Don’t dream it’s over; or, A return to cataloguing

A double rainbow joins the National Book Church™ and the National Science Temple™ against a backdrop of dark clouds, November 2018. Photograph by the author

A handful of Wednesdays ago I quit my job at a mildly prestigious library that shall remain nameless, after just over three years of employment. I wore my favourite cataloguing-themed t-shirt to work, bought one last book with my staff discount at the bookshop, and treated myself to a final helping of bain-marie slop at the cafeteria across the road. It still doesn’t seem entirely real that I’ve left. I still had so much to do.

The last six months have been the happiest and most fruitful of my entire career. I’ve absolutely loved being a systems librarian. I’ve had great fun crafting Access queries, running Perl scripts, devising Excel macros and more, while running complex data reports and conducting bulk data edits for business areas. I learned a heck of a lot about how data and systems work together (or not). But more than anything I’ve really loved my team. They’ve been wonderful people to work with, and I wish them every success.

I was a little surprised by how much time I spent saying ‘thank you’ during my last week. I’m not sure I expected to feel quite so grateful at the conclusion of my time there, but I guess I had a lot of complex feelings about the whole thing. Besides, it turned out I had a lot of people to thank: my wonderful boss Julie, my colleagues Sue and Brad, my director Simon, my previous director Libby, my old boss Cherie, good people like Ros H and Ros C and Catherine.

I wanted to finish that job feeling like I achieved something of lasting value. Instead I settled for starting something that will outlive me and hopefully become standard practice. Sure, helping implement a new service desk ticketing system was useful from an internal workflow perspective, but it’s not quite what I went there to do. Instead I called a meeting with a bunch of managers (well, my boss called it for me) to highlight several pieces of egregiously and systematically racist metadata in our catalogue, mostly relating to Indigenous Australians. Some of the old subject headings hadn’t been updated to the current terminology, while other headings should never have been in our catalogue in the first place. I outlined how my team could remediate these problems, but some policy decisions needed to be made first—ideally by those attending the meeting.

It’s a shame this meeting wound up happening on my last day. But the looks on the faces of my Indigenous colleagues convinced me I was doing the right thing. These terms should have been nuked from the catalogue twenty years ago, but the next best time to do that is now. I kinda felt like this shouldn’t have been up to me, a systems librarian, telling a roomful of people who all outranked me how to fix a data problem. But it needed doing, and I was in a team that had the technical ability to make the necessary changes. I regret that I won’t be around to see them happen.

Shortly after this meeting my director Simon was regaling us with an anecdote about longitudinal datasets; he has a background in statistics and often compares library metadata to things like the HILDA survey. But the key difference is that while HILDA’s questions and expected answers have changed over time in a discrete fashion, making it easier to see where such changes have occurred, library metadata corpora are a total mismash of standards and backgrounds, with each MARC field potentially having been added at a different time, in a different socio-cultural context, for a different purpose. Metadata librarians are grappling with the ongoing impact of data composition and recording choices made decades ago. We have virtually no version control (though it has been suggested) and little holistic understanding of our metadata’s temporal attributes. It makes retrospective #critcat efforts and other reparative description activities a lot harder, but it also hinders our ability to truly understand our descriptive past.

I was pleased to end my time there on a constructive note. But like I said, I have a lot of complex feelings about the last three years. I started out being one of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new professionals who didn’t have a whole lot else going for her, wanting to prove her passion and devotion to her dream job by working herself to death, thinking that maybe her job would start to love her back. Please don’t do what I did. I might not have realised at the time how harmful this mindset is, but I also did not realise that I deserved better from an employer. Whenever I think about my time there—barring the last six months—I can’t shake these feelings of deep unhappiness. I feel like I was thrown in the deep end right at the start and spent years desperately trying not to drown. I started thinking nobody would care if I did drown. I was lucky that the restructure threw me a life raft, but the damage was done.

Happily, I have much more to look forward to now. After a pandemic-induced false start I’m finally fulfilling a lifelong dream to move to Victoria, to be closer to friends and forests, and to take up a role as a metadata team leader at a regional academic library. Professionally I feel like I’m returning to my metadata spiritual home, and I like having the word ‘quality’ in my new job title. The ‘team leader’ part is slightly intimidating though—I have no supervisory experience whatsoever (and they know that) but it’s something I’m very keen to do right. Everyone I’ve met there so far has been really lovely. I can’t wait to start next week.

