Last week at work I had one of the most incredibly serendipitous experiences of my library career. It was a beautiful illustration of why I became a librarian. To not only collect and preserve people’s stories, but to sometimes be part of them, and weave a broader tale.
It began in early January, when 110 books turned up from the same publisher. Being in the legal deposit business, my job is to catalogue whatever turns up in the post. Any genre, subject, author, publisher, size, format, you name it, I deal with it. (Unless it’s a serial.) We often get large boxes of books from publishers, but this particular enormous haul intrigued me. I volunteered to catalogue the lot. What can I say, I’m a sucker for punishment. And I wanted something fun to do before I went on holidays.
I slowly realised I held an entire library in my processing trolley. A living, breathing library.
It all started a few years ago in Iceland, where apparently one in ten people publish a book in their lifetime. Margaret Woodward and Justy Phillips, co-founders of Tasmanian arts collective A Published Event, found themselves in Iceland in 2012 doing arty things. They wondered whether there was a similar latent writing community in Tasmania, which is around the same size. Most of us would probably have pondered this for a short while and left it at that. But not these two. They decided to create a kind of performance library, soliciting unpublished manuscripts from would-be Tasmanian authors and publishing a whole lot of them in one go. Giving a voice to people who might otherwise never have published a book. Creating a kind of ‘time capsule’ showcasing Tasmanian life and writing during the late twenty-teens. It’s huge. It’s faintly ridiculous. And it’s completely awesome.
The People’s Library comprises 113 books. Their authors range in age from 15 to 94. All live in Tasmania, from all kinds of backgrounds, writing all sorts of things. Novels by first-time authors. Anthologies by U3A writers’ groups. Memoirs. Poetry. Non-fiction. Experimental literature. An opera about Sir Douglas Mawson, no less. Each assigned a cover colour from Werner’s nomenclature of colours, creating a beautiful rainbow effect when the books are lined up in order on a shelf.
The People’s Library was installed at Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, in September 2018. Authors read, performed and gave life to their stories. There were panels, responsive art pieces, readers-in-residence (and also readers-in-bed). The books took centre stage. None were for sale—this was a library, after all.
Then it came to us. To me. Cataloguing these wonders took me a full, magnificent week. They were a joy to process. I learned so much about Tasmania, about total strangers, about the limits of the written word, and even about myself. I realised we were missing three of the books, so an email was sent politely requesting copies. I returned after a month’s holiday (in Tasmania, as it happened) to an email from the publishers, promising to send the missing books and wanting to know more about how the Library was catalogued. Omg. A genuine interest in cataloging. Nobody ever asks me how I’ve catalogued their books unless they’re complaining about it, so I was very excited. I promptly wrote back with probably too much detail, which amusingly made its way back to some of the authors. Many of them were thrilled that we had collected and preserved their books.
And then I thought no more of it until last Wednesday, when I sat at the reference desk for my weekly shift. Not all cataloguers do shifts in the reading rooms, but some of us do. It was one of the first things I asked to do when I started this job, because I want to keep in touch with how people actually use and experience the library, and how the metadata I create might be a help or a hindrance.
I noticed a few volumes of The People’s Library on the collection shelves, ready for a reader to peruse. Occasionally people actually read the books I catalogue, which is always nice. I hastily arranged the volumes in colour order. The reader arrived and I retrieved the books. As I carried over the last handful I remarked, ‘I catalogued these books, they’re awesome.’ The reader looked at me oddly. ‘Are you… oh, you’re the one who sent us that lovely email!’
One half of A Published Event. In town for other reasons, but who had popped in to admire her handiwork. I had no idea she was coming, let alone during the two hours a week I spend on the desk. To have come all that way, to read some of the books she had given life to, and to have been greeted by the very same person who had lovingly catalogued them, and who only briefly sits at the reference desk… Absolute serendipity. You couldn’t have written it.
The fact it had taken me a week to catalogue the Library was cause for amusement. As part of the Library’s performance at Salamanca Arts Centre, four readers-in-residence had each read some of the books, also for a week, and produced a digest summarising what they had read and learned. In a way, she supposed I became the fifth reader-in-residence, and the catalogue records for these books constituted a fifth digest. An incredible way that librarians not only collect and preserve stories, but can sometimes be part of them. By cataloguing The People’s Library I became a part of its performance, weaving a broader tale, ensuring the voices of over a hundred Tasmanians can be read and heard by all who visit us. I felt honoured to be a part of this work.
I already can’t wait to peruse A Published Event’s next library, Lost Rocks, a collection of 40 ‘fictionellas’ borne from an almost-empty rock board picked up at the tip shop in Glenorchy. ‘A slow-publishing event of mineralogical, metaphysical and metallurgical telling.’ It doesn’t get better than this.
I got a lot out of a month’s holiday in Tasmania and in Melbourne, but perhaps the greatest gift was being able to read again. I don’t mean that I was previously illiterate, but rather that I no longer had the energy or interest in reading anything for longer than five minutes. I was (and still am) surrounded by books I longed to read, but knew I lacked the brainspace to absorb and make sense of them, and so I didn’t try.
Time away from work and the internet, and within nature, restored me to something like my former self. I realised I wanted to read again. I had forgotten what this felt like. My body had forgotten how to want to read books all day, and to be able to read books all day, and not have this gnawing pit of sad exhausted panic undercutting every paragraph. I hadn’t realised how profound a loss this was until I got it back.
I had packed four books for the trip:
one I immediately lent to a friend (Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum)
one I didn’t get around to reading because I was too busy enjoying myself (Terra, volume 14 of the Dark Mountain Project)
and one I made a point of reading only in picturesque places (A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit). It’s an incredible book. I read it at Lake Wendouree, Ballarat; at Buckley Falls, Geelong; at Cataract Gorge, Launceston; at the blowhole in Bicheno. As it happened I read the last one and a half chapters of Field Guide on foot and on a tram, reaching the final line as I reached my final destination, bursting into the most hipster cafe in Fitzroy high as a kite on philosophy and the possible. Brunch was good that day.
Thankfully this spark has remained as I settle back into work and the internet. I still have loads of physical books to read, but I’m also finally making headway on my overstuffed Pocket account. Realising that it’s far easier to choose what to read when your selection is limited, my friend and comrade Hugh recently built an accidental serendipity machine called pocket-snack. It’s an experimental Python script for one’s pocket that presents you with a few randomly selected links per day, out of the several hundred you probably have saved (I had well over a thousand before we got the script to work). It’s helped me clear out stuff that it turns out I wasn’t actually interested in or that was no longer relevant to me, which freed up some brainspace for more worthwhile items. Emptying the pocket has truly never been so enjoyable.
Below are a few gems from the last little while, subconsciously themed around ‘the nature of information’:
Animism, Tree-consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory / Bron Taylor, Humans and Nature
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read The Overstory, the Booker-nominated 2018 novel whose central premise is that ‘entities in nature, and life itself, have agency, purpose, and personhood—and we have ethical obligations to all such persons.’ I’d had it in the back of my head to read at some point, noting that I seldom read fiction of any kind, and already have a to-read list as tall as I am. This review, however, propelled The Overstory to the top of my list.
I have a half-finished zine entitled ‘Five Epiphanies in Tasmania’. I’ve had a hard time pinning down the third, an experience in Ballroom Forest that I’ve likened to a moment of religious ecstasy. Reconciling this with my lifelong atheism has been somewhat challenging—whoever heard of an irreligious mystic? It seems my answer lies not in formal religious traditions, but in a kind of nature spirituality that recognises the consciousness of plants, natural features, and ultimately nature itself. Crucially, it also incorporates the responsibility of humankind to care for nature, while not situating ourselves above it. Review author Bron Taylor has dubbed this spirituality ‘dark green religion’, and his definition thereof is worth quoting at length:
It was within this complicated milieu that, over time, I began to notice patterns. These I eventually developed into the notion of dark green religion. This notion refers to diverse social phenomena in which people have animistic perceptions, emphasize ecological interdependence and mutual dependence, develop deep feelings of belonging and connection to nature, and understand the biosphere as a sacred, Gaia-like superorganism. These sorts of nature-based spiritualities generally cohere with and draw on evolutionary and ecological understandings and therefore stress continuity and kinship among all organisms. Uniting these Gaian and animistic perceptions is generally a deep sense of humility about the human place in the universe and suspicions of anthropocentric conceits, wherein human beings consider themselves to be superior to other living things and the only ones whose interests are morally significant.
To learn that this worldview not only had a name, but was a Thing that others felt and lived and wrote novels about, was overwhelming. I was slightly late to work from reading this article. I regret nothing.
If the map becomes the territory then we will be lost / Mita Williams, Librarian of Things
This sounds like a geography article but it’s not—Mita Williams, a scholarly communication librarian based in Canada, writes on how social graphs and scholcomm ecosystems are beginning to shape, rather than merely guide access to, academic output. The big 3 companies (Clarivate, Elsevier and Springer-Nature) are integrating their component services more and more tightly, which has the effect of widely automating—and locking humans, especially librarians, out of—the scholarly publishing process. Mita also discusses a higher education funding mechanism in Ontario that sounds a bit like the UK’s REF (Research Excellence Framework), in that it determines how much money is allocated to various institutions on the basis of some highly exclusionary and frustrating metrics.
Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.
I won’t pretend to be anything near an expert on scholcomm but this all sounds fairly… rubbish. No wonder people want to dump Elsevier.
Computational Landscape Architecture / Geoff Manaugh, BLDGBLOG
I love trees. I also love wifi. But the two are strange bedfellows. This article explores the impact different species of tree might have on phone and internet reception, leading to ‘the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping […] according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi’ and the potential use of pot plants in electronic subterfuge. I mean, Geoff also links to an article from Popular Science suggesting wifi is responsible for mass radiation poisoning in Dutch street trees, so I’m not entirely convinced wifiscaping is a good idea, but it’s yet another reminder that computing, like the rest of human ingenuity, exists within nature and not above it.
