Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Drop of the "I" and add of the "we"

I went to Boston for ALA Midwinter. It was nicer weather than any of us had the right to expect and I spoke on a panel about the #mashcat movement and the importance of building relationships between metadata creators and library technologists. I was lucky to be able to speak alongside Shana McDanold and Galen Charlton, whose thoughtful comments filled me with Imposter Syndrome about whether I belonged on the stage, too.

I was supposed to give an in-person lightening talk at the #mashcat unconference, but I ended up cutting my trip to Boston short. The lovely unconference coordinators were able to Skype me in so that I could speak--a special shoutout to Christina Harlow for being really gracious about making it all work.

In case you're interested, this is (more or less) what I said. I hope you like it. Or, at the very least, find a piece of it that resonates with you.

I've been following the conference tweets and the live stream, and it seems like there are a lot of really amazing conversations happening today. I hope you were serious when you were talking about creating a space for people to fail. The original title of my talk was "The only rule I know of...you've got to be kind," which is a butchering of a line from a Kurt Vonnegut novel. But after hearing what was said at this morning's "Why #mashcat?" panel, I decided to tweak my talk. I guess the more accurate title at this point is "How #mashcat?"

Metadata creators and library technologists have big challenges ahead of us. We have to figure out how to live in a post-MARC world. We also have to figure out how to design systems and structures that reflect our user's lived experiences. And, I would argue, we have to learn to speak with a unified voice when talking with vendors. I'm sure you can think of other big challenges that I haven't. The point is, we've got a lot of work to do.

I was nervous about proposing a talk on kindness, especially with all of the great technical talk. I wasn't sure that there was room for a conversation about feelings, but I would argue that soft skills are as important as technical skills when it comes to building our collective future. One of my favorite quotes is by Brene Brown, who is a professor of Social Work. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she writes:
"Authenticity is a collection of choices we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen." 

I'd like to argue that we should build better relationships between library technologists and metadata creators through authentic connection. And, because every talk needs a hook, I'll give you three C's we can use: Connection, communication, and collaboration.

It's easy to organize the world by thinking about how we're different from other people. But that kind of thinking leads to organizational structures that create siloed thinking and barriers. Our daily tasks don't leave us much time to build relationships and competing interests within organizations can lead to an "us vs. them" mentality. But that mentality isn't helpful. You talked this morning about how certain terminology can be divisive: librarian vs. staff, cataloging vs. metadata. When we stop thinking of each other as people, we lose our connection to each other.

Instead of thinking about how metadata creators and library technologists are different, I would suggest that we identify areas of mutual concern. Those areas of mutual concern help us develop common goals and to start a conversation about what we're willing to give up to achieve those goals. For me, our areas of mutual concern are: the future, the user, and the vendor. But you might have different ideas and that's okay.

The easiest way to communicate is to be mindful of jargon. We all have places where we use acronyms or other shorthand to communicate about a concept. But, as you discussed this morning, acronym soup can be a barrier to participation. My suggestion is to drop the jargon in order to have more meaningful conversations. Don't assume that the metadata creator you're speaking with knows what you know or that the library technologists is conversant in MARC tags.

It can be easy to assume, too, that being clear and explaining things will insult someone's intelligence. They already know that, we think, and I don't want them to think that I think they're stupid. But chances are that the person you're speaking with doesn't know your shorthand and will be relieved that you've chosen to speak plainly about an issue or a concept so that they don't have to reveal their ignorance.

I would also suggest that library technologists and metadata creators establish regular communication. At my previous job, I worked at an academic library cataloging a private collection. At the same time, developers were working to build a website where digitized version of the cataloged material would live. I was able to work with the developers to ensure that we had the right amount and kind of metadata to do what we wanted to site to do. It was a really great experience and it taught me that metadata creators and library technologists can build better tools by working more closely together during the development process. So start informal conversations with people--ask what they're doing and how you can help.

I also want to acknowledge the fact that "just show up" and "don't wait to be invited" require a certain amount of fearlessness and vulnerability that not everyone has. So if you have a knot in your stomach when someone says that to you, it's okay. I do, too.

The first piece in collaboration is making sure that the right people are involved. When you begin collaborative projects, be mindful of who you've invited to participate. Do you have the people and the skills to be successful? If you don't, how will you recruit the people who have the skills that you're missing? In some cases, that might mean that a person who is often invited to participate in collaborative projects will have to step away to make room for someone new to participate. I encourage you to be the person who steps away, especially when the person you're making room for is a newer librarian or a person from a group that is traditionally underrepresented in librarianship. Give other people time to shine, and room to grow.

Next, be mindful of the amount (and kind) of work you're asking other people to do. Collaborations between metadata creators and library technologists should be 50/50. We shouldn't ask metadata creators to take on the work of understanding the skills that library technologists possess without also asking library technologists to meet us halfway. Metadata creators have acquired a lot of coding and technology skills in recent years, and I hope that our partners in library technology are willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in collaboration.

And finally, be willing to share your skills. Identify what skills you would like to develop and who has those skills. The #mashcat community has been generous with its time and its talent, but you can also look to your colleagues at your home libraries to help you develop your skills. Skill building also requires that you be willing to teach. It's easy to make a long list of things you want to learn, and it's easy to think that you don't know enough to each someone what you know. But you're definitely an expert in something--you just have to be willing to teach someone else what you know.

A final word:
I have to end with a song lyric, because of course I do. It's my thing. Erin McKeown is my favorite musicians. She ends her song, "Histories," by asking: How do you make community? and answering Drop of the "I" and add of the "we." I think about this song lyric a lot when thinking about how library technologists and metadata creators can build better relationships.

As I said in the beginning of this talk, library technologists and metadata creators have a lot of big challenges to take on. And I think that when we work together, we can build a better future than any of us could build on our own.
Stay positive,

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