The stories we tell ourselves

Sunrise over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, with the National Library on the right. Photo courtesy Glenn Martin Photography

Around 10.30pm last night I had a brainwave.

I lay in bed despairing at the election results, where a lot of money had swayed a few votes in a few seats in a manner not to my liking, when I suddenly remembered a book I needed to read. I’d had this book since February (courtesy of Hugh, who had read it in one sitting) but knew it would need to be read in a certain mood. Polemics are better heard, not seen, so I began to read the foreword aloud to myself.

‘Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to take away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.’

Rebecca Solnit wrote Hope in the Dark fifteen years ago, in part a response to the invasion of Iraq and the despair felt by millions who watched it unfold. The foreword to the third edition was written in 2015 and, to be honest, it shows. Yet it reminded me that one electoral result is not failure, that change is incremental, that we do not know the future for certain, and within that uncertainty there is space for hope.

Hope. Not optimism.

This is not a political blog, much as I have become a political person, and much as my employment brings with it certain restrictions on my political speech. But politics and librarianship go hand in hand. We fiercely defend the freedom to read, the freedom to collect, the freedom to describe, and the freedom of library users to go about their business unbothered by neo-Nazis. These all involve making political choices. We are not neutral spaces. We are not merely vessels for the stories of others—we have a role in amplifying those stories, and for telling stories of our own.

I keep coming back to what David Ritter said at GLAMSLAM, the recent one-day symposium for GLAM workers hosted by the Australian Centre for Public History. GLAMSLAM itself was a bit of a mixed bag for reasons that aren’t relevant right now, but I’m still glad I attended. I wrote a lot of notes during David’s keynote, titled ‘GLAM Power as clean energy? Bring it on!’. Reading over my scribbles, I can’t always tell where the speaker’s thoughts ended and mine began. But one paragraph stands out to me.

Yes! We can do the thing against the odds! // Convince people that human ingenuity can get us out of this mess. [Even if] it won’t get us out. It’s a future we won’t see. And perhaps, since we are the problem, we deserve to go. But he will never say that—we need to tell ourselves that humans can make change.
ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE

It was a rousing and inspiring speech, though my notes are peppered by a well-developed streak of misanthropic nihilism. David knew what story we needed to hear, and told it to a roomful of librarians and cultural heritage workers so that we might repeat the message. This is how we can use our GLAM Power™: by telling the stories that will drive the transition to a more just and liveable planet. To build a better future, we first need the ability to imagine it. (You can listen to David’s keynote on the GLAMcity podcast.)

David Ritter wasn’t the first person at GLAMSLAM to make the connection between libraries and public narrative. The New GLAM-er fringe event the day before included a speaker from a NSW regional public library (whose name I sadly neglected to write down), who came to librarianship with a PR degree. She emphasised the role of the library as a natural home for storytelling, but with facts to back those stories up. I can’t imagine ever working in public relations. I wouldn’t be able to tell a story I didn’t believe.

I often think about the stories we tell ourselves. But today I wonder about the stories we’re clearly not listening to, the stories going unheard. Libraries enthralled so many of us as children. Magical places of safety and story. These memories inspired many of us, me included, to pursue careers as library workers, to become story curators. But who is telling the stories we collect? Whose narratives go unrecorded? What relation do these stories bear to others’? To our environment? To our history? To others’ histories? What stories help us make sense of our lives? What choices do our stories prompt us to make? What do we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night?

Not all stories are hopeful. Some are actively harmful, told in bad faith, designed to mislead, deceive or frighten. I hope that we all might one day reconcile our stories with the abundant evidence available to us, weaving a stronger and more truthful set of inclusive narratives that lead us toward a better future. I hear librarians are quite good at that.

I find solace in nature and nature writing, grounding me in every sense. Last week I picked up the newest Griffith Review, Writing the country, which I’ve looked forward to for some time. David Ritter has an essay in it, ‘We all took a stand’, telling a remarkable, Solnit-esque story about how in 2010 the locals of Margaret River, Western Australia, took on the coal prospectors and won. We both marvelled at how this story isn’t more widely known. ‘As a movement it is so important that we narrate and remember every success. There is power in our stories if we choose to tell them.’

Hugh is notorious for annotating his books, so I took this as permission to read Hope in the Dark with a pencil in my hand. The book felt like an emergency bandage for an open wound, holding in all my emotions to stop them from falling out. Many passages were already underlined, asterisked, or pencilled in the margins. I’m not sure how long I can staunch this flow; at some point I will mourn the future it clearly wasn’t time for. But one sentence neatly encapsulated my current goal. I underlined it, with a sharper pencil.

The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Or, as David himself tweeted earlier today, in an eloquent and uplifting thread I saw just a moment ago:

Great change is non-linear. History is unpredictable. Elections come and elections go but we must retain belief in what is possible and execute our best plans to make it so.

Five things I taught at #VALATechCamp

A couple of weeks ago (only a couple of weeks?!) I was a part of the 2019 VALA Tech Camp, a two-day event in Melbourne for tech-inclined librarians and library-inclined techies. Usually these posts are a variation on ‘Five things I learned at [event]’, but this time I actually did some of the teaching, so here are five things I taught. It was a very different experience to the 2017 Tech Camp—I definitely learned some things as well…

OpenRefine is magic! Been there, done that, wore the t-shirt. I presented a three-hour workshop on OpenRefine, the world’s greatest free and open-source data cleaning and editing program, to upwards of 37 keen participants. Assisted by the unbelievably calm Alexis Tindall, who had generously agreed a few weeks earlier to help a total stranger, I took our intrepid data wranglers through the main features of OpenRefine: importing and exporting data; faceting, filtering, clustering and editing data; transforming data using inbuilt scripting language GREL; and reconciling data against an external source. I demonstrated on both a CSV file and a gently-massaged MARC file, thinking participants could possibly use OpenRefine for both file formats.

