You don’t scare me! I’m a librarian!

Being a librarian, I have discovered, comes with a lot of advantages. I can defeat Google with my superior searching and indexing skills for the benefit of patrons everywhere. I can talk proudly about how hard I work to make my library a better place. I can shush with impunity (only because our ref desk is in a designated quiet space). I can meet other librarians and know we’ll have something in common. Above all, I can sleep at night, knowing my job is intrinsically good and whole and meaningful.

See, I used to fear all of these things. I once thought Google was as good as it got, and I didn’t want to ask for help. I never wanted to talk about my work in case I appeared boastful, egotistic or fake. I used to hate shushing people, for fear it would perpetuate librarian stereotypes. Other people terrify me, so networking was (and is) painful and scary. And I’ve worked jobs that I was scared to go to, because the job crushed and violated my morals each and every day, and there was no end in sight.

So how did I do it?

Obviously I didn’t come straight into libraryland knowing this stuff. It wasn’t until I started my MIS, and received explicit instruction to this effect, that I realised the extent of my poor search habits, that there was something beyond Google (don’t look at me like that, I’m a millennial). I finally realised I hadn’t necessarily been doing it wrong, but that I could be doing it so much better. Search prefixes. Boolean. Union catalogues. Discovery layers. Trove. OMG. So empowering. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone (even if they weren’t interested). I found myself full of something I hadn’t known existed: ‘information confidence’. Not confidence in myself, necessarily, but confidence in my ability to locate, distil and critically examine information. It’s a good feeling.

You’ll have noticed I tweet a lot about cool stuff other people are doing, but not a lot about cool stuff I’m doing. This is partly because I can’t talk about things at work that aren’t yet public, and also because I’m keen to not humblebrag about how great / busy / exhausted I am. But recently I’ve become much more aware of the importance of highlighting librarian labour. Every aspect of library work—reference, acquisitions, programs, cataloguing, outreach, shelving, the lot—is valuable. Some parts of that work (programs, outreach) are more visible than others (acquisitions, cataloguing). Some of that work is valued differently (by management, and also by payroll). Being primarily a back-of-house worker, I need to work harder at demonstrating how hard I work and what I do to make collections accessible and discoverable by our users. It’s critically important not to minimise the length of time or amount of money one spends doing something, lest others think they, too, could achieve it in that timeframe and with that budget. I always used to diminish myself when talking about my work. Now I talk about my efforts with pride. It’s a powerful feeling.

Recently, I’ve had to up my shushing skills. Our reference desk is situated, oddly, in our library’s ‘quiet space’. People really value this space, and so I’ve had to get used to enforcing the quiet by way of a good shush. I don’t like doing it. I used to hate having to go up to noisy chatters or loud call-takers and ask them to keep the noise down and take the call outside. But at least it no longer scares me. Being a staff member affords me certain privileges within the library, and shushing is one of them. (Others include being able to evacuate people in a fire drill and using the exalted Staff Toaster™ for lunchtime jaffles.) I’ve only really gotten better at shushing through experience. I now know how best to phrase a shush, from a pointed smile to a simple ‘shhh’ to a polite ‘hey can you try and keep the noise down, this is a quiet space’ to a firm ‘take the call outside, please’ (and they know I’m not asking). It’s a comfortable feeling.

People scare me. People are weird, unpredictable, incomprehensible things. I always look the wrong way and say the wrong things. I can’t people. It’s a known fact. So naturally a big part of librarianship (as with many other professions) is networking with fellow library workers and people in related fields. ‘Why did I choose this career?!’ I say to myself, perhaps not as regularly as I used to. ‘Nobody told me there would be so much socialising!’ The best way to overcome this fear, it turns out, was to face it head-on. Knowing that I find this sort of thing hard and scary, I deliberately inserted myself into situations where I would be forced to network and make small talk. I did this at ALIA meetings, at ASA meetings, at NDF and at NLS8. People seemed to want to talk to me back, so I took that as a sign I wasn’t doing everything totally wrong. I still don’t always know when to stop talking, and I can’t always tell when someone would, politely, like to talk to someone else. But I definitely know I’ve gotten better at this. It’s an incredible feeling.

I’m exceptionally lucky to have a job that comes with a good set of morals. I haven’t always been so fortunate—I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in call centres, I’ve worked in warehouses and I’ve worked in some questionable pizza joints. To be clear: blue-collar, low-skill jobs are not in and of themselves morally deficient, and I would never judge someone for working in these fields to support themselves. But all of the above places existed either to sell a product or to make people’s lives miserable, and I feared for my health and my sanity while I worked in them. Libraries, on the other hand, exist to make people happy. We exist to enrich the populace, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We offer a place to rest, to study, to discover, to chase small children around beanbags. We are here for you. All of you. And we don’t charge a cent. (Except maybe for photocopies.) How could I ever fear a place like this? How could I ever again be scared of going to work? For as long as I’m in the library sector, I don’t think I’ll be scared of my own job. And that’s a great feeling.

