On the nature of information: the best of #emptythepocket, issue 4

Reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit at Cataract Gorge, Launceston, January 2019. Photograph by the author

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)
  • one I read to contextualise that enjoyment (Into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor)
  • 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.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 3

Today I realised I had 1,025 items saved to my Pocket account, which is a bit much. I wrote earlier this year about my article ecosystem, but it’s fallen apart a bit, because I never seem to get around to actually reading everything I save. I decided to clean out these items, deleting articles I was never really going to read, and sharing those that left an impression.

Architecture and Appropriation / Louis Mokak, Assemble Papers
First published in Caliper, this short piece speaks to how First Nations ‘culture is not a research topic, thematic concern or an anthropological curiosity’, yet is still treated as such by scientific lines of enquiry. The author, a Djugun architecture student, reflects on the power structures that underpin his chosen profession, and where cultural appropriation might be replaced with a more equitable exchange.

The Soviet web: the tale of how the USSR almost invented the internet / Justin Reynolds, Calvert Journal
This article on socialist cybernetics, in particular the Chilean Project Cybersyn and the Soviet OGAS, outlined how communist countries looked to emerging computing technologies to assist in centralised control of the economy. Crucially, the ‘internet’ of the title refers not to a publicly-accessible web of information, but a network of computers that would relay data on production output to central planning. They almost created a nation-wide computer network, but the Americans beat them to it, and look where that’s gotten us…

Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient? / Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360
Newsflash: the internet is terrible for the environment! As I highlighted in the last #emptythepocket roundup, we as a society have collectively forgotten that ‘that ethereal place where we store our data, stream our movies, and email the world has a physical presence’. And it’s filthy. The electricity that powers cloud computing is frequently drawn from non-renewable sources, with data centres using insane amounts of energy in cooling and airconditioning. Every internet-connected keystroke has an environmental cost. We outsource so much of our data infrastructure to ‘the cloud’, and assume that someone else will take care of all that pesky maintenance and environmental sustainability for us, that most of us have no idea what the internet is doing to the planet. (I’m hoping to soon read J.R. Carpenter’s book The Gathering Cloud, an intriguing work of ‘media meteorology’.)

Librarian or librarian: Which Do You Want to Be? / Jessica Olin, Letters to a Young Librarian
Our endgame as librarians / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound
I am hugely, immensely, absolutely guilty of being a Librarian with a capital L. And yet it’s something I’ve largely refused to feel guilty about, because that’s a decision I’ve made for myself, in deciding what I want to do with my life and how best to use my skills and talents for the greater good. But it also means I’m up to my eyeballs in Librarian Culture, and when it almost drowned me earlier this year I realised it comprised such a large chunk of Me that I didn’t quite know what was left. Like Jessica, I also don’t want to look back on my mid-twenties and regret being such a Librarian, when I could also have been (just?) a librarian, with time and energy for other things. But do I want that? Would I ever be happy not throwing myself into my work?

Andrew posted on a similar topic as I was reading Jessica’s post. Andrew and I have collectively spent a lot of time this year being capitalised Librarians, giving a shit, and pondering our respective powers and places within LIS. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it alone, and sometimes we can’t do much of anything. But we can try, and plan, and agitate, and celebrate all successes no matter how small. And I know I can do it from the position I’m currently in—employed on a fixed-term contract, in a non-management role, in a team that doesn’t share my views on… virtually everything, with the ink still wet on my library degree, armed only with a twitter account and my wits. Nobody else will change our sector for the better, so we might as well do it ourselves. Just so long as that’s not the only thing we do. (I was also reminded of Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s code4lib editorial on being a selfish librarian, which is a good read.)

Contraflow / Clare Archibald, Walking Heads
At this point I inverted my pocket so the oldest items were at the top. The most interesting old thing was this psychogeographic drift in a multi-storey carpark. As a lifelong non-driver I rarely have cause to be in these buildings, so reading Clare’s pedestrian exploration of this car-shaped space was spooky in lots of ways. It becomes less about the carpark itself than about Clare’s memories of carparks in general, concrete and acid, cracks and headlights. Cars are awful. I don’t know why we persist with them.