I’m glad to be ending this rather turbulent chapter of my life and beginning a new, hopefully calmer one. I took this job for many reasons, but I keep coming back to the potential I sensed in it. There’s so much possibility here. It’s very exciting.

Cataloguing the songlines

You know what? I feel like we don’t talk enough about the structure of metadata. We’ve been talking a fair bit in recent years about offensive subject headings, inappropriately-used call numbers, for and against demographic details in name authority records. But my time as a systems librarian has reignited my deep interest in library data structures. Learning to write SQL queries and structure data in my head like our ILS does (that is, idiosyncratically) has meant I now spend most of my work days staring at spreadsheets. And I’ve started to wonder about some things.

How do our data structures and systems shape our data? How do MARC principles, informed by Western ways of knowing and speaking, influence our understanding and description of the books we catalogue? What biases and perspectives do our structures encode, perpetuate and privilege?

Consider the book Songspirals: sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines, joint-winner of the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards non-fiction category. The book is credited to the Gay’wu Group of Women, a collective of four sisters and their daughter from Yolŋu country in north-west Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and three ŋäpaki (non-Indigenous) academics with whom they have collaborated for many years. The book is told in the sisters’ voice, sharing women’s deep cultural knowledge and wisdom through five ‘songspirals’. Settler Australia might know these as ‘songlines’, a term popularised by Bruce Chatwin in his 1987 book The Songlines, but as the Gay’wu Group writes,

In this book we call them songspirals as they spiral out and spiral in, they go up and down, round and round, forever. They are a line within a cycle. They are infinite. They spiral, connecting and remaking. They twist and turn, they move and loop. This is like all our songs. Our songs are not a straight line. They do not move in one direction thorugh time and space. They are a map we follow through Country as they connect to other clans. Everything is connected, layered wth beauty. Each time we sing our songspirals we learn more, do deeper, spiral in and spiral out. (p. xvi)

A collective author like the Gay’wu Group of Women sits uncomfortably within Western resource description paradigms. Does RDA consider them a person, family or corporate body? Would MARC enter them as a personal name (100) or a corporate name (110)? Why are these my only options? Why are groups of people considered to be ‘corporate bodies’? Why are ‘families’ limited to those who share a surname?

I borrowed Songspirals from my local library a few weeks before I delightfully received a copy as a birthday present. Their new, shiny catalogue distinguishes one author from the rest, mirroring the main-versus-added-entry choice MARC forces us to make, but I was puzzled to find their choice of main author was one of the seven, Laklak Burarrwaŋa. Her name was misspelt as ‘Burarrwana, Laklak’, missing the letter eng ŋ, which represents a ‘ng’ sound in Yolŋu Matha. (This letter is not commonly found on a standard keyboard, and so Laklak’s surname could also be acceptably spelt ‘Burarrwanga’.) Did this record originate in a system incapable of supporting quote-unquote ‘special characters’? Was it originally encoded in MARC-8, which appears not to support the letter ŋ? Did a cataloguer misread the letter? Or could they simply not be bothered?

It’s a questionable choice of main entry, as the Gay’wu Group of Women are prominently credited on the cover, spine and title page as the book’s author. But knowing the history of cataloguing as I do, I suspect I know why this choice was made: an old rule from AACR2 preferred personal names over corporate names for main entries, as explained in this heirloom cataloguing manual from 2003. Corporate bodies were only treated as main entries in limited circumstances, largely relating to administrative materials, legal, governmental and religious works, conference proceedings (where a 111 conference main entry was not appropriate) and for works ‘that record the collective thought of the body (e.g. reports of commissions, committees, etc.; official statements of position on external policies)’. It’s a fascinating and bizarre set of proscriptions. At no point does the manual explain the logic or context behind these rules. They are simply The Rules, to be broken or ignored at the cataloguer’s peril.

