Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It's gonna have to get a little bit heavy

I didn't submit this anonymous tweet to the LIS Grievances bot, but I could have.
There is an oft-quoted aphorism about metadata: Metadata is a love note to the future. It's a great idea, right, that the metadata you create will help future generations access information? But I think that we do ourselves a great disservice when we don't acknowledge that well-formed metadata is really the best kind of love note to the future.

I think the problem with not being able to see the future is that it can lead us to make choices that make sense in the moment. It's easy to say that the feelings that catalogers have about poorly-formed metadata spring from a misguided place filled with artisanally created catalog records. It's easy to say that catalogers are perfectionists who have trouble accepting "good enough" records that get the job of discovery done. It's easy to say that the catalog is a place where we can cut corners because the catalog has less to do with the library user's experience than, say, the physical space. But saying all of those things can be problematic in the long run.

When decide that metadata creation isn't a task worth doing well, we're not writing a love note to the future. We're writing it a passive-aggressive note.

When we place value on quantity over quality or bottom-line over long term investment, we're making it more difficult for those future generations to access information in our libraries.  When we accept poorly-formed metadata into our systems, we are creating a future where people we will likely never meet will have to remediate our metadata in order to make it usable. We are suggesting that it's fine to kick the can down the road, as the saying goes, to let someone else deal with it rather than taking the time to do things right the first time.

I should be clear about one thing. Vendors aren't inherently the villains in this story. Sometimes because of lack of staffing or money or expertise, a library has to outsource some of its cataloging to someone else. And whether we like to acknowledge it or not, those records we download from our bibliographic utility of choice are technically from a vendor. So whether you're downloading records from a bibliographic utility, sending pockets of your collection to be cataloged, or receiving MARC record with your newly purchased material, the fact that you're getting your metadata from a vendor isn't the problem. The problem comes when the records we receive have poorly-formed metadata and we either don't remediate it or don't demand that vendors create metadata that is up to our standards.

So it's time to acknowledge that simply creating metadata to describe a resource alone isn't a love note to the future. If we truly want to write a love note to the future, we should decide in the present that well-formed metadata is something to which we're willing to dedicate sufficient staff and financial resources.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The personal is political is personal

I'm currently reading a book by Frances E. Kendall called Understanding white privilege: creating pathways to authentic relationships across race. In the chapter titled "Understanding white privilege," Kendall tells an anecdote about something that happened in conjunction with one of the diversity-related training sessions she facilitated. During a break on the second day of the workshop, a white woman and a Latina from the class ended up at the same store. The white woman watched how the Latina was treated by the sales clerk from which she was trying to make a purchase--being asked for additional identification when she presented her credit card, being told that the security guard would want to see her receipt when she left--and contrasted that with her own experience. The white woman came back to the training session and told Kendall that she wouldn't have believed how her Latina colleague was treated if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. Kendall writes:
even though Debbie had been listening to employees of color talk about their painful experiences for a day and a half, she had essentially chosen not to believe what they said; she had continued to say that she thought the different experiences were individual, not race based. She used her own privilege of expecting to be educated about race by the people who were most affected--those of color--and then chose not to believe them (61).
I read this passage right around the time that people were starting to express their outrage over the press releases that ALA sent out regarding its desire to work with the newly elected administration and which highlighted a trio of initiatives that it felt aligned with the newly elected administration's stated goals for its administration. People have addressed this situation in smarter, and more nuanced ways that I have. If you're interested in reading other people's points of view, I would suggest checking out #notmyALA on Twitter. A lot of opinions and posts are aggregated there.

There is a piece of this conversation that relates to the passage from Kendall's book that I want to highlight. In its most recent communication on this issue, the ALA President stated "the ALA executive board will discuss these issues and our processes and will use your comments to help guide us in our discussion and planning as we work to earn back the trust of our members and prepare for the work ahead during this new administration."

So, let's talk about trust.

