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.
A librarian’s innate desire to help is often redirected into a desire to provide great customer service. That is, until what constitutes ‘customer service’ changes, and suddenly what some kinds of librarians do isn’t considered ‘helpful’ enough. I’m sure I had something else in mind when I suggested the theme ‘help’ for GLAM Blog Club. But one of Danielle’s tweets today set a different set of cogs in motion:
Every public library collection job I've seen, they never talk about discovery, only ever about buying. Surely the two are linked or if not should be.
Yes. You can’t manage a lending collection properly if you don’t look at how it is used. You can’t analyse how it’s used without understanding how it’s discovered. You can’t analyse how it’s discovered without understanding how it’s catalogued.
And you can't do any of these things without in-house technical and collections expertise, which so many public libraries seem to think they can outsource or eliminate (because it's not considered 'customer service') https://t.co/38J2eSPNWW
A public library director once told me to my face that he wasn’t interested in hiring cataloguers. I don’t recall exactly how he phrased his justification (though I do recall my response being ‘I’m sorry to hear that’) but he clearly conceptualised his library as a ‘customer service’ organisation, where that phrase meant ‘an exclusive focus on front-of-house activities and services’. Collection development, systems administration and cataloguing, collectively ‘technical services’ in library parlance, are not commonly viewed as opportunities for great customer service. Instead they’re seen as something that can (and should) be outsourced in the interests of ‘efficiency’.
Brisbane City Council Library Service abolished their in-house tech services department twenty years ago and, oddly, chose to present about it at the 13th National Cataloguing Conference. The library moved entirely to shelf-ready stock and turfed all their cataloguers.1 The writeup in Cataloguing Australia notes (emphasis mine):
This driver of customer service is paramount at Brisbane City Council and Library Services. All our restructuring and re-engineering has been predicated on the assumption that it will provide better customer service and responsiveness. The wider implication of no longer having a Technical Services Section is that Library Services is now solely a customer service branch. There is no longer a back room mentality, and the expectation is that staff spend 80% of their working day in direct customer service.2
To be fair, a typical late-nineties tech services department probably wasn’t all that user-focused. But I reckon it could have been, if management had chosen to imbue that customer service ethos into all areas of library administration, not just the face-to-face parts. I can see I’ll be shouting ‘CATALOGUING IS POWER’ until the day I die. I’ll never understand why so many libraries, especially public libraries, willingly throw this power away. What do we lose from ‘efficiency’? What do we lose, when we lose the people who are paid to care?
I have worked for, patronised, and otherwise dealt with far too many libraries that are not resourced to care about the integrity and usefulness of their metadata, collections or systems. These things are clearly not prioritised by decision-makers, and so they are outsourced, often with little oversight. This is not good customer service. This does not help. Having a crappy website or an unusuable catalogue sends a strong message that the only patrons the library cares about are those accessing the library in person. Has the internet taught us nothing? Have twenty-plus years of ‘everything is online now’ not compelled us to create the best online presences possible for our libraries? To curate the best online and electronic collections? To boost our SEO (search engine optimisation) using well-structured, highly detailed metadata? To develop and deploy systems that don’t make people jump through endless hoops, divulge their personal data, or give up entirely in frustration and turn to a paid competitor? Why do I know so many librarians who use Audible instead of Overdrive? Who are we really competing against?
I abhor the practice of referring to library users as ‘customers’. Customers, by definition, purchase. The library has nothing to sell. The library invites the community it serves to make use of its facilities, collections and knowledge. These services are not without cost, but they are, proudly, free to the user. In lieu of ‘customer’, I prefer the term ‘library user’ or sometimes ‘patron’. The library I work for uses ‘reader’, supposing the majority of our visitors are, in fact, here to read.
Save for the two hours a week I choose to spend on a reference desk, my job is not directly user-facing. But it is user-focused. Everything I do as a librarian, I do for my library’s users (and, through the power of co-operative cataloguing, the users of hundreds of other libraries). I don’t catalogue for the catalogue’s sake. I catalogue so people can find things. Most people will never know how my cataloguing has helped them. I’m okay with that. I don’t need to be sitting in front of a library user for my work, and my help, to be valuable.
The above-mentioned issue of Cataloguing Australia, the journal’s last, also featured a paper from the then-Customer Services Manager at CAVAL. To my surprise and absolute delight, she took a similar view to me of customer service and cataloguing:
Let me begin, as we should all begin, by looking at our customers. Even if we never see them, we should never forget who they are. […] When you are making a map of the heavens, you need to be aware of whether you are doing this for a child, an astrologer, a serious astronomer or a Star Trek fan. Each one of those maps is useless to any of the other groups. So, too, with our catalogue records. For our customers are infinitely more varied than those for star maps.3
The entire article is a joy.4 It’s full of sensible, user-focused thinking (seemingly a rarity in 1999) and it’s easily my new favourite piece of professional literature. But I’m intrigued by the fact it came from a vendor. By outsourcing so much of our technical services work, has our sector also outsourced the capacity to think of this work as inherently ‘customer’-focused? A vendor’s ‘customers’ are libraries themselves—does this change a catalogue record’s intended audience?
A tech services worker might ask ‘How can I help?’, as I so often greet people on the desk, but libraries need to be structurally capable of accepting that help, and cultivating it in-house. By reframing our conception of cataloguing as an inherently user-focused (or customer-focused) activity, libraries can ensure we’re providing the right metadata to create the right map, in order to help the right people find the right materials. After all, we’re here to help.
The author mentions ‘we now have no cataloguers on our staff’ so I guess they were either made redundant or reassigned to other, non-cataloguing duties, though two staff were put in charge of quality checking vendor records. ↩
Mackenzie, Christine. (1999). ‘The end of the world as we know it? Outsourcing at Brisbane City Council Library Service’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 184-187. ↩
Dearman, Rosemary. (1999). ‘Whose information universe? Customer services and cataloguing’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 222-231. ↩
This is the working transcript of ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’, a talk I gave at the 9th New Librarians’ Symposium in Adelaide, South Australia on Saturday 6th July 2019. I made some last-minute edits to the text and said a few things in the wrong order, but overall I pretty much stuck to script (which was very long, hence my conscious decision to talk too fast!).
