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.

On the nature of information: the best of #emptythepocket, issue 4

Reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit at Cataract Gorge, Launceston, January 2019. Photograph by the author

I got a lot out of a month’s holiday in Tasmania and in Melbourne, but perhaps the greatest gift was being able to read again. I don’t mean that I was previously illiterate, but rather that I no longer had the energy or interest in reading anything for longer than five minutes. I was (and still am) surrounded by books I longed to read, but knew I lacked the brainspace to absorb and make sense of them, and so I didn’t try.

Time away from work and the internet, and within nature, restored me to something like my former self. I realised I wanted to read again. I had forgotten what this felt like. My body had forgotten how to want to read books all day, and to be able to read books all day, and not have this gnawing pit of sad exhausted panic undercutting every paragraph. I hadn’t realised how profound a loss this was until I got it back.

I had packed four books for the trip:

  • one I immediately lent to a friend (Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum)
  • one I didn’t get around to reading because I was too busy enjoying myself (Terra, volume 14 of the Dark Mountain Project)
  • one I read to contextualise that enjoyment (Into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor)
  • and one I made a point of reading only in picturesque places (A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit). It’s an incredible book. I read it at Lake Wendouree, Ballarat; at Buckley Falls, Geelong; at Cataract Gorge, Launceston; at the blowhole in Bicheno. As it happened I read the last one and a half chapters of Field Guide on foot and on a tram, reaching the final line as I reached my final destination, bursting into the most hipster cafe in Fitzroy high as a kite on philosophy and the possible. Brunch was good that day.

Thankfully this spark has remained as I settle back into work and the internet. I still have loads of physical books to read, but I’m also finally making headway on my overstuffed Pocket account. Realising that it’s far easier to choose what to read when your selection is limited, my friend and comrade Hugh recently built an accidental serendipity machine called pocket-snack. It’s an experimental Python script for one’s pocket that presents you with a few randomly selected links per day, out of the several hundred you probably have saved (I had well over a thousand before we got the script to work). It’s helped me clear out stuff that it turns out I wasn’t actually interested in or that was no longer relevant to me, which freed up some brainspace for more worthwhile items. Emptying the pocket has truly never been so enjoyable.

Below are a few gems from the last little while, subconsciously themed around ‘the nature of information’:

Animism, Tree-consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory / Bron Taylor, Humans and Nature
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read The Overstory, the Booker-nominated 2018 novel whose central premise is that ‘entities in nature, and life itself, have agency, purpose, and personhood—and we have ethical obligations to all such persons.’ I’d had it in the back of my head to read at some point, noting that I seldom read fiction of any kind, and already have a to-read list as tall as I am. This review, however, propelled The Overstory to the top of my list.

I have a half-finished zine entitled ‘Five Epiphanies in Tasmania’. I’ve had a hard time pinning down the third, an experience in Ballroom Forest that I’ve likened to a moment of religious ecstasy. Reconciling this with my lifelong atheism has been somewhat challenging—whoever heard of an irreligious mystic? It seems my answer lies not in formal religious traditions, but in a kind of nature spirituality that recognises the consciousness of plants, natural features, and ultimately nature itself. Crucially, it also incorporates the responsibility of humankind to care for nature, while not situating ourselves above it. Review author Bron Taylor has dubbed this spirituality ‘dark green religion’, and his definition thereof is worth quoting at length:

It was within this complicated milieu that, over time, I began to notice patterns. These I eventually developed into the notion of dark green religion. This notion refers to diverse social phenomena in which people have animistic perceptions, emphasize ecological interdependence and mutual dependence, develop deep feelings of belonging and connection to nature, and understand the biosphere as a sacred, Gaia-like superorganism. These sorts of nature-based spiritualities generally cohere with and draw on evolutionary and ecological understandings and therefore stress continuity and kinship among all organisms. Uniting these Gaian and animistic perceptions is generally a deep sense of humility about the human place in the universe and suspicions of anthropocentric conceits, wherein human beings consider themselves to be superior to other living things and the only ones whose interests are morally significant.

To learn that this worldview not only had a name, but was a Thing that others felt and lived and wrote novels about, was overwhelming. I was slightly late to work from reading this article. I regret nothing.

