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.

Catharsis: and other things I learned while being #APLICLeftBehind

It has been a very difficult couple of weeks. I have not been my usual self. I can blame cataloguing for most of it. I could also partly blame #APLIC18, the recent tripartite LIS conference on the Gold Coast, which a lot of my friends attended and which stoked a serious case of epic fomo. But that’s very much a background issue. It’s taken me a while to process everything that’s gone on and try to find a more well-lit path. I’m aware half the office reads this blog, but at the same time, there’s nothing here I wouldn’t say to my boss. So here goes.

I am not my work. Any more. Last week was quite bad. I had an unexpected encounter with traumatic and poorly-phrased LCSH, which I am looking to change. I was also very ill, both physically and mentally, and spent a lot of time in bed. I have struggled recently with a sudden and severe change in my relationship to my work, as well as how I approach cataloguing, because cataloguing is my life, and also my job. I found it harder to enjoy. I had trouble getting up in the morning. I felt my perspective narrowing. I leaned very heavily on friends for support. Last Wednesday, I hit the wall. And the wall collapsed on top of me.

I know, intellectually, that it isn’t healthy to derive so much personal fulfilment and meaning from one’s work. And yet I do it anyway, because I have learned this about myself, that I operate this way. I used to love cataloguing. Used to. I don’t love it, currently. It grieves me that I say this. I hate that I have become this person.

I now speak about my passion for cataloguing in the past tense, and it kills me.

I would like the old me to come back. I think it could happen. Perhaps it is already starting to happen, a little. I don’t know how long it might take (days? weeks? months?) or how it might come about. But I would like to try and rekindle my love of cataloguing, because without it I don’t recognise myself. I feel hollow and without purpose. It’s a hole that my other interests can’t quite fill.

Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have learned a lot about myself over the past few weeks. I had previously thought I was okay at cataloguing, having more or less staked my career on it. I recently received a lot of feedback that suggested otherwise. I looked for a sign that I was doing something (anything!) right, that I was not completely hopeless at what I thought I was good at. A sign did not appear. I worried that I had somehow lied to everyone. It was imposter syndrome writ large.

Most people will read this and say ‘honestly, Alissa, what did you expect? What did you think cataloguing entailed? It’s standards all the way down’. I am not a hardcore standards enforcer and I never have been. My perspective on cataloguing is informed by user needs. What do users need from our catalogue? What metadata will connect an item with a search string? How can we best describe items (especially non-online resources) in meaningful and accessible ways? I believe breaking rules makes records better. I also don’t care about a lot of things that other cataloguers care deeply about, like ISBD punctuation, a perfect set of fixed fields, or the exact phrasing of where a title statement has come from (‘Title from cover’, not ‘Cover title’, apparently!). A catalogue should only ever be a glorified finding aid. It does not need to be a work of art in its own right.

Obviously I would like to be a better cataloguer. I would also like to go to work and feel as if I can do something right. It has been immensely difficult reconciling this poor feedback with my previous estimations of my cataloguing ability, and by extension my estimations of myself as a person. To be fair, most of my errors are of the cosmetic variety, or relate to institution-specific policies that are new to me, rather than deeper systemic problems with access points and descriptions. But a perfectly standards-compliant record can also be functionally useless, and a colossal waste of a cataloguer’s time to produce. I still take my errors to heart. It took me three weeks to get a record past the quality checker. I will never be perfect. I should probably stop trying to be perfect.

It has been a hard lesson, though.

Invite yourself to the party. In an effort to ameliorate said conference fomo and improve my mood, I started a hashtag on twitter for those of us who couldn’t attend APLIC but wanted to be involved anyway. #APLICLeftBehind became a meeting point for people keen to have their say, while also serving as a useful heads-up to attendees that we were commentating from afar. I loved that non-attendees from all sorts of places popped in and kept it going, even when I wasn’t in a position to say much. The hashtag will even be making an appearance in the forthcoming (entirely unofficial) APLIC zine, curated by Rebel GLAM. And it didn’t cost me a cent.

I have nothing to lose but my chains. They say libraries gave us power, but then work came and made us free. Many of us become librarians because we want to make a difference, to give back to our communities, to enrich the intellectual and social lives of library users everywere. Librarianship is heavy with ideology, tradition and dogma, and it weighs us down. I don’t think I expected to spend so much of my professional time a) navel-gazing b) fighting the man or c) thinking quite seriously about giving it all away. I certainly never expected I would lose my passion for cataloguing so quickly, and so severely.

