Carrying our beginnings with us

This is my first blog post in a while, and it’s my first post for the GLAM blog network. It’s oddly fitting that the topic for this month is “Beginning”.

The first thing that came to mind for me was something that I learned way back in 2014 when I took an online Library Advocacy MOOC (which is great, check it out!) It turns out that the views that most adults have about libraries and librarians were formed by their first experience visiting a library (one of our readings was some great market segmentation research from OCLC). People who were more likely to support libraries remembered a positive, personal and friendly experience.

I think that this power of beginning, that first experience, is just as powerful in software. We speak a lot in libraries and IT of “change management” and fear of change, especially in older staff, but people are most comfortable with the software that they learn to master first. It’s why a lot of my older colleagues are actually highly confident with MARC21, text-entry, Boolean searching, and email. I can’t beat them even though I’ve got a reputation for knowing my stuff. I was a teenager when MSN Messenger was still around and even though I adapt to emails at work, I use the office instant messaging system for a lot of my communication with people who are my own age. I am less comfortable with Tumblr, because I started out with LiveJournal and WordPress.
It’s so easy to pass this off as age-related difficulties or a reluctance to learn, but it makes so much sense. Our emotional experiences in our first operating systems define how we react to everything that comes after. It makes me so curious about what comes next, and whether or not it will make me uncomfortable. But it also gives me so much empathy for the people I am designing new software for. I don’t know where they’re coming from; whether they’ve been a Mac or a PC person, or if they’ve only ever used their phones and they don’t know what a mouse is.

When I studied Archaeology I learned something similar, though this was about the dead that we were researching instead of how the world in general perceives archaeology. I was taught that my personal understanding of gender, sexuality, health, and race were all things that I was unconsciously projecting onto the evidence that I was studying. My teachers exposed me to evidence highlighting that things that we think are concrete divisions, are more like fading and speckled transitions. As an example, let’s say that there’s a female-looking skeleton that has been buried with a sword and also a spindle. Was she a warrior? Or are these just gifts from her family members? Did she identify as a man or a woman during her life? Are we looking for other information; do the burial items appear to be used, or are they new and decorative for the burial? Is the grave the same size as others nearby, or is this maybe a double sized burial for two people, one who never came home? There’s no answer to these questions but there’s always a lot of excitement about burials that show unusual gender expressions, and the discussions often reveal way more about our modern ideas of gender and sexuality than the culture we’re trying to study.

I also think, as silly as this sounds, that’s okay. It’s important to accept that we’ll all have these weird beginnings as we set out to try and use something new or find new information. I used to get very angry when I copied a catalogue record and the subject headings reflected a strong personal bias. My strongest reaction was to an American book on domestic violence that had been classified as “infanticide” because it had a chapter on miscarriages and abortion, where it was obvious that the cataloguer had such strong personal feelings on the topic that they wanted to include it. I made some changes to keep it accessible but to remove that personal political bias. At the time I was furious, because it was only one chapter and it’s not appropriate to add subject headings for parts, only the whole, of a book. That’s what contents note fields are for!

But over time, I’ve become far more accepting. That cataloguer has a different beginning to me in their career, and their social context is different. We were both doing the best we could to make that information accessible. Their records will always carry some bias. So will mine. The real trick to becoming a better librarian is looking at yourself as a person and understanding how your knowledge about a topic began. Where you come from. Who you are. And how every single person who walks in through your library’s doors has their own and different beginning.

Libraries are actually very weird places to walk into for the first time. There’s a lot of secret and unspoken rules that are never written down on the signs or in the terms of service. But there’s always new people entering our communities who have zero experience in a library… or zero experience searching in a library… or their experiences are from a different type of library and everything they think they know about libraries is wrong in our building, which can be a really traumatic experience.

I try to keep my beginning and other people’s beginnings in mind all the time whether I’m cataloguing a book, designing a new library system, or teaching somebody how to search for information. It makes me a better librarian, especially when I can set aside my own personal assumptions, approach this new situation with open curiosity, and help somebody find something that they care about.

