Cò mise? = Who am I?

‘An nì a thig leis a’ ghaoith, falbhaidh e leis an uisge. What comes with the wind, will go with the rain.’ Wall print in the hallway of Museum nan Eilean Siar, Lews Castle, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais), September 2016. Photograph by the author

Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste.
It is better to have broken Gàidhlig than dead Gàidhlig.
— Scottish Gaelic proverb

An invitation by GLAM Blog Club to discuss ‘identity’ has taken me in all sorts of unexpected directions. For one thing, I was fortunate enough to finally attend a Cardi Party, held this month at the Melbourne Immigration Museum, which has helped shape my nebulous thoughts. I’ve also spent most of this week in bed, fighting off a nasty illness gifted me by the city of Melbourne. You know I’ll be back, though.

Talking about identity invariably entails talking about yourself. Who you are, where you have come from, where you are going, what you believe, and so on. Yet it should also entail talking about everyone else, because identities are shared just as much as they are kept to oneself. Whatever I am, someone else is also.

The extent to which we might choose our identities has occupied my thoughts for some time. Identities can be (and are) granted, revoked, adopted, rejected, gifted, stolen, bought and sold. We express our identities in myriad ways—culture, language, ethnicity, dress, official papers, unofficial papers, oral histories, written histories, birth ceremonies, burial rites. Some of these identities have been chosen for me. Some I cannot change. Many I have picked for myself. A few have been thrust upon me. A couple taken by force.

About a year or so ago I began casually learning Gaelic. Known to speakers as Gàidhlig, a language understood by 1.7% of the people of Scotland,1 threatened with extinction in the long term, and spoken by less than a thousand people in Australia,2 it may appear a strange choice of hobby. For various reasons I haven’t been learning as intensely as I once did, but I enjoy following Twitter accounts in the language (using my other account @lis_gaidhlig) and am pleasantly surprised by how much I understand. Gaelic is closely related to Irish (Gaeilge) and Manx (Gaelg) and is part of the Celtic family of languages. It is not to be confused with Scots, the Germanic language closely related to English.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why I chose Gaelic. While it wasn’t originally my idea, it became something in which I was intermittently interested. I no longer have access to the learners’ guides, yet I’ve found myself actually using my skills more than ever. Curiously, I don’t know if any of my ancestors ever actually spoke Gaelic (I think it’s likely, but I’d have to ask my grandmother); certainly nobody in my extended family currently speaks the language.

Writing this post represented the first time I started to think critically about my relationship with Gaelic. I began asking myself copious questions, most of which I couldn’t immediately answer. Did I choose Gaelic (or was Gaelic chosen for me) out of a genuine desire to reconnect with my Scottish roots? My (extremely) Scottish surname was handed down through my family’s 150-odd years of Australian habitation, and yet it was not the name I was born with. I chose this name, much as I chose my family. Does the name conceal other areas of Britain and Europe from which I am descended? Why did I choose this strand of ancestry and not others?

Is there a performative aspect to this exploration of my identity? Am I only aligning myself more with ‘Scottish’ because it’s politically expedient to not be ‘English’? Is it part of a quest for a more concrete ethnicity than ‘generic white Australian’? Am I echoing middle-class Lowland Scots in appropriating a culture and language which is no longer truly mine? Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland (today, chiefly the Hebrides) are cold, remote and economically disadvantaged. Is it my place to enjoy the good things without the bad?

Faerie Glen
Cold, remote, economically disadvantaged, yet still hauntingly beautiful. Faerie Glen, near Uig, Isle of Skye (Eilean Sgitheanach), August 2016. Photograph by the author

Am I looking for a point of difference? A homeland? A place I can point to, despite never having lived there, and say ‘That is my home’? I was privileged to visit Scotland last year, the realisation of a lifelong dream. When I first saw the outskirts of Edinburgh from the plane window, Scotland felt like the strange, exciting, foreign country it was. But it also felt like home. Should it have done?

Is it a response to becoming more educated and aware (some might say ‘woke’) about the black history of Australia, and in particular what Scottish settlers did to Aboriginal people? A reaction to the knowledge that the land I live on, the only home I have ever known, is not mine and was never ceded? A realisation that if I were to repatriate myself, to go back to where I came from, I’d better know where to start?

