A sucker for knowledge

I realised last week I hadn’t written for GLAM Blog Club for a couple of months, and considering how much I admire newCardigan and their ethos I figured I should contribute to the conversation, instead of standing on the periphery. I also have several draft blog posts for which I can’t quite make the magic happen, so I might as well write about something simple—myself.

Like a great many librarians, I started out in life ‘loving books and reading’. We scorn LIS students who say this in interviews, forgetting that many of us were once the same way. Yet it’s true that there’s far more to librarianship than reader’s advisory, and I’ll be the first to emphasise this to prospective library workers. It’s one thing to recognise what brought you here, but quite another to think that that’s all there is.

For this blog post I fished out my application letter for my MIS, written in early 2014. It was a turbulent time for me. I was working as a call-centre operator, a horrible job with a 3-hour roundtrip commute, that I’d only taken in the first place because I’d been summarily let go from a mininum-wage warehouse gig five months earlier. Understandably I was keen to improve my lot, and cast about for jobs I thought I’d enjoy.

The letter brought back to me how much of my childhood I had spent in my school library, playing computer games, passive-aggressively rearranging books, chatting with the librarian about our shared love of teddy bears. Yet I’m struck by how little my letter followed the ‘loves books and reading’ trope. My early library experience didn’t revolve around books—it revolved around knowledge. Books, computer games, newspapers, you name it. I was a sucker for knowledge. I lapped up every bit of text I could get my hands on, not to escape my life but to enrich it. I wanted others to explore and enjoy knowledge like I had, no matter their age.

I finally realised that my ideal career had been staring me in the face this whole time.

I decided to become a librarian.

So I set about trying to make it happen. I learned I needed a master’s degree. I already had a bachelor’s in Classics and Ancient History, a discipline not known for its job prospects, so I was well-placed to deflect the inevitable ‘wow another useless degree!’ comments. I learned that the average age of librarians was… quite high, and that I would have to enrol in an online course. One came highly recommended by a friend of the family, though if I’d known then what I know now I think I would have chosen differently.

I titled my application letter ‘Why I’d Make A Great Librarian’, in a desperate act of self-confidence. I don’t know if I’d be that conceited about it now. I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘great’ librarian. I would say I’m ‘a librarian with a lot to offer’, letting my actions speak for themselves.

Looking back, I should have seen it coming. Of course I was going to wind up in metadata and collection development, with high school reminiscences like this:

Why were all these books, which were clearly relevant to my essay, at opposite ends of the library? Why did the library have such gaps in its collection? Why was there only one copy of Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero in the entire school, and why was it always borrowed by somebody else? (And why didn’t they use Library of Congress classification, which was, like, way better than Dewey?)

What a nerd I was. What a nerd I am. (For the record, I’m pretty sure LCC would have made fetching ancient history books worse, because the distance between B and P classes would be greater than between 800s and 900s, but I digress.)

To my astonishment, I was accepted into the MIS degree, and things began to look up. I had a couple of jobs in a large, swanky library, where I got a feel for how great (and how awful) librarianship can be, and about a year ago I started the job I have now. Quite how I got a professional-level role despite not having quite completed my MIS, I have no idea, but I’m acutely aware of how lucky I’ve been. I know so many people desperate to get into libraries and I’m sure people must think sometimes that I’ve just waltzed in. It’s difficult being a decade younger than the rest of my at-level colleagues, but what I lack in work experience I make up for with enthusiasm!

So here I am. I’ve taken a slightly more roundabout route to get here, but I feel my life experience has served me relatively well. If nothing else, I’ve come to appreciate the value of giving back. As a librarian, I would not only have the opportunity to organise, process and store ever-increasing amounts of information, but also the privilege of helping others find and draw on that information to improve themselves and society as a whole. Plus I would get to be around books and computers and knowledge all day!

Becoming a librarian has been one of the great joys of my life. I can’t think of any other career that would suit me better. I’m immensely thankful to those who helped me get where I am today, but especially to my mum, who surely must have wondered sometimes whether I’d ever get out of the call centre. I’m still a sucker for knowledge, but now I get paid to share that knowledge with others and help them find their own. It’s quite a privilege.

I didn’t think I’d make it. And yet, here I was.