I’m at the stage where I can catalogue more or less on autopilot (allowing for time to go back and correct my inevitable punctuation errors). I don’t want to be this person. I want to care deeply about my work. I want to fill my cataloguing with care and zest and a desire to do better. I don’t want to be crying while reading my old posts and tweets, remembering the cataloguer I used to be, and wondering where that went. If I can rekindle the passion for metadata that got me here—and right now that is a big if—I hope to free myself as much as possible from the expectations of other people and structures, and devote my energies to where I can get things done. It’s almost as if the structure and nature of librarianship sets us all up to fail, and that if we don’t realise this, we’re not paying enough attention.

People tell me I am more than my cataloguing. They’re not letting me fail. I wish I could repay this faith, but right now all I can offer is my gratitude. I don’t want to perpetuate a charade. I can’t keep pretending that everything is fine. I am not the cataloguer I used to be. But maybe, one day, I will be a better cataloguer. And I will have learned a few things.

Finding my voice

I’ve done a lot of talking over the last couple of weeks. So much, in fact, that I have been richly rewarded with a persistent hacking cough and the subsequent loss of half my vocal range. (It’s put a serious dent in my karaoke plans.) A lot has gone into helping me find my voice, learning when and how to deploy it, knowing when to stop talking, and realising my limits. A lot went into losing my voice, too.

Joining the fishpond

As you may already have heard, I was the featured guest on episode 18 of the Turbitt & Duck podcast, hosted by dynamic library duo Sally Turbitt and Amy Walduck. You may remember Sally and Amy as the NLS8 co-convenors, who have decided to use their powers for good and amplify a range of GLAM voices via their fortnightly podcast. Sally asked me at #coGLAM18 if I was interested in being on the show, and I said yes on the condition that I didn’t have to provide a photo of my face…

Inexplicably, the episode has been getting rave reviews! I’m thrilled that people seem to have genuinely enjoyed spending an hour and 15 minutes listening to me talk about cataloguing—it’s a subject not usually renowed for attracting people’s attention. I also enjoyed making ‘Bibliographic Data Wizard’ a thing. I think I need it on a t-shirt. Or my email signature.

Despite my cheerful and engaged exterior, I was extremely anxious during recording. Making this podcast was one of the most stressful things I have ever done. This is through absolutely no fault of Sally and Amy’s, who went out of their way to help me feel comfortable and reassured, and who could tell I was a long way out of my comfort zone. The episode you’re listening to is actually the second take—it got so bad I asked to pause the recording after a good half-hour of talking, and we agreed to start over. Getting through recording took a long time and was incredibly draining. (I don’t know how Sally and Amy do this every fortnight—they have souls of steel!) I’m not sure how I sound on the podcast, not being a reliable judge of my own voice, but if I sound stressed or nervous or jittery, it’s because I am. Outreach doesn’t come naturally to me, but here I am doing it anyway. I’m glad I did the podcast, and I’m hugely grateful to Sally and Amy for the opportunity (and for your support!), but I’m not sure I could record another one for a long while.

I also want to reiterate the advice I gave to students and new graduates about using your voices for good. Never be afraid to speak up. Speak up and out and loudly, because you are the future. Talk about what doesn’t make sense. Talk about things in libraries you think are weird, or old, or strange, or stupid, because without your input, more experienced practitioners often won’t realise there is a problem at all. For better or worse, they rely on people speaking up. If speaking out loud is as hard for you as it is for me, hop on twitter, set up a blog, join some library facebook groups. Don’t keep your opinions to yourself—let them out, nurture them, help them grow.

Talking out loud

A couple of months ago I was, erm, volunteered into giving a talk at my (now former) workplace about using web archives for reference queries, based on a blog post I wrote on the subject. I must admit I wasn’t wild about the idea but resolved to do it anyway, largely because invites had already been sent out, and also because I figured I wouldn’t get better at stuff I don’t practise.

True to form, I asked the internet for help. I was blown away by the quantity and quality of advice I received on effective public speaking and the calming of nerves—your suggestions made a big difference, and I am truly grateful. 🙂 Open up the thread below and have a read. I thoroughly recommend it.

