So what’s next?: five things I learned at #GOGLAM

Yesterday I had the great privilege of attending the GO GLAM miniconf, held under the auspices of the Linux Australia conference. Hosted by the fabulous Bonnie Wildie and the indefatigable Hugh Rundle, GO GLAM brought the power and promise of open-source software to the GLAM sector. This miniconf has been run a couple of times before but this was my first visit. It was pretty damn good. I’m glad I started scribbling down notes, otherwise it would all be this massive blend of exhausted awesome.

The day began with an opening keynote by some guy called Cory Doctorow, but he wasn’t very interesting so I didn’t pay much attention. He did talk a lot about self-determination, and he did use the phrase ‘seizing the means of computation’ that I definitely want on a t-shirt, but there was a big ethics-of-care-sized gap at the centre of his keynote. I found myself wishing someone would use the words ‘self-determination’ and ‘social responsibility’ in the same talk.

Good tech platforms can exist, if we care enough to build them. As it happened, GO GLAM’s first speakers, a group of five mostly francophone and mostly Indigenous artists and coders from what is now eastern Canada, wound up doing almost exactly this. Natakanu, meaning ‘visit each other’ in the Innu language, is an ‘Indigenous-led, open source, peer to peer software project’, enabling First Nations communities to share art, data, files and stories without state surveillance, invasive tech platforms or an internet connection. I can’t express how brilliant this project is. I’m still so deeply awed and impressed by what this team have built.

gif of natakanu client
Demo gif of the Natakanu client. Image courtesy Mauve Signweaver

Two things leapt out at me during this electrifying talk—that Natakanu is thoughtful, and that it is valuable. It consciously reflects First Nations knowledge cultures, echoing traditions of oral history, and exemplifying an ‘approach of de-colonized cyberspace’. Files are shared with ‘circles’, where everyone in a circle is assumed to be a trusted party, but each member of that circle can choose (or not) to share something further. Building a collective memory is made easier with Natakanu, but the responsibility of doing so continues to rest with those who use it.

Natakanu embodies—and makes space for—First Nations sovereignties, values and ethics of care. It’s technology by people, for people. It’s a precious thing, because our communities are precious, too. The Natakanu platform reflects what these communities care about. Western tech platforms care about other things, like shouting at the tops of your lungs to ten billion other people in an agora and algorithmically distorting individuals’ sense of reality. We implicitly accept these values by continuing to use these platforms. Our tech doesn’t care about us. We could build better tech, if we knew how, and we chose to. (There’s a reason I’ve been consciously trying to spend less time on Twitter and more time on Mastodon.) But more on computational literacy a little later.

A few people mentioned in the Q&A afterwards how they’d love to bring Natakanu to Indigenous Australian communities. I don’t doubt their intentions are good (and Hugh touched on this in the recap at the end of the day), but in my (white-ass) view the better thing is to empower communities here to build their own things that work for them. A key aspect of Reconciliation in this country is developing a sense of cultural humility, to recognise when your whitefella expertise might be valuable and to offer it, when to quietly get out of the way, and which decisions are actually yours to make. Or, as speaker Mauve Signweaver put it, ‘instead of telling them “tell us what you need and we’ll make it for you”, saying “Tell us what you need and we’ll help you make it”‘.

I can’t wait to rewatch this talk and catch up on some parts I know I missed. It was absolutely the highlight of the entire miniconf. I couldn’t believe they were first-time speakers! Can they do the keynote next year?

Metadata and systems might not last forever, but we can still try. I think it’s safe to say many attendees were very taken with Arkisto, the ‘open-source, standards-based framework for digital preservation’ presented by Mike Lynch. It’s a philosophical yet pragmatic solution to describing, packaging and contextualising research data. Arkisto’s framework appears particularly useful for rescuing and re-housing data from abandoned or obsolete platforms (such as an Omeka instance where the grant money has run out and the site is at risk of deletion).

Arkisto describes objects with RO-Crate (Research Object Crate, a derivative of Schema.org) and stores them in the Oxford Common File Layout, a filesystem that brings content and metadata together. It’s actively not a software platform and it’s not a replacement for traditional digipres activities like checksums. It’s a bit like applying the philosophy of static site generators to research data management; it’s a minimalist, long-term, sustainably-minded approach that manages data in line with the FAIR principles. It also recognises that researchers have short-term incentives not to adequately describe or contextualise their research data (no matter how much librarians exhort them to) and tries to make it easier for them.

