Papercuts: greeting the old and the new

black-and-white spooky forest
This edition of Papercuts, the occasional series where I talk about cool stuff I read recently, is haunted by the ever-growing number of unread items in my Pocket account (now 1,943 and rising) and the grim knowledge that the ability to read at all is a transient gift. I was tempted to declare Pocket bankruptcy (akin to email bankruptcy) and start again, but I knew I would regret deleting things I had long forgotten.

Most of these reads are not corona-related. I figure everyone is well aware of the coronapocalypse by now, so why not read something else?


I forget what led me to a radical New Orleans-based webzine (unusually, I don’t think it was Twitter) but I greatly enjoyed Jules Bentley’s piece on ‘Reviving Indigenous Histories with “Bulbancha is Still a Place”‘ (Antigravity Magazine, September 2018), about a collaborative zine on the Native American history of New Orleans. I paired it with another of Bentley’s excellent articles in the same mag, ‘Blanc Like Me: Cajuns vs. Whiteness’ (July 2019) about the history of the Cajuns of Louisiana, an ethnic group I admit I knew little about, and their complicated relationship with whiteness. People of similar ethnic heritage in Canada, from whence the Cajuns originated, would be considered Métis—that is, not white1—but in the United States consider themselves, and are considered in turn, sometimes white and sometimes not. My personal status as an extremely white lady will likely never be questioned, so I admit to being mildly fascinated (and somewhat repulsed) by the way whiteness grows and shrinks according to socio-political whims.

On Saturday I attended a webinar on ‘New Nature’, co-presented by the State Library of New South Wales and the Sydney Review of Books. A silver lining to everyone staying home for two months is the proliferation of online events that would previously have been held in-person, enabling the geographically dispersed and the ordinarily housebound to participate far more fully in cultural life. I’ve become a voracious reader of so-called new nature writing over the past couple of years and greatly enjoyed the webinar. One of the panellists was Koori poet and academic Evelyn Araluen, who I could listen to all day. She spoke to her SRB piece ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum’ (Sydney Review of Books, February 2019), a beautiful and intricate essay on pastoralism, Aboriginality and the landscape as expressed in Australian children’s literature, which had lain dormant in my Pocket account for far too long. I immediately wished I’d read it sooner. It’s the sort of piece that demands recurrent readings.

Between the webinar and reading Araluen’s piece, though, I stumbled upon Paul Kingsnorth declaring that ‘The Earth Does Not Speak in Prose’ (paulkingsnorth.net, November 2019), a transcript of a conversation with Charlotte Du Cann, also published in issue 16 of the Dark Mountain Project. Kingsnorth is a complex, esoteric and somewhat divisive figure in new nature writing, a self-described ‘recovering environmentalist’ who co-founded Dark Mountain in 2009 before growing disillusioned with it all. He fled to Ireland with his family to put down roots and ground himself, but it doesn’t appear to have pacified him. His latest book Savage Gods has him desperately wondering whether words are the enemy of belonging (LA Review of Books, September 2019), whether language is the ultimate abstractor standing between us and the living earth, and whether he should give up writing completely.

Ever since reading ‘A Storm Blown From Paradise’ in the first issue of Emergence Magazine (February 2018) I’ve followed Kingsnorth’s work from a distance, not always agreeing with everything he says yet finding it deeply fascinating. His detractors accuse him of being an ethnonationalist, an impression not helped by the fact he voted Leave. I am inclined to read this particular interview more charitably, seeing a man cast adrift by his ancestors, reviling the culture that spawned him yet feeling he has no other to return to, a man desperate to anchor himself somewhere in deep time. I was intrigued by his thinking here; some parts, like the below passage, cut very close to the bone:

Paul: We’re people with no tradition, because that’s what modernity has done. It’s made us all into little individuals. So the story we tell, we have to come up with ourselves. And then we’re endlessly in pain, because we’re always driven to try and work everything out. Because we’re not supported by ancestry, we’re not supported by a culture. The bargain of modernity is we have no tradition to hold us back, but we also have no tradition to support us. So all the storytellers have to come up with their own vision which is why writers end up shooting themselves, or drinking themselves to death…
Charlotte: Or rediscovering old myths, old texts…
Paul: Yes. And what Dark Mountain ended up doing quite a lot of: talking about myths, folk tales and religious stories. Almost unconsciously, Dark Mountain ended up as a place where you could start looking for old stories. One of the things we got wrong in the manifesto was this notion that we need a new story, when we needed to rediscover the old ones. Martin Shaw was one of the people who really made me focus on that, because he said, ‘Look, the stories are already here, it’s just that we don’t know them anymore.’

Evelyn Araluen touched on this in the New Nature webinar, the fact that Aboriginal ways of knowing and being are not new, though they may very well feel new to those learning about them for the first time, and that it wasn’t a matter of finding new ways to live in the Anthropocene, but more a matter of centring the voices and experiences of Aboriginal people, whose ways were already working perfectly fine. I look forward to revisiting the webinar recording when it’s released, as well as delving into the new Guardian Australia series Old Knowledge for the New Normal (May 2020), which deals with similar themes.


Sadly, happily, fortunately, unfortuately, there’s been a lot of well-wishing going on lately. So it was with some interest that I came across the Get Well Soon! project, by Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain (March 2020). It collates thousands of well-wishes left on GoFundMe pages for medical fundraisers, a sad indictment of the American health system (or what’s left of it) as well as the radical energy of supporters and community. Lavigne and Brain are completely right that such an archive should not exist, but in the interests of transparency and political analysis, I’m glad it does.

The accompanying essay by Johanna Hedva is outstanding, comparing the now of illness with the now of revolution, the need for care with the need for change. It does so in a coronavirus context, because that was the only context going in late March, but I read it at the time through my own prism of severe anxiety, bedridden and unable to function, and it gave me hope in a way little else managed during that time:

Those of us for whom sickness is an everyday reality have long known about its revolutionary potential. We’ve known that a revolution can look like a horizontal body in a bed, unable to go to work. We’ve known that it might look like hundreds of thousands of bodies in bed, organizing a rent strike, separating life’s value from capitalist productivity. We’ve known that a revolution can look like the labor of a single nurse, keeping the patients in her ward alive, or the labor of a single friend, helping you buy groceries. We’ve known that it can look like the labor of nursing and care expanded exponentially, all of us reaching out to everyone we know, everyone we know reaching out to theirs. We’ve known that a revolution can look like a community pitching in $5 per person for someone’s medical treatment—we’ve wondered when that community would notice just how revolutionary the act of communal care is.

We’re told everything is impossible. Until, suddenly, it isn’t. One of the recent cardiMail newsletters highlighted this incomplete, evolving collection of The New Possible, a list of recent public policy decisions around coronavirus that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago. My personal favourite is the French government’s decree barring flag carrier Air France from carrying passengers between cities less than 2 1/2 hours’ flying distance where a rail line exists instead. Hooray for a rail-focused national transportation policy! For a chaser, I recommend the incendiary ‘America Is a Sham’ by Dan Kois (Slate, 14 March 2020), or for something more sedate, this interesting exploration of ‘Why Airports Die’ (Citylab, May 2020).

