It was intense and horrifying and miserable and lonely and exhausting. The world ended. And yet we’re still here.
I learned a lot this year. I learned that working from home is great, actually; that lockdown really isn’t that much different from my usual life, but it still sucks; that the sounds of forests are a better antidepressant than any medication; and that months after the most traumatic experience of my life it’s still so hard to say certain things out loud. I also learned that I often sound better than I feel. It still amazes me that I was able to write something as coherent as ‘The parting glass’ less than a week after leaving hospital, at the peak of the first wave, at the end of everything. I was desperate to be heard, to be known, to be cared for, to be safe. I still am. It’s a work in progress.
Among many other things I started a new job this year, thanks to my workplace’s pre-existing restructure. It’s kind of a systems librarian role, lots of data maintenance, gathering, querying, harmonisation. A new role in an old team, but I have been made so warmly welcome it’s like I’ve been there for years. I’m pleased that this work is being resourced (though I wish it weren’t at the expense of other areas). Quiet, routine, meaningful, honourable work, in the Maintainers tradition. The work that keeps everyone else working, though it’s hardly ‘essential’ in pandemic terms, and is 100% doable from home. I found myself drawing on the white paper ‘Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care’, embodying its values into my work.
I see my new role as a caretaker, a systems janitor, a data maintainer. My job is to nurture our data systems, help them grow, water them, prune them, compost them at an appropriate time. Our ILS is 17 years old and desperately needs replacing. We’ll take care of it as much as we can, while planning a new system that might flower for longer, and make better use of resources.
I love this job so much partly because I now get to work with some really excellent people, but also largely because this team are far better anchored in the bigger work of the library. Being a traditional cataloguer meant I had a very narrowly focused view of metadata. I dealt with records at the micro level, one item at a time, with little to no ability to see the bigger picture. It wasn’t that I couldn’t personally see it; rather, my job and team structure lacked that oversight. But now my role deals with metadata at the macro level, many thousands of records at once, where the system shapes our view. I find it deeply grounding as a metadata professional, seeing the ebb and flow of data, how it can help tell a greater story, how what we don’t record often says as much about an item, and about us, as what we do record. I’m hopeful we can make space for some work on identifying systemic biases in our metadata; our cataloguing policies mandate the use of AIATSIS headings and AUSTLANG codes for First Nations materials, but is that actually happening? How comprehensive is that data corpus?
I’m acutely mindful of not wanting to use these powers to dump on our put-upon cataloguers who already have loads of people telling them what to do and minimal agency over how they do it. Trust me, I used to be one of them. I don’t want to reinforce that cycle. I would much prefer to work with cataloguers and their supervisors to show them the big-picture insight that I didn’t have, to empower them to select the right vocabs for the right material, and to record what needs recording. In data, as in horticulture, many hands make light work.
I might have become a caretaker at work, but this year we were all also caretakers of each other. Taking care as well as giving care. It intrigues me that ‘caretaker’ and ‘caregiver’ mean broadly the same thing: the former is more detached, as if tending to a thing or an inanimate object, while the latter is closer, more familial: a responsible adult. To ‘take care’ means to look after oneself, while being a ‘caretaker’ means looking after something else. I am thankful to those who cared for me during my darkest hours. I have drawn great strength from the care of close friends, for whom my gratitude is everlasting. Without you I would not be here.
It’s safe to say my professional responsibilities took a back seat this year. I hope next year to get the ALIA ACORD comms up and running, complete some work for the VALA Committee, and sort out whatever else I said yes to. (Honestly I’ve completely forgotten.) I did give one talk this year, a presentation on critlib for the ANZTLA. I hope it can help grow some new conversations in the theological library sector.
In 2020 I somehow wrote 15 blog posts, including five for GLAM Blog Club. Usually I’d note my favourite post of the year, but honestly writing anything was so difficult that I’m nominating them all. I think ‘The martyr complex’ hit a nerve, though. I despair for library workers overseas, still having to open their doors to the public in manifestly unsafe conditions. Apparently CILIP CEO Nick Poole has been reading this blog, so if you see this, Mr Poole, you must call for the urgent closure of all public libraries in Tier 4. Nobody ever died from not having a book to read.