ALA has identified diversity as one of its key action areas, charging a task force and then a subsequent implementation working group with considering how equity, diversity and inclusion could be built both within ALA and in wider library community. You can read the task force's final report here. By charging people at the Association-level to do the work  of identifying and proposing ways to further DEI-related initiatives, the Association has both implicitly and explicitly asked the margainalized people throughout ALA what can be done to make ALA a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place. The Association has asked people to entrust us with their stories and told people that it is part of our value system that we will hold those stories and respond in an appropriate way. And then we have chosen not to believe them when they tell us that they are afraid that they will be the targets of state-sponsored violence.

In the same week, ALA's President released a statement affirming ALA's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and two statements affirming ALA's commitment to working with the incoming administration. And, yes, one of those statements was taken down and an apology issued. But one can see how people within the Association's membership would be outraged that such an affirmation was issued in the first place. ALA asked people what they needed to trust the Association as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization and then didn't listen to them as they expressed their loudest fears and their deepest concerns.

In the days following the election, Hugh Acheson posted to Instagram a letter he sent to the staff at each of the restaurants he owns. In the letter he writes "The customer is always right, until they are wrong. And when they are wrong with epithets or cruelty they will be asked to leave. This is not me giving you an aggressive power to wield, but rather making sure you understand the ethos I have in protecting what I believe in, and what I do not have the patience for."

I understand that ALA has a dual responsibility to serve both libraries and the people who staff them. To that end, I believe that our goal in libraries should be to serve the communities in which we find ourselves, even when their beliefs don't align with ours. Libraries should be places that foster conversation and an exchange of ideas, but I believe that in libraries, as in Acheson's restaurants, there is a point past which the patron isn't always right--especially when a member of our user community is wrong with cruelty.

So how does the Association go about the work of rebuilding trust?

First, I think it is incumbent upon Association-level leadership to restore the relationship between the Association and its members by centering the voices and taking seriously the concerns the people among its membership who will be most vulnerable in the coming years.

Second, I think it is incumbent upon the membership to make even more space for people who are traditionally underrepresented in librarianship to take on leadership roles. The includes not only providing increased support for programs like the Spectrum Scholarship Program but also the development of a pipeline for leadership both at the Division-level and Association-level.

Finally, I think it is incumbent upon both Association-level leadership and Association membership to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable members through both our words and our actions.

I'm sure that the path toward a restored relationship between the Association and its membership will not be without bumps and will probably look different than what I've suggested here. But I do hope that it happens. And I'll continue to attend ALA Council meetings and ALA Midwinter and ALA Annual in the hopes of seeing signs of the Association working toward that restoration.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mountains grow from just one stone

One of the things that I talk about over and over (and over and over) again on the blog is the idea of imagining what it would be like to center the lived experiences of our user communities when it comes to creating metadata to describe our collections. I was thrilled when a friend, Anna-Sophia, sent me a link to the transcript for a 2015 talk by Sara Wachter-Boettcher called "Everybody hurts: content for kindness."

The talk centers around this idea:
And what I've come to is there's an opportunity that we have to make every decision an act of kindness. Make sure everything we write, everything that we build, come from a place of kindness at its core.
Wachter-Boettcher goes on to talk about how this mission of centering kindness can be lived in when it comes to better understanding both the needs and the triggers of our user communities. While the audience of this talk wasn't those engaged in the work of libraries or librarianship, I can get behind this premise for librarianship in general and metadata creation more specifically. I spend a lot of time wondering how metadata creation would be different if those of us who create metadata saw it as not just an act of service, but also as an act of care for the user communities that we serve and support. And then I wonder why we don't.

I was struck by something that Wachter-Boettcher referenced early in her talk. She made mention of an address given by Paul Ford, in which he states:
If we are going to ask people in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats--if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?
And I think that this quote is at the center of why we don't always see metadata creation as an act of care, and why we should.

I worry that we take for granted that users will spend their  heartbeats using the collections and services that we offer. I especially worry about this in academic libraries where students and faculty require access to scholarly resources in order to conduct research and create scholarly works. As this applies specifically to metadata creation, I worry that we take for granted that user communities will have to use the library catalog in order to access our collections. As many people wiser than I have pointed out to me when I try to reckon with this mindset, it's a direct holdover from the time when our collections were kept in closed stacks and library workers were the gatekeepers to these collections. It's also a significant conflation of the catalog as both the content and the carrier--a thing that I do all the time and which my wise friend, Kyle, regularly holds me accountable for.