It didn’t stop me being super nervous on the day of the presentation, though. My colleague was gracious enough to admit that if she’d realised how anxious I would be about presenting, she might have reconsidered volunteering me for it, but she did take care of the IT and the room booking and getting people to show up (she’s quite good at that). I’m sure I spoke too fast and looked very nervous, but the attendees seemed to enjoy the talk, and a couple of people asked for the slides afterwards. I even managed a small web archive hiccup with a well-timed ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ screenshot. #smooth

Overall, while I’m glad the presentation went well, the idea of public speaking wasn’t something I was keen to repeat. So what did I do? Submitted an abstract for a big fancy conference. I was encouraged to do this by well-meaning people on twitter, even as I felt I wasn’t quite ready, that the conference wasn’t a good fit for me, that my proposal was shallow and ill-considered. I went ahead and submitted.

I withdrew from this conference last week. I had come to realise that between the web archives talk and the podcast recording, public speaking or presenting of any kind was, for the moment, beyond my capabilities. And the podcast wasn’t even that public. I recorded Turbitt & Duck in my dressing gown, in my house, with a pot of tea and two very supportive ladies for company. On paper it couldn’t have been more comfy. But other people can only do so much to help me overcome my nerves. At root it’s a me problem. It’s my own personal inability to cope with suddenly having an audience listening to my every word, probably livetweeting it, being on the spot and needing to instantly have an answer. I can’t do it. It is beyond me. So, for the moment, I’m quitting while I’m ahead.

Having said all that: my next big professional goal is to present at NLS9, on a topic close to my heart. It’ll be a friendly and supportive audience. I’ve already got half the talk written. I am super motivated to make this happen, and it’s far enough away that I’m hopeful of conquering my fear of professional public speaking beforehand. If I don’t succeed… well, there’s always twitter. Or tranquilliser.

Five things I (belatedly) learned at #FutureGLAM2018

A couple of Fridays ago I trundled down to Melbourne (by train, which was very exciting) for the FutureGLAM symposium at Deakin Downtown. The weather was only slightly horrible, and I got only slightly lost. It was a worthwhile day and I was chuffed to be able to put several names to faces. I also enjoyed giving the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt another outing. I am writing this slightly late so my recollections are brief, and not as sharp as they might once have been, but it was definitely a worthwhile day.

Convergence is a dystopia. Helena Robinson’s talk on ‘Interpreting sustainability’ referenced an article by Adam Rozan in the ‘Museums 2040’ special issue of Museums magazine describing a future where we have all coalesced into one generic Public Services Shop. It sounded horrific. Neoliberal capitalist dystopia! Cultural utilitarianism! Judging cultural institutions and services purely on their monetary worth! No thanks!

I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover later on in Helena’s talk that Adam had presented this as a good thing. Yes, a good thing! (Helena’s reaction was also dystopian.) The article itself has a disarmingly upbeat tone, but if neoliberalism is all you’ve ever known, how else will you see the future? Helena summarised the pros and cons of convergence, the topic of her PhD thesis, as creating a better surface layer visitor experience, but worsening almost every other aspect of GLAM professional practice. This doesn’t sound sustainable to me. Or desirable.

Convergence is never gonna happen because we are too different. In my view, the biggest divide within GLAM is not between the individual letters, but between the cultural heritage practitioners on one side and the information science practitioners on the other. Each side seems to think that they are GLAM. I feel this divide more strongly between librarians and other professionals, perhaps because I was once one of those rare librarians who dealt with both sides (I used to be a local history collections librarian).

I couldn’t help noticing that the attendees were a strongly museums crowd. Even the subtitle of the event was ‘Collaboration and convergence in the cultural heritage sector’. At the time of this conference I worked in law tech services. There was zero cultural heritage in that job. But I don’t know what kind of descriptor would adequately describe—and hence unify—all corners of the GLAM sector. The acronym on its own means nothing. What unites us, really? And is it more than that which divides us?

Placemaking is in. As a psychogeographer1, I am extremely interested in the intersection of virtual reality and place heritage, which became something of a recurring theme during the symposium. Amy Tsilemanis and Barry James Gilson’s speech / yarn / performance ‘Storytelling Ballaraat City’ was a highlight. Amy and Barry’s work is rooted in place, people and heritage, with Wadawurrung lore interwoven with the built history of Ballarat town.

