Divided we stand

pile of notebooks on a desk, the topmost reading 'don't just stand there'

They say that ‘staying apart keeps us together’, but everyone I know is slowly disintegrating. I was slightly ahead of that curve, but the futures of many appear just as bleak. Most of my social circle lives in Melbourne, back in lockdown and under increasing strain. People are stressed, exhausted, weary, afraid for their health and their livelihoods. To think I almost moved there earlier this year. To think I’m now grateful I was forced to stay put.

It’s been a hard slog, though. After I got out of the psych ward in early April I spent 3 1/2 months at my mum’s place, learning how to be well again. We watched almost every episode of Great American Railroad Journeys. Mum watched a lot of Essendon football matches (especially the old ones where they won). I watched a lot of flowers bloom. Moving back into my own place a couple of weeks ago was almost an anti-anticlimax. It wasn’t the cute little flat in St Kilda I’d had my eye on, but it was still here, and for the moment, so was I.

Each person’s anxieties manifest in different ways. Until recently mine included a lot of shouting on Twitter. I need to stop doing this because it only makes the noise worse. I also have a lot less energy these days to scream into the void. I’d prefer to spend my time on more constructive pursuits.

Regular readers of this blog will recall my long-term criticism of the Australian Library and Information Association, including my unflattering appraisal of their response to the pandemic back in April. I considered not renewing my personal membership this year, and not just because for a while I couldn’t afford to pay it (though I did at one stage donate some of my renewal money to the GRLC casuals’ fund). Discontent with ALIA in Australia’s library community has simmered for some time. Library workers whose views I respect, such as Bonnie and Danielle, have chosen to leave. Others openly question the association’s choices in event management. Planning a large in-person conference for next February seems particularly foolhardy.

Despite all this I ultimately chose to renew my ALIA membership, albeit three months late. I did so for one primary reason. It wasn’t because I’m an ACORD office-bearer (and therefore obliged to hold personal membership for as long as I’m on that committee). It wasn’t because I felt my seat at the broader ALIA table was really getting me anywhere. It was because I was genuinely excited by this year’s elections to the Association’s Board of Directors. After years of waiting and wishing (and whining), I felt like we finally had some solid progressive leadership. I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and support those new Directors to start making necessary strategic change. This won’t happen overnight. It might not be anytime soon considering how much else everyone has on their plates right now. But there are some good foundations in place, and for the first time in my five years of membership I was optimistic about ALIA’s potential. I wanted to support that.

I was concerned, however, that my renewal would be interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo. I want to be very clear that it is not. My membership is an act of faith, not an act of trust.

It has also finally dawned on me that ALIA will never truly be the kind of organisation I think it should be. CEO Sue McKerracher made clear back in January (in InCite’s critlib-themed issue, no less, submissions for which were curiously never advertised) what she sees as ALIA’s core function: ‘taking the facts about libraries and shaping them to fit the interests of government’ (p. 7). Lobbying, in other words. Advocacy. Public relations. Media management. I know ALIA does quite a few other things, but lobbying appears to be its primary focus. It’s why the Association moved to Canberra in the first place. Certainly there are good reasons for librarianship to establish—and fund—such a body. I just resent funding it personally, is all. I don’t feel particularly advocated for.

ALIA put out a pamphlet-type thing recently listing some of the ways it had responded to the pandemic. Curiously, none of those ways included advocating for casualised library workers who lost all their shifts, or academic library workers facing forced pay cuts and mass redundancies, or LIS students graduating into a non-existent job market. They did encourage libraries to hire authors to do talks, which I would find more admirable had they also encouraged those libraries to not lay off their staff.

There’s a bit of a gap here. ALIA advocates for libraries as institutions, while our trade unions advocate for library workers within their workplaces. There’s no organisation that advocates for library workers as a whole, as professionals1, as workers with valuable skills, as people who deserve stable employment, as individuals who have so much to offer. So many of us are screaming ourselves hoarse, but it feels no organisation is listening. Globally, many library workers have had enough of their professional associations, and are investing in real change. Lindsey Cronk’s exhortations to #FixALA and Callan Bignoli’s #LibRev[olution] conference and subsequent organising point to a groundswell of support for radical change in the library sector. What kind of united future could we create for ourselves? How might we go about building a different kind of power?


Picture this: a national library workers’ association. A separate entity to ALIA, uniting library workers across all sectors, at all stages of their careers. One big library union, perhaps. I’m intrigued by the Danish model: in 1968 the librarians of Denmark collectively revolted against their library association and formed the Danish Union of Librarians, ‘to secure wage and working conditions and to cultivate their profession’. The union has both an industrial and a professional role, supporting librarians at work and in their careers. Meanwhile, the Danish Library Association takes the lead on lobbying and public outreach efforts. Interestingly, their org structure includes politicians as well as professionals, and one seat is reserved for a library student. It was the inclusion of the former that so riled the latter.

Australia’s industrial relations are very different, with library workers divided into unions based on their sector: schools, healthcare settings, levels of government, higher education and so on. There can be real advantages in organising with fellow workers in one’s sector, irrespective of role. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some library workers can struggle to find appropriate union representation, including special librarians, employees of vendors, and those working outside a formal library environment.

Such a national library workers’ association could resemble the Danish model, and become a formal trade union, ensuring that all library workers could have someone in their corner. Or it could be a different kind of organisation, taking after the Casualised, Unemployed, and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW, formerly the National Higher Education Casuals Network), a cross-sectoral alliance of non-permanent university workers fighting for recognition of their worth as people and workers in the face of structural collapse. We could all start imagining what this new association might look like. Would people join under their own steam? Would we want ‘delegates’ from different library sectors or states, or specific representatives for students, casuals and the unemployed? How could we best set ourselves up for success and longevity?