Comparing apples and oranges

It’s been a few years since I moved from archaeology to information systems and libraries, but my head was so full of all the new things, I didn’t have much time to reflect.

Now, I have.

Here’s a few things I’ve noticed, about the difference between the two professions.

1. Professions have genders.

At parties, when I say “I’m an archaeologist,” people say “Wow, like Indiana Jones!”

Archaeology
CC BY 2.0 Capture The Uncapturable, 2011

And when I say “I’m a librarian,” people say “Ooh, sexy librarian!”

Seriously. Librarians don’t even get a character name. When a woman moves from being an archaeologist to being a librarian, she moves from being identifiable with exciting male action heroes, to being a sexual object. There’s all kinds of cool discussions on gender in librarianship, but I was most interested to discover that I hadn’t realised how my field of study was giving me the kind of social capital usually reserved for men.

2. Everything costs more, and there is way more of it.

I don’t know if this is because a lot of mining companies employ archaeologists, or because there are just fewer archaeologists than librarians, or if it’s just a cultural expectation in the different fields of work. But I had some serious shock and horror when I saw the cost of entry to library professional associations, conferences and events.

Are there secret millionaire librarians out there? Do we just book nicer hotels for speakers at library events? I have a lot of difficulty understanding how a profession that generally earns LESS has all these events that cost MORE.

But, I’m going to a conference in July, so I’ll be comparing things in person, from the quality of the morning tea biscuits, to the venue and attendance numbers.

I am guessing it’s a matter of basic maths. More people, more conferences, more packets of biscuits to buy, the sponsorship money gets spread more thinly. It’s also possible that likely library event sponsors (library systems vendors, publishers, library suppliers) have less money to throw around compared to archaeology event sponsors.

3. Para-troopers.

I… don’t get it. This person can do exactly the same thing I can. But they… don’t? Because I got a degree.

Nope, still don’t get it. My degree means I’ll have a better chance at getting hired, promoted, and published academically.

In archaeology, everyone and their dog can do pretty much everything, with experience and informal training. In the field, you use the hands you have.

So coming from that experience, to librarianship, it is very surreal. I don’t understand why everyone can’t just do the work. It’s not like somebody without a degree is going to white-out my name on my academic transcript, and waltz off with my qualifications and my social capital and my professional networks just because they did a job that needed doing.

It’s not even based on what we’re paid. I’m earning the same as some of these people, so in theory we’re all equals at the same level. I still can’t get my head around the professional/para-professional divide. Maybe it’s just one of those traditions that linger in different industries, like judges wearing wigs and barbers advertising with those twisty striped poles.

4. Long and the short of it.

The joke in archaeology is that honours students pad out their theses, so that their very long and very specific titles can fit on the spines.

That’s not true! We just don’t like wasting space.

The joke in librarianship is that FRBR was supposed to supplant AACR2, and RDA is okay but when we’re still using MARC21 and LoCSHM and DDC23…

Yeah. I have moved from possibly the MOST verbose profession next door to philosophy (okay, fine, they were upstairs from us because we liked basement labs and they needed to see SOME sunlight, right?)

… and into one with more contractions than possibly even IT, because we add library-specific acronyms and standards on top of the everyday IT ones. When we can’t make an acronym, we truncate the words.

5. Biscuits.

I obsess over this. Every field trip, every training session, every group event: Arnott’s family assortment. Archaeology is really just a series of intervals between the race for the nice biscuits.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/16210667@N02/11358577293/

CC BY-ND 2.0 Craig Sunter, 2013

 In libraries, somehow, there are always Monte Carlos, and the orange creams. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. But I eat them, and oh it is good. Once, there were even Tim Tams and Fantales. And a coffee machine, instead of an urn and a big tin pot of Nescafe.

Morning tea is serious business in libraries, in my experience. Yum.