I’m saying this out loud because I need to, as much as I want to: next year I am absolutely doing less library professional busywork. It has to stop. I know I’ve said this before—my goal for 2020 was ‘to do less while doing better’ and look how that panned out—but I actually am gonna do it now. I need less of all this in my life. Less computers. More nature. Less doomscrolling. More reading. Less zooming. More walking. Less horror. More consciousness. Less overwhelm. More saying no to things. Please don’t take it to heart if you hear me say no a bit more next year. It’s not you, it’s me.
In part I can promise these good things to myself because I live in a city that currently has one covid case. One. A single one. Life is relatively normal here, barely anyone wears a mask (though I did get yelled at by an old man the other day for not keeping 1.5 metres away from him… on a bus). I have mental space for this stuff in a way the northern hemisphere does not. In some ways it feels like living in a postmodern remake of On the Beach, but as difficult as my life is right now, it could all have been so much worse.
The pandemic accelerated social changes I had already seen coming. I had long ago vowed to live a smaller life. I gave up flying almost three years ago for climate reasons, deciding instead to explore my own country, understand more deeply my own city and surroundings, while trying to detach myself from endless grim horrors abroad. I am powerless to help and can only absorb so much. I am needed here. I can do good here, now, in this place, in this time.
Logically I know my good fortune, but my brain persists in telling me otherwise. I was already very unwell at the start of this year; in many ways the coronavirus outbreak was the final straw. This time last year I was having a panic attack in a friend’s backyard. This time nine months ago I was being admitted to the psych ward. My illness was life-threatening. I did not expect to see Christmas.
To the extent I have any goals for next year—other than continuing to not die—I hope to do more of the things I enjoy, rather than reading about them in books. Books have long been my way of making sense of the world; according to my mother I learned to read at the age of 2 1/2 and would happy babble away reading the newspaper (sometimes I even understood it, too). Books make sense in a way people never have. Books are solid, portable, dependable, usually upfront about things, and even if they’re not it can occasionally be fun to decode or divine their real meaning. Books generally have a point. People often have no point and are seldom upfront about things. It makes life deeply frustrating.
Another book I acquired just before lockdown was Lucy Jones’ Losing Eden: how our minds need the wild. It’s still in a moving box, stored away due to lack of shelf space. But I’m sure the author would be just as happy if people took her message to heart and ventured outside a bit more anyway. I couldn’t face it during April, when going outside was dumb and illegal, but perhaps this coming year, in my suspiciously covid-free paradise, would be a good time to revisit.
My goal is not to lessen my reading. I didn’t finish a single book this year. And that’s okay because I kinda had bigger things to deal with. But instead of reading about the delights of nature, I think I would prefer to experience them myself. Like many in the book professions, I have a terrible habit of buying really interesting-looking books, placing them on a shelf, and then acting as if I have read them and absorbed their wisdom by osmosis. I would like to read more, but I would also like to go outside more, walk more, take flower photos more, cycle more, do the things instead of reading about them. I hope to take care of myself. I hope to take care of others. I hope others might still take care of me.
This is the prepared transcript of ‘Knowledge is power: an introduction to critical librarianship’, a talk I was invited to give at a professional development day for the NSW branch of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association (ANZTLA). It was my first time delivering a virtual talk, which I found a lot less stressful than doing a regular talk because there’s no roomful of people creating a tense atmosphere. The Q&A was great and overall it was a really nice experience.
You will note that this is a very gentle talk. I was acutely aware that for a lot of attendees I represented their first experience of critlib theory and practice; a search of the literature for ‘critical librarianship’ and ‘theological libraries’ brought up precisely zero results, which strongly suggests to me that critlib isn’t (yet) a thing in this sector. I wrote this talk for a very particular audience. I tried to meet them where they are by using rather less fiery rhetoric than I’m known for, in an effort to ameliorate, rather than alienate. It’s broadly based on the article ‘Recognising critical librarianship’, which I wrote for inCite in January. I hope I could help kickstart some new conversations for theological librarians.
Thank you all for having me. It’s an honour to be invited to speak today. I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands we’re meeting on, and in particular the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, custodians of the land I live and work on, which we now know as Canberra. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who have joined us today.
My name is Alissa McCulloch and I believe that knowledge is power. The knowledge held by libraries, and distributed through the work of librarians like yourselves, can empower our users to do incredible things.