Another benefit of such an association: it would enable library workers to speak publicly and collectively on issues that matter to us, rather than waiting for ALIA to do it on our behalf. I feel like a lot of us have spent a lot of time over the years trying to get ALIA to say particular things. Like many others, I was surprised and impressed by ALIA’s recent statement on Black Lives Matter. It was strongly worded, it came from ALIA directly (not its Board), and it was seemingly issued without members having to ask. I hope to see more of this kind of advocacy from ALIA. If only they’d spoken up for marriage equality like this before we begged them to.2

Brendan Bachmann wrote a searing piece on many libraries’ shameful treatment of their casual staff during the pandemic. I will note that MPOW, to its credit, has continued offering shifts to its few casual workers, and has moved heaven and earth to enable the vast majority of us to work from home. But many library workers have been treated far more poorly, and it is precisely the kind of behaviour Brendan discusses that a library workers’ association would stand against. Workers need to feel seen, to feel heard, and to feel like someone’s prepared to stick up for them. I’m realistic about the chances of policy reversal, but even just having that solidarity would make a world of difference.

Brendan is completely right. We are better than this. But we deserve better than this, too.


… It does seem to be a pattern though, doesn’t it? New librarian joins ALIA, chills for a bit, realises how cooked it is, agitates for change, gets nowhere, is crushed, leaves ALIA. Over and over.

So why have I spent so much time and energy over the years being cross at my professional association? Despite outward appearances I’m not naturally a ‘burn it all down’ kind of person. I don’t enjoy being angry all the time (in fact, I’m much worse at being angry now than in the Before Times, and it gladdens me). I’d much rather try to make things better. And generally speaking I prefer to be a member of things rather than not. It takes a lot for me to consider quitting something. I do think that ‘Together we are stronger’, to echo ALIA’s motto, but it’s time for a deeper introspection on who ‘we’ are.

I wrote in late March, a lifetime ago:

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.

It’s deeply frustrating because we, as workers, want so desperately for our professional organisation to advocate for us. But ALIA doesn’t do that, and it’s not going to do that for as long as Institutional Membership is available. The conflict of interest here is insurmountable. So we need a separate association focussing on library workers. I had thought for a while that newCardigan would be ideally placed for such a role, but I would understand if they wanted to remain a radical social group rather than something more formalised. I don’t think the organisation we want really exists yet. I think it should.

I have a long personal history of sinking my time and energy into people and things that didn’t or couldn’t reciprocate. The time for that is over. If the Australian library sector is to have any hope of getting through these tough times, we as library workers need to build our own platform, and find our collective voice. Staying apart won’t always keep us together—it’s time for a national Australian library workers’ association. Let’s make it happen.


  1. Irrespective of how (or even if) such workers have degrees or other professional accreditation. 
  2. Man, this was three whole years ago and I’m still bitter about it. 

The martyr complex

I agree with Brooke Reid about many things, but this in particular is a standout:

Brooke lost her casual academic library job thanks to coronavirus. (You should hire her, she’s great.) After a month off sick I’ve been working remotely now for two weeks, but I don’t yet feel as if I’ve fully ‘returned’ to librarianship. Or the world at large. Besides, what is there for many of us to return to?

Recently the Guardian Australia saw fit to run this deeply mediocre article on Australian libraries in lockdown and their impact on digitally disadvantaged people. (Fun fact: I went to high school with the author, though she likely wouldn’t remember me, and I’m disappointed to see this kind of thing from her.)

The library user interviewed, who relies on her local public library for internet access, reckons that ‘Really, there’s not as much traffic as you might think. Maybe just open the library without storytime’. I imagine you’re as disinclined as I am to take her advice on the subject. Meanwhile the only comment from a library worker (from SLNSW) is buried near the end of the piece, as if his (entirely correct) view that ‘public libraries are very busy public places […] under the current circumstances compliance with health orders is necessary’ was outweighed by the sheer inconvenience caused by such compliance.

The digital divide, like so much else in society, is largely a matter of public policy. Home internet access is not considered a basic utility, like running water and electricity, but rather a luxury for the better-off, and is priced accordingly. Try as it might, the library cannot possibly solve these kinds of policy problems. We offer internet access as a public service and as part of our commitment to freedom of information, but society shouldn’t force disadvantaged people to rely exclusively on our services. Contemporary libraries are public policy spakfilla—we are routinely expected to fill gaps left by policymakers at higher levels. Spakfilla is good for filling holes in plasterboard, but it won’t fix rotting foundations.

In 2006, my teenage life was rather more similar to that of the library user interviewed by the Guardian. My family couldn’t afford to get a landline phone connected, never mind the internet, and I refused to get a mobile because deep down I was a bit of a Luddite, and I didn’t particularly want to be contactable. Outside of school, my internet access was a weekly hour at the local public library. But had a pandemic struck that year, in those circumstances, I would have felt the library’s loss far more keenly. I would probably have watched far more television and been kept home from school, but also probably have fallen far behind in class, and been even more deeply isolated than I am now. Mum’s line of work is difficult to do remotely. I don’t know how we would be coping at the moment without the excellent home broadband we now enjoy.

In some ways, I chose to self-isolate as a teenager. But being too poor to afford the internet was not our fault, nor is it the fault of any other library user. Disadvantaged people deserve far more than just access to a public library—and when that access is rendered impossible, they should not be left to make do with nothing. Physical isolation is hard enough. Social and information isolation is even harder.


Faced with the prospect of extended building closures, many libraries have duly pivoted to making their physical collections available in other ways, with a combination of click and collect, home delivery and postal delivery services. The American Library Journal featured a brilliant op-ed the other day on why click and collect in particular, or ‘curbside pickup’, is a bad idea. It says everything I would have said on the topic, but I think this part is worth detailed consideration:

When folks are getting curbside meals, they aren’t eating the food, then returning the container to the restaurant to be used by another person. Moreover, food workers are trained in and regulated on avoiding contamination, and their workplaces are set up to prevent it. None of those things are true of libraries. Finally, restaurants are not doing delivery and pickup because there is no risk, but because the risk is outweighed by the daily need to eat. That simply isn’t true of access to physical library books. Books and other media are incredibly important, but they are not a priority right now—keeping people alive, safe, and at home is.

I would only add that restaurants and other food outlets are also relying on takeaway and deliveries to remain solvent—libraries are by and large not cost-recovery enterprises, so we don’t have this problem.

