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,

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