So what’s next?: five things I learned at #GOGLAM

Yesterday I had the great privilege of attending the GO GLAM miniconf, held under the auspices of the Linux Australia conference. Hosted by the fabulous Bonnie Wildie and the indefatigable Hugh Rundle, GO GLAM brought the power and promise of open-source software to the GLAM sector. This miniconf has been run a couple of times before but this was my first visit. It was pretty damn good. I’m glad I started scribbling down notes, otherwise it would all be this massive blend of exhausted awesome.

The day began with an opening keynote by some guy called Cory Doctorow, but he wasn’t very interesting so I didn’t pay much attention. He did talk a lot about self-determination, and he did use the phrase ‘seizing the means of computation’ that I definitely want on a t-shirt, but there was a big ethics-of-care-sized gap at the centre of his keynote. I found myself wishing someone would use the words ‘self-determination’ and ‘social responsibility’ in the same talk.

Good tech platforms can exist, if we care enough to build them. As it happened, GO GLAM’s first speakers, a group of five mostly francophone and mostly Indigenous artists and coders from what is now eastern Canada, wound up doing almost exactly this. Natakanu, meaning ‘visit each other’ in the Innu language, is an ‘Indigenous-led, open source, peer to peer software project’, enabling First Nations communities to share art, data, files and stories without state surveillance, invasive tech platforms or an internet connection. I can’t express how brilliant this project is. I’m still so deeply awed and impressed by what this team have built.

gif of natakanu client
Demo gif of the Natakanu client. Image courtesy Mauve Signweaver

Two things leapt out at me during this electrifying talk—that Natakanu is thoughtful, and that it is valuable. It consciously reflects First Nations knowledge cultures, echoing traditions of oral history, and exemplifying an ‘approach of de-colonized cyberspace’. Files are shared with ‘circles’, where everyone in a circle is assumed to be a trusted party, but each member of that circle can choose (or not) to share something further. Building a collective memory is made easier with Natakanu, but the responsibility of doing so continues to rest with those who use it.

Natakanu embodies—and makes space for—First Nations sovereignties, values and ethics of care. It’s technology by people, for people. It’s a precious thing, because our communities are precious, too. The Natakanu platform reflects what these communities care about. Western tech platforms care about other things, like shouting at the tops of your lungs to ten billion other people in an agora and algorithmically distorting individuals’ sense of reality. We implicitly accept these values by continuing to use these platforms. Our tech doesn’t care about us. We could build better tech, if we knew how, and we chose to. (There’s a reason I’ve been consciously trying to spend less time on Twitter and more time on Mastodon.) But more on computational literacy a little later.

A few people mentioned in the Q&A afterwards how they’d love to bring Natakanu to Indigenous Australian communities. I don’t doubt their intentions are good (and Hugh touched on this in the recap at the end of the day), but in my (white-ass) view the better thing is to empower communities here to build their own things that work for them. A key aspect of Reconciliation in this country is developing a sense of cultural humility, to recognise when your whitefella expertise might be valuable and to offer it, when to quietly get out of the way, and which decisions are actually yours to make. Or, as speaker Mauve Signweaver put it, ‘instead of telling them “tell us what you need and we’ll make it for you”, saying “Tell us what you need and we’ll help you make it”‘.

I can’t wait to rewatch this talk and catch up on some parts I know I missed. It was absolutely the highlight of the entire miniconf. I couldn’t believe they were first-time speakers! Can they do the keynote next year?

Metadata and systems might not last forever, but we can still try. I think it’s safe to say many attendees were very taken with Arkisto, the ‘open-source, standards-based framework for digital preservation’ presented by Mike Lynch. It’s a philosophical yet pragmatic solution to describing, packaging and contextualising research data. Arkisto’s framework appears particularly useful for rescuing and re-housing data from abandoned or obsolete platforms (such as an Omeka instance where the grant money has run out and the site is at risk of deletion).

Arkisto describes objects with RO-Crate (Research Object Crate, a derivative of and stores them in the Oxford Common File Layout, a filesystem that brings content and metadata together. It’s actively not a software platform and it’s not a replacement for traditional digipres activities like checksums. It’s a bit like applying the philosophy of static site generators to research data management; it’s a minimalist, long-term, sustainably-minded approach that manages data in line with the FAIR principles. It also recognises that researchers have short-term incentives not to adequately describe or contextualise their research data (no matter how much librarians exhort them to) and tries to make it easier for them.

The new PARADISEC catalogue includes Arkisto and an associated web interface, Oni, as part of its tech stack. I was very taken with the catalogue’s principle of ‘graceful degradation’—even if the search function ceases to operate, browsing and viewing items will still work. As a former web archivist I was heartened to see them holding this more limited functionality in mind, an astute recognition that all heritage, be it virtual, environmental or built, will eventually decay. So much of my web archiving work involved desperately patching dynamic websites into something that bore a passing resemblance to what they had once been. We might not always be able to save the infrastructure, but one hopes we can more often save the art, the data, the files, the stories. (Which reminds me, I’ve had Curated Decay on my to-read shelf for far too long.)