Thank you. I begin by acknowledging the traditional and continuing owners of the land on which we meet, the Kaurna people, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. This land always has been, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
Library workers, students and allies, we need to talk. You’ve probably heard of this strange thing called ‘cataloguing’. You may even have met some of these strange people called ‘cataloguers’. But for many people in the library sector, that’s about all we can say. Many of us don’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk about areas of library practice that aren’t our own.
It’s not quite the talk I promised to give, but it’s a talk I think we need to have. About what this work entails, why it matters, and why you should care. Consider how, and to whom, we should start talking. Our colleagues, our supervisors, our vendors, ourselves.
My name is Alissa McCulloch. We need to talk about cataloguing.
Firstly, a bit about me. I work at a small, minor national library that shall remain nameless, because I’m not speaking on behalf of my employer today (I just need to make that very clear, these are all my opinions, not theirs). I’ve been in libraries for around four years and have had a library degree for around six months. My work life consists mostly of cataloguing whatever turns up in the post.
You may have seen or heard me talk about cataloguing ad nauseam on podcasts, on my blog, or on twitter, because I LOVE CATALOGUING and it sparks SO MUCH joy and I think it’s amazing. Suffice to say my reputation precedes me. So perhaps some of what I’m about to say will not be a surprise to you. But I am surprised, quite often, by the reactions I get when I tell people what I do all day.
They go ‘Oh… is that still a thing?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, actually, it is still a thing’. People act like metadata grows on trees, that carefully classified shelves of books are ‘serendipitously’ arranged, that cataloguing is obsolete, that structured metadata is unnecessary in an age of keyword searches, that we’ve all been automated out of existence, that AI is coming for the few jobs we have left.
It’s more than just ‘data about data’. It gives meaning and structure to a collection of items, whether that’s a simple website, Netflix, a corpus of research data or a library catalogue. Metadata forms a map, a guide, a way of making sense of the (in many cases) enormous collection of resources at a user’s disposal. A chaotic library is an unusable library.
‘Cataloguing’ doesn’t just mean painstaking creation of item-level metadata (although it can involve that, and it’s what I spend a lot of my time doing). It involves a lot of problem-solving, detective work, ethical decisions, standards interpretation, and data maintenance. If you like puzzles, you’ll love cataloguing. Modern metadata is all about connections. It’s relational, it’s often processed at great scale, it’s about making collections accessible wherever the user is.
You might hear these jobs described as ‘metadata librarians’ or similar. If given the choice, I would describe myself as a ‘cataloguer’. In fact, at my current job no one ever actually told me what my job title was, and I needed an email signature, so I picked ‘cataloguer’ and nobody seemed to mind.
But I specifically didn’t call this talk ‘We need to talk about metadata’. Don’t get me wrong, I could talk about metadata all day, but I deliberately said ‘We need to talk about cataloguing’. The word’s kinda gone out of style. It’s old-fashioned, it’s a bit arcane, it’s not hip and modern and contemporary like ‘metadata’ is. But I’m the sort of person who likes to reclaim words, and I can reclaim this one, so I do.
Words mean things. But sometimes, if we want to, we can change those things.
Once I’ve explained what I do for a living, people then go ‘That’s great. Why should I care?’. And it’s a good question. Why should you care? You’re all busy. You all have other jobs. You don’t have time to care about metadata.
For some reason, a library vendor in California took this tweet and made a shareable graphic meme thing out of it. I stand by what I said, but what really got me was that they left out the best part of the quote. The line immediately after this was:
‘Cataloguing is power, and I will die on this hill!’
We as cataloguers have, as Hope Olson famously put it, ‘the power to name’. We decide what goes where, what’s shelved together, what’s shelved separately. We describe these things in the catalogue so that people can find them. The language used in and about cataloguing is tremendously important. If something is poorly-described, it might as well be invisible, both on a shelf and in a search engine.
Cataloguing is power. That power must be wielded responsibly.
As humans, we are all shaped by language. Our everyday language changes through time, as social and cultural practices change, but library language changes far more slowly, when it changes at all. (We’ve been putting punctuation in weird places for a long time, too. Look, I’m sorry, but I will never care about where to put a full stop in a MARC record.)
Metadata is not fixed. Metadata is never ‘finished’. Metadata is contextual. Contested. Iterative. Always changing. ‘Corrections’ are not, and can never be, universal. An accepted term today might be a rejected term in thirty years’ time, and the process will begin again. The Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) for ‘People with disabilities’ is now on its fourth iteration, as the preferred language has changed over time. Previous versions of this heading used terms that would now be considered quite offensive.
We all need to look out for these things. Have new concepts arisen for which your library has no standardised heading? Has a word shifted meaning, such that it has ceased to be meaningful? Are users looking for resources by name, but finding nothing in our collections? Think of the power we have. Think of how we ought to wield that power.
What do I mean by that? Consider the widespread use in the English-speaking library world of Library of Congress Subject Headings, a standardised vocabulary originally designed by American librarians to meet the information needs of the United States Congress. Because the Library of Congress is the source of a lot of American copy cataloguing, their subject headings were widely adopted in the US, and later by other Anglophone countries. Most (though not all) Australian libraries use LCSH in some capacity. Has anyone stopped to think about how weird that is? We’re not the US Congress. We use different words and different spellings, we serve vastly different communities, we have our own information needs and information contexts that LCSH necessarily cannot meet.
Yanni Alexander Loukissas recently wrote a book titled ‘All Data Are Local’, which is sitting on my bedside table at home. I would extend that to ‘All Metadata Are Local’. And they should be. Each library serves a distinct community of users. Our metadata needs to speak their language.
Attitudes toward cataloguing itself are shaped by the language we as cataloguers use to describe our work. For example: a big part of cataloguing is about standardising names and subjects, and to a lesser degree titles, so that resources with or about those things can all be found in the one place! We call this authority control, which has gotta be one of the worst phrases in librarianship for two reasons:
A) whose ~authority~ is this done under? Who died and put us in charge? What gives us the right to decide what someone’s name is, or the best phrase to describe a certain topic? Why do we even have to choose just one? Why can’t we have several, equally valid terms?