A few short weeks ago, when I was seriously ill on my own, I had a lot of deeply conflicting ethical opinions on whether I should get pizza delivered. What right did I have to demand someone else leave the house so that I didn’t have to? Would I be forcing the delivery person to take unacceptable health risks, or would my custom instead be helping keep them employed? It’s a moot point now—I ultimately did get pizza delivered, though it didn’t agree with my insides, and I promptly threw it all up—but it reveals the class issues at the heart of it all. Many people able to work from home are white collar professionals. Many people unable to work from home are blue collar or gig economy workers. They are expected to risk themselves so that others might stay safe, but they’re not necessarily getting paid (or being suitably protected) for that risk.

In setting up book retrieval and delivery services, libraries are expecting people (be they library workers, library users, or both) to risk their health for a bibliographic reward. Someone has to leave their house to retrieve books. Someone else has to collect them, or another someone has to deliver them. None of those people are likely to have, or be provided with, adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). To me, these all look like non-essential reasons to be leaving the house. Nobody ever died from not having a book to read, but the coronavirus can live on paper and other porous surfaces for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to 72 hours; that’s enough for me to say ‘no’ to library books for the time being.

I get the feeling that large parts of our sector are desperate to prove their continuing value and relevance (and keep staff employed), and are bending over backwards to figure out ways to carry on as normal. I also suspect that many people are struggling with the idea that right now our physical collections and services have the potential to do more harm than good. That’s undoubtedly hard to process for people who’ve spent careers believing that librarianship is inherently good and noble work. Vocational awe is a hell of a drug.

The Library Journal article outlines ways libraries were already reaching people outside the building: ‘virtual and phone reference, ebooks and audiobooks, streaming movies, newspapers, databases, online programs, and more’. The immediately obvious problem? Most of these rely on people having personal internet access, which as I’ve outlined above is not an option for many. More needs to be done to figure out how to reach people while staying safe at home. The public health situation is undoubtedly far graver in the United States, where people are increasingly having to take matters into their own hands. But I have a hard time believing library books anywhere at the moment are worth that level of risk. Besides, there’s plenty that suitably online library workers could be doing from home. I hear catalogue maintenance is suddenly back in fashion.


You know what, though? Honestly, when all this is over, I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal was boring. Normal was unjust. Normal was killing me softly. Now is our big chance—our free space—to design a new normal, both within and beyond librarianship. Now is the perfect opportunity to deeply consider why we do things (not just the what and the how). Now is the time to imagine what kind of world we want to live in. The first step towards great change is believing that such change is possible. Besides, ‘things cannot and will not go back to the way they were. Of this even our enemies are certain.’

For starters, there is an obvious need for more, and more critical, library sector commentators in Australia. LIS academics would be well-placed for this kind of work, but appear largely uninterested in actively critiquing—and thereby improving—the library sector. Virtually all public librarians are government employees and do not enjoy the necessary academic or intellectual freedom. I am one of those people. That’s the price I pay for a secure job in my field. Already this post sails close to the wind of Things My Employment Precludes Me From Having Public Opinions On. But who else will point out that the emperor has no clothes?

ALIA were notably absent from the Guardian article—I suspect they simply weren’t asked for comment—but it has been evident for a long time that ALIA stands with library institutions, not library workers. The most recent ALIA Board message of Friday 24 April only confirms it: sympathy is shown for library managers having to stand down staff, but not for the staff themselves, despite ALIA’s considerable investment in a relief fund. Readers are also told that ‘we [all] have a responsibility to the library brand’, as if marketing and PR should be anyone’s priority right now. A previous message expressed concern that very few libraries and their staff would be eligible for JobKeeper, potentially putting large numbers of library workers out of work. Yet ALIA was seemingly not prepared to stand up for library workers and lobby for changes to the eligibility criteria, instead merely endorsing such efforts from unions and the Australian Local Government Association. I’m not entirely sure what these regular Board messages are meant to achieve. I don’t find them terribly reassuring.

In the face of all this, we have limited avenues to organise our labour as a sector, and fight for better. Library workers in Australia are unionised according to their employer type: government, schools, hospitals, higher education, and so on. The idea of ‘one big library union’ is not new; in fact, ALIA’s initial predecessor, the Australian Institute of Librarians (AIL), explored the possibility during its early years but could not overcome jurisdictional issues, noting that ‘A further obstacle was the opening of LAA [Library Association of Australia, AIL’s successor body] membership to employers as well as employees’. Overseas, Canadian rabble-rouser Sam Popowich has made some salient points, while the American Library Association’s companion body, the ALA-APA, exists in part to advance library workers’ salary interests. The closest thing I can think of to a pan-GLAM workers’ association in this country is newCardigan, but their reach is limited, and they lack the formal powers of a trade union.

In the past I have criticised libraries and library managers for being overly risk-averse. Now I find myself criticising them for not being risk-averse enough. It’s a strange state of affairs. I won’t pretend there are easy answers to any of these issues. But I’m also not interested in developing a martyr complex or smothering myself in vocational awe. Librarianship is important, and I appreciate many people are missing their library terribly, but right now providing access to physical collections runs the risk of spreading the virus, and library users being solely reliant on our internet access is a failure of public policy. Ours is not—and should not be—a life-or-death profession. We’re not frontline health workers. We’re not supermarket workers. We’re library workers. It’s great to be a library worker, but it ain’t everything, and it’s not worth risking public health for.

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

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.

Recognising critical librarianship

This article first appeared in inCite, the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association, January/February 2020, volume 41, issue 1/2, page 24.

Are you a critical librarian? You might already be, but maybe didn’t know your actions and philosophies fit within the name. Perhaps you’re the type to advocate for changes to subject headings, or your workplace is actively making library spaces more welcoming for disadvantaged people. Perhaps these are really the same thing.

For some, critical librarianship, or ‘critlib’, means bringing social justice principles to library work, such as a commitment to equality, diversity and solidarity with marginalised people. For others, it means aligning their library practice with critical theory, a ‘framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature’. These are related but distinct approaches to how libraries interact with their communities. It’s one thing to advocate for social justice in the library, but it’s quite another to use the tools of critical theory to explore why and where there is social injustice in the library in the first place.

