There will be no GLAM 3017, because we will all be dead

I try not to think about where humanity might be in a thousand years. Based on our current trajectory, the most likely answer is ‘extinct’. Our current rate of consumption and pollution is not sustainable for anywhere near that length of time. When resources run out, there will inevitably be fierce wars over what little is left. Civilisation will end one of two ways: with a bang, or a whimper.

When we are all gone, we will leave behind an unfathomable amount of stuff. Priceless treasures representing the pinnacle of humanity, through personal possessions and records of ordinary people, to mountains of rubbish and items of no assigned value. All of this stuff will begin to degrade. Bespoke climate-controlled environments will no longer protect precious materials; our natural environment will likely not be conducive to long-term preservation, either. It is inevitable great works will be lost.

I’ve had Abby Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More on my to-read pile for several months. I won’t get it read anytime soon, sadly, but her book touches on similar themes. Rumsey appears more optimistic than me; her book explores how people a thousand years from now will remember the early 21st century. I can’t help but admire her belief that humanity will exist at all.

This is a pessimistic worldview, to be sure. After all, modern capitalism is predicated on people buying stuff, which is in turn predicated on the constant production of stuff. Increasingly this ‘stuff’ is made from non-renewable materials, and sooner or later those materials will run out. Capitalism presents no incentive to preserve our scarce resources, because if a resource remains in the ground then less (or no) money can be made from it. The only real hope of changing this state of affairs lies in revolution, and that won’t be popular.

If, by some miracle, homo sapiens survives to 3017, it will not be a pleasant world. With the exhaustion of mineral resources will come a need to recycle or perish. If our choice becomes book-burning or starvation (we’ve all seen that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, right?), I doubt many would pick the latter. Technology will not save us. Our electronic memory will be irretrievable, our physical memory decayed if not destroyed. Perhaps our surviving collective descendants will despair at our modern habits of storing vast amounts of information on fragile pieces of metal and plastic, which require significant infrastructure to be accessed and read. A book (which, to be fair, we are also producing plenty of) requires nothing but a pair of functioning eyeballs.

I’d really like to believe that our species will survive, but nothing so far has convinced me. Knowledge and memory—and the externalisation thereof—are uniquely human traits. Without people to inhabit library buildings, without people to read books, without people to create and disseminate knowledge… our planet will be truly devoid.

Then again, we live in a time of information abundance, and look where it’s gotten us. Perhaps we’re reaping what we sow.

🎶 Mama, don’t taaaake my MIS awaaaay 🎶

When I think back on all the crap I learned in GLAM school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

(With apologies to Paul Simon)

I am a terrible student.

There’s no getting around the fact that my grades aren’t too flash and I don’t focus on study as much as I ought to. I’m also perilously close to graduating and I’m fairly sure some of my lecturers have come across this blog. So it would be in my interests to make some fairly tame comments about the state of lecturing at my university (which, despite it being listed in my Twitter bio, I will not name) and leave it at that.

But that’s not how I roll.

Before I get stuck in, I feel it’s important to distinguish things I wish I had learnt at GLAM school from things I wish GLAM school had taught me. The former places the onus of education on the student, the latter on the educator. If I knew in late 2013 what I know now, I would have structured my LIS education very differently–different courses, different degree structure, perhaps a different uni. Many, but not all, of the gaps in my knowledge are due to poor subject choice and insufficient application on my part.

There’s also a lot to be said for letting the student focus on areas of LIS that interest them. I have a great many interests and skillsets, but children’s librarianship (for example) is not one of them. Being forced to undertake a children’s lit subject would have absolutely killed my enthusiasm and interest in librarianship. Yes, I now work for a public library. No, the irony is not lost on me. Plenty of people have no aptitude for hardcore cataloguing or research methods, and forcing these on students is a recipe for disaster. Oddly, cataloguing is an elective but research methods are mandatory.

A common response to this question when asked of librarians is ‘I wish I’d done cataloguing’. I did cataloguing. I was sent on another cataloguing course by work. I love cataloguing. I now catalogue professionally (though this is only a portion of my job). I am also aware that cataloguers as we know them are a dying breed, and it’s not because most are approaching retirement age.

I’m pretty sure I’ve declared previously that cataloguing should be a mandatory subject, but I’ve since changed my mind: a practical appreciation of metadata ought to be an integral part of all LIS courses. An introductory metadata course was a compulsory part of my degree, but common consensus was that it was a bit too high-level to be of much use to people. Focus on ‘what is MARC?’, basic DDC and LoC schedules and a couple of subject thesauri, and students will be streets ahead.