I never learned AACR2 so this convention has never made much sense to me. But I can easily imagine an elder cataloguer examining this book and going ‘hmm, the Gay’wu Group of Women don’t fit into any of the corporate body main entry rules that AACR2 burned into my brain, the members are listed individually by name on the title page, I’ll pick the first name as the main entry’ and entering Laklak’s name almost by rote. I don’t think any Australian libraries still use AACR2, but old habits die hard. It’s ridiculous that we still have to think about these things. Don’t cataloguers have better things to do than contort our data into antique data structures?

The DDC call number, 305.89915, is a catch-all for ‘books on Indigenous Australian societies’ irrespective of topic. All kinds of books end up here: Singing Bones on ethnomusicology in Arnhem Land, Sand Talk on philosophy across the continent, Surviving New England on the Anaiwan genocide. I suppose I should be grateful Songspirals wasn’t classed in 398.2049915, the number for Aboriginal Australian ‘mythology and fairy tales’. But this book is truly interdisciplinary, transcending Dewey’s rigid classes of knowledge and encompassing all corners of the Yolŋu lifeworld. In DDC logic, it makes sense that this book would be classified in an interdisciplinary place. I guess I’m just tired of seeing 305.89915 used so indiscriminately. It doesn’t help that the -9915 suffix encompasses the entirety of Indigenous Australia, with no further enumeration of specific nations or groups.

What if… we stopped choosing only one number? What if we routinely classed multiple copies of books in multiple places? A copy in history, another in the social sciences, a third in music? What if those weren’t even the categories? What if our classification system were a spiral, with multiple lines of intellectual inquiry reaching out from a core of knowledge, instead of our current linear system of ascending numbers? I wonder where the Galiwin’ku Library would place this book, having replaced their simplified DDC with a more culturally intuitive arrangement. Perhaps we should follow their lead.

The item part of the spine label, ‘BURA’, reflects the initial choice of Laklak Burarrwaŋa for main entry. The practice of including the first three or four letters of the main entry, or otherwise constructing a Cutter number, for a spine label theoretically ensures that each physical item in a given library has a unique call number. Meanwhile the ‘CUL’ at the top stands for ‘Culture and society’, part of this library service’s continuing effort to genrefy its collections. Some branches (including my local) are still arranged in Dewey order, while others are grouped more thematically. It’s been this way for years. I kinda like that they haven’t picked one yet. It keeps things interesting.

Disgruntled with my local library’s cataloguing and the state of things in general, I next interrogated the Australian national union catalogue, Libraries Australia, which is now part of Trove. There are seven records for Songspirals in the database, two for the ebook and five for the paper book, collectively held by over 160 libraries across Australia. I’m not surprised to see so many records; Libraries Australia’s match-merge algorithm is notoriously wonky and often merges records incorrectly, which are a massive pain to sort out. I’d rather a dupe record than a bad merge.

The source record used by my local library appears to have been updated since they acquired the book, though the seven LA records can’t quite agree on whether Songspirals is one word or two (the text of the book spells it as one word). Pleasingly, Gay’wu Group of Women are now the main entry in all seven records (as a 110), although one uses the questionably inverted form ‘Women, Gay’wu Group of’. Some records list all eight women’s names in a 245 $c statement of responsibility field, while another lists them in a 500 general note field. Only one record gives each contributor a 700 added entry field, with the surnames painstakingly inverted; we can safely assume none of the contributors had name authority records created.

MARC makes this more complicated than it needs to be. Systems often can’t index names that aren’t in 1XX or 7XX fields. Perhaps name authority records could be automatically created, or close name matches proactively suggested? Could systems embed named-entity recognition, a form of AI, to extract and index names wherever they appear in a record? (One record spells Burarrwaŋa two different ways, neither with the letter ŋ. These kinds of simple errors don’t help.)

Five records misspell the collective authors’ name as ‘GayWu Group of Women’, without the glottal stop and with a capital W, which seemed a curious mistake. I refused to believe that every single cataloguer who touched these records had blithely gotten this wrong, so I wondered if a system had forced this error. Two other records included the glottal stop, confirming LA systems could handle these characters, while a peek in the LA Cataloguing Client showed that this was a data error and not a display error in the LA search interface. While poking around the backend I noticed that all five misspelt records had at some point been through the WorldCat system, evidenced by various OCLC codes in the 040 field. Could this be an OCLC system problem? I don’t know for sure, but it warrants a closer look.