I shouldn’t have needed reminding of this, but sometimes I forget that metadata doesn’t begin and end with the library sector. It was a thrill to hear someone in a related field speaking my language! I wanna hang out with these people more often now.

Generosity resides in all of us. My first impressions of Hugh Rundle’s talk were somewhat unfavourable—he only spent a couple of minutes talking about the bones of his project, a Library Map of every public library in Australia, and instead dedicated the bulk of his time to complaining about the poor quality of open datasets. Despite having had several sneak previews I was rather hoping to see more of the map itself, including its ‘white fragility mode’ and the prevalence of fine-free libraries across the country. Instead I felt a bit deflated by the persistent snark. Hugh was the only speaker to explicitly reference the miniconf’s fuller title of ‘Generous and Open GLAM’. But this felt like an ungenerous talk. Why did it bother me?

Perhaps it’s because Hugh is a close friend of mine, and I expected him to be as kind and generous about the failings of Data Vic as he is about my own. I’m not sure I held other speakers to that high a standard, but I don’t think anyone else was quite as mean about their data sources. I also hadn’t eaten a proper breakfast, so maybe I was just hangry, and I ought to give Hugh the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had a lot on his plate. I intend to rewatch this talk when the recordings come out, to see if I feel the same way about it on a full stomach. I hope I feel differently. The Library Map really is a great piece of software, and I don’t think Hugh quite did it justice.

screenshot of Hugh Rundle's Library Map
Homepage of Hugh Rundle’s Library Map

Omg pull requests make sense now. Liz Stokes is absolutely delightful, and her talk ‘Once more, with feeling!’ was no exception. Her trademark cheerfulness, gentleness and generosity shone in this talk, where she explored what makes a comfortable learning environment for tech newbies, and demonstrated just such an environment by teaching us how GitHub pull requests worked. How did she know that I desperately needed to know this?! Pull requests had just never made sense to me—until that afternoon. You ‘fork’ a repository by copying it to your space, then make changes you think the original repo would benefit from, then leave a little note explaining what you did and ‘request’ that the original owner ‘pull’ your changes back into the repo. A pull request! Amazing! A spotlight shone upon my brain and angels trumpeted from the heavens. This made my whole day. Hark, the gift of knowledge!

Liz also touched on the value of learning how to ‘think computationally’, a skill I have come to deeply appreciate as I progress in my technical library career. I’ve attended multiple VALA Tech Camps (including as a presenter), I’ve done all sorts of workshops and webinars, I’ve tried learning to code umpteen times (and just the other day bought Julia Evans’ SQL zine Become a SELECT Star! because I think I’ll shortly need it for work), but nowhere did I ever formally learn the basics of computational thinking. Computers don’t think like humans do, and in order to tell computers what we want, we have to learn to speak their language. But so much learn-to-code instruction attempts to teach the language without the grammar.

I don’t have a computer science background—I have an undergraduate degree in classics, and am suddenly reminded of the innovative Traditional Grammar course that I took at ANU many years ago. Most students come to Classical Studies with little knowledge of grammar in any language; instead of throwing them headfirst into the intricacies of the ancient languages, they learn about the grammars of English, Latin and Ancient Greek first and together. This gives students a solid grounding of the mechanics of language, setting them up for success in future years. Programming languages need a course like Traditional Grammar. Just as classicists learn to think like Romans, prospective coders need to be explicitly taught how to think like computers. A kind of basic computational literacy course.

(Of all the things I thought I’d get out of the day, I didn’t expect a newfound admiration of Professor Elizabeth Minchin to be one of them.)

Online confs are awesome! Being somewhat late to the online conference party, GO GLAM was my first experience of an exclusively online conference. I’ve watched a handful of livestreams before, but it just isn’t the same. A bit like reading a photocopied book. I don’t think I had any particular expectations of LCA, but I figured I’ve sat in on enough zoom webinars, it’d be a bit like that, right? Wrong. The LCA audio-visual and conference tech stack was an absolute thing of beauty. Everything looked a million bucks, everything was simple and easy to use. It was a far more active watching experience than simply tucking into a livestream—the chat box on the right-hand side, plus the breakout Q&A areas, helped me feel as if I were truly part of the action. I didn’t usually have a lot to say past ‘That was awesome!’ but it was far less intimidating than raising my hand at an in-person Q&A or cold-tweeting a speaker after the fact.

