Dear five-year-old me: you’ll never leave school

When I was five, my teacher went around my kindergarten class asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of the girls, as I recall, wanted to be hairdressers. Instead I proudly proclaimed that I wanted to be the first woman on the moon. Never mind the fact my eyesight is terrible and I get motion sickness on everything that moves. I was obsessed with space and I wanted to be an astronaut.

I’m pretty sure I got laughed out of class. My mum believed in me, though.

Twenty years later, I’m comfortable with my decision not to pursue a career in astronomy. Instead, I’m a few short months away from a professional qualification in librarianship. Yet I’m increasingly pessimistic about what that qualification will do for my career prospects. Sure, an MIS will adequately prepare me for a career in cataloguing or other technical services (in the library sense of the term). But recently I’ve found my interests heading more in the direction of systems librarianship, online information provision and digital preservation. And I’m no longer convinced an MIS alone will get me a job in those fields.

Undoubtedly some of this pessimism springs from the fact I’m currently between jobs. I’m in no position to be picky about what I accept, and I’m very aware that as a new professional I’m expected to spend some time in bottom-rung jobs, grinding, until someone retires and everyone levels up. Plenty of people have their degrees and work in non-LIS fields. At least I still have a few months before I graduate.

Recently I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading Bill LeFurgy’s insightful 2011 blog post ‘What skills does a digital librarian or archivist need?‘ and browsing the websites of various digital preservation thinktanks. Combined with some valuable insight from followers on Twitter (for which many thanks!), I’ve begun mulling over what sorts of attributes I ought to have in order to make it in the digital GLAM sphere.

  • Appreciation of library and archival principles — I’m looking at my copy of Laura Millar’s ‘Archives: principles and practices‘ right now and I know I’d never be a good archivist without it. With a solid grounding in theory and framework I know that digital archiving still adheres to many of the ground rules for paper or physical archiving. This kind of thing is library school bread and butter.

  • Quickly learn new skills — this is a given in a profession fighting for its very existence. Every year more workflows move online, more material is added to (and removed from) the web, more file formats and media types are created. As new ways of research, outreach and preservation are invented, staff need to not just ‘keep up’ but actively be on top of new developments in the field. Perhaps even doing the developing themselves!

  • Be able to code in Python/PHP/Ruby/HTML/SQL/etc etc — this is where LIS programs on their own tend to fall down. Countless job adverts note their preference for a candidate who can code, but LIS students from non-STEM backgrounds (of which I am one) are likely to graduate with an awareness of current technology but no concrete coding skills. Web development is an elective at CSU, which I opted not to take on account of I can already write HTML and CSS reasonably well, but students are left to develop more technical skills on their own. I’m thrilled to have recently discovered The Programming Historian, which blends programming skills with cultural heritage corpora to make digital humanities accessible to all. People don’t go to library school to learn to code, but the world is increasingly expecting library students to acquire these skills.

  • Bridge the digital divide — by which I mean digital archivists need to be able not just to immerse themselves in this strange new digital world, but relate it back to archive users and researchers who may not be technologically literate. Self-service information provision will not be the answer for all users; some people will still need the assistance of a professional to find what they need. Sustaining the human face of digital memory institutions is essential if we still want to have jobs in ten years.

While writing this post I came across A Snapshot of a 21st-Century Librarian, a fascinating account of a research librarian’s work in an academic library. Pointedly, she mentioned taking graduate classes even as a tenure-track librarian to keep up with the changes in her field. I can easily see myself taking a similar path — whatever the MIS hasn’t taught me, I’ll need to learn elsewhere. I do, however, feel like I have a lot of catching-up to do. Five-year-old me would have been aghast at the idea of never leaving school, but then again, five-year-old me had no conception of what a digital archivist is, much less the idea that I could one day become one. Being an astronaut would have looked like a pretty safe bet.

