Thursday, March 31, 2016

They pale before the monolith that towers over me

Yesterday I wondered aloud on Twitter why cataloging and catalog records are always held up as signs of the Library of the Past.

I'd just read this Ithaka S+R Issue Brief and was left with mixed feelings about what the Digital Future means for the creation of well-formed metadata.

I actually agreed with much of what Ms. Marcum has to say in this brief. Libraries absolutely do need to understand the needs and desires of users when it comes to library use and then act accordingly. Marcum writes:
Our users, or customers, are in control. Instead of settling for what we have to offer, they can now readily determine who can meet their information needs. Some information resources are freely available through the Internet; some sources provide information for a fee. The user can decide what is important to him or her, and also decide how much that service is worth.
I agree with that 100%. We can't dictate to our users how they should use our resources or what services we provide should be valuable to them. But I would stop to say that I think we should be careful about describing users in monolithic ways. I've written before about how user needs are contextual. While all user groups have some habits in common, I think it's potentially damaging to think about users as a single type of person and change our workflows to match that single type of user.

In this world where users can access a wealth of information from a variety of sources, Marcum suggests that digital resources become even more important. She suggests that libraries need to shift their foci from acquiring and describing print resources to providing access in greater numbers to digital resources. Marcum writes:
In the print world, librarians have been concerned about cataloging books and journals so that faculty and students could discover the resources in the library. In the digital environment, our users are more likely to find digital resources through a Google search than they are through searching the library's catalog. Access to information resources is what users care about--not what the library owns.
Okay, so Ms. Marcum and I are more or less still on the same page here. I think it's fair to suggest that some users prefer instant access to information resources. And the needs of some users require us to think more broadly about how we describe our resources and where we make them available.

But here's where Ms. Marcum loses me:
In the digital era, instead of preparing detailed cataloging records to enter into our online catalogs, we are far more likely to invest in services that our users really want--specialized and individualized help when they can't find what they want in a Google search, access to more electronic journals and databases, on-line reference services, and access to new types of scholarly information--data sets, blog posts, and multimedia resources.
Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like at least some of these things that Marcum suggests that users want hinge on well-formed metadata in local library catalogs. Where are the people providing specialized and individualized help directing people when Google searches fail? How do users gain access to more electronic journals and databases? Maybe not always the local library catalog, but sometimes.

Library administrators must survey their communities and adjust priorities to meet changing user needs. I get that. But I also think that as long as users need to find library resources--physical or digital--well formed metadata will be an integral part of that task. In fact, I think well-formed metadata is especially important for digital resources because in a digital world we lose the capacity to browse the shelves to find all of the things we missed in our catalog search.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the importance of having an elevator pitch about the value of well-formed metadata ready for those times when people suggest that perhaps cataloging isn't as important as it once was. In some ways it's disheartening to see that we're at the same place we were a year ago.  And while advocacy is important, I think that if enough people are suggesting that cataloging has extended beyond its usefulness, maybe it's time to evaluate our practises to live in the digital age. I think this means learning more about how users actually acquire information and adjusting our local and national practises accordingly.

At least that way when people suggest that well-formed metadata isn't as useful as it once was, we can say we did our homework as we advocate for ourselves.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When you rise above your fears

I finished reading Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom by bell hooks a couple of weeks ago. While hooks was talking about education and classroom spaces in her book, my mind made the leap to librarianship as it sometimes does. And I wanted to write a post for all of the friends of the blog who, like me, find themselves in a position of privilege more often than not.

Among other things, the third chapter of Teaching to transgress discussed how shift toward a multicultural classroom requires white teachers need to move past their fears to foster a space where white supremacy, sexism, racism, ableism, imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia are decentered. Throughout much of this chapter, I felt like if you replaced "classroom" with "library" and "teacher" or "educator" with "librarian," the arguments that hooks makes are as applicable to libraries as to teaching spaces. hooks writes early in the chapter:
Among educators, there has to be an acknowledgment that any effort to transform institutions so they reflect a multicultural standpoint must take into consideration the fears teachers have when asked to shift their paradigms. There must be training sites where teachers have the opportunities to express those concerns while also learning to create ways to approach the multicultural classroom and curriculum. (36)
Many librarians who are part of privileged groups see the damage that is caused in their communities by racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic thinking. But moving toward a vision of librarianship that is actively works against all of those "isms" is fraught with discomfort. We, the privileged, have to understand oppressive systems and our place in them before we can work to dismantle them. And more than that, we have to learn how to be good allies without expecting rewards for our efforts or drowning out the voices of those we wish to be allied with. We, the privileged, will screw this up--even when we're well meaning. And if we're being honest, we'll screw it up more often than we get it right.