As someone who is deeply introverted, probably neurodivergent and extremely online, virtual conferences like GO GLAM are so much more accessible than their real-life counterparts. I didn’t have to travel, get up early, put on my People Face™, spend hours in a bright and noisy conference hall, eat mediocre food, make painful small talk, take awkward pictures of slides and furiously live-tweet at the same time, massively exhaust myself and make a mad dash for the exit. Instead I could have a nap, grab another pot of tea, turn the lights down, share links in the chat, clap with emojis, watch people make great connections, take neat and tidy screenshots of slides, squeeze in a spot of Hammock Time and still be feeling excited by it all at the end of the day.

I’m sure people will want to return to some form of physical conferencing in the fullness of time, but I fervently hope that online conferencing becomes the new norm. This infrastructure exists, it costs a lot less than you think (certainly less than venue hire and catering), and it makes conferences accessible to people for whom the old normal just wasn’t working. Please don’t leave us behind when the world comes back.

The caretaker

Wow, what a shit year.

It was intense and horrifying and miserable and lonely and exhausting. The world ended. And yet we’re still here.

I learned a lot this year. I learned that working from home is great, actually; that lockdown really isn’t that much different from my usual life, but it still sucks; that the sounds of forests are a better antidepressant than any medication; and that months after the most traumatic experience of my life it’s still so hard to say certain things out loud. I also learned that I often sound better than I feel. It still amazes me that I was able to write something as coherent as ‘The parting glass’ less than a week after leaving hospital, at the peak of the first wave, at the end of everything. I was desperate to be heard, to be known, to be cared for, to be safe. I still am. It’s a work in progress.

Among many other things I started a new job this year, thanks to my workplace’s pre-existing restructure. It’s kind of a systems librarian role, lots of data maintenance, gathering, querying, harmonisation. A new role in an old team, but I have been made so warmly welcome it’s like I’ve been there for years. I’m pleased that this work is being resourced (though I wish it weren’t at the expense of other areas). Quiet, routine, meaningful, honourable work, in the Maintainers tradition. The work that keeps everyone else working, though it’s hardly ‘essential’ in pandemic terms, and is 100% doable from home. I found myself drawing on the white paper ‘Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care’, embodying its values into my work.

I see my new role as a caretaker, a systems janitor, a data maintainer. My job is to nurture our data systems, help them grow, water them, prune them, compost them at an appropriate time. Our ILS is 17 years old and desperately needs replacing. We’ll take care of it as much as we can, while planning a new system that might flower for longer, and make better use of resources.

I love this job so much partly because I now get to work with some really excellent people, but also largely because this team are far better anchored in the bigger work of the library. Being a traditional cataloguer meant I had a very narrowly focused view of metadata. I dealt with records at the micro level, one item at a time, with little to no ability to see the bigger picture. It wasn’t that I couldn’t personally see it; rather, my job and team structure lacked that oversight. But now my role deals with metadata at the macro level, many thousands of records at once, where the system shapes our view. I find it deeply grounding as a metadata professional, seeing the ebb and flow of data, how it can help tell a greater story, how what we don’t record often says as much about an item, and about us, as what we do record. I’m hopeful we can make space for some work on identifying systemic biases in our metadata; our cataloguing policies mandate the use of AIATSIS headings and AUSTLANG codes for First Nations materials, but is that actually happening? How comprehensive is that data corpus?

I’m acutely mindful of not wanting to use these powers to dump on our put-upon cataloguers who already have loads of people telling them what to do and minimal agency over how they do it. Trust me, I used to be one of them. I don’t want to reinforce that cycle. I would much prefer to work with cataloguers and their supervisors to show them the big-picture insight that I didn’t have, to empower them to select the right vocabs for the right material, and to record what needs recording. In data, as in horticulture, many hands make light work.

I might have become a caretaker at work, but this year we were all also caretakers of each other. Taking care as well as giving care. It intrigues me that ‘caretaker’ and ‘caregiver’ mean broadly the same thing: the former is more detached, as if tending to a thing or an inanimate object, while the latter is closer, more familial: a responsible adult. To ‘take care’ means to look after oneself, while being a ‘caretaker’ means looking after something else. I am thankful to those who cared for me during my darkest hours. I have drawn great strength from the care of close friends, for whom my gratitude is everlasting. Without you I would not be here.

It’s safe to say my professional responsibilities took a back seat this year. I hope next year to get the ALIA ACORD comms up and running, complete some work for the VALA Committee, and sort out whatever else I said yes to. (Honestly I’ve completely forgotten.) I did give one talk this year, a presentation on critlib for the ANZTLA. I hope it can help grow some new conversations in the theological library sector.

