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

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

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

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

I had packed four books for the trip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019: a year of knowing, more naturally

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things I learned from #SydCritLib, the Saturday School of Critical Librarianship

A priceless piece of critlib ephemera, now taped proudly to my wall

ALIA Sydney recently hosted their first Saturday School of Critical Librarianship, a gathering for critically- and radically-minded librarians to talk shop and take stock. It was a seriously full-on day. I spent most of today sleeping it off, and there’s a worryingly large memory gap where a lot of yesterday should have been. But I did remember to jot down a few not-terribly-insightful thoughts.

We are worthy. I awoke in a spaceship at sunrise, to a blistering Twitter discussion on the merits of metadata. (Sounds blissful, really.) I was staying in a capsule hotel, because it turns out Sydney has one and I wanted to try it out, but it was very poorly ventilated and I didn’t get a great sleep. The hot topic of discussion at 6am turned out to be the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), broadly the American equivalent of Trove or Europeana, laying off several staff, apparently including their metadata librarian. Cue spirited conversation about the value institutions place, or don’t place, on their metadata workers. Perversely it was a bit of a personal mood boost:

We are facilitators. The word ‘facilitator’ kept cropping up, and it wasn’t just because a few of us had been asked to ‘facilitate’, or lend our expertise to, various breakout sessions. Instead the word arose organically as a way to describe how we might envision a future, more critical (or radical) librarianship. Historically our profession has been structured around either having the answers or knowing where to find them (that is, in our collections), but might we instead take our lead from our patrons and communities? Whether it’s building collections, planning programs or cataloguing our library’s contents, there’s a lot to be said for not just listening to, or consulting with, our patrons—but actively listening to how their collections and programs and knowledge and memory ought to be managed, which we could then use our LIS skills to make happen.

We are, um, not all cataloguers. I stayed for all three iterations of the rotating breakout discussions on cataloguing, as I had been asked to help guide this discussion (I tried to move to another topic but found myself blurting out ‘my people need me’). I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I did a very good job. I wish I’d been better prepared and had more structured discussion topics. As it was, the conversation drifted from cataloguing into collection development, preservation of time-based media art, and systems librarianship. This suggested to me that people didn’t really know what to say, or felt they had nothing to say, or waited for me to do all the talking (and I still feel like I talked too much). But perhaps that in turn suggests that critical tech services in general is under-theorised and under-discussed, especially in Australia, and especially by non-tech services staff.

I was reluctant to steer the conversation back to cataloguing, figuring that people were talking about what was interesting and meaningful to them. If you were hoping I would do more active facilitating then I am sorry. But I hope people enjoyed the discussions nonetheless.

We are critical radical librarians! So this happened:

I know there was more to this conversation that my poor memory chose not to retain, but I found it interesting that we chose to critique the very name of our fledgling local movement. I think a few attendees took ‘critical’ to mean ‘criticising everything, unproductively’, rather than the more nuanced meaning assigned it by critical theory. The hashtag-critlib movement began in the United States, I understand principally from infolit and instruction librarians in university libraries, and it is running the risk of becoming a bit cliquey. I also had Nora Almeida’s chapter ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’ from the LJP critlib book in the back of my head during this discussion. Personally, I think ‘radical librarianship’ sounds friendlier and has a more activist tone. But I also really liked Andrew’s take on it from afar:

We can’t do it all. I really liked a point Kirsty Thorpe made about gaining power through focus—as library workers, choosing an area to focus on and directing energies towards making that area better, focusing on a couple of select things we can do, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly on things we can’t.

This was part of a broader discussion near the end of the day about power, and it prompted me to reflect on how much power I have within LIS. At my workplace, an institution fond of bureaucracy, I often feel powerless because all the decisions are made above me and I can’t change established practices or standards. Yet people from elsewhere look at me and go ‘You work where!? You have so much power! You can get things done!’ Plus I have managed to accomplish a couple of things in cataloguing entirely independently of wherever I have worked. And I wondered if this meant I had power because… people think I do? As in, they recognise power in me and they act accordingly? (Is this Schrödinger’s power?!) So what can I do with this power that I may or may not have, to push for change within LIS, and within my institution?

Also, we give a crap. We all showed up on a Saturday, some of us (including me) having come from out of town, because we care about our profession and we want to do better and do differently. There was a lot of talk about further critlib schools in Sydney, as well as opportunities to coalesce around shared or common goals. I really hope these come to fruition, because there’s really nothing like an in-person gathering to network with like-minded people and galvanise us into action. But next time I’m in Sydney, I think I’ll stay somewhere with functioning windows. And maybe a door.