B) Why do we have to ‘control’ everything? What need is there for this giant bibliographic power trip? Why can’t we let people decide these things for themselves, instead of us being authority control freaks?
This phrase says a lot about how we’ve historically thought about cataloguing: that we have authority, and that we are in control. Cataloguers haven’t been either of these things for a while. Which is great, because our survival depends on it.
The outlook I’ve just described, and the outlook I bring to my work, is known as radical cataloguing. It’s a way of looking at cataloguing and metadata from a structural, systemic standpoint. Getting to the root of what—and who—our data is for, and making sure it meets our users’ needs.
It’s broadly similar to the contemporary movement called critical librarianship, of which critical cataloguing is a part, which aims, according to the critlib.org site ‘to [bring] social justice principles into our work in libraries’.
Critical and radical cataloguing can involve establishing local policies for catalogue records, working to improve common standards and practices, sometimes ignoring those standards and practices, and encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue.
It sounds quite cool, calling myself a radical cataloguer. But this work and this ethos have never felt all that radical to me. It feels normal, to me. It feels like common sense. It feels like bringing my values to work. Sometimes these align with traditional library values. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s all in the service of making the library better. Think of it as ‘evidence-based whinging’. It’s done in good faith, and it’s done for a purpose.
Sadly, common sense isn’t as common as I’d like it to be. A recent article on tech news website The Verge described the terrible quality of metadata in the music industry, which meant people weren’t getting paid royalties for music they had written, performed, or contributed to. Bad metadata literally costs money. The author described metadata as ‘Important, complex and broken’. And I was like ‘yeah… I feel that’. A lot of what they said about commercial music metadata could just as easily be applied to the library world—infighting, governance issues, funding challenges, cultural differences and copyright laws.
This work is difficult, painstaking, often invisible and mostly thankless. But the results of not doing the work can be slow to manifest—you might be able to get by on deteriorating metadata quality for a while, but soon enough it’s gonna be a huge problem that will cost lots of money to fix, which you could have avoided with enough care, attention and maintenance.
It’s not about simply following rules and standards because that’s just how we do things, or have always done things. It’s about imbuing our information practice with an ethic of care. Thinking not just about what we do, but how and why we do it. Who benefits, who loses out, and what happens when and if the work stops being done. The ‘we’ in this instance is an information maintainer: a cataloguer, an eresources manager, a systems librarian. People. Not robots.
People often try to replace me with a robot. They ask, sometimes innocuously and sometimes not, ‘But what about AI and machine learning?’
And I go, ‘It’s a great tool. But like any tool, it has to be used responsibly.’ Algorithms are as biased as the people who write them. We all have biases, we all look at the world a particular way. The key is ensuring that library automation of any kind is properly supervised and evaluated by real people. Metadata professionals with an ethical grounding. Cataloguers, of the past, present and future.
Dewey is a product of its time. But it’s also a product of our time. Dewey is now in its 23rd edition, maintained by paid staff and volunteers from around the world. AI can’t do this. It can’t write its own rules. And it can’t be left unsupervised, because it won’t produce quality metadata.
What do I mean when I say ‘quality metadata’?
I don’t think about ‘quality’ the way most other people think about ‘quality’. People think ‘quality’ means total adherence to local, national and international policies and standards. A record can do all of those things and still be functionally useless. I don’t consider that ‘quality’.
To me, a ‘quality’ record is informative, accessible, respectful, accurate and empowering. You won’t find these ideals in RDA, or in the MARC standards, or in BIBFRAME. You’ll find them in your community. Those of you who work in libraries should have an idea of the kinds of materials your patrons are looking for, and how your library might provide them. Is your metadata a help or a hindrance? Are you describing materials the way your patrons might describe them? Are people asking you for help because your catalogue has failed them?
I know most of you are not cataloguers. Many of you undoubtedly work for libraries that outsource most or all of their cataloguing. Records appear in your system by what looks like magic but is probably a Z39.50 connection. You may well have no way of knowing what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ metadata. Here are some brief tips for you!
Compare a record with the resource it describes. Are the title, author and year correct? Does your system disambiguate different authors with the same name? I know I said I hate the phrase ‘authority control’, but you still gotta do it, the work still needs to be done. How would a user describe this item? Are those words or phrases in the record? What kinds of people use your library? Will these words meet their needs? Are they current? Offensive? Relevant?
Next, compare that record with how your OPAC displays it. Backend versus frontend. Have a look at a MARC record, even if it looks like a bunch of numbers and dollar signs. Is anything obviously missing? Are there MARC fields that your OPAC displays oddly, or not at all? Have a play around with the OPAC. Are some fields searchable but not others? Does your system support faceted browsing, like Trove does? If so, what facets are available?
I once worked for a library whose ILS didn’t display the 545 field, used for biographical and historical data in manuscript records. I’d been using this field for months. Why didn’t I know that my ILS did this stupid thing? How might I have worked around it?
If any problems appear with your library’s data, think about how you might advocate for getting them fixed…
We are constantly having to advocate for our jobs. I’m doing it right now. Right here, with this talk. And not just because my contract is up in two months and I need all the help I can get. But because without people like me shouting from the rooftops, our work is practically invisible. We are the people behind the curtain. We have to keep telling managers why quality metadata matters. But I am only one person, and I can only shout so loud. Cataloguers need your help, gathered library workers, students and allies, to talk about cataloguing.
So what should we say?
The key is to mind your language.
Firstly, what can you think about?
How does bad metadata make your job harder? What kinds of questions do you get asked that better metadata would be able to answer? Such as: ‘A friend recommended a book to me, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was blue, and it had birds on the cover. I think it was set in Queensland?’ We don’t routinely add metadata for a book’s colour in a catalogue record, it’s not searchable, but people ask questions like this all the time. Perhaps AI could help us with this metadata…!
Secondly, what can you talk about?
Appeal to your managers’ financial sensibilities. ‘Hey, we spent a lot of money on these materials. If people can’t find them, that’s money down the drain. Good metadata makes those materials findable: it’s a return on investment.’ Talk about how much time and effort is wasted dealing with bad vendor metadata, and how that staff time could be better spent on other metadata tasks. I’m sure you’ve got plenty.