There’s something dangerously enticing about the idea of a ‘designer asylum’: even more so, the idea that ‘The lunatics are taking over the means of production’ (Asylum Magazine, 27(1), March 2020). I think about the hospital I recently spent time in, the kinds of questions they didn’t ask on the feedback survey, and how much nicer that environment might have been were it in a forest, and full of beanbags. I think about what scares me the most about going back. I think about why I’m scared of a place that’s meant to help me get better. It’s tempting to think about what my ideal psychiatric care environment might look like, but I know deep down it will never formally exist. Whoever heard of ‘a positive place to experience mental distress’?


I desperately want someone to visit the new Heide healing garden (Foreground, May 2020) for me when it opens later this year. I don’t dare hope that I might be able to visit in person. I can’t see myself getting to Melbourne anytime soon. Again I reflect on how my future has disintegrated.

For the moment, I will content myself with the National Museum of Australia’s online ethnobotanical exhibition Knowing Plants, which came to me via Ellen Coates’ daily delightful #CovidGLAMR explorations. The exhibition highlights three sites of First Contact on the east coast of the continent, and features plants both collected and ignored by Captain Cook’s men, with local Indigenous names and knowledge featured alongside the explorers’ botanical drawings. The backdrop of the splash page reminded me of the beautiful Parnatti exhibit at Adelaide’s MOD museum, guiding the visitor through Kaurna Yerta’s windy season.

A friend read ‘Splendid isolation: how I stopped time by sitting in a forest for 24 hours’ (The Guardian, January 2020) and dropped it in my inbox, having kindly thought of me. This piece is everything I tried desperately to explain about my time in Tasmania last January; spending an entire day at Cataract Gorge doing nothing but reading Rebecca Solnit in a stone beanbag; my inexplicable outrage at TMAG over the settlers’ blithe destruction of a sacred, sustainable lifeworld, and in particular at their mechanisation of time; the brief moment at Cradle Mountain where I stood in that lakeside forest, and felt the divine. I returned from lutruwita a very different person. This piece resonated deeply with me, a sorely needed reminder that those times and places still exist; that I still exist; that today will not persist forever; that I might one day return. The yearning for such Peace is what’s keeping me going.

A different yearning to Paul Kingsnorth’s, I think, but perhaps a related one.


  1. The Métis are one of Canada’s three constitutionally recognised indigenous groups, alongside the Inuit and First Nations Indians; Canada is the only country to recognise mixed-race people in its constitution in this way. 

The parting glass

Content warning: this post discusses suicidality, anti-depressant medication and hospitalisation in a mental health ward.

Of all the money that ‘ere I had
I spent it in good company
And of all the harm that ‘ere I done
Alas, it was to none but me

I wrote two weeks ago that ‘Home is the only place I feel safe at the moment’. As it turned out, this wasn’t true for very long. Coronavirus has transformed every aspect of our lives, but I haven’t read the news in days. Don’t tell me what’s happening. I don’t want to know.

I’ve been very ill. Not with covid-19, I hasten to add. I’ve been acutely anxious for a shorter time and chronically depressed for a longer time. The former catapulted me into the doctor’s office. The latter had lain unattended for months if not years, despite my friends’ efforts to persuade me to get treatment. I went from doing nothing about my deteriorating mental health to suddenly doing all the things. Highly on brand.

As part of this I reluctantly decided, in forlorn hope of prompt improvement, to give anti-depressants another go. I spent four days on the most horrible medication I’ve ever taken, an hour at the doctor the following Tuesday, fifteen minutes in an ambulance, seven hours in emergency and seventy-two hours in hospital, followed by an indefinite stay at my mother’s, who found this all out rather suddenly. We’re not great communicators.

The world grieves for those we’ve lost to coronavirus. But last week I switched off the world, as I tried not to lose myself.

For all I’ve done in want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall

I don’t remember a whole lot of that weekend. The meds felt like a bad trip on one of those fun drugs I’ve never taken. I barely ate. I barely felt. I barely rose. I barely slept. I did get pizza delivered, though. (That was a huge mistake.) I had never been so ill in my life. I was terrified of what my brain could do to me.

So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

I woke two Saturdays ago to the most horrific thoughts. They weren’t my thoughts; they arrived from somewhere else, and lodged themselves in my brain. The leaflet had mentioned this could happen, but I didn’t expect them so soon, or with such horrendous force. I fought these impulses with everything I had. I marvel, now, at how I found the strength to do this alone.

My own psyche didn’t want me here. But I had other ideas.


I didn’t know the place existed before I ended up there: a six-bed ‘low-dependency acute mental health unit’ located out the back of the emergency department. It’s a short-stay unit designed for people who need an extended mental health assessment, to get their meds sorted, or just somewhere to be safe and supervised for a few days. The main inpatient mental health ward, which I came to call ‘long-stay’, is at the other end of the hospital.

It’s little things I remember. I took a shower this morning and was instantly reminded of the shared bathroom in the ward. There are no hot taps, only cold and ‘warm’, which is just warm enough so as not to be cold, but isn’t really warming at all. I recalled episode 3 of No Feeling is Final where Honor is admitted to a mental health facility and describes the bathroom in detail. I recognised things I had never seen before. The shower head was the same. The conspicuous absence of towel rails.

In Honor’s opinion: ‘Hospital isn’t a place you go to get better. It’s a place you go to not die.’ It’s true that hospital didn’t magically cure my brain. And I suppose not dying was part of the goal. But for me hospital is fundamentally a place you go to be safe. It wasn’t until I subconsciously said as much to the triage nurse that I realised I didn’t feel safe at home. Strange to think now that even during a pandemic, I felt safest in hospital.

Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And of all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay

I was well looked after in the short-stay ward. A nurse noticed I wasn’t eating (and hadn’t been for days) so they brought a dietitian around to learn about my usual eating patterns and habits. The next day the lunch tray was full of things I had mentioned I liked—salad, a sandwich, yoghurt, orange juice, custard. (Apparently hospital custard either really appeals or really doesn’t. I said I liked it, so naturally it appeared with every meal.) Someone had clearly gone to a lot of effort to assemble a meal they thought I would eat. I was very touched by their efforts and valiantly ate the sandwich over the course of an hour. The nurses subsequently woke me up for dinner, which I thought was highly unreasonable. Didn’t they know I had already eaten lunch?!

My mum visited every day, coronavirus be damned. The hospital has limited visitor numbers to one per patient per day (and no, you can’t tag-team, as my brother unfortunately learned). Everyone has their own room, but the mattress foam was so hard and uncomfortable it felt like sleeping on concrete. They let me keep my phone, though I had to charge it in the hallway in sight of the nurses’ station. It felt a little weird leaving my phone unattended outside my door, but I was confident nobody would steal it.

An iPhone charger plugged into a powerpoint marked 'cleaning purposes only'
Not quite ‘cleaning purposes only’

My only real complaint about my time in hospital was the complete unavailability of any psychologists. Having refused all offers of alternative medication it was the one thing I said I really wanted, yet despite the nurses’ considerable efforts they couldn’t find a free psychologist to see me before I was discharged. It seemed deeply ironic that I was able to see a psychiatrist every day, had (controlled) access to all kinds of serious brain meds, could have doused myself in Seroquel if I so chose, but couldn’t get hold of someone to simply talk to for an hour.

Having said that: one particular psychiatrist was absolutely amazing, and worth the price of admission alone. She explained in great detail why the meds hadn’t worked for me and that I wasn’t meant to feel like a rotting potato on them (who knew?), outlined alternatives that might work better in case I changed my mind about medicating, and discussed a couple of other highly illuminating things that Explained A Lot about how my brain works. For the first time in a long time I left a doctor’s appointment with more answers than questions. It’s one thing to know what is happening, but quite another to understand why it’s happening. At last I could start to make sense of it all.