Several cataloguers went to the effort of including AUSTLANG codes in their records for Songspirals. Three records include a code for Yolŋu Matha in the 041 #7 language field, but only one record has a correctly-formed code, N230. The others have ‘NT230’, which is likely an overcorrection from people thinking the ‘N’ stands for ‘Northern Territory’, and is not a valid AUSTLANG code. While this mistake is simple and easily avoidable, it has also now propagated into hundreds of library catalogues. I wonder if more attentive systems could validate such language (041) or geographic (043) codes against controlled lists, including the MARC defaults and AUSTLANG.

It’s worth noting that the library at AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, whose research arm maintains the AUSTLANG database, assigned the additional code N141 for the Gumatj language, a dialect of Yolŋu Matha1. I habitually defer to AIATSIS on matters of First Nations resource description: if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Describing books using the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is often an exercise in frustration and futility, searching for concepts that don’t exist in the American psyche, but doing justice to the songlines with this vocabulary is flat out impossible. We are reduced to phrases like ‘Folk music, Aboriginal Australian’ and ‘Yolngu (Australian people) — Social life and customs’, flattening the spiral into the linear thinking of the coloniser’s language. From my whitefella cataloguer perspective, the closest LCSH probably gets is the notorious ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’ heading, which as I’ve written before is not appropriate in a contemporary catalogue, and which no LA record appears to have used. But I don’t think this omission is necessarily due to individual cataloguers’ ethics. Songspirals does not name the Dreaming, or discuss it as an academic pursuit. Rather, this book is the Dreaming. It feels a bit daft to say ‘it’s not a subject, it’s a genre’ but even this artificial distinction between what a book ‘is’ and what a book is ‘about’ feels deeply irrelevant to this work.

The English language fails me here. But it’s how I interpret the world. It shapes what I know. And it shapes how I catalogue.

Cataloguers are expected to judge books by their covers, quickly ascertaining the salient facts about a work and categorising it within the boundaries of their library’s chosen schemata. Without having read the book in its entirety, I could tell these records were wonky just by looking at them. But they are structurally wonky. Indigenous knowledge will always sit uncomfortably within Western descriptive practices. It’s more than deciding if something is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. It’s not about yelling at individual cataloguers, although some of these errors were clearly unforced. It’s hard to transcribe names accurately if our systems can’t cope with ‘special characters’ or to represent a work’s collaborative authorship if our data structures insist on privileging one author above all others. It’s difficult to represent the interdisciplinarity of a work if our policies dictate it can only be classified in one spot on a linear shelf. Systems caused these problems. But perhaps systems could help fix them, too.

Our sector chooses the data structures, encoding standards, controlled vocabularies and classification styles that we work within. These choices have consequences. We could make different choices if we wanted to. These things did not fall out of the sky; many people built these structures over many years. But our potential choices are each a product of their time, culture, context and ways of knowing. This doesn’t make them ‘bad’ options, but it does mean they may struggle to describe forms of knowledge so different from their own. Perhaps we could choose a different way.

At home, I keep meaning to organise my books properly but never seem to get round to it. I have a shelf of library books (mostly overdue), a shelf of recent acquisitions and a shelf of ‘books that vibe with my thinking of late, and which I ought to read soon’. At various points Songspirals has sat on all three. Perhaps the very notion of fixed metadata is inherently at odds with the cyclical and adaptive nature of songspirals, of oral histories passed down through the generations, layers of wisdom accumulating like layers of the Earth’s crust. Knowledge is always changing and adapting to the world around it. So, too, should our ways of describing that knowledge.

  1. My initial training in assigning AUSTLANG codes recommended against using codes for languages where their entry in AUSTLANG was capitalised, as in ‘YOLNGU MATHA’. This indicates a language family, rather than a specific language, and further investigation may be needed. Songspirals itself refers to the language in the book as ‘Yolŋu matha’, so understandably cataloguers outside AIATSIS would have followed the book’s lead. 

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 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


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.


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. 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: 
  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.