Alternatively, appeal to their morals and sense of social justice. If they have one. You could say, ‘We have a lot of refugees and asylum seekers in our community, and books about people in this situation often use the phrase “Illegal aliens”. This sounds kinda dehumanising to me, do we have to use this term?’ And if they say ‘But it’s in LCSH, and that’s what we follow’ you can say ‘well… so? Just because LC does it, doesn’t mean we have to’. You can change that subject heading locally to whatever you want, or get your vendor to do it. It’s already happening in American libraries. It could just as easily happen here.
Being a radical cataloguer doesn’t mean rewriting a whole record from scratch—if good copy exists, it makes sense to use it. But do so with a critical eye. How will this metadata help my users? How will it help my colleagues do their jobs in reference, circulation, instruction or document supply? Is it fit for purpose?
And lastly, what can you do?
Make suggestions internally and externally about what problems could be solved with better metadata. What kinds of patrons ask what kinds of questions or search for what kinds of materials. What your catalogue doesn’t include. What it could start including.
If everything I’ve talked about sounds fascinating and you want more, consider joining ACORD, the new ALIA Community on Resource Description. It’s so new it doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’s slated to launch later this month, and there’s an article about it in the July issue of InCite. I’m hoping ACORD will be a great forum for cataloguers and metadata people to meet, exchange ideas, and work towards better cataloguing for all.
It can be hard to make these kinds of suggestions in your workplace, much less change international rules and standards. But you can do it. You can be part of this change. And the first step is talking about it. If you have an opinion on anything I’ve spoken about today, get talking, get writing, get tweeting, get involved with ACORD, which liaises with the committees overseeing all these rules and policies.
These rules were made by people. They can be changed by people.
And if the rules aren’t working for you, break them.
Change has to start somewhere. So it can start with you.
My Twitter bio currently describes me as ‘a radical cataloguer’. It seemed apt at the time: a neat way of summing up who I am, what I do, and what I stand for. But now, thanks to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme and a well-timed lunch with noted incendiary librarian Hugh, I’m having second thoughts about this whole ‘radical’ thing.
Now, this doesn’t mean changing my professional or political views, as strident and idiosyncratic as they are. It means rethinking what the word ‘radical’ actually means to me. What is radical, really?
Successive linguistics lecturers drilled into me the lesson that etymology is not semantics. A word’s origins may bear no relation to its current meaning. And yet being ‘radical’ entails, literally, going back to our roots. To consider the core or essence of something. The word came to English via the Latin radicalis, the adjectival form of radix, ‘root’. English regards Latin as an adstratum language, a more prestigious tongue from which we borrow liberally in an effort to appear learned. I suspect this desire to appear somewhat educated is why I ultimately settled on a Classics major.
I was going to talk briefly about ‘contemporary radicalism’ but realised I had no idea what that looked like. Different people, depending on their own views, will describe other views as ‘radical’. I wonder whether being ‘radical’ is more of a relative than an absolute phenomenon; that is, the description depends less on the viewpoint itself than on what surrounds it. I know the kinds of things I would consider ‘radical’ have changed dramatically over the last couple of years. That is, the things themselves haven’t changed, but my perception definitely has.
As I experienced what I can only describe as an ecological awakening over the last eighteen months or so (starting with David Wallace-Wells’ absolutely terrifying article ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, now expanded into a book I’m too scared to read), I made what most people would consider some fairly radical life choices. In particular, I stopped flying. I’ve done a lot of interstate travelling this year, all of it by train, bus or ferry. I’m very aware that the planes kept flying without me. But I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and financially support more sustainable forms of transport. It feels less radical, and more necessary, with each passing day.
I read an article just today on what climate scientists do to live more sustainable lives. Forsaking air travel was on almost everyone’s mind. If more people start doing something, does it inherently become less radical? Might we start to see greater shifts in what broader society considers ‘normal’, against which the ‘radical’ is compared?
Besides, can you really call yourself ‘radical’ with a straight face? I wonder if it’s like calling yourself an ‘ally’ to a marginalised or oppressed class of people. You don’t get to decide whether you’re an ally or not. They do, when your actions have spoken loud enough. It’s not a permanent adjective. It’s not a badge you get to keep. It’s something you do, not something you are. A continual state of mind and being, not a fixed point in time.
I look at the kind of work I do in libraries, at so-called ‘radical cataloguing’. I’ll be touching on this in my upcoming NLS9 talk (spoiler!) but while many people both inside and outside library land might look at my cataloguing ethos and go ‘Oof, that’s pretty radical’, I’m increasingly convinced that nothing I do in libraries should be considered radical at all. It only feels radical because it’s seemingly so unusual. Thinking of metadata and systems librarianship as not just user-centred, but user-facing. Recognising the cataloguer’s power to name and actively looking to cede that power to the people and groups we describe. Encouraging critical viewpoints of—and within—the catalogue. This shouldn’t be radical. This should be completely normal.
But what if it becomes normal? What, then, would be considered ‘radical’? If radicalism is relative, what new, progressive, revolutionary ideas might emerge, in our sector and in many others?
I genuinely can’t wait to find out. But first, the Overland train to Adelaide on Tuesday. And perhaps a new Twitter bio.
Today it felt like my brain had booted in Safe Mode. As if a gauze bandage had been wrapped around my skull, and a small sign placed on the bridge of my nose: ‘Sorry, down for maintenance’. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’ve spent the last week struggling to write not one but two conference talks for NLS9, frantically trying to sort out everything that goes with an interstate trip, and worrying about whether I’ll have a job in September. My brain has a tendency to misfire at the best of times. Sometimes it decides not to fire at all.
A lot of my life feels like maintenance. Not just maintaining myself, which is sometimes effortless and sometimes all I can manage. But much of the work I do could be considered maintenance: creating and updating bibliographic metadata; cleaning, editing and tidying batches of that metadata; making small, incremental changes to a thesaurus; writing documentation; fixing mistakes from years ago. It’s seemingly routine, mundane, unglamorous labour, but it’s done with great care, and it makes a world of difference. Tech bros would have us ‘move fast and break things’. But someone has to fix those broken things and clean up after the latest innovation cyclone.