But knowledge, much like power, is not evenly distributed. Librarianship is steeped in tradition, but those traditions aren’t all worth keeping. The structure of librarianship can work to exclude, marginalise and harm people even before they’ve walked in the door. We like to think of libraries as spaces where everyone is welcome. But not everyone is made welcome in a library. What can we do about that?
We can start by exploring something called critical librarianship. You might also hear this referred to as #critlib. Applying a different ethical lens to the work we do every day. Doing things differently, in order to do them better.
Before I go on, I do need to emphasise that this talk represents solely my own opinions. These views are all mine and definitely not my employer’s! (But I think they’re pretty good views, so you know what, maybe they should be.)
The term ‘critical librarianship’ has come to describe two related but distinct approaches to library work. The first is the idea of ‘bringing social justice to library work’, or, How might libraries advance social justice issues, or achieve social justice goals? How can we make librarianship fairer, more accessible, and more equal to all our users?
Throughout this talk I’ll use the words ‘librarian’ and ‘library worker’ interchangeably: critical librarianship applies to, and can be practised by, everyone who works in libraries.
In other words: it’s one thing to advocate for social justice in libraries, but it’s quite another to think about where and why is there social injustice in libraries in the first place.
Overdue fines, for instance. We’ve been fining people forever as an incentive to get them to return their books on time. We kept doing it because we thought it was effective, but it turns out the evidence for this is ambivalent at best. More importantly, in many cases fines can actively deter people from wanting to use the library, particularly low-income people who might already have racked up a heap of fines they can’t repay, or are scared of doing so (or their children doing so by accident). The kinds of people who can least afford to pay library fines are often the kinds of people the library most wants to attract—people who may also have lower literacy levels, who have small children, who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and (in academic libraries at least) people who might be first-in-family to attend university, or who might otherwise be struggling academically. Library fines are a social justice issue. It’s great that many public libraries have gotten rid of library fines, but I’m not so sure that many academic and research libraries have followed in their stead.
Much as we might like to sometimes, as librarians we can’t fix everything. We can’t solve these kinds of systemic injustices out there in the world. We can’t address the factors that contribute to library users being unable to pay their library fines. But we can do something about how those injustices manifest in the library. We can counteract that here, in this space that we maintain, in this time that we have. (We can do that by getting rid of library fines in the first place.)
Let’s come now to some key tenets of critical librarianship, which include:
Bringing progressive values to professional practice—using libraries and library work to build a more equal and just society, and to actively address systemic harms as they manifest in the library (so things like systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and so on).
Part of this means actively questioning existing library structures, standards and workflows, and doing so through a particular ethical lens. Not just going ‘why do we do that thing’ or ‘how can we do this better’, which should be a normal part of good library practice, but ‘who does this harm’ or ‘whose interests are best served by us doing this thing’?
Being a librarian doesn’t automatically make us better or more virtuous people. It just means we get paid to help people find stuff. It’s not a calling. It’s not the priesthood. It’s just a job. (But it’s a job worth doing well, and in some respects worth doing differently)
There is no such thing as library neutrality—libraries are not, and cannot be, neutral. The core business of librarianship involves making a lot of moral and ethical decisions, such as ‘do we buy this book’ or ‘do we let this group use a meeting room’ or ‘do we pay this vendor this amount of money’. Those decisions are made in line with a given set of values. Not making a decision is a value choice. Trying to present ‘both sides’ of a given issue is also a value choice. I might disagree with a lot of traditional library values, but they are not the bastions of righteous neutrality they claim to be. Critlib values are a bit more upfront about this fact.
Traditional library values, like the ones you and I were taught in library school, place a high premium on things like intellectual freedom and Western liberalism. We say we’re not just about books anymore, but libraries are a key part of a book-based knowledge system. For the most part, the knowledge we store and deliver, and the knowledge we tend to trust, is stuff that’s been written down, and a traditional library is a building where that written-down knowledge is kept and safeguarded.