‘Just’ a librarian

Today I read of the 130th birthday of the Central Library in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Disappointingly, it included this line from a branch manager:

“No longer are we just librarians. We do event planning, we are IT experts, and we are counsellors as well,” she says.

The branch manager interviewed in this story has worked in libraries for 27 years—so, as long as I’ve been alive. A certain generation gap is therefore expected. But I was bitterly disappointed to read her description of the librarians she leads.

We are not event planners. We are not IT experts. We are certainly not counsellors. We are not trained—or paid—to be these things. There are other people who are professionals in these areas. It is dishonest to represent ourselves to the public as something we’re not. Social workers in libraries are not a new idea. If your library gets a lot of queries that a social worker would be best-placed to answer… why not hire one? Why not make space? Why do librarians feel the need to be what we’re not? Why aren’t we good enough for ourselves? How would we feel if other professions borrowed the term ‘librarian’ and added it to their description because they have a shelf of books in their office?

I bristle at the suggestion that being a librarian is somehow not good enough. Being information conductors, book recommenders, storytime leaders, metadata stewards… these are good things to be. I am a cataloguer. And proud of it. I am not an event planner, or an IT expert, or a counsellor. When I sit at the circ desk I remain none of those things, even if patrons ask me questions that might require those skills.

By positing ourselves as ‘more than just librarians’, we implicitly devalue our skills and experience as library workers. Skills which, we keep hearing, are vital in our age of declining public information literacy and plummeting trust in politicians and the press. It also narrows the perception of what a librarian can or should be, as if library work and library skills can’t grow or adapt in line with the communities we serve. As if community outreach, fixing printers, or sensitive reference queries aren’t already part of the librarian skillset.

I didn’t sign up for a postgraduate degree in self-loathing. If this profession can’t learn to value itself, then I want no part of it.

I am proud to be a librarian. It’s taken me a while to be able to say that again, but I know there’s nothing else I would rather be. I know what skills I can offer the public, and where my limits are. Most importantly, I know when to refer a patron to someone better able to help. I don’t pretend to be something else. I am not ‘just’ a librarian. I am a librarian. With all the skills and knowledge that entails.

Being a librarian is good enough for me. It ought to be good enough for all of us.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 2

Here’s another completely irregular roundup of some cool online things I’ve been reading recently. I haven’t taken any trains anywhere, but I have been unwell a lot, which leaves plenty of time for reading and introspection. This collection of pocket detritus has a more techy flavour.

Ethira / Amalia Ulman, Net Art Anthology
Like Twitter, but with more void. Part of Rhizome‘s fantastic Net Art Anthology series, bringing defunct works of mobile and net art back to the living internet, Ethira (2013-2014) was an artist’s book contained in an iOS app—a social network where users could post completely anonymous messages, which vanished shortly afterwards. I love its anti-capitalist ethos, freeing users from the tyanny of their online selves, and relieving them of any ability to archive their experiences on the platform. I wish Ethira had not met the same fate as the messages it transmitted. I think I’d get a lot of use out of it.

How to Build a Low-Tech Website? / Kris De Decker, Low←Tech Magazine
Speaking of the living internet: we tend to forget just how bad modern computing is for the planet. Global network infrastructures use insane amounts of energy, with more and more of our computing moving to cloud-based interfaces. We have it in our heads that doing things electronically is better for our environment because it ‘saves paper’, yet we don’t think about the energy and materials required to build that electronic infrastructure.

This piece from Low←Tech Magazine discusses their efforts to move to a solar-powered web server (so the site may go offline if it’s raining in Barcelona) and to reduce the site’s carbon footprint by way of static-site generators and dithered images. It’s absolutely brilliant. It consciously puts its money where its mouth is (getting rid of Google Adsense was another energy-saving decision). But it also wrenches the site back from the endless void of cyberspace and firmly plants it in an earth-based space and time, resituating the virtual in the physical, and reminding the user that there is always an environmental cost to computing.

I’m reminded of my own failed attempts to move this site off WordPress and onto something more static (and hence sustainable). It doesn’t help that I learned all my web development skills from issues of Double Helix magazine when I was ten.

Announcing Get It to Te Papa: our televised quest to get under-appreciated Kiwi treasures into the national museum / Hayden Donnell, The Spinoff
When Aotearoa New Zealand journalist Hayden Donnell watched politician Steven Joyce get hit in the face with a sex toy, his first thought was, naturally, ‘That needs to be in Te Papa’, the country’s national museum. (Perhaps he was thinking #AllMuseumsAreSexMuseums?) Fast foward a couple of years and Donnell now has a TV series where he tries to accomplish exactly that, plus a few other cheerfully kitsch Kiwi treasures. His incredible zeal for hunting down cultural artefacts is infectious (who doesn’t love a ‘fully-fledged Te Papa truther’?), but I especially loved that the items he craved were meaningful to, and cherished by, ordinary people—not items of high art or distant culture. Keen to watch this one day.