How to catalogue a beer can

Stout is an optimal accompaniment to cataloguing. (Photograph by the author)

Documentary heritage is far more than just books. Working in a local history library, I come across a wide variety of items that help record the history and culture of my town. We tend not to collect realia (the local museum takes care of that) but occasionally some items are too good to pass up. Like a selection of beer cans and beer bottles! Craft breweries have really taken off here over the last few years, and there’s no better way to record that heritage than with the cans and bottles themselves.

No taxpayer money was spent on our beer collection—I personally drank every drop from these cans and bottles in order to catalogue them. How I suffer for my art.

This guide shares a few similarities with my recent post on cataloguing board games. Again, I’m assuming a basic familiarity with MARC, RDA, and the principles of cataloguing. This is also not an exhaustive, official, top-cataloguing-body-sanctioned guide. It’s simply how I would do it, and your mileage may vary. I hope you find it useful!

Fixed fields

For my collection of beer cans, I decided not to create a MARC record for each individual can in the interests of time and usability. So I’ll need a collection-level record for this group of objects that I, the cataloguer, have brought together. I’ve chosen to create one record for each brewery. Leader/07 is ‘r’ for realia (or ‘Three-dimensional artifact or naturally occurring object’ if you want to get personal) and Leader/08 is ‘c’ for collection. If I decided to create item-level records instead, I would use the far more common ‘m’ for monograph/item.

The 008 field uses the Visual Materials specifications. The important field here is 008/33 Type of Visual Material, which again is ‘r’ for realia. Code the date, government publication, etc fields as appropriate. Most other fields will either be blank or ‘n’ for not applicable. You can code 008/22 Target Audience as ‘e’ for Adult if you want a laugh, but I don’t think simply viewing an empty beer can is innately harmful to children, so feel free to leave that one blank if you wish.

Access points and title

Generally-speaking, collection-level records don’t come with a ready-made title, so be prepared to invent one. Something along the lines of ‘[brewery name] can and bottle collection’ is appropriate.

I thought long and hard about whether to use the brewery as a 110 or 710 (i.e. main or added entry), considering the collection is made up for cataloguing convenience. In the end, I figured the brewery is responsible for both the content of the resource (the beer) and its manifestation as a physical object (the can), so I decided to give the brewery the 110 and use the relator term $e creator (because $e manufacturer wasn’t quite right). There’s probably something in the RDA Toolkit about this, but I don’t have access to it so I didn’t read it! If you feel a 710 would be more appropriate, or if you want to slide into my Twitter DMs and tell me I’m totally wrong about access points, go right ahead 🙂 NB: This does not negate the need for a suitably descriptive collection title.

If using item-level records, put the beer’s name (if it has one) in 245 $a and the variety in 245 $b, as in 245 $a Forty acres : $b pale ale. If the beer doesn’t have a specific name, put the variety in 245 $a. This is another reason to use the brewery as the main entry, as the authorised access point will then include the brewery: $a Frogstomp Brewers. $t Imperial stout.

Optionally, you could create a 490/830 series entry, if you expect to have multiple collections of this type and feel it would be useful to bring them all together. Suggestions include ‘[library name] beer can and bottle collection’ or ‘Breweries of [place] realia collection’.

Descriptive cataloguing

This is where the fun happens! You’ll want to be as descriptive and detailed as possible, given that these beer cans and bottles may well be unique to your library.

Start off by describing the cans in a 300: how many you have, what they look like, and how big they are. For example: $a [number] cans : $b various colours, $c 7 cm diameter x 13 cm.

While I am usually the sort of cataloguer who hates using 500 General Note fields, for special collections like these 500s are where it’s at. All the interesting little details will go here: things like additional can or bottle text (that isn’t clearly a title or variety), logos, motifs or other graphic design elements, and/or a short blurb about the collection itself.

Record the beers’ titles and varieties in a 505 Contents Note, like a table of contents. If it’s useful, consider including the colour or other identifying detail of the can or bottle in square brackets (to clarify that this information is not derived from transcribing the can itself).

As mentioned above, the brewery produces both the beer and the cans, so record details of manufacture in 264 #3, much like you would the publisher of a book.

If I were feeling cheeky, I might consider a 541 Immediate Source of Acquisition Note, if only so I could record 541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge $c donated privately after responsible drinking. (Probably a good idea to keep in-jokes of this kind for your local system, not the union catalogue.)

Use the 336 Content Type / 337 Media Type / 338 Carrier Type combo of ‘three-dimensional form’ / ‘unmediated’ / ‘object’, respectively, and a 043 geographic indicator if appropriate.

