We all need somebody to lean on: and other things I learned at #NLS9

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

James and I learned that SLSA’s Mortlock Chamber has great acoustics. It made up a little for having been too tired for karaoke earlier in the week. A little free wine didn’t hurt, either.

A couple of months ago I went to Adelaide for the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium, along with loads of other cool library people. I gave two conference talks—my first and my second—on topics close to my heart. I learned so much from so many people. I had a pretty good time.

I also spent that weekend processing the news that my cousin, who a few days earlier had been critically injured in a motorcycle accident in Brisbane, was almost certainly going to die. We all hoped against hope for a different outcome. I felt terrible for enjoying myself so far away. Mum reassured me it was okay to keep doing my thing. I tried not to think about it. I didn’t tell anyone.

Tristan died of his injuries the following Wednesday, the day I got back to work. We weren’t close, but we were the same age, and he died without warning. I put off writing this post for several weeks because every time I thought about the conference I instead thought about my cousin dying, and I hoped that in time, the two events would separate in my memory. They haven’t quite, and I’m not sure they ever really will, but it feels like enough time has passed that I can write up a post, and do them both justice.

Here are some slightly disjointed reflections on NLS9, a truly inspiring conference. I just wish they weren’t the only things I remembered.

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you won’t let show

I did the thing! I swallowed my nerves, stood up in front of a packed room and said ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. It was the conference talk I’d always wanted to give. A strident, blistering, passionate speech about the importance of library metadata and the people who make it happen. Several1 people2 later3 said4 it was the highlight5 of their weekend.6 I won’t lie—it was the highlight of mine, too.

I knew I would speak too fast and try to cram too much into my allotted twenty minutes, but I tried to compensate by being Really Enthusiastic. I knew this was my big chance to show a different side to cataloguing and metadata, a sector not known for its visibility or charisma, and perhaps encourage some of the audience to get involved in this work. I also coined the phrase ‘evidence-based whinging’ and I’m really hoping someone uses it soon!

Believing that citation should be feminist praxis, I took enormous pleasure in quoting my library heroes, bringing their work to a new audience. I have been deeply influenced by critical and radical library thinkers, both abroad and at home (though mostly abroad, it must be said), whose writings and actions make our sector a better place. I hope one day to be half as good a librarian as they each have been. For the moment, I’ll settle for quoting them adoringly in conference talks.

Thank you, audience and tweeters and delayed talk-readers, for supporting me. It certainly felt like I made a good impression. 🙂

People really like zines, I guess. Approximately ninety minutes later, noted zine boss Kassi Grace and I co-presented ‘Photocopying the revolution’, about librarians making zines and changing the world. Kassi talked about zine history and incorporating zinemaking into her professional practice. I talked about how libraries collect, catalogue and preserve zines.

While I read my cataloguing talk mostly word-for-word, with the zine talk I tried out a slightly looser approach, with a few ad-libs. I don’t think this style works for me—my brain seems to like full sentences on a page, and I don’t make the best jokes when I’m nervous. Kassi was awesome, though, and the talk seemed quite well-received. We threw in a plug for our collaborative conference zine at the end (I say ‘our’, it was Kassi’s idea, she did all the work), which turned out to be a great memento of the event.

Giving two talks at one conference was a lot of work. More than I anticipated, I think. They both came out okay, but next time I’ll stick to one talk per conference. And I’ll finish writing it more than 24 hours in advance.

hydrant with a placard saying 'caution hydrant may be under high pressure'
This was in the stairwell at the venue and, look, same

Libraries are for people, not for machines. I later realised that the presentations I remembered best had followed an implicit theme of human-centred library practice: James Nicholson’s polemic on ridding the world of library fines and Nikki Andersen’s deeply inspiring call for radical inclusion and empathy in libraries were particular highlights. In addition, keynotes Sarah Brown and Eva Balan-Vnuk spoke of our technology-augmented present and future, which already excludes and marginalises by design. Though I don’t think it was mentioned by name, all these talks incorporated elements of design thinking, which seeks to make the library work for people, not the other way around.

It really was wonderful to see so many speakers implicitly, and independently, come to the same conclusion: our libraries are not about performance metrics, they are not about perfect data, they are not about profits. Libraries are about people. Let’s make them welcome.