Critical librarianship involves deep, considered analysis about the structure and theory of library work. It doesn’t mean criticising in a rude or disparaging way. Nor does it mean believing that libraries are necessarily bad. Critical librarianship aims to make the profession better by recognising harmful and oppressive structures, dismantling those structures and building better ones in their stead. We critique because we care.

All areas of library work can incorporate critical perspectives, including reference, information literacy, outreach, IT systems, collection development and cataloguing. Each area strives to recognise who is harmed by prevailing library practices, what message they send, and how they might be reformed.

For example, advocating for changes to subject headings, such as the notorious Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) ‘Illegal aliens’, involves recognising how terms like these reflect social and political mores of the United States Congress, the institution served by the Library of Congress and its subject headings. Australian libraries use these headings mostly out of convenience, but many terms are clearly inappropriate, such as ‘Dreamtime (Australian Aboriginal mythology)’. The equivalent term in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) subject headings is ‘Religion – Dreaming’, which repositions the Dreaming as contemporary spiritual practice and not ancient mythology.

Neither term is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but choosing to replace an LCSH term with an AIATSIS one demonstrates a recognition of the rights of Indigenous people to describe their culture their way, and the obligations of libraries to uphold those rights. It sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more welcoming and inclusive place. It’s about taking social justice principles of diversity and inclusion, applying critical theory to our controlled vocabularies, and ultimately making better choices in the service of our users. This is critical librarianship. It’s also the least we can do.

Bringing social justice to the library is deeply admirable. But critical librarianship should also involve bringing the library to social justice, listening to our communities, and incorporating critical theory into library practice. Perhaps you’re already doing these things. Turns out these practices have a name.

Putting the ‘tech’ back into technical services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I will refuse to choose.

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

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

It’s time to question them all.

Cataloguing as a (customer) service

A librarian’s innate desire to help is often redirected into a desire to provide great customer service. That is, until what constitutes ‘customer service’ changes, and suddenly what some kinds of librarians do isn’t considered ‘helpful’ enough. I’m sure I had something else in mind when I suggested the theme ‘help’ for GLAM Blog Club. But one of Danielle’s tweets today set a different set of cogs in motion:

After a short back-and-forth, Hugh responded:

To which I added:

A public library director once told me to my face that he wasn’t interested in hiring cataloguers. I don’t recall exactly how he phrased his justification (though I do recall my response being ‘I’m sorry to hear that’) but he clearly conceptualised his library as a ‘customer service’ organisation, where that phrase meant ‘an exclusive focus on front-of-house activities and services’. Collection development, systems administration and cataloguing, collectively ‘technical services’ in library parlance, are not commonly viewed as opportunities for great customer service. Instead they’re seen as something that can (and should) be outsourced in the interests of ‘efficiency’.

Brisbane City Council Library Service abolished their in-house tech services department twenty years ago and, oddly, chose to present about it at the 13th National Cataloguing Conference. The library moved entirely to shelf-ready stock and turfed all their cataloguers.1 The writeup in Cataloguing Australia notes (emphasis mine):

This driver of customer service is paramount at Brisbane City Council and Library Services. All our restructuring and re-engineering has been predicated on the assumption that it will provide better customer service and responsiveness. The wider implication of no longer having a Technical Services Section is that Library Services is now solely a customer service branch. There is no longer a back room mentality, and the expectation is that staff spend 80% of their working day in direct customer service.2

To be fair, a typical late-nineties tech services department probably wasn’t all that user-focused. But I reckon it could have been, if management had chosen to imbue that customer service ethos into all areas of library administration, not just the face-to-face parts. I can see I’ll be shouting ‘CATALOGUING IS POWER’ until the day I die. I’ll never understand why so many libraries, especially public libraries, willingly throw this power away. What do we lose from ‘efficiency’? What do we lose, when we lose the people who are paid to care?

I have worked for, patronised, and otherwise dealt with far too many libraries that are not resourced to care about the integrity and usefulness of their metadata, collections or systems. These things are clearly not prioritised by decision-makers, and so they are outsourced, often with little oversight. This is not good customer service. This does not help. Having a crappy website or an unusuable catalogue sends a strong message that the only patrons the library cares about are those accessing the library in person. Has the internet taught us nothing? Have twenty-plus years of ‘everything is online now’ not compelled us to create the best online presences possible for our libraries? To curate the best online and electronic collections? To boost our SEO (search engine optimisation) using well-structured, highly detailed metadata? To develop and deploy systems that don’t make people jump through endless hoops, divulge their personal data, or give up entirely in frustration and turn to a paid competitor? Why do I know so many librarians who use Audible instead of Overdrive? Who are we really competing against?

I abhor the practice of referring to library users as ‘customers’. Customers, by definition, purchase. The library has nothing to sell. The library invites the community it serves to make use of its facilities, collections and knowledge. These services are not without cost, but they are, proudly, free to the user. In lieu of ‘customer’, I prefer the term ‘library user’ or sometimes ‘patron’. The library I work for uses ‘reader’, supposing the majority of our visitors are, in fact, here to read.

Save for the two hours a week I choose to spend on a reference desk, my job is not directly user-facing. But it is user-focused. Everything I do as a librarian, I do for my library’s users (and, through the power of co-operative cataloguing, the users of hundreds of other libraries). I don’t catalogue for the catalogue’s sake. I catalogue so people can find things. Most people will never know how my cataloguing has helped them. I’m okay with that. I don’t need to be sitting in front of a library user for my work, and my help, to be valuable.

