used, I then looked at the Library of Congress’ NAF (Name Authority File) record. To my surprise, they used a different spelling:

100 0# $a Sandamarra, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Jandamarra, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Tjandamara, $d -1897

This record was created in 1989 and revised in 2013. A search of both LC’s catalogue and WorldCat (via the Libraries Australia Z39.50 interface, in case that makes a difference) brought up no results with this spelling, so I couldn’t determine if a particular work was used as its basis. Usually these works would be recorded in a 670 field, but these had nothing.

It would not be beyond LC to update its heading to the more commonly-used spelling. Pleasingly, they have form in this area: in 2003, LC changed several dozen subject headings relating to $a Aboriginal Australians (or $a Australian aborigines, as they were then described) in consultation with the NLA.

What’s in Trove?

I then found myself browsing the Trove People and organisations zone, where authority records are given a new life as sources of biographical data. Like other parts of Trove, the P&O zone aggregates and incorporates data from a variety of sources. I was therefore surprised to find Jandamarra listed under this name, using data from AIATSIS and the Australian Dictionary of Biography; as established above, both sources used the most commonly-known spelling. Notably, this did not include data from Libraries Australia:

Record for Jandamarra within Trove’s People and organisations zone.

The great thing about Trove identity records is that they display the ‘Also known as’ data (or UFs, or non-preferred terms, or 4XX fields, or whatever). It’s really hard to get an ILS to display this info, especially in an easy-to-read format like Trove has done. I’m really pleased to see this data out in the open and not hidden down the back of the authority file sofa.

Now, what happens if I search the P&O zone for ‘Pigeon’?

Jandamarra appears twice, with a slightly different spelling

We see that Jandamarra (-1897) is the first result, but the fifth is for Jundumurra, Pigeon (?!), which features data from AIATSIS and Libraries Australia. (This particular LA record pulls its data from AIATSIS anyway, so strictly speaking this isn’t the NLA’s fault, but it’s still a dupe that LA and/or Trove would have to merge.)

Interestingly, the original authority record from the NLA (‘Pigeon’, remember him?) doesn’t appear to be represented in the P&I zone at all. I wonder if that was a conscious or unconscious decision?

For completeness, here’s the real AIATSIS name authority, which in my view is also the best one:

100 0# $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Jundamurra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Sandamara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Sandawara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Tjandamara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Tjangamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Jandamura, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Wonimarra, $d approximately 1870-1897

It turns out that Jandamarra has three (!) name authority records in Libraries Australia, one from the NLA and two from AIATSIS. Ordinarily I would consider this a major data integrity issue, and 100 10 $a Jundumurra, Pigeon is a bit of a problem, but for the moment I’m actually okay with the other two full-level records, because they help illustrate the differing approaches and mindsets from the two institutions. In time, I’d like to narrow that down, though.


In short, here’s what I would like to see happen so that Jandamarra is referred to by his rightful name in the ANBD, and in catalogues that use ANBD records:

1) Libraries Australia to modify their name authority record and establish the preferred form as $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897, in accordance with that used by AIATSIS, and add non-preferred forms as appropriate. This change could then ripple across to the NLA’s catalogue, and other libraries that use Libraries Australia authorities would eventually follow suit. Maybe a little publicity around the change—after all, it’s being done for the right reasons.

2) Trove to merge the two identity records such that Jandamarra appears only once, that ‘Pigeon’ appears under the ‘Also known as’ list (so those who know him by that name are redirected accordingly), and that the sources of data encompass AIATSIS, Libraries Australia and the National Dictionary of Biography.

Such moves may seem small, but they would represent a sincere and concerted effort to decolonise the authority file. Cataloguers can, and should, restore the power to name to Indigenous communities, especially where colonial names have been used to describe Indigenous people and concepts. A name is not the cataloguer’s to take—it is the community’s to give.

  1. Olson, Hope A. (2001). The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 26(3), 639-668. doi: 10.1086/495624 
  2. Pedersen, Howard (1990). Jandamarra (1870–1897), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/jandamarra-8822/text15475 Accessed 20 May 2018. 
  3. For more on the cultural sensitivities around Indigenous subject headings, see Kam, D. V. (2007). Subject Headings for Aboriginals: The Power of Naming. Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society Of North America, 26(2), 18-22. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/adx.26.2.27949465 
  4. See also Frank Exner, Little Bear’s excellent treatise on Native American names in the world’s authority files: Exner, Frank, Little Bear (2008). North American Indian Personal Names in National Bibliographies. In Radical Cataloging: Essays from the Front. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. 

