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 stauchly-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.

The passionate armour

I recently came across one of those quote-retweet Twitter memes asking what my ambitions were for the next ten years. To my surprise, the first answer that came to mind was ‘spiritual enlightenment’. I’ve never been a religious person, but perhaps my subconscious is trying to tell me that I’m missing something. I then tried to come up with a more concrete response, but found I had difficulty picturing myself even being ten years older. I’d be thirty-six. I’m not ready to be middle-aged. Hell, I’m barely ready to be the age I am now.

Instead, I focused on the word ‘ambitions’. The meme was in response to ambitious women being stereotypically derided as ‘opportunistic’, ‘calculating’ and ‘conniving’. How dare we have goals for ourselves, that we might have to work hard to reach. I figured I wouldn’t describe myself as ambitious, but then I stopped to consider why. I think I generally associate ambition with a quest for power, or social status, or a certain celebrity. I don’t want any of these things for myself. I do, however, want them for my profession. I want libraries to reclaim their power, their status, their celebrity within the public consciousness.

This is quite an ambitious goal. It’s not as concrete as the other goals I set for myself this year. It’s really more of a guiding principle than a goal. But it aptly encompasses the kinds of things I’d like to achieve.

I think it’s fair to say I’m passionate about librarianship and the broader GLAM sector. ‘Passionate’ is an interesting descriptor. Sometimes it’s a compliment and sometimes it’s almost an insult, especially if one’s passion on a given topic is far and above the mean within one’s social group. I think it’s also fair to say I’m more passionate about librarianship than the average librarian. How can I demonstrate this passion in a meaningful and sustainable way (i.e. by not working myself to the bone)? To me, the obvious answer is to redirect some of my energies away from work and into professional development, or PD, so that I might become a better librarian.

The UK’s FLIP network, a social group for new professionals, recently blogged about PD and managing one’s mental health. It was an eminently sensible post, but something about it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think I was quite the post’s target market.

My twitter feedback could best be described as ‘polarised’. Some people praised my view while others defended their more moderate stance, as if passion and resilience couldn’t possibly coexist. As if librarianship is all I am, because it’s all Twitter ever sees of me. As if I had to be talked out of caring so much. It stung, and I found myself at a loss as to how to respond.

In saying ‘I fear that without [PD], people won’t take me seriously as a librarian’, I felt I was exposing a little of my inner self to the world. A part of me that remains bitterly insecure about my skills in this job. A part of me I’m not sure I was really ready to talk about. A part of me hiding underneath the passionate armour—that I care so deeply about what I do, and yet have so little faith in my own abilities, I’m not sure I can ever truly meet the ambitious goals I set for myself.

I have two options: care less, or believe more.

Which brings me back to seeking spiritual enlightenment. I still don’t think I’ll find religion anytime soon. But it’d be nice if I could scrounge up a little more self-belief. It ties into my existing goal for this year—to back myself. To know my own mind, my own strengths and weaknesses, my own path.

And to never, ever, stop caring.

2018: a year of expanding horizons

I have a good feeling about 2018. I suspect I’m one of the few people who does. I’ve long been of the view that things have to get worse before they get better, and last year was ‘worse’ by just about every metric, so I’m hopeful things will improve this year.

As suggested by GLAM Blog Club, I reflected on the goals I set myself last year:

  • ‘Improve my digital skills’: While I didn’t manage to learn SQL, I did attend an engaging talk on Python for beginners at VALA Tech Camp and acquired a couple of decent beginner programming books. I got much better at Markdown and Bash scripting, and did a lot of work with SKOS vocabularies. I had some fun with wget and other web archiving tools.
  • ‘Reconnect with long-form writing, which is worth paying for’: I definitely achieved this goal, thanks to a burgeoning interest in psychogeography and landscape writing. Among many others, I encountered the delightful print journal Elsewhere, the Dark Mountain Project and their recent compendium Walking on Lava, and Alastair Bonnett’s 2014 book Off the Map. I still acquired several unread books, but I made the time to devour several more
  • ‘Get some perspective’: Aside from a new perspective on landscape (embodied in the zines I began writing late last year), I’d like to think I broadened my perspective on several issues. I made a point of regularly reading the Guardian’s American series Burst your bubble, catering for a section of its readership newly bewildered by a rapid political transformation they didn’t see coming. I also read a lot more about Indigenous issues in Australia, in particular the excellent book Decolonizing Solidarity. I’d like to sincerely thank Nathan Sentance and Annelie de Villiers, whose writing and retweeting on these issues helped broaden my perspective immensely.

So what will I aim for this year? The ‘expanding horizons’ of the title refers not just to expanding my dislike of the Horizon ILS, which I will hopefully never have to use ever again, but of new opportunities in many aspects of my life. I feel I am at a crossroads. I intend to take a path where I might see far ahead of me. Already I have some concrete goals:

  • Submit papers to conferences: I recently learned the CILIP CIG conference is in Edinburgh this year, and seeing as I love a) metadata b) Scotland and c) conferences, this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. I don’t yet have a smashing idea for a topic, but I really hope I can think of something. I already have an idea for NLS9, which I can’t wait to work on.
  • Write more zines: I went on a walk last year and wrote a zine about it. It was the most creative thing I’d done in ages (and my family loved it!). I already have ideas for several more zines, which promise to broaden my physical and philosophical horizons. I’m so glad I discovered zines. They’ve been a great outlet in all sorts of ways.
  • Back myself: This was the main thing I learned in 2017—to have confidence in myself and my decisions, and to know when to change course. A lesson like this is only as good as its implementation.

As always, I aim to continue tweeting and blogging, as well as attending GLAM events where I can. 2018 will be a bit of a rebuilding year for me, but I hope to build something bigger and stronger that will serve me well for years to come.