Librarian chic

The Nine Publishing Good Weekend papers that came out last Saturday featured a story about libraries. It was a good read, with a number of personal interest stories. Any librarian, past or present, who objects to that story must be a curmudgeon, right? Well, count me in — to a point.

There was a lot to like about the story. Props to Jane Cadzow for wanting to write something positive about the institution which is a synonym for dowdy and boring. It was only recently that I saw an outfit of (I think) skirt and jumper described as “librarian chic”. Actually, I have just had a through-the-looking-glass moment when Googling this phrase. There was an entire session devoted to exploring “librarian chic” at the IFLA conference last year in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not making it up, you know! Here is the session abstract: 

“Have you ever made a quick judgement about someone because of what they’re wearing? Sure, we have all done it. Does this mean that the way we dress at work influences how we are perceived and categorized in society?
The topic of Librarian Fashion opens a myriad of questions: Should librarians wear a uniform? Can we wear tattoos? Should we dress with dignity – and what does dignity mean? What about piercings? Jewels? Religious or political symbols? Does it depend on a personal choice, on the country we live in, or on the position we hold in the library? Should a library director dress like a librarian or like a director? Do you believe in enclothed cognition?”

Go to the conference web page, scroll down to session 142 — it’s near the top — and click on it. Six papers are supposedly in English (I haven’t checked this out — no pun intended).

Dragging myself back to the Good Weekend article, the author set a few hares running, but failed to follow them to their burrows. Take the quote from Michael Moore about librarians being dangerous revolutionaries. This was just plonked out there with no explanation, for shock value. (Those nice librarians, dangerous! Ooh!) But what makes librarians dangerous? Providing books and other materials that are communally owned, for people to take home in an orderly way, is actually quite an anarchistic thing to do. It would be much more profitable for publishers if all of us had to buy our own copy. This arrangement would probably be better for authors too. (The Australian Lending Right schemes are intended to compensate authors for sale income that they have lost because libraries have been lending out their books. But that’s a story for another time.)

The article stressed the egalitarian nature of public libraries, which of course is all well and good. The same applies to university libraries — everyone is supposedly equal at the enquiries desk, whether they are an undergraduate or the vice chancellor. Partners in a law firm, however, definitely get preferential treatment over the paralegals and other lesser breeds. I remember hearing a law librarian, at a conference explaining how she had learned the art of the “elevator pitch”, in case she came to share the lift with a partner. Hold the boring memos requesting funding — just front them directly! Requests from those who make funding decisions tend to get priority.

Egalitarianism is a fellow traveller with co-operation, and libraries are intrinsically co-operative institutions. If your local library doesn’t hold a book (or whatever) in its collection, staff will get hold of it from another library via the inter-library loan system. (There may be a charge to the end-user for this service.) In Australia, this is facilitated by Libraries Australia, which is a kind of national union catalogue. The co-operative ethos of all this obviously runs contrary to that of free market capitalism.

This kumbaya stuff has its limits, though. It’s stretching the point, as the article does, to say that borrowing books from a library is something that “runs on trust”. There is no covenant without the sword, and libraries have fines for late return. (Some librarians, as the article pointed out, think these should be done away with.) Library fines these days are fairly nuanced in their application. It is a well kept secret that in many cases, if books are returned one or two days overdue, a fine will mostly not be levied. This is based on research that found that most delinquent loans are returned soon after an overdue notice is issued. Lose a book, though, and you have to pay the purchase cost, plus a processing fee. (This happened to me, after I left a library book that I took on holidays, and left in the pouch in front of my airplane seat. After calls to the airline lost property didn’t get it back, I just went to my local branch and ‘fessed up. Oh yes, I’ve done that, said the librarian who processed my payment.) Don’t just hope the library will forget about it, though: you might have to pay the accrued overdue fines as well!