All the talk of VR and AR worried me, though, and it’s not just because VR makes me seasick. How can we properly immerse people in place if they’ve got a Google Cardboard strapped to their heads? At what point does the virtual overtake the physical? Which are we really choosing?

Give me context or give me death. I had my first taste of a Mike Jones presentation and it was every bit the roller-coaster ride I’d been promised. Mike’s forthcoming PhD thesis centres on ‘relationality and the interconnectedness of archives and museum collections’ and after that talk I seriously want to read the whole damn thing.

Mike said loads of really clever things really quickly, but my favourite was about the state of our context. People seem to think that in order to make collections accessible online, we can simply attach as much metadata and keywords as we want to digitised objects and simply chucking them on the net will make them findable. Guess what? It’s not enough! Context is key! We need to build explicit connections and pathways between collection items, especially online, to give a fuller contextual picture. (There’s a reason Mike’s blog is named ‘Context Junky’.)

We are all so tired. I managed to catch up with Nathan Sentance for all of thirty seconds before someone interrupted and we only got as far as ‘Hey, how you going?’ ‘I’m exhausted’ ‘Yeah me too’. I don’t even recall who said what. It could have been either. Most of the FutureGLAM attendees had already spent the week at the Museums Galleries Australia national conference, so no wonder they were exhausted, but I’d spent all of the previous day on a train and I was still tired. It wasn’t just a momentary tired—it was the kind of weariness that seeps into your bones. I’ve been doing a lot. We’ve all been doing a lot. Life takes it out of us. We need to recharge.


  1. Psychogeography: ‘the study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind or on behaviour; the geographical environment of a particular location, typically a city, considered with regard to its influence on the mind or on behaviour. Also, that’s gotta be the most pretentious thing I have ever said about myself. I already hate it. It’s almost as bad as ‘flâneuse’. 

cardiVangelism

Have you heard the good news about cardigans?

It’s great news. And I’d like to share it with you.

You see, three years ago a small group of disaffected GLAM professionals had an idea. Instead of spending their thirties growing increasingly despondent about the future of their sector, they would bring together gallery workers, museum curators, librarians, archivists and records managers. They would hold talks and tours in cultural spaces, and invite attendees to reflect on contemporary GLAM practice and their own careers. And then they’d go for a drink.

They called the group newCardigan (presumably because we could all use one). The gatherings became cardiParties. And the word spread, from Melbourne all the way to Perth, and via the internet.

In time, someone had the brilliant idea to record gatherings for those who couldn’t attend. These became cardiCast, a wonderful way to experience cardiParties from afar and an easy hour of free PD.

They’re not just about the parties, though: newCardigan also runs the Aus GLAM Blogs twitter bot, an aggregator and reposter of the best Australian GLAM content around (including yours truly), and GLAM Blog Club, a monthly writing prompt and post roundup.

I am a devout cardigan. I am a regular cardiCast listener, an enthusiastic GLAM Blog Club blogger, a frequent contributor to Aus GLAM Blogs. I wish I could attend cardiParties every month. But I don’t live in Melbourne or Perth, and there’s not a critical mass of engaged GLAM professionals in this town to start a group of our own. So I attend vicariously, and engage in other ways, and journey every few months to Melbourne to be with my fellow cardigans. (In fact, I’m writing this post on the train home, a nine-hour odyssey.)

Interestingly, the two parties cardiCore member Nik referenced during her talk at FutureGLAM earlier that day happened to be the two parties I’ve actually been to: the Race and Identity party at the Immigration Museum in July last year, and the Unfinished Business party at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in February this year. This was in the context of newCardigan being a proudly non-neutral organisation, a naturally progressive group whose members imbue their morals and values in their work, and who aren’t afraid to address and tackle systemic inequities within our profession, and our society at large.

For my part, I don’t think I would ever have gone to either institution were it not for newCardigan. The group invites me to step far outside my comfort zone. And yet it’s a wonderfully safe and inclusive place. I have always felt at home at newCardigan. I hope others have likewise.

I recall someone telling me that while a few committed cardigans were cardiParty regulars, most attendees tended to self-silo into parties matching their sector; museum workers tended to go to parties at museums, archivists would attend archive parties and so on. I think I would have done similar at the very beginning of my career (which was only a couple of years ago!), but these days it’s nicer to branch out. One can only take so much library in one’s professional diet.