It’s a great comfort to look back on things I used to fear so much and know that the fear is largely gone. Don’t worry, there are still non-library-related things I’m scared of (heights, mostly). But on the whole, conquering these fears has made me a better, more confident, more engaging and more effective librarian.

And that’s a wonderful feeling.

Five things I learned from #NLS8

It’s the Wednesday after the weekend before, and I’m exhausted just thinking about NLS8 (the ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium in Canberra, which I attended last weekend). To be honest, I’m exhausted just thinking about a lot of things. I wasn’t clever enough to get the following Monday off work, so I’ve been showing up all week with a head full of ideas and a to-do list as long as your arm. I usually drink tea at our weekly morning meeting, but this week I drank Berocca instead.

I’m overjoyed to report that I had an absolute ball at NLS8. It was a great use of a weekend that I would otherwise have spent doing very little. I also definitely got out of the conference what I had hoped to: I networked with like-minded and similarly-aged people, I attended all bar one of the events I wanted (and that one was due to a clash), and I had an unseemly amount of fun. I also learnt a lot, too. Here is a selection of those things:

My reputation precedes me! Despite having a kaleidoscopic swirlygig for a face and not specifying my surname, my hometown or my place of employment anywhere on the internet, I was astonished by how many people recognised who I was, and who seemed pleased to meet me. My prodigious use of Twitter accounted for most of this. In fact, I had at least three conversations broadly modelled on the following:

Me: Hi, I’m Alissa! 😄
Them: Oh, hi! … *double-take* Do you tweet? 🤔
Me: … yes 😔

I also had several people tell me how much they enjoyed my blog, which was just such a huge thrill. I heard that people like that I generally say what I think, which is not usually what the library industry wants to hear. In all honesty, though, I don’t have the good sense to know when to shut up. I have always been quite a blunt person, though I’m trying to learn how to be more polite while still being direct and to the point. Let me know if I’m failing miserably!

NLS8 really focussed on teaching useful skills. I had chosen talks and workshops with a practical bent, as I was very keen to come out of NLS8 with an expanded toolbox of concrete, applicable skills that I could use at work. Accordingly, the Library Carpentry workshop by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones, which taught the basics of OpenRefine, fit this bill perfectly. By the end of the session I felt like I could not only use OpenRefine confidently and to great effect, but that I knew exactly how I would do so at work the following Monday! (My notes for this session included ‘Dead useful!’, ‘The data cleaning tool I knew existed but didn’t know how to use!’ and ‘Such great teaching too!’) I also enjoyed Jade Koekoe‘s session on DIY Marketing for Libraries, a topic I know absolutely nothing about. Despite not having a creative bone in my body I managed to make a infographic in Canva, a tool I shall certainly use again.

I met some wonderful people whom I really admire. I had the pleasure of meeting ILN co-founder, keynote speaker and all-around gem Clare McKenzie (who was inexplicably keen to meet me too!). We had a great chat about the awesomeness that is New Zealand’s National Digital Forum and the GLAM Digitisation Google+ group that we co-moderate. I also followed Clare’s keynote advice and told a few people that I love their work, including Matthew, who does some great digitisation and digipres stuff; Nathan, who runs an absolutely fantastic blog on archival decolonialism (seriously, read it); and Katie, who is one of the nicest and coolest people I’ve ever met, and who also creates some bangin’ #critlib zines.

It’s okay to say no. Several speakers, most notably keynote Mylee Joseph, followed a running theme of exhorting delegates to get out there and say ‘yes!’ to things. Go for that job for which you satisfy almost all the criteria, put your hand up for a volunteer role, collaborate with people across teams, workplaces and professions, that kind of thing. Yet we were also encouraged to recognise our limits and say ‘no’ to things that weren’t right for us or that we didn’t have time for. I wound up saying no on two occasions to things I might otherwise, in a different time and a different place, have said yes to. The first was an invitation to be more involved in an ALIA Students and New Graduates group, whose events I attend semi-regularly. I was in fact asked several times but said no to each, reasoning that I have more than enough on my plate right now, and social organising has never been my forte anyway. The second was an invite from aforementioned idol Clare McKenzie for a selfie for our Google+ group. Despite admiring Clare a great deal and not wanting to disappoint, the group is public-facing and our (meaning my) photo would have been visible to the entire internet. I have very strict rules for myself (and have done for several years) about not putting my face online, which meant I had to say no to her offer. I felt really bad afterwards, but I know I would have felt worse had I done something that was so contrary to my values, and which I couldn’t undo.