The article, as the author acknowledged, only looked at municipal or public libraries. It is encouraging to read that these are doing well, in Australia at least. Of course, libraries come in many other flavours. Universities and higher education institutions largely still have them. Ditto for schools, law firms, museums, government departments, and research institutes — the last four coming under the umbrella term of special libraries. I suspect newspaper libraries are a thing of the past, along with many other special libraries. Survivors are under threat from managerial types who think that everything is now freely available, in full text, on the web, so what do we need libraries and librarians for? (This ignores the question as to why publishers have suddenly become philanthropists, happy to give content away online that they charge for in hard copy.)

Special library work allows staff to acquire expertise in the topics featured  in the collection. This expertise is a bit like topsoil — slow to form, easily lost. Its loss is one of the worst aspects of the closure of special libraries. Collections that have been painstakingly built up are also scattered to the four winds. With luck, a library somewhere else in the world will have these titles. If it is a back run of a really specialised journal, however, it is probably only available in hard copy. Articles and conference papers can be tough to get hold of; most libraries don’t lend these materials out. If it is available in a database, libraries which have a subscription are often forbidden by their user licences from using the database to fulfil interlibrary loan requests. The more specialized the request, the harder it is to fulfil, and the really out-of-the-way stuff can only be delivered by a librarian who knows the nooks and crannies of that topic area. Just hope that one of those is on your case!

Politicians are happy to bang on about the knowledge economy. The special library, however, continues on the endangered list. This is particularly the case in a place like Australia, where managers are rewarded for closing down expensive and outwardly unproductive things like libraries. So, yes, celebrate your local library! Use it or lose it! Would you rather have that, or Amazon?

The presence of an absence

I have been somewhat absent from the airwaves lately. The last couple of months have been rather busy, which has mostly been great. But the busy-ness has one downside — of which more later.

In the last couple of months I have had a lot of objectives to work towards and interesting things to do. Principal among these is becoming a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum’s Biodiversity Heritage Library project. To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else.

Volunteers at the Museum are well supported; there are about 500 of us (of whom only a handful works on BHL). The induction was very thorough, and I now have my entry tag on a lanyard, like one of the cast of Utopia. I am also enjoying the feeling of being part of an enterprise again, the opportunity to learn new things, and the sense of being valued for my skills and experience. So BHL is an all-round winner, combining exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction.

How does exercise come into it?  To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else

I hadn’t heard of the Biodiversity Heritage Library before I stumbled across it at at talk for Rare Books Week. This page gives an idea of what the project is all about. Briefly, it is a worldwide consortium which scans historic biodiversity-related books and other documents and publishes them to the web. These documents are uploaded in full text, described with correct metadata, and publicised on Twitter and other social media. What sorts of things are in there? Charles Darwin’s library is an example; “over 500 of the 1,480 books in Darwin’s library … complemented with fully-indexed transcriptions of Darwin’s annotations”. What else might you find? Who doesn’t love polar bears (ursus maritimus to you)?

These materials are of interest to several communities. Climate change is putting ecosystems all over the world under pressure, with extinctions on the rise. Biologists studying these things need information about plant or animal species’ original discovery, extent, habitats, and appearance. This information is contained in books and scientific journals, but also in periodicals such as proceedings of natural science associations, and archival material like field notes. The latter sources, however, are “grey literature”; things that libraries tend either not to collect, or house in closed access stacks and rare book collections. Many of the documents also feature stunning biological illustration. So this is a site of endless interest to book and design as well as scientific nerds. Discoverability is an emphasis; everything is properly catalogued and described with scientific terminology. What a wonderful project this is — getting these documents out of stacks and rare book collections, into the public domain, for anyone with a web browser to enjoy and learn from.