Honor was totally right about one thing, though: the lack of good snack options in psych hospital. The patient fridge had a large vegetable crisper that was completely full of, I kid you not, hundreds of tiny packets of lactose-free margarine. I wondered just how many lactose-free people had stayed there, and how much margarine they collectively hadn’t eaten, and why the fridge was hoarding it all. I also wondered who nicked my orange juice popper out of the fridge. I’m still cranky about that.


I find myself now in what should probably be called the ‘recovery’ phase, but I’m still processing the speed at which I took ill in the first place. Was I really in hospital for three days last week? Did that actually happen to me? Did I really spend the four days before that in a medicated stupor? The weeks before that rolling slowly downhill? What on earth did I say on the phone to people?!

If nothing else, my time in hospital gave me the greatest excuse ever to not get back to people. I was like, ‘I am literally in a psychiatric facility! I am profoundly unavailable! I’m not going to return your call! Or answer your email! Not even sorry!’. My sole responsibility in hospital was to get better. That was it. That was all I had to do. I had literally one job. I didn’t have to go anywhere, or see anyone, or do anything except rest and heal. A nurse commented that people often complain of being bored in the short-stay unit. The idea of boredom while acutely ill hadn’t even occurred to me, but I figured if someone had the energy to be bored, they were probably ready to go home.

I’m still on sick leave, by the way. I ran out of the paid variety so now I’m sitting at home (at my mother’s! But I love that I reflexively call it home) for free, getting better, doing nothing, planting bulbs, reading books, drinking tea, finding a psychologist, thinking about maybe going back to work next week, sleeping, writing, convalescing, healing. I tweeted in hospital about how I missed green things, could twitter maybe share some flowers and houseplants with me, and wow did twitter rise to the occasion. A whole thread of abundant flowers, plants, landscapes, outsides. It was beautiful. It was Good Twitter. People are so kind to me.

A rose set against a cloudy sky and grey colourbond fence
One of mum’s umpteen backyard roses. I keep seeing this one out the window past the computer screen, it’s gloriously distracting

I like to sit outside in mum’s beautiful garden, surrounded by birds and insects and flowers no virus can harm. Plants have no care for our human worries. They’re growing despite our fears. Perhaps, as I enjoy this light breeze and dappled sunshine, I am slowly regaining my ability to feel things, and so I feel them more intensely. But I would always choose too many feelings over no feelings at all. I can only hope I remain well enough to be able to make that choice.

I have mixed feelings about being mentally ill during a pandemic, occupying a hospital bed and using precious health resources. To be sure, my coronavirus-induced anxiety was an aggravating factor, but I had been ill already for a long time, and it so happened that this was what finally compelled me to go to the doctor. Yet I know so many others are in need of psychological help, many for the first time, to say nothing of the complex needs of thousands ill with covid-19. I try not to let my well-developed guilt complex get the better of me. There are, for the moment, enough resources to go around.

It may seem odd to talk about all this so openly, but writing this post has really helped me process everything that happened to me over the last few weeks, and it’s set me up psychologically for the next stage of healing. I’ve also benefited from recent blog and Patreon posts from the Big Feels Club, as well as back issues of the Head Desk newsletter by Jenna Sten, whose zine ritual/distraction I had the pleasure of buying for work last year. I bought myself a copy recently, too.

But as it falls into my lot
That I must go and you must not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

These days I recoil from a lot of the language we typically use to describe mental illness. It took me a long, long time to accept the idea that being mentally ill was not my fault. I think of it now like any other illness. My brain was sick. I went to hospital to get better. This is simplistic language, but I think a lot of us have internalised this shame narrative that we are somehow at fault if our brains stop working. I didn’t choose to be ill. I certainly didn’t choose the horrific thoughts that have visited me recently. It didn’t make me stupid, or irresponsible, or somehow undeserving of help. It simply meant I was sick. And I needed care.


During periods of acute not-coping I tend to play one song on repeat for days on end, clinging to it like a lifeboat. This time it was traditional Scottish / Irish folk song The Parting Glass, as performed by Hozier on a late-night Irish talk show. I hope he releases this as a single. I would purchase the hell out of it.

The great thing about Scottish and Irish folk songs is that almost anyone sounds good singing them, and they’re as warm and dark and bitter as the beers they’re meant to accompany. I’ll never sound as good as Hozier, but I can hold a tune, and it was a particular comfort to hum and sing this to myself at irregular intervals.

Sports writer Geoff Lemon contracted covid-19 from a single beer glass, fetched by an asymptomatic companion. My brain keeps wanting to make ‘parting glass’ jokes, as if there’s something mildly amusing about the whole thing, when I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how horrible this disease can be. For now, my family and I remain physically well, and I think mum is enjoying having some company around the house. Besides, she has really good internet. I’m in no hurry to leave.

Hear that, brain? I’m here for the long haul.

So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

Waiting for the sirens’ call

And we would go on as though nothing was wrong
And hide from these days we remained all alone
Staying in the same place, just staying out the time
Touching from a distance
Further all the time

I quit my job last Thursday.

I was so excited about it all. I had been offered two (!) positions at two different libraries in Melbourne and had the luxury of choosing between them. I had never felt so employable. I was really looking forward to moving south, being with my friends and support network, having a fresh start. Plus I had tickets to see New Order in Melbourne that weekend. A last quick trip before moving away from the city I’ve lived in all my life.

I excitedly told close friends I had accepted a new position and would be moving soon. They were all so happy for me. I couldn’t wait to join them.

That was ten days ago. Ten years ago. A lifetime ago.

Nothing is real anymore.


New Order performing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, Saturday 14 March 2020. Photograph by the author

It felt like the last gig before the apocalypse.

To be honest I’m surprised it still went ahead, coming the day after the Friday March 13 edict banning mass gatherings of over 500 people. The following night’s show at the Forum was cancelled. I had decided not to go anyway. Outdoors at the Music Bowl felt safer, with more space to distance on the lawn.

There was quite a large crowd, considering. A reporter from Channel Nine was doing a live piece-to-camera as I approached the gates. We were ‘defying the bans’, though they wouldn’t come into effect until Monday. Many attendees seemed relaxed, but I wasn’t one of them. I kept replaying the previous morning in my head, where I had a massive panic attack at the interstate coach terminal about whether I should make the journey at all. I boarded the coach with about thirty seconds to spare. I’m still not sure I made the right choice.

In the last week and a half, and in this order, I have: been made two job offers, accepted one, declined the other, quit my current job, started planning an interstate house move, reconsidered said house move, watched the world fall apart, postponed said house move, asked new job if I could work remotely, unquit current job just in case, received word that new job would let me work remotely, took lots of sick leave, continued to watch world fall apart, remembered new job would be short-term contract with no leave accrued, sadly declined new job, confirmed I could stay at current (permanent) job, and spent a lot of time in bed, at the doctor’s office, and in the throes of anxiety.

It’s been a lot. And I am not coping.


The 2019 novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, has spread rapidly around the world in a matter of weeks, causing almost unfathomable amounts of social and financial upheaval. Most who contract the disease experience mild illness (noting that the WHO considers pneumonia ‘mild’) and make a full recovery. Some will develop serious illness. A small proportion, currently estimated to be anywhere between 1% and 3.4% of sufferers, will die of the disease.