I learned a heck of a lot about OpenRefine in the course of writing the workshop slides and teaching materials. (You can view them on this GitHub repository.) It was a privilege to be able to share this knowledge with others, even if I spoke too quickly and seemed a touch nervous. Everyone was keen to learn, asked lots of questions, and looked like they got something out of the session, which is exactly what I had been hoping for.

‘I don’t know. But I will find out, and get back to you.’ The first step towards learning is to know that you don’t know something, right? It’s okay to not know things. I stated at the outset that neither Alexis nor I were experts, and that I was here in the spirit of peer-based learning. If you know the thing, you can teach the thing, etc. Though this was not a formal Library Carpentry workshop, I was inspired by the Library Carpentry ethos of peer-based learning, as introduced to me by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones at the LC workshop at NLS8. To think that was my first experience of OpenRefine, less than two years ago, and here I am teaching a workshop of my own… it’s been a wild ride.

As it happened, a couple of people asked questions I didn’t immediately have the answers to. I managed to answer one during the workshop, to the delight of the asker, while the other two are still awaiting my email. (Sorry! I am bad with email! I will get back to you, I promise!)

We can do the thing! (But we probably shouldn’t have.) Hugh and I both presented workshops while also being on the organising committee. I think we separately realised that trying to do both was a very bad idea, and that future committee members should not be allowed to do this. At the time, offering to run the workshop myself seemed easier than asking someone else to do it. I know better now!

Tech Camp was my first experience on an organising committee of this kind. It was also my first experience presenting a formal workshop or talk to a paying audience. I had never done either of these stressful things before, and here I was doing both of them at once. Did I mention I have an anxiety disorder? Fellow committee member Matthias remarked ‘You were playing on hard mode!’ and while I hadn’t thought of it that way, I definitely made it harder for myself than I needed to. I referred in 2017 to ‘the Herculean efforts of the organising committee’—I no longer consider this hyperbole. Running the 2019 camp has been a tremendous learning experience, and it’s opened a few doors for me professionally, but my stress levels were absolutely unreal. I think I could have managed solely being a committee member, or solely presenting a workshop (just). I barely managed to do both.

But I did everything I could. I lunched in the breakout room, I took my meds beforehand, people recognised when I needed company and also when I needed space, and overall it wasn’t a total disaster. To the extent I could control my symptoms I recognised that freaking out would accomplish nothing, so instead I tried to approach the workshop like a wave. It was gonna come anyway, and it would engulf me, and I would feel like drowning for a brief second, and then it would be over, and the sun would still be shining. Just let it crash over me. Just let it happen.

This is for the benefit of those who saw me present and perhaps thought I was handling things just fine. I’m told I looked a lot less stressed than I felt, which is… handy, I guess, but I’m not in the habit of airbrushing.

Our speaker / committee gifts were little cartoon avatars of ourselves. I love mine because thanks to the rosy cheeks it looks really stressed, and therefore quite lifelike.

Just say no to mornings. You may have noticed I was meant to emcee the morning session on day 2 but mysteriously failed to appear. I was late and missed the start, meaning someone else had to fill in, and was so embarrassed I hovered in the foyer until the session was over. This was a fail on my part, but also hopefully it’ll teach event organisers not to expect anything of me until after 9am. (To my relief, my next speaking commitment at NLS9 is scheduled for after 11am. I am so not a morning person.)

I did an SQL thing! This is me cheating and using an ‘I taught myself’ literary device, haha. Having finally dispensed with my teaching responsibilities on day 1, I resolved to learn more things on day 2. The other workshop I attended was on SQL, by Arjen Lentz and Donna Benjamin. I had a feeling I would like SQL if only I had an idea of how to use it, and this workshop was a great introduction. Being a native English speaker, the syntax of SQL just makes sense, as it’s designed to.

I was particularly tickled by Arjen setting the scene with a very quick introduction to set theory. I inexplicably spent a term in year 7 learning set theory, ostensibly because my school had run out of space for all the fun electives and threw two classes’ worth of smart kids in extension maths instead. Until this session it had never once been useful. Now, suddenly, sixteen years later, it was exactly what I needed to know! And it was useful because SQL requires you to envision a particular data structure in order to query it, to hold a table in your head even if it’s not graphically represented. Including or excluding aspects of that dataset entails using terms like LEFT JOIN, which make more sense if you think of data as being inside or outside a set. Or a venn diagram.

I thought it worth looking back at my experiences of the 2017 Tech Camp and comparing them with this year’s. Obviously I was a lot greener around the edges two years ago, and a close reading suggests I gained just as much in worldview expansions as I did in practical tech skills. Some of our short talks this year, such as Katrina Grant on digital mapping and Adam Bell on digital preservation, were aimed at showing attendees what is or might be possible. I did learn less this year, simply because I taught more (and stressed more), but even though I’ve had a library degree for less than six months I already feel less like a ‘n00b’ (as I described myself) and more like a newly-established technical librarian. After all, new professionals tend to be the ones attending workshops, not teaching them.

I love how past me wrote, in closing:

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.

I’m still no good at small talk, but I did succeed at far bigger things, and I am proud of myself. This was really difficult and a steep learning curve, and yet I still managed to do the thing. I could not have done it without the help and support of the Tech Camp committee, the VALA Secretariat, my helper Alexis, my poor colleagues who sat through an in-progress version of the workshop and didn’t say it was dreadful, and the workshop attendees who took the materials and ran with them. Yes, I can do the thing. Yes I can.

Yes I can.

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.