Subject indexing

You’ll almost certainly be including one or both of the topical terms Beer bottles and Beer cans. For these, you’ll need to include the form subdivision $v Specimens at the end of the string. Geographic subdivision is optional.
For example: 650 #0 $a Beer cans [$z Queensland $z Townsville] $v Specimens.
I would also recommend Breweries and Beer industry as a catch all, with geographic subdivision recommended. (I’m including both with an eye to broadening our collection to include distilleries of various kinds, where it would be helpful to disambiguate, say, Distilleries and Gin industry. Feel free to leave out the industry heading if you don’t feel it’s relevant to your needs.)

I really wanted to use a genre heading of some kind. Fortunately Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus provides the terms Aluminum cans and Bottles. Sadly there is no narrower ‘beer bottle’ term (for a usage example, see this item from the Scott Polar Research Institute).

Examples

NB: these are fictional entities and collections, do not search the ANBD, do not pass go, do not collect $200

Collection-level record

000 01078nrc a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Three Cheers Brewing Company $e creator
245 10 $a Three Cheers Brewing Co can collection.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. $b Three Cheers Brewing Company $c 2017.
300 ## $a 3 aluminium cans : $b chiefly silver with coloured elements ; 
       $c cylindrical, 7 cm diameter x 13 cm each.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a Title devised by cataloguer.
500 ## $a Collection of empty beer cans from Gosford-based brewery 
          Three Cheers.
500 ## $a "Proudly brewed in Gosford"--can.
505 0# $a Forty acres : pale ale [red can] -- 
          The penguin: cool lager [blue can] -- 
          Riptide : IPA [green can].
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer cans $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Aluminum cans. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Item-level record

000 01078nrm a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Frogstomp Brewers $e creator
245 10 $a Imperial stout / $c Frogstomp Brewers.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. $b Frogstomp Brewers $c 2017.
300 ## $a 1 glass bottle : $b brown with purple label and grey motifs ; 
       $c cylindrical, 6 cm diameter x 23 cm.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a From a collection of empty beer bottles from Gosford-based brewery 
          Frogstomp Brewers.
500 ## $a "Darker than midnight"--label on neck of bottle.
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer bottles $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Bottles. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Disrespect des fonds! ✊🏻 (or, Five things I learned from the NSLA digipres forum)

This week I went to the NSLA forum on day-to-day digital collecting and preservation, which began auspiciously enough:

The forum was an illuminating experience. I got a lot out of the event, including useful tips and programs I can incorporate into my workflow, and took so many notes I ran out of notebook! The below are my personal thoughts and observations of the event, which do not represent my employer (shout at me, not at them).

Reality isn’t keeping up with my user expectations and professional aspirations. When I first landed a library job (not the job I have now), I harboured grand dreams of preserving digital artefacts on a workplace’s asset management system, creating intricate descriptions of said digital artefacts, and excitedly sharing this knowledge with library users. I wound up being a shelver, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m still dreaming. I keep thinking libraries are far more advanced, digitally speaking, than where we actually are. Librarians, as a profession, struggle to accept the idea that society has moved on without us. Digital preservation is seemingly no exception.

It was refreshing to hear at this forum that people were once scared of digital. Scared for their jobs. Scared of new, ~uncontrolled~ sources of information. Scared by the idea of reimagining and reinventing their place within libraries and their library’s place within society. Plenty of people still think like this, but you’ll never hear them admit it.

Please don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot of innovation in this sector, incredible work by passionate people with limited resources. I was very impressed by several presentations showcasing new, systemic ways of appraising, preserving and delivering digital content. I just… kinda thought we had them already. Are my expectations too high, or are our standards too low?

Linear archival theory is doing the digital world, and our attempts to capture it, a great disservice. Archival theory is built on the foundational ideas of ‘original order’, ‘provenance’ and ‘respect des fonds’ (i.e. an appreciation of a record’s context and intended purpose). Now, I’m not an archivist, nor do I play one on television. But it isn’t hard to see where, in a digital world, these core archival concepts might start to fall down a bit.

Archivists (and librarians, for the most part) are used to thinking in linear terms. Boxed collections are measured in linear metres of shelf space, our finding aids are (by and large) designed to be read from top to bottom, and a manuscript item can only be in one folder at once. Linear thinking. Paper-based thinking. Ordered thinking.