My mother has severe asthma and a long history of respiratory problems. If she contracts COVID-19 she will be at far greater risk of serious illness. I am petrified that something will happen to her and, given her age and comorbidities, she will likely not be prioritised for treatment in hospital. She deserves to survive this as much as anyone. She is the only parent I have.

It feels in many ways like I am becoming her mother, despite the fact my maternal grandmother is still with us. I just want to keep my mum in her house because she’ll be safe at home, right? Everyone will be safe at home?! Please tell me we will all be safe at home. Home is the only place I feel safe at the moment.

Part of me knows I am less likely to become seriously ill myself. I am young, have a good immune system, and already make a habit of staying away from other people. And yet somehow that doesn’t convince the rest of me, the parts of my brain consumed by firecrackers of anxiety, clutching kernels of truth and spinning around them like Catherine wheels. Every fear a sparkler, every anguish a Roman candle, every explosion ringing in my aching skull.

My director sent me home from work on Tuesday. I haven’t been back since.


As a library worker, I have the honour—and responsibility—of serving the public. Most of my work is done behind the scenes, but I also undertake reference desk shifts even though my job doesn’t require it. Usually I enjoy these shifts, but the sheer thought of being in a public space at the moment, much less working in one, fills me with inescapable dread. My front-of-house colleagues should not be expected to risk their health at work. We’re not medical professionals. We swore no oath.

I strongly believe all public-facing library services, including those at public, academic and school libraries, should be suspended immediately in the interests of public health. By staying open, a library sends an implicit message that it is still okay for people and students to meet and congregate. That library also risks becoming a disease vector and a breeding ground for serious illness. This should be a library’s only consideration. The harm that staying open could do to our communities right now is greater than the help (computers, bathrooms, reference services) we would usually provide. Surely no library wants to be known as a COVID-19 transmission site.

For me this is a simple decision, grounded in harm minimisation principles and an ethic of care. But I’m not a library manager, and it is evident many libraries still believe they can do both (hint: they can’t). At the time of writing my library remains open, though I suspect that won’t hold much longer, even as the decision to close is not ours to make.

The (American) Medical Library Association issued a powerful statement in support of libraries and library workers, including the crucial sentence: “[T]he MLA Board advocates that organizations close their physical library spaces, enable library staff to work remotely, and continue to pay hourly staff who are unable to work from home.” The American Library Association, after considerable pressure from its members, finally made a similar (if more reticent) statement urging libraries to close: “[W]e urge library administrators, local boards, and governments to close library facilities until such time as library workers and our communities are no longer at risk of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.” And Libraries Connected in the UK (formerly the Society of Chief Librarians) this week came to a similar conclusion: “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that library buildings should close to protect communities and staff from infection.”

ALIA have so far scrupulously avoided taking a public stance on the issue, instead choosing to remain neutral and create a libguide. While they ‘[support] the decision of organisations to close libraries at their discretion to mitigate risks associated with COVID-19’, they stop short of openly calling for library closures. On Wednesday I finally snapped at ALIA on Twitter, unable to comprehend such an absence of leadership, and imploring the Board to take a stand for the health and safety of library workers and patrons. ALIA consequently released a poster on ‘staying safe in the library’, assuming that libraries would—or should—remain open. It’s fair to say I didn’t respond well to this news.

I don’t know why I keep looking to ALIA to demonstrate leadership in the Australian library sector. I don’t know why I hope they will stand up for library workers. I don’t know why I think they will change. The ALIA Board’s statement of Friday 20 March gave the distinct impression they would prefer libraries stayed open. I was very pleased with the result of the recent Board elections, though the Directors-elect won’t take their seats until May, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to keep supporting an organisation that consistently refuses to support its members. My membership is coincidentally up for renewal, as it is every February; I’m currently too broke to pay it in any case, but I really wonder if this is the final straw. Everyone is reconsidering their priorities right now. I wish this wasn’t one of them.


I had expected to spend this weekend preparing to move to Melbourne. My house is full of half-packed moving boxes. I’ve barely unpacked my rucksack from last weekend. I had one foot out the door and one eye on the promised Yarra and now, for now, it’s all gone. It is a crushing disappointment. But I also recognise that in these extraordinary circumstances I am very, very lucky. I still have a permanent job, access to sick leave, supportive managers, a roof over my head, and soup in the cupboard. Many among us, including casual library workers, may now have few to none of those things. Now is the time for solidarity, not selfishness.

I live near a fire and ambulance station. I frequently hear sirens in the distance at all hours. But late at night the fire engines and ambulances often mute their sirens as they pass the flats, in an effort to avoid waking people.

This week has felt as if this country was waiting for the sirens’ call, watching as case numbers rose exponentially, wondering when to make extraordinary decisions that now seem less drastic with each passing day. We had the luxury of hearing the sirens coming. We’ve all seen what happened in Wuhan, China; what is currently happening in northern Italy; and what will surely soon happen in the United States. Yet the virus approached this country like ambulances approach my flat at two in the morning: quietly, then all at once. And we were not prepared.

In the last few hours several states and territories have announced the shutdown of non-essential services, including cafes, restaurants and bars. I sincerely hope this will include public-facing library services. Libraries are an important public space—but not, in these times, an essential one. We owe it to our patrons to not get them sick.


The concert was pretty good, by the way. Bernard Sumner’s vocals aren’t what they used to be, and some will swear it’s not the same without Peter Hook, but the music was quite enjoyable. New Order were the first band I ever saw live. I hope they won’t be the last.

As the crowd made to leave, another song began to play. Another band. Another time.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
And I feel fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
And I feel fine

Papercuts: reading minds and trees

Hello and welcome to Papercuts, an occasional series where I read some things and talk about how interesting they are. My friend Hugh launched a newsletter earlier today in a similar vein. You should read that too.

This series used to be called #emptythepocket but let’s be real here, I’m never going to empty this Pocket account. There are routinely over 1000 items in it, most of which I will probably never read. But I also can’t quite bring myself to delete them, or run pocket-snack. I went through it last night deleting some duplicates and manifestly uninteresting reads, in reverse chronological order, and I was fascinated by the stratigraphy of it all. Certain themes recur. Library ethics. Metadata. Ethnobotany. Radical politics. Mental health. Low technology. I could tell when I had reached January not by any timestamp, but by the profusion of smoke / bushfire / hailstorm / climate change / oh no we’re all doomed articles that I had saved, like a layer of igneous rock. They were probably quite cathartic for their authors to write but were too traumatic for me to read at the time, and I realised I would likely never read them at all. It’s a little odd reading my to-be-read pile as a text itself, as Hugh pointed out to me this morning. Imagine how much wiser I would be if I had actually read those things.

Part of the reason my Pocket account is so full is because when I’m unwell I can’t read anything. Words are just shells on a screen or a page. They have no meaning. I can’t make sense of them. Na’ama Carlin echoed this in ‘On the Name’ (Meanjin, Autumn 2019), about how names mean things, and how sometimes the names we give to things shape and constrain them. It’s strangely validating to read so many aspects of myself in someone else’s voice. The communality of shared experience, though Na’ama and I do not know each other, and our lives have undoubtedly been very different. She knows herself as ‘depressed’; she calls it by that name. I tend not to recognise myself as such until after the fog has cleared, at which point I look back at my crumpled form and go ‘wow, I was really depressed there’. My hope is that coming to know others’ narratives will help me understand my own.