I recently learned of a network called ‘The Maintainers’, dedicated to supporting those who undertake maintenance work of all kinds: repairing vehicles, contributing to open-source software, maintaining public infrastructure, keeping everything ticking along. Their upcoming conference Maintainers III: Practice, Policy and Care features an ‘Information maintenance’ track, which called for memory and knowledge workers’ thoughts on ‘reformatting, repair, mending, migration, stabilization, preservation, teaching and storytelling’. It’s heartening to see the labour of maintenance in GLAM begin to be taken seriously. I look forward to following along in October.
The phrase ‘down for maintenance’ is twofold. Sometimes my brain packs it in and decides today is just not happening. But that’s okay, because maintenance is the crucial work that keeps us all running. I’m down for that.
I got a lot out of a month’s holiday in Tasmania and in Melbourne, but perhaps the greatest gift was being able to read again. I don’t mean that I was previously illiterate, but rather that I no longer had the energy or interest in reading anything for longer than five minutes. I was (and still am) surrounded by books I longed to read, but knew I lacked the brainspace to absorb and make sense of them, and so I didn’t try.
Time away from work and the internet, and within nature, restored me to something like my former self. I realised I wanted to read again. I had forgotten what this felt like. My body had forgotten how to want to read books all day, and to be able to read books all day, and not have this gnawing pit of sad exhausted panic undercutting every paragraph. I hadn’t realised how profound a loss this was until I got it back.
I had packed four books for the trip:
one I immediately lent to a friend (Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum)
one I didn’t get around to reading because I was too busy enjoying myself (Terra, volume 14 of the Dark Mountain Project)
and one I made a point of reading only in picturesque places (A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit). It’s an incredible book. I read it at Lake Wendouree, Ballarat; at Buckley Falls, Geelong; at Cataract Gorge, Launceston; at the blowhole in Bicheno. As it happened I read the last one and a half chapters of Field Guide on foot and on a tram, reaching the final line as I reached my final destination, bursting into the most hipster cafe in Fitzroy high as a kite on philosophy and the possible. Brunch was good that day.
Thankfully this spark has remained as I settle back into work and the internet. I still have loads of physical books to read, but I’m also finally making headway on my overstuffed Pocket account. Realising that it’s far easier to choose what to read when your selection is limited, my friend and comrade Hugh recently built an accidental serendipity machine called pocket-snack. It’s an experimental Python script for one’s pocket that presents you with a few randomly selected links per day, out of the several hundred you probably have saved (I had well over a thousand before we got the script to work). It’s helped me clear out stuff that it turns out I wasn’t actually interested in or that was no longer relevant to me, which freed up some brainspace for more worthwhile items. Emptying the pocket has truly never been so enjoyable.
Below are a few gems from the last little while, subconsciously themed around ‘the nature of information’:
Animism, Tree-consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory / Bron Taylor, Humans and Nature
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read The Overstory, the Booker-nominated 2018 novel whose central premise is that ‘entities in nature, and life itself, have agency, purpose, and personhood—and we have ethical obligations to all such persons.’ I’d had it in the back of my head to read at some point, noting that I seldom read fiction of any kind, and already have a to-read list as tall as I am. This review, however, propelled The Overstory to the top of my list.
I have a half-finished zine entitled ‘Five Epiphanies in Tasmania’. I’ve had a hard time pinning down the third, an experience in Ballroom Forest that I’ve likened to a moment of religious ecstasy. Reconciling this with my lifelong atheism has been somewhat challenging—whoever heard of an irreligious mystic? It seems my answer lies not in formal religious traditions, but in a kind of nature spirituality that recognises the consciousness of plants, natural features, and ultimately nature itself. Crucially, it also incorporates the responsibility of humankind to care for nature, while not situating ourselves above it. Review author Bron Taylor has dubbed this spirituality ‘dark green religion’, and his definition thereof is worth quoting at length:
It was within this complicated milieu that, over time, I began to notice patterns. These I eventually developed into the notion of dark green religion. This notion refers to diverse social phenomena in which people have animistic perceptions, emphasize ecological interdependence and mutual dependence, develop deep feelings of belonging and connection to nature, and understand the biosphere as a sacred, Gaia-like superorganism. These sorts of nature-based spiritualities generally cohere with and draw on evolutionary and ecological understandings and therefore stress continuity and kinship among all organisms. Uniting these Gaian and animistic perceptions is generally a deep sense of humility about the human place in the universe and suspicions of anthropocentric conceits, wherein human beings consider themselves to be superior to other living things and the only ones whose interests are morally significant.
To learn that this worldview not only had a name, but was a Thing that others felt and lived and wrote novels about, was overwhelming. I was slightly late to work from reading this article. I regret nothing.
If the map becomes the territory then we will be lost / Mita Williams, Librarian of Things
This sounds like a geography article but it’s not—Mita Williams, a scholarly communication librarian based in Canada, writes on how social graphs and scholcomm ecosystems are beginning to shape, rather than merely guide access to, academic output. The big 3 companies (Clarivate, Elsevier and Springer-Nature) are integrating their component services more and more tightly, which has the effect of widely automating—and locking humans, especially librarians, out of—the scholarly publishing process. Mita also discusses a higher education funding mechanism in Ontario that sounds a bit like the UK’s REF (Research Excellence Framework), in that it determines how much money is allocated to various institutions on the basis of some highly exclusionary and frustrating metrics.
Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.
I won’t pretend to be anything near an expert on scholcomm but this all sounds fairly… rubbish. No wonder people want to dump Elsevier.
Computational Landscape Architecture / Geoff Manaugh, BLDGBLOG
I love trees. I also love wifi. But the two are strange bedfellows. This article explores the impact different species of tree might have on phone and internet reception, leading to ‘the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping […] according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi’ and the potential use of pot plants in electronic subterfuge. I mean, Geoff also links to an article from Popular Science suggesting wifi is responsible for mass radiation poisoning in Dutch street trees, so I’m not entirely convinced wifiscaping is a good idea, but it’s yet another reminder that computing, like the rest of human ingenuity, exists within nature and not above it.