Five things I learned at #coGLAM18… and a bit extra

I am the future. It’s me. #coGLAM18

Last Sunday I went on an expedition to Sydney for Rob Thomson’s annual NSW library technicians’ unconference extravaganza. This year was an inclusive affair, with the title of CoGLAMeration attracting participants from across the industries. I learned SO much and had a great time, even if I needed the Monday off to recover from all that networking. I may also have volunteered to catalogue a capsule hotel! I know I learned way more than five things, so here are a few selections. (They are metadata-heavy, because that’s how I roll.)

We are already doing the thing! Upon announcing the first curated session, Rob also invited attendees, if they so chose, to a breakout session either on ‘cataloguing’ or ‘critical librarianship’. These are basically my favourite things in the world to talk about, so I asked if we could combine them, to which Rob responded (I paraphrase) ‘of course you can! it’s an unconference! do what you want!’ I therefore became the unexpected and slightly unwilling leader of a combined breakout session, which about 10 people attended. Fortunately everyone was enthused and ready to chat, starting with ‘so what is critical librarianship exactly?’

I reckon just about everyone in that session was already a critical librarianship practitioner—they just mightn’t have known it had a name. It was gratifying, and a little humbling, to realise that my fellow attendees didn’t need me to teach them how to ask ‘why?’. They were already asking the right questions, coming up with ways to improve their catalogue (most of which they couldn’t implement due to policy, budget or skillset, on which more later) and striving to provide the best library experience possible. Of course they were. They were seasoned library experts. I was the ring-in fresh out of library school, who still had so much to learn. They were all very nice to me, though. (Special thanks to Bonnie who helped steer conversations and provided great insights!)

Good metadata is another facet of the class war. The #critlib/#critcat 2x combo breakout session was populated mostly by school librarians, who expressed some frustration with the limited resources at their disposal. Never having worked in a school library, their stories were a huge learning experience for me. They spoke of the divide between top private schools, who can afford to subscribe directly to Libraries Australia or WorldCat, or to otherwise pay for top-quality metadata; and all the other schools, which generally use SCIS and can’t always afford a skilled library tech to improve their catalogue. (NB: I have never used SCIS and so cannot pass judgement on it.)

While I’m used to cataloguing with limited resources (I’ve never used WebDewey or ClassWeb and have grown used to using FreeLCSH), I’ve always had the luxury of a) access to Libraries Australia b) the time and space to create good metadata and c) the policy and technical abilities to modify others’ data so it meets my library’s needs. The idea that metadata is not created equal was a bombshell. Every library should have access to the right metadata—and be able to make it the right metadata for them. Seize the means of metadata production! Cataloguers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your sanity!

Next year!

Cataloguers need to sell themselves. Not necessarily monetarily, unless they’re into that kind of thing, but there’s a definite need for metadata workers to take a more active role in the promotion of our work. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t love having to do this. I am an introvert. I find people really hard. I like being able to work quietly and efficiently without too much interaction with other people. I also recently took a job as a reference librarian for exactly these reasons—because I know I need to get better at this stuff, but also because reference and cataloguing are two sides of the same coin. Getting first-hande experience of patrons’ reference and information needs will help me build a better catalogue. It will also help me extol the virtues of good metadata to the people in charge, because I’ll be able to better vocalise where it’s needed.

I appear to have become something of a cataloguing and metadata evangelist, and it’s certainly not something I ever thought I’d be doing. Honestly, though, it comes down to spotting a need. We’re not selling metadata as much as we need to. Our skills are decreasingly valued, decreasingly taught and decreasingly visible. Good metadata is not valued for its own sake. It’s up to us cataloguers to prove our worth. Just… give us a cuppa first.

I specialise in the art of good fortune, and also metadata. The breakout session touched on the issue of generalisation versus specialisation within LIS, as many participants were solo librarians and needed to be able to do everything. I was held up as an example of a specialist, and to the extent I know anything about metadata I suppose I am, but it got me thinking later on about how that came to be. What factors enabled me to specialise? Why am I afforded this luxury, while others are not?