In 2020 I somehow wrote 15 blog posts, including five for GLAM Blog Club. Usually I’d note my favourite post of the year, but honestly writing anything was so difficult that I’m nominating them all. I think ‘The martyr complex’ hit a nerve, though. I despair for library workers overseas, still having to open their doors to the public in manifestly unsafe conditions. Apparently CILIP CEO Nick Poole has been reading this blog, so if you see this, Mr Poole, you must call for the urgent closure of all public libraries in Tier 4. Nobody ever died from not having a book to read.

I’m saying this out loud because I need to, as much as I want to: next year I am absolutely doing less library professional busywork. It has to stop. I know I’ve said this before—my goal for 2020 was ‘to do less while doing better’ and look how that panned out—but I actually am gonna do it now. I need less of all this in my life. Less computers. More nature. Less doomscrolling. More reading. Less zooming. More walking. Less horror. More consciousness. Less overwhelm. More saying no to things. Please don’t take it to heart if you hear me say no a bit more next year. It’s not you, it’s me.

In part I can promise these good things to myself because I live in a city that currently has one covid case. One. A single one. Life is relatively normal here, barely anyone wears a mask (though I did get yelled at by an old man the other day for not keeping 1.5 metres away from him… on a bus). I have mental space for this stuff in a way the northern hemisphere does not. In some ways it feels like living in a postmodern remake of On the Beach, but as difficult as my life is right now, it could all have been so much worse.

The pandemic accelerated social changes I had already seen coming. I had long ago vowed to live a smaller life. I gave up flying almost three years ago for climate reasons, deciding instead to explore my own country, understand more deeply my own city and surroundings, while trying to detach myself from endless grim horrors abroad. I am powerless to help and can only absorb so much. I am needed here. I can do good here, now, in this place, in this time.

Logically I know my good fortune, but my brain persists in telling me otherwise. I was already very unwell at the start of this year; in many ways the coronavirus outbreak was the final straw. This time last year I was having a panic attack in a friend’s backyard. This time nine months ago I was being admitted to the psych ward. My illness was life-threatening. I did not expect to see Christmas.

There can’t be many people out there whose mental health at the end of this year is better than it was at the start. I have found great solace in the latter-day writings of Sarah Wilson, whose book First we make the beast beautiful: a new story about anxiety was the last book I bought in person before everything fell apart, and whose new release This one wild and precious life I look forward to bringing with me on a brighter path.

To the extent I have any goals for next year—other than continuing to not die—I hope to do more of the things I enjoy, rather than reading about them in books. Books have long been my way of making sense of the world; according to my mother I learned to read at the age of 2 1/2 and would happy babble away reading the newspaper (sometimes I even understood it, too). Books make sense in a way people never have. Books are solid, portable, dependable, usually upfront about things, and even if they’re not it can occasionally be fun to decode or divine their real meaning. Books generally have a point. People often have no point and are seldom upfront about things. It makes life deeply frustrating.

Another book I acquired just before lockdown was Lucy Jones’ Losing Eden: how our minds need the wild. It’s still in a moving box, stored away due to lack of shelf space. But I’m sure the author would be just as happy if people took her message to heart and ventured outside a bit more anyway. I couldn’t face it during April, when going outside was dumb and illegal, but perhaps this coming year, in my suspiciously covid-free paradise, would be a good time to revisit.

My goal is not to lessen my reading. I didn’t finish a single book this year. And that’s okay because I kinda had bigger things to deal with. But instead of reading about the delights of nature, I think I would prefer to experience them myself. Like many in the book professions, I have a terrible habit of buying really interesting-looking books, placing them on a shelf, and then acting as if I have read them and absorbed their wisdom by osmosis. I would like to read more, but I would also like to go outside more, walk more, take flower photos more, cycle more, do the things instead of reading about them. I hope to take care of myself. I hope to take care of others. I hope others might still take care of me.

Or, in other words, as painted by a dear friend:

Smoke and mirrors

Smoke haze and a runner

All around me, people act like it’s business as usual. My city is shrouded in smoke. So many people around our region keeping fires at bay. I keep waking up with a crackling throat and a tightness in my chest. And yet the library is all Christmas and the news is all Pravda. I wonder sometimes what planet I’m on.

‘Resilience’ and I are strange bedfellows. On one hand, I am acutely aware of the sheer neoliberal hubris involved in pushing resilience mantras onto people facing structural harm, inter-generational trauma, or planetary apocalypse, as if an inability to cope with those things is simply a personal failing. Coping is a bandaid. Coping doesn’t fix the cause. Coping won’t make it stop.

But at the same time: we can’t build futures we can’t imagine. Many people turn to fiction for inspiration and guidance, particularly speculative fiction and various futurism genres. I’m not much of a fiction reader1, so instead I turn to works of natural history and new nature writing, to know what has come before us, and what might be next. Truth hurts. And yet it comforts me.

stack of natural history books
Some of my current reading list. From top: Walking on lava / Dark Mountain Project — Underland / Robert Macfarlane — Sand talk / Tyson Yunkaporta — Sunburnt country / Joëlle Gergis — Griffith Review #63, Writing the country.