By wonderful coincidence, I was in Melbourne for newCardigan’s third birthday party. There were speeches, drinks, cake and lots of catching up, and I had a great time. Fellow cardigan Clare and I had responded to the cardiCore invitation to share our memories of the group, and seeing as we were both attending anyway it was decided we should make speeches of our own.

Clare made a beautifully prepared speech about newCardigan helping them to come out of their shell and become a more engaged librarian. I ad-libbed a highly condensed version of the above and shared an embarrassing story about my first cardiParty that had the room howling with laughter. (I won’t repeat it here. I think Hugh’s suffered enough.)

Despite not often being able to make cardiParties in person, I still get so much out of newCardigan. I try to contribute to GLAM Blog Club most months (you can read my contributions here) and I enjoy catching up on cardiCast. I’ve met so many lovely people at the parties I’ve been able to attend, and it’s been great to put twitter handles to faces. I sound like a cardiVangelist, and I suppose I am, but honestly I am just an ordinary cardigan, albeit a contented one. I can’t help the fact you’re all so awesome.

It can be hard keeping the faith sometimes as an enthusiastic new GLAM professional, in a city that often doesn’t seem to care all that much. Participating in newCardigan has helped immensely. I know I’m not alone, that others struggle the same way I do, that change will only happen if we are part of this change.

Thanks for everything cardiCore. You’re the best thing about the GLAM sector in this country.

And thank you, fellow cardigans, for being so awesome.

PS: I will shamelessly echo Clare’s parting comments: you should definitely sign up as a formal member of newCardigan. And buy a t-shirt.

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.

🙂

Five things I didn’t learn at #VALA2018 (because I didn’t go)

VALA2018 logo with sadface

This is my actual face.

I was sad to miss VALA this year. I had long dreamt of attending this huge library technology conference, seeing my favourite people, learning about what others are achieving in this space. The lineup looked amazing, and I’m sure I would have had a whale of a time. But I didn’t have a spare thousand bucks (!) to drop on a ticket. My workplace, where I am on a temporary contract in a non-library-technology role, would not have financed it either. So I didn’t go.

Instead, I attended vicariously through Twitter, where the @VALAlib account (ably run by @mpfl) live-tweeted throughout the conference. The organising committee also posted all the conference papers online before the conference, which turned out to be a boon for cross-pollination!

Somehow, between eyeballing the #VALA2018 hashtag and sitting at work trying to get work done, I managed to learn a few things… or not:

  • Everyone is off-message. If everyone at a conference agreed on everything, it would be incredibly dull. Yet I was struck by how often I seemed to hear conflicting messages in rapid succession. One minute we’re told that we don’t need 100% accuracy in our metadata. The next minute we’re told about all the wonderful things linked data can achieve, which depends on accurate linking and relationship-building. Which is it? Linked data is useless if it isn’t accurate, and such is the nature of digital that it’s either accurate or it’s not. There’s not a lot of room for error.

People were also deeply conflicted about vendors. Some people said we should love vendors. Some people were a lot less complimentary about vendors. Some people appreciated the people who work for vendors but not the socio-political circumstances that enable this work. Because I wasn’t caught up in conference frenzy, where you nod along to and agree with and blindly tweet everything that is said to you, I found I noticed these contradictions a lot more.

  • Do everything. Or not. We’re in a tough spot, skill-wise. We’re constantly encouraged to invest in our own professional development, in many instances by learning to code. On the other, we hear that upskilling ourselves in multiple areas is actually doing us a professional disservice, as an increase in skill is generally not matched by an increase in pay. Code is useful, code is good. Except if too many people learn to code, then it’s bad.

I agree that not all librarians would find coding skills useful or necessary in their work. But with library services becoming increasingly top-heavy, with less skilled staff continuing to lose their jobs, with the industry contracting, with the job outlook for librarians looking rather bleak, with our future becoming increasingly reliant on technology whether we like it or not, wouldn’t you want to make yourself as employable as possible, and learn some code basics?

  • Show me the money! The conference was also filled with exhortations to do things. Make that bibliographic data linked open data! Surface those ‘hidden’ local history collections! Don’t put up with crappy products and services from vendors! Yes! Sure! I will totally do all these things with no additional budget, no staffing, and on top of my existing responsiblities!!!1!