PROSPEKT. Organising information is never innocent / Regine, We Make Money Not Art
I initially read this before going on holidays, but VR performance artist Geraldine Juárez has some incisive comments for the GLAM sector that I thought deserve a wider audience. The bulk of this article discusses PROSPEKT, her 2018 performance situated within the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, Sweden. The first paragraph, however, is a neat summary of her 2017 essay ‘Intercolonial Technogalactic’ [large PDF, begins page 152]. In it, Juárez critiques the activities of the Google Cultural Institute, which has digitised and published online thousands of museum-held cultural artefacts from around the world, but which curiously offers very little information about its own origins. (It was intended as part of a PR move against French publishers who were suing Google in 2011 over Google Books and breaches of copyright.)
She notes that Google views libraries, museums and other cultural institutions not as true collaborative partners but as ‘gatekeepers of world cultures’: repositories of content to be mined and paywalled. Google reproduces the power structures and cultural biases that gave rise to it, prizing European high culture above all else, and viewing publicly-funded institutions as beacons of ‘inefficiency’ that need ‘disrupting’ by private enterprise. All information is organised for a purpose. It is never innocent. It is never neutral.
The colonial gaze was determined to scan the surface looking for specimens for study, fixing them as objects out of time and out of place, in the same way that digital documents offer imagings of the world at a distance via screens. This is a prospecting gaze – a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value.
While re-reading this article I was violently reminded of a series of uncomfortable experiences at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. I’ve never been wild about taxidermy, but TMAG’s hall of lovingly stuffed creatures, with mammals, birds and insects wrenched from their natural homes and drowned in formaldehyde, made me deeply uncomfortable. These poor animals deserve to return to the earth, not spend the next three eternities in suspended animation for the amusement of humans.
Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees / Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Real Life
This piece has had such an impact on how I think about cataloguing that I’m including it again. It reminded me that the very notion of cataloguing and classification has deeply imperialist foundations that bode ill for our efforts at more inclusive collection description. It also reminded me of how my dear mother, a keen gardener, was able to identify every plant photo I texted to her during my trip. Sometimes it’s far better to ask mum than ask Google. Or an app reliant on crowdsourcing and machine learning.
The “herborizer,” a 17th-century nature enthusiast “armed with nothing more than a collector’s bag, a notebook, and some specimen bottles, desiring nothing more than a few peaceful hours alone with the bugs and flowers,” was the passive cousin of the conquistador or the diplomat […] His harmless assertion of taxonomical hegemony over Europe and her colonies actually produced commercially exploitable knowledge for the empire’s gain. He was a researcher, classifying, collecting, qualifying and quantifying imperial loot.
By cataloguing nature in ways that privileged only select facets of a living thing (those that could be seen, felt, or observed in isolation from its natural habitat), the burgeoning fields of taxonomy and scientific classification enabled Enlightenment-era Europeans to distance themselves from the natural world they ravaged. It continues to enable users of the aforementioned plant-identifying app, which propagates this classificatory, imperialist method of coming to know the earth. Taxonomy, with its discrete categories and precise hierarchies, primes us to see nature as a resource, as something to be mined, prospected and extracted for humanity’s benefit (such as improving our wifi). ‘It teaches us to see other life as proximate to us, rather than knowing ourselves as an extension of it.’
The antithesis of Bron Taylor’s dark green religion. The very anthropocentrism to which Richard Powers’ The Overstory stands opposed.
I titled this blog Cataloguing the Universe because it reflected a childhood impulse to never stop learning about the world, about space and time, about my place on this planet. Library catalogues have always been, for me, a path to knowledge: first as I browsed them, now as I contribute to their upkeep. It’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve learned how taxonomies and classification systems reflect the views, biases and priorities of those who create them. It’s only within the last hour that I’ve realised the binary character of natural history classification is echoed within my work as a cataloguer. I can assign a book only one call number. I can either include or not include a subject heading—no parts, shades or relevance rankings, no way to indicate just how well a work relates to the subjects I decide it’s about. It’s not a good system. How can I smash it?
This notion of cataloguing as a means of collecting and producing knowledge, like everything else about the culture I was raised in, is inherently Eurocentric and deeply flawed. I couldn’t quite articulate this in late January, but I can now. This is why I wanted to learn differently this year. To overcome my ecological illiteracy borne from spending 28 years inside on someone else’s land. To learn different ways of seeing the world, so that I might address the harm my settler presence has caused.
The article’s conclusion suggests the first step is ‘to take off our lenses and reckon with the humbling, bewildering condition of unknowing, to [quell] the appetite for legibility of the world that leaves us at a comfortable distance from what we cannot understand.’ I don’t think I’m comfortable enough yet with my own ignorance. I have so much to unlearn.
How good is not having phone reception?! One of the best things about spending two weeks in Tasmania has been the amount of time I’ve been completely cut off from the world. A forcible disconnect. A respite for the extremely online. It’s been fantastic. (Bushfires, not so much. A lot of haze, and a close call in Zeehan. But we all got out okay.)
Anyway, being Offline and Elsewhere has helped me reset my thinking a bit, which was one of my primary motivations for going on holiday in the first place. I’ve tried to make a point of not keeping up with library twitter while on holiday, but I have since wound up at the house of a cardiCore member, and I figure I now have no excuse not to write a post!
So here we are. I’m realising I don’t necessarily know what I want to learn yet—but I know I want to learn things differently. In particular, I want to immerse myself in different ways of learning and knowing that don’t involve a book. This goes against my entire upbringing. I’ve only ever been able to learn things out of books. Consequently I missed a few things that can’t be learnt from a book (charisma, extroversion etc).
In particular, I hope to come to know nature more deeply than what books can teach me. One of the few articles I read in Tasmania was the absolutely brilliant ‘Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees’ by Ana Cecilia Alvarez, a deep dive on how Enlightenment-era Europeans came to know nature by cataloguing it, by way of taxonomy and scientific classification, and how that in turn enabled them to distance themselves from nature. Taxonomy tells us nothing about the interplay of nature, of ecology, of ecosystems, of the ecosymmetry that gives rise to life on Earth. This knowledge predates the book and all human attempts at organising knowledge. The world’s languages are shaped by our landscapes. Our speech and our thoughts are a product of the places we inhabit.