In that spirit, yesterday I listened to Honor Eastly’s mental health podcast No Feeling is Final (ABC Audio Studios, 2018) in its entirety, in one sitting (is it a ‘sitting’ if you’re lying in bed?). It was a raw and intense experience, using a lot of layering and metaphor and sound techniques to enable Honor to tell her story of what it’s like to ‘have big feelings’, to have a diagnosed name for those feelings, to be suicidal, in a psych ward, on meds, coping, not coping, sharing, creating a space for like-minded people, guiding others through the vast wasteland towards help and support. I related to many things and couldn’t relate to others, like any narrative of this kind. This podcast was A Lot, and I’m not usually a podcast person, so it was also a lot for my ears. But Honor is right. No feeling is final. There is always space for another one.

I had a birthday recently, as happens every year, and I received a deeply thoughtful gift: Around the World in 80 Trees, with text by Jonathan Drori and illustrations by Lucille Clerc (Laurence King Publishing, 2018). It’s essentially a collection of tree biographies, telling stories of how endemic trees around the world give shelter, materials, sanctuary and inspiration to communities that live around them. The narrative text is accompanied by beautiful illustrations of these trees, their fruits and flowers, and sometimes artefacts of the societies they support. I love this book because I can read it in chunks and/or a non-linear order, the Chinese white mulberry followed by the Dutch elm or the Californian redwood. Or, if reading is beyond me, I can simply look at the pictures, and learn just as much. It’s a beautiful book. I already treasure it.

I find great solace in nature. I spent part of my birthday trundling around Upper Ferntree Gully, admiring flowers, deciding I’m too unfit to ascend the 1000 Steps, buying lolly peach hearts by the kilo from the supermarket, and reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk (Text Publishing, 2019) under a tree. No I don’t know what kind of tree, yes I’m STILL reading this book! It’s a slow read. I’m a slow reader. I find I can also only read this particular book outside, which is quite interesting. The words lose their magic in a house or a train. They need that infusion of nature (or perhaps I do?) in order to make sense of the wisdom they convey. The book was composed as a yarn, a document of knowledge transmitted aloud, or etched as an aide-mémoire into the boomerang that features on the cover. A kind of metadata, perhaps, but bigger than that. I keep recommending this book to anyone who will listen but often I can’t quite explain what it’s about. Because it’s kind of about everything, but from an Indigenous perspective, in sharp contrast to the white one. I’m not sure what I’ll do with this wisdom once the book is over. I can’t keep it to myself. Maybe I can apply it somehow?

Developing a trees and plants hobby is one of the many ways I am slowly becoming my mother. She’s a hardcore gardener who can identify almost any plant whose photo I send to her. We see the world very differently, but I can’t help thinking she’d agree with the sentiment that ‘Life is Complicated and Mysterious and Dogmatism is Boring’, as expressed by Georgia Reid (The Planthunter, issue 68, 2019). For years mum carefully cultivated roses and shunned native plants, but our changing climate means she’s now planting some proteas and other things that are less thirsty. The article suggests it’s time to look more pragmatically at how plants might heal or improve our urban landscapes, whether they’re native to this continent, indigenous to this region, or introduced from overseas. A plant classed as a weed can actually improve lead-contaminated soils, while a non-native street tree still provides excellent shade cover. I find it a more helpful way of assessing how we live with plants, and might give my mother and I something to chat about when we meet next. Sorry mum, but I’ll never be an Essendon fan.

Doing less while doing better

Peppermint tea on a train window-sill

Last year I met Hugh’s dad at a party. He initially mistook me for someone else but was polite enough to keep chatting to our table. I forget exactly how I was introduced—possibly as some kind of erstwhile twitter personality—but he ultimately told me, kindly but firmly, to ‘stop being so self-deprecating!’.

Not wishing to disappoint Papa Rundle, I had initially planned to write a triumphant overview of everything I achieved in 2019. I ended up with quite a long list. And yet I found myself at the end of the decade in much the same place I’d started it: having anxiety attacks and failing at parties. Things got worse. Things got better. Things got worse.

I worked myself to pieces last year and all I felt was failure. Haven’t we been here before?


At the start of the year, I had a lot to look forward to. After a tumultuous 2018 I took a month off work and fled to Tasmania. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I went to Mona Foma festival in Launceston, felt the warm embrace of nature at Cradle Mountain, admired the blowhole at Bicheno, explored the museums and pad thai establishments of Hobart. I became a #feralcataloguer. I drank my weight in Jive Honey Crunch, the best flavoured milk you’ve never had. I loved the island of lutruwita. I’d go back in an instant.

For the first time in my library career, I spent an entire calendar year working for the same organisation (a small, minor national library that shall remain nameless). Years of hope labour paid off when I was made permanent there in July, with the grandiose job title of ‘Metadata Coordinator’. Three weeks later I gained a temporary promotion to the web archiving team, where I’ve stayed ever since. Web archiving is a fascinating little area of GLAM work and I’ve really enjoyed my time in the team. I particularly enjoyed playing ScoMo Simulator on company time (and thanks to the Australian Web Archive, you can play it too).

I did, as usual, an absolutely ridiculous amount of PD. I ran a three-hour OpenRefine workshop at VALA Tech Camp and was on the committee for Tech Camp and generally helped make Tech Camp happen. Hugh and I both learned that running both a conference and a workshop at that conference is extremely stressful and that we really shouldn’t do that again. I promptly forgot this lesson in overscheduling and presented two full talks at the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium (NLS9), telling a packed room ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. It was the conference talk I’d always wanted to give, and it was a great success. I backed it up ninety minutes later with a talk about zines with Kassi.

I was elected to VALA Committee. I was appointed to ACORD Committee. I went to GLAMSLAM. I went to the ADA copyright forum. I joined an international working group on cataloguing ethics. I co-ran ACTive ALIA (not that we did much). I contributed to the third Auslib zine. A mystery someone called me their library hero (!) and got ALIA to write nice things about me in inCite.

I wrote 16 blog posts, including 7 for GLAM Blog Club. My favourite post was ‘The people’s cataloguer’, a wonderfully serendipitous (and extremely Tasmanian) tale of cataloguing 110 books that comprised The People’s Library, and in so doing becoming part of that library’s performance.

I attended five cardiparties, which I think is quite impressive considering I don’t live in any of the places they were held in. I saw the sights of Ballarat on foot in January, marvelled at the incredible Incendium Radical Library in Footscray in February, heard from Liz Stokes at the GLAMSLAM sideshow in Sydney in March, toured the Incinerator Gallery in Moonee Ponds in April, and was all along the water tower in Sale in November.

I read some incredible things in the past year. I read that information doesn’t grow on trees, that information maintenance is a practice of care, about efforts to build an antifascist AI and an anarchist HCI, and that doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do. I also started reading the absolutely magnificent Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. You should read it too.

I catalogued a lot of books. I archived a lot of websites. I drank a lot of tea. I spent a lot of time on long-distance trains. Oh, and I shaved my head. Repeatedly. It was awesome.

I had some pretty crap life stuff happen too, though. I lost two extended family members: my cousin Tristan was killed in a motorcycle accident in June, and my favourite uncle Vince died suddenly in early January this year. On both occasions I was out of town and away from immediate family. The distance hurt more than I expected.

I also spent several months being various kinds of not-well, and not just because of the smoke haze choking the city. I set myself a lot of lessons. I didn’t learn any of them.