The new PARADISEC catalogue includes Arkisto and an associated web interface, Oni, as part of its tech stack. I was very taken with the catalogue’s principle of ‘graceful degradation’—even if the search function ceases to operate, browsing and viewing items will still work. As a former web archivist I was heartened to see them holding this more limited functionality in mind, an astute recognition that all heritage, be it virtual, environmental or built, will eventually decay. So much of my web archiving work involved desperately patching dynamic websites into something that bore a passing resemblance to what they had once been. We might not always be able to save the infrastructure, but one hopes we can more often save the art, the data, the files, the stories. (Which reminds me, I’ve had Curated Decay on my to-read shelf for far too long.)

I shouldn’t have needed reminding of this, but sometimes I forget that metadata doesn’t begin and end with the library sector. It was a thrill to hear someone in a related field speaking my language! I wanna hang out with these people more often now.

Generosity resides in all of us. My first impressions of Hugh Rundle’s talk were somewhat unfavourable—he only spent a couple of minutes talking about the bones of his project, a Library Map of every public library in Australia, and instead dedicated the bulk of his time to complaining about the poor quality of open datasets. Despite having had several sneak previews I was rather hoping to see more of the map itself, including its ‘white fragility mode’ and the prevalence of fine-free libraries across the country. Instead I felt a bit deflated by the persistent snark. Hugh was the only speaker to explicitly reference the miniconf’s fuller title of ‘Generous and Open GLAM’. But this felt like an ungenerous talk. Why did it bother me?

Perhaps it’s because Hugh is a close friend of mine, and I expected him to be as kind and generous about the failings of Data Vic as he is about my own. I’m not sure I held other speakers to that high a standard, but I don’t think anyone else was quite as mean about their data sources. I also hadn’t eaten a proper breakfast, so maybe I was just hangry, and I ought to give Hugh the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had a lot on his plate. I intend to rewatch this talk when the recordings come out, to see if I feel the same way about it on a full stomach. I hope I feel differently. The Library Map really is a great piece of software, and I don’t think Hugh quite did it justice.

screenshot of Hugh Rundle's Library Map
Homepage of Hugh Rundle’s Library Map

Omg pull requests make sense now. Liz Stokes is absolutely delightful, and her talk ‘Once more, with feeling!’ was no exception. Her trademark cheerfulness, gentleness and generosity shone in this talk, where she explored what makes a comfortable learning environment for tech newbies, and demonstrated just such an environment by teaching us how GitHub pull requests worked. How did she know that I desperately needed to know this?! Pull requests had just never made sense to me—until that afternoon. You ‘fork’ a repository by copying it to your space, then make changes you think the original repo would benefit from, then leave a little note explaining what you did and ‘request’ that the original owner ‘pull’ your changes back into the repo. A pull request! Amazing! A spotlight shone upon my brain and angels trumpeted from the heavens. This made my whole day. Hark, the gift of knowledge!

Liz also touched on the value of learning how to ‘think computationally’, a skill I have come to deeply appreciate as I progress in my technical library career. I’ve attended multiple VALA Tech Camps (including as a presenter), I’ve done all sorts of workshops and webinars, I’ve tried learning to code umpteen times (and just the other day bought Julia Evans’ SQL zine Become a SELECT Star! because I think I’ll shortly need it for work), but nowhere did I ever formally learn the basics of computational thinking. Computers don’t think like humans do, and in order to tell computers what we want, we have to learn to speak their language. But so much learn-to-code instruction attempts to teach the language without the grammar.

I don’t have a computer science background—I have an undergraduate degree in classics, and am suddenly reminded of the innovative Traditional Grammar course that I took at ANU many years ago. Most students come to Classical Studies with little knowledge of grammar in any language; instead of throwing them headfirst into the intricacies of the ancient languages, they learn about the grammars of English, Latin and Ancient Greek first and together. This gives students a solid grounding of the mechanics of language, setting them up for success in future years. Programming languages need a course like Traditional Grammar. Just as classicists learn to think like Romans, prospective coders need to be explicitly taught how to think like computers. A kind of basic computational literacy course.

(Of all the things I thought I’d get out of the day, I didn’t expect a newfound admiration of Professor Elizabeth Minchin to be one of them.)

Online confs are awesome! Being somewhat late to the online conference party, GO GLAM was my first experience of an exclusively online conference. I’ve watched a handful of livestreams before, but it just isn’t the same. A bit like reading a photocopied book. I don’t think I had any particular expectations of LCA, but I figured I’ve sat in on enough zoom webinars, it’d be a bit like that, right? Wrong. The LCA audio-visual and conference tech stack was an absolute thing of beauty. Everything looked a million bucks, everything was simple and easy to use. It was a far more active watching experience than simply tucking into a livestream—the chat box on the right-hand side, plus the breakout Q&A areas, helped me feel as if I were truly part of the action. I didn’t usually have a lot to say past ‘That was awesome!’ but it was far less intimidating than raising my hand at an in-person Q&A or cold-tweeting a speaker after the fact.