I am, of course, a product of demographic fortune. Young, white, well-educated women have an easier road in this sector. But two things stood out. Firstly, that I was born and raised in a city with a comparative abundance of libraries. LIS punches well above its weight here, with the public, private and higher education sectors all still employing librarians. It’s meant I’ve had a plethora of library jobs to choose from, and I could afford to do what I love. Secondly, I have a single-minded focus on my career goals. I wanted to be a librarian. I now am! I wanted to catalogue for a living. I now am (and soon will be doing so full-time)! I wanted to work at a particular institution. I now am!!! These things happened because I worked hard, but also because other people took a chance on me, and because I got very, very lucky.

My tweetstream brings all the threads to the yard. Speaking of wheels of fortune, Bonnie’s fabulous talk ‘Critical making: rethinking access and engagement in GLAM’, prompted a delightful exchange on my twitter feed. At one point, Bonnie spoke of using the online screenprinting company Spoonflower to produce the fabrics used in her amazing #redactionart and #digitisethedawn dresses, the latter of which she wore to the event. (Love a dress that comes with its own hashtag!) This prompted American metadata magician Scotty Carlson to muse:

Scotty designed the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt I was wearing to #coGLAM18 (if you want one, he has a teepublic shop!). His tweet tied in beautifully with earlier conversations around cataloguing outreach, the subversive nature of textiles and the power of statement dressing. Also pockets. Such wondrous fabric might even convince me to learn to sew.

Enjoy all your successes, no matter how small. This is a sneaky sixth thing because it was a lesson I really needed to hear. I was thrilled to finally meet Bonnie in person and say ‘you’re awesome!’, and in return she bestowed upon me a large quantity of wisdom. One of these things was a reminder that success comes in all sizes: some earth-shattering, some minuscule. Not everything has to be a sector-changing event for it to be considered a success. Even getting people to think critically about Dewey, or wonder about critlib, for the first time, for even a second—these are all successes! These are all wins.

I have long expressed my frustration about the glacial pace of progress in LIS. I dislike the fact I can’t achieve three revolutions before breakfast. But Bonnie graciously reminded me that success doesn’t have to be big. It’s okay to take the long view, but don’t lose sight of the small victories.


Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate

Regular followers of my twitter account will know that I regularly complain about uniform titles. I know that’s not an RDA-approved term, but I don’t currently have the luxury of a wholly RDA-approved catalogue, and time passes particularly slowly in the tech services department. It’s also the term currently used for the 130 and 240 MARC fields, a format to which we remain shackled, and in which someone will probably write my eulogy.

In my view, uniform titles are some of the most misunderstood and misused fields in cataloguing. I say this not to look down on those who remain baffled (for I was myself baffled right up until last week) but because they don’t really serve the purpose for which they were intended. I’ve seen so many records with uniform titles they didn’t need, inserted by cataloguers who were no doubt simply following someone’s rules.

According to the 2005 revision of AACR2, a uniform title had the following functions:

Uniform title. 1. The particular title by which a work is to be identified for cataloguing purposes. 2. The particular title used to distinguish the heading for a work from the heading for a different work. 3. A conventional collective title used to collocate publications of an author, composer, or corporate body containing several works or extracts, etc., from several works (e.g., complete works, several works in a particular literary or musical form).1

In other words: a cataloguer might choose, create, or otherwise determine a particular title to associate with a given work; to disambiguate from other works of the same name; and to collocate works with different names within a title index. It’s a form of authority control; titles and author/title combinations are often given authority records of their own. (Hence the tie-in to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme, ‘control’.)

Association, disambiguation, collocation: that’s a lot to ask of one field, and I can grudgingly accept that most of it made sense within a book or card catalogue. Remember, this refers not to collocation of books on a shelf (that’s what classification schemes are for) but for collocation of entries within a catalogue. Until quite recently, a catalogue was simply a collection of indexes: title, author, subject. Librarians wanted these entries arranged in a particular order, and created filing rules to ensure this order was adhered to.