Our digital universe doesn’t work like this. Disks can be read in any order. Hypertext lets us explore information in many dimensions. We have become random-access thinkers and, by extension, random-access hoarders. Archival concepts must accommodate these ways of thinking—not ‘disordered’, just ordered in other ways. We were invited to ‘disrespect des fonds’, and I think it’s a smashing idea. It’s time to think differently. To accommodate non-linear ideas of what constitutes ‘original order’ and what digital and intellectual context may shape the fonds of the future. Spatial thinking. Byte-based thinking. Still ordered thinking.

Jefferson Bailey wrote a wonderfully in-depth essay on disrespecting the fonds in 2013, and I was reminded of it several times during this forum. It’s well worth a read.

Systems can’t do digital preservation. Only you can. My workplace don’t have the luxury of a digital preservation system (yet) and our current digipres practice is extremely haphazard and conducted on a needs basis by… me. Eek. There’s no denying a system that takes care of basic fixity and AIP arrangement would make my life a lot easier. But that system still wouldn’t do my job for me. Systems can’t select or appraise. They can’t negotiate rights agreements with donors or keep themselves well fed with storage space. They don’t have an appreciation of strategic priorities or nuances of analytical metadata (subject headings and the like). That’s what I’m for. It’s important not to lose sight of the role of humans in what is (for those with the means) an increasingly automated process.

It’s also crucial for small- and medium-sized memory organisations, who will never have the resources enjoyed by NSLA members, to know that they don’t need a fancy system to preserve their digital heritage. So much digital preservation discussion is conducted in arcane, highly technical language, intelligible only to a small subset of information professionals. In order for digipres to gain any traction, it needs to be accessible by less skilled librarians, and even by non-professional library workers. I want the volunteers at the Woop Woop Historical Society, whose tech knowledge may extend only to sending emails and posting pics of the grandchildren on Facebook, to have an understanding of the basics of digipres and to be able to implement them. Distilling our communal knowledge down to this level promises to be almost as difficult as the process of preservation itself. But it’s vital work, and it can’t wait.

I have a lot of skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to bring to digital preservation. I didn’t present at the forum on account of a) a bad case of imposter syndrome and b) my workplace not having a whole lot to report in this area. I am also still a MIS student (yes! still!), am in a role where digipres is not explicitly part of my job description, and was almost certainly the youngest person in the room. All of those things worked together to convince me that I didn’t have anything worth saying.

However, I realised during the talks and discussions that far from being “just” a student, or “just” a local history librarian, or “just” a young’un, I actually have a lot to bring to the table:

  • I understand the broad lifecycle of digital preservation, from file creation to donation to fixity to ingest to preservation to access, and spend a lot of time contemplating the philosophy of what we do
  • I can catalogue, which I wasn’t expecting to be all that relevant to digipres, but it sounds like digitally-literate cataloguers are a rare breed, and
  • I can also learn quickly and methodically, such as last week when I successfully (and independently!) imaged and preserved a CD with BitCurator, for use by some student researchers. I learned how to do this via someone else’s notes from last year’s NSLA Digital Skills event, which I didn’t attend on account of being a shelver elsewhere.

Moreover, I’d like to think I know how much I don’t know; that is, there’s so much more for us as digipres practitioners to discover as well as learn from each other, and we can’t stop to even think that we know it all. It helped me gain a little self-esteem and reassure me that Australian digipres isn’t already full of people who have all the answers.

We can’t wait for everyone to get comfortable. Optical media won’t stop rotting while we learn how to deal with it. Film stocks won’t stop drowning in their own vinegar while we figure out what to do. Obscure file formats won’t give up their secrets of their own volition while we’re trying to nut them out. These problems are only going to get worse, irrespective of how quickly we as practitioners get our heads around them. Many of us are still grappling with digital preservation. Grappling. We’re still at the beginner stage.

There’s a very fine line between making people feel bad about the speed and scale of their own digipres programs, or about their personal knowledge, and encouraging them to keep looking to the horizon and recognise how far we all have to go. I say all this not to shame people, as I too am a beginner, but to express a broader worry about our ability as library employees to recognise and respond to digital change. By the sounds of it, some of our institutions are better at this than others.

In any case, I’d better get to work. I still need that floppy drive I’ve been dreaming about.

Further reading

Jefferson Bailey, Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives (2013 article in Archive Journal)

Trevor Owens, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (preprint: monograph coming 2018)