Critical library values, on the other hand, focus on things like harm reduction (which I’ll come back to a bit later) and progressive, socialist values (which you might think of as being a bit ‘left-wing’ but I don’t think the left wing–right wing dichotomy is terribly useful these days). Critical librarianship recognises the validity and deep importance of Indigenous and other non-Western knowledge systems, that oral histories and Dreaming stories are valid sources of truth and knowledge, just as much as books. I’ll never forget Jacinta Koolmatrie, an Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri woman, teaching her audience at the New Librarians’ Symposium last year that for Aboriginal people, the land is their library, that knowledge and wisdom inheres in the landscape, and it deserves our care and protection in the same way libraries do. The recent loss of Djab Wurrung sacred Directions trees east of Ararat in Victoria is just as great a cultural loss as the destruction of a library.
Sometimes people can misinterpret the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical librarianship’, and think that we’re all just about having a big whinge, or that it’s a professional excuse to be rude or disparaging about library work. And I just want to make clear that that’s not what we’re about.
It’s about making the profession better by recognising harmful practices and oppressive structures, dismantling those things and building better ones in their stead. It’s about leaving the profession in a better state than when we found it. We critique because we care. I have a lot of feelings about librarianship! And I care very deeply about what I do. If people didn’t care so deeply about the profession, we wouldn’t be spending all this energy on making all this noise and doing all this work.
Over the next few slides I’ll take you through some of the ways critical librarianship intersects with my work. I’ve spent my career largely in back-of-house roles, what you might traditionally call ‘technical services’, so things like collection development, cataloguing, and my newest role in library systems. Naturally critlib happens front-of-house too! And there is quite a lot of literature on critical reference and critical information literacy. But I’ll leave that analysis to others.
Critlib comes up most often, and is probably most immediately visible, in the realm of collection development and acquisitions—looking at the materials your library collects and provides. Think for a moment about who your library collects. Are the bulk of your materials written or created by old white guys? Now I get that in a theological library, the answer is likely to be yes. Think about how many of your materials are written or created by women? People of colour? Indigenous people? Queer people? Disabled people? Combinations thereof? It’s not just about a variety of theoretical or academic views, and it’s also not about collecting other voices for the sake of it. It’s about making different perspectives and life experiences visible in your library’s collection. It sends a message that the library doesn’t just belong to old white guys—that it belongs to all whose views and life experiences are included here.
It’s one thing to have materials representing the diversity of human experience, but it also matters what those materials say. It’s no good having materials about Indigenous issues that were all written by white people thirty years ago, or things about homosexuality written by straight people who deny our humanity. The adage of ‘nothing about us without us’ holds especially true.
Theological libraries are naturally quite specialised and so you’re unlikely to be collecting material that doesn’t fit your collection development policy. A book on landscape architecture or whale-watching might be very interesting, but not relevant to the work of your institution. If you choose not to purchase it, it’s not censorship. It’s a curatorial decision. Whale-watching’s not in the CDP.
Similarly, a public library (in my view) should not feel obliged to purchase a copy of a text by a far-right provocateur if they feel that doing so would not be in their community’s best interests, or would cause demonstrable harm. They’re not denying their community the ability to read the book—they’re simply choosing not to stock it. In this instance, they’re applying the concept of harm minimisation to library collection development, prioritising community wellbeing and cohesion over the intellectual freedom of an individual. This situation might be different in an academic library, where they may feel the research value of such a book outweighs the potential harm it could cause. Potentially this decision could be contextualised in the book’s catalogue record, which I’ll come to in a second. But these are individual curatorial decisions for each library. They are made in accordance with that library’s values, and they are certainly not neutral.
Now, you might hear this and go ‘well how is that any different to, say, a parent demanding a school or public library remove a picture book about gay parents, claiming it is harming their child’? How is that different to the library I’ve just described deciding to remove, or not purchase, a hateful rant by a far-right author? Besides, shouldn’t we be trying to present ‘both sides’ of an issue, for balance? My answer to this is: by retaining the book about gay parents we are affirming their humanity and place in society; we recognise that they are not seeking to harm anyone just by existing; and we are validating their story. By not purchasing the far-right book we are doing the opposite; we are choosing not to do those things. We’re not censoring the book—we’re just not validating it. False balance is harmful and does our users a deep disservice. That’s a values decision, and if it were up to me it’s one I would stand by.
Or, put slightly differently… ‘something to offend everyone’ is not a collection development policy.
