Endless diagrams

December’s Aus GLAM Blog Club topic is “End”. I’ve been working on system relationship diagrams and training documents this month, so the word “end” makes me cringe. I’ll try and explain with my relaxed, holiday brain… I think I switched off the moment that I left work for the year.

The “end” of a library system is theoretically the outside edges of all the little systems that we use. If you imagine your catalogue database as a flowchart with shapes representing each system, there will be systems with fewer connections to other systems towards the edges… and some sides of the shapes that don’t have any connections going outwards.

A diagram showing a library catalogue, public website, circulations system, and staff email connected

(I apologise for my messy sketches. The colours mean nothing, I just like my coloured pens. Also, this isn’t my current library, it’s an imaginary library, hopefully generic enough to be similar to yours.)

To say that we’ve found our edge there is being a bit dishonest, because most libraries have relationships between their systems – or staff – and external systems. Libraries Australia, WorldCat, or library vendors and journal publishers send in metadata to be incorporated into our libraries’ systems… those are the obvious ones. Think deeper. SurveyMonkey or other sites that somebody in one team at your library has done some user engagement through. Google Docs or DropBox being used by your staff even if it’s against your content storage policy.

a diagram of basic internal library systems and how they relate to external systems and services like Trove, software vendors, library vendors, and other libraries

Now, think of the “ends” of those systems, especially cloud ones. The end is an ever-shifting gradient rather than a nice, clean line. The more you understand the different risks and dependencies of all these systems and how your library uses them, formally and informally, in their workflows, the more impossible it becomes to explain. It’s often easier to pretend that the systems we don’t own (or pay licensing fees for) fall outside of our overall library “system”. It is also easier to pretend that the on-site hosted software in our server rooms marks the end of our ability to control our data – and thus our responsibility.

It’s awful when I’m working as a test analyst in my library, because it means that “End to End” testing can never realistically reach all potential end points. There’s too many other libraries who are part of this huge and glorious mess.

I say mess as a test analyst, but as a librarian I love it. We are one of the few professions where we both act as, and serve, users of a wide range of systems. From analogue microfilm readers through to e-resources, we work hard collaborating silently and invisibly with librarians all over the world… at least, those who speak, write, and read English… but that’s a topic for another blog.

Every time I talk to people at my library about system relationships, and frame the systems in relation to that person’s daily work, they look at me with awe and horror… but I built my knowledge by drawing shapes in a graphics tool – you could just as easily use PowerPoint or Paint or coloured pens like I did today – and draw lines to represent all the connections.

I think every librarian should have a mental or digital mud-map of their systems and how they relate to external systems. You don’t need to be perfect, it will always be incomplete, because it will always be changing and because sometimes you won’t be able to know what everyone in your library is using. But the more you understand all the connections that are outside of your library’s control, the better placed you are to advocate for your readers needs and to demonstrate the value your services add to the world.

Personally I have found that the better informed my coworkers are about the ways the systems that they work with relate to other ones, the easier they find it to use them. A lot of people get anxious when they don’t know why something is broken, or how often to re-try exporting data to a different system, or who to ask for help when two systems that should be connecting just… aren’t. Knowing those points of connections and how everything fits into a grander scheme of library work and metadata can be really reassuring.

Though to be honest, I think that it can also just be fun to play around and do this, so I use every chance I get to do it!

On reflection, the “end” to your library system is probably the relationships between all the systems that your readers might need to help them use your collection, whether you own them or rent them or simply link to them. And sometimes you can’t imagine how deep that might go until you begin exploring and mapping them out.

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.