Introductory scripting and coding courses should be offered as electives in all LIS courses. My uni offers a ‘fundamentals of web design’ class that I purposely didn’t take because I can already speak HTML and CSS reasonably well, but nothing AFAIK is offered in actual programming. Considering a portion of my work right now involves Python and bash scripting, which I’m currently learning out of a book, I know I would have found such a course terrifically useful (and why I’m keen as mustard for VALA tech camp). As I’ve pontificated before, there is a huge need for tech-literate librarians. LIS courses are, for the most part, not filling this need.

I know I would also have really appreciated practical training in library applications and technologies. Alone of all my courses, the cataloguing elective (taught by the indefatigable Lynn Farkas) featured hands-on experience with WebDewey and Cataloger’s Desktop: real tools used by real cataloguers. (But not me, sigh.) Yet I don’t recall a single course actually discussing in any depth what an ILS is, or how to use one. Acquisitions backends. Practical digital archiving. Getting stuff into Trove. How to do all of those things on a $0 budget. This is the kind of knowledge LIS workers need. Even if they don’t yet know they need it.

Yes, I should have paid more attention in GLAM school. But GLAM school needs to meet its students halfway and provide a practical, up-to-date, evidence-based curriculum that adequately prepares students for the realities of life in this sector.

Theory won’t pay the rent. But practical knowledge just might.

Why should I trust you? You’re a librarian!

‘Trust me, I’m a raaaaaat’

Librarians. We’ve got tickets on ourselves, haven’t we? Fancying ourselves as leaders of crusades against fake news and information illiteracy and all that. Styling ourselves as trustworthy gateways to all the balanced, unbiased information your heart could possibly desire. Go on. Ask us. Make us feel relevant again.

Modern reference librarianship has a certain smugness about it. People could just as easily Google their answers, we tell ourselves, but instead they come to us. To us! Never mind the fact we use Google half the time ourselves to find the answer, or that people tend to only ask for a librarian’s help out of sheer frustration (often with our resources), people still come to us for answers! They like us! They trust us!

Now, maybe my LIS degree program is deficient in this regard, but I don’t recall ever coming across the library version of the Hippocratic Oath. (Turns out someone invented one.) Thankfully, malpractice lawsuits against librarians aren’t really a thing. But what, really, is stopping a librarian from dispensing biased or unreliable information? How does a user know, really know, that a librarian is any more inherently trustworthy than a Google search?

The short answer is: they don’t.

We, as librarians, can’t appeal to academic authority, as much as we might like to. Plenty of people working in libraries don’t have degrees in the field. (I don’t yet have mine.) No, we didn’t all go to school for this stuff. I work with awesome people who have life experience in other areas. Doesn’t make them any less trustworthy, any less reliable or any less capable of answering patron questions.

Much as we might claim otherwise, each librarian will bring their own implicit biases to their work. Where, for example, do we draw the line between collection development and censorship? For many librarians, at least on ALA Think Tank, it turned out this line was the (now-cancelled) prospective book by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Plenty of librarians refused to buy the book in an effort to support minority patrons and fight hate speech. Plenty of other librarians pledged to buy the book in an effort to support free speech and fight impressions of censorship. Each side has considerable merit, even if the point is now moot. But how can patrons trust librarians either way?

It’s no secret that librarianship in the Western world is dominated by white middle-aged cat ladies who like tea and cardigans. My only point of diversion from this stereotype is my hatred of cats. With such a homogenised workforce, there are few opportunities for minority patrons to see themselves reflected in their knowledge workers. Indigenous patrons, for example, may have good reasons not to trust white librarians. We cannot simply expect our patrons to trust us. We have to earn that trust.

Our chief competitor, Google, owes its success to a secret algorithm that ranks search results by various metrics. Librarians, particularly in academic and school environments, spend considerable time and resources on teaching students how to critically evaluate their Google results and their news(feed) consumption. I’ve yet to come across a libguide on the subject that implores students to evaluate librarians themselves. Sure, I can’t see how Google’s brain works for myself, but nor can I see a librarian’s brain. That IFLA infographic on fake news promotes librarians as unbiased sources of truth. This sends entirely the wrong message.