By any reasonable standard, I had a huge and fairly successful year. And yet so much of me is hyper-focused on all the things I failed at. I totally blanked on the cataloguing ethics group. People asked me to write for their blogs, invited me to contribute to their projects, emailed me looking for cataloguing advice etc and I just never got back to them. I couldn’t face my inbox. I couldn’t face next week. I was completely overwhelmed by everything and I dropped a lot of balls. Most of those balls were made of plastic, but a few were made of glass.

After many years part of me has finally realised that no matter how much I throw myself into library work, it will never fix the gaping holes in the rest of my life. I might have loved libraries, but libraries were never gonna love me back. I spent most of this past January considering whether I still wanted to be a librarian at all. It’s hard not to look at the state of the earth and wonder whether librarianship is really the best use of my time and talents. Honestly, I’m not sure it is any more. All other things being equal, sure, I’d love to sit around and tinker with metadata until I retire. But I don’t live in that world and there’s no point pretending I do.

I cannot keep working at the rate I have been because otherwise I will completely disintegrate. Nor do I want to keep doing so much library stuff at the expense of literally everything else. The environment doesn’t care what I put in a library catalogue. Something needs to change.

This year I have… well, I was going to say one goal. I have many goals and most of them are not for public consumption. But my biggest and most public goal is to do less, while doing better.

In 2019 I hoped to ‘to learn more about how my upbringing has shaped my inbuilt theories of knowledge’ and ‘learn more about nature from nature itself’. I tried to spend more time in nature, even as our climate is rapidly changing and the seasons are collapsing around us. I became a lot more aware of what, and how, different groups of people learn about the natural world. I had a lot of complex thoughts on this and neglected to properly write them down, so I want to come back to this in another post.

Ultimately I want to spend more time sipping peppermint tea on a train, learning this landscape and helping to heal it. I want to do less. I want to do better. I want to get better. And maybe then I’ll be a little less self-deprecating.

Down for maintenance

Windows safe mode boot screen

Today it felt like my brain had booted in Safe Mode. As if a gauze bandage had been wrapped around my skull, and a small sign placed on the bridge of my nose: ‘Sorry, down for maintenance’. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’ve spent the last week struggling to write not one but two conference talks for NLS9, frantically trying to sort out everything that goes with an interstate trip, and worrying about whether I’ll have a job in September. My brain has a tendency to misfire at the best of times. Sometimes it decides not to fire at all.

A lot of my life feels like maintenance. Not just maintaining myself, which is sometimes effortless and sometimes all I can manage. But much of the work I do could be considered maintenance: creating and updating bibliographic metadata; cleaning, editing and tidying batches of that metadata; making small, incremental changes to a thesaurus; writing documentation; fixing mistakes from years ago. It’s seemingly routine, mundane, unglamorous labour, but it’s done with great care, and it makes a world of difference. Tech bros would have us ‘move fast and break things’. But someone has to fix those broken things and clean up after the latest innovation cyclone.

I recently learned of a network called ‘The Maintainers’, dedicated to supporting those who undertake maintenance work of all kinds: repairing vehicles, contributing to open-source software, maintaining public infrastructure, keeping everything ticking along. Their upcoming conference Maintainers III: Practice, Policy and Care features an ‘Information maintenance’ track, which called for memory and knowledge workers’ thoughts on ‘reformatting, repair, mending, migration, stabilization, preservation, teaching and storytelling’. It’s heartening to see the labour of maintenance in GLAM begin to be taken seriously. I look forward to following along in October.

The phrase ‘down for maintenance’ is twofold. Sometimes my brain packs it in and decides today is just not happening. But that’s okay, because maintenance is the crucial work that keeps us all running. I’m down for that.

On exhaustion

A stack of post-its saying Do Less
via @hugh@ausglam.space

I am tired.

Most days I get enough sleep, eat a reasonable breakfast, get to work on time, look and feel on the surface like I’m awake, but it’s only a shell. It’s been a tough year. I’ve started a new job, I’ve been sick a lot, and I still can’t stop saying ‘yes’ to things.

When I’m in the right headspace, everything is doable, and I proudly tell people that I’d love to get things done for them. But when I’m in the wrong headspace, everything feels insurmountable, and I don’t want to tell people that because it makes me look like a fraud. I have little to no control over what headspace I wake up in on any given day. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is.

I have a lot on my plate at the moment. Most of it is library-related. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t talk about everything I’ve volunteered my time for, but I’m on a few LIS committees, I have three (!) conference / PD event presentations scheduled in the first half of next year, I do a lot of cataloguing reading and research, and I participate in a couple of miscellaneous LIS projects. I say this not to boast, nor to complain, but rather as an illustration of what happens when I say ‘yes’ to everything, because I’m still a little stunned that people ask me to do anything at all.

The problem is that whenever I look at my never-ending to-do list, my short-circuiting brain misinterprets ‘these are things you need to do’ as ‘these are things you need to do RIGHT NOW’. Consequently I panic a lot about how much I haven’t done. The problem is, as usual, a lack of temporal perspective. Some of the things aren’t due for another six months. They can wait. Other things are due last week, so they need more urgent attention.

Did I mention how much I love what I do? I mean this sincerely. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing with my life. But I’m beginning to reach some hard limits on how much I can achieve as an individual. I resent these limits (because who doesn’t want to do all the things?!) while recognising that they are necessary (because we can’t do any of the things if we’re completely exhausted).

Shira Peltzman shared this wonderful flowchart with me, outlining how she decides whether to say yes or no to a professional opportunity. I’ve found it really helpful in evaluating all the things I’ve recently said ‘yes’ to, and whether I should perhaps have made other decisions. The flowchart is also Creative Commons-licensed so you can print it out and stick it next to your desk. Note that most of the arrows point to saying ‘no’. I think I’ll be referring to this flowchart a lot.

There’s a great Mastodon bot called Wollstonecraft BOM, a weather bot for a Sydney suburb I have never been to. Every few hours it spits out some weather data and a forecast, but it also includes a lovely little platitude at the end as a mood-booster, and I follow the account purely for this reason. While I was drafting this post a week ago it said to me, ‘You’re doing the best you can, and good people know it.’ I try to remind myself of this a lot, that I am doing the best I can, even if some days that best is not very good.

Part of me wanted to spike this blog post, that being tired isn’t a good look, professionally. But I want to talk about this stuff. It’s important that we aren’t all hiding behind veneers of perfection, telling the world we have it together while over-caffeinating ourselves into oblivion1, because not talking about being tired is part of how we all became tired in the first place. By admitting our exhaustion, we recognise that things aren’t quite right, and we begin the difficult process of balancing ourselves.

Recently I was made an offer. Quite a good offer. And my response, after considerable thought, was ‘Yes… but’. I never used to ask for concessions or amendments, and I’m not a natural negotiator, but reaching hard limits necessarily entails making sure I don’t exceed them. I’m a little impressed with myself, and very grateful that the offerer was prepared to accommodate me.

I’m still tired, but now I’m looking forward to next year because of all the things I’ve said ‘yes’ to, not in spite of them. I hope this means I’ll find myself in better headspaces, where more good things can happen. 🙂


  1. I was recently forced to give up caffeine cold-turkey for medical reasons. I miss Lady Grey tea really quite a lot, but I think not being able to push myself beyond my natural limits has actually helped me recalibrate. This is a personal view. Your mileage may vary. 