So what would it look like for those of us who create metadata to describe collections to choose to put kindness at the center of our work? First and foremost, I think that we should stop taking our user communities for granted and create software systems and rules for description and encoding that respect the lived experiences of our users. While I don't agree with the idea that people in Technical Services are change averse, I do think our public services colleagues have been quicker to see the ways in which the needs of our user communities are changing and then responding. Second, I think it means evaluating our local policies for metadata creation and remediation and amending them in ways that have the biggest impact on our user communities.

I don't think that evaluating our metadata reuse policies means we have to stop reusing metadata. For some materials, records don't need a significant amount of customization. And for smaller libraries, metadata reuse is the only way that their cataloging operations stay afloat. But I do think it's worth considering which types of material and which subjects are important enough to your users to provide the extra care of customization. Especially if the library for which you are describing collections has made diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority.

I think that many people who create metadata would tell you that the work they do is a public services. I think what is important for us to be explicit about is that we have the choice to treat our work as an act of care for the user communities we serve. I think it's time for us to think more about what it would mean for metadata creators if we thought about making sure that our user communities were using our heartbeats wisely when they accessed the metadata we create.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

No firm ground, but we ain't sliding

The Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress decided for a second time to reject white privilege as a subject heading. You can read their decision here. The part of their argument that is most salient to this blog post is: Numerous works about white privilege have been assigned the headings Race discrimination and Whites--Race identity, and the meeting wishes to continue that practise.

It is both completely understandable and completely perplexing that the PSD would reject this heading despite the fact that literary warrant exists. On the one hand, if the PSD believes that a combination of existing subject headings is sufficiently describes a concept they can make the argument against adding another subject heading to the thesaurus. On the other, it seems like the combination of subject headings that the PSD points to in their decision misses the mark.

When reading this decision, it seems like the PSD fundamentally misunderstands the concept of white privilege by deferring to the headings already being used. The idea of white privilege implicitly touches on discrimination and race identity to the extent that the privileges extended to white people as a result of their identity further margainalizes people who aren't white. But white privilege is not explicitly about either of those things. April Hathcock wrote a really great blog post about this which I think it well worth your time. In her post she writes " Privilege isn't about discrimination; it's about the automatic benefits and advantages that come from living in a system set up to value the lives, ideas, and expressions of one group over all others. You may be a staunch antiracist, but if you are white, you are steeped in WHITE PRIVILEGE. It is a reality of living in the systemic bias of our society."

Thematically related to this discussion of white privilege and systemic bias is Jarrett Drake's keynote address at the Digital Library Federation Liberal Arts Pre-Conference titled "Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts." In this address, Drake states
I doubt many of you here know about this history of black college and universities in this country, and I have that doubt for many reasons. The first is that most of you are white and can afford to be ignorant of blackness. The second is that many of our library and archive consortia--this one included--excludes our librarians, libraries, archivists, and archives at black colleges and universities, so even when you think you are immersing yourself within the field of librarianship, you remain blissfully unaware that there is a whole different world out there to which you are functionally illiterate. This unawareness is both a product and a reification of systemic racism, and it doesn't require racists whatsoever.
Both Drake and Hathcock point out that even those of us who believe that we are antiracist still benefit from our whiteness and that white privilege affords us the luxury of being able to be ignorant about aspects of blackness. Further, Hathcock argues that the decision not to name white privilege explicitly and add it to the thesaurus perpetuates systemic racism both in libraries that utilize the thesaurus and in the larger arena of subject cataloging.