On one level, conferences aren’t meant to be realistic. Presenters will usually highlight the good things they do and gloss over the bad things it took to get there. (Andrew Kelly’s talk was a notable exception, and I’m sure there were others.) We’re meant to leave conferences hyped up and enthused and ready to make change happen in our workplaces and communities. But I brought a much higher dose of cynicism and realism to my remote conference experience. I can’t implement any of these radical and awesome ideas, or in fact any ideas at all, without additional funding, staffing, support and time. Or a permanent job.

  • Technical services librarianship is public work, and deserves to be valued. Finding myself a bitter, cynical husk at the end of this post, I decided to watch Angela Galvan’s heavily livetweeted keynote, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized’. I hoped it would energise me again. I wanted to reconnect with why my work matters, why tech services is not dead, why I spent three days lurking the backchannel of this conference in the first place.

It was immensely gratifying to hear Angela speak of tech services as ‘public’ work. Our direct patron interactions may be limited, but the interfaces and discovery systems we create, maintain and troubleshoot are the centre of most patrons’ experiences of a library. They may never visit us in person. They may never speak to a staff member. But they’re using our catalogue, our databases, our libguides, our websites. Those things don’t build themselves. They exist because a lot of people worked very hard (and a small number of people paid a lot of money).

The characterisation of tech services workers as the ‘backend’ of libraries is increasingly inaccurate. The metadata I work with is viewed by thousands of people. If they can’t access an online resource, it’s my job to rectify it. I may not get to decide what the library purchases and how much they’re willing to pay, but I can decide how that resource is presented to patrons. I game the search results all the time. I edit metadata every day to make it better and clearer for patrons to use. I may not be public-facing, but my work certainly is, and it’s about time library administrators really acknowledged this. A little self-esteem is a wonderful thing.

(Not gonna lie, I was also extremely here for the LexisNexis joke. Next week, part of my ref desk work will likely involve advising first-year law students how LexisNexis works. I hope they don’t ask me. I have no idea.)

  • Go in person next time. In the end, I was surprised by how much I got out of a conference I didn’t attend. I definitely learned more, but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I would have if I’d been there in person. I also missed out on all the networking and socialising, which many people say is the best part of conferences, and to be honest it felt a bit sad watching all these people have fun at an event I couldn’t go to. I’m very glad that the conference papers were uploaded ahead of time and I would encourage the VALA committee to consider doing this again.

But next time, I think I’d rather just go.

Disrespect des fonds! ✊🏻 (or, Five things I learned from the NSLA digipres forum)

This week I went to the NSLA forum on day-to-day digital collecting and preservation, which began auspiciously enough:

The forum was an illuminating experience. I got a lot out of the event, including useful tips and programs I can incorporate into my workflow, and took so many notes I ran out of notebook! The below are my personal thoughts and observations of the event, which do not represent my employer (shout at me, not at them).

Reality isn’t keeping up with my user expectations and professional aspirations. When I first landed a library job (not the job I have now), I harboured grand dreams of preserving digital artefacts on a workplace’s asset management system, creating intricate descriptions of said digital artefacts, and excitedly sharing this knowledge with library users. I wound up being a shelver, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m still dreaming. I keep thinking libraries are far more advanced, digitally speaking, than where we actually are. Librarians, as a profession, struggle to accept the idea that society has moved on without us. Digital preservation is seemingly no exception.

It was refreshing to hear at this forum that people were once scared of digital. Scared for their jobs. Scared of new, ~uncontrolled~ sources of information. Scared by the idea of reimagining and reinventing their place within libraries and their library’s place within society. Plenty of people still think like this, but you’ll never hear them admit it.

Please don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot of innovation in this sector, incredible work by passionate people with limited resources. I was very impressed by several presentations showcasing new, systemic ways of appraising, preserving and delivering digital content. I just… kinda thought we had them already. Are my expectations too high, or are our standards too low?

Linear archival theory is doing the digital world, and our attempts to capture it, a great disservice. Archival theory is built on the foundational ideas of ‘original order’, ‘provenance’ and ‘respect des fonds’ (i.e. an appreciation of a record’s context and intended purpose). Now, I’m not an archivist, nor do I play one on television. But it isn’t hard to see where, in a digital world, these core archival concepts might start to fall down a bit.

Archivists (and librarians, for the most part) are used to thinking in linear terms. Boxed collections are measured in linear metres of shelf space, our finding aids are (by and large) designed to be read from top to bottom, and a manuscript item can only be in one folder at once. Linear thinking. Paper-based thinking. Ordered thinking.