The above-mentioned issue of Cataloguing Australia, the journal’s last, also featured a paper from the then-Customer Services Manager at CAVAL. To my surprise and absolute delight, she took a similar view to me of customer service and cataloguing:

Let me begin, as we should all begin, by looking at our customers. Even if we never see them, we should never forget who they are. […] When you are making a map of the heavens, you need to be aware of whether you are doing this for a child, an astrologer, a serious astronomer or a Star Trek fan. Each one of those maps is useless to any of the other groups. So, too, with our catalogue records. For our customers are infinitely more varied than those for star maps.3

The entire article is a joy.4 It’s full of sensible, user-focused thinking (seemingly a rarity in 1999) and it’s easily my new favourite piece of professional literature. But I’m intrigued by the fact it came from a vendor. By outsourcing so much of our technical services work, has our sector also outsourced the capacity to think of this work as inherently ‘customer’-focused? A vendor’s ‘customers’ are libraries themselves—does this change a catalogue record’s intended audience?

A tech services worker might ask ‘How can I help?’, as I so often greet people on the desk, but libraries need to be structurally capable of accepting that help, and cultivating it in-house. By reframing our conception of cataloguing as an inherently user-focused (or customer-focused) activity, libraries can ensure we’re providing the right metadata to create the right map, in order to help the right people find the right materials. After all, we’re here to help.


  1. The author mentions ‘we now have no cataloguers on our staff’ so I guess they were either made redundant or reassigned to other, non-cataloguing duties, though two staff were put in charge of quality checking vendor records. 
  2. Mackenzie, Christine. (1999). ‘The end of the world as we know it? Outsourcing at Brisbane City Council Library Service’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 184-187. 
  3. Dearman, Rosemary. (1999). ‘Whose information universe? Customer services and cataloguing’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 222-231. 
  4. Sadly it’s not online :( 

We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript

This is the working transcript of ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’, a talk I gave at the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium in Adelaide, South Australia on Saturday 6th July 2019. I made some last-minute edits to the text and said a few things in the wrong order, but overall I pretty much stuck to script (which was very long, hence my conscious decision to talk too fast!).

The slides on their own are available here (pdf). Inspired / shamed by Nikki Andersen’s brilliant talk at NLS9 ‘Deviating with diversity, innovating with inclusion: a call for radical activism within libraries’, all the slide pics also include alt-text.

We Need To Talk About Cataloguing / Alissa McCulloch @lissertations / New Librarians' Symposium 9 Adelaide, 2019 / #NLS9s09
Thank you. I begin by acknowledging the traditional and continuing owners of the land on which we meet, the Kaurna people, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. This land always has been, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Library workers, students and allies, we need to talk. You’ve probably heard of this strange thing called ‘cataloguing’. You may even have met some of these strange people called ‘cataloguers’. But for many people in the library sector, that’s about all we can say. Many of us don’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk about areas of library practice that aren’t our own.

It’s not quite the talk I promised to give, but it’s a talk I think we need to have. About what this work entails, why it matters, and why you should care. Consider how, and to whom, we should start talking. Our colleagues, our supervisors, our vendors, ourselves.

My name is Alissa McCulloch. We need to talk about cataloguing.

Picture of me holding the book 'The Joy of Cataloguing' by Sanford Berman, captioned 'This is a really good book!'
(By the way, this is a real book, and it’s awesome.)

Firstly, a bit about me. I work at a small, minor national library that shall remain nameless, because I’m not speaking on behalf of my employer today (I just need to make that very clear, these are all my opinions, not theirs). I’ve been in libraries for around four years and have had a library degree for around six months. My work life consists mostly of cataloguing whatever turns up in the post.

You may have seen or heard me talk about cataloguing ad nauseam on podcasts, on my blog, or on twitter, because I LOVE CATALOGUING and it sparks SO MUCH joy and I think it’s amazing. Suffice to say my reputation precedes me. So perhaps some of what I’m about to say will not be a surprise to you. But I am surprised, quite often, by the reactions I get when I tell people what I do all day.

'Oh... is that still a thing?'
They go ‘Oh… is that still a thing?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, actually, it is still a thing’. People act like metadata grows on trees, that carefully classified shelves of books are ‘serendipitously’ arranged, that cataloguing is obsolete, that structured metadata is unnecessary in an age of keyword searches, that we’ve all been automated out of existence, that AI is coming for the few jobs we have left.

'Why store data about an object, when you have the object itself? Because without data about the objects contained in a space, any sufficiently complex space is indistinguishable from chaos.' —Jeffrey Pomerantz, Metadata (2015)
People ask, ‘Why store data about an object, when you have the object itself?’ And I go, ‘Because without data about the objects contained in a space, any sufficiently complex space is indistinguishable from chaos.’

It’s more than just ‘data about data’. It gives meaning and structure to a collection of items, whether that’s a simple website, Netflix, a corpus of research data or a library catalogue. Metadata forms a map, a guide, a way of making sense of the (in many cases) enormous collection of resources at a user’s disposal. A chaotic library is an unusable library.

'Cataloguing' versus 'Metadata'
‘Cataloguing’ doesn’t just mean painstaking creation of item-level metadata (although it can involve that, and it’s what I spend a lot of my time doing). It involves a lot of problem-solving, detective work, ethical decisions, standards interpretation, and data maintenance. If you like puzzles, you’ll love cataloguing. Modern metadata is all about connections. It’s relational, it’s often processed at great scale, it’s about making collections accessible wherever the user is.

You might hear these jobs described as ‘metadata librarians’ or similar. If given the choice, I would describe myself as a ‘cataloguer’. In fact, at my current job no one ever actually told me what my job title was, and I needed an email signature, so I picked ‘cataloguer’ and nobody seemed to mind.

But I specifically didn’t call this talk ‘We need to talk about metadata’. Don’t get me wrong, I could talk about metadata all day, but I deliberately said ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. The word’s kinda gone out of style. It’s old-fashioned, it’s a bit arcane, it’s not hip and modern and contemporary like ‘metadata’ is. But I’m the sort of person who likes to reclaim words, and I can reclaim this one, so I do.

Words mean things. But sometimes, if we want to, we can change those things.

'That's great. Why should I care?'
Once I’ve explained what I do for a living, people then go ‘That’s great. Why should I care?’. And it’s a good question. Why should you care? You’re all busy. You all have other jobs. You don’t have time to care about metadata.

You know why you should care?