If the map becomes the territory then we will be lost / Mita Williams, Librarian of Things
This sounds like a geography article but it’s not—Mita Williams, a scholarly communication librarian based in Canada, writes on how social graphs and scholcomm ecosystems are beginning to shape, rather than merely guide access to, academic output. The big 3 companies (Clarivate, Elsevier and Springer-Nature) are integrating their component services more and more tightly, which has the effect of widely automating—and locking humans, especially librarians, out of—the scholarly publishing process. Mita also discusses a higher education funding mechanism in Ontario that sounds a bit like the UK’s REF (Research Excellence Framework), in that it determines how much money is allocated to various institutions on the basis of some highly exclusionary and frustrating metrics.

Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.

I won’t pretend to be anything near an expert on scholcomm but this all sounds fairly… rubbish. No wonder people want to dump Elsevier.

Computational Landscape Architecture / Geoff Manaugh, BLDGBLOG
I love trees. I also love wifi. But the two are strange bedfellows. This article explores the impact different species of tree might have on phone and internet reception, leading to ‘the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping […] according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi’ and the potential use of pot plants in electronic subterfuge. I mean, Geoff also links to an article from Popular Science suggesting wifi is responsible for mass radiation poisoning in Dutch street trees, so I’m not entirely convinced wifiscaping is a good idea, but it’s yet another reminder that computing, like the rest of human ingenuity, exists within nature and not above it.

PROSPEKT. Organising information is never innocent / Regine, We Make Money Not Art
I initially read this before going on holidays, but VR performance artist Geraldine Juárez has some incisive comments for the GLAM sector that I thought deserve a wider audience. The bulk of this article discusses PROSPEKT, her 2018 performance situated within the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, Sweden. The first paragraph, however, is a neat summary of her 2017 essay ‘Intercolonial Technogalactic’ [large PDF, begins page 152]. In it, Juárez critiques the activities of the Google Cultural Institute, which has digitised and published online thousands of museum-held cultural artefacts from around the world, but which curiously offers very little information about its own origins. (It was intended as part of a PR move against French publishers who were suing Google in 2011 over Google Books and breaches of copyright.)

She notes that Google views libraries, museums and other cultural institutions not as true collaborative partners but as ‘gatekeepers of world cultures’: repositories of content to be mined and paywalled. Google reproduces the power structures and cultural biases that gave rise to it, prizing European high culture above all else, and viewing publicly-funded institutions as beacons of ‘inefficiency’ that need ‘disrupting’ by private enterprise. All information is organised for a purpose. It is never innocent. It is never neutral.

The colonial gaze was determined to scan the surface looking for specimens for study, fixing them as objects out of time and out of place, in the same way that digital documents offer imagings of the world at a distance via screens. This is a prospecting gaze – a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value.

While re-reading this article I was violently reminded of a series of uncomfortable experiences at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. I’ve never been wild about taxidermy, but TMAG’s hall of lovingly stuffed creatures, with mammals, birds and insects wrenched from their natural homes and drowned in formaldehyde, made me deeply uncomfortable. These poor animals deserve to return to the earth, not spend the next three eternities in suspended animation for the amusement of humans.

Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees / Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Real Life
This piece has had such an impact on how I think about cataloguing that I’m including it again. It reminded me that the very notion of cataloguing and classification has deeply imperialist foundations that bode ill for our efforts at more inclusive collection description. It also reminded me of how my dear mother, a keen gardener, was able to identify every plant photo I texted to her during my trip. Sometimes it’s far better to ask mum than ask Google. Or an app reliant on crowdsourcing and machine learning.

The “herborizer,” a 17th-century nature enthusiast “armed with nothing more than a collector’s bag, a notebook, and some specimen bottles, desiring nothing more than a few peaceful hours alone with the bugs and flowers,” was the passive cousin of the conquistador or the diplomat […] His harmless assertion of taxonomical hegemony over Europe and her colonies actually produced commercially exploitable knowledge for the empire’s gain. He was a researcher, classifying, collecting, qualifying and quantifying imperial loot.

By cataloguing nature in ways that privileged only select facets of a living thing (those that could be seen, felt, or observed in isolation from its natural habitat), the burgeoning fields of taxonomy and scientific classification enabled Enlightenment-era Europeans to distance themselves from the natural world they ravaged. It continues to enable users of the aforementioned plant-identifying app, which propagates this classificatory, imperialist method of coming to know the earth. Taxonomy, with its discrete categories and precise hierarchies, primes us to see nature as a resource, as something to be mined, prospected and extracted for humanity’s benefit (such as improving our wifi). ‘It teaches us to see other life as proximate to us, rather than knowing ourselves as an extension of it.’