Working both inside and outside of a system is important when thinking about how to create a more equitable and inclusive library catalog. While asking the Library of Congress to both change its most problematic subject headings and to add new headings to address issues of importance to our users is a key component of pushing back against the systemic racism inherent in our metadata creation standards, I would also argue that we can work outside of/around the system to add subject headings to records which both reflect the lived experiences of our users and the values to which we claim to adhere.  There are a lot of existing subject thesauri and the MARC standards allows you add a term from a thesaurus other than LCSH in field 650. Library of Congress publishes a list of source codes and has at the bottom of the document an example of how to construct a 650 field using one of these alternative thesauri. Additionally, the MARC standard allows you to utilize fields 69x for locally constructed thesauri that aren't on the source code list. So while LCSH is the (seemingly) most widely used thesaurus for published material, it doesn't have to be the only thesaurus a library uses to describe the about-ness of a resource. A particular community of practise could create its own thesaurus and use that to provide access to headings that the Library of Congress has chosen not to address.

I should note that this isn't a new idea. There's a reason that cataloger's love Sanford Berman.

I know I write a lot about how I think we should think about how much we rely on repurposed metadata and on how we should localize our cataloging practises to better meet the needs of our users. And I think that the use of alternative thesauri is a good place for us to do some thinking. As luck would have it, there are a lot of people in technical services librarianship already thinking hard about these issues. As April notes, Jenna Freedman and Netanel Ganin stand out as people whose efforts in this arena should be acknowledged. I am so, so grateful all of the people who speak so bravely and so boldly about the lived experiences of our users and who hold us accountable for the ways in which we fall short of doing right by them.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't look to me for answers

So, let's talk about content standards. More specifically, let's talk about cataloging codes.

Yesterday I read an article from 1991 titled "The pragmatic basis of cataloging codes: has the user been ignored" that surfaced for me the tension I feel about the work that I do as a cataloger. In this article, Jon R. Hufford argues that while modern cataloging codes (those codes created since 1841) have had at their theoretical center the needs of catalog end users, none of those codes appear to have taken into account actual user needs in the creation or revision of those codes. In the article, Hufford cites Panizzi and his Rules for Compiling the Catalogue of Printed Books, Maps, and Music in the British Museum (aka, the 91 Rules) as the person associated with the beginnings of modern cataloging. The article predates the development and publication of Resources Description and Access (RDA) as it discusses various cataloging codes created from 1841 to the revised printing of the 2nd edition of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2r) in 1988.

The argument that undergirds Hufford's article is that while many of the codes he discusses state (either implicitly or explicitly) that they are attempting to develop rules which facilitate ease of use for library users, their creation excludes actual experiences for users. Instead, Hufford argues that the codes are based either on the experiences of the single person who uses them or, when the codes are created by a committee of people, the collective wisdom of the cataloging crowd.

Hufford suggests that librarians have agreed (generally speaking) that "the catalog's main function should be to enable a user to determine whether the library has a certain item, which works of a particular author are in the collection, which editions of a particular work the library has, and what materials the library has on a particular subject" (35). If you're playing along at home, those functions share a lot in common with the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) tasks: find, identify, select, and obtain.

The author ends his article by stating "The accumulated data derived from catalog use surveys which employ valid and appropriate research techniques should be consulted whenever professional librarians consider revising cataloging codes, public catalog arrangements, and/or the content of bibliographic records" (36).

Historically, library catalogs were not meant to aid the user in finding, identifying, selecting, and obtaining library materials. But it seems like as libraries moved over time from being closed-stacks in need of a gatekeeper to open-stacks where users can browse freely, our ideas of how a cataloging code should be constructed stayed the same. And in a world where access to information is increasingly unmediated, the seeming unwillingness to change how we create our cataloging codes mean that our library catalogs are not in danger of becoming relics of a time--but have already gone their. After all, how many times have you heard, anecdotally, that users don't start their search in the catalog? And yes, our content standards are forever enmeshed with our encoding standards and our local integrated library systems. But it's still worth considering how we've shut our users and their behavior out of all of these things.

Given how recently RDA was created and adopted, one might think that this would've provided an opportunity for those responsible for its creation and adoption to think about user needs and behavior. But in her book, FRBR before and after, Karen Coyle writes "For a study that was purported to be user-centric, the user's absence is notable. There is no analysis of users; no mention of how varied the user base is; no mention of children or elders or the disabled. Instead, to my mind, the FRBR Final report reads as a study by catalogers for catalogers" (106). It is worth noting that the FRBR model serves as the basis for RDA.