Moreover, had this sudden interest rendered me the Scottish equivalent of a ‘weeaboo’, because I drink whisky and Irn Bru, listen to a lot of Gaelic folk music and have strong views on Scottish independence? I decided it had not, chiefly because I don’t think everything from or about Scotland is automatically superior to non-Scottish equivalents. (Surprisingly, the thing I missed most about Australia when I visited Scotland was a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables!)

When asked, I don’t tell people that I’m Scottish, because I’m not. I’ve never lived in Scotland, I’ve visited only once, I don’t hold a passport and I don’t speak the language. I say I’m Australian and leave it at that. Occasionally I might get ‘where’s your family from’ (not the more insulting ‘where are you really from’ doled out to non-white people), at which point I might specify Scotland. Yet where is the line drawn between ‘having Scottish heritage’ (or any other ethnocultural affiliation) and ‘being Scottish’? At what point, if any, will I ever be ‘Scottish enough’?

Seeing the Highland tartan exhibit at the Immigration Museum brought a lot of these issues into sharp focus. The Clan MacDonald tartan, easily recognisable with its bold reds and muted greens, formed the backdrop to a medal made of silver, a first prize for dance at the Buninyong Highland Society in country Victoria. Inscribed on the obverse is a curious epigraph, left untranslated by curators: ‘Làmh na Ceartais’. The hand of justice. But for whom?

Highland medal
‘Medal – Buninyong Highland Society, First Prize Strathspeys & Reels, Australia, 1860’. Displayed at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, July 2017. Photograph by the author

While researching the background to this post I discovered two books that might help me answer some of my questions surrounding the legitimacy of my Scottish identity. The first is The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, a 2004 PhD thesis by St John Skilton. It documents the efforts of Scottish expats, descendants of immigrants and interested learners to keep the language alive an leth-chruinne a deas (in the Southern Hemisphere), as well as broader questions of Gaelic ethnicity in Australia and LOTE teaching traditions in Australian schools. At almost 400 pages it’s a hefty read, but one I intend to savour.

The second is Caledonia Australis, a 1984 book by Don Watson exploring the intersection of emigrant Scottish Highlanders and the indigenous Kurnai people of what is now Gippsland in western Victoria. Many Highland Scots were forced to emigrate after being thrown off their land by the English during the Highland Clearances. Those who sailed to Australia systematically dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land, just as the English had dispossessed the Highlanders of theirs. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of this book, and I regret that I could not incorporate its histories into this post.

For a final word on Gaelic identity, I turn to Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain, 1911-1996), one of the great Gaelic writers and poets. His thoughts on the topic (in English) were set to music in ‘Somhairle’ by the Gaelic electronic band Niteworks, whose album NW is one of my favourites. (I recently bought their gear on Bandcamp and conversed with one of the band members in Gaelic!) Sorley was an ardent defender of his culture and language in the face of English dominance and destruction. It seems only fitting that his words lend us a sense of his grim determination to survive, as well as that of his language.

Ever since I was a boy in Raasay
and became aware of the differences between the history I read in books
and the oral accounts I heard around me,
I have been very sceptical of what might be called received history;
the million people for instance who died in Ireland in the nineteenth century;
the million more who had to emigrate;
the thousands of families forced from their homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Why was all that?
Famine? Overpopulation? Improvement? The Industrial Revolution? Expansion overseas?
You see not many of these people understood such words,
they knew only Gaelic.
But we know now another set of words:
clearance, empire, profit, exploitation,
and today we live with the bitter legacy of that kind of history.
Our Gaelic language is threatened with extinction,
our way of life besieged by the forces of international big business,
our countries beggared by bad communication,
our culture is depreciated by the sentimentality of those who have gone away.
We have, I think, a deep sense of generation and community
but that has in so many ways been broken.
We have a history of resistance but now
mainly in the songs we sing.
Our children are bred for emigration.