Our digital universe doesn’t work like this. Disks can be read in any order. Hypertext lets us explore information in many dimensions. We have become random-access thinkers and, by extension, random-access hoarders. Archival concepts must accommodate these ways of thinking—not ‘disordered’, just ordered in other ways. We were invited to ‘disrespect des fonds’, and I think it’s a smashing idea. It’s time to think differently. To accommodate non-linear ideas of what constitutes ‘original order’ and what digital and intellectual context may shape the fonds of the future. Spatial thinking. Byte-based thinking. Still ordered thinking.

Jefferson Bailey wrote a wonderfully in-depth essay on disrespecting the fonds in 2013, and I was reminded of it several times during this forum. It’s well worth a read.

Systems can’t do digital preservation. Only you can. My workplace don’t have the luxury of a digital preservation system (yet) and our current digipres practice is extremely haphazard and conducted on a needs basis by… me. Eek. There’s no denying a system that takes care of basic fixity and AIP arrangement would make my life a lot easier. But that system still wouldn’t do my job for me. Systems can’t select or appraise. They can’t negotiate rights agreements with donors or keep themselves well fed with storage space. They don’t have an appreciation of strategic priorities or nuances of analytical metadata (subject headings and the like). That’s what I’m for. It’s important not to lose sight of the role of humans in what is (for those with the means) an increasingly automated process.

It’s also crucial for small- and medium-sized memory organisations, who will never have the resources enjoyed by NSLA members, to know that they don’t need a fancy system to preserve their digital heritage. So much digital preservation discussion is conducted in arcane, highly technical language, intelligible only to a small subset of information professionals. In order for digipres to gain any traction, it needs to be accessible by less skilled librarians, and even by non-professional library workers. I want the volunteers at the Woop Woop Historical Society, whose tech knowledge may extend only to sending emails and posting pics of the grandchildren on Facebook, to have an understanding of the basics of digipres and to be able to implement them. Distilling our communal knowledge down to this level promises to be almost as difficult as the process of preservation itself. But it’s vital work, and it can’t wait.

I have a lot of skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to bring to digital preservation. I didn’t present at the forum on account of a) a bad case of imposter syndrome and b) my workplace not having a whole lot to report in this area. I am also still a MIS student (yes! still!), am in a role where digipres is not explicitly part of my job description, and was almost certainly the youngest person in the room. All of those things worked together to convince me that I didn’t have anything worth saying.

However, I realised during the talks and discussions that far from being “just” a student, or “just” a local history librarian, or “just” a young’un, I actually have a lot to bring to the table:

  • I understand the broad lifecycle of digital preservation, from file creation to donation to fixity to ingest to preservation to access, and spend a lot of time contemplating the philosophy of what we do
  • I can catalogue, which I wasn’t expecting to be all that relevant to digipres, but it sounds like digitally-literate cataloguers are a rare breed, and
  • I can also learn quickly and methodically, such as last week when I successfully (and independently!) imaged and preserved a CD with BitCurator, for use by some student researchers. I learned how to do this via someone else’s notes from last year’s NSLA Digital Skills event, which I didn’t attend on account of being a shelver elsewhere.

Moreover, I’d like to think I know how much I don’t know; that is, there’s so much more for us as digipres practitioners to discover as well as learn from each other, and we can’t stop to even think that we know it all. It helped me gain a little self-esteem and reassure me that Australian digipres isn’t already full of people who have all the answers.

We can’t wait for everyone to get comfortable. Optical media won’t stop rotting while we learn how to deal with it. Film stocks won’t stop drowning in their own vinegar while we figure out what to do. Obscure file formats won’t give up their secrets of their own volition while we’re trying to nut them out. These problems are only going to get worse, irrespective of how quickly we as practitioners get our heads around them. Many of us are still grappling with digital preservation. Grappling. We’re still at the beginner stage.

There’s a very fine line between making people feel bad about the speed and scale of their own digipres programs, or about their personal knowledge, and encouraging them to keep looking to the horizon and recognise how far we all have to go. I say all this not to shame people, as I too am a beginner, but to express a broader worry about our ability as library employees to recognise and respond to digital change. By the sounds of it, some of our institutions are better at this than others.

