Visible metadata: pushing the right buttons

Susan Musser

Button contest blog post header

We often fight against the idea of being labeled by others. We don’t like people to make assumptions about us based on single aspects of our lives. Why is it, then, that we are so often excited to associate ourselves with causes, teams, groups, bands, artists and places using very specific labels? We display bumper stickers and wear T-shirts, pins and buttons with short, easily identifiable phrases that link us to ideas we find important.

Obviously, the difference here is that in one case someone else is labeling us, but in the other, we label ourselves, on our own terms, using our own personally selected metadata.

As a button aficionado, this subject fascinates me. As a librarian, it inspires me.

Personal metadata as public history

The campaign button was introduced in 1789 during George Washington’s presidential campaign. The pin-back button made its debut in 1896, and we have been wearing buttons ever since to identify ourselves and connect to people with similar ideas. We catalog ourselves within a broader collection of people and look around for others who are near us on the shelf.

When I was a kid, my most treasured button was an oversized one for the New Kids on the Block with Jordan Knight on it. He was my favorite NKOTB, and a button as large as my head was the best way to show it. More recently, when I was in a rock band myself, I would pick up buttons from the merch tables of all the bands we played with. I’d put the buttons on my jean jacket, and when I met someone who recognized a band on one of the buttons, we had an instