Five things I learned at #coGLAM18… and a bit extra

I am the future. It’s me. #coGLAM18

Last Sunday I went on an expedition to Sydney for Rob Thomson’s annual NSW library technicians’ unconference extravaganza. This year was an inclusive affair, with the title of CoGLAMeration attracting participants from across the industries. I learned SO much and had a great time, even if I needed the Monday off to recover from all that networking. I may also have volunteered to catalogue a capsule hotel! I know I learned way more than five things, so here are a few selections. (They are metadata-heavy, because that’s how I roll.)

We are already doing the thing! Upon announcing the first curated session, Rob also invited attendees, if they so chose, to a breakout session either on ‘cataloguing’ or ‘critical librarianship’. These are basically my favourite things in the world to talk about, so I asked if we could combine them, to which Rob responded (I paraphrase) ‘of course you can! it’s an unconference! do what you want!’ I therefore became the unexpected and slightly unwilling leader of a combined breakout session, which about 10 people attended. Fortunately everyone was enthused and ready to chat, starting with ‘so what is critical librarianship exactly?’

I reckon just about everyone in that session was already a critical librarianship practitioner—they just mightn’t have known it had a name. It was gratifying, and a little humbling, to realise that my fellow attendees didn’t need me to teach them how to ask ‘why?’. They were already asking the right questions, coming up with ways to improve their catalogue (most of which they couldn’t implement due to policy, budget or skillset, on which more later) and striving to provide the best library experience possible. Of course they were. They were seasoned library experts. I was the ring-in fresh out of library school, who still had so much to learn. They were all very nice to me, though. (Special thanks to Bonnie who helped steer conversations and provided great insights!)

Good metadata is another facet of the class war. The #critlib/#critcat 2x combo breakout session was populated mostly by school librarians, who expressed some frustration with the limited resources at their disposal. Never having worked in a school library, their stories were a huge learning experience for me. They spoke of the divide between top private schools, who can afford to subscribe directly to Libraries Australia or WorldCat, or to otherwise pay for top-quality metadata; and all the other schools, which generally use SCIS and can’t always afford a skilled library tech to improve their catalogue. (NB: I have never used SCIS and so cannot pass judgement on it.)

While I’m used to cataloguing with limited resources (I’ve never used WebDewey or ClassWeb and have grown used to using FreeLCSH), I’ve always had the luxury of a) access to Libraries Australia b) the time and space to create good metadata and c) the policy and technical abilities to modify others’ data so it meets my library’s needs. The idea that metadata is not created equal was a bombshell. Every library should have access to the right metadata—and be able to make it the right metadata for them. Seize the means of metadata production! Cataloguers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your sanity!

Next year!

Cataloguers need to sell themselves. Not necessarily monetarily, unless they’re into that kind of thing, but there’s a definite need for metadata workers to take a more active role in the promotion of our work. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t love having to do this. I am an introvert. I find people really hard. I like being able to work quietly and efficiently without too much interaction with other people. I also recently took a job as a reference librarian for exactly these reasons—because I know I need to get better at this stuff, but also because reference and cataloguing are two sides of the same coin. Getting first-hande experience of patrons’ reference and information needs will help me build a better catalogue. It will also help me extol the virtues of good metadata to the people in charge, because I’ll be able to better vocalise where it’s needed.

I appear to have become something of a cataloguing and metadata evangelist, and it’s certainly not something I ever thought I’d be doing. Honestly, though, it comes down to spotting a need. We’re not selling metadata as much as we need to. Our skills are decreasingly valued, decreasingly taught and decreasingly visible. Good metadata is not valued for its own sake. It’s up to us cataloguers to prove our worth. Just… give us a cuppa first.

I specialise in the art of good fortune, and also metadata. The breakout session touched on the issue of generalisation versus specialisation within LIS, as many participants were solo librarians and needed to be able to do everything. I was held up as an example of a specialist, and to the extent I know anything about metadata I suppose I am, but it got me thinking later on about how that came to be. What factors enabled me to specialise? Why am I afforded this luxury, while others are not?

I am, of course, a product of demographic fortune. Young, white, well-educated women have an easier road in this sector. But two things stood out. Firstly, that I was born and raised in a city with a comparative abundance of libraries. LIS punches well above its weight here, with the public, private and higher education sectors all still employing librarians. It’s meant I’ve had a plethora of library jobs to choose from, and I could afford to do what I love. Secondly, I have a single-minded focus on my career goals. I wanted to be a librarian. I now am! I wanted to catalogue for a living. I now am (and soon will be doing so full-time)! I wanted to work at a particular institution. I now am!!! These things happened because I worked hard, but also because other people took a chance on me, and because I got very, very lucky.

My tweetstream brings all the threads to the yard. Speaking of wheels of fortune, Bonnie’s fabulous talk ‘Critical making: rethinking access and engagement in GLAM’, prompted a delightful exchange on my twitter feed. At one point, Bonnie spoke of using the online screenprinting company Spoonflower to produce the fabrics used in her amazing #redactionart and #digitisethedawn dresses, the latter of which she wore to the event. (Love a dress that comes with its own hashtag!) This prompted American metadata magician Scotty Carlson to muse:

Scotty designed the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt I was wearing to #coGLAM18 (if you want one, he has a teepublic shop!). His tweet tied in beautifully with earlier conversations around cataloguing outreach, the subversive nature of textiles and the power of statement dressing. Also pockets. Such wondrous fabric might even convince me to learn to sew.

Enjoy all your successes, no matter how small. This is a sneaky sixth thing because it was a lesson I really needed to hear. I was thrilled to finally meet Bonnie in person and say ‘you’re awesome!’, and in return she bestowed upon me a large quantity of wisdom. One of these things was a reminder that success comes in all sizes: some earth-shattering, some minuscule. Not everything has to be a sector-changing event for it to be considered a success. Even getting people to think critically about Dewey, or wonder about critlib, for the first time, for even a second—these are all successes! These are all wins.

I have long expressed my frustration about the glacial pace of progress in LIS. I dislike the fact I can’t achieve three revolutions before breakfast. But Bonnie graciously reminded me that success doesn’t have to be big. It’s okay to take the long view, but don’t lose sight of the small victories.


Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line

Do you have fifty cents for the jukebox?

This month’s GLAM Blog Club topic (‘passion’) is, for me, a bit of a touchy subject. I’ve written before on people disagreeing with my passion choices, and the reactions I get from those who don’t understand why I care so much about librarianship.

These reactions fall into two groups: those who see a simple excess of passion in one area (which includes my work) and those who see a corresponding dearth of energy in other areas. ‘Get a hobby,’ they say. ‘Do something that isn’t work.’ I realised late last year that I really did have nothing in my life besides my job, which wasn’t healthy for a number of reasons, so I took up psychogeography and zinemaking. But I never lost sight of my true passion—librarianship. So this year, naturally, I’ve signed up for more library extra-curriculars than you can shake a stick at. I got a better job, too.

People, wasting away in paradise
Going backward, once in a while
Taking your time, give it a try

Many librarians are not as fortunate as I am. I have been richly rewarded for my passion. Yet I know so many brilliant people wasting away in their dream jobs. They have more to give, more to learn, more to change. More to accomplish. But the system is letting them down. So many passionate people hit the wall of library intransigence. They grow angry, frustrated and bitter. They burn out and lash out.

I can have all the brilliant ideas I want, but what chance do I have of actually making them happen? After all, I’m at the bottom of the ladder. I’m new and impatient. I don’t want to spend decades excavating the history of libraries, setting aside fossilised workflows and analysing collections with a stratigraphic eye. I don’t want to argue with brick walls. I don’t understand why people say ‘no’ all the time. It’s as if we forget who libraries are really for.

I also have to remember that I am but one person. And I owe it to those who’ve helped me get this far to not burn out in a fit of passion.

What do you believe, what do you believe
What do you believe is true
Nothing they say makes a difference this way
Nothing they say will do

Most librarians can understand being passionate about the profession, but far fewer understand why anyone would be so passionate about cataloguing. To them, I recommend Junli Diao’s Passion of a Young Cataloger. It bursts with the promise of spring, of those who know no frosts, only warmth and growth and sunshine.

It remains popular for librarians to deride their cataloguing colleagues as being persnickety old bags who can’t see the forest for the trees. Look, I’ll be the first to admit cataloguers have a bit of an image problem. But I’m a little tired of people bagging me out for pursuing a career in something I enjoy, and in which I excel. There’s so much potential in library data, so much scope for improvement and advancement. I’d love to bring you all with me.

Take all the trouble that you can afford
At least you won’t have time to be bored
At least you won’t have time to be bored

Isn’t that the problem with being passionate? I work hard, study hard, walk fast, break things. My reward is more work. More stuff. More things I said ‘yes’ to, because I can’t help expending my passionate energy in the same places. Wasn’t that a key lesson from NLS8? Say ‘yes’ to things. But also say ‘no’ to things if they’re not right for you. The issue is that everyone is right. I ought to diversify. But I also know I’m the sort of person who likes to focus on a few select things. Do them well, or don’t do them at all.

Oh the power and the passion
Oh the temper of the time
Oh the power and the passion

This is my situation. All passion and no power. Libraries everywhere remain in thrall to the burnt-out and jaded. It will take more energy than I can give to bring about meaningful, long-lasting change. Powerful people won’t do anything. Passionate people won’t stay.

I am free to invest my passion and my energies wherever I like. But I can no longer afford to give all of myself to my profession, lest I burn out too.

Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line

Using web archives for document supply: a case study

Today I was asked to help with a curly document supply request. A distance student was looking for a particular article, which my colleagues had been unable to locate. Usually we think of document supply as resource sharing, but today was really more about resource finding. It’s also similar to reference queries about how to find journal articles, which we get all the time.

It wound up being so difficult—and interesting!—that I thought others might like to know how it was done. This is also partly so that if my colleagues decide they want me to present a training session on this, I’ve already got the notes written up… teehee.

The request

The details I received looked like this:

Journal Title Risk & Regulation
Publisher CARR LSE
Volume / Issue Issue 3
Part Date Spring 2002
Call Number

Title Japan: Land of the Rising Audit?
Article Author Michael Power
Pages 10 ff

My colleagues initially thought this was a book chapter request, but the book they’d found didn’t quite match these details, at which point they roped me into the search.

Catalogue search

Step 1: Search our local catalogue. This is standard for all document supply requests—you’d be surprised how often people ask for things we already have. I consider it a learning and teaching opportunity (and sometimes also a reminder that print books and serials still exist). In this instance, we didn’t have anything with this title in our catalogue.

Step 2: Search Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue. If another Australian library held this serial, we would request it on the patron’s behalf through the Libraries Australia Document Delivery (LADD) system, of which most Australian libraries are a member. I didn’t have an ISSN, so I had to go on title alone.

Good news: there is a record in LA for this serial, so I could confirm it exists. Bad news: no library in Australia holds it. (Records without holdings are common in LA, as many libraries use it as an acquisitions tool.)

Step 3: Search SUNCAT, the British serials union catalogue. I realised later that I didn’t really need to do this step, because the only extra info that LA didn’t have was a list of UK institutions that held copies. (Which I obviously couldn’t get at.) However, it wasn’t until this point that I noticed the note stating ‘Also available via the internet.’ Which got me thinking—is this an OA online journal? It would explain the lack of local holdings if it was just on the internet…

Web archive search

Step 4: Google the journal title. Yes, Google, like a real librarian.

There is a distinct possiblity that I own this particular shirt

Turns out the journal Risk & regulation is indeed published free and online by the London School of Economics, AND they have back issues online! … going back to 2003. The one I need is from 2002, because of course it is.

Step 5: Search the UK Web Archive. Knowing the journal was a) a UK title and b) online at some point, I then turned to web archives to find a copy. I searched on the article title, it being more distinctive than the journal title, and also because a more specific search would get me results faster. This brought me to an archived LSE news page from 2002.

The LSE news page provided a link to the journal page—but the UK Web Archive hadn’t preserved it! Argh!

Step 6: Search the Wayback Machine. All was not lost, however. Because I was now armed with a dead URL that had once linked to the journal page I needed, I could go straight to the Wayback Machine, part of the Internet Archive, and simply plug in the URL to find archived copies of that page. The Wayback Machine recently launched a keyword search functionality, but it’s still a work in progress. My experience suggests this site functions best when you know exactly where to look.

I had to fiddle around with the URL slightly, but I eventually got to the journal landing page. Remembering that I needed issue 3 from Spring 2002, I clicked on the link to the relevant PDF—also archived!—and quickly located the article.

Step 7: Email article to student and give them the the good news. They thanked me and asked how I found it, so I gave them a shorter version of the above in the hope they might find it useful in future. I made sure to reassure them that this kind of thing is quite difficult and there’s often not necessarily a single place to search (they had wondered what search terms they ought to have used) and if they were stuck in future, just ask a librarian—it’s what we’re for. 🙂


Web archives aren’t usually the search target of choice for reference and document supply staff, but they are an absolute goldmine of public information, particularly for older online serials that may have vanished from the live web. Many researchers (and librarians, for that matter) don’t know much about web archives, if anything, so cases like this are a great way to introduce people to these incredible resources.

This was also a bit of a proud moment for me, I won’t lie. It’s so good to have moments like this every now and again—it helps me demonstrate there’s still a place for professional document hunters.