Until last week I was a full-time cataloguer, so critical cataloguing and metadata is kind of my speciality. I’m endlessly fascinated by how libraries describe and arrange their collections, whether it be on a shelf or on a screen.
As many of you will likely be aware, the religion section of the Dewey Decimal Classification has traditionally allocated quite a lot of space to Christianity and comparatively little space to other religions. You may be interested to know that the editors recently released an optional alternative arrangement for the 200s, which attempts to address some of these structural biases and make the distribution of religions a little more equitable.
Dewey has also historically copped a lot of flak for classifying works on Indigenous and First Nations spirituality, including Dreaming and creation stories, as ‘folk tales’ in 398.2 and not in the religion section. Dewey itself has instructed since about the mid-90s that such works should be considered religious, and classified as such. The fact this grievance has persisted for so long suggests a pattern of unconscious bias on the part of the cataloguer—they might not have recognised Indigenous spirituality as a ‘religion’ in the Western sense, and so didn’t classify this stuff there. But this lack of recognition is very obvious to Indigenous people, and it matters.
By the way, has anyone ever thought about how weird it is that we use Library of Congress Subject Headings? Like, we’re not the Library of Congress, we’re not Americans, we’re not government librarians, but we use their vocabulary and we inherit their biases. We do this mostly out of convenience and because it’s more efficient to use somebody else’s record, but I often wonder how useful or meaningful this language is in Australian libraries. I’d love to see more widespread use of things like the AIATSIS vocabularies for Indigenous content, which are designed to reflect an Indigenous worldview, and specify—that is, give names to, and therefore surface in catalogue records—issues and concepts of importance to Indigenous Australians.
For example, consider the difference between these two headings for Indigenous Australian creation and origin stories. LCSH calls these ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’, while AIATSIS uses the faceted term ‘Religion — Dreaming’. Now, neither of these terms is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but while the LCSH term is pretty clearly from a Western perspective classifying these stories as mythology and not religion, the AIATSIS term does the opposite, in line with Indigenous conceptions of their lore, and recognising their right to describe their culture their way. Using these terms in a library catalogue sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more culturally safe place for Indigenous people. 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. And in my opinion, it’s also the least we can do.
While researching this talk I was really struck by how so many of these historical biases would have traditionally really suited theological libraries—lots of classification real estate for Christianity, detailed LCSH subdivisions for the heading ‘Jesus Christ’, and so on. But I don’t work in a theological library, and I don’t know if that still holds or not.
This week I’ve actually started a new job as a systems librarian, so I’m particularly interested in this facet of critical librarianship. We might not immediately think of systems as being particularly problematic, but systems reflect the biases and perspectives of the people who build them, and to a lesser extent those of people who buy them.
For example, most library catalogues and discovery systems will allow you to rank results based on ‘relevance’. How, exactly, does the system determine what is relevant? How much potential is there for bias in those search results, either because your metadata is incomplete, outdated or otherwise unhelpful; because your system autocompletes what other people search for, and people search for really racist and awful things; or because your system vendor also owns one of the publishers whose content it aggregates, and it suits them to bump that content that they own up the rankings a bit? This happens, believe it or not—there’s a whole book on this topic called ‘Masked by Trust: Bias in Library Discovery’ by Matthew Reidsma, which is excellent (and also sitting in a moving box behind me).
We could also consider the kinds of data that library systems ask for and keep about people. When you sign up new users to the library, which fields are compulsory? Do they have to specify their gender, for instance? Why does the library need to know this about somebody in order to loan them books? What kind of data are we keeping about the books people borrow, their circulation history? How long do we keep it for? Who has access to it? Would we have to give that data to the police if they asked, or had a warrant? (If we didn’t keep that data, we couldn’t then give it to the police, hey.) Is your system vendor quietly siphoning off that circulation data in the background to feed it to their book recommendation algorithm? Do we want them to do that? My local public library actually does this and I really wish they didn’t, to be honest, it makes me very uncomfortable, and frankly it makes me not want to go there.
We want our library systems to have the same kinds of values that we have as people. But more often than not libraries end up functioning in ways that suit our systems. To me, that seems a bit backward. I firmly believe that systems should work for people, not the other way around.