I want to learn more about how my upbringing has shaped my inbuilt theories of knowledge—as a white woman, in a settler-colonial society, who learned to read prodigiously early, and whose personal and professional backgrounds privileged the book as a source of knowledge. I also want to learn more about nature from nature itself. How might I know a tree? I look forward to finding out.
Today I realised I had 1,025 items saved to my Pocket account, which is a bit much. I wrote earlier this year about my article ecosystem, but it’s fallen apart a bit, because I never seem to get around to actually reading everything I save. I decided to clean out these items, deleting articles I was never really going to read, and sharing those that left an impression.
Architecture and Appropriation / Louis Mokak, Assemble Papers
First published in Caliper, this short piece speaks to how First Nations ‘culture is not a research topic, thematic concern or an anthropological curiosity’, yet is still treated as such by scientific lines of enquiry. The author, a Djugun architecture student, reflects on the power structures that underpin his chosen profession, and where cultural appropriation might be replaced with a more equitable exchange.
The Soviet web: the tale of how the USSR almost invented the internet / Justin Reynolds, Calvert Journal
This article on socialist cybernetics, in particular the Chilean Project Cybersyn and the Soviet OGAS, outlined how communist countries looked to emerging computing technologies to assist in centralised control of the economy. Crucially, the ‘internet’ of the title refers not to a publicly-accessible web of information, but a network of computers that would relay data on production output to central planning. They almost created a nation-wide computer network, but the Americans beat them to it, and look where that’s gotten us…
Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient? / Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360
Newsflash: the internet is terrible for the environment! As I highlighted in the last #emptythepocket roundup, we as a society have collectively forgotten that ‘that ethereal place where we store our data, stream our movies, and email the world has a physical presence’. And it’s filthy. The electricity that powers cloud computing is frequently drawn from non-renewable sources, with data centres using insane amounts of energy in cooling and airconditioning. Every internet-connected keystroke has an environmental cost. We outsource so much of our data infrastructure to ‘the cloud’, and assume that someone else will take care of all that pesky maintenance and environmental sustainability for us, that most of us have no idea what the internet is doing to the planet. (I’m hoping to soon read J.R. Carpenter’s book The Gathering Cloud, an intriguing work of ‘media meteorology’.)
Librarian or librarian: Which Do You Want to Be? / Jessica Olin, Letters to a Young Librarian Our endgame as librarians / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound
I am hugely, immensely, absolutely guilty of being a Librarian with a capital L. And yet it’s something I’ve largely refused to feel guilty about, because that’s a decision I’ve made for myself, in deciding what I want to do with my life and how best to use my skills and talents for the greater good. But it also means I’m up to my eyeballs in Librarian Culture, and when it almost drowned me earlier this year I realised it comprised such a large chunk of Me that I didn’t quite know what was left. Like Jessica, I also don’t want to look back on my mid-twenties and regret being such a Librarian, when I could also have been (just?) a librarian, with time and energy for other things. But do I want that? Would I ever be happy not throwing myself into my work?
Andrew posted on a similar topic as I was reading Jessica’s post. Andrew and I have collectively spent a lot of time this year being capitalised Librarians, giving a shit, and pondering our respective powers and places within LIS. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it alone, and sometimes we can’t do much of anything. But we can try, and plan, and agitate, and celebrate all successes no matter how small. And I know I can do it from the position I’m currently in—employed on a fixed-term contract, in a non-management role, in a team that doesn’t share my views on… virtually everything, with the ink still wet on my library degree, armed only with a twitter account and my wits. Nobody else will change our sector for the better, so we might as well do it ourselves. Just so long as that’s not the only thing we do. (I was also reminded of Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s code4lib editorial on being a selfish librarian, which is a good read.)
Contraflow / Clare Archibald, Walking Heads
At this point I inverted my pocket so the oldest items were at the top. The most interesting old thing was this psychogeographic drift in a multi-storey carpark. As a lifelong non-driver I rarely have cause to be in these buildings, so reading Clare’s pedestrian exploration of this car-shaped space was spooky in lots of ways. It becomes less about the carpark itself than about Clare’s memories of carparks in general, concrete and acid, cracks and headlights. Cars are awful. I don’t know why we persist with them.
‘I felt betrayed by the physical and emotional hardship’ / Agustin Chevez, SBS Insight
As a product of the Enlightenment, LIS prides itself on being a rational profession, based on truth and evidence. But what if it’s really the absurd that will save us? Recent PhD graduate Agustin Chevez found himself seized by a need to walk from Sydney to Melbourne, and decided to do so, but a month of walking had seemingly produced nothing. Tired and unsure, he stopped by the side of the road, only to realise that ‘once artificial intelligence has modelled every possible rational scenario, absurdity might surface as our last standing trait’. The absurdity of his situation liberated him, and inspired him to continue his walk. The clickbaity title does this piece a great disservice—it’s an inspiring treatise on the value of irrationality and solitude. I could do with a long walk myself…
ALIA Sydney recently hosted their first Saturday School of Critical Librarianship, a gathering for critically- and radically-minded librarians to talk shop and take stock. It was a seriously full-on day. I spent most of today sleeping it off, and there’s a worryingly large memory gap where a lot of yesterday should have been. But I did remember to jot down a few not-terribly-insightful thoughts.
We are worthy. I awoke in a spaceship at sunrise, to a blistering Twitter discussion on the merits of metadata. (Sounds blissful, really.) I was staying in a capsule hotel, because it turns out Sydney has one and I wanted to try it out, but it was very poorly ventilated and I didn’t get a great sleep. The hot topic of discussion at 6am turned out to be the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), broadly the American equivalent of Trove or Europeana, laying off several staff, apparently including their metadata librarian. Cue spirited conversation about the value institutions place, or don’t place, on their metadata workers. Perversely it was a bit of a personal mood boost:
Honestly existential cataloguing angst at 6am on a Saturday having slept in a spaceship is the mood boost I needed to explain to a bunch of people today why this shit matters. Genuinely. Metadata is just as important as other facets of LIS, and today I’m gonna demonstrate why.