‘I felt betrayed by the physical and emotional hardship’ / Agustin Chevez, SBS Insight
As a product of the Enlightenment, LIS prides itself on being a rational profession, based on truth and evidence. But what if it’s really the absurd that will save us? Recent PhD graduate Agustin Chevez found himself seized by a need to walk from Sydney to Melbourne, and decided to do so, but a month of walking had seemingly produced nothing. Tired and unsure, he stopped by the side of the road, only to realise that ‘once artificial intelligence has modelled every possible rational scenario, absurdity might surface as our last standing trait’. The absurdity of his situation liberated him, and inspired him to continue his walk. The clickbaity title does this piece a great disservice—it’s an inspiring treatise on the value of irrationality and solitude. I could do with a long walk myself…

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 2

Here’s another completely irregular roundup of some cool online things I’ve been reading recently. I haven’t taken any trains anywhere, but I have been unwell a lot, which leaves plenty of time for reading and introspection. This collection of pocket detritus has a more techy flavour.

Ethira / Amalia Ulman, Net Art Anthology
Like Twitter, but with more void. Part of Rhizome‘s fantastic Net Art Anthology series, bringing defunct works of mobile and net art back to the living internet, Ethira (2013-2014) was an artist’s book contained in an iOS app—a social network where users could post completely anonymous messages, which vanished shortly afterwards. I love its anti-capitalist ethos, freeing users from the tyanny of their online selves, and relieving them of any ability to archive their experiences on the platform. I wish Ethira had not met the same fate as the messages it transmitted. I think I’d get a lot of use out of it.

How to Build a Low-Tech Website? / Kris De Decker, Low←Tech Magazine
Speaking of the living internet: we tend to forget just how bad modern computing is for the planet. Global network infrastructures use insane amounts of energy, with more and more of our computing moving to cloud-based interfaces. We have it in our heads that doing things electronically is better for our environment because it ‘saves paper’, yet we don’t think about the energy and materials required to build that electronic infrastructure.

This piece from Low←Tech Magazine discusses their efforts to move to a solar-powered web server (so the site may go offline if it’s raining in Barcelona) and to reduce the site’s carbon footprint by way of static-site generators and dithered images. It’s absolutely brilliant. It consciously puts its money where its mouth is (getting rid of Google Adsense was another energy-saving decision). But it also wrenches the site back from the endless void of cyberspace and firmly plants it in an earth-based space and time, resituating the virtual in the physical, and reminding the user that there is always an environmental cost to computing.

I’m reminded of my own failed attempts to move this site off WordPress and onto something more static (and hence sustainable). It doesn’t help that I learned all my web development skills from issues of Double Helix magazine when I was ten.

Announcing Get It to Te Papa: our televised quest to get under-appreciated Kiwi treasures into the national museum / Hayden Donnell, The Spinoff
When Aotearoa New Zealand journalist Hayden Donnell watched politician Steven Joyce get hit in the face with a sex toy, his first thought was, naturally, ‘That needs to be in Te Papa’, the country’s national museum. (Perhaps he was thinking #AllMuseumsAreSexMuseums?) Fast foward a couple of years and Donnell now has a TV series where he tries to accomplish exactly that, plus a few other cheerfully kitsch Kiwi treasures. His incredible zeal for hunting down cultural artefacts is infectious (who doesn’t love a ‘fully-fledged Te Papa truther’?), but I especially loved that the items he craved were meaningful to, and cherished by, ordinary people—not items of high art or distant culture. Keen to watch this one day.

A Culture of ‘No’ / Nicole Eva, Journal of New Librarianship (via @clareifications)
I’ve never been one to take ‘no’ for an answer. Sadly, it’s an answer libraries hear—and give—all too frequently, usually for the wrong reasons. This fantastic article discusses academic libraries in particular and why they’re so keen to say ‘no’ to things. The author suspects it’s due to the kind of people who wind up in libraries in the first place, and frankly I’m inclined to agree. Despite the occasional eruption of socialist fury, we remain at heart a conservative profession, preferring steadiness and continuity over the kind of change that might just save our jobs. Nicole Eva’s palpable frustration has gifted us a whole article’s worth of pull quotes. I think I’ll be reading this again.

is death for WEB sites as us / Olia Lialina, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age
Remember Geocities? The beautiful, horrifying, free web hosting service where good taste and good web design went to die? It took until 2009 for Geocities to finally die, but in 2002 a series of deeply unpopular site decisions by its new owners Yahoo! caused hordes of angry <marquee> users and GIF enthusiasts to pack up and move elsewhere on the web. Drawing from the terabyte of Geocities data rescued by Archive Team and seeded on BitTorrent, net artist Olia Lialina (also featured on Net Art Anthology with her seminal 1996 work ‘My boyfriend came back from the war‘) illustrates how early web users fiercely defended their idiosyncratic online spaces, in the face of demands for conformity.