If we yield to panic, we lose that ability to see into the distance, even as that distance is shrouded in ash.

From here, the future looks grim. Despite the desperate need for whole-scale systematic change, I have no faith that those with the power to enact such change will do so. We cannot wait for promised technologies, promised public policy, or a promised saviour to rescue us from this mess. We may not even be able to rescue ourselves. But trying is the only option available to us. And we must try together.

This is essentially the plot of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, a book I’ve turned to a few times this year, and which I should probably purchase instead of hoarding a friend’s copy. I find myself taking a chapter as medicine when it all seems particularly awful. Most things are terrible. But not everything. And in the space between there is room to act.

Because my eyesight is dreadful I own three pairs of glasses, yet I see most things through a library lens. It’s tempting to imagine the library as a microcosm of its broader society: a magical place where we might build better social relations or knowledge arrangements. But the longer I spend in librarianship, the more I see our structural problems replicated beyond the microcosm. We can’t solve them in isolation.

I look outside, I read the news, I hear the anguish of those all around me, I think about what I’m not hearing, and I wonder… why am I even at work? Is it because the air is nicer inside? Is it so I can delude myself that what I do here will matter in the long term? Is it even mattering now? Is it all just so much busywork while we wait for the world to end?

I’m a web archivist. I’m also an environmentalist. I’m probably a hypocrite.

In addition to being hugely carbon-intensive (irrespective of whether or not it’s powered by renewable energy), global computing consumes huge amounts of natural resources, including oil and rare-earth minerals, and produces colossal amounts of waste. Supposedly ‘green’ technology is costing the earth. Absolutely everything about web archiving is unsustainable. I wonder if it could ever become sustainable. I don’t like our chances.

So what do we do next? I know I ended my last blog post with ‘I don’t have the answers’, and despite the professional vexation of remaining answerless, here I am still searching. I’m not a climate scientist or a political ecologist or someone with decades of direct and relevant life experience. Instead here I am, adrift in a sea of reckons.

sticker reading 'no jobs on a dead planet'

The easterly smokewind—the muril bulyaŋgaŋ, as the Ngunnawal might call it—forms a kind of hideous poetry. Where it used to bring cool relief of an evening, the easterly now carries smoke from fires between us and the ocean. I dread the breeze, now. It’s all wrong. It’s not normal. I resent what the climate is doing to us. I grieve for what we have done to the climate.

We all have to face ourselves in the mirror. I wonder who I want to see, what kind of person I hope to become, forged as we all are by our hideous circumstances. What would I see in the mirror of Erised? A perfect catalogue? A temperate forest? A group of friends? Or would I be grateful to see anything beyond a shimmering void?

I am sad, weary, listless, lonely, tired. I see few lights on the horizon, and I’m meant to be one of the lucky ones. I often think about giving up. And then I take stock, and I dream. I dream of building strong, resourceful, resilient communities. I dream of rewilding barren landscapes, following Indigenous caretakers in restoring biodiversity and ecological health. I dream of being able to open my windows in the evening and not be ambushed by smoke haze. I dream of solidarity with each other and the land. I dream of finding answers. I dream of doing the impossible. I dream of not doing this alone.

We are indeed through the looking-glass. But it needn’t be a one-way trip.

  1. This was the primary reason why I opted out of ALIA SNGG’s book secret santa this year. I have very niche reading tastes, am extremely hard to buy for, and also suck at readers’ advisory. 🙃 

Putting the ‘tech’ back into technical services

This month’s GLAM Blog Club theme is the delightfully adaptable ‘question’. Next month’s #auslibchat theme is the equally interesting ‘Library Roles’. These have both wound up being quite timely, for reasons I probably shouldn’t discuss on the open internet, but I do have some questions about my role as a librarian with a technical bent.

I’m trying to get out of my perfectionist shell, so these are more free-flowing thoughts than I would normally commit to pixels. I should also mention I had a coconut margarita for dinner this evening, and I’m in a bit of a mood.

Back in the olden days, back-of-house library functions like cataloguing, acquisitions, et cetera were broadly known as ‘technical services’. When I started in libraries just over four years ago this term baffled me. I supposedly worked in this kind of area, but it felt like a hangover phrase from The Time Before Computers. Nothing ‘technical’ about serials check-in, I thought. Technical people worked in the systems department. Or in web publishing. Or in IT, which sat outside the library itself.

Four roles and three workplaces later, I still don’t work in any of those areas, but I also still don’t know how I feel about the phrase ‘technical services’. For context, I currently work as a web archivist, which is easily one of the best and coolest jobs I will ever have. I have the rare pleasure of a role that combines curatorial, technical and metadata aspects, in a team full of good people who know their stuff. I love (almost) every second. I haven’t been this happy at work since I spent 5 1/2 years running an ice-cream shop on weekends. I’ve been meaning to blog for ages about how awesome my current job is. I should get on that.