This infographic drives me bonkers

Some have argued that critically evaluating everything we see and hear is what got the world into this mess. I respectfully disagree. I firmly believe the key to information literacy is to evaluate what the librarian says with the same tools one ought to be using to evaluate everything else. Tools that librarians are falling over themselves to teach. There are no unbiased, impartial sources of information. Not encyclopedias. Not government websites. Not reputable news organisations. And definitely not librarians.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? No. I’m being honest with myself and I’m being honest with the patrons I serve. I recognise that a deeply-held, professional sense of duty is the only thing stopping me from telling my patrons porkies, and I want them to know that too. I want them to use those critical evaluation skills right back at me and hopefully recognise the merit in my answers. I want them to know better than to take me at face value.

I want them to know better than to trust me.

2017: the year of learning dangerously

I have a lot to get done this year. I’d like to graduate at some point, I’m drowning in work (as usual) and my house is a tip, but there are plenty of broader goals to set. I’m pleased that #GLAMblogclub is now a thing and look forward to the benefits it will bring to the local GLAM blogging industry.

The below is essentially a public to-do list for myself. I hope to be productive enough to actually tick these off in December, which would be most satisfying.

Improve my digital skills

For all my fascination with digital preservation, digital archiving and digital librarianship, my skills in this area are sadly deficient. There’s a lot I don’t know and a lot I’m having to teach myself. Learning on the job is fun, but I know I need to up my game.

I’ve resolved to learn SQL this year, largely because it would be directly relevant to my job—there’s a lot of metadata work in my future and being able to craft my own queries would be very useful. A friend has expressed interest in taking a Python class, so we’ll see if that leads somewhere. I know I’ll have to bite the bullet and get a new computer this year, so perhaps I’ll be brave enough to take the plunge and install Ubuntu.

I’m also hoping to improve my command line skills to be able to do more fun web archiving things, as well as take advantage of the incredible tools at Documenting the Now and the Programming Historian.

Reconnect with long-form writing, which is worth paying for

I have a terrible habit the Japanese call 積ん読 [tsundoku], acquiring books and then not reading them. I am surrounded by books I bought, snaffled, borrowed from the library and was given as gifts. Strictly speaking I have plenty of time to read them, but I usually end up doing things that require a shorter attention span.

This year, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. As I write this, my desk holds no fewer than eleven thirteen unread books (plus two unwatched DVDs and one unheard album). I’m going to try reading at least two books a month, one at a time. Right now I’ve just begun reading Sisters of the revolution: a feminist speculative fiction anthology, which is comprised of bite-size chunks I can happily digest. I generally don’t read fiction very often, but I’m enjoying this book.

In addition, I intend to get my journal subscriptions in order. Open-access publishing is truly revolutionary and I am grateful for such excellent OA LIS journals as Weave, code4lib, Practical Technology for Archives and the Journal of New Librarianship (neatly syndicated by, among other handles, @OALISjrnls). However, I am firmly of the belief that good writing is worth paying for, and that people should not feel obliged to contribute their labour for free. To that end, I’d like to subscribe to a couple of long-form print journals this year. I’m not sure what yet. Something considered, something literary, something thoughtful. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Get some perspective

One of the hallmarks of our era is the modern human’s inability, generally speaking, to see things from another’s point of view. Social media (especially Facebook) excels at crafting a world where the news is just as you’d like it, full of stories it hopes you find agreeable. No longer are we assured that our family, friends and colleagues are all reading the same news (if they read the news at all); nor can we be sure that what they do read has any truth to it. The truth of a story appears, for all intents and purposes, to be less important than the emotions it might cause. My profession is reeling from the apparent common disregard for verifiable information and considered thought.

Like most people, I’m quite accomplished at avoiding news I don’t want to hear. On one hand, I consider it a duty of my profession to be well-informed about the world; on the other, moving to a remote Scottish island is looking more and more attractive (and it’s not just for the climate). This makes for a comfortable existence. It’s gotta stop.

I lead a privileged life: doing a job I love, in a country led by someone who is not a far-right nationalist, with all the food, shelter and self-actualisation I could want. Most humans are not nearly as fortunate as I am. Consequently, I have a particular set of views about most issues. I’m learning the hard way that a lot of people see the world very differently from how I see it. I cannot hope to influence that which I do not understand—so I’d better start trying to see things from the other side. (I don’t yet have a metric by which I might measure my progress, but I’ll think of one.)

It’s time to get some perspective. It’s time to learn dangerously.