  1. Scotland’s Census 2011: Gaelic report (part 1) (this encompasses all levels of fluency, so the number of true speakers is certainly lower) 
  2. The Survey of Scottish Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand, 2004, p. 183 (it’s closer to 800, and that was in 2003) 

Applied Pragmatic Cataloguing: a reading list

I’ve long been an advocate of what I call ‘pragmatic cataloguing’. You may know the phrase ‘user-centred cataloguing’, which is similar, but narrower in scope.

Being a pragmatic cataloguer involves taking a good hard look at:

  • what you record
  • where you record it
  • how many times you record it
  • what purpose you record it for
  • what terminology you use to record it and
  • whether a patron can fully access and use what you have recorded.

To give but two examples: a cataloguer may decide that the most appropriate LCSH for a work would be exclusionary and/or misleading to a patron, and so use another controlled vocabulary or some free text keywords instead. Longer-term, they might consider petitioning LC for a change of heading, but in order to best serve their patrons right now, they choose alternative headings from different sources, and inform the library employee in charge of cataloguing standards what they chose and why.

In another scenario, an audiovisual specialist cataloguer may have a large backlog and be pressed for time, yet must catalogue items from scratch. Their OPAC does not index, display or otherwise harness the detailed metadata for AV items (or indeed for any items) in the fixed fields of a MARC record. Knowing this, they may decide to skip the fixed field data entry and instead focus on fields that their OPAC can process and display to a user, even if this means creating an ‘incomplete’ record.

Normally I would sit down and write a long (and slightly inaccessible) essay about this topic, but why listen to my waffle when you can read the sources for yourself? I was inspired to collate a reading list by this delightful Twitter conversation. This list is surely incomplete, so I would welcome any suggestions for additional content. I hope you enjoy reading these articles and resources as much as I enjoyed finding them.

Where possible I’ve tried to use OA / freely available resources, because that’s chiefly what I have available to me at the moment, but some of these are paywalled and/or physical.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009a). Applying the User-Centered Paradigm to Cataloging Standards in Theory and Practice: Problems and Prospects. 2009, Vol 2:27-34. [Open access]

Gretchen Hoffman has written quite a lot in this space. This well-referenced, accessible article begins by pointing out that the term ‘user-centred cataloguing’ invariably runs into difficulty because cataloguers often do not know who their users are, and in today’s world a library’s users could be literally anybody. Standards have heretofore required cataloguers only to think about their users, not actually have a user-centred approach; cataloguers have in turn believed that adhering to standards will best serve users, eve when this is patently not the case. Hoffman suggests a rethink of the widespread practice of taking ‘master’ records (eg. OCLC, but also Libraries Australia) and adapting them for local use—such adaptations could be merged into national practice, or different ‘master’ records for, say, academic and school libraries could be considered.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009b). Meeting Users’ Needs in Cataloging: What is the Right Thing to Do?, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 47(7), pp. 631-641 [Not open access]

Hoffman’s CCQ article is a revised, expanded and slightly more biting version of the OA article reviewed above. Here she delves further into the topic of cataloguing ethics, concluding that cataloguers are behaving as if they have none, and broadens the suggestion of ‘domains’ of cataloguing based on the intended user (eg. academic and school libraries).

Barbara Tillett’s response to this (also in CCQ) is illuminating: having taken the article very much to heart (and understandably so), she hits out at Hoffman’s characterisation of cataloguers as ‘unethical’ and wishes the article were more ‘upbeat’. My personal thoughts on this could easily occupy another blog post; suffice it to say I’m less sympathetic to Tillett than most other cataloguers would be.

Baia, Wendy (2008). ‘User-centred serials cataloging’. In Roberto, K.R. (ed.) Radical cataloging: essays at the front. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland &​ Co. [Not open access]

The Google Books preview of this chapter is incomplete, and so must my annotation be also. Baia clearly shares my enthusiasm for flexible cataloguing practices and disdain for those who can’t see past the rulebook. Her chief bugbear is successive entry serials cataloguing, whereby a new record must be created whenever a main entry changes (author / title / uniform title). Users hate this because it means various ‘bits’ of a serial are strewn throughout the catalogue, yet cataloguers persist in doing it anyway. The end of the chapter includes a very helpful bullet point list of characteristics a user-centred serials cataloguer ought to possess, which largely boil down to pragmatism, open-mindedness and a user-focussed approach.