It’s not part of what would be traditionally considered ‘technical services’, though to my knowledge MPOW have never used this phrase, but it involves a lot of highly technical work, dealing with the endless ways people create and structure websites, and how our crawling software copes (or not) with the variety of the Web. If nothing else, this role has been quite the crash course in HTML, CSS and Javascript. My previous role as a cataloguer was technical in a very different sense—learning an arcane encoding standard so that I might apply a set of equally arcane descriptive policies.

Notably, I am the only woman in a team of five people, and it’s taken some getting used to. Anecdotally, cataloguing and other ‘technical services’ are female-dominated, with a greater proportion of people from non-Anglo backgrounds (mostly due to the need for vernacular language skills). Yet library IT, like IT everywhere, is male-dominated. It’s not good enough for organisations like ALIA to blithely state that the LIS sector needs to hire more men. We need to look at the distribution of genders within the sector. IT pays good money. Cataloguing doesn’t. Librarianship has historically been a feminised profession, an ‘acceptable’ career path for women. It’s hard not to wonder whether tech services would be taken more seriously if more men were doing it.

But I also wonder whether I got into librarianship because it seemed like a safe and acceptable way for me, a white woman, to be technical. Being a systems thinker, I’ve always looked at how things work together, taking a broad view of the forest and its ecosystem while also occasionally delighting in a particular tree. Libraries are just one big system, right? But that system has to be meaningful to people, too, and it’s what I find most interesting about being a cataloguer.

As a technically-minded librarian I often feel like I inhabit a kind of liminal space. I don’t feel technical enough for IT—largely because I’m not much of a coder—yet I feel almost too technical for a lot of library work. Most library jobs these days are not conceived as being ‘technical’ roles. Library schools push a front-of-house mindset almost from day one. My study visit cohort were firmly told what attributes we needed in order to succeed in libraries, and I didn’t feel like I had any of them. I was a natural introvert, not very good at people, quite fond of books and reading thanks, drawn to computers and systems. I vividly remember walking the streets of suburban Perth on the brink of tears because I felt like I didn’t fit the mould the lecturer had set for us. I spent the rest of the visit wondering whether I had made the biggest mistake of my life by enrolling in library school. I seriously considered giving it all away.

I know now, of course, that the lecturer was rude, crude and totally wrong. I do have what it takes to be a librarian. Just not the kind of librarian she was thinking of. But the idea persists that librarians are not technical people, or that the heart of librarianship is not—or should not—be a technical one. We’ve been technical for decades. We were one of the first professions to embrace the possibilities of automation. (We’re still dealing with some of those possibilities now. Ask any cataloguer about whether MARC has died yet.) What happened to that? Where did that power go? Where has that technical skill and ability ended up? And why has the section known as ‘technical services’ not been at the centre of this change?

Too library for the tech staff, too techy for the library. It’s hard not to feel as if I will one day be made to choose between them.

And I will refuse to choose.

Our profession needs all the techy librarians it can get. People who speak library AND speak IT. People with the ethical grounding of librarianship, who may or may not work back-of-house, but who can also critically assess and use technology, ensuring it functions in accordance with the values of this profession. No siloing. No separating. No boundaries. And I say all this not just because I’m on the committee of VALA, a library technology organisation that was literally founded to bring librarians and technologists together, nor because I’m trying to shore up my own career prospects in an uncertain world. I say this because I want library automation to happen BY us, not TO us. I want librarians to be able to take control of their own technological destinies. I want equitable cataloguing to be supported by equitable systems. I want us to be able to speak tech, so we can either tell tech what to do, or feel suitably empowered to do it ourselves.

It’s not technical services as we’ve traditionally known it. But a lot of library traditions are changing.

It’s time to question them all.

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

VALA2018 logo with sadface

This is my actual face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping up with the GLAMsters, using Pocket, Feedly and Evernote

You know you want one. (Image via Society6)

I have a tab problem. The other day I realised I had fifty-seven tabs open in Chrome and my computer was beginning to complain. I already used Feedly and Evernote to keep track of feeds and save things for later, but I was still burdened with all these tabs that I couldn’t or wouldn’t save elsewhere. I also never quite got around to actually reading half the stuff I saved. I was drowning in digital detritus. Something had to be done!

Yesterday I decided to give Pocket a go, chiefly thanks to Messrs. Rundle and Shaddow singing its praises. The idea is that instead of leaving eleventy million tabs open, you would instead save the page to your Pocket account to read later. You can do this via the Share function on your phone, or via an extension for a web browser.