To me, this sentiment lies at the heart of critical librarianship. So much of this discourse gets tied up in misunderstandings over whether libraries are, or should be, political. You’ll notice I’ve avoided using the word ‘political’ in this talk for this reason, because people interpret the question of whether libraries should be political to mean ‘supporting one political party over another’ or ‘supporting the activities of government’, and that’s not what critlib means. Everything I’ve outlined today is a political act. Many of them are progressive acts. But they are not partisan acts. They are acts that are conscious of the power they wield, and consciously try to direct that power in support of building libraries that better reflect and support the communities they serve. These acts are steeped in an ethic of care. Libraries do not exist in a moral and political vacuum. We are part of society, too. And we as library workers can do our bit to help make our society better.
It has taken a very long time for organisations like ALA to come to this party. I have lost almost all hope that ALIA will ever show up, but we will welcome them when they do. There’s a lot of work ahead. Let’s get started.
I’ve been thinking about this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme (‘invalid’) all month, though as usual I’m writing this post with hours to spare. ‘Invalid’ is one of those neat words with two pronunciations and two different, but related, meanings. ˈɪnvəlɪd. ɪnˈvalɪd. Which to write about? This year I’ve been both, but together they characterise something else: a lack of agency.
Events of this cursed year have robbed us of our agency: collectively isolated, forbidden by law to leave home unless for a specified purpose, unable to live our lives in ways we might ourselves choose. These events didn’t necessarily invalidate us, but they did invalid a lot of us, directly and indirectly. I’ve spent almost all year being an invalid to varying degrees. I’ve needed a lot of looking after. I’ve thought a lot about the rights and abilities of the chronically ill and disabled to make decisions about our own lives. I consider myself lucky to have retained those rights when they counted, but there’s a lot I couldn’t do, and it frustrated me deeply.
My illness conspired to strip me of my agency. So did my work, in a way.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this about cataloguing. I suspect it didn’t quite catalyse until I moved roles last week, where I now work with metadata very differently. I had no control over the material I processed—being in the legal deposit business meant I catalogued whatever turned up in the post—and no control over any of the structures, systems or standards that governed my work. We’ve all heard cataloguing described as ‘glorified data entry’, yet cataloguers have virtually no say in the design of the form, or how their painstakingly-entered data is used.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t always like this. Cataloguers designed traditional catalogue cards and wrote maddeningly specific rules on how to squeeze as much information as possible on a three-by-five-inch index card. Cataloguers devised added entries and filing rules. From this angle, it feels like the cataloguers of yesteryear had far greater agency over their work. Cataloguing rules were still necessary (and strictly enforced), but there was far greater scope and possibility for local practices, as locally-produced cards weren’t often distributed beyond their immediate library. More to the point, this structural work was conducted by cataloguers themselves, and it feels as if there were more opportunities to shape cataloguing policies at various levels.
Modern library systems are very different. It feels like there is no overlap whatsoever between system designers, system developers, and system data managers. Our data formats, our descriptive standards, our implementation policies, our controlled vocabularies, our classification systems: none of these are up to us. The advent of library automation in the latter half of the 20th century brought computer science into libraries, and with it computer scientists and IT professionals. People, usually men, with very different ideas about data and a dislinclination to listen to those who’ve been there before. Our sphere of influence shrank as our data and systems were ruthlessly standardised—by other people, who were suddenly more ‘technical’ than we were.
You’d be forgiven for guffawing slightly at this point, muttering something about cataloguers being on a power trip. Certainly the stereotype of cataloguers as rules-obsessed authority control freaks has some merit behind it. But I’ve come to understand that many cataloguers are like this because it’s just about the only aspect of their work that they can control. For many people, blindly enforcing cataloguing rules with scant regard for local sensitivities is the only agency they have left.
Contemporary cataloguing practice is characterised by a lack of influence over what data to record, how that data is processed and displayed, and the extent to which that data is shared. It doesn’t invalidate our data, but it does call into question how cataloguers can best fulfil their professional responsibilities. I want to be clear that this is a systemic problem, by no means unique to me and my career history. But I do wonder if other metadata librarians feel this as keenly as I have. Do others chafe against a monolithic metadata enterprise over which they have zero control? Does the supposed interoperability of our data instead consign it to irrelevance? Does our drive for efficiency compromise our values? Would our libraries be better if library workers had greater control over their data systems?