The antithesis of Bron Taylor’s dark green religion. The very anthropocentrism to which Richard Powers’ The Overstory stands opposed.

I titled this blog Cataloguing the Universe because it reflected a childhood impulse to never stop learning about the world, about space and time, about my place on this planet. Library catalogues have always been, for me, a path to knowledge: first as I browsed them, now as I contribute to their upkeep. It’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve learned how taxonomies and classification systems reflect the views, biases and priorities of those who create them. It’s only within the last hour that I’ve realised the binary character of natural history classification is echoed within my work as a cataloguer. I can assign a book only one call number. I can either include or not include a subject heading—no parts, shades or relevance rankings, no way to indicate just how well a work relates to the subjects I decide it’s about. It’s not a good system. How can I smash it?

This notion of cataloguing as a means of collecting and producing knowledge, like everything else about the culture I was raised in, is inherently Eurocentric and deeply flawed. I couldn’t quite articulate this in late January, but I can now. This is why I wanted to learn differently this year. To overcome my ecological illiteracy borne from spending 28 years inside on someone else’s land. To learn different ways of seeing the world, so that I might address the harm my settler presence has caused.

The article’s conclusion suggests the first step is ‘to take off our lenses and reckon with the humbling, bewildering condition of unknowing, to [quell] the appetite for legibility of the world that leaves us at a comfortable distance from what we cannot understand.’ I don’t think I’m comfortable enough yet with my own ignorance. I have so much to unlearn.

2019: a year of knowing, more naturally

A view of Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain, TAS, January 2019. Photograph by the author

How good is not having phone reception?! One of the best things about spending two weeks in Tasmania has been the amount of time I’ve been completely cut off from the world. A forcible disconnect. A respite for the extremely online. It’s been fantastic. (Bushfires, not so much. A lot of haze, and a close call in Zeehan. But we all got out okay.)

Anyway, being Offline and Elsewhere has helped me reset my thinking a bit, which was one of my primary motivations for going on holiday in the first place. I’ve tried to make a point of not keeping up with library twitter while on holiday, but I have since wound up at the house of a cardiCore member, and I figure I now have no excuse not to write a post!

So here we are. I’m realising I don’t necessarily know what I want to learn yet—but I know I want to learn things differently. In particular, I want to immerse myself in different ways of learning and knowing that don’t involve a book. This goes against my entire upbringing. I’ve only ever been able to learn things out of books. Consequently I missed a few things that can’t be learnt from a book (charisma, extroversion etc).

In particular, I hope to come to know nature more deeply than what books can teach me. One of the few articles I read in Tasmania was the absolutely brilliant ‘Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees’ by Ana Cecilia Alvarez, a deep dive on how Enlightenment-era Europeans came to know nature by cataloguing it, by way of taxonomy and scientific classification, and how that in turn enabled them to distance themselves from nature. Taxonomy tells us nothing about the interplay of nature, of ecology, of ecosystems, of the ecosymmetry that gives rise to life on Earth. This knowledge predates the book and all human attempts at organising knowledge. The world’s languages are shaped by our landscapes. Our speech and our thoughts are a product of the places we inhabit.

I want to learn more about how my upbringing has shaped my inbuilt theories of knowledge—as a white woman, in a settler-colonial society, who learned to read prodigiously early, and whose personal and professional backgrounds privileged the book as a source of knowledge. I also want to learn more about nature from nature itself. How might I know a tree? I look forward to finding out.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 3

Today I realised I had 1,025 items saved to my Pocket account, which is a bit much. I wrote earlier this year about my article ecosystem, but it’s fallen apart a bit, because I never seem to get around to actually reading everything I save. I decided to clean out these items, deleting articles I was never really going to read, and sharing those that left an impression.

Architecture and Appropriation / Louis Mokak, Assemble Papers
First published in Caliper, this short piece speaks to how First Nations ‘culture is not a research topic, thematic concern or an anthropological curiosity’, yet is still treated as such by scientific lines of enquiry. The author, a Djugun architecture student, reflects on the power structures that underpin his chosen profession, and where cultural appropriation might be replaced with a more equitable exchange.