Gearing up again

I’ve tried a couple of times to get back into blogging, but studying and then working was full on. I’ve been cataloguing for two and a half years, and I’ve learned so much about books and libraries, but also so much about the world. In cataloguing, you need to give every single book an equal level of neutral description, to provide the best access possible.

I learned in my first month on the job, as well read as I thought I was, I was still living in a heavily curated and selective world. My own bookshelves are an echo chamber of sorts, especially compared to the huge range of perspectives in a library.

As a professional, I’ve come to feel that it’s that representation of differences in library collections that matters most. As you can imagine, I’ve read a lot and I’ve skimmed a lot, and I haven’t written much at all about it.

I don’t plan on reviewing as many books as I used to, and I won’t be accepting any advance reader copies or review copies of books anymore, but I look forward to reconnecting with you all and talking about books, material culture, Australia, and libraries!

‘The Build Up’ by Phillip Gwynne

I The Build Up by Phillip Gwynneloved Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya, so when I came across a remaindered copy of The Build Up I was delighted. I was looking forward to some of the insight and feeling that I’d loved about Gwynne’s writing. But the more I read into The Build Up, the more annoyed and bored I felt.

The story focuses on, as the blurb has it, ‘a female cop in the very male world of the Northern Territory Police Force’, and a lot of the early parts of the book really feel like yet another male writer trying to guesstimate what being an edgy hard woman is like. We hear a lot about how much Dusty hates her period, hates so many stereotypical female things, and discover that pap smears are horrible icky uncomfortable things. Not unusual, but feeling perfectly comfortable during one is also quite usual; hating pap smears is a pretty common stereotype of women written by men in my experience.

Then we are treated to some odd female politics at work. There’s some very creepy misogyny that gets passed off as normalcy, and this is weird twice over, because the protagonist is a woman and the main villains of the book appear to be men who commit sex crimes. I really don’t understand why Gwynne felt the need to keep emphasising MALE and FEMALE, STRONG MASCULINE FEMALE and WEAK BITCHY FEMALE.

The book seemed to be using a mystery involving sex crimes in the setting of the NT just so it could spam us with gritty sexism, rape, racist slurs, and Gwynne’s attempts perhaps to understand what goes on in the heads of us womb-bearing folk.

When Dusty picks up a cute foreigner, their bird-watching playdate turns into a crime scene. When he turns out to be in her line of work, but leaving the country, and married to a woman who wants children, and the plot seems to be hinting he’s Dusty’s One Twoo Wove, I closed the book and counted to ten so that I could calm down. This book probably wasn’t written with me in mind as its audience. Maybe it’s more accessible to people who haven’t actually ever had pap-smears (even my friends who find them excruciatingly painful don’t talk about them with the fear that Dusty does). I was defeated by it; I could not keep reading, even though some of it had made me smile and care about the characters.

Reading The Build Up, with all its slutty bitchy gook[sic] sex crime victims, I began worrying that Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya are just as unreadable to the Indigenous communities they portray. I began hoping that my concepts of Indigenous Australians weren’t influenced by any bias or stereotyping from those books. It is a dilemma in our media, with a lot of Indigenous culture and stories still filtered through privileged white eyes and ears into the mainstream, that makes me want to pull my hair out some days.

Here’s some positive reviews of The Build Up to balance out my reactions:

Tracey at My Four Bucks liked the portrayal of Darwin and its weather

Maxine at Petrona enjoyed the “grown up” humour

Shellyrae at Book’d Out likes the brutality, vibrancy and isolation of the Top End

‘Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes’ by Melissa Katsoulis

This is a great book in many ways.  It’s easy to read in small chunks, its table of contents is useful and provides a good idea of what you will encounter in each chapter.  It addresses the reactions of diverse minority groups when their cultural identities were appropriated as part of hoaxes.  It has a great cover, though arguably a real hoax cover would not be so sloppy or honest about its derivative nature.  But!  I could not finish reading it, for reasons I will explain in a little bit.