Baia, Wendy & Randall, Kevin M. & Leathern, Cecilia (1998) Creativity in Serials Cataloging, The Serials Librarian, 34(3-4), 313-321 [Open access]

An earlier article from Baia expands on her notion of ‘creative cataloguing’, outlining what a serial record catalogued according to latest entry rules might look like. This article is old, and the example of course is an AACR2 record, but the theory holds true.

Drabenstott, Karen, Simcox. Schelle and Fenton, Eileen (1999). End-User Understanding of Subject Headings in Library Catalogs. Library Resources and Technical Services, 43(3), pp. 140-160. [Open access]

This article outlines a study of adults’ and children’s understanding of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the assignment thereof. Participants were issued questionnaires at selected public libraries in the U.S with a set of headings, and were asked to interpret what they meant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people weren’t very successful at this; less than half of the LCSH corpus were interpreted ‘correctly’ (i.e. in accordance with the opinion of an expert subject cataloguer). Prime reasons for this included the difficulty of vocabulary and the obtuse structure of LCSH subdivisions. Is LCSH an appropriate controlled vocabulary, if users don’t understand what headings mean?
While the structure of LCSH has remained more or less the same since this study was carried out, the introduction of faceted (i.e. not subdivided) vocabs like FAST may improve comprehension of headings by end users.

Hufford, Jon R. (2007). The Pragmatic Basis of Catalog Codes: Has the User Been Ignored?. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University. [Open access]

The gist of this article is basically ‘People who invented cataloguing codes did so without doing any UX research whatsoever’. Serving as a general history of the topic, Hufford illustrates how professional librarians (read: white, male, educated, nominally Christian librarians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries devised lengthy, arcane rules for establishing name and title headings, while failing to consider the needs of users. Whether this failure was conscious or subconscious is not explored, but considering a library’s userbase at the time probably roughly mirrored the librarians who ran it, staff may well have considered themselves ideally placed to decide what would suit users best.

Morris, Ruth (1994). Towards a User-Centred Information Service. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45(1), pp. 20-30. [Open access]

It’s not often I read articles saying LIS needs more theory, but Morris’ 1994 piece argues quite strongly for a better theoretical and conceptual understanding of what a ‘user-centred service’ might mean, so that librarians might begin to provide one. Yes, begin. (sigh) Beginning with an intro to the constructivist theory of LIS research and discussing the theories of four prominent researchers, Morris then deconstructs each aspect of librarians’ interactions with the public.
The section on cataloguing talks about getting users to stop ‘constantly constructing and reconstructing reality’ when considering search terms, and encouraging them to think outside the box. It also discusses the user unfriendliness of internal cataloguing notes on the whereabouts of an item.

Olson, Hope A. and Schlegl, Rose (2001). Standardization, Objectivity, and User Focus: A Meta-Analysis of Subject Access Critiques. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 32(2),
pp. 61-80 [Not open access]

Olson and Schlegl explore the difficulty of locating various critiques of indexing and classification that have taken place over the years (with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability etc.) because the databases that index this information adhere to the same biases and paucity of headings that the critiques themselves discuss. The reference list to this article encompasses some of these articles, which are good reads in their own right. (Alarmingly, their research database has vanished from the Web, and is not available in the Wayback Machine.)
Apropos of nothing, I love their phrase ‘exploited serendipity’ (p. 64). I think I might borrow it for a future post!

Deodato, Joseph (2007) Deconstructing the Library with Jacques Derrida: Creating Space for the Other in Bibliographic Description and Classification. In Leckie, Gloria J., Given, Lisa M., and Buschman, John (eds.) Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, pp. 75-87. [Chapter is open access]

Finally, because who can resist a little existential philosophy with their cataloguing (I know I can’t), Deodato takes us through an exploration of deconstructivist French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and his theories as they might apply to librarianship. It is, by definition, not an easy read, as Derrida’s work seeks to illustrate the plurality and ambiguity of meaning. This represents a challenge to LIS notions of a fixed relationship between meaning and text, as expressed in subject headings and classification schemes. The article also dissects inherent bias in LCSH and the resultant ethical responsiblity of cataloguers to recognise and address these biases. It’s an excellent, if slightly heavy, article.