As someone who is deeply introverted, probably neurodivergent and extremely online, virtual conferences like GO GLAM are so much more accessible than their real-life counterparts. I didn’t have to travel, get up early, put on my People Face™, spend hours in a bright and noisy conference hall, eat mediocre food, make painful small talk, take awkward pictures of slides and furiously live-tweet at the same time, massively exhaust myself and make a mad dash for the exit. Instead I could have a nap, grab another pot of tea, turn the lights down, share links in the chat, clap with emojis, watch people make great connections, take neat and tidy screenshots of slides, squeeze in a spot of Hammock Time and still be feeling excited by it all at the end of the day.

I’m sure people will want to return to some form of physical conferencing in the fullness of time, but I fervently hope that online conferencing becomes the new norm. This infrastructure exists, it costs a lot less than you think (certainly less than venue hire and catering), and it makes conferences accessible to people for whom the old normal just wasn’t working. Please don’t leave us behind when the world comes back.

Indigenous names in authority records: the case of Jandamarra

UPDATE (20 June 2018): This has now been addressed! I noticed a couple of days ago that the NLA have updated this authority record, such that it now follows the AIATSIS example, “Jandamarra, approximately 1870-1897.” (The Libraries Australia heading and Trove duplicate issue both remain, but I understand they are managed by different areas within NLA.) While I was not directly informed of the NLA’s decision to update Jandamarra’s authority record, I am thrilled that they have done so. Thank you, NLA cataloguers, for making this necessary change.

A selection of books about Jandamarra. (Picture courtesy AIATSIS)

It’s all well and good for librarians to talk about decolonisation, but we need to put our money where our mouths are. Cataloguers are no exception—we decide how resources are described and accessed. We dictate the effectiveness of a search strategy. We alone have the power to name.1

Being the sort of person who browses library catalogues for fun, I wound up on a NLA record for a play about Jandamarra, the Bunuba resistance fighter. Except the subject headings in this record didn’t name him at all. Instead they named some bloke called ‘Pigeon’.

100 0# $a Pigeon, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Jandamarra

Pigeon?!

Apparently ‘Pigeon’ was a name given to Jandamarra by a white pastoralist.2 The 15 books held by the NLA with this subject heading overwhelmingly refer to a man named Jandamarra. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is under this name. The Canberra street named in his honour uses this name. Why doesn’t the NLA use this name?

The whole thing couldn’t be more colonial if it tried.3 A colonial institution (the library) referring to an Indigenous man by a colonial name (‘Pigeon’) and qualifying it with his year of death in a colonial calendar (1897). Jandamarra’s authority record represents his name and life as it was known to white people. How would the Bunuba describe him? Would they use the name ‘Jandamarra’ at all? What could a more culturally appropriate authority record look like? How might we disambiguate people without reference to colonial names, occupations or calendars?4

100 0# $a Jandamarra $c (Bunuba man)
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d -1897

As a white cataloguer I firmly believe a change needs to be made. Such a change would have greater impact if it were also made in Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue (on which more later). The name ‘Pigeon’ is also used there, identically to its use in the NLA’s catalogue.

Let’s fix that

The issue then becomes: how might I make this change? More importantly, how might the community suggest a change? There is a way to suggest changes to name headings on the ANBD, but it’s very difficult to find—the Libraries Australia reftracker includes two options for ‘Propose a LCSH change’ and ‘Propose a new LCSH’ (where ‘LCSH’, apparently, includes all headings, name and subject alike). The form states that the info you provide goes straight to LC (that is, it’s not evaluated locally). It also immediately starts demanding my name, my NUC code, tells me to choose my 1XX heading, include 670 source citations, LC pattern or SCM memo, use for, broader term, related term??

I am a fluent MARC speaker and I know a 680 when I see one, but I have never dared fill out that form. I can’t see how an ordinary person would ever be able to suggest a formal change for Australian usage. Crowdsourcing initiatives like Violet Fox’s Cataloging Lab (which, for the record, I love), are necessarily US-centric and wouldn’t immediately address a local problem. Besides, the guidelines for establishing name authorities in the ANBD expressly state that Australian entities are exempt from the ‘let LC decide’ policy.

Besides, even if we were able to navigate the form and suggest a change, what would the change be? For guidance, I looked to AIATSIS’ catalogue. Sensibly, and in delightful accordance with RDA, they have opted to use 100 0# $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897 as the preferred form. I figure if it’s good enough for AIATSIS, it’s good enough for me.