PROSPEKT. Organising information is never innocent / Regine, We Make Money Not Art
I initially read this before going on holidays, but VR performance artist Geraldine Juárez has some incisive comments for the GLAM sector that I thought deserve a wider audience. The bulk of this article discusses PROSPEKT, her 2018 performance situated within the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, Sweden. The first paragraph, however, is a neat summary of her 2017 essay ‘Intercolonial Technogalactic’ [large PDF, begins page 152]. In it, Juárez critiques the activities of the Google Cultural Institute, which has digitised and published online thousands of museum-held cultural artefacts from around the world, but which curiously offers very little information about its own origins. (It was intended as part of a PR move against French publishers who were suing Google in 2011 over Google Books and breaches of copyright.)
She notes that Google views libraries, museums and other cultural institutions not as true collaborative partners but as ‘gatekeepers of world cultures’: repositories of content to be mined and paywalled. Google reproduces the power structures and cultural biases that gave rise to it, prizing European high culture above all else, and viewing publicly-funded institutions as beacons of ‘inefficiency’ that need ‘disrupting’ by private enterprise. All information is organised for a purpose. It is never innocent. It is never neutral.
The colonial gaze was determined to scan the surface looking for specimens for study, fixing them as objects out of time and out of place, in the same way that digital documents offer imagings of the world at a distance via screens. This is a prospecting gaze – a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value.
While re-reading this article I was violently reminded of a series of uncomfortable experiences at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. I’ve never been wild about taxidermy, but TMAG’s hall of lovingly stuffed creatures, with mammals, birds and insects wrenched from their natural homes and drowned in formaldehyde, made me deeply uncomfortable. These poor animals deserve to return to the earth, not spend the next three eternities in suspended animation for the amusement of humans.
Natural Processes: information doesn’t grow on trees / Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Real Life
This piece has had such an impact on how I think about cataloguing that I’m including it again. It reminded me that the very notion of cataloguing and classification has deeply imperialist foundations that bode ill for our efforts at more inclusive collection description. It also reminded me of how my dear mother, a keen gardener, was able to identify every plant photo I texted to her during my trip. Sometimes it’s far better to ask mum than ask Google. Or an app reliant on crowdsourcing and machine learning.
The “herborizer,” a 17th-century nature enthusiast “armed with nothing more than a collector’s bag, a notebook, and some specimen bottles, desiring nothing more than a few peaceful hours alone with the bugs and flowers,” was the passive cousin of the conquistador or the diplomat […] His harmless assertion of taxonomical hegemony over Europe and her colonies actually produced commercially exploitable knowledge for the empire’s gain. He was a researcher, classifying, collecting, qualifying and quantifying imperial loot.
By cataloguing nature in ways that privileged only select facets of a living thing (those that could be seen, felt, or observed in isolation from its natural habitat), the burgeoning fields of taxonomy and scientific classification enabled Enlightenment-era Europeans to distance themselves from the natural world they ravaged. It continues to enable users of the aforementioned plant-identifying app, which propagates this classificatory, imperialist method of coming to know the earth. Taxonomy, with its discrete categories and precise hierarchies, primes us to see nature as a resource, as something to be mined, prospected and extracted for humanity’s benefit (such as improving our wifi). ‘It teaches us to see other life as proximate to us, rather than knowing ourselves as an extension of it.’
The antithesis of Bron Taylor’s dark green religion. The very anthropocentrism to which Richard Powers’ The Overstory stands opposed.
I titled this blog Cataloguing the Universe because it reflected a childhood impulse to never stop learning about the world, about space and time, about my place on this planet. Library catalogues have always been, for me, a path to knowledge: first as I browsed them, now as I contribute to their upkeep. It’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve learned how taxonomies and classification systems reflect the views, biases and priorities of those who create them. It’s only within the last hour that I’ve realised the binary character of natural history classification is echoed within my work as a cataloguer. I can assign a book only one call number. I can either include or not include a subject heading—no parts, shades or relevance rankings, no way to indicate just how well a work relates to the subjects I decide it’s about. It’s not a good system. How can I smash it?
This notion of cataloguing as a means of collecting and producing knowledge, like everything else about the culture I was raised in, is inherently Eurocentric and deeply flawed. I couldn’t quite articulate this in late January, but I can now. This is why I wanted to learn differently this year. To overcome my ecological illiteracy borne from spending 28 years inside on someone else’s land. To learn different ways of seeing the world, so that I might address the harm my settler presence has caused.
The article’s conclusion suggests the first step is ‘to take off our lenses and reckon with the humbling, bewildering condition of unknowing, to [quell] the appetite for legibility of the world that leaves us at a comfortable distance from what we cannot understand.’ I don’t think I’m comfortable enough yet with my own ignorance. I have so much to unlearn.