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.

Author: rosness

Librarian, software tester, archaeologist. I try to help people make, read, and break things.

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