Giving Back To The Profession

I recently attended the New England Technical Services Librarians 2014 Annual Spring Conference, or NETSL 2014. I’ve attended NETSL for some time now. My first time was in 2006 as a GSLIS student at Simmons. Later, I volunteered to help out with registration. Then I joined the board as Treasurer. This current board year, I’m the Past President, finishing up not only a three year term as I started as Vice President, but also after a year as treasurer and as a volunteer. Each year, NETSL hands out the NETSL Award for Excellence in Technical Services. This year, the NETSL Award went to Amira Aaron of Northeastern University and Diane Baden from Boston College. What I found particularly moving this year was Diane’s acceptance speech about networking and mentoring. In short, she explained that it was a great honor to receive this award. For her, her involvement in the profession was all about learning, networking, reaching out and giving back to the profession. This struck home. Many of us are on committees of one sort or another. Many librarians are also tenured or seek tenure or perhaps a promotion which involves showing evidence of professional activity and scholarly research. Being professionally active because it will count towards moving up the career ladder is one reason. Granted, many might this as myopic. But I see it as a good start to becoming involved if it leads to a greater understanding of what it means to be part of the profession and what it means to be professional. I would like to emphasize the “good start”. Being professionally involved cannot be solely about working up the career ladder. Well I guess it can but that would mean a very ambitious sort of climb that might be helpful only for the climber. I would prefer to see professional involvement as giving back to the profession and where librarians really excel at sharing and communicating amongst themselves their expertise and experiences. This passion to help our profession comes not from being ambitious towards greater professional peaks but the willingness to see our profession grow and evolve. Is this idealistic? Certainly, though not entirely! It is also practical. By being on committees, presenting, networking, being mentored or mentoring, we learn through engagement. With small steps, we breach the many silos that we work in and around each day to do a better job as librarians as a whole. To be engaged is to work collaboratively with our peers for better or worse.

This sentiment was echoed in the remembrance for Birdie MacLennan, a prominent New England librarian who passed away recently. The remembrance was delivered by two of Birdie’s mentees and one of Birdie’s mentors. They recalled how Birdie would selfless help those navigate a new career as a librarian. This was done not only through networking but also through engagement with others to further the field of technical services in librarianship.

Out of all the presentations that day, the most moving were Diane’s acceptance speech and this remembrance. Each reminded me that engagement is so much more than just an accomplishment. It is giving back to the profession by learning and collaborating with your peers.

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To Conference Or Unconference

About two weeks ago I attended an amazing unconference called the Northeast Metadata Specialists Unconference ( As the name suggests, the focus of this event was to bring together metadata specialists from around the New England area. As an unconference, the event was meant to be an opportunity for people to work together, network, get help with specific questions and generally learn from one another. The benefit for attendees was free registration. Attendees were however responsible for parking, lunch and travel costs. The benefits for organizers was an easy set up of a WordPress site, a Google form for registrations, and getting some awesome colleagues in the area to help out by speaking and reserving a work space in the library. It was a great day where I learned much and got to solve some very concrete problems. The general consensus was to have a repeat of the experience!

The number of unconferences are increasing. NEMSU is one example in New England. Others in this area include Northeast Fedora User Group Unconference, Islandora Camp (regional – NYC), THATCamp New England, Code4Lib regional, or the  symposium. Generally these unconferences last a day or perhaps 2 days for something like THATCamp. Registration is typically free. Attendance varies between 30-150 people from around the region. The events begin with a keynote speaker and from that lecture style begins the unstructured events such as lightning talks, sometimes called dork shorts, impromptu seminars, working groups, discussion groups, hands on sessions, or learn a skill session (or sessions on talking, making, playing or teaching). From this description, it is obvious that the format is informal. What attendees bring to the table and their level of engagement determines what they get out of their experience. It is clear from the increase in such events and unconference type sessions at regular conferences (lightning talks) that informal working days are popular.

Does this mean that the conference has seen its day? By conference, I’m thinking in particular of the large conferences such as ALA Annual, ACRL or the Charleston Conference. Typically attendees move from one presentation to another to listen to  new ideas, techniques, or theories. I have to say that I enjoy the large conferences. I have to admit however that I reach a saturation point around day 3. Despite that, I continue to frequent large conferences. I would say that conferences continue to play a key role in learning and networking.

It is necessary to be able to go to a venue where you can ask very specific questions about your job or research project. This type of venue might only involve people in a certain area of librarianship. Like NEMSU, it is possible to use all the acronyms and shorthand of the business knowing the people in the room speak your language and get your quirky metadata jokes! This doesn’t discount the conference. It is equally important to attend conferences where you hear big ideas, finished and polished projects, and see new techniques. It is especially important to remove yourself from your quirky colleagues. Once you try to explain or hear about your field from someone outside of that field, then you begin to make strides. Why? It comes down to a change in perspective. I learn this every week in my workshops with curators on metadata. I try to think of aspects that might be difficult for some of the curators I work with in terms of getting content into our digital repository. Sometimes I’m right. Mostly they surprise with new ways of seeing metadata. It is a great and humbling exercise. That is why the conference remains a needed excursion for librarians. It is a place to encounter both the familiar and unfamiliar and learn. So, one should not exclude the other. In fact, the unconference and conference complement each other. Each has a different focus and goal.

So let’s conference and unconference!

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Where Are All the Metadata Librarians?

It has been an extremely busy semester! In between projects, I was able to attend three really great conferences: ENUG (Ex Libris Northeast Users Group) Working Conference, THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) and Islandora Camp. Thankfully, all of these conferences were either local or just a train hop away. This was the first time I attending all of these conferences. And what an eye opener! Not only were these not really *conferences* but I was one of the very few metadata librarians in the crowd.

If these weren’t conferences, then what were these events. ENUG was more of a working conference. It drew approximately 100 people in the New England area who work with or are about to work with Ex Libris products (the Voyager, Alma, etc. line). On the program, there was a presentation on RDA and authorities. So on a whim, I decided to attend. I spent two days with a majority of system librarians,  several acquisition librarians and other librarians who wear several hats in either IT or technical services. Beyond the presentation on RDA, the discussions went beyond the ILS and even metadata to touch on issues such as  ILS design and inner workings such as indexing, batch uploading or how to create better workflows using ALMA for example. The keynote speaker was Corey Harper who spoke about the need for linked open data. I really enjoyed the broader discussions and the keynote speaker.

THATCamp is modeled after the unconference model where instead of lectures there are seminars. The original THATCamp started at George Mason around 7 or so years ago. The aim was to provide an informal setting for those working in the digital humanities to work with and learn from one another. THATCamps are now sponsored locally all over the world. The one in New England tends to draw about 200 or so people from all specialities (libraries, museums, faculty, graduate students, IT, digital media folks, etc.). Like most unconferences, there are lightning talks, impromptu workshops, seminars, demonstrations, and much more. Interestingly, I happened to be one of the very few metadata librarians present. The large majority of attendees hailed from academia, other fields of librarianship (humanity liaisons), digital media specialists and digital library folks. It was great to work with researchers and their data as they work through TEI and Omeka for example. Thanks to attending this camp, I am now working with a faculty member in Nursing who is studying the history of nursing through interview texts marked up in TEI!

The last adventure I had this semester was Islandora Camp in New York City. Islandora is a front end administrative management layer to Fedora, an open source digital repository. Created by University of Prince Edward Island many years ago, it is now a foundation linked to such spin off companies as Discovery Garden who will set you up with your own customized Islandora site (or multisite). The Camp was originally started at UPEI to help those who decided to implement Islandora. Like many unconferences, lightning talks or dork shorts held sway, along with impromptu sessions and seminars. This was a small regional Islandora camp that brought around 50 or so people from the area. I happened to be the only metadata librarian there.

All of these conferences were fantastic. I learned a great deal about my ILS, the digital humanities and Islandora. Of course, all of this is extremely useful for my daily work. One of my priorities is to catalog the audio-visual materials in Voyager. I help our liaisons with data management and the digital humanities, especially with TEI. Lastly, my library has implemented Islandora.

I learned a great deal and was able to help on a researcher’s project afterwards. What was even better than bring back all this knowledge was being out of my element so to speak. There is a word in French that is perfect for this, namely “depayser”. Roughly translated, it means to be out of our element (or country). With all three of these conferences, I was certainly out of the element of cataloging and metadata since I was either the only metadata librarian or one of a handful in attendance. This led to great conversations and perspectives on my work that I hadn’t considered or wasn’t able to see. In other words, this was a great opportunity to go beyond silos and work on connecting and networking. It made me realize that projects involving metadata need this type of networking. Because our systems and workflows are so complex, it is very rare that one person will do all the steps required to get a resource from a vendor or an archival physical collection to the virtual or physical shelf. This involves a number of processes, people, and skills. It is in our best interest to break down the silos and work on our process and skills. This doesn’t lead to losing our jobs but better defining how we can fit into the process. Another way to look at this is that if we keep insisting that we work alone or that our work cannot be understood by others, we risk being eliminated from the picture. Definitely this is a simplification. But taking a moment to remove yourself from your element is essential. You’ll learn something new. But more importantly, you’ll insert yourself into a discussion on metadata and how it relates to wider issues. This provides more visibility to the importance of metadata and the role it plays within a system. Give it a try this year!

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