Metadata is a public service cross-stitch

Unseen Labor

Metadata is not often seen as creative work. I think many metadata librarians, myself included, struggle to describe our work in a way that is meaningful and understandable to our colleagues, or to others outside libraries. While we can quantify it, and numbers can be meaningful to administrators and budget-crunchers, it’s difficult to imbue numbers with passion, significance, or a true understanding of what metadata work supports in a library. To help my colleagues understand metadata work that is not visible or obvious, I wanted to find a way to communicate about what I do visually, and I wanted to think differently about my approach to my work as well.

I’m an artist with an undergraduate degree in screenwriting and video production. I also paint, embroider, draw, and take photographs. I’m not a linear thinker. I do not follow instructions. When I got my library science degree, it was to be a museum librarian. I did that for a little while, caring for, arranging, and cataloging rare books and objects, but I eventually transitioned my career into academic metadata. I often wonder how I ended up spending my days production cataloging, batch fixing bytes of metadata, and applying (or writing) rules and standards. It’s not something I ever imagined myself doing.

The pandemic gave me some space to examine my work, and I decided to approach it from a different angle. I wanted to infuse my work with my art because I believe that art evokes an emotional response to a topic that a chart or rule or standard can’t replicate.

Using this idea as my theory, I set out to engage other metadata librarians in an artistic endeavor to explain our work. I posted a call on three metadata and cataloging listservs in the summer of 2021. I was specifically seeking metadata creators who embroider, and I was surprised to receive a great response. I asked potential contributors to examine their stories and experiences of unseen labor in our work, and to stitch it on a piece of fabric no larger than 15 x 15 inches. The stitched pieces submitted to the project would then be put on display in the Science and Engineering Library during the spring 2022 semester.

Ultimately, my goal was that this project, named Unseen Labor, would serve as an educational tool for metadata outreach. The exhibit was a success, engaging both students and my colleagues from across campus. It was heartwarming to receive emails from students who told me they learned something about metadata and its function in a library. As a follow-up, I hosted two informational interviews with students who wanted to know more about my work, and we explored if it could be a career option for them. It was really encouraging to reach students this way and to teach them about my work.

Additionally, I had some meaningful conversations with colleagues who saw the exhibit. They were often surprised by the emotions conveyed in some of the pieces. I’ve also been told by viewers of the exhibit that they didn’t expect there to be so much creativity in the work of metadata. These responses confirmed my belief that as metadata librarians and catalogers, we haven’t been talking about our work in ways that other people can understand, using descriptions of rules and standards or complex workflows. How do we help others understand our “cataloger’s judgment?” In my mind, a cataloger’s judgment is a bit like art because it’s the thing that gives us true personal connection to the piece we’re cataloging. But as it is invisible, it’s not something that can be shown to someone who doesn’t work with metadata.

Following the exhibit, I’m now exploring the idea that art is an innovation tool that helps people imagine, problem-solve, and experiment, and I’d like to study its application to metadata. Personally, my creativity is what helps me analyze a workflow and see all the moving parts and pieces. I break things apart in my mind and sprawl them about like a yard sale. My creative mind is what allows me to embrace change, whether that’s a new technology or a new workflow, because I have no fear of failure. Each new thing is a new opportunity, and each new opportunity that leads me somewhere. When I make art, I think differently about the things I’m making my art about. I know this journey has been an empowering experience for many of the contributors as well, and they have used their art to reexamine their own work and how they explain metadata and cataloging at their own libraries.

Link to Online exhibition catalog