So, back to the tension that I mentioned early in the post. The description of library materials is meant to be a public service and many people who do this work see themselves as advocates for library users. But I often how can we serve the public when we create records using a standard that seems to advocate for a monolithic user without considering their needs. I don't want my work to go into the ether, never to be used by my library's user communities. And, as I mentioned earlier, the content standards we use to create metadata that describes our collections are forever tied to the encoding standards we use and the local systems into which we place records created using these content and encoding standards.

I feel badly about getting to the end of this post and leaving with more questions than answers, but sometimes an opening to a conversation is a gift. I don't think I'm advocating for scrapping our current cataloging code and starting over. But I do think I'm advocating for looking at our current catalog more critically--about who created it and who it was meant to serve--and thinking about our local user communities in how those cataloging rules get applied in a local context.

Stay positive,

Works cited:
Coyle, Karen. FRBR before and after. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2016.

Hufford, Jon R. "The pragmatic basis of catalog codes: has the user been ignored?" Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1991).

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The spotlight is focused, the audience rapt

I am in the quiet space between a couple of writing projects and I'm thinking about the thread that ties the two together.

In the first writing project, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how my lived experience acts as a lens through which I view the material that I catalog. In the early drafts of this project, I tried to argue that catalogers should both identify biases and work to push against them in their work. I even used the phrase "eradicate bias." As I wrote subsequent drafts, however, I became convinced that our job as catalogers shouldn't be to work against bias to create a neutral catalog. As many people smarter than me have said, the catalog is not neutral ground--nor should it be. Instead, I thought more about how catalogers should consider their lived experiences more to identify who they are and what privilege they do (or don't) possess. In much the same way that understanding how I benefit from whiteness changes how I move in the world, understanding how I benefit from whiteness changes how I approach the material I catalog.

The second writing project is going to turn my attention toward the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I'm interested in thinking about the six frames can serve as a lens through which catalogers can view what our cataloging priorities should be. I'm interesting in thinking about how cataloging work would change if we brought our practises into closer alignment with what librarians doing information literacy instruction are teaching students. My gut reaction at the outset of this work is that bringing our practises into closer alignment means that we will be less able to reuse records from Ye Olde Bibliographic Utility without making at least some degree of local changes. At the outset of this project, I feel like bringing cataloging practises and information literacy instruction practises into closer alignment will result in more work for catalogers rather than less.

I think the places where these two projects (and the thinking behind them) come together is that we need to spend a lot more time considering our local communities and the values that our local libraries embrace when creating and adapting records for use in our local catalogs. We must consider how we will change every aspect of how we work when we decide that our libraries should be anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-ableist, and anti-classist spaces. We cannot create inclusive physical library spaces without also creating inclusive digital spaces--and that includes are our library catalogs. We cannot address signage without also addressing metadata creation content standards. We cannot address loan policies without also addressing controlled vocabulary.

I don't resent people for thinking first about how to create more inclusive physical spaces since changing physical spaces has a visible return on investment for users. But not every person who uses the library does so by coming into our physical spaces. For some of our user groups, the library's digital presence is the only way they will interact with the library, so we also need to put some thought into how we will reflect in those spaces the values we profess in our physical spaces. This might mean changing our website's design or creating a local thesaurus of terms that reflect our values more than any of the existing thesauri. But whatever it means, we have to do it.

Making the changes in local practise that bring information literacy practise and cataloging practise into closer alignment will be neither easy nor cheap. And creating inclusive digital spaces will require both financial resources and staff time. We'll have to decide what we're willing to give up to take on this new work and we'll have to have administrative support to move forward. But if creating inclusive physical spaces is a priority for us, we have to think about how our digital spaces will change too.

Stay positive,

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday jams (09/23/2016)

Two jams-related things.

1.It's Friday, so enjoy this jam--Chance the Rapper on the Ellen DeGeneres show performing "No problem."

2. American Band, the new Drive-By Truckers album, is on NPR First Listen for a limited time. It's a really lovely album and I heartily recommend it.

Stay positive,