The Soviet web: the tale of how the USSR almost invented the internet / Justin Reynolds, Calvert Journal
This article on socialist cybernetics, in particular the Chilean Project Cybersyn and the Soviet OGAS, outlined how communist countries looked to emerging computing technologies to assist in centralised control of the economy. Crucially, the ‘internet’ of the title refers not to a publicly-accessible web of information, but a network of computers that would relay data on production output to central planning. They almost created a nation-wide computer network, but the Americans beat them to it, and look where that’s gotten us…

Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient? / Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360
Newsflash: the internet is terrible for the environment! As I highlighted in the last #emptythepocket roundup, we as a society have collectively forgotten that ‘that ethereal place where we store our data, stream our movies, and email the world has a physical presence’. And it’s filthy. The electricity that powers cloud computing is frequently drawn from non-renewable sources, with data centres using insane amounts of energy in cooling and airconditioning. Every internet-connected keystroke has an environmental cost. We outsource so much of our data infrastructure to ‘the cloud’, and assume that someone else will take care of all that pesky maintenance and environmental sustainability for us, that most of us have no idea what the internet is doing to the planet. (I’m hoping to soon read J.R. Carpenter’s book The Gathering Cloud, an intriguing work of ‘media meteorology’.)

Librarian or librarian: Which Do You Want to Be? / Jessica Olin, Letters to a Young Librarian
Our endgame as librarians / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound
I am hugely, immensely, absolutely guilty of being a Librarian with a capital L. And yet it’s something I’ve largely refused to feel guilty about, because that’s a decision I’ve made for myself, in deciding what I want to do with my life and how best to use my skills and talents for the greater good. But it also means I’m up to my eyeballs in Librarian Culture, and when it almost drowned me earlier this year I realised it comprised such a large chunk of Me that I didn’t quite know what was left. Like Jessica, I also don’t want to look back on my mid-twenties and regret being such a Librarian, when I could also have been (just?) a librarian, with time and energy for other things. But do I want that? Would I ever be happy not throwing myself into my work?

Andrew posted on a similar topic as I was reading Jessica’s post. Andrew and I have collectively spent a lot of time this year being capitalised Librarians, giving a shit, and pondering our respective powers and places within LIS. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it alone, and sometimes we can’t do much of anything. But we can try, and plan, and agitate, and celebrate all successes no matter how small. And I know I can do it from the position I’m currently in—employed on a fixed-term contract, in a non-management role, in a team that doesn’t share my views on… virtually everything, with the ink still wet on my library degree, armed only with a twitter account and my wits. Nobody else will change our sector for the better, so we might as well do it ourselves. Just so long as that’s not the only thing we do. (I was also reminded of Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s code4lib editorial on being a selfish librarian, which is a good read.)

Contraflow / Clare Archibald, Walking Heads
At this point I inverted my pocket so the oldest items were at the top. The most interesting old thing was this psychogeographic drift in a multi-storey carpark. As a lifelong non-driver I rarely have cause to be in these buildings, so reading Clare’s pedestrian exploration of this car-shaped space was spooky in lots of ways. It becomes less about the carpark itself than about Clare’s memories of carparks in general, concrete and acid, cracks and headlights. Cars are awful. I don’t know why we persist with them.

‘I felt betrayed by the physical and emotional hardship’ / Agustin Chevez, SBS Insight
As a product of the Enlightenment, LIS prides itself on being a rational profession, based on truth and evidence. But what if it’s really the absurd that will save us? Recent PhD graduate Agustin Chevez found himself seized by a need to walk from Sydney to Melbourne, and decided to do so, but a month of walking had seemingly produced nothing. Tired and unsure, he stopped by the side of the road, only to realise that ‘once artificial intelligence has modelled every possible rational scenario, absurdity might surface as our last standing trait’. The absurdity of his situation liberated him, and inspired him to continue his walk. The clickbaity title does this piece a great disservice—it’s an inspiring treatise on the value of irrationality and solitude. I could do with a long walk myself…

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 1

Twenty bucks for hours of train disruption? What a steal!

Being a known article-hoarder, I was inspired recently to start cleaning out my piles of collected internet writing (I would not deign to call it an ‘archive’, it’s far too poorly organised). I’ve been posting some of the best articles to twitter using #emptythepocket, but each article’s presence in the collective consciousness of my followers is brief, and some articles deserve a longer digestion period.