The archaeology of (flash) memory / Gabriel Moshenska, Post-Medieval Archaeology
Not open-access (but accessible remotely with an NLA library card) is this fascinating tale of a 2009-era USB stick buried at the edge of a school oval and unearthed three years later as part of landscaping works. Using archaeological methods, the author and team studied the USB stick and retrieved its contents, which included schoolwork files, music and videos, suggesting it belonged to a local schoolboy. This kind of digital archaeology will be familiar to most digital preservation professionals, but may well be new to researchers in other disciplines.

Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals / Madison Sullivan, ACRLog
I missed this brilliant piece in 2016, and I don’t want you to miss it either. Besides, it’s completely true. A lot of professionals are crackpots. People who go around demanding performative ‘professionalism’ but who are in fact contributing to isolating and toxic workplaces, where people feel unsafe to bring their whole selves to work. There ought to be no place for this in modern librarianship—we’re meant to all be in this together. Madison unfairly copped a lot of crap from librarians when this was first published, and sadly I can see why. I also see a lot of myself in this post, both the old and the new. I’m probably not the most professional librarian floating around, but I was, and still hope to be, one of those people ‘who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change’. Because deep down, I still think librarianship is something worth doing. I hope you do, too.

The best of #emptythepocket, issue 1

Twenty bucks for hours of train disruption? What a steal!

Being a known article-hoarder, I was inspired recently to start cleaning out my piles of collected internet writing (I would not deign to call it an ‘archive’, it’s far too poorly organised). I’ve been posting some of the best articles to twitter using #emptythepocket, but each article’s presence in the collective consciousness of my followers is brief, and some articles deserve a longer digestion period.

Inspired by Hugh Rundle’s Marginalia series, here is a selection of articles I read—in this order—on the train to Melbourne. (Where possible I avoid flying, because it’s bad for the planet and also highly unpleasant.) It’s a nice summary of my reading interests: critical cataloguing, psychogeography, writings from friends, human ecology, and a great big rant about librarianship, because I love it and also hate it. So much.

Can walking be a feminist act? / Anna Chilvers, Caught by the River
This was a great piece on the fear felt by women walking the countryside, walking after dark, walking alone. We are afraid not of the unknown, but of known dangers—not of the wilderness, but of men. I was immediately reminded of the Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness project by Clare Archibald, as well as the zine A short nightwalk through Lyons from Saorsa Free Press (which may or may not be a side project of mine).

17 Days in Malaysia, Part One / Andrew Finegan, Bibliotheque Bound 
I’d been following the goings-on at the 2018 IFLA conference on twitter (plus the occasional culinary delight) but I enjoyed the first part of Andrew’s longer-form wrap-up of his sojourn in Singapore and Malaysia. Didn’t envy him the tropical weather, though.

The New Ecological Situationists: On the Revolutionary Aesthetics of Climate Justice and Degrowth / Aaron Vansintjan, Never Apart
Aaron co-edits Uneven Earth, an environmental justice blog. He writes for Never Apart at the intersection of psychogeography and climate change nihilism, two particular interests of mine, and does so with grace and depth. The absurdity of most environmental action (no, you can’t just ‘shut down’ a power station) contrasts with an acknowledged need to completely transform our growth-minded society, if we are to survive. Here I first met Andre Gorz’s principle of décroissance, which has resonated with me deeply. (I’m also a big fan of his ‘cars are bad for everyone’ manifesto from 1972.)

Mat Santamouris: time to make buildings heat-safe. Now. / Dante Terzigni, The Fifth Estate
A quick read on the need for urban planners to ensure their buildings can withstand hotter temperatures, though talk of influencing the design of the new airport in Western Sydney ‘to increase climate change mitigation’ elicited a scoff. You want to mitigate climate change? Don’t build another freaking airport! Don’t fly! (She says, writing this post on a train because she’s given up flying) Don’t build the infrastructure to support atmospheric pollution on a global scale and then plant some trees around it! Climate change doesn’t work like that!