Wondering what other libraries used, I then looked at the Library of Congress’ NAF (Name Authority File) record. To my surprise, they used a different spelling:

100 0# $a Sandamarra, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Jandamarra, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Tjandamara, $d -1897

This record was created in 1989 and revised in 2013. A search of both LC’s catalogue and WorldCat (via the Libraries Australia Z39.50 interface, in case that makes a difference) brought up no results with this spelling, so I couldn’t determine if a particular work was used as its basis. Usually these works would be recorded in a 670 field, but these had nothing.

It would not be beyond LC to update its heading to the more commonly-used spelling. Pleasingly, they have form in this area: in 2003, LC changed several dozen subject headings relating to $a Aboriginal Australians (or $a Australian aborigines, as they were then described) in consultation with the NLA.

What’s in Trove?

I then found myself browsing the Trove People and organisations zone, where authority records are given a new life as sources of biographical data. Like other parts of Trove, the P&O zone aggregates and incorporates data from a variety of sources. I was therefore surprised to find Jandamarra listed under this name, using data from AIATSIS and the Australian Dictionary of Biography; as established above, both sources used the most commonly-known spelling. Notably, this did not include data from Libraries Australia:

Record for Jandamarra within Trove’s People and organisations zone.

The great thing about Trove identity records is that they display the ‘Also known as’ data (or UFs, or non-preferred terms, or 4XX fields, or whatever). It’s really hard to get an ILS to display this info, especially in an easy-to-read format like Trove has done. I’m really pleased to see this data out in the open and not hidden down the back of the authority file sofa.

Now, what happens if I search the P&O zone for ‘Pigeon’?

Jandamarra appears twice, with a slightly different spelling

We see that Jandamarra (-1897) is the first result, but the fifth is for Jundumurra, Pigeon (?!), which features data from AIATSIS and Libraries Australia. (This particular LA record pulls its data from AIATSIS anyway, so strictly speaking this isn’t the NLA’s fault, but it’s still a dupe that LA and/or Trove would have to merge.)

Interestingly, the original authority record from the NLA (‘Pigeon’, remember him?) doesn’t appear to be represented in the P&I zone at all. I wonder if that was a conscious or unconscious decision?

For completeness, here’s the real AIATSIS name authority, which in my view is also the best one:

100 0# $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Jundamurra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Sandamara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Sandawara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Tjandamara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Tjangamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Jandamura, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Wonimarra, $d approximately 1870-1897

It turns out that Jandamarra has three (!) name authority records in Libraries Australia, one from the NLA and two from AIATSIS. Ordinarily I would consider this a major data integrity issue, and 100 10 $a Jundumurra, Pigeon is a bit of a problem, but for the moment I’m actually okay with the other two full-level records, because they help illustrate the differing approaches and mindsets from the two institutions. In time, I’d like to narrow that down, though.

Recommendations

In short, here’s what I would like to see happen so that Jandamarra is referred to by his rightful name in the ANBD, and in catalogues that use ANBD records:

1) Libraries Australia to modify their name authority record and establish the preferred form as $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897, in accordance with that used by AIATSIS, and add non-preferred forms as appropriate. This change could then ripple across to the NLA’s catalogue, and other libraries that use Libraries Australia authorities would eventually follow suit. Maybe a little publicity around the change—after all, it’s being done for the right reasons.

2) Trove to merge the two identity records such that Jandamarra appears only once, that ‘Pigeon’ appears under the ‘Also known as’ list (so those who know him by that name are redirected accordingly), and that the sources of data encompass AIATSIS, Libraries Australia and the National Dictionary of Biography.

Such moves may seem small, but they would represent a sincere and concerted effort to decolonise the authority file. Cataloguers can, and should, restore the power to name to Indigenous communities, especially where colonial names have been used to describe Indigenous people and concepts. A name is not the cataloguer’s to take—it is the community’s to give.


  1. Olson, Hope A. (2001). The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 26(3), 639-668. doi: 10.1086/495624 
  2. Pedersen, Howard (1990). Jandamarra (1870–1897), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/jandamarra-8822/text15475 Accessed 20 May 2018. 
  3. For more on the cultural sensitivities around Indigenous subject headings, see Kam, D. V. (2007). Subject Headings for Aboriginals: The Power of Naming. Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society Of North America, 26(2), 18-22. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/adx.26.2.27949465 
  4. See also Frank Exner, Little Bear’s excellent treatise on Native American names in the world’s authority files: Exner, Frank, Little Bear (2008). North American Indian Personal Names in National Bibliographies. In Radical Cataloging: Essays from the Front. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. 

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 staunchly-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.