Inspired by Hugh Rundle’s Marginalia series, here is a selection of articles I read—in this order—on the train to Melbourne. (Where possible I avoid flying, because it’s bad for the planet and also highly unpleasant.) It’s a nice summary of my reading interests: critical cataloguing, psychogeography, writings from friends, human ecology, and a great big rant about librarianship, because I love it and also hate it. So much.

Can walking be a feminist act? / Anna Chilvers, Caught by the River
This was a great piece on the fear felt by women walking the countryside, walking after dark, walking alone. We are afraid not of the unknown, but of known dangers—not of the wilderness, but of men. I was immediately reminded of the Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness project by Clare Archibald, as well as the zine A short nightwalk through Lyons from Saorsa Free Press (which may or may not be a side project of mine).

17 Days in Malaysia, Part One / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound 
I’d been following the goings-on at the 2018 IFLA conference on twitter (plus the occasional culinary delight) but I enjoyed the first part of Andrew’s longer-form wrap-up of his sojourn in Singapore and Malaysia. Didn’t envy him the tropical weather, though.

The New Ecological Situationists: On the Revolutionary Aesthetics of Climate Justice and Degrowth / Aaron Vansintjan, Never Apart
Aaron co-edits Uneven Earth, an environmental justice blog. He writes for Never Apart at the intersection of psychogeography and climate change nihilism, two particular interests of mine, and does so with grace and depth. The absurdity of most environmental action (no, you can’t just ‘shut down’ a power station) contrasts with an acknowledged need to completely transform our growth-minded society, if we are to survive. Here I first met Andre Gorz’s principle of décroissance, which has resonated with me deeply. (I’m also a big fan of his ‘cars are bad for everyone’ manifesto from 1972.)

Mat Santamouris: time to make buildings heat-safe. Now. / Dante Terzigni, The Fifth Estate
A quick read on the need for urban planners to ensure their buildings can withstand hotter temperatures, though talk of influencing the design of the new airport in Western Sydney ‘to increase climate change mitigation’ elicited a scoff. You want to mitigate climate change? Don’t build another freaking airport! Don’t fly! (She says, writing this post on a train because she’s given up flying) Don’t build the infrastructure to support atmospheric pollution on a global scale and then plant some trees around it! Climate change doesn’t work like that!

On truth in cataloging / Shanna Hollich, Shanna Makes
This is one of the best cataloguing pieces I’ve read in a long time. It’s everything I wish I’d said to Gordon Dunsire at ACOC. ‘[A]nyone who thinks “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” needs to come down off of their pretentious high horse and realize what cataloging truly is: a means of collecting and describing various pertinent information, data, and metadata about an object in a library collection […] to aid patrons and staff in finding materials.’ From 2015, it’s still a very hot topic in cataloguing with the reversal of the ‘fictional entities as authors’ rule in the new RDA. Thank you, Shanna. You are awesome, and this piece is amazing.

UX from a Technical Services Point of View / Shelley Gullikson and Emma Cross, Access Conf 2017 (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Another happy confluence of two topics close to my heart: user experience and technical services (which ought to be spoken about together far more often). To me, this paper screams ‘tech services! you’re doing it wrong!!’. Our cataloguing isn’t meeting the needs of users. Our systems aren’t surfacing what users will use to judge the usefulness of a record. (RDA is useless here! Subject headings are of minimal importance!) People use keyword search almost exclusively. Our info retrieval paradigms MUST adapt to this + present the most useful info first.

I was intrigued by the reactions to the UX study from tech services staff vs. the department head. I am on both sides: keyword searching is not a bad search, BUT it is not harnessing the intricate subject taxonomies that cataloguers have spent decades building, and will only skim the surface of records. (I mentioned this on my episode of Turbitt & Duck, and Karen Coyle has written on this extensively.) I do not believe in telling users that keyword searching is ‘wrong’, but we need to build our systems to better address the current deficiencies in keyword search. (Note I do not say ‘pressure our vendors to build our systems’. If we want anything done properly we’re gonna have to do it ourselves. And we should be doing it ourselves.)

‘Our students do their research online. Technical Services staff make decisions that affect how library resources are found online. So they are perfectly positioned to improve the user experience of our students.’ Say it with me: technical services is outreach!