During the development of MARC in the 1960s (led by the incredible Henriette Avram), a format originally designed to automate the production of catalogue cards, the layout of a MARC record mirrored the layout of an AACR-compliant catalogue card.2 The first paragraph, mapped to the 1XX set of tags, included the main entry—an author, corporate body or meeting, but also uniform titles where the work in question had no author, but another, different, title proper. The second paragraph featured the title proper and edition statements, and were recorded in the 2XX set of tags. Because a uniform title could conceivably end up in multiple places on a catalogue card, depending on whether there was an author attached, the developers opted to create two fields.

(In the first example, it’s considered advantageous to have all the Bibles entered directly under title, collocated in the title index, then disambiguated by language, version, year [in that order]. In the second example, we already have an author, but the item in hand has a different title to that by which it is more commonly known.)

130 1# $a Bible. $l English. $s New Revised Standard. $f 2003 
245 14 The new interpreter's study Bible : $b New Revised Standard version 
       with the Apocrypha. 


100 1# $a Xenophon $e author.
240 10 $a Hellenica. $l English.
245 12 $a A history of my times / $c Xenophon ; translated by Rex Warner.

Apropos of nothing, this also explains how the title statement, arguably the best-known MARC tag, was assigned the odd number 245:

To represent the second paragraph of the catalog card (title and edition), the MARC developers logically chose the 200 range of tag numbers. Because they had reached 130 in the first paragraph, and were trying to proceed by tens, the first choice for the title tag was 240. Continuing by tens, the 250 for edition and 260 for publication information were also defined. Law librarians, however, asked where the uniform filing title, which they used for filing, should be placed. Since uniform title preceded title proper on catalog cards, it seemed logical to maintain this arrangement in the MARC record, so the 240 was reassigned for uniform title, and the 245 tag (halfway between the filing title and the edition) was created for the title proper.3

Law librarians: warping MARC logic since 1965.

Anyway, back to titles. When I was learning to catalogue, I struggled with the reasoning behind uniform titles, as I had no concept of a title index to base them on. Never having used a card catalogue in my life, I saw no reason why anyone would use a browse function instead of a keyword search. (I stand by this view.) Even the idea of collocation doesn’t work in a keyword-based OPAC setting, because I can dive straight to the record I want, with no reason (or, indeed, ability) to view records on either side in any index. Viewing a list of records in browse mode is so… old-fashioned. (Besides, if there is no reason to do this, there is also no reason to create uniquely identifying main entry headings… (taps noggin))

The main cause of my frequent twitter complaints about uniform titles are the preponderance of unnecessary titles in our catalogue, specifically those relating to online resources. Because MARC-based catalogues entail a flat record structure, we can’t (yet) nest different expressions of a work, to use RDA parlance, within a work-level authority record. Instead we’re stuck with one record per manifestation, whose titles we have to disambiguate. Because so many resources exist in both print and online versions, and often a library has access to both, the obvious differentiating factor is whether it’s online or not. Therefore a resource might be titled: 130 1# $a Economist (Online) to distinguish it from the print version.

The problem is when cataloguers take this to mean that every online resource must be so titled, even when it has no print equivalent. This has the effect of 1) cluttering the catalogue with unnecessary uniform titles and 2) furthering the antiquated narrative that print resources are the norm, and online is the exception. There’s no point in creating 130 1# $a Digital humanities quarterly (Online) if it has only ever existed in an online format.

Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate! (sigh)

Tell you what, I can’t wait for my wholly RDA-compliant, IFLA-LRM-based, fully FRBR-ised catalogue of the future (now with 25% more acronyms!). I look forward to being able to bring expressions together under a work-level authority, and have this tree display intuitively in an OPAC. I look forward to not having to use titles as disambiguators for indexing purposes. I look forward to relinquishing some of my control over the form and display of titles within a catalogue.4

I look forward to dispensing with uniform titles, for they have well and truly reached their use-by date.

  1. As reproduced in the RDA Toolkit, accessed 29 April 2018. 
  2. For more on this fascinating topic, see Jo Calk & Bob Persing (2000). From Catalog Card to MARC, The Serials Librarian, 38:3-4, 349-355. DOI: 10.1300/J123v38n03_20 
  3. Ibid, p. 351. 
  4. For more on the history of uniform titles, see Jean Weihs & Lynne C. Howarth (2008). Uniform Titles From AACR to RDA, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 46:4, 362-384, DOI: 10.1080/01639370802322853