NLS8 helped affirm a lot of my values, about librarianship and also about other things. For many attendees, the keynote speech from library evangelist R. David Lankes was undoubtedly a revelatory experience in their library careers. Lankes says a lot of things that chafe a little against the library establishment, including (paraphrasing) ‘Information literacy makes people feel better about their lousy skills’ and ‘Data often says far more about who it’s collected by than who it’s about’. His talk was all the confirmation I needed of the virtue of maintaining personal privacy online and limiting my exposure on social media. It was gratifying and reassuring that very little of the content of his keynote was news to me. I’m very aware of the risks posed by the internet: to librarianship, to information literacy and to us as human beings, and I’ve spent years ranting about them to anyone who will listen. (One of the umpteen books on my to-read list, incidentally, is called The Internet Is Not The Answer.) I’m so glad my fellow delegates had the opportunity to hear Lankes’ speech.

For my part, I spent the following session in the breakout room, trying to reconcile these progressive values of new librarianship with the unbridled capitalism that underlies so much of our profession, particularly in areas such as vendor negotiation. I had attended a workshop the previous day on the work of special libraries, hosted by GRAIL, who are part of the State Library of Queensland. The workshop was well run and I found it very informative and highly illuminating. I left the workshop with a far greater appreciation of the realities of special libraries—but I also thought that some of those realities kinda suck, especially the bits about paying extravagant amounts of money for resources the library doesn’t even own. I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear of the necessity of justifying the library’s services in purely dollar terms. These are our realities right now, but it doesn’t always have to be this way.

NLS8 really was all about the future, which I’m excited to be a part of. I left the NLA feeling re-invigorated and re-energised about my chosen career. I hope we can all take the positive energy from NLS8 and sustain it in our regular LIS practice. The future of our profession depends on it.

What I’m looking forward to at #NLS8

To a chorus of shrugs, I have managed to resurrect this blog and make a few cosmetic changes. I literally have a pile of papers on my desk with ideas for future blog posts, harried Opinions scribbled thereon. I do wonder what I was thinking when I wrote some of them down. “The dangers of personal branding” “Representing draft–final relationships in LRM and Bibframe” “But why do we hate serials???”

In case you thought this made me a dull person, some of you may soon have the chance to let me know in person. The ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium is coming up this Friday to Sunday, and I’ll be in attendance. Now in its eighth iteration, NLS8 has been spoken of quite warmly by previous attendees, and it looks to be a fun and informative conference. Loads of people I know are going. (By ‘know’, I mean ‘follow on Twitter’.)

As expected, many of the attendees will be LIS students, many others new graduates / new professionals, and a few others serial attendees who can’t get enough of NLS. I’m in the slightly odd situation of being both a student and a new professional; I was astonishingly fortunate enough to score a professional-level library job despite not yet having that bit of paper. Some days I can’t believe my luck. Other days I can believe it, because I know the refreshing perspectives that new professionals bring to LIS, and I’d like to think I’m good at what I do.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to networking and socialising with people my own age. I’m the youngest professional-level librarian at MPOW by over a decade, and sometimes the generation gap is painfully obvious. It’ll be really nice to meet library-inclined people at similar stages in their career and see how they’re faring, and maybe snag a few tips.

I had a hard time deciding which talks and workshops I would attend, because so many of the speakers are so good! I’m particularly keen for (in chronological order)

  • Getting down and dirty: modern realities of special libraries (Angela Vilkins, Cassie Pummell, Anna Landy & Amy Walduck)
  • Increasing digital preservation skills in libraries (Kimberley Dye)
  • DIY marketing for libraries (the indefatigable Jade Koekoe)
  • #auslibchat and social librarians (Elizabeth Alvey, James McGoran & Katie Miles-Barnes)
  • and whichever workshop on Sunday session 3 is not full, because I desperately want to attend all five! (Sam Searle, Irma Birchall, Sharee Cordes, Madelin Meddlycott & Michael Hawks, Andrew Kelly)

Finally, I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to getting out of my little office and doing something fun. I’ve found myself with a lot on my plate this week (some good, some bad, some planned, some unexpected) and it’ll be nice to leave that all behind for a couple of days, listening to impassioned speakers and chatting with fellow new professionals. Honestly I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my weekend doing.

(Except maybe sleeping. I love sleeping.)