‘If you care about social justice or representation in libraries, you need to care about library metadata and how it is controlled.’ —Hugh Rundle, ‘Better out than in’ (2019)
Because ‘if you care about social justice or representation in libraries, you need to care about library metadata and how it is controlled’. I know how deeply many of us care about social justice in libraries. We want our spaces and services to be accessible, equitable and empowering to all users. This includes the catalogue. For many users, particularly in academic and TAFE libraries, the library’s online presence will often represent someone’s first interaction with the library. How does your library present itself online? If people go looking for resources about themselves, how will they see those resources described and contextualised?

Image of a white brunette woman standing among bookshelves reading, superimposed over which is the logo for Soutron Global and the words 'Cataloguing is more than merely ‘processing’ an item. Metadata gives voice to collected works, brings their form and meaning to the surface of discovery, so that collections might be found and enjoyed.—Alissa M.
A while ago I’d sat through one too many team meetings where someone described us as ‘just a processing team’ and vented on twitter, as is my style. I said,

‘Cataloguing is more than merely ‘processing’ an item. Metadata gives voice to collected works, brings their form and meaning to the surface of discovery, so that collections might be found and enjoyed.’

For some reason, a library vendor in California took this tweet and made a shareable graphic meme thing out of it. I stand by what I said, but what really got me was that they left out the best part of the quote. The line immediately after this was:

Same image as the previous slide, but with the words 'CATALOGUING IS POWER' superimposed in red graffiti font
‘Cataloguing is power, and I will die on this hill!’

We as cataloguers have, as Hope Olson famously put it, ‘the power to name’. We decide what goes where, what’s shelved together, what’s shelved separately. We describe these things in the catalogue so that people can find them. The language used in and about cataloguing is tremendously important. If something is poorly-described, it might as well be invisible, both on a shelf and in a search engine.

Cataloguing is power. That power must be wielded responsibly.

‘In terms of organization and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.’ —Emily Drabinski, ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction’ (2013)
‘In terms of organisation and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.’ Now you can read ‘disciplinary’ two ways – once in the sense of an academic discipline, and again in the sense of punishment. Both of them relate to the wielding of power.

As humans, we are all shaped by language. Our everyday language changes through time, as social and cultural practices change, but library language changes far more slowly, when it changes at all. (We’ve been putting punctuation in weird places for a long time, too. Look, I’m sorry, but I will never care about where to put a full stop in a MARC record.)

Metadata is not fixed. Metadata is never ‘finished’. Metadata is contextual. Contested. Iterative. Always changing. ‘Corrections’ are not, and can never be, universal. An accepted term today might be a rejected term in thirty years’ time, and the process will begin again. The Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) for ‘People with disabilities’ is now on its fourth iteration, as the preferred language has changed over time. Previous versions of this heading used terms that would now be considered quite offensive.

We all need to look out for these things. Have new concepts arisen for which your library has no standardised heading? Has a word shifted meaning, such that it has ceased to be meaningful? Are users looking for resources by name, but finding nothing in our collections? Think of the power we have. Think of how we ought to wield that power.

‘When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself.’ —Emily Drabinski, ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction’ (2013)
‘When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself.’

What do I mean by that? Consider the widespread use in the English-speaking library world of Library of Congress Subject Headings, a standardised vocabulary originally designed by American librarians to meet the information needs of the United States Congress. Because the Library of Congress is the source of a lot of American copy cataloguing, their subject headings were widely adopted in the US, and later by other Anglophone countries. Most (though not all) Australian libraries use LCSH in some capacity. Has anyone stopped to think about how weird that is? We’re not the US Congress. We use different words and different spellings, we serve vastly different communities, we have our own information needs and information contexts that LCSH necessarily cannot meet.

Yanni Alexander Loukissas recently wrote a book titled ‘All Data Are Local’, which is sitting on my bedside table at home. I would extend that to ‘All Metadata Are Local’. And they should be. Each library serves a distinct community of users. Our metadata needs to speak their language.

Authority Control Freaks
Attitudes toward cataloguing itself are shaped by the language we as cataloguers use to describe our work. For example: a big part of cataloguing is about standardising names and subjects, and to a lesser degree titles, so that resources with or about those things can all be found in the one place! We call this authority control, which has gotta be one of the worst phrases in librarianship for two reasons:

A) whose ~authority~ is this done under? Who died and put us in charge? What gives us the right to decide what someone’s name is, or the best phrase to describe a certain topic? Why do we even have to choose just one? Why can’t we have several, equally valid terms?

B) Why do we have to ‘control’ everything? What need is there for this giant bibliographic power trip? Why can’t we let people decide these things for themselves, instead of us being authority control freaks?

This phrase says a lot about how we’ve historically thought about cataloguing: that we have authority, and that we are in control. Cataloguers haven’t been either of these things for a while. Which is great, because our survival depends on it.

Radical Cataloguing? Critical Cataloguing?
Nah, it’s just common sense
The outlook I’ve just described, and the outlook I bring to my work, is known as radical cataloguing. It’s a way of looking at cataloguing and metadata from a structural, systemic standpoint. Getting to the root of what—and who—our data is for, and making sure it meets our users’ needs.

It’s broadly similar to the contemporary movement called critical librarianship, of which critical cataloguing is a part, which aims, according to the critlib.org site ‘to [bring] social justice principles into our work in libraries’.

Critical and radical cataloguing can involve establishing local policies for catalogue records, working to improve common standards and practices, sometimes ignoring those standards and practices, and encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue.

It sounds quite cool, calling myself a radical cataloguer. But this work and this ethos have never felt all that radical to me. It feels normal, to me. It feels like common sense. It feels like bringing my values to work. Sometimes these align with traditional library values. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s all in the service of making the library better. Think of it as ‘evidence-based whinging’. It’s done in good faith, and it’s done for a purpose.

'Important, complex and broken'
Sadly, common sense isn’t as common as I’d like it to be. A recent article on tech news website The Verge described the terrible quality of metadata in the music industry, which meant people weren’t getting paid royalties for music they had written, performed, or contributed to. Bad metadata literally costs money. The author described metadata as ‘Important, complex and broken’. And I was like ‘yeah… I feel that’. A lot of what they said about commercial music metadata could just as easily be applied to the library world—infighting, governance issues, funding challenges, cultural differences and copyright laws.