I’m lucky to be in a better place now. My new job grants me considerable agency, my health continues to gradually improve, and my bad days now are still better than my good days three months ago. But I’ve been an ˈɪnvəlɪd, an ill person, working with ɪnˈvalɪd data, which didn’t fit the system. For much of this year I had almost no agency in either my personal or professional life. It’s hard to live like that. I hope not to make a habit of it, but there’s a lot beyond my control.
Yeah, I know the deadline for submissions to the ALIA Future of LIS Education discussion paper was two days ago. I’ve been all of the usual things: busy, stressed, unwell, preparing to move house and reapplying for my own job in the same week. Small fry, really. I also coordinated a submission in my capacity as Information Officer for ACORD, the ALIA Community on Resource Description, which focused on matters of interest to the Australian cataloguing and metadata sector. But a few bigger thoughts kept gnawing at me, and I decided to write them up anyway now that I have a sliver of brainspace, for general consumption as well as for ALIA’s attention. These views are, as always, solely my own.
I’ll admit to not having been privy to a lot of the professional conversation on this topic, but much of what I did hear focused on the issue of library workers having library qualifications (or not). Most job ads I see these days ask for an ALIA-recognised qualification or equivalent experience. Employers are already recognising the many paths people take to a library career, but they’re also recognising that eligibility for Associate membership doesn’t really mean very much. Of the four libraries I’ve worked in, only one specifically said I needed to have a library degree. I didn’t have a library degree. I got the job anyway. 🤷🏻♀️
I think employers are also frustrated by library school graduates being unable to meet the immediate needs of contemporary libraries. The skills employers need are not the skills educators are teaching; I graduated two years ago and recall being very surprised by the chasm between what I was taught and what I was seeing with my own eyes at work.1 Our sector benefits hugely from the diverse educational backgrounds of its workers, be they graduates of university, TAFE, or the school of hard knocks.
This issue cuts both ways, however: I’ve written before on the ‘price of entry’ to the LIS field, where librarianship remains on the Government’s skills shortage list despite an apparent surplus of graduates. Employers say they want ‘job-ready’ grads, but what I suspect they really want is to not have to train people in the specialities of a particular role, especially as entry-level positions continue to disappear. At the same time, though, a comprehensive LIS education has a duty to balance employable skills with a solid theoretical grounding—in other words, to learn what to do, as well as why to do it. It can’t be solely about ‘what employers want’, otherwise our moribund industry would truly never change.
This comment on page 10 of the discussion paper was… uh, quite something:
During our discussions, there were different perspectives on the division between Librarians and Library Technicians. Some felt this was a necessary distinction; that Librarians should be conceptual thinkers and Library Technicians should have the technical expertise, for example with resource description and technology devices.
This distinction is hogwash. Our sector desperately needs people with both these qualities, who are conceptual thinkers with technical expertise. I am a professional cataloguer with a master’s degree. For better or worse, I never went to TAFE. I learned to catalogue the long way. I firmly believe it has made me a better cataloguer, more able to question and deconstruct our hallowed bibliographic standards, to call for change and to make it happen. To state that resource description does not require conceptual thinking is offensive to the cataloguing and metadata community. The idea that information technology does not require it either is even more ludicrous.
I suspect this view is based on a public library’s operating model, where library techs help senior citizens with their iPads while librarians are the ones in charge. The job title of ‘library technician’ has strayed so far from its original meaning that nowadays it seems to mean ‘TAFE-qualified lower-paid library worker’ irrespective of job function, and sits below ‘librarian’ in a workplace’s hierarchy. The word ‘technical’ has a long and twisted meaning in LIS (and yes, I’ve written about that too), but we can safely say that most library IT work is done by people earning far more than a library technician’s wage. It’s a confusing term both inside and outside the industry, and it needs to go. So too does the hierarchy.
Anyway, back to qualifications. The discussion I’ve been seeing is predicated on the idea that the only way to be an accredited library professional (that is, a ‘librarian’ and not a ‘library technician’) is by getting an accredited library degree. Currently that’s the case in Australia. But what if I told you… there is another way?
My primary recommendation for the future of LIS education in Australia is this: I would like ALIA to consider adopting the LIANZA Registration model of professional accreditation, focussing on accrediting the individual, as well as the institution.