Looking for Lorca / Steven Reese, Panorama Journal 
On the quest for the tomb of Federico García Lorca, a famed Spanish poet killed by nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and whose remains have never been found. It deftly wove several threads together—on how we gain and lose identities as we travel; on our presence inside the shell a name creates for us (for naming ‘is like a kind of death’); on Spain’s national reckoning with its fascist history, and the legislation of memory. I had never heard of Lorca or his poetry, but now I’m keen to read more.

Contextualizing the “Marketplace of Ideas” in Libraries / Nailisa Tanner, Journal of Radical Librarianship 
I was super looking forward to this article but found that Pocket hadn’t saved it properly, so I had to wait for the next train station (ergo mobile reception) to redownload. I napped for an hour, then read this article, and I’m glad I napped first—it’s quite heavy reading, but absolutely worth it.

Defenders of intellectual freedom in libraries often use the phrase ‘marketplace of ideas’, which ‘evokes the image of a process in which rational consumers choose from among the ideas presented to them in an environment of unrestricted competition. In this line of argument, it follows that truth and reason will emerge automatically’. Now, we have all met library users. We all read the news. We all know that this does not happen. So why do we continue to structure our libraries as if this will happen?

The week of this trip ALIA launched their newest FAIR campaign, ‘Truth Information Knowledge (TIK)’, positing librarianship as a trusted profession. Sigh. I’ve written on this misplaced trust before, as have plenty of others. How committed are we to enforcing the Enlightenment?

Various forms of liberalism posit that Truth will out, but a market-based mechanism brings about precisely the opposite outcome, that the prevailing View is that which best exploits the market conditions. Libraries are in a position to set those market conditions—and so influence the outcome. Is it (or is it not) in accordance with our professional ethics to set the scene for a flourishing of ideas that grow our society, not seek to tear it apart?


I hope you enjoyed this #emptythepocket roundup as much as I enjoyed sitting on a train for six-and-a-half hours compiling it. Perhaps next time I hop on a train there’ll be another one…

The serial place collector

This is not even half of it honestly you should see my book pile

For this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme of ‘collect’, I glanced over at my tottering ‘to-read pile that was sitting on a table but is now a table itself’. It’s perhaps an unusual pile. For one thing, I seldom read novels. Instead I’m drawn to narrative non-fiction, short stories and poetry. Stories about natural history, eco-friendly travel, walking, ecology, place, psychogeography, re-knowing our planet and watching helplessly as it changes. Stories that feel real.

Interestingly, that to-read pile has quite a number of print serials on place and nature writing. (Developing a magazine habit is a bit of a family tradition.) Currently I’m absorbed in volume 4 of Elementum, which arrived last week (don’t ask me how much the postage was!), as well as back issues of Elsewhere, which I hope to write for one day.

I did a brief analysis of my print serial collection in Libraries Australia and found only one title held in any Australian library: the Melbourne-based Lindsay, who have fulfilled their legal deposit obligations with the NLA. Considering the vast majority of these journals are published abroad I’m not terribly surprised. Perhaps when I die, some nature-inclined library here will take an interest in the rest of my collection. Perhaps not.

Then again, it’s not like online nature and place journals are well-represented in libraries either. There are lots of excellent blogs, often written and maintained by one person, as well as lush online magazines that make the most of the browser and create an immersive reading experience. Yet the long-term survival of many is largely dependent on the Internet Archive, which doesn’t quite feel like enough. My current personal favourite online journal is Emergence Magazine, ‘a journal of ecology, culture and spirituality’ with some seriously impressive writing, visuals and web design.

You know you want to read it, like, right now.

I’ve also been enjoying Plumwood Mountain, ‘an Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’. Australian publications of this type seem to be harder to find. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re thin on the ground; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places.

Naturally, I’d like to collect Plumwood Mountain, or hope that a library could do so for me. I have a few options: I can manually save every page to the Internet Archive (highly time-consuming); I can manually save every page locally using Webrecorder (also highly time-consuming); or I can submit the site to Pandora and hope the author acquiesces. If she doesn’t, well, I tried. (Did you know anyone can suggest sites to Pandora for collection? Be aware that if you put someone’s email address in the form, it’ll send them an email.)

