Sunday, 30 September 2012

Reflections from the midpoint

I no longer feel like a new professional. I discovered librarianship as a profession over three years ago (1) and since then I’ve defined myself as a new professional in LIS, struggling to break into the profession, get a permanent job, and make my mark. The informal, folksonomy-type definition of a ‘new professional’ in LIS is one who has been in the profession for under five years and so according to that definition I have approximately two years left on the clock before I tick over into ‘seasoned professional’. Nonetheless I feel like I’ve reached a midpoint in my career. 

I’m well into my second job in librarianship (2). This is a position which, according to this theory by Ned Potter, can be the most important in one’s career. I’ve had most of the major ‘firsts’: first professional post, first big conference, first epic US conference, first award. I’m into the habit of presenting at conferences and writing articles. I’m active and semi-well-known within the LIS blogo- tweeto-sphere, etc. I’ve made professional contacts and good friends throughout the profession. I’ve paid my dues and now I’m settled and happy in a post that plays to my professional interests, that is helping me develop my skills, and that I enjoy doing every weekday. 

The goat is a metaphor. From Flickr user: Jungle_Boy
The midpoint (3) is an interesting position to be in and one that is, I suspect, universal not only across LIS but to a range of different careers. It feels like some sort of weird limbo in which I find myself halfway along a rope bridge: too late to turn back, no way to go but forward, stuck in the middle. There follows a series of illustratory positive statements followed by ‘but…’ and accompanied by examples from last week alone. I have real responsibilities at work – colleagues turn to me for decisions about book moves and later this year I’ll be conducting staff reviews for some of my colleagues – but I get no formal recognition of this. My opinion is valued and specifically sought out – over the purchase of resource discovery system software – but I feel unequipped to give advice on such major issues. I’m privy to all the ‘dirty laundry’ of the library’s inner workings – [example redacted] – but don’t have the power to change things. I earn enough to live comfortably – over the weekend, I deliberately went out to buy luxury items with disposable income – but feel that my salary doesn’t reflect the responsibility, particularly supervisory, of my position. I feel comfortable enough and entitled enough to complain about these issues but I feel vaguely guilty for doing so: 

You are young. You will get your recognition. And honestly, it is absolutely ridiculous to be two years into your career and counting your ideas. Everything to you is an opportunity. And you should be thanking me every morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day.
Don Draper to Peggy Olson in the seminal 4x07 episode of Mad Men

This is the midpoint: where I want to be but not quite able to make the changes I want; overeducated and overworked but underpaid and – it feels – underappreciated; reaching for some vague next step but not sure where or what it is. The goals I had as a new professional have been reached and so I need to begin the process of redefining my identity and my surrounding support network of formerly-new professionals (or soon-to-be-formerly-new professionals). 

And being in the midpoint is affecting me psychologically in a couple of interesting ways: in terms of impostor syndrome and in terms of ambition. 

The midpoint is making my impostor syndrome more acute. A Google search for ‘impostor syndrome librarianship’ brings up hundreds of relevant results including the one I was looking for: this excellent summary post by Laura Woods. Impostor syndrome among librarians is a well-documented psychological malady in which one feels that one is an impostor who has managed to trick his/her way into being successful despite not really knowing what one is doing at any given moment and that there are people far more qualified, hard-working, and better at their jobs who simply haven’t been as lucky and that if one doesn’t continue to work myself to exhaustion every single day and blog something insightful and important every single week that everything will fall apart and people will see through the façade and so any minute now everyone will realise all this about me which will lead to humiliation, ejection from the profession, and being shunned by all my friends and colleagues who will realise just how fucked up I really am and how I’m not special or deserving of praise and how everything would be easier if I just kept myself to myself and lived a quiet life of non-ambition but I can’t because of this desperate narcissistic desire for the love and adulation of a wider community and the need to prove myself, be the best, etc. etc. as some sort of compensation for being the proverbial ‘Ugly Duckling’ when growing up. And so, as more people rely on me and call on me to do things, this feeling grows rather than, as it should rationally do, diminishes. I’m pretty sure this is just something I’ll have to live with while gradually adjusting my self-identity to be the person that people think I am. 

I have discovered that achievement does not mean the end of ambition. [Un]fortunately there’s never going to be a point where I can say “Right, I’m done now. Everything is achieved.” This relentless drive – this sound of distant drumming – is never going to end. Even more irritatingly, my ambition seems to be constantly one step ahead of my reality such that my achievements never give the satisfaction I imagined they would. I wanted to be published, I wanted to be called a genius, I wanted to get a Distinction, I wanted to go to America: all these things happened but, after the momentary flush of satisfaction, they didn’t perceptibly change anything. Our expectations change as our world changes. Ambition is burning with hunger for food that does not exist. 

'The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for… After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are… LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.'
'You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.'
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

I recently read D. T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace who, in the midpoint of his career, not only wrote about ambition and the cage that success creates but felt himself to be trapped by them. Wallace worried that “to know him too well would be to dislike him. Or at least dislike him as much as he disliked himself. He felt a fake, a victim, as he would later write, of “imposter syndrome.”” David Foster Wallace was a genius – who I’m sure would hate the fact that I idolise him to such a great extent – and his writing, particularly Infinite Jest and the short stories 'Mister Squishy' and 'Good Old Neon' (4), truly captures how I feel better than I can express it myself. I read his biography in an attempt to discover how he lived with his impostor syndrome and his raging ambition even though I knew that ultimately he didn’t and took his own life in 2008. 

The best advice he gives is in his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College where he says that “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Life is meaningless and so you have to learn how to choose to your own meaning as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. You have to learn to see the invisible cages that you’ve built around you – ambition, relationships, self-identity, doubt, fear, etc. – and you have to choose to not be in them anymore. 

So now I’m in the midpoint. I’ve run so far and so fast to get here that I can’t see where home is anymore. I’ve reached all my destinations. I’ve had the education; I’ve got the good job; I’ve made the friends; I’ve got my independence; I’ve won the award; I’ve proven myself. Now what? 


(1) Which discovery involved realising that there are people who care about the same things I care about, that librarianship can combine a love of books and computers, and that there are organisations which will pay me to do things I enjoy. In one of my (digital) notebooks, I have the date jotted down as ‘Either the 8th or the 15th July 2009’. 

(2) Second full-time library job. If we include part-time pre-qualification positions, I’m on my fourth (or arguably sixth (2a)) job. 

(2a) Long story. 

(3) ‘Midpoint’ is a poor choice of words but I have nothing else. I'm well aware that I'm actually very much at the start of my career. I’m 25: if this is the midpoint of my career then it will last until I’m about 50. 

(4) Which is about a “young man whose personality is built on the need to impress others. And the more he succeeds in impressing them, the more of a fraud he feels.”

Monday, 10 September 2012

The fundamental interconnectedness of all things: the impact of networked knowledge systems on cataloguing

This is the text of a paper I delivered at the CILIP Cataloguing and Indexing Group Conference 2012 in Sheffield. The presentation slides are below:

What is cataloguing? Really, what is it that we do? 

This is “the dawn of a new era in cataloguing”. In these times of change, it’s good to get back to first principles and ask the philosophical questions. What are we doing here? What is it that we do? What is our value? What is cataloguing really? (1)

If you asked a hundred cataloguers, I suspect you’d get a hundred answers. But I choose to think of cataloguing and classification as the process of describing the bibliographic universe. As librarians and information professionals, we are familiar with the world of books, journals, information, data. We know about the secret web of connections and links and citations and themes and genres that connect the millions of information sources that we deal with every day. We have chosen to live in this bibliographic universe: to wander its streets together; to climb its mountains; to congregate in its squares; to see what lies down every dark alleyway; to explore every inch of it. And among information professionals, cataloguers and classifiers are the ones who have chosen to map the bibliographic universe. We are cartographers of the abstract. We chart the world of books, journals, and information: describing what we see, encoding it in a usable form, and sharing the results with our users and with each other. This abstract mapping is, I would argue, the true value of cataloguing. 

Nowadays we have new tools at our disposal to do this. FRBR – Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records – is one such tool that we can use to describe the bibliographic universe. It’s one attempt to define the arrangement of the abstract entities that information professionals work with. It defines the relationship between these things: between the ‘work’ as envisioned by the author all the way down to the physical ‘item’ which a user can hold and touch. As well as defining the relationships between different versions of the same ‘work’ – between Group 1 entities – it defines the relationships and the links that works have with people and corporate bodies – Group 2 entities – and through this, defines their relationships with each other. FRBR is a framework on which to base our maps of the bibliographic universe. That is its abiding value. 

RDA is built on a foundation of FRBR and will be another useful tool. It places a new emphasis in cataloguing on “clustering of bibliographic records” and using metadata to define the relationships between works. Previously the relationships between one edition of a book and a later edition of the same book or between the print version of a book and the ebook version have been somewhat ill-defined if not totally unexplained by a catalogue record. FRBR and RDA are tools to help accurately describe the universe of information and so they’re both heavily informed by epistemology and ontology: two separate but linked branches of philosophy. 

Epistemology is the study of knowledge systems: what knowledge is, how it’s arranged, and how we can have it. It’s been studied from the time of the Ancient Greek philosophers – from Plato and his pupil Aristotle – through the Enlightenment philosophers – Descartes, Locke, Hume, Schopenhauer – to the present day when the debate continues and has been renewed by new scientific discoveries and what seems to be an ever-expanding world of knowledge. The World Wide Web has emerged as a quasi-physical embodiment of our abstract world of information – our realm of knowledge – and so the debate is more physical, more real, and more important than ever. It’s said that Socrates was in constant communication with a ‘daemon’ who supplied him with all his ideas and inspiration: today, we can all communicate with hundreds of people everyday who give us fresh ideas and invite us to interesting events. The Web and these changing paradigms of communication have changed our view of epistemology and I’ll get to that later. Ontology is the study of being and existence. It’s relevant to considering the bibliographic universe in terms of trying to define that universe’s metaphysical status. By this, I mean the questions ‘What kind of entity is information?’ and ‘What kind of thing is knowledge?’ Ontology tries to define what things are: is the text of a book a purely mental construct or does it have some kind of physical reality? Can a ‘work’ be said to exist in the same way as a chair? 

Because FRBR assumes the existence of a bibliographic universe with some ontological status and it’s the predominant intellectual trend in cataloguing, we go along with that. Partly because of the introduction of FRBR and RDA, epistemology and the ontology of knowledge are of central importance in modern cataloguing, indexing, and classification. We need to consider what shape knowledge has, how it’s arranged, and how we can accurately describe and represent this for our users. 

For centuries, knowledge has been represented as a hierarchy and this has informed the traditional classification systems that are in use in librarianship and bibliography today. Dewey, Library of Congress, LCSH: they’re based on ideas of hierarchy and taxonomy; of dividing and subdividing subjects like the branches of a tree. The conceptualisation of knowledge, in particular the ‘tree’ metaphor, has a long history. 

One of the first, if not the first, representations of knowledge is in the Book of Genesis: God provides the first humans, Adam and Eve, with the ‘tree of knowledge’. After that, one of the first real articulations of the concept of hierarchical knowledge comes from a library – from someone who was trying to work out what knowledge looks like so that he could organise his books. Aristotle, the great philosopher, had the largest personal library in Athens and to organise his collection accurately he envisioned knowledge in his work the Organon as a hierarchy based on the now-familiar principles of taxonomy and categorisation. His ‘tree of knowledge’ concept become codified as information theory developed and there are numerous examples stretching from Ancient Greece to the 20th Century. Linnaeus’ classification of the natural world in his Systema Naturae divides things by genus and species and subdivides into nested groups. In 1605, Francis Bacon published The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human which divides all knowledge into History, Poetry, and Philosophy which were then subdivided and so on into different branches. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson catalogued his collection of books – a collection that would go on to start the Library of Congress. Jefferson divided the world of knowledge, similarly to Bacon, into Memory, Reason, and Imagination broadly corresponding to History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. There are hundreds of other examples – Diderot’s system for the Encyclopédie; John Wilkins’ 40 Universal Categories – and in terms of classification, we have examples closer to home. 

The classification schemes that we still use in libraries today are heavily influenced by hierarchical thinking. Enumerative classification schemes – Dewey, Library of Congress, Cutter’s Classification – explicitly “treat knowledge as if it were a unity which can be subdivided into smaller and smaller units. At the top of the tree is the whole universe, which is divided and subdivided to arrive at all the different entities, events and activities represented in the subjects of books.” Faceted classifications and analytico-synthetic classifications, though more flexible, also exhibit an essentially hierarchical structure with the small building up to form the large. The tree of knowledge – our centuries-old conception – continues to inform our epistemological systems and our thoughts on the ontological status of knowledge. Broadly speaking, our current maps of the bibliographic universe look like trees. 

Now we’ve rethought this conception of knowledge as a tree and are starting to think of different knowledge systems. A new model – a new intellectual paradigm – is emerging. It’s the idea of knowledge as a network rather than a tree: a web of interconnections between ideas, concepts, theories, data. 

A network can be defined as a system of interrelations: “individuals function as autonomous nodes, negotiating their own relationships, forging ties, coalescing into clusters. There is no “top” in a network; each node is equal and self-directed.” As science and philosophy have advanced and the universe of human knowledge has grown, we’ve discovered connections and interrelations between things that seemed totally unrelated. It turns out that the branches of the tree of knowledge are all connected in different ways. Everything is connected. The universe appears to be holistic in that everything depends on everything else. We’re beginning to see, in the words of the great detective, Mr. Dirk Gently, “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”. The abstract world of knowledge turns out to be more complex – far more complex – than a tree shape and the more appropriate visualisation is something like a web or, better yet, a rhizome seed. 

In a 2010 paper, Lyn Robinson and Mike Maguire of City University adopt Deleuze and Guattari’s image of a rhizome as the better metaphor for information organisation. A rhizome is essentially a root: an underground mass of shoots and stems that grow in unpredictable ways in complex, laterally branching networks with different nodes shooting off in different directions. Deleuze and Guattari use it as an “image of thought” which represents complex networked knowledge systems. Robinson and Maguire’s paper is well worth reading as an excellent discussion of the changing concepts of knowledge structures. 

Broadly speaking, we are moving from the tree to the rhizome. And we can see this shift towards networked systems in a range of subjects and different areas. In physics, chaos theory tells us that everything is linked: that one tiny imperceptible event can cascade to significant consequences in a seemingly random and impossible-to-predict way that is nonetheless based on cause and effect in a networked system. In social life, we readily talk about social networks, recognising that human relationships can be mapped onto a network with each person connected to every other person: Stanley Milgram’s small world theory tells us that this can be done with a maximum of six degrees of separation. In technology, computer networks surround us, transferring data along connections between computers and servers and routers. They form the conceptual foundation for the Internet and the World Wide Web. 

In academia, we’re recognising the importance of the citation network – a network of references to and from various papers, journal articles, books. You may have heard of the mathematician Paul Erdős. His work was so prolific that any mathematician working today can be connected through citations to Erdős: an estimated 90% of mathematicians are connected to him through no more than 8 links. (2) 

Of these examples of networked systems, the citation network most closely relates to the networked systems of knowledge which are important for cataloguing and classification. We’re recognising that knowledge can’t be neatly divided into hierarchical categories and that in the bibliographic universe everything is connected in strange and sometimes complex ways. For an example, let’s look at Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: in my humble opinion, one of the greatest books ever written. 

When we come to catalogue this book – here’s the catalogue record for the book at Durham – when we come to catalogue it, off-hand we’d say it’s a philosophy book – it’s one of the cornerstones of modern formal logic – and at Durham, we file it at 192 for Modern Western Philosophy of the British Isles but we could also stick it somewhere in 160 for logic, or, depending on how much you consider its implications, somewhere in 110 for Metaphysics. It depends how you interpret it and there are a lot of interpretations. 

That’s straightforward hierarchical classification and it puts the book neatly into a distinct place on a shelf but it’s not the whole truth. This doesn’t represent the links that the book has with everything else in the bibliographic universe. What about its links to science, language, mathematics, and possible worlds theory? What about the links to Wittgenstein’s other works? His other masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations, is a whole different genre of philosophy and refutes bits of the Tractatus: the two are nonetheless conceptually linked. What about the books written about this book: the different theories; the different interpretations; the books that owe their existence to this book? What about the Prototractatus: the original manuscript version written in the trenches of World War I? What’s the relationship there: is it the same work or not? Whatever the answer, there is some kind of strange link. What about the different translations: this is the Pears and McGuinness translation but what about the German original, the versions without Bertrand Russell’s introduction, the far more confusing Ogden translation? What about the links to the fiction inspired by this book? 

Even something as simple as this 80 page book is connected through a thousand interrelations to myriad other books and other nodes in the bibliographic universe. When we look at it closely and think about it, this book is a centre of a web – of a rhizome – connected to intensely different books, journal articles, people, and ideas. If we accept that it’s our job as cataloguers to describe the bibliographic universe accurately and represent it as truthfully as possible, then we need to think about how to represent these connections. A MARC-encoded, AACR2-standard catalogue record doesn’t do justice to the complex web of connections and interrelations that surround this book. Or any of the other books, journals, ebooks, ejournals, and other publications that exist in our libraries. 

This is, I think, one of the central issues in cataloguing today. How do we represent networked knowledge systems and adjust our practices accordingly? Electronic resources are growing in importance in librarianship (3) and are fundamentally arranged in a network. We’re all going to be interacting with information arranged in networks and we should we thinking about mapping the digital world. Thinking about networked knowledge systems is an important consideration for doing this. So how do we catalogue in a network? It’s an open question but broadly speaking, I think we need new practices, new technology, and new thinking. 

In terms of cataloguing practice, RDA isn’t necessarily the answer to all the riddles but it’s a definite step forward. RDA is based on FRBR and therefore has a footing in ontology and serious thought about the bibliographic universe’s structure. RDA as a new practice will help us to think about the connections between items, to look at things in a new way – for old and new professionals alike – and to better appreciate that information exists in a rich, complex, shifting epistemological network. How do we actually catalogue to reflect this? Do we use more access points? Do we index more fields? Do we add a bunch more fields in the 700s or do we need to more fully define relationships using 500 note fields? RDA is the biggest change to cataloguing in 30 years and so hopefully its implementation will give us the opportunity to consider some of these issues and perhaps rethink how we view our collections. 

We also need new technology in cataloguing. Our modern epistemology – this vision of a networked universe with everything connected – is beyond the scope of our current technology for cataloguing and data representation. Though there are interesting things going on with e-resource management and linked data and things like that, these haven’t really affected day-to-day cataloguing which is still based on flat, hierarchical MARC records. MARC needs to be replaced and the replacement needs to be able to show relationships more clearly, needs to help users to find information within a bibliographic network, and needs to make use of the links that integration with other software and other systems can provide. 

The development of new Semantic Web technology can help with this. The development of OWL and other web ontology languages can help us to define domain-specific ontologies (4). RDF is a language that helps to define classes and sets within an ontology and also has the potential to be utilised for accurate description of bibliographic systems. Semantic Web languages – the development of Web 3.0 – will help us to map the digital frontier and make it into a true mirror of our abstract knowledge systems. 

And then there are data visualisation tools which can take metadata and turn it into something more visual and usable. The UK Institutional Repository Search produced by Mimas in Manchester can produce a basic visualisation of search results and the networked links between them. The results from a search term are grouped in different colours by subject – economics, technology, biology – and you can move them around and click on different nodes to produce more results similar to the ones you’ve clicked on. The more you click, the more complex the network becomes and it can actually get quite beautiful. This is a beta code powered by Autonomy software and it gives a demonstration of what can be done with data visualisation. 

Most importantly – more importantly than practice or technology – we need new thinking in cataloguing. We need to think about networked knowledge systems and move on from the hierarchical bibliographic philosophy that has dominated librarianship and information management. Instead of Linnaeus and Dewey, we can look to d’Alembert, Paul Otlet, Vladimir Vernadsky: all of whom have advocated networked knowledge systems of one form or another. Crucially, we need to think about what networked cataloguing can achieve. Cataloguing is a way to map the bibliographic universe and in the act of mapping, we can bring subjects together and see the intellectual landscape more clearly. The biologist, Edward O. Wilson, uses the term ‘consilience’ to refer to the unification of knowledge: the belief that different academic disciplines don’t represent completely different domains but are part of a single ontology. One knowledge system. One network encompassing everything. “...a maze of mazes, a sinuous, ever growing maze which will take in both past and future and will somehow involve the stars.” Consilience encourages interdisciplinary research and bringing together seemingly disparate intellectual strands to form a single map of the world of knowledge. I researched consilience for both my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations and I think this kind of synthesis will be a major intellectual trend in the 21st Century. Networked cataloguing is one way to achieve consilience and it’s here that modern librarians can make a real impact. 

Cataloguing and indexing a networked knowledge system requires changes to our practice, our technology, and our thinking. RDA, FRBR, new ontological languages, linked data, and ever-developing software are helping to bring these changes but we as cataloguers need to embrace them. We need to encourage and accept the change. We need to start thinking in networks. 

I’d like to end by contradicting everything I’ve said. I have argued that the most accurate – the most real – depiction of knowledge and the bibliographic universe is in the shape of a network. However I’m aware that I and the prevailing intellectual trend could be as wrong and misguided as we now believe the hierarchical theoreticians to be. My favourite writer, the Argentinean poet and one-time librarian, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote that “…obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative. The reason is quite simple: we do not know what the universe is.” He reminds us that all our human schemes for arranging knowledge are provisional and potentially deluded. Learning and discovery is a process of continuous development and who knows what we’ll discover on the journey towards consilience and networked knowledge systems? In the words of Socrates, the only thing I know for certain is that I know nothing.

(1) When I ask ‘What is cataloguing?’ possible answers are either describing the bibliographic universe or, depending on your thoughts about the ontological status of knowledge, creating the bibliographic universe. In other words, applying order where none actually exists. That discussion is beyond the scope of this paper and there’s some philosophical assumptions later on that depend on the first interpretation. 

(2) The source for that statistic is Wikipedia so… yeah.

(3) Slight bias here: I'm an e-resources librarian. 

(4) The word ‘ontology’ is used here in a slightly different but conceptually linked sense to the philosophical use.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

On the fundamental interconnectedness of all things

7 years ago, an 18-year old boy sat in a room in a hall of residence at The University of Sheffield and made a decision. 

How many times in life does one have occasion to tell another person that one is happy? There are very few social situations in which this kind of bold statement about emotional, physical, and general socio-cultural wellbeing is encouraged or even appropriate. Unless one is the kind of relentlessly cheerful human being who goes around telling people how happy one is (1), there are very few occasions in which happiness or lack thereof is openly discussed in the public sphere. The only circumstances I can imagine one telling another person that one is happy are comparatively intimate situations: to a loved one; at a family gathering; among one’s parents; etc. This appears to be because, despite being a resoundingly positive statement, discussion of one’s own happiness involves vulnerability and a psychological journey into the very core of one’s emotional firmament. We don’t want to look inside ourselves – we’ve seen the dark thoughts that have consumed us on long summer nights when it’s too hot to sleep; we’ve felt loneliness at the core of ourselves even when surrounded by a crowd of people whom we feel we should feel more affection for; we’re scared of what we’d find if we opened the Pandora’s Box of our minds (yes, there’s metaphorical ‘hope’ at the bottom but think of all the crap one has to get past to get there) – and we certainly don’t want to be responsible for making other people look inside themselves: asking probing emotional questions that cut to the heart of the questionee’s lifestyle and choices makes the questioner seem a. overly familiar, b. loaded with an ulterior motive, c. generally weird, or d. all of the above. And so, questions of happiness or unhappiness or, far more likely, the state in-between are not so much ignored as simply not discussed openly. It’s not polite and it’s certainly not British. 

The boy was away from home for the first time having been led along a path – from school to college to university – that he now realised, in the darkness of an October night, he hadn’t chosen and that had been laid in front of him since birth. 

And so, I found it unusual and – for reasons that may or may not become apparent later – significant that this week I was twice asked questions by people that forced me to answer, truthfully, “Yes. Yes, I am happy.” Not only does this represent an anomalous frequency of discussions regarding happiness or potential lack thereof but it comes while I stand on the cusp of an event that – as may or may not become apparent – is significant or at least – to use a less grandiose and more subjective phrase – important to me. Which is why, loath though I am to write a blog post which astute readers will have realised is essentially a lengthy way of saying “I am happy” and focusing entirely on personal matters and the ‘Personal Introspective Adventures of Simon Barron’ (2), I am writing this blog post about the situation in which I currently find myself and its potential significance (or not).

The people he saw on television shows were experiencing the ‘real world’ while he was stuck in a university experience that drifted further and further from the experience he felt he had been promised by friends, teachers, the very television shows he now took fresh advice from. He’d never had a job; never done the 9-to-5 thing; never not been in education. 

On Monday, a colleague at work – a colleague with whom interactions had previously been brief and transitory extending no further than jokes in the staff room – asked if this job was what I wanted to do. In that moment, it seemed strange and – horror of horrors! – uncool to say that I love my job and that I love where I am in my life. My social instinct told me that the more socially appropriate response was to complain: to say, ‘No, this isn’t perfect’; to say that I’d rather be an astronaut or a well-paid soccer player or a tall doctor; or to say any myriad number of responses that would leave me less emotionally vulnerable than the truth. But I didn’t say those things. I said, “Er… yeah. Yeah, this is what I want to do. I’ve wanted to work with ebooks and stuff since library school (3). This job is perfect for me. I’m happy here.” It was the truth. I love what I do right now and I love where I work right now and I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I’m perfectly content to organise ejournals and make spreadsheets and be happy to be going into work every morning. At which point my colleague said, “Aww, that’s good” and, on my part due to not knowing in which direction to take the conversation, we returned to our work. I felt I should ask the same question in return but found myself unable to bypass the aforementioned strongly ingrained social conventions against asking such a probing question. (4) 

The boy simply wasn’t having as much fun as people said he would or should be having and so, being scared and confused and alone, he decided to run. To run all the way home. 

Later this week, I was having a text conversation with a friend about the future and assorted life stuff: the kind of conversation that, in my experience, is easier, less personally uncomfortable, and much more enjoyable, over SMS text message (5). As I considered the future and my plans for the next few months, I felt so excited and so exhilarated. In terms of career, career development, future plans, possible life changes, and so on and so forth, everything seems to be in a perfect position. Like an alignment of the planets, this seems incredibly rare: that everything should be almost entirely as I want it to be. Again, I was forced to say that I’m happy. 

On that night in Halifax Hall in Sheffield, the boy decided to drop out of university and find a new path. It was, at the time, the biggest decision of his life and, more importantly, a real decision: a binary decision that he could either make or not make. A fork in the road. “Two roads [diverging] in a yellow wood…” A choice. A real choice. That he alone could make. 

How many times in life does one have the opportunity to see the outcome of a single choice? Life is such a network of different choices and decisions and events-that-we-have-no-control-over that everything becomes so mixed up and complicated that we can’t see which choice led to which path and why. Life is complicated and messy and beautiful and it’s a tapestry made of threads so closely woven that we usually can’t follow one thread from beginning to end. 

Next week, I’m returning to Halifax Hall to deliver a presentation on a subject that I care about deeply to an audience of my professional peers, many of whom I already know me from positive online interactions, and I will get to return to that building where I made that terrifying decision knowing, with as much certainty as I ever have about anything, that I made the right decision: that that decision – made under unhappy circumstances in 2005 in a small student bedroom – led me down a path that led to other places and other people and other decisions that led me to a point where I am happy with the present and excited about the future and that that decision was, unequivocally and absolutely, the start of the chain of cause and effect that has led me right back to the geographic location where the decision was made. I honestly never expected to go back to Halifax Hall: to that building in which I spent so many lonely nights as a teenager. How often does one get to see the consequences of decisions contrasted with such pristine clarity against the backdrop of the decisions themselves? How often does one get to see oneself utterly vindicated after 7 long years? 

My presentation is called ‘The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things’: a title I proposed months before I learned the venue of the conference and its personal significance. Which I guess is the crux of this blog post: that the circumstance in which the presentation will be delivered serves to remind me of the presentation’s central premise which also happens to be the seemingly simple belief that is, notwithstanding and despite its simplicity, the only belief that I hold with any kind of certainty. 

What comes before determines what comes after. And therefore everything is connected. 

(1) Which, ironically, most other pop-psychology-savvy human beings would take as indicative of a distinct lack of happiness and/or personal fulfilment in a kind of denial-slash-wish-fulfilment kind of way. 

(2) Loath partly because I fear it is of no interest to anyone apart from myself and partly because writing about oneself seems at best lazy and at worst indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder. Or indeed may cause readers to attribute to me the denial-slash-wish-fulfilment kind of thing alluded to in footnote (1). (2a) 

(2a) To be honest, in writing the post, the purpose of the writing became less a case of sharing this personal story and more a case of experimenting with sentence structure. Style over substance. 

(3) Folk at library school called me ‘Simon ‘ebooks’ Barron’. A true story that makes me sound like the biggest nerd in library school: a not inconsiderable achievement given the aggregate personality characteristics of the average attendees of a library school.

(4) Footnote outside the main narrative flow of the text: It further seems significant that while writing this blog post and, as custom dictates, flicking between Twitter, Facebook, et al., I saw a Facebook status update from Adrienne ‘sphericalfruit’ Cooper which I hope she won’t mind me pasting verbatim here: “I LOVE MY JOB!” 

(5) SMS also allows one to consider one’s responses and only send the, as it were, cream of the crop thus making one appear more intelligent and articulate than one would appear if the conversation were happening ‘live’.