This work is difficult, painstaking, often invisible and mostly thankless. But the results of not doing the work can be slow to manifest—you might be able to get by on deteriorating metadata quality for a while, but soon enough it’s gonna be a huge problem that will cost lots of money to fix, which you could have avoided with enough care, attention and maintenance.

‘Information infrastructure, like all infrastructure, only becomes visible upon breakdown—as in frozen pipes or rifts between institutions. This reality often means that the people maintaining those infrastructures are also invisible.’ —The Information Maintainers, Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care (2019)
In their recent paper Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care, which I highly recommend reading, the Information Maintainers Collective wrote, ‘Information infrastructure, like all infrastructure, only becomes visible upon breakdown—as in frozen pipes or rifts between institutions. This reality often means that the people maintaining those infrastructures are also invisible.’

It’s not about simply following rules and standards because that’s just how we do things, or have always done things. It’s about imbuing our information practice with an ethic of care. Thinking not just about what we do, but how and why we do it. Who benefits, who loses out, and what happens when and if the work stops being done. The ‘we’ in this instance is an information maintainer: a cataloguer, an eresources manager, a systems librarian. People. Not robots.

‘But what about AI and machine learning?’
People often try to replace me with a robot. They ask, sometimes innocuously and sometimes not, ‘But what about AI and machine learning?’

And I go, ‘It’s a great tool. But like any tool, it has to be used responsibly.’ Algorithms are as biased as the people who write them. We all have biases, we all look at the world a particular way. The key is ensuring that library automation of any kind is properly supervised and evaluated by real people. Metadata professionals with an ethical grounding. Cataloguers, of the past, present and future.

At last year’s IFLA conference session on ‘Metadata and Machine Learning’, researchers from the National Library of Norway talked about their algorithm that assigns Dewey numbers ‘with increasing accuracy’. To them this means longer numbers, which isn’t quite how I would evaluate accuracy. But the point is: this algorithm is following existing rulesets on how to assign Dewey numbers. Think about: who makes those rules? Who designs Dewey? What does our continued use of this particular classification say about contemporary library practice?

Dewey is a product of its time. But it’s also a product of our time. Dewey is now in its 23rd edition, maintained by paid staff and volunteers from around the world. AI can’t do this. It can’t write its own rules. And it can’t be left unsupervised, because it won’t produce quality metadata.

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? ‘Standards-compliant’ doesn’t mean ‘useful’. Quality records are: informative, accessible, respectful, accurate, empowering
What do I mean when I say ‘quality metadata’?

I don’t think about ‘quality’ the way most other people think about ‘quality’. People think ‘quality’ means total adherence to local, national and international policies and standards. A record can do all of those things and still be functionally useless. I don’t consider that ‘quality’.

To me, a ‘quality’ record is informative, accessible, respectful, accurate and empowering. You won’t find these ideals in RDA, or in the MARC standards, or in BIBFRAME. You’ll find them in your community. Those of you who work in libraries should have an idea of the kinds of materials your patrons are looking for, and how your library might provide them. Is your metadata a help or a hindrance? Are you describing materials the way your patrons might describe them? Are people asking you for help because your catalogue has failed them?

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? Compare a record with the resource it describes. Right title? Right author? Right year? ‘Authority control’? How would a user describe this? Are those words or phrases in the record?
I know most of you are not cataloguers. Many of you undoubtedly work for libraries that outsource most or all of their cataloguing. Records appear in your system by what looks like magic but is probably a Z39.50 connection. You may well have no way of knowing what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ metadata. Here are some brief tips for you!

Compare a record with the resource it describes. Are the title, author and year correct? Does your system disambiguate different authors with the same name? I know I said I hate the phrase ‘authority control’, but you still gotta do it, the work still needs to be done. How would a user describe this item? Are those words or phrases in the record? What kinds of people use your library? Will these words meet their needs? Are they current? Offensive? Relevant?

What do you mean, ‘quality metadata’? Compare a record with your OPAC’s display. Is anything missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays strangely, or not at all? What is searchable? What facets are available?
Next, compare that record with how your OPAC displays it. Backend versus frontend. Have a look at a MARC record, even if it looks like a bunch of numbers and dollar signs. Is anything obviously missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays oddly, or not at all? Have a play around with the OPAC. Are some fields searchable but not others? Does your system support faceted browsing, like Trove does? If so, what facets are available?

I once worked for a library whose ILS didn’t display the 545 field, used for biographical and historical data in manuscript records. I’d been using this field for months. Why didn’t I know that my ILS did this stupid thing? How might I have worked around it?

If any problems appear with your library’s data, think about how you might advocate for getting them fixed…

‘Tech services work requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and fearlessness in the face of power that needs education to understand why our jobs are important.’—A. Scarlet Galvan, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized’ (2018)
Because the thing is, ‘Tech services work requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and fearlessness in the face of power, that needs education to understand why our jobs are important.’

We are constantly having to advocate for our jobs. I’m doing it right now. Right here, with this talk. And not just because my contract is up in two months and I need all the help I can get. But because without people like me shouting from the rooftops, our work is practically invisible. We are the people behind the curtain. We have to keep telling managers why quality metadata matters. But I am only one person, and I can only shout so loud. Cataloguers need your help, gathered library workers, students and allies, to talk about cataloguing.

So what should we say?

Mind Your Language. What you can think about: How does bad metadata make your job harder? What problems or queries could be solved with better metadata?
The key is to mind your language.

Firstly, what can you think about?

How does bad metadata make your job harder? What kinds of questions do you get asked that better metadata would be able to answer? Such as: ‘A friend recommended a book to me, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was blue, and it had birds on the cover. I think it was set in Queensland?’ We don’t routinely add metadata for a book’s colour in a catalogue record, it’s not searchable, but people ask questions like this all the time. Perhaps AI could help us with this metadata…!