Talking about a revolution no longer feels like a whisper. NLS9 felt like a critical mass of new, progressive, energised library workers who were ready to Get Shit Done. I said as much in my zine page, which I scribbled out at work three days later because it was my zine and I could do that (though given everything else I had going on, it was absolutely the last thing I felt like writing). I wrote of finding my people, and though I mostly hung around (and fangirled at) those I already knew, I had the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends. It’s hard to keep that momentum going, though, once we’ve all dispersed back to our respective workplaces. Twitter helps a little, but I wonder if there are other ways to connect and organise between conferences.

I also learned that eggnog-flavoured milk is a thing in South Australia, that Flic French and I missed our true calling as Hollywood scriptwriters (look, I’d watch a show about someone using AACR2 as a grimoire), and that Kyla Stephan spins an excellent yarn. Ask her what she did on her birthday this year (though perhaps not at work!).

Sustainability or bust. Like many other attendees, I was deeply impressed by the conference’s environmental consciousness. Co-convenor Pixie Stardust’s zeal for sustainability and low-impact conferencing hit me right in the feels. It felt like they thought of absolutely everything—reusable crockery, no plastic packaging, like… six different kinds of rubbish / compost / recycling bins, plant-based catering, local suppliers, you name it. That cannot have been simple to organise, and yet they pulled it off. Even the leftover pizza was donated to local shelters. It was a powerful demonstration that yes, it can be done, and it set a standard for all conferences to follow.

Unlike many other attendees, I did not fly to NLS9. Taking the train from Canberra to Adelaide (via Melbourne) is a four-day round-trip, but considering my penchant for slower and less carbon-intensive travel, plus my desire to ride the Overland before it possibly closes for good, it was time very well spent. I live-tweeted the Melbourne to Adelaide leg and discovered Michael Barry also had the same idea!

While in Adelaide I continued to ferment some thoughts I’ve been having all year about environmental theories of knowledge. I visited the incredible Museum of Economic Botany (now sponsored by a mining company, natch), a treasure trove of ethnobotanical knowledge. I thought about how many thousands of years it would have taken humanity to gain that knowledge. Here it all sat, in an old wooden hall, that I could wander around in for free. I found myself wishing it were all contained neatly in a book. I tried to work past my knowledge biases. How did we come to know all these things? Why don’t we all value this knowledge?

Interior of the Museum of Economic Botany
Interior of the Museum of Economic Botany, essentially a giant wunderkammer

Jacinta Koolmatrie’s keynote, ‘Libraries and land’, brought the point home to many of us. For Aboriginal people, and for her people, the Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri nations, the land is their library. By destroying the land, we, settlers, are destroying their library, their sources and repositories of knowledge. Aboriginal people didn’t need libraries until the colonists showed up. Ours is not the only method of preserving knowledge, nor is it necessarily the best method. I would like to see more critical (self-)reflection on this in future conference talks.

I know I learned more, saw more, reflected on more during this conference. It was wonderful. But it was also tinged with sorrow. For the longest time part of it felt like it wasn’t my story to tell. Perhaps I could eventually have talked about NLS9 without including those details. But it wouldn’t have been the whole story. And after all, that’s what we’re about as librarians, right? We’re not just storytellers, but storykeepers.

Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow


  1. Liz’s wrapup: ‘Absolute highlight of the conference proper’ 
  2. Nikki’s wrapup: ‘[O]ne of the most memorable and inspiring presentations for me’ 
  3. Sarah’s wrapup: ‘[P]ossibly the most directly relevant to my everyday work in acquisitions and cataloguing’ 
  4. Brendan’s wrapup: ‘After Alissa’s talk I was ready to dash to a computer and start passionately editing MARC records’ 
  5. Rebecca’s wrapup in InCite: ‘Alissa McCulloch was a big surprise and got me to care about metadata – the mere term had hitherto prompted my eyes to glaze over’ 
  6. I don’t care if it’s gauche to collect nice things my peers say about me and my work. This means more to me than any performance review. 

We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know why you should care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cataloguing is power. That power must be wielded responsibly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what should we say?

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

Firstly, what can you think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.