Five things I learned from #VALATechCamp

VALA Tech Camp logo

A few days ago I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural VALA Tech Camp, a two-day symposium for librarians in tech and technologists in libraries. I learnt a lot and had an excellent time, thanks in large part to the Herculean efforts of the organising committee. Below are a few scattered and not entirely comprehensive thoughts on the event:

Coding is easy! Coding is hard! When the committee asked for suggestions on what to include in the camp, I asked for fairly basic stuff—an intro to Python, for example, for those of us at the n00b end of the spectrum. A 2-hour crash course in Python wound up being the first event on day 1, so I felt more or less obliged to attend. I had previously tried several times to teach myself Python (out of books, on Codecademy, from YouTube videos) but had realised I needed an actual person to teach me the basics.
By the end of the session I had achieved the following:

I was not expecting 56 people to be so supportive of my own personal Wow! signal, so that was super nice. The workshop really did feel like the booster I needed to get me started in Python.
Later in the day (and continuing on day 2) was ‘Hacky Hour’, essentially free time to work on coding projects. I started out doing some web scraping with ParseHub and Beautiful Soup, then got bored and wound up with a Trove API key trying to rewrite Libraries Australia SOLR queries as Trove API queries (with mixed results), then got bored again and started writing a Bash script to extract metadata from a PDF into a CSV or TXT file.
The latter occupied my time and imagination even after I returned to the hotel, culminating in me figuring out how to export metadata from a PDF to a CSV, then to OpenRefine, then to MARC! I was thrilled to have actually achieved something concrete that I could take back to work and actually use. If that was all I got out of VALA tech camp, it would have been worth it.

There’s a huge gap between what tech can do and what people think tech can do. Ingrid Mason spoke at length about the gap in not just digital literacy, but digital infrastructure literacy. You might know how to use wifi, but would you know how to fix your wifi if it broke? (I know I wouldn’t, and I’m more tech literate than the average person.)
There’s also the problem of extremely clever people constantly creating new ways to do things and new ways to solve problems, including library problems, but how much of that knowledge trickles down to us at the coalface? It’s something I’m keen to explore and maybe, hopefully, change.

I was surprised by how much I already knew. One of my problems in tech is that I know I have a very uneven skillset. I am a total Python n00b, yet I can cobble together a Bash script. I’m totally across LOD and RDF triples, but didn’t know how SPARQL worked (until I attended the SPARQL talk!) I understood the mechanics of web scraping, but not how to properly harness web scraping tools. Even the talks where I came armed with a little background knowledge (like UX, APIs, the importance of good documentation) I left feeling twice as knowledgeable, which is an excellent outcome.
I particularly enjoyed the SPARQL talk because it explained linked data concepts in a way ordinary people could understand. Their use of Wikidata as an example SPARQL interface was an inspired choice—I felt it helped make an otherwise arcane and distant concept really concrete and accessible to a lay user.

Tech people are less intimidating than I thought. The attendee profile of VALA Tech Camp certainly skewed older, maler and more experienced than NLS8, which at first was a bit scary for this young, female n00b, but this is precisely why I went in the first place: to learn, and to find out what others are doing. I struck up some great convos with attendees of all genders doing excellent things. I wound up on an all-ladies table for the first Hacky Hour, the ‘Number 1 Ladies Solving Each Other’s Data Collection Problems’ table (moniker by me). In each situation people were only too happy to help and to chat.
Interestingly, I realised that in order for me to do better in tech, I would probably feel more comfortable in a women-only environment, like PyLadies or RubyGirls or something. I’ll look into local chapters and see if I could contribute. Seeing other women do super well in library tech was really empowering and wonderful, and I’d love to see more of it.

You can do the thing! 👍 Several short talks focussed on getting out there and just making stuff happen, including Justine on podcasting in libraries and Athina on running a cryptoparty in a public library. It was really inspiring to hear of people taking initiative and making excellent things happen.
On a much smaller scale, I found myself much more able to get out there and do things I find really difficult. Yes, I can go and make small talk to people! Yes, I can summon the courage to thank people for writing things that have meant a lot to me! Yes, I can do the thing! Yes I can.

Yes I can.