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.

Soup day

Today was my workplace’s annual soup day. It’s, uh, what it says on the tin—people bring in soup, bread rolls or other accompaniments, and eat them around a table. It’s apparently a long-running tradition. A moveable feast. It so happened to be freezing and rainy: perfect soup weather. My physical and mental health has been pretty bad this week and I’ve had a lot on my plate, so I was really looking forward to simple, filling fare that I didn’t have to cook. It became apparent that making soup myself would far exceed my available spoons, so I opted to bring cheese and crackers instead. I was determined to bring something. I am notorious for forgetting morning teas, and I’m not much of a cook.

The soups themselves were fantastic, with the sweet potato and chilli a highlight (and that’s not just because my boss made it). But I wanted to talk about what soup day represents. It’s a beautiful communal food-based midwinter gathering. The staffroom was too small so we moved out into the back of the library, a dingy, freezing room with compactuses on three sides staring us down. The ten or so of us, sitting along a table sharing soup and stories. Genial, free-flowing, hilarious conversation. Conviviality. Community. A cohesive whole. It’s the kind of social inclusion twitter just can’t provide. The kind of tight-knit workplace so many of us long for.

The kind of thing I know I will really miss.

As of today I’m officially off the payroll. I’ll be back next Monday. Elsewhere. It’s complicated. I have to squash a professional placement in between contracts so that I might finally graduate, so I’ll be hiding in document supply for the next three weeks. Law technical services has been very good to me, and I’ve been very happy here. I’ll really miss this place, these people, this work. I’d stay longer if I could.

But most of all I’ll miss soup day. I might have to take a little with me, to the next library… a few kilometres down the road.