The cataloguer’s dungeon

These things keep me up at night. I would usually feel guilty for not worrying about climate change and the impending extinction of humanity, but I did that last month. So I’m letting it slide.

Like any normal twenty-something alone on a Saturday night, I found myself idly browsing my workplace’s catalogue for something to read. My literary diet has long had a nihilistic flavour—the top two books in a tottering pile to my immediate left are The Shock of the Anthropocene and The World Without Us (the latter recommended by Hugh), both sobering warnings on the fate of our planet. I thought I might try something fictional and/or optimistic for a change, but instead wound up on the entry for the film adaptation of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a true story of a murder at a dinner party. How uplifting.

Being a cataloguer and therefore not a normal person, I noticed a lack of added entries for this record. In English, this refers to additional people, entities or works associated with a work (but which are not subjects of the record). A record can only have one main entry, but it can have as many added entries as you want (this is a limitation of the MARC data format). Usually this means additional authors, translators, actors, directors, issuing bodies and so on. An added entry can also be a work which has been adapted by another work. For the film Joe Cinque’s Consolation, I was expecting to see an entry for the book of the same name, written by Helen Garner.

I flipped to the MARC view, which (to me) often makes more sense than the public view. Lo and behold, there was the added entry:

700 1# $i Motion picture adaptation of (work). $a Garner, Helen, $d 1942-. $t Joe Cinque's consolation.

I checked another DVD record with fewer subject headings, in case space was causing a display issue. Nothing. I checked a few books. Still nothing. How had I never noticed this? I tried to console myself by reasoning that I never use the OPAC for work purposes, always the staff backend, which does display 7XX fields in the bibliographic record. Nobody told me these entries don’t appear to the public! Our ILS is 14 years old and slated for replacement, but it should have been able to cope with added entries right out of the box. It copes with RDA… ish… but doesn’t do anything particularly useful with the new information RDA provides.

By now wondering if this was a common problem, I looked at a couple of other libraries that held this DVD. Some displayed the full added entry, some omitted the ‘Motion picture adaptation’ part, and others used only the author’s name without the book title (which is less useful if you have no idea who Helen Garner is, and there’s no relationship designator to tell you). One library, clearly a SirsiDynix Symphony setup, displayed almost nothing unless I clicked on ‘Catalogue Record’, the contents of which will mean almost nothing to a casual user.

I returned to our catalogue, flipped back to non-MARC view and tried a general keyword search with another added entry (an actor’s name). This brought up the record for the DVD, but gave me no clue whatsoever as to why that record had appeared. How… unintuitive.

At this point, I began to feel greatly deceived. Why am I being paid to create metadata that the public can’t even see?

I looked at the MARC record again. How many other useful fields weren’t being displayed? How much information in fixed fields could actually be used in a query? For this particular DVD record, non-displayed useful fields included:

  • creator/producer note (508)
  • performers note (511) and
  • added entries for the actors and directors, as well as the original book (700 and 710).

By looking at this record, a user would have no way of knowing the director and main actors in the film, despite this information being encoded twice in the MARC record (once in a note and once as an added entry). It’s the kind of information I would be looking for if I were an OPAC user. Other libraries were, however, much better at displaying this data.

For the last several months I’ve been happily typing away in my little cataloguer’s dungeon, oblivious to the utter uselessness of many of the records I create. Well, actually, that’s not strictly fair—the records themselves are fine, but the system that manages them is not. Yes, we’ve been promised a new ILS sometime soon. But this added-entry problem has been around for 14 years. Either nobody noticed, or nobody cared, or nobody had the skill to do anything, or nobody was game to take on our vendor and ask for a solution, or nobody even saw it as a problem that needed fixing.

There are several problems here. Cataloguers (me included) should have an understanding of how their records will appear to an end-user. Systems librarians and administrators should be aware of what sort of data a) their cataloguers are producing and b) their users are looking for, and ensure that the OPAC’s offering meets all needs. Users should be empowered to give feedback about their discovery experience and know that their feedback will be taken seriously. Vendors should perhaps be selling less terrible products. Management should perhaps be buying less terrible products.

In the immediate term, it means I have to re-evaluate my use of added entries vis-à-vis general note (500) fields to ensure maximum usefulness for the end user. It bothers me greatly that I have to do this. MARC has an abundance of clearly defined fields for a reason. It should be up to the system to display them appropriately, not up to me to compensate for the system’s failings.

I looked again at the record for Joe Cinque’s Consolation, by now a source of great frustration when all I wanted was something fun to read. Buried in the Notes section, in tiny font, were the words: ‘Based on the book by Helen Garner’. Thankyou record, you came through after all. But why was this info in the Notes field at all? We can do so much better than this…

(To be continued)