Pocket then keeps all your saved pages in one place for you to read at your leisure. When you choose an item to read within Pocket, the page is rendered with easy-to-read fonts and layout (which you can customise). Once you’re done, you can recommend it to other Pocket users, or share via the usual methods. You can even get all the AusGLAMblogs delivered straight to your Pocket—no need to keep an eye out for the Twitter, or subscribe to everyone’s individual feeds.

The killer function, though, is the text-to-speech functionality. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, you can have articles read out to you by a computer voice with an Australian accent, all for the low low price of free! It’s not the most personable thing I’ve ever heard, I must admit, but it’s better than trying to read GLAM Blog Club and, say, drive a car at the same time. (It also can’t pronounce ‘podcast’, but never mind.)

How is this better than Feedly and Evernote?

It’s not necessarily—the three apps perform different functions. In the immediate term I’m hoping to cut down my open tabs by saving articles to Pocket, but there’s still a broader discoverability issue to consider. As it stands, I discover roughly two-thirds of the articles I read on Twitter, with one-third coming from RSS feeds via Feedly. There is an IFTTT applet that connects RSS feeds directly to Pocket, but I’m reluctant to add 60+ feeds to Pocket because I would be shifting the problem I currently have with Feedly to another app—that is, I have to manually filter out posts or articles I’m not interested in from the wholesale feed. (In the longer term I’ll probably be choosier with my feeds, but that’s another story). Filtering is a chore, but reading is a reward.

Ideally, I would check Feedly every week or so, saving to Pocket articles I want and marking as read articles I don’t want. Pocket would then be a curated collection of stuff I know I’ll want to read. For articles I want to keep long-term, I’ll continue saving those to Evernote (from whatever source). My Evernote is currently as messy and disorganised as the rest of my life, but there is some semblance of a filing and tagging system. Can you believe I have a controlled vocabulary for indexing in Evernote? Of course you can. I’m a cataloguer.

To put it in more concrete terms: Feedly is a newspaper, Pocket is a collection of newspaper clippings, and Evernote is the archive that preserves my favourite clippings. In time I’m sure I’ll refine the system (what if I could skip the newspaper and go straight to the clippings??) but for the moment, this tripartite ecosystem just might help me get more stuff read.

Five things I learned from #VALATechCamp

VALA Tech Camp logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes I can.

Sick of hearing about linked data? You’re not alone

‘This looks a little bit complicated’ … you don’t say… #lodlam #lasum2016 @lissertations 8 Dec 2016

I’m not attending ALIA Information Online this year, largely because the program was broadly similar to NDFNZ (which I attended last year) and I couldn’t justify the time off work. Instead I’m trying to tune into #online17 on Twitter, in between dealing with mountains of work and various personal crises.

As usual, there’s a lot of talk about linked data. Pithy pronouncements on linked data. Snazzy slides on linked data. Trumpeting tweets about linked data.

You know what?

I’m sick of hearing about linked data. I’m sick of talking about linked data. I’m fed up to the back teeth with linked data plans, proposals, theories, suggestions, exhortations, the lot. I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.

What will it take to make linked data actually happen?

Well, for one thing, ‘linked data’ could mean all sorts of things. Bibframe, that much-vaunted replacement for everyone’s favourite 1960s data structure MARC, is surely years away. RDF and its query language SPARQL are here right now, but the learning curve is steep and its interoperability with legacy library data and systems is difficult. Whatever OCLC is working on has the potential to monopolise and commercialise the entire project. If people use ‘linked data’ to mean ‘indexed by Google’, well, there’s already a term for that. It’s called SEO, or ‘search engine optimisation’, and marketing types are quite good at it. (I have written on this topic before, for those interested.)

Furthermore, linked data is impossible to implement on an individual level. Making linked data happen in a given library service, including—

  • modifying one’s ILS to play nicely with linked data
  • training your cataloguing and metadata staff (should you have any) on writing linked data
  • ensuring your vendors are willing to provide linked data
  • teaching your floor staff about interpreting linked data
  • convincing your bureaucracy to pay for linked data and
  • educating the public on what the hell linked data is

—requires the involvement of dozens of people and is far above my pay grade. Most of those people can be relied upon to care very little, or not at all, about metadata of any kind. Without rigorous description and metadata standards, not to mention work on vocabularies and authority control, our linked data won’t be worth a square inch of screen real estate. The renewed focus on library customer service relies on staff knowing what materials and services their library offers. This is impossible without good metadata, which in turn is impossible without good staff. I can’t do it alone, and I shouldn’t have to.

Here, the library data ecosystem is so tightly wrapped around the MARC structure that I don’t know if any one entity will ever break free. Libraries demand MARC records because their software requires it. Their software requires MARC records because vendors wrote it that way. Vendors wrote the software that way because libraries demand it. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that vendors currently have little incentive to break.

