Never Ask A Librarian If You Need A Haircut

I need to start using Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. It’s not that I’ve suddenly developed a passionate interest in wanting to share videos, selfies, images with a quirky commentary, or comment on unusual tweets, but it’s because I became aware that you use hashtags when you post something; a word or an unspaced phrase that you make up to describe what you think your messages or image is all about. And then it came to me; hashtags are the digital Subject Headings of the Internet. Surprisingly, I hadn’t thought about Subject Headings since the days of studying librarianship. The epiphanous shiver that went down my back had to be caused by my memories of Minnie Sear.

image source:jmcadam

I was introduced to Subject Headings and Minnie Sears in the mid seventies when I studied Bibliographic Organisation; part of my librarianship studies at the Melbourne State College. The course was divided into sections; one being Subject Headings. The catalogue description read; the principles of subject cataloguing, studied through their application in the current edition of the Sears List of Subject Headings, and through the procedures required to establish new Subject Headings and reference structures in areas not covered by published lists. To the uninformed, Subject Headings could be seen as mundane, pedantic, and nitpicking. On the contrary; in the early nineteen hundreds, the square peg in the round hole of cataloguers, Minnie Sear, worked in small and medium sized American libraries. The Library of Congress Subject Headings was the defacto standard for descriptors used for indexing and cataloguing. The larrikin librarian, Minnie, thought these subject heading descriptors were too detailed, specific, and technical for where she worked; she simplified them, and came up with a revised list. Minnie Earl Sears first published her List of Subject Headings for Small Libraries in 1923; renamed The Sears List of Subject Headings in her honour after her death in 1933. And for six hours a week for one semester I lost myself in the mystical world of cataloguing and the artistry of Minnie’s Subject Headings.

image source:pixabay

I became so impressed with the concept of using standard descriptors to described events, thoughts, and happenings that I started to use Subject Headings in my speech. I called them hashtags, and sometimes I made up words with letters, digits, and underscores. I should have published them as McAdams Magical List of Hashtag Headings. I started putting my hashtags before and after everything I said.

Me: hashtag australiangreeting
Fellow Librarianship Student: g’day john; wanna grab a few frosties?
Me: hashtag alcohol_consuming sounds good
Fellow Librarianship Student: see ya at the Rose and Crown
Me: no rivermurrays mate hashtag
Later at the Rose and Crown
Fellow Librarianship Student: g’day john; what are ya drinking
Me: hashtag reckon i’ll have a green1
Fellow Librarianship Student: no worries
Me: thought I might be drinkingwithflies before I saw ya hashtag
Fellow Librarianship Student: no worries mate
Me: hashtag tide’s_gone_out_my_shout

For most of the time I was at the Melbourne State College I shared a single fronted Federation style house in McIlwraith Street Carlton and rode a bike around Melbourne. I didn’t ride a bike to challenge the mid seventies car dominated culture of Melbourne, or to see the city and it’s suburbs in a new and interesting way; I rode a bike because I was back in Australia after spending close on a year wandering through South East Asia and the Middle East, and I didn’t have a brass razoo.

image source:jmcadam

It was a vintage yellow bike without a cross bar; back then it was called a ladies bike. It had a 3 speed hub gear with the gear changer on the handle bars, a back wheel handbrake with the lever for the break on the handle bars, a bell on the handle bars, and a headlight that ran off a dynamo on the front tyre, on the handle bars. The bike didn’t have a front basket so I carried my belongings in a string bag that I would rap around a hand grip on the handle bars. It was before the age of the urban cycling; before bike lanes, Lycra bicycle shorts and skinny jeans, bicycle helmets, sculptured facial hair, bike stands, and bicycle-friendly cafes. It was when you road on the tram tracks and the footpaths.

When I was a young lad and started at Williamstown Tech I rode a bike to school; and I rode it down the same streets for next next five years. I think mum made us practice the ride a couple of times before the school year started; she and dad followed in the car. Mum knew exactly how long it took to ride to school and she made us leave the house every morning so we would get to school, with time to spare, before the locker bell and the start of class.