How can libraries collect emailed serials? In my past life as a local history librarian we dealt with this mostly by printing them out, which is obviously not ideal. To the best of my knowledge, newsletters hosted on platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact aren’t harvestable by web archiving crawlers. Collection of these emails by libraries would therefore depend on either the publisher depositing a clean HTML or PDF version, or preserving the email files as part of an archive of someone’s inbox (which is very difficult, highly labour-intensive and not ideal for everyday access). We can’t rely on online platforms being available forever. We need to figure out a way to collect and preserve this content from the browser.

I desperately want someone to archive the full run of In Wild Air, a weekly emailed serial from 2016 to 2018 by Blue Mountains-based creative Heath Killen, each week featuring six things that made a guest tick. I loved this newsletter. Every Monday I took a leisurely walk through someone’s psyche. It was brilliant. I love basically everything Heath does. But if I were to ask Pandora to crawl that website, all it would collect is the index of names. The content itself is hosted on MailChimp—beyond the crawler’s reach.

I wonder if this proliferation of Anglophone ecoliterature is decidedly English in origin—the place, as well as the language. Settlers in Australia brought English concepts of geography with them (as explored in J.M. Arthur’s 2003 book The default country) and tried, unsuccessfully, to apply them to the Australian landscape. How else could you justify calling Weereewa / Lake George a ‘lake’ or Lhere Mparntwe / Todd River a ‘river’?

A collection selection

These are a few of my favourite journals. Please be aware that this list, though reasonably culturally competent, is white as hell. I’d really like to address that. A lot of these are based in Britain, where the nature writing crowd is overwhelmingly white, but I’m very keen to expand my collection to include more Indigenous perspectives. I’d also like to highlight the upcoming Willowherb Review, an online journal for nature writers of colour, which promises to be very good.

Print journals

Online journals and blogs

An entitlement to knowledge

The Seven Sisters, 2010, by Eileen Tjayanka Woods, Papulankutja Artists, acrylic on linen, 171 x 145 cm. National Museum of Australia. © Eileen Tjayanka Woods. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017.

Today I went to see the exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia. I was motivated to spend today somewhere airconditioned, and figured I could tick off this exhibition on my to-do list at the same time. As it turned out, I’m already planning a second visit.

Songlines is an incredible, spellbinding exhibition. I implore you, if you can, to see it before it closes on February 25. It’s an enthralling journey across space, time, culture, language and people, telling an Indigenous story in Indigenous ways—paintings, ceramics, carvings, song, dance, oral retelling, even a virtual reality experience depicting Cave Hill rock art. The saga of the Seven Sisters (Minyipuru in Martu country, Kungkarrangkalpa in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara [APY] country) incorporates essential knowledge for survival in the desert—the locations of waterholes, medicinal plants and food sources, sacred places, areas of risk, how to mitigate that risk.

I came to the exhibition with some awareness of Indigenous desert culture and left with an exponentially greater understanding of Martu and APY lore, culture and knowledge. I felt an incredible sorrow at what settler culture had inflicted on these people. An incredible awe at their continuing survival. An incredible gratitude that they had chosen to share this lore with Australia, and that I might experience it. An incredible sadness that their ways of life were imperiled to the point that APY elders considered it necessary to stage this exhibition at all.

Songlines also made clear that this story was being shared with me, with the public, with settler Australia, because the elders wanted it shared. That non-owners of the tjukurrpa (the Dreaming) were not necessarily entitled to this knowledge, and would not traditionally be privy to it. The concept of ‘entitlement to knowledge’ was fortunately not new to me, but I found myself returning to it during my almost three-hour stay in the exhibition space. It had represented a profound shift in my conceptualisation of self, both my personal white self and my professional librarian self.

Modern western librarianship has its roots in the Enlightenment ethos of the primacy of reason: rationalism, scepticism, empiricism, objectivism. All of those -isms naturally presuppose access to knowledge, which builds logical argument and constructs a rational worldview. The idea that an Enlightenment thinker might be, in their view, denied access to knowledge that might advance their philosophy… it would be inconceivable. It goes far deeper than ‘I don’t want to tell you because I’m a competing philosopher’. It’s an intrinsic entitlement to knowledge. A staunchly-held view that worldly knowledge is there, just there, for the taking.