In any case, I’d better get to work. I still need that floppy drive I’ve been dreaming about.

Further reading

Jefferson Bailey, Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives (2013 article in Archive Journal)

Trevor Owens, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (preprint: monograph coming 2018)

Five things I learned from #VALATechCamp

VALA Tech Camp logo

A few days ago I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural VALA Tech Camp, a two-day symposium for librarians in tech and technologists in libraries. I learnt a lot and had an excellent time, thanks in large part to the Herculean efforts of the organising committee. Below are a few scattered and not entirely comprehensive thoughts on the event:

Coding is easy! Coding is hard! When the committee asked for suggestions on what to include in the camp, I asked for fairly basic stuff—an intro to Python, for example, for those of us at the n00b end of the spectrum. A 2-hour crash course in Python wound up being the first event on day 1, so I felt more or less obliged to attend. I had previously tried several times to teach myself Python (out of books, on Codecademy, from YouTube videos) but had realised I needed an actual person to teach me the basics.
By the end of the session I had achieved the following:


I was not expecting 56 people to be so supportive of my own personal Wow! signal, so that was super nice. The workshop really did feel like the booster I needed to get me started in Python.
Later in the day (and continuing on day 2) was ‘Hacky Hour’, essentially free time to work on coding projects. I started out doing some web scraping with ParseHub and Beautiful Soup, then got bored and wound up with a Trove API key trying to rewrite Libraries Australia SOLR queries as Trove API queries (with mixed results), then got bored again and started writing a Bash script to extract metadata from a PDF into a CSV or TXT file.
The latter occupied my time and imagination even after I returned to the hotel, culminating in me figuring out how to export metadata from a PDF to a CSV, then to OpenRefine, then to MARC! I was thrilled to have actually achieved something concrete that I could take back to work and actually use. If that was all I got out of VALA tech camp, it would have been worth it.

There’s a huge gap between what tech can do and what people think tech can do. Ingrid Mason spoke at length about the gap in not just digital literacy, but digital infrastructure literacy. You might know how to use wifi, but would you know how to fix your wifi if it broke? (I know I wouldn’t, and I’m more tech literate than the average person.)
There’s also the problem of extremely clever people constantly creating new ways to do things and new ways to solve problems, including library problems, but how much of that knowledge trickles down to us at the coalface? It’s something I’m keen to explore and maybe, hopefully, change.

I was surprised by how much I already knew. One of my problems in tech is that I know I have a very uneven skillset. I am a total Python n00b, yet I can cobble together a Bash script. I’m totally across LOD and RDF triples, but didn’t know how SPARQL worked (until I attended the SPARQL talk!) I understood the mechanics of web scraping, but not how to properly harness web scraping tools. Even the talks where I came armed with a little background knowledge (like UX, APIs, the importance of good documentation) I left feeling twice as knowledgeable, which is an excellent outcome.
I particularly enjoyed the SPARQL talk because it explained linked data concepts in a way ordinary people could understand. Their use of Wikidata as an example SPARQL interface was an inspired choice—I felt it helped make an otherwise arcane and distant concept really concrete and accessible to a lay user.

Tech people are less intimidating than I thought. The attendee profile of VALA Tech Camp certainly skewed older, maler and more experienced than NLS8, which at first was a bit scary for this young, female n00b, but this is precisely why I went in the first place: to learn, and to find out what others are doing. I struck up some great convos with attendees of all genders doing excellent things. I wound up on an all-ladies table for the first Hacky Hour, the ‘Number 1 Ladies Solving Each Other’s Data Collection Problems’ table (moniker by me). In each situation people were only too happy to help and to chat.
Interestingly, I realised that in order for me to do better in tech, I would probably feel more comfortable in a women-only environment, like PyLadies or RubyGirls or something. I’ll look into local chapters and see if I could contribute. Seeing other women do super well in library tech was really empowering and wonderful, and I’d love to see more of it.

You can do the thing! 👍 Several short talks focussed on getting out there and just making stuff happen, including Justine on podcasting in libraries and Athina on running a cryptoparty in a public library. It was really inspiring to hear of people taking initiative and making excellent things happen.
On a much smaller scale, I found myself much more able to get out there and do things I find really difficult. Yes, I can go and make small talk to people! Yes, I can summon the courage to thank people for writing things that have meant a lot to me! Yes, I can do the thing! Yes I can.

Yes I can.