Turn and face the strange

If only everything were hunky dory.

This month, the denizens of GLAM Blog Club are asked to consider the strange. I should find this easy. I’ve built a career on cataloguing the strange things. But these days, I am a stranger to myself. Two months ago I had a nervous breakdown in the service of cataloguing. I’ve been unwell and in pain ever since, and modern medicine has few answers. I’m no longer in crisis, but I’m still not the cataloguer I used to be. I resent the circumstances that brought me here. What happened to good health and good spirits? Why isn’t the metadata mojo back yet? I don’t understand.

It’s so strange. And so frustrating.

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet

It’s difficult to inhabit this cloak of self because it used to be skin-tight. I radiated cataloguing enthusiasm, online and off. It came so naturally. It was awesome. These days it’s harder. I speak cataloguing fluently, but the words feel wooden, like someone else’s false teeth. It’s strange to feel this way. It’s not the natural order of things. Sometimes people talk to my old self, not knowing she’s a stranger to me now, and it stings in many places. It feels like a betrayal of those who follow my work, but I’ve been firmly told that it’s not, so I try to believe them. Can’t shake the shadow of false advertising.

So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

And yet all things must surely pass. What was once strange becomes normal, even valued. I’d like to think that two years of Cataloguing the Universe have swayed a few minds on the nature and value of library metadata, and shined a light on our (often invisible) labour. Most librarians probably still think cataloguing is a strange, dull thing performed by strange, dull people. That’s okay. At least now there’s a small corpus of posts on this blog that suggest otherwise, if they’re interested.

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same

Sometimes I feel a spark. On a path, in a pub, on the twitters. A spark of what I used to be, and what I might become. Putting the cloak back on and hoping I’ve grown to fit it. Accepting temporal realities while hoping to create others. Waving at my old self, though she’ll never wave back. Turning and facing the strange.

This week I plan to wear all my library-themed items of clothing to work. It’s at once a piece of 650 #0 $a Performance art, an excuse to show off 650 #0 $a Librarians $x Clothing, an attempt to change 650 #0 $a Catalogers $x Public opinion and a way to improve 600 00 $a Alissa $g (@lissertations) $x Health.1 It’s probably strange to even own library-themed t-shirts. It’s undoubtedly stranger to describe them using Library of Congress Subject Headings.

It comes so naturally. Why isn’t it real?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Just gonna have to be a different man

One day I will accept that the old me isn’t coming back. There might be a new and improved me in the future, who has recovered from ill-health and is ready to forge a new path. Someone who can draw on her experiences to create meaningful and long-lasting cataloguing reform. Someone who knows her limitations, and is prepared to do less for a time, if it means doing better later.

That person is also a stranger. I can’t wait for us to meet.

I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time


  1. This is not my actual authorised access point. But I wish it were. 

Catharsis: and other things I learned while being #APLICLeftBehind

It has been a very difficult couple of weeks. I have not been my usual self. I can blame cataloguing for most of it. I could also partly blame #APLIC18, the recent tripartite LIS conference on the Gold Coast, which a lot of my friends attended and which stoked a serious case of epic fomo. But that’s very much a background issue. It’s taken me a while to process everything that’s gone on and try to find a more well-lit path. I’m aware half the office reads this blog, but at the same time, there’s nothing here I wouldn’t say to my boss. So here goes.

I am not my work. Any more. Last week was quite bad. I had an unexpected encounter with traumatic and poorly-phrased LCSH, which I am looking to change. I was also very ill, both physically and mentally, and spent a lot of time in bed. I have struggled recently with a sudden and severe change in my relationship to my work, as well as how I approach cataloguing, because cataloguing is my life, and also my job. I found it harder to enjoy. I had trouble getting up in the morning. I felt my perspective narrowing. I leaned very heavily on friends for support. Last Wednesday, I hit the wall. And the wall collapsed on top of me.

I know, intellectually, that it isn’t healthy to derive so much personal fulfilment and meaning from one’s work. And yet I do it anyway, because I have learned this about myself, that I operate this way. I used to love cataloguing. Used to. I don’t love it, currently. It grieves me that I say this. I hate that I have become this person.

I now speak about my passion for cataloguing in the past tense, and it kills me.

I would like the old me to come back. I think it could happen. Perhaps it is already starting to happen, a little. I don’t know how long it might take (days? weeks? months?) or how it might come about. But I would like to try and rekindle my love of cataloguing, because without it I don’t recognise myself. I feel hollow and without purpose. It’s a hole that my other interests can’t quite fill.

Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have learned a lot about myself over the past few weeks. I had previously thought I was okay at cataloguing, having more or less staked my career on it. I recently received a lot of feedback that suggested otherwise. I looked for a sign that I was doing something (anything!) right, that I was not completely hopeless at what I thought I was good at. A sign did not appear. I worried that I had somehow lied to everyone. It was imposter syndrome writ large.

Most people will read this and say ‘honestly, Alissa, what did you expect? What did you think cataloguing entailed? It’s standards all the way down’. I am not a hardcore standards enforcer and I never have been. My perspective on cataloguing is informed by user needs. What do users need from our catalogue? What metadata will connect an item with a search string? How can we best describe items (especially non-online resources) in meaningful and accessible ways? I believe breaking rules makes records better. I also don’t care about a lot of things that other cataloguers care deeply about, like ISBD punctuation, a perfect set of fixed fields, or the exact phrasing of where a title statement has come from (‘Title from cover’, not ‘Cover title’, apparently!). A catalogue should only ever be a glorified finding aid. It does not need to be a work of art in its own right.

Obviously I would like to be a better cataloguer. I would also like to go to work and feel as if I can do something right. It has been immensely difficult reconciling this poor feedback with my previous estimations of my cataloguing ability, and by extension my estimations of myself as a person. To be fair, most of my errors are of the cosmetic variety, or relate to institution-specific policies that are new to me, rather than deeper systemic problems with access points and descriptions. But a perfectly standards-compliant record can also be functionally useless, and a colossal waste of a cataloguer’s time to produce. I still take my errors to heart. It took me three weeks to get a record past the quality checker. I will never be perfect. I should probably stop trying to be perfect.

It has been a hard lesson, though.

Invite yourself to the party. In an effort to ameliorate said conference fomo and improve my mood, I started a hashtag on twitter for those of us who couldn’t attend APLIC but wanted to be involved anyway. #APLICLeftBehind became a meeting point for people keen to have their say, while also serving as a useful heads-up to attendees that we were commentating from afar. I loved that non-attendees from all sorts of places popped in and kept it going, even when I wasn’t in a position to say much. The hashtag will even be making an appearance in the forthcoming (entirely unofficial) APLIC zine, curated by Rebel GLAM. And it didn’t cost me a cent.

I have nothing to lose but my chains. They say libraries gave us power, but then work came and made us free. Many of us become librarians because we want to make a difference, to give back to our communities, to enrich the intellectual and social lives of library users everywere. Librarianship is heavy with ideology, tradition and dogma, and it weighs us down. I don’t think I expected to spend so much of my professional time a) navel-gazing b) fighting the man or c) thinking quite seriously about giving it all away. I certainly never expected I would lose my passion for cataloguing so quickly, and so severely.

