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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are critical radical librarians! So this happened:

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

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

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

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

‘Just’ a librarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

An entitlement to knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m determined to back myself.

2017: the year of learning dangerously

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

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

Improve my digital skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get some perspective

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

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

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

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

‘They said it couldn’t happen here.’

I haven’t yet finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. I’ve been trying to read it for months. I borrowed it from the library twice and still haven’t made it to the last page. I know how it ends, though, and it leaves more questions than answers.

Written between the world wars and at a time when Hitler’s true motives were unknown to most Americans, the novel describes the rise of a fascist American demagogue who turns the United States into a dictatorship. It’s an unsettling read. Until yesterday, it was speculative fiction. Now, it’s almost an instruction manual.

Sorry, Sinclair. Turns out it can happen here.


Today I attended a symposium on digital collections. I’d been really excited about going, and I wound up getting a lot out of the day, but this morning my heart just wasn’t in it. As I walked from the bus stop to the venue my thoughts were, naturally enough, given over to the news from America and what that would mean for me, an educated twenty-something white lady from the Antipodes.

In the last eight years, has American politics directly affected my day-to-day life? No. Has it affected the laws I live under and the way I view government? A little bit, but overall not much. Will the new administration affect my day-to-day life? Possibly, but there’s an ocean and layers of government between us, not all members of which will be receptive to his ideas. I’m fortunate to be so far away.

Am I in any position to affect or change anything in America? Concretely? Practically? No. No I am not.

But what can I do? I can act locally. I can ensure that what has come to pass abroad does not rear its ugly head in my city. I can support, with my time and/or money, causes and organisations that seek to better our society for all who live here. I can raise awareness of good people doing, saying and thinking good things. 

Most of all, I can use my skills as an archivist and a librarian to take information and information literacy to the masses. If people are gonna get all their information from Google and Facebook, let’s try to make that information reliable and accurate, and show people what they might be missing. If people are currently inclined to believe everything they hear, let’s gently educate them of the perils of that habit. If people are being ill-treated as a direct result of the election, let’s show them how they can record and preserve their experiences.

I can’t change the world, but I can record it.

This realisation has helped me process the news from abroad. At first, like most people, I was upset, anxious and terrified. Deep down I still am all those things, but I can’t be those forever, and my privilege enables me to focus on practical steps. The world needs people who can document these uncertain times. I can only hope to be one of those people. Without hope, we are truly finished.

Post-factualism

I ought to have known I could never write an apolitical blog. After all, I don’t live and work in a bubble and neither do you. The actions of our leaders and leadership aspirants affect us all, in both professional and personal spheres.

I am not British, though I am of British ancestry (largely from Scotland). I have never been to Britain. Yet the shock decision of a majority of Britons to leave the European Union and the consequential political chaos of Brexit has made headline news around the world. I’ve found myself powerfully interested. Among the mass of economic and political analysis, dissecting what went wrong and what is still to come, there lies an uncomfortable observation.

It wasn’t just that white working-class voters didn’t engage with the Remain camp’s policies. It wasn’t that there was no truth to their claims or those of the Leave camp, but that the truth was now of secondary importance. People weren’t interested in the truth. Either they had no particular desire to learn, to discover, to find out more, or society at large was sending a clear message that it was no longer necessary. This wave of anti-intellectualism convinced people that ‘experts’ could be safely ignored.

Among the rush of pithy Brexit tweets was one, which I have sadly since lost but will now paraphrase, proclaiming that in our age of post-factualism the library is now clearly more important than ever. The level of obliviousness in this tweet stunned me. People are already surrounded by information in multiple formats: print, online, image, audio, video. Incredible amounts of information on almost any conceivable topic is already available via the internet, which itself is more widely accessible than ever. Why would people go to the library, which requires some effort, for something the internet can already provide for much less effort?

Moreover, does the aforementioned tweet author labour under the misapprehension that librarians are curators of all this online knowledge? Do they really think confused voters will approach a librarian looking for voting advice (or indeed advice on any other political topic)? Perhaps this is the case in some libraries, but I’ve yet to come across it—and I’ve worked in libraries with a heavy focus on politics. Most of our users knew what they wanted and were not interested in alternative views.

If libraries really are the saviour of popular ignorance, then we as librarians have a lot of work to do.

‘Librarian’ is not a dirty word

Being at the end of all the serials routing lists at work, I noticed only today a thought-provoking editorial in the March/April edition of Online Searcher about renaming and rebranding exercises on the part of various professional organisations. Words like ‘library’ and ‘records manager’ are out and ‘information’ is in.

Marydee Ojala’s editorial reads, in part:

[W]hat information professionals do doesn’t necessarily happen in a library. We need to embrace information as fully as we embrace libraries and librarians. We need to position ourselves as being in the forefront of the information economy, not necessarily by discarding the “L” word but by proclaiming our role as information experts.

Immediately, by using ‘the “L” word’, the reader conceptualises the word negatively. They don’t need to know what the word actually is to subconsciously think of it as a bad thing. The word ‘library’ isn’t exactly in vogue at the moment, I get that, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the term. Libraries are not bad places. Librarian is not a dirty word.

By replacing ‘library’ with ‘information’ in the titles of professional associations, university departments and the like, we risk further removing what we do from what the public thinks we do. Public libraries and school libraries are still called exactly that. The public knows what a library is. If the public notion of what libraries do is inaccurate, then that’s up to us to fix. When asked my occupation, I proudly respond with ‘librarian!’ and promptly dispel the notion that I sit on my rear end all day doing reader’s advisory. I would never rebrand myself as an ‘information professional’, because that could mean absolutely anything.

It’s very true that many trained librarians do not work in libraries, or that their work would not traditionally be considered ‘library’ work. It’s also true that (thankfully) I’m not in the position of having to beg for funding from bean-counters who truly do not understand what libraries do, and for whom alternative terminology is obligatory. But completely removing the ‘library’ from librarianship is not the answer. Our profession will not solve its image problem by running away from the word altogether. Instead, we ought to redefine what ‘library’ means so that it loses its tired, dusty, archaic senses and becomes a vibrant word again. Libraries encompass more than just dispensing information—why not embrace all aspects of an essential profession?

Being a paid-up member of the Australian Library and Information Association, formerly the Library Association of Australia and before that the Australian Institute of Librarians, I think the organisation is doing okay in balancing the future of our profession with its roots. I would, however, be firmly against the removal of ‘library’ should it ever come up.

Our future may well be in information, but the “L” word is ours for the reclaiming.

References
Ojala, M. (2016). Future, thy name is information. Online Searcher, 40(2), 4. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1777697608