When we do the work (hat tip to the always insightful April Hathcock), those of us with privilege often come to a place where we see oppression all around us and it causes us to feel uncomfortable. Later in Chapter Three, hooks addresses this discomfort, writing:
White students learning to think more critically about questions of race and racism may go home for the holidays and suddenly see their parents in a different light. They may recognize nonprogressive thinking, racism, and so on, and it may hurt them that new ways of knowing may create estrangement where there was none. (43)
What does it look like for librarianship to create a professional discourse where white supremacy, sexism, racism, ableism, imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia are decentered? Among other things, I think it means that we, the privileged, need to sit with our discomfort and do the work required to move past it. We need to hold each other accountable when we do things like using "fit" to cover up our racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic tendencies. Or when we have panels at national conferences that are filled with the same cis, heterosexual, white men. And then, after we've considered all of this, we need to come up with a plan for what we--individually--will do to change.

Even when I try to get it right, I fall short. But that doesn't mean I quit. I ask for forgiveness from those I've wronged and try to do it better next time. Because for whatever else you believe about the future of librarianship, we will be better if it is multicultural.

Stay positive,

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday jams (03/18/16)

Happy Friday, friends of the Unified Library Scene!

Rachel is on a sabbatical from writing for the blog, so I'm going to hold it down while she's away. After a couple of weeks of not posting Friday jams, I figured that it was time to get back to business--the business of jams.

Before I give you an actual jam, I wanted to give you this. I know it's an ad, but it's been running every five minutes during the Tournament games and, honestly?, it's kind of my everything right now. I am looking for some folks to recreate it with me during ALA Annual in Orlando. Are you that somebody?

Okay, on with the business...

School of Seven Bells put out an amazing album. The back story of SVIIB is unbearably heartbreaking, which make the album even more amazing. This is the second single and it's pretty great.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why're you doing this? What's your motivation?

I participated in a #libleadgender chat about paths to leadership. I appreciated hearing a group of women talk about how they have found themselves in leadership roles and the challenges and opportunities these leadership roles present. I also appreciated the space for self-reflection about my leadership experiences and about the projects I choose to involve myself in.

At one point in the conversation, I tweeted this:

In December, I wrote about how I was hoping to be more intentional about the projects I say "yes" to and the projects I step away from in the hopes of practicing good self-care. I feel like at every transition point in my career, I've felt pressure to take on projects in order to help myself advance to the next transition point. I felt it as a new librarian. I felt it as an unemployed librarian. I felt it as a project-based librarian. I feel it as a new middle manager. I pressure myself to say yes to chairing the committee or taking the minutes in the hopes of being offered greater levels of responsibility in my own library as well as in The Profession. And when it pays off and I'm offered greater levels of responsibility, it feels really great. There's something exciting about being chosen to lead and I like being seen as trustworthy and reliable by my peers.

What gets lost in that post I wrote is that if I choose to lead--if you choose to lead--for the wrong reasons, we steal leadership opportunity from someone whose skill set is a better fit for the task. This is a crappy thing for us to do, especially when that someone is a person new to the profession who really wants to find a way to be seen by their peers as trustworthy and reliable. If we say yes because we want to continue to be offered opportunities, we'll continue to get opportunities. But then our the committees in our own libraries and in our professional associations become an echo chamber.

And sure, we may want to value experience and wisdom when making decisions. But valuing wisdom and experience at the cost of involving people newer to the profession is problematic. We drive away new professionals who don't see themselves reflected in the values of our libraries and professional associations. And we get stuck in the 'this is how we've always done it' mindset that is so dangerous for growth.

So here's my pitch: don't just say no to chairing a committee or taking the minutes when you know someone else would be a good fit. Offer the name of a person you think would be good to take your place--preferably someone who doesn't get very many opportunities to show their colleagues that they're trustworthy and reliable. And if you (like me) suffer from Fear of Missing Out, don't worry. There's always another project or committee.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Still I have a mind to think

I attended library school as a distance education learner in the mid-2000s. I had been working in libraries since high school--first in public libraries, then in a school library. I was an English major in undergraduate with a creative writing concentration, and I had dreams of becoming an academic. But, as so often happens, I didn't. After moving into a full-time paraprofessional position, I decided to go to library school.

My experience of my LIS program is that it was light on theory. I attribute this to the fact that, while most of my online classes were taught by people with PhDs in LIS, most of my in-person classes were taught by well-respected practitioners who worked in the city where I attended class. I heard a lot of lectures and did a lot of assignments that prepared me to work in libraries.

As someone who has had her degree for long enough to be considered mid-career, I often feel intimidated when I interact with people--mostly in online spaces--who have a much stronger theoretical grounding that I do. I stumble when I hear people talk about feminist, critical race, or queer theory because I haven't read any of the foundational texts upon which these theories are based. I feel ill equipped to talk about certain issues related to cataloging because I'm not familiar with Panizzi's 91 rules or the Paris Principles.