On truth in cataloging / Shanna Hollich, Shanna Makes
This is one of the best cataloguing pieces I’ve read in a long time. It’s everything I wish I’d said to Gordon Dunsire at ACOC. ‘[A]nyone who thinks “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” needs to come down off of their pretentious high horse and realize what cataloging truly is: a means of collecting and describing various pertinent information, data, and metadata about an object in a library collection […] to aid patrons and staff in finding materials.’ From 2015, it’s still a very hot topic in cataloguing with the reversal of the ‘fictional entities as authors’ rule in the new RDA. Thank you, Shanna. You are awesome, and this piece is amazing.

UX from a Technical Services Point of View / Shelley Gullikson and Emma Cross, Access Conf 2017 (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Another happy confluence of two topics close to my heart: user experience and technical services (which ought to be spoken about together far more often). To me, this paper screams ‘tech services! you’re doing it wrong!!’. Our cataloguing isn’t meeting the needs of users. Our systems aren’t surfacing what users will use to judge the usefulness of a record. (RDA is useless here! Subject headings are of minimal importance!) People use keyword search almost exclusively. Our info retrieval paradigms MUST adapt to this + present the most useful info first.

I was intrigued by the reactions to the UX study from tech services staff vs. the department head. I am on both sides: keyword searching is not a bad search, BUT it is not harnessing the intricate subject taxonomies that cataloguers have spent decades building, and will only skim the surface of records. (I mentioned this on my episode of Turbitt & Duck, and Karen Coyle has written on this extensively.) I do not believe in telling users that keyword searching is ‘wrong’, but we need to build our systems to better address the current deficiencies in keyword search. (Note I do not say ‘pressure our vendors to build our systems’. If we want anything done properly we’re gonna have to do it ourselves. And we should be doing it ourselves.)

‘Our students do their research online. Technical Services staff make decisions that affect how library resources are found online. So they are perfectly positioned to improve the user experience of our students.’ Say it with me: technical services is outreach!

Looking for Lorca / Steven Reese, Panorama Journal 
On the quest for the tomb of Federico García Lorca, a famed Spanish poet killed by nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and whose remains have never been found. It deftly wove several threads together—on how we gain and lose identities as we travel; on our presence inside the shell a name creates for us (for naming ‘is like a kind of death’); on Spain’s national reckoning with its fascist history, and the legislation of memory. I had never heard of Lorca or his poetry, but now I’m keen to read more.

Contextualizing the “Marketplace of Ideas” in Libraries / Nailisa Tanner, Journal of Radical Librarianship 
I was super looking forward to this article but found that Pocket hadn’t saved it properly, so I had to wait for the next train station (ergo mobile reception) to redownload. I napped for an hour, then read this article, and I’m glad I napped first—it’s quite heavy reading, but absolutely worth it.

Defenders of intellectual freedom in libraries often use the phrase ‘marketplace of ideas’, which ‘evokes the image of a process in which rational consumers choose from among the ideas presented to them in an environment of unrestricted competition. In this line of argument, it follows that truth and reason will emerge automatically’. Now, we have all met library users. We all read the news. We all know that this does not happen. So why do we continue to structure our libraries as if this will happen?

The week of this trip ALIA launched their newest FAIR campaign, ‘Truth Information Knowledge (TIK)’, positing librarianship as a trusted profession. Sigh. I’ve written on this misplaced trust before, as have plenty of others. How committed are we to enforcing the Enlightenment?

Various forms of liberalism posit that Truth will out, but a market-based mechanism brings about precisely the opposite outcome, that the prevailing View is that which best exploits the market conditions. Libraries are in a position to set those market conditions—and so influence the outcome. Is it (or is it not) in accordance with our professional ethics to set the scene for a flourishing of ideas that grow our society, not seek to tear it apart?


I hope you enjoyed this #emptythepocket roundup as much as I enjoyed sitting on a train for six-and-a-half hours compiling it. Perhaps next time I hop on a train there’ll be another one…

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.