The Stitching

There are a lot of jokes and stereotypes when you choose to work in library technical services. We are often seen as quiet and introverted. Some people think we lack great social skills and that we are mostly nerdy folks who are good with computers, data input and a lot of rules. Other things I’ve heard over the course of my career are that we’re not seen as very out-going, we don’t need to think on our feet and our work isn’t very creative.

I’ve worked in cataloging and metadata since 2009, and I’ve just never found these stereotypes to be true. While many of us are “quiet” at work, it’s because our tasks and workflows are often extremely detail-oriented. If I’m working on a batch edit for something, I can mess up a few thousand records if I lose my train of thought. I can fix it, but I don’t like to do my work twice if I can avoid it. When you stop by my desk, it’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. It’s that I need to take a moment to shift my extreme laser focus away from the bytes of data or my rabbit hole of research to see you and speak coherently. I’ve met a ton of extroverts working in this area of the library. I’m not one of them, but don’t worry. We have plenty, just like in all other areas of the the profession.

As for the bit about rules or creativity… My philosophy is that rules are made to be broken. We do have a lot of rules, standards and guidelines that govern the work we do. That’s so we can share our data with libraries all over the globe. But we break, conflate and interpret rules. ALL…THE…TIME. We have to. Sometimes, the rules for a field element don’t adequately explain the format of something we have in our hand. Or we have to move field data around because we find out our users are searching for something in a specific and unintended way. We might find out our discovery system (what we call the catalog) doesn’t work with our old legacy data in one field–and it will affect how we use that field or others in a record. We are pivoting, interpreting, and creatively assessing the data in the library catalog every day. So many of our codified rules and policies have phrases like, “if appropriate” or “supply when.” In the biz, we call this cataloger’s judgement. No one ever sees it happening! It looks like we’re just quietly staring at a computer screen or looking at a cart full of books and following our rules.

All of this made me think of stitching. Stitch by stitch, I work on tiny little details. I count, interpret and make mistakes as I work through my pattern. I might see the name for a stitch that I need to learn and maybe adapt before I proceed. I think of my pattern as just a guideline, another rule meant to be broken. I can tweak or change the pattern as I go. I can choose to embellish a border differently, or use entirely different colors of floss. I can add swear words to an otherwise innocuous and traditional pattern. I’m using my judgement, as I make each individual stitch (think of these as individual bytes of data) to create something whole and large and beautiful (like the library catalog). While I’m only making one little stitch at a time, they will all eventually make a full picture.

Like cataloging and metadata, stitching is unseen labor. People see the finished product and not all the hours of labor that went into the piece of work. I had this AHA moment one day while I was stitching and feeling down about my work. It struck me, “Might other cataloging and metadata creators feel unseen? Or feel their work is unseen or misunderstood? Do they want to express the work that they do everyday in a creative and artistic way? Do any of them stitch?”

Yes they do! All of the above! Some of us feel unseen or misunderstood. Some of us feel like we want to show you something cool we’ve been working on. Some of us want to tell you a story about someone or something important. We all want you to think about the labor that we put into each resource you check out of the library, physical and digital alike. We want you to remember the people behind the scenes who make the discovery of resources possible. But we also want you to think about library metadata and resources a bit more colorfully and creatively, like we do.

Take a peek.


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Unseen Labor by Ann Kardos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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