Up until recently, I have used this feeling of intimidation as an excuse to not engage in some interesting conversations about librarianship both in published literature and in online spaces. I recently wrote about how I've allowed imposter syndrome to keep my from adding my voice to the scholarly conversation happening in LIS research. And since I wrote that post, something inside me flipped.
It started when I read Emily Drabinski's great article, "Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction." I enjoyed how much I was challenged by the argument in the article and I mined its bibliography for other articles to read. And I mined the bibliographies in those articles for other articles to read.

Around the same time, I started reading Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom by bell hooks. I read a chapter or two each day while I eat lunch. I've been deliberate about the slow pace at which I make my way through this book, spending quiet time with hooks each day. And when I finish Teaching to transgress, I'll pick up another book.

By devoting time each day to reading something, I am giving myself the theoretical grounding in librarianship that I didn't receive in library school. You've probably noticed that many of my recent blog posts have been my interactions with something I read, taking my own ideas and looking at them through the lens of something written by someone else in the field. I have even taken one of those blog posts and started a document that is the very beginning of an article.

I wanted to tell you this story, not to pat myself on the back for a job well done but because I hope that it resonates with you. If you want to learn more about something, do it. Find a book or an article on a topic that interests you and allow yourself to be moved and changed by what you read. Investing in yourself is really important. And, if you're like me, it helps you see yourself more clearly.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

This ain't no acrobatics

So, lately I've been writing about catalog records and the contextual needs of users. It's been fun to play with ideas about how we could change the ways in which we catalog our collections in order to meet the needs of users. The part about writing this blog that's enjoyable is that I can put ideas into the world without also having to assign dollar values or staff time to these ideas. Essentially, I can put the in an incubator and see how they grow over time.

But over where ideas meet reality, libraries often don't have the money or the staff to treat resources description in the way that we might want them to. And, in the absence of those resources, they are forced to make choices about how items in their collections are described. But how do we decide--how should we decide?

In 2007, David Banush and Jim LeBlanc wrote an article titled "Utility, library priorities, and cataloging policy" that applied utilitarian principles to cataloging backlogs--specifically liberal utilitarianism. The authors worked at an institution where shifting institutional priorities meant that fewer resources were available for the cataloging of library resources. And in that environment of changing priorities and fewer resources, the Cataloging Department was tasked with reducing their significant backlog.The article discusses the ways in which their institution decided how they could process their backlog to do the greatest amount of good for the largest number of patrons. The institution changed the extent to which humans would intervene in the cases of both original and copy cataloging. The result was accepting more records as-is and creating less detailed records in cases where records didn't exist while also utilizing an automated process to search the bibliographic utility on an ongoing basis for fuller-level records to replace those less detailed records. And while they acknowledge that the long-term effects of the decision's they've made on user access won't be immediately discernible, they were able to share some statistics for 2005/2006 that made it seem like, in the short term, the decisions they made weren't disastrous for user access.

The article makes a good point about how resources in an organization are finite and that when we make one thing a priority over another thing, we decide how to allocate the resources. Banush and LeBlanc write:
If library administrations agree with Mann and others that more resources should be devoted to cataloging as it has been traditionally conceived and practiced, the additional funding and staffing will almost certainly come at the expense of other initiatives (107).
I think that libraries have to provide users with the collections and services they the need to be successful researchers. I also think that Banush and LeBlanc are probably correct when they assert that allocating resources to the emerging collections and services that users need to be successful researchers means that other areas will lose resources in the form of funding or staff positions. And in a world where many information seekers bypass the library's catalog to find information resources, metadata creation and remediation may seem like an easy target for reductions in both funds and staffing.

But I would argue that there is room in this 'do more with less' world for libraries to consider their priorities and how metadata creation and remediation might be embedded in those priorities. Users want access to more digitized and electronic collections? How will you represent those in your catalog and/or on your website? Users tell you on your satisfaction surveys that they can't find what they're looking for in the catalog? How can catalog records be improved to help users succeed in finding what they need?

It's likely that not every item that comes through a library's cataloging department needs hands-on intervention. But whether it's unique collections or specialized areas of collection interest, I suspect that are items that come through the library's cataloging department that need hands-on treatment that don't get it because of financial constraints. And, in that case, library users suffer.

While it's nice to have an incubator space for ideas to grow, I don't think we can write all of them off as wishful thinking or as too expensive. I feel strongly about how well-formed metadata can improve the experience of our users--especially in the realm of subject access. But I also acknowledge that we have to find the places where we're willing to give something to get something. So how do we choose?

Stay positive,

Works cited:
Banush, David and Jim LeBlanc. "Utility, library priorities, and cataloging policies." Library Collections, Acquisitions & Technical Services 31 (2007) 96-109.