I remember the first day at Melbourne State College and my first library studies class, as well as I remember Bibliographic Organisation and Subject Headings. The house in McIlwraith Street was about a mile from the College. The day began with a warm summer morning. I left the house fifteen minute before class started; more than enough time for a leisurely ride down Lygon Street, enough time to throw the bike somewhere and lock it, and then find the building and room for my first class. I didn’t practice riding by bike before classes started.

image source:google

I was half way down Lygon Street and I realised I was going to be late for my first class. I pushed on the pedals. My tee shirt became damp, and wet with perspiration; sweat flowed down my back and through the waistband of my cut off corduroy shorts. My shoulder length hair became damp and matted. I threw the yellow bike onto a bush and dashed into a building in the shadow of the heritage 1888 building. The door to the classroom was closed; I opened it and found myself looking down into a medium size, tiered, lecture theatre. I was late for class. The instructor at the front of the theatre had started lecturing; they gestured to a seat in the front row. Forty five women, and three males, turned their heads and their eyes followed me as I walked down the aisle and into the seat in the front row.

Back in the seventies it seemed as if there were a high percentage of females studying for a diploma, or degree, in secondary school librarianship. Males mostly taught mathematics, science, solid geometry, or the trades, coached the school football and cricket teams, were in charge of the lockers, and were the caretakers of the school timetable. I wonder if the forty five women and three males, thought of the aspiring educational technologist walking down the lecture theatre aisle in a sweaty tee shirt and corduroy shorts, with long damp hair and a beard, wearing thongs and carrying his books in a string bag, in the same way cataloguers once thought of Minnie Sears.


I was early for the first day of every other class. I chose a seat in the back row for Comparative Librarianship. It was promised in the syllabus that the course would compare the different functions and services of Australia’s national, public, educational and special libraries; as well as the library systems in other technically advanced countries such as: England, France, West Germany, North America, China, Russia, Australia, and Scandinavia. The comparison of library systems was also going to include, what were considered as developing countries at the time: Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua-New Guinea, and India. The final topics for the class were national and international library co-operation, the formation of national bibliographies, union catalogues, and international library associations and organisations. I realised quickly that this class was going to be a challenge; I employed a strategy for success. It was an early morning once a week class. I sat in the back row with the morning newspaper, and, after reading the news and sports section did the crossword. I always had a pencil in my hand, and it seemed as if I was taking notes and highlighting parts of the handouts. I used the asking a question ploy as well as the pencil in the hand ruse; regardless of the topic I waited until the last ten minutes of the class, and would feign curiosity and interest with a compare and comparison, or a I’m still confused type of question.

I’m still a little confused about the use of see and see also cross references in the Australian Technical School catalogue compared to the Subject Headings used in Indonesia Junior High School catalogues.


Comparative Librarianship caused my own Catch 22. I contrasted my new found knowledge of the libraries of the world with my past journeys through South East Asia, Burma, Nepal and India, and the Middle East. And I mused as to what could have been if instead of wandering Darjeeling’s steep curved pathways, and twisting streets lined with shops and market stalls, I had been reviewing the Darjeeling Deshbandhu District Library policies relevant to the number of digits truncated after the decimal point in their Dewey classification; or in place of being lured into the seedy and provocative charm of the cheap restaurants, go-go bars, nightclubs, and hotels of Bangkok’s Patapong district I could have been at the National Library of Thailand exploring their standards and procedures for storing and preserving intellectual property.

My twelve months of librarianship classes came to an end. I moved out of the McIlwraith Street house and into the Western Suburbs, and started the second year of my “I’ve gone back to college one more time” lifestyle; studying educational technology at the State College Victoria Toorak. I retired the ladies yellow bike without a cross bar, and took trains and trams to the State College in Glenferrie Road. Studies in: Theoretical Foundations of Educational Technology, Curriculum Studies. Educational Psychology, Theory of Educational Technology, Educational Media Studies, and Educational Administration caused my love affair with Subject Headings to wane.

I need to spend some time reflecting about defining dictionaries as descriptive or prescriptive. Consider the Australian National Dictionary; it records the historical development of Australian words and phrases from their earliest use to the present day. It’s 2018 Word of the Year was Canberra bubble; short listed words were: bag rage, blockchain, drought relief, fair dinkum power, and NEG.

Prescriptive or descriptive; I need to ponder that conundrum over a few frosties: #confusing #questionmark #descriptiveandprescriptive.


1888 Building, Part Of Former Melbourne Teachers College

National Library Of Australia

Cycling: City Of Melbourne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.