This line of thinking has trickled down to us today. I spent my childhood voraciously consuming every book, newspaper, magazine and educational computer game I could get my hands on. I brought to librarianship the same thirst for knowledge that defined my early years. I saw nothing wrong with this. It wasn’t until very recently—say, the last 18 months or so—that I began learning far more about Indigenous epistemologies and methods of knowledge transmission, and in doing so beginning to question the very foundations of my profession.

What sorts of knowledge am I entitled to? If any? What knowledge should I be sharing, not sharing, promulgating, not promulgating, making findable, making secret? The idea that not all knowledge ought to be public knowledge, that not everything ought to be shared, is a seismic shift in western librarianship. Consider our current preoccupation with linked open data. Not all data is appropriately shared in these kinds of frameworks, which is why Indigenous data sovereignty is essential for any open data project. Knowledge is not always ours for the taking. Knowledge belongs to people, and their interests must always come first.

I picked up a book in the museum gift shop, Glenn Morrison’s Songlines and fault lines: epic walks of the Red Centre. I’ve accidentally read half of it already, though I had hoped to do it justice and soak up the book in one sitting. It’s a wonderful addition to my growing collection of books on psychogeography, a burgeoning interest of mine, which is basically a white way of trying to establish a (spiritual?) connection with places and with the landscape. I left the exhibition painfully aware of the connection I do not have with this land, partly because I’ve only recently tried to reconnect with walking and nature, and also because it’s not my land.

In any case, I look forward to returning to the Songlines exhibition. There’s so much more I could learn from it, for as long as it deigns to teach me.

2018: a year of expanding horizons

I have a good feeling about 2018. I suspect I’m one of the few people who does. I’ve long been of the view that things have to get worse before they get better, and last year was ‘worse’ by just about every metric, so I’m hopeful things will improve this year.

As suggested by GLAM Blog Club, I reflected on the goals I set myself last year:

  • ‘Improve my digital skills’: While I didn’t manage to learn SQL, I did attend an engaging talk on Python for beginners at VALA Tech Camp and acquired a couple of decent beginner programming books. I got much better at Markdown and Bash scripting, and did a lot of work with SKOS vocabularies. I had some fun with wget and other web archiving tools.
  • ‘Reconnect with long-form writing, which is worth paying for’: I definitely achieved this goal, thanks to a burgeoning interest in psychogeography and landscape writing. Among many others, I encountered the delightful print journal Elsewhere, the Dark Mountain Project and their recent compendium Walking on Lava, and Alastair Bonnett’s 2014 book Off the Map. I still acquired several unread books, but I made the time to devour several more
  • ‘Get some perspective’: Aside from a new perspective on landscape (embodied in the zines I began writing late last year), I’d like to think I broadened my perspective on several issues. I made a point of regularly reading the Guardian’s American series Burst your bubble, catering for a section of its readership newly bewildered by a rapid political transformation they didn’t see coming. I also read a lot more about Indigenous issues in Australia, in particular the excellent book Decolonizing Solidarity. I’d like to sincerely thank Nathan Sentance and Annelie de Villiers, whose writing and retweeting on these issues helped broaden my perspective immensely.

So what will I aim for this year? The ‘expanding horizons’ of the title refers not just to expanding my dislike of the Horizon ILS, which I will hopefully never have to use ever again, but of new opportunities in many aspects of my life. I feel I am at a crossroads. I intend to take a path where I might see far ahead of me. Already I have some concrete goals:

  • Submit papers to conferences: I recently learned the CILIP CIG conference is in Edinburgh this year, and seeing as I love a) metadata b) Scotland and c) conferences, this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. I don’t yet have a smashing idea for a topic, but I really hope I can think of something. I already have an idea for NLS9, which I can’t wait to work on.
  • Write more zines: I went on a walk last year and wrote a zine about it. It was the most creative thing I’d done in ages (and my family loved it!). I already have ideas for several more zines, which promise to broaden my physical and philosophical horizons. I’m so glad I discovered zines. They’ve been a great outlet in all sorts of ways.
  • Back myself: This was the main thing I learned in 2017—to have confidence in myself and my decisions, and to know when to change course. A lesson like this is only as good as its implementation.

As always, I aim to continue tweeting and blogging, as well as attending GLAM events where I can. 2018 will be a bit of a rebuilding year for me, but I hope to build something bigger and stronger that will serve me well for years to come.