Melissa Katsoulis is perhaps the opposite of me.  A legitimate literary journalist, an officially married person, someone who has a job and an income.  Perhaps that’s part of why I find it hard at times to resonate with this book.  I’m a reader and dabbler in fiction, and I’ve focused more on academic analysis of things in my education than in journalism.  She’s come into this book as a journalist and writer from a very different culture and perspective.  There was bound to be some dissonance between her words and the way my brain reads them.

‘… it does suggest that the Antipodean creative scene allows things to happen that other countries might not.  One important reason is that racism and far-right politics is less taboo there than it is in other parts of the English-speaking world…’ (p.11)

While I’d be the first to bemoan some of the xenophobic attitudes some Australians hold, I can’t help but feel that this section in the introduction is odd.  Why single out Australia, when there have been throughout history equally xenophobic and racist views in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America (and literary hoaxes with racist and political motives are cited from these places within Telling Tales)?  Racism and race tensions are just as bad in London and Los Angeles as they are in Sydney!  She comments one hundred pages later that all the Australian hoaxes she mentions involve race somehow, though by ‘race’ she means ‘non-white’, and in at least one of the instances mentioned involve a Jordanian-born woman writing a hoax involving Jordanian women’s stories.  Katsoulis can’t have missed the logical gap between ‘all Australian hoaxes in my book involve non-whites’ and ‘most racist hoaxes are Australian’, yet she makes precisely that statement several times.  Maybe this is my academic background speaking, but I would have issues using deliberately misleading language like that.  The statements themselves come across as racist without context at times, and I can imagine a lot of readers being put off before they get to the relevant sections.

Perhaps this is simply my personal experiences here, but in the last couple of years I’ve heard from a few friends undertaking postgraduate studies in the US and UK who’ve encountered (especially in England) people that see Australia as some sort of cultural backwater full of cockneys, rednecks and the cast of Neighbours.  There’s more strange and old-school Colonialist perspectives still around out there than I had believed possible.  I can’t help but feel that Katsoulis wrote those words not from any actual investigation into Australian attitudes towards racism, but from preconceptions she’s inherited from her own culture and media soundbytes.  I hate to tell you, Melissa, but Australian racism is an imported chain franchise; we’ve got all kinds of racial tensions and racist attitudes, but the majority of our cultural heritage comes from good old Mother England.

Though I really enjoyed reading about the hoaxes, a lot of them were not new to me, and I felt often the style of writing was very journalistic; more about the scandal and punchlines and spin than the facts of interest. Perhaps I’m still sore that Australia seems singled out as racist amongst all the other global racist, sexist and bigoted examples in the book.   Still, it’s certainly worth reading, and is a good quick background in historical literary incidences of cultural appropriation.  I would recommend, if you want to write on the topic of any of these hoaxes, that you conduct your own research rather than relying on this alone.

In the end, I had no luck searching for other blogger reviews.  I shall try again later, because I want to know how other readers received it.  For the moment, there is a convenient collection of newspaper reviews on Katsoulis’ website for the curious.

Woman hoarding stolen goods, including books

The Chifley Library at the Australian National...
Chifley Library, ANU by Nick-D via Wikipedia

At ABC news. A woman in my city was deemed unfit to plea because of her mental and emotional state. She had been hoarding stolen goods from shops, including books, which isn’t unheard of. But! She was also hoarding stolen books from Chifley Library, one of the main libraries I relied on as an undergraduate student.
Chifley library is the humanities library and contains a lot of the fun books on history, literature, film studies, philosophy, and of course classics and archaeology (Bianth in Hancock, other archaeology books in Menzies and the external repository). I don’t have any ill will towards this woman, but my heart broke at the thought of all those books. All those students, frustrated in their research. All those librarians, trying to be good but wondering if students had again nicked books to try and sell for cash. I hope they all get processed and home on their shelves safely.