What else have I been up to? I went to ANAM (another great Melbourne institution) for a number of concerts and master classes. These involve music students nearing graduation, and those visiting Australia to teach them. The standard is high and the ticket prices very low. There are often friends around to have lunch with. Last month there were a few trips to town involved with a couple of prostate cancer-related research studies. (One of these, involving three months of exercise classes, won’t start until November.) I am getting to grips again with Proust, albeit with a certain resistance — I managed to lose volume 1 of the Penguin “In search of lost time”, The way past Swann’s. (I just cursed and ordered another copy from Reading’s.) I spend a lot of time listening to music, either in the kitchen or in the study on my old valve stereo. Now that spring is springing, I will have no excuse but to get outside and beat our little garden into some kind of shape. For the rest of the time there is

  • book group (once a month)
  • the ex-RMIT coffee group (ditto)
  • exercise class followed by lunch (weekly)
  • hauling myself off to the gym (nominally twice a week)
  • going for walks (ditto)
  • food shopping (about three times a week), and
  • cooking (almost every day).

I am still feeling very well, and that is allowing me to keep up this level of activity. The exercise I am doing is a big part of that. I am becoming quite the evangelist (that is, a bore) about movement. My sleeping is better, doubtless partly due also to the exercise. Without this I would not have the energy to do a lot of these fun things. So I have gone from feeling a bit under-engaged to having (literally and metaphorically) lots of pots on the stove. Having many things to do also provides me with distractions. The shopping and cooking have always been my jobs, and I enjoy them both. Everything else I am doing voluntarily, I can schedule my Museum work at times when I can actually get a seat on the train. My book group, exercise, and coffee buddies are retirees; we can all do things when it suits us. Rush hour commutes are a thing of the past.

So what’s the downside? I find myself now a bit short of writing time. Of course, this is a pretty good problem to have! I just need to schedule in some “quality time” for writing. Doris Lessing called one of her books of essays A small, personal voice. Putting the words on a screen helps me focus on that voice, and make sense of things. I see Dr P on the 23rd, and will post the results of that appointment shortly after.

Advance future planning

Some people are just disgustingly organised. Yes, it’s around this time that the first shame-making batch of Christmas cards starts to appear in the mailbox. (Hand-addressed ones, I mean, from people you actually know, not those ones with the word-processed labels from real estate agents and other hopefuls.) Impressive as this is, some people of Olympian foresight are actually thinking about their new year’s resolutions. Fair crack of the whip! I’m still resting on my laurels from working out which bin to put out last Thursday.

For those who would like to take a mini-meerkat ramble, and peer over the parapet of the present (oh, when you’re hot, you’re hot), there is some pretty interesting stuff to ponder. The Guardian asked its readers for suggestions about how to live in a way that, while it didn’t involve throwing off the whole capitalist yoke, at least brought up some alternatives. The result was this article, From freecycling to Fairphones: 24 ways to lead an anti-capitalist life in a capitalist world . The suggestion that most tickled my fancy, not surprisingly, was the one about using libraries more.

(Strangely, I have just taken a not-a-new-year’s resolution to start using our local library less. This is to support a different NANYR, that is, to re-read In search of lost time. Having turned into a super slowpoke reader, I simply won’t get through this magnum opus in 2019 if I am forever putting books on hold. However, for anyone for whom their library service hasn’t been restructured, corporatised, and had its customer service outcomes optimised out of existence, I say — use it or lose it!)

My personal suggestion to do things differently in 2019? Shop in op shops. I had the most delightful conversation a few weeks ago with the co-owner of our local greengrocer, a Canadian, and a fellow op-shopper. I think I impressed her with my two op shop loyalty cards! (Not everyone would be.) I was able to fill her in about some local outlets, and admire her ability to score a wearable cardigan. Knitwear is definitely the Achilles heel, if I can put it that way, of the op shop. Most jumpers, or even sweat tops, are either stained down the front or worn thin. I have scored a couple of good jumpers, one of which I wear as I write, but the hit rate is definitely lower than for jackets, shirts, or pants. Op shops, though, are a great way to connect with your community, save stuff from landfill, and disconnect from the whole disposable fashion cycle. And obviously they are mega cheap. As the Mitsubishi ads used to say: please consider.