Tuesday: how it could revolutionise the Dewey Decimal System

I keep meaning to write this post when it’s not Tuesday. I also keep meaning to revolutionise library classification, but it’s slipped down my to-do list a few notches. Between looking for a new job, organising an overseas trip, writing a conference proposal and studying my last three MIS subjects, I’ve had a fair bit on. Happily, however, I’ve managed to find a spare hour for this most important discussion. Never mind the fact library cataloguers and researchers have spent entire careers on this topic, I’m an Enthusiastic New Professional™ and I can accomplish anything! [citation needed]

The inspiration for this post came from Hugh Rundle’s hilarious @lib_papers Twitter bot. It spits out nonsensical fake conference paper titles which, if you squint hard enough, could almost be real. Fortunately, however, I have the self-awareness to never style myself as an ‘entreprevational full-stack cybrarian’.

Now, to business. Plenty of authors before me have written on how terrible DDC is. It’s an antiquated, anglocentric, angst-inducing mess of a classification system. It assigns whole numbers to arcane topics and relegates vast areas of inquiry to lengthy strings (e.g. the etymology of classical Greek is awarded 482, but climate change, arguably one of the gravest issues of our time, is assigned 363.7387). It demands books on similar subjects be located far away from each other for reasons known only to a nineteenth-century white American man with a misogynist streak and a penchant for spelling reform.

DDC is so awful that growing numbers of libraries (mostly public) are choosing to do away with Dewey altogether. By ‘genrefying’ their collections, librarians and technical services staff are reclaiming their shelf order and reasserting their right to shelve a book where they see fit, not where ~Dewey~ sees fit. I’ve read many a report on the outcomes of genrefication, particularly in fiction collections and in schools, and so far I’ve been very impressed.

My first exposure to genrefication came with a visit to the (then temporary) City of Perth Library as part of a CSU study trip. (I don’t live in Perth, in case you were wondering how I had never visited the city library there.) Like any good mid-degree LIS student angling for a career in technical services, I was suitably horrified by the library’s decision to sort their print collections by genre. On reflection, however, I think the idea outraged me only because it was completely foreign. I was so thoroughly immersed in the Dewey-centric narrative promulgated by library schools everywhere that I had never considered the idea that classification could be done differently.

Certain stripes of librarians take classification really seriously. Perhaps too seriously. And I say this as someone who genuinely enjoys cataloguing. As long as a patron has a reasonable chance of finding a given book on a shelf, armed either with OPAC search results or an ability to read directional signs, and that such a book is located adjacent to other books on similar topics and/or in a reasonably intuitive place, who gives a shit what call number it’s got?

This is not to say that I support eradicating call numbers entirely. I don’t. I believe that we as librarians owe it to the public to come up with a system that doesn’t completely suck.

There is absolutely no need for library users to have to learn such a convoluted and inconsistent system. In Dewey’s day, libraries were typically closed-stack affairs anyway — the only people who had any need to learn the classification system were the library staff, for whom the idea of ‘browsability’ was not an issue. In an age where bookshops are organised by genre and video rental shops (R.I.P.) were similarly classified, why is it anathema for libraries, especially public and school libraries, to arrange their wares in a similar manner?

Dewey is easier for librarians, not for patrons. Dewey means technical services staff don’t have to classify every item from scratch if they don’t want to or can’t. Ostensibly, Dewey also means that any book on a given topic will have roughly the same call number anywhere Dewey is used. Yet I’ve come across numerous examples in the course of my work, in a library which uses Dewey for its modest physical collection, where the same item was given wildly different call numbers depending on the cataloguer. I found one edition of The Best Australian Science Writing, a monograph in annual series, in 500 and another in 800. Learning the implementation of Dewey in one library does not guarantee it will be the same elsewhere.

Alarmingly, I’ve reached almost 800 words and have yet to present any kind of workable alternative to Dewey. I know there’s one out there, though. In the coming weeks and months I intend to devote some of my spare brainpower to the idea, once I’ve finished all the other things I noted above. But the @lib_papers bot has, amusingly, almost come full circle. I look forward to one day genuinely presenting a paper on how Tuesday will help revolutionise DDC. Further thoughts on that will, alas, have to wait for another Tuesday.


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.