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Unseen Labor: An ATG Interview with Ann Kardos and Gretchen Neidhardt

by | May 4, 2022 | 0 comments

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By Ramune K. Kubilius (Galter Health Sciences Library & Learning Center, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine) <[email protected]>

Editors Note: This week’s blog post is an excerpt of an interview in the April 2022 issue of Against the Grain, volume 34 #2, pg. 68-70. A link to the full article is provided below.

It seems only yesterday, but it was back in 2018 that Joelen Pastva and Tony Olson contributed an article for a special health sciences issue of Against the Grain (ATG) that they entitled “Current Trends and Opportunities in Health Sciences Library Metadata.”1 Trends in use cases for metadata, not only in the health sciences, continue to expand and grow. Still, there are those for whom the term “metadata” (and about those who do that work) may continue to be surrounded by an air of mystery. Ann Kardos, the creator of the “Unseen Labor” project sought to tackle that informational challenge in a visual way. She invited metadata and cataloging colleagues to visually illustrate the story of metadata labor through stitching. Here, ATG occasional contributor, Ramune Kubilius, asked some questions in order to learn more about this interesting, multi-faceted project. Thank you to Ann Kardos and project contributor Gretchen Neidhardt for agreeing to provide a brief introduction, at the same time reminding readers that a picture is worth a thousand words, so please remember to visit the project (catalogue) site. Ann Kardos is a metadata librarian at University of Massachusetts Amherst and Gretchen Neidhardt is a metadata librarian at Northwestern University Galter Health Sciences Library & Learning Center, though at the time of stitching, she was a cataloging and metadata librarian at the Chicago History Museum.

by Ann Kardos

Ramune Kubilius: Describe the project a bit and how did the idea start?

Ann Kardos: Unseen Labor is an international library community-organizing embroidery project that I created in the summer of 2021. It is now an exhibit at the Science and Engineering Library at UMass, currently on display through May 2022. We also have an open access exhibition catalogue available at https://openbooks.library.umass.edu/unseen-labor-exhibit/. I’ve worked in cataloging and metadata since 2009, and though I cross-stitched as a child, I didn’t really get back into it or enjoy it until 2020, when a friend suggested I pick it up to help calm my panicking mind. After I stitched a few patterns, I realized that both metadata and stitching are built upon unseen labor. With metadata work, many people don’t realize that there are actually humans who create and maintain the library catalog. With stitching, people see the finished piece, but not all of the labor that went into making a piece of fiber art. Cross stitch and embroidery seemed like such a great medium to explore converging the ideas of metadata and unseen labor. Stitching patterns are essentially the metadata that allows someone to create a piece, and particularly with cross stitch, the resulting pixelated images made me immediately reflect upon bits and bytes of data! So I had a weird idea… I didn’t know of other metadata librarians or catalogers who were stitchers, but I wondered if I could find them through listservs or through my professional organizations. I wanted to ask my peers about the unseen labor in our work, both physical and emotional. And I wanted us to stitch our stories to create something visible and approachable to share our work with others. I created a few prompts and just started talking about the idea with some librarian friends and colleagues to see what they thought. Everyone thought it was pretty novel and interesting, so I began to think of what form this would take and how I could share whatever resulted with others.

by Elliot Williams – “Code”

RK: What was the aim of the project? (for collaborators and potential visitors to the site?)

AK: Like many people during the pandemic, I had begun to feel pretty disconnected from everyone. I was hoping first that this project would be a good way to connect with people who do the same kind of work that I do, since most of my professional development avenues had dried up. In my personal life, I’m a member of an online crafting community started by Badass Cross Stitch (https://www.badasscrossstitch.com/), and I wondered if I could create something similar for metadata librarians and catalogers. But I also hoped I would get enough people interested that I could create an exhibition of our stitching. I’m passionate about doing metadata outreach, and I wanted something to make our work approachable to librarians and others who do not work with metadata. I wanted this to be something that could serve as an educational tool for subject librarians and patrons. At UMass, our Science and Engineering Library branch has a casual exhibit space and the librarians there were willing to work with me to see what I came up with. But the Covid pandemic also meant that I wanted to find a way to share whatever resulted virtually, in case people weren’t able to see what we did in person. Another colleague at UMass, our Open Access and Institutional Repository Librarian, Erin Jerome, suggested that I could create an exhibition catalogue using PressBooks (http: pressbooks. com). This would create a permanent record of the pieces for the exhibition, and contributors could also add the resulting publication to their library catalogs if they wanted.

Gretchen Neidhardt & Tina Gross – “This is the library now.”

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