We are facilitators. The word ‘facilitator’ kept cropping up, and it wasn’t just because a few of us had been asked to ‘facilitate’, or lend our expertise to, various breakout sessions. Instead the word arose organically as a way to describe how we might envision a future, more critical (or radical) librarianship. Historically our profession has been structured around either having the answers or knowing where to find them (that is, in our collections), but might we instead take our lead from our patrons and communities? Whether it’s building collections, planning programs or cataloguing our library’s contents, there’s a lot to be said for not just listening to, or consulting with, our patrons—but actively listening to how their collections and programs and knowledge and memory ought to be managed, which we could then use our LIS skills to make happen.
We are, um, not all cataloguers. I stayed for all three iterations of the rotating breakout discussions on cataloguing, as I had been asked to help guide this discussion (I tried to move to another topic but found myself blurting out ‘my people need me’). I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I did a very good job. I wish I’d been better prepared and had more structured discussion topics. As it was, the conversation drifted from cataloguing into collection development, preservation of time-based media art, and systems librarianship. This suggested to me that people didn’t really know what to say, or felt they had nothing to say, or waited for me to do all the talking (and I still feel like I talked too much). But perhaps that in turn suggests that critical tech services in general is under-theorised and under-discussed, especially in Australia, and especially by non-tech services staff.
I was reluctant to steer the conversation back to cataloguing, figuring that people were talking about what was interesting and meaningful to them. If you were hoping I would do more active facilitating then I am sorry. But I hope people enjoyed the discussions nonetheless.
We are critical radical librarians! So this happened:
I think my group(s) have decided that instead of ‘critical librarianship’, a very American term, they’d prefer ‘radical librarianship’. Less negative-sounding, more empowering, inspires action #SydCritLib
I know there was more to this conversation that my poor memory chose not to retain, but I found it interesting that we chose to critique the very name of our fledgling local movement. I think a few attendees took ‘critical’ to mean ‘criticising everything, unproductively’, rather than the more nuanced meaning assigned it by critical theory. The hashtag-critlib movement began in the United States, I understand principally from infolit and instruction librarians in university libraries, and it is running the risk of becoming a bit cliquey. I also had Nora Almeida’s chapter ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’ from the LJP critlib book in the back of my head during this discussion. Personally, I think ‘radical librarianship’ sounds friendlier and has a more activist tone. But I also really liked Andrew’s take on it from afar:
It’s a good point – though I like the association of “critical” with being inward-looking and identifying the things that need to change internally. I feel that, too often “radical” is associated with changing the external world to meet a fixed agenda.
We can’t do it all. I really liked a point Kirsty Thorpe made about gaining power through focus—as library workers, choosing an area to focus on and directing energies towards making that area better, focusing on a couple of select things we can do, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly on things we can’t.
This was part of a broader discussion near the end of the day about power, and it prompted me to reflect on how much power I have within LIS. At my workplace, an institution fond of bureaucracy, I often feel powerless because all the decisions are made above me and I can’t change established practices or standards. Yet people from elsewhere look at me and go ‘You work where!? You have so much power! You can get things done!’ Plus I have managed to accomplish a couple of things in cataloguing entirely independently of wherever I have worked. And I wondered if this meant I had power because… people think I do? As in, they recognise power in me and they act accordingly? (Is this Schrödinger’s power?!) So what can I do with this power that I may or may not have, to push for change within LIS, and within my institution?
Also, we give a crap. We all showed up on a Saturday, some of us (including me) having come from out of town, because we care about our profession and we want to do better and do differently. There was a lot of talk about further critlib schools in Sydney, as well as opportunities to coalesce around shared or common goals. I really hope these come to fruition, because there’s really nothing like an in-person gathering to network with like-minded people and galvanise us into action. But next time I’m in Sydney, I think I’ll stay somewhere with functioning windows. And maybe a door.
“No longer are we just librarians. We do event planning, we are IT experts, and we are counsellors as well,” she says.
The branch manager interviewed in this story has worked in libraries for 27 years—so, as long as I’ve been alive. A certain generation gap is therefore expected. But I was bitterly disappointed to read her description of the librarians she leads.
We are not event planners. We are not IT experts. We are certainly not counsellors. We are not trained—or paid—to be these things. There are other people who are professionals in these areas. It is dishonest to represent ourselves to the public as something we’re not. Social workers in libraries are not a new idea. If your library gets a lot of queries that a social worker would be best-placed to answer… why not hire one? Why not make space? Why do librarians feel the need to be what we’re not? Why aren’t we good enough for ourselves? How would we feel if other professions borrowed the term ‘librarian’ and added it to their description because they have a shelf of books in their office?
I bristle at the suggestion that being a librarian is somehow not good enough. Being information conductors, book recommenders, storytime leaders, metadata stewards… these are good things to be. I am a cataloguer. And proud of it. I am not an event planner, or an IT expert, or a counsellor. When I sit at the circ desk I remain none of those things, even if patrons ask me questions that might require those skills.
By positing ourselves as ‘more than just librarians’, we implicitly devalue our skills and experience as library workers. Skills which, we keep hearing, are vital in our age of declining public information literacy and plummeting trust in politicians and the press. It also narrows the perception of what a librarian can or should be, as if library work and library skills can’t grow or adapt in line with the communities we serve. As if community outreach, fixing printers, or sensitive reference queries aren’t already part of the librarian skillset.
I didn’t sign up for a postgraduate degree in self-loathing. If this profession can’t learn to value itself, then I want no part of it.
I am proud to be a librarian. It’s taken me a while to be able to say that again, but I know there’s nothing else I would rather be. I know what skills I can offer the public, and where my limits are. Most importantly, I know when to refer a patron to someone better able to help. I don’t pretend to be something else. I am not ‘just’ a librarian. I am a librarian. With all the skills and knowledge that entails.
Being a librarian is good enough for me. It ought to be good enough for all of us.