Prospective library professionals in Aotearoa New Zealand have three options. They can:
A) Complete a recognised New Zealand library and information qualification;
B) Complete a recognised overseas library and information qualification; or
C) ‘Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the Body of Knowledge’, along with 3 years’ professional experience, plus either a pre-2007 NZ LIS qualification, or a bachelor’s degree in any discipline.
They must also be an individual member of a recognised library association in New Zealand (LIANZA recognises six, including itself), and pay an annual fee to LIANZA.
I’m fascinated by the potential of option C). A prospective applicant need never have set foot in a LIS classroom, but if they have already demonstrated their intellectual aptitude at the undergraduate level, gained substantial experience in library work, and can map their knowledge against recognised competencies, then they can gain professional recognition equal to that bestowed upon library school graduates. In no way does it devalue the hard work of those graduates; it acknowledges that there are many paths to the same goal, and respects professional learning in all its forms. It recognises that librarianship is a profession by mandating a professional-level (i.e. university) qualification.2 Crucially, it also better reflects what’s actually happening on the ground.
LIANZA’s eleven ‘Body of Knowledge’ competencies outline the key skills and responsibilities of contemporary library and information workers, and cover the same kinds of material that would be taught in library school. Of particular importance is BoK 11, ‘Awareness of indigenous (Māori) knowledge paradigms’. Every accredited library worker in New Zealand must demonstrate this competency. This is not the case in Australia, where LIS professionals can—and do—go their entire careers without knowing a single damn thing about First Nations knowledge systems. It’s one of many reasons why our profession is white as hell. It makes the task of developing and maintaining culturally safe libraries that much harder, for First Nations library users and workers alike. It also perpetuates a knowledge monoculture, which is actually really boring. I wish more of us could recognise First Nations knowledge of the land as a kind of library.
Like ALIA membership, LIANZA Registration is optional. The closest ALIA currently gets to option C) is Allied Field membership, which is very deliberately not the same as ALIA Associate membership, and renders the former ineligible for jobs that require the latter. Presumably ALIA is trying to protect the existing higher education pathway. But that pathway is already collapsing: two days before the close of submissions to this paper (so, four days ago), word spread of RMIT’s intention to close its library school and teach out its courses. The status of information studies at Monash University hangs by a thread. Both universities have been hard hit by the aftereffects of the coronavirus pandemic, including the collapse of international student income and the ineligibility of public higher education institutions for jobkeeper. And that’s even after the massive fee hikes to HECS-eligible humanities and social sciences courses, which includes librarianship (but not teacher librarianship, which is classed as education).
Without RMIT, there would remain just four universities offering library degrees in Australia: Curtin, Monash, UniSA, and Charles Sturt. Curtin has already cut its undergraduate LIS courses. Monash could be on the way out altogether. UniSA is a bit of a dark horse. And Charles Sturt, while by far the largest library school in Australia, is not immune from cost and enrolment pressures.
The discussion paper notes wryly on page 12:
ALIA’s priority has been, and continues to be, supporting our accredited courses. However, it would be negligent for the sector not to consider a ‘Plan B’ in the event of the university system failing us.
Through little fault of its own, the university system is clearly already failing the Australian library and information sector. The time for Plan B is now. Automatically enrolling ALIA members into the PD Scheme does not go far enough. It’s time for ALIA to move to an accreditation model that better recognises, and does justice to, the diversity of educational and life experience among Australian library professionals. It would mean a bit more work for ALIA, yes, but I’d like to think it would make ALIA professional membership a more attractive and meaningful option. Let’s make ALIA Associate status more widely available to graduate library workers across disciplines, by providing an equal pathway to professional recognition that won’t break the bank.
It’s worth mentioning that I had zero library experience when I began my MIS—which I hear is not uncommon—so my first impression of library work was in the (virtual) classroom. ↩
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 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.
Irrespective of how (or even if) such workers have degrees or other professional accreditation. ↩
Man, this was three whole years ago and I’m still bitter about it. ↩
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 Journalfeatured 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.
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.
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.
This is how our library association responds to a pandemic. A poster. Predicated on libraries staying open.
I have never been so ashamed to be an ALIA member. We need leadership. We need public safety. We need library closures. And instead we get this.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.