Mind Your Language. What you can talk about: ‘Good metadata makes materials findable: it’s a return on investment’. ‘Just because LC uses this term, doesn’t mean we have to’
Secondly, what can you talk about?

Appeal to your managers’ financial sensibilities. ‘Hey, we spent a lot of money on these materials. If people can’t find them, that’s money down the drain. Good metadata makes those materials findable: it’s a return on investment.’ Talk about how much time and effort is wasted dealing with bad vendor metadata, and how that staff time could be better spent on other metadata tasks. I’m sure you’ve got plenty.

Alternatively, appeal to their morals and sense of social justice. If they have one. You could say, ‘We have a lot of refugees and asylum seekers in our community, and books about people in this situation often use the phrase “Illegal aliens”. This sounds kinda dehumanising to me, do we have to use this term?’ And if they say ‘But it’s in LCSH, and that’s what we follow’ you can say ‘well… so? Just because LC does it, doesn’t mean we have to’. You can change that subject heading locally to whatever you want, or get your vendor to do it. It’s already happening in American libraries. It could just as easily happen here.

Being a radical cataloguer doesn’t mean rewriting a whole record from scratch—if good copy exists, it makes sense to use it. But do so with a critical eye. How will this metadata help my users? How will it help my colleagues do their jobs in reference, circulation, instruction or document supply? Is it fit for purpose?

Mind Your Language. What you can do: Suggest terminology or data enhancements to your vendor, such as Austlang codes from AIATSIS for First Nations language material. Join ACORD, the (new) ALIA Community on
Resource Description
And lastly, what can you do?

Make suggestions internally and externally about what problems could be solved with better metadata. What kinds of patrons ask what kinds of questions or search for what kinds of materials. What your catalogue doesn’t include. What it could start including.

For example, you could encourage your cataloguers and/or vendors to include Austlang codes in records for materials in or about Australian First Nations languages. You could also encourage your systems librarian / ILS vendor to incorporate guided searching or faceting based on these codes into your system, for an even better user experience.

If everything I’ve talked about sounds fascinating and you want more, consider joining ACORD, the new ALIA Community on Resource Description. It’s so new it doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’s slated to launch later this month, and there’s an article about it in the July issue of InCite. I’m hoping ACORD will be a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all.

You Can Change The Rules
It can be hard to make these kinds of suggestions in your workplace, much less change international rules and standards. But you can do it. You can be part of this change. And the first step is talking about it. If you have an opinion on anything I’ve spoken about today, get talking, get writing, get tweeting, get involved with ACORD, which liaises with the committees overseeing all these rules and policies.

These rules were made by people. They can be changed by people.

You Can BREAK The Rules
And if the rules aren’t working for you, break them.

Change has to start somewhere. So it can start with you.

Irradicalism

My Twitter bio currently describes me as ‘a radical cataloguer’. It seemed apt at the time: a neat way of summing up who I am, what I do, and what I stand for. But now, thanks to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme and a well-timed lunch with noted incendiary librarian Hugh, I’m having second thoughts about this whole ‘radical’ thing.

Now, this doesn’t mean changing my professional or political views, as strident and idiosyncratic as they are. It means rethinking what the word ‘radical’ actually means to me. What is radical, really?

Successive linguistics lecturers drilled into me the lesson that etymology is not semantics. A word’s origins may bear no relation to its current meaning. And yet being ‘radical’ entails, literally, going back to our roots. To consider the core or essence of something. The word came to English via the Latin radicalis, the adjectival form of radix, ‘root’. English regards Latin as an adstratum language, a more prestigious tongue from which we borrow liberally in an effort to appear learned. I suspect this desire to appear somewhat educated is why I ultimately settled on a Classics major.

I was going to talk briefly about ‘contemporary radicalism’ but realised I had no idea what that looked like. Different people, depending on their own views, will describe other views as ‘radical’. I wonder whether being ‘radical’ is more of a relative than an absolute phenomenon; that is, the description depends less on the viewpoint itself than on what surrounds it. I know the kinds of things I would consider ‘radical’ have changed dramatically over the last couple of years. That is, the things themselves haven’t changed, but my perception definitely has.

As I experienced what I can only describe as an ecological awakening over the last eighteen months or so (starting with David Wallace-Wells’ absolutely terrifying article ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, now expanded into a book I’m too scared to read), I made what most people would consider some fairly radical life choices. In particular, I stopped flying. I’ve done a lot of interstate travelling this year, all of it by train, bus or ferry. I’m very aware that the planes kept flying without me. But I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and financially support more sustainable forms of transport. It feels less radical, and more necessary, with each passing day.

I read an article just today on what climate scientists do to live more sustainable lives. Forsaking air travel was on almost everyone’s mind. If more people start doing something, does it inherently become less radical? Might we start to see greater shifts in what broader society considers ‘normal’, against which the ‘radical’ is compared?

Besides, can you really call yourself ‘radical’ with a straight face? I wonder if it’s like calling yourself an ‘ally’ to a marginalised or oppressed class of people. You don’t get to decide whether you’re an ally or not. They do, when your actions have spoken loud enough. It’s not a permanent adjective. It’s not a badge you get to keep. It’s something you do, not something you are. A continual state of mind and being, not a fixed point in time.

I look at the kind of work I do in libraries, at so-called ‘radical cataloguing’. I’ll be touching on this in my upcoming NLS9 talk (spoiler!) but while many people both inside and outside library land might look at my cataloguing ethos and go ‘Oof, that’s pretty radical’, I’m increasingly convinced that nothing I do in libraries should be considered radical at all. It only feels radical because it’s seemingly so unusual. Thinking of metadata and systems librarianship as not just user-centred, but user-facing. Recognising the cataloguer’s power to name and actively looking to cede that power to the people and groups we describe. Encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue. This shouldn’t be radical. This should be completely normal.

But what if it becomes normal? What, then, would be considered ‘radical’? If radicalism is relative, what new, progressive, revolutionary ideas might emerge, in our sector and in many others?

I genuinely can’t wait to find out. But first, the Overland train to Adelaide on Tuesday. And perhaps a new Twitter bio.

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.