I was overjoyed to hear recently of the Oslo Public Library’s decision a few years ago to ditch MARC completely and catalogue in RDF using the Koha open-source ILS. They decided there was no virtue in waiting for a standard that may never come, and decided to Make Linked Data Happen on their own. The level of resultant original cataloguing is quite high, but tools like MARC2RDF might ameliorate that to an extent. Somehow, I can’t see my workplace making a similar decision. It’d be awesome if we did, though.

I don’t yet know what will make linked data happen for the rest of us. I feel like we’ve spent years convincing traditionally-minded librarians of the virtues of linked data with precious little to show for it. We’re having the same conversations over and over. Making the same pronouncements. The same slides. The same tweets. All for something that our users will hopefully never notice. Because if we do our jobs right and somehow pull off the biggest advancement in library description since the invention of MARC, our users will have no reason to notice—discovery of library resources will be intuitive at last.

Now that would be something worth talking about.

Linked data: the saviour of libraries in the internet age?

Another day, another depressing article about the future of libraries in the UK. I felt myself becoming predictably frustrated by the usual ‘libraries are glorified waiting rooms for the unemployed’ and ‘everything’s on the internet anyway’ comments.

I also found myself trying to come up with ways to do something about it. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good whinge as much as the next man, but whinging only sustains me for so long. Where possible I like to find practical solutions to life’s problems. The issue of mass library closures in the UK might seem too much for one librarian to solve—especially a student librarian on the other side of the world with absolutely no influence in UK politics. But I won’t let that put me off.

Consider the following: Google is our first port of call in any modern information search, right? When we want to know something, we google it. That’s fine. Who determines what appears in search results? Google’s super-secret Algorithm, harnessing an army of spiders to index most corners of the Web. How do web admins try and get their sites to appear higher in search results? Either the dark art of search engine optimisation (SEO), which is essentially a game of cat-and-mouse with the Algorithm, or the fine art of boutique metadata, which is embedded in a Web page’s <meta> tags and used to lure spiders.

Despite falling patronage and the ubiquity of online information retrieval, libraries are absolutely rubbish at SEO. When people google book or magazine titles (to give but one example), libraries’ OPACs aren’t appearing in search results. People looking for recreational reading material are libraries’ target audience, and yet we’re essentially invisible to them.

Even if I accept the premise that ‘everything’s on the internet’ (hint: no), how do people think content ends up on the internet in the first place? People put things online. Librarians could put things online if their systems supported them. Librarians could quite easily feed the internet and reclaim their long-lost status as information providers in a literal sense.

The ancient ILS used by my workplace is an aggravating example of this lack of support. If our ILS were a person it would be a thirteen-year-old high schooler, skulking around the YA section and hoping nobody notices it’s not doing much work. Our OPAC, for reasons I really don’t understand, has a robots.txt warding off Google and other web crawlers. The Web doesn’t notice it and patrons don’t either. It doesn’t help that MARC is an inherently web-unfriendly metadata standard; Google doesn’t know or care what a 650 field is, and it’s not about to start learning.

(Screenshot below obscures the name of my workplace in the interests of self-preservation)


Down with this sort of thing.

Perhaps in recognition of this problem, vendor products such as SirsiDynix’s Bluecloud Visibility promise to convert MARC records to linked data in Bibframe and make a library’s OPAC more appealing to web crawlers. I have no idea if this actually works or not (though I’m dying to find out). For time-poor librarians and cash-strapped consortia, an off-the-shelf solution would have numerous benefits.

But even the included Google screenshot in the article, featuring a suitably enhanced OPAC, has its problems. Firstly, the big eye-catching infobox to the right makes no mention of the library, but includes links to Scribd and Kobo, who have paid for such prominence. Secondly, while the OPAC appears at the top of the search results, the blurb in grey text includes boring bibliographical information instead of an eye-catching abstract, or even something like ‘Borrow “Great Expectations” at your local library today!’. Surely I’m not the only one who notices things like this…?

I’m keen to do a lot more research in this area to determine whether the promise of linked data will make library collections discoverable for today’s users and bring people back to libraries. I know I can’t fix the ILS. I can’t re-catalogue every item we have. I can’t even make a script do this for me. For now, research is the most practical thing I can do to help solve this problem. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to do more.

Further reading

Fujikawa, G. (2015). The ILS and Linked Data: a White Paper. Emeryville, CA: Innovative Interfaces. Retrieved from

Papadakis, I. et al. (2015). Linked Data URIs and Libraries: The Story So Far. D-Lib 21(5-6), May-June 2015. Retrieved from

Schilling, V. (2012). Transforming Library Metadata into Linked Library Data: Introduction and Review of Linked Data for the Library Community, 2003–2011. ALCTS Research Topics in Cataloguing and Classification. Retrieved from