I’m at the stage where I can catalogue more or less on autopilot (allowing for time to go back and correct my inevitable punctuation errors). I don’t want to be this person. I want to care deeply about my work. I want to fill my cataloguing with care and zest and a desire to do better. I don’t want to be crying while reading my old posts and tweets, remembering the cataloguer I used to be, and wondering where that went. If I can rekindle the passion for metadata that got me here—and right now that is a big if—I hope to free myself as much as possible from the expectations of other people and structures, and devote my energies to where I can get things done. It’s almost as if the structure and nature of librarianship sets us all up to fail, and that if we don’t realise this, we’re not paying enough attention.

People tell me I am more than my cataloguing. They’re not letting me fail. I wish I could repay this faith, but right now all I can offer is my gratitude. I don’t want to perpetuate a charade. I can’t keep pretending that everything is fine. I am not the cataloguer I used to be. But maybe, one day, I will be a better cataloguer. And I will have learned a few things.

Cataloguing trauma [content warning: self-harm]

Content warning: This post discusses self-harm, mental illness and institutional indifference to trauma.

That the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are a biased, offensive and wholly outdated set of controlled terms is not a new concept in cataloguing. Plenty has been written on the innumerable ways LCSH describes people, places and concepts in ways that do not belong in a modern library catalogue. I hope plenty has also been written on the trauma this can cause library users (though I confess at the moment I can’t find much). But today I need to talk about a couple of terms in particular, terms that hit a little too close to home, and which I never want to see in a catalogue ever again. I need to talk about the trauma this causes me, a cataloguer. I need to talk. LCSH needs to listen.

Today on my cataloguing pile, there appeared a book on dealing with depression and mental illness. I won’t identify the book or its author, but it was a wonderfully helpful book that encouraged its reader to write in it and make it their own. This being a library copy, our readers naturally can’t do that, but I guess they could photocopy parts of the book if they needed. The author clearly had lived experience of these issues and sought to write a book that might help someone who is struggling, as they had once done.

One section of the book discusses what to do if the reader feels a need to self-harm. It includes things like ‘glue your fingers together and pick at that instead’, ‘count from 100 backwards and start again if you lose track’ and ‘make a list of people you can talk to, and don’t feel bad about talking to them’. To another cataloguer, it might have seemed like a minor portion of a book that is substantially about other things. To me, this topic is so important, and the advice so genuinely helpful, that I decided it needed surfacing in the catalogue record. In particular, I decided it merited its own subject heading.

Looking up ‘Self-harm’ in LCSH brought me to these terms:

Self-harm, Deliberate
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm, Non-fatal
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
USE Self-mutilation

The entry for ‘Parasuicide’ reads:

Parasuicide  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on deliberate acts of selfharm in which there is no intent to die. Works on attempted suicide are entered under Suicidal behavior.
UF Deliberate self-harm
Harm, Deliberate self
Non-fatal self-harm
Parasuicidal behavior
Self-harm, Deliberate
Self-harm, Non-fatal
BT Self-destructive behavior
RT Suicidal behavior

The entry for ‘Self-mutilation’ reads:

Self-mutilation  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on behaviors by which individuals intentionally cause damage to their bodies. Works on stereotyped behaviors by which individuals unintentionally cause damage to their bodies are entered under Self-injurious behavior. Works on nonstereotyped behaviors and cognitions by which individuals directly or indirectly cause harm to themselves are entered under Self-destructive behavior.
UF Automutilation
Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
Self-injurious behavior (Self-mutilation)
Self-injury (Self-mutilation)
BT Malingering
Mutilation
Self-destructive behavior
NT Cutting (Self-mutilation)
Self-torture

I hit the roof.

I read these and said, out loud, to an empty office: ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.’ I skipped right past the dubious non-preferred terms (UFs), the distant and unfeeling scope notes, the questionable broader terms (‘Malingering’? Really?!). I zeroed in on the terms that someone, somewhere, in another place and another time, had decided were the right words to use to describe someone harming themselves.

Describing these acts as ‘Parasuicide’ is not helpful. I say this both as a cataloguer and as someone with lived experience of the acts in question. This is not good enough. This term needs to go.

People searching for works on this topic almost certainly be using the keyword ‘Self-harm’ or a close variation. If they’re using keyword search instead of subject search (and they will be, because nobody uses subject search anymore except librarians), these works will not appear in search results. They would have to know the particular term used by LCSH, thereby negating the point of having non-preferred terms in the first place, and be willing to overlook the inappropriateness of this term. I doubt anyone with an information need on this topic would be willing to overlook this. Certainly I’m not.

The scope notes for ‘Parasuicide’ are almost exclusively drawn from medical reference sources, suggesting the term is used in a medical context. Yet the term does not appear in the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), used by most medical and health libraries. MeSH instead groups the concepts expressed by the LCSH terms ‘Parasuicide’ and ‘Self-mutilation’ together under ‘Self-injurious behavior‘, with a much more cogent hierarchy and set of non-preferred terms. MeSH restricts the term ‘Self-mutilation‘ to ‘the act of injuring one’s own body to the extent of cutting off or permanently destroying a limb or other essential part of a body’, with the implication that this is deliberate.

Because my library catalogues for a general audience, using LCSH and not MeSH, I would argue it is inappropriate to base a term on medical sources. We should instead be using general ones, using terms ordinary people would use. In an LCSH library, who is most likely to need information on this topic? How do they need it described? I would think the likeliest people are those experiencing ideations of self-harm, or people who know someone in this situation. Why does LCSH draw a distinction between ‘self-harm caused by mental illness’ and ‘self-harm caused for other reasons, including supposedly for attention’, and, from an information retrieval perspective, does this distinction matter? Would works intended for a general audience be more likely to use one term over another? What harm might this cause?

This book is primarily about helping sufferers help themselves. I would like to index it $a Self-harm $x Prevention $v Popular works (leaving aside for now the issues of having a specific form heading for ‘books for ordinary people’). Instead I will almost certainly have to use the heading $a Parasuicide $x Prevention $v Popular works, or perhaps I’ll go one step higher and use the broader term to both these headings, $a Self-destructive behavior. Even though that doesn’t really cover it, and doesn’t bring out the specific issue that I wanted the heading to address.

When I tweeted the other day that ‘Cataloguing is power’, this is what I meant! We have the power to guide users to the materials they’re looking for, via the words and phrases we use. Cataloguers have a responsibility to use terms that are meaningful to their users, especially when their userbase is the general public, and to take a stand against terms in their controlled vocabulary that are no longer appropriate.

I have a greater ability than most people to advocate for change in subject headings. I would like to see the heading ‘Parasuicide’ changed to one of its non-preferred terms that includes the phrase ‘Self-harm’. Ideally this term and ‘Self-mutilation’ would be combined, akin to the MeSH term ‘Self-injurious behavior’, with the accompanying taxonomy. But this won’t happen overnight. It certainly won’t happen in time for me to finish cataloguing this book. My workplace is very strict on adherence to standards and my options for deviation are limited. I might include some key phrases in a summary field, so that a keyword search would pick them up and bring this book to the people who need it most.

This post is a direct result of my emotional response to these headings. It is informed by my own lived experience of mental illness. It is the trauma of cataloguing, just as it is cataloguing that trauma. It is a traumatic response. I had this response at 5.30pm when the office was virtually empty, so everyone I might have talked to had already left for the day. Perhaps that was for the best. Instead I’ve been able to direct my energy into researching these headings and formulating options for change. I also bought myself some chocolate, which definitely helped.

I needed to talk. You, the reader, have generously listened. Now LCSH needs to listen, and reflect, and change.