A Culture of ‘No’ / Nicole Eva, Journal of New Librarianship (via @clareifications)
I’ve never been one to take ‘no’ for an answer. Sadly, it’s an answer libraries hear—and give—all too frequently, usually for the wrong reasons. This fantastic article discusses academic libraries in particular and why they’re so keen to say ‘no’ to things. The author suspects it’s due to the kind of people who wind up in libraries in the first place, and frankly I’m inclined to agree. Despite the occasional eruption of socialist fury, we remain at heart a conservative profession, preferring steadiness and continuity over the kind of change that might just save our jobs. Nicole Eva’s palpable frustration has gifted us a whole article’s worth of pull quotes. I think I’ll be reading this again.

is death for WEB sites as us / Olia Lialina, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age
Remember Geocities? The beautiful, horrifying, free web hosting service where good taste and good web design went to die? It took until 2009 for Geocities to finally die, but in 2002 a series of deeply unpopular site decisions by its new owners Yahoo! caused hordes of angry <marquee> users and GIF enthusiasts to pack up and move elsewhere on the web. Drawing from the terabyte of Geocities data rescued by Archive Team and seeded on BitTorrent, net artist Olia Lialina (also featured on Net Art Anthology with her seminal 1996 work ‘My boyfriend came back from the war‘) illustrates how early web users fiercely defended their idiosyncratic online spaces, in the face of demands for conformity.

The archaeology of (flash) memory / Gabriel Moshenska, Post-Medieval Archaeology
Not open-access (but accessible remotely with an NLA library card) is this fascinating tale of a 2009-era USB stick buried at the edge of a school oval and unearthed three years later as part of landscaping works. Using archaeological methods, the author and team studied the USB stick and retrieved its contents, which included schoolwork files, music and videos, suggesting it belonged to a local schoolboy. This kind of digital archaeology will be familiar to most digital preservation professionals, but may well be new to researchers in other disciplines.

Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals / Madison Sullivan, ACRLog
I missed this brilliant piece in 2016, and I don’t want you to miss it either. Besides, it’s completely true. A lot of professionals are crackpots. People who go around demanding performative ‘professionalism’ but who are in fact contributing to isolating and toxic workplaces, where people feel unsafe to bring their whole selves to work. There ought to be no place for this in modern librarianship—we’re meant to all be in this together. Madison unfairly copped a lot of crap from librarians when this was first published, and sadly I can see why. I also see a lot of myself in this post, both the old and the new. I’m probably not the most professional librarian floating around, but I was, and still hope to be, one of those people ‘who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change’. Because deep down, I still think librarianship is something worth doing. I hope you do, too.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

An entitlement to knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back yourself (or, Five things I accomplished in 2017)

In the absence of any collaborative material to write about for GLAM Blog Club (sorry), my thoughts turned to a year in review post. My 2017 was, like many people’s (and the planet’s), a year of extremes. Lots of really good things happened to me. Lots of really awful things happened to me. I can only hope I learned from the bad and made the most of the good. I learned a lot this year, but most of those lessons essentially boiled down to one thing: Back yourself.

This doesn’t mean ‘I’m always right’ or ‘I am untouchable’. I spent a lot of this year questioning my judgment, which admittedly in parts was fairly terrible. It’s more along the lines of ‘Think things through, come to a position on something and own it, and if you change your mind, own that too’. It also means ‘Know your own worth—don’t listen to those who don’t value you’.

I’m finishing the year in a very different position from when I started it. It’s slightly mind-boggling just how much I accomplished in 2017. Below is a brief overview:

  • New job! I quit my (permanent) job as a local history librarian and took up a new (temporary) gig as a tech services officer in a law library. Wait, what?! Most new grads would give their right arms for a permanent gig, and here I am giving mine away!? It sounds crazy on paper, especially because I know very little about law, but I’m confident it was the right decision for me. Time will tell whether I can parlay that into other opportunities.
  • So much networking! For an introvert with no social skills and an intermittent anxiety disorder, I sure went to a lot of stuff this year. I attended NLS8, VALA Tech Camp, the NSLA digipres forum, local ALIA SNGG events, a newCardigan meetup and much more. I met loads of people (many of whom, disconcertingly enough, already knew who I was!). I tweeted my little heart out. I have over 700 followers! How the heck did that happen?
  • Lots of writing! I wrote 18 blog posts in 2017, including eight for GLAM Blog Club, an excellent initiative from newCardigan. My two favourite blog posts this year were ‘Cò mise? = Who am I?’ and ‘How to catalogue a beer can’. I also wrote two pieces for professional journals, both of which are slated for publication in the new year. (Don’t worry, I’ll be telling everybody when they’re out!)
  • Almost a degree! I finally finished all the coursework for my MIS, but couldn’t quite make the professional placement happen. If anyone wants me in their library or GLAM institution for free for three weeks, or alternatively knows someone in Scotland who wants some free labour from a neach-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig, hit me up 🙂
  • Speaking up! In September, I wrote an open letter to the ALIA Board of Directors regarding their public position on marriage equality, after sustained lobbying from NGAC and others. I’m not much of a public letter-writer and I usually keep my political opinions off the internet, but this time I decided to speak up for a cause that mattered to me. It was my first real experience of advocacy within LIS. I’d like to think it made a bit of a difference.

If nothing else, 2017 has been a year of intense personal growth. Professionally and personally, I’m determined to start 2018 in a better place.

I’m determined to back myself.

2017: the year of learning dangerously

I have a lot to get done this year. I’d like to graduate at some point, I’m drowning in work (as usual) and my house is a tip, but there are plenty of broader goals to set. I’m pleased that #GLAMblogclub is now a thing and look forward to the benefits it will bring to the local GLAM blogging industry.

The below is essentially a public to-do list for myself. I hope to be productive enough to actually tick these off in December, which would be most satisfying.

Improve my digital skills

For all my fascination with digital preservation, digital archiving and digital librarianship, my skills in this area are sadly deficient. There’s a lot I don’t know and a lot I’m having to teach myself. Learning on the job is fun, but I know I need to up my game.

I’ve resolved to learn SQL this year, largely because it would be directly relevant to my job—there’s a lot of metadata work in my future and being able to craft my own queries would be very useful. A friend has expressed interest in taking a Python class, so we’ll see if that leads somewhere. I know I’ll have to bite the bullet and get a new computer this year, so perhaps I’ll be brave enough to take the plunge and install Ubuntu.

I’m also hoping to improve my command line skills to be able to do more fun web archiving things, as well as take advantage of the incredible tools at Documenting the Now and the Programming Historian.

Reconnect with long-form writing, which is worth paying for

I have a terrible habit the Japanese call 積ん読 [tsundoku], acquiring books and then not reading them. I am surrounded by books I bought, snaffled, borrowed from the library and was given as gifts. Strictly speaking I have plenty of time to read them, but I usually end up doing things that require a shorter attention span.

This year, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. As I write this, my desk holds no fewer than eleven thirteen unread books (plus two unwatched DVDs and one unheard album). I’m going to try reading at least two books a month, one at a time. Right now I’ve just begun reading Sisters of the revolution: a feminist speculative fiction anthology, which is comprised of bite-size chunks I can happily digest. I generally don’t read fiction very often, but I’m enjoying this book.

In addition, I intend to get my journal subscriptions in order. Open-access publishing is truly revolutionary and I am grateful for such excellent OA LIS journals as Weave, code4lib, Practical Technology for Archives and the Journal of New Librarianship (neatly syndicated by, among other handles, @OALISjrnls). However, I am firmly of the belief that good writing is worth paying for, and that people should not feel obliged to contribute their labour for free. To that end, I’d like to subscribe to a couple of long-form print journals this year. I’m not sure what yet. Something considered, something literary, something thoughtful. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Get some perspective

One of the hallmarks of our era is the modern human’s inability, generally speaking, to see things from another’s point of view. Social media (especially Facebook) excels at crafting a world where the news is just as you’d like it, full of stories it hopes you find agreeable. No longer are we assured that our family, friends and colleagues are all reading the same news (if they read the news at all); nor can we be sure that what they do read has any truth to it. The truth of a story appears, for all intents and purposes, to be less important than the emotions it might cause. My profession is reeling from the apparent common disregard for verifiable information and considered thought.

Like most people, I’m quite accomplished at avoiding news I don’t want to hear. On one hand, I consider it a duty of my profession to be well-informed about the world; on the other, moving to a remote Scottish island is looking more and more attractive (and it’s not just for the climate). This makes for a comfortable existence. It’s gotta stop.

I lead a privileged life: doing a job I love, in a country led by someone who is not a far-right nationalist, with all the food, shelter and self-actualisation I could want. Most humans are not nearly as fortunate as I am. Consequently, I have a particular set of views about most issues. I’m learning the hard way that a lot of people see the world very differently from how I see it. I cannot hope to influence that which I do not understand—so I’d better start trying to see things from the other side. (I don’t yet have a metric by which I might measure my progress, but I’ll think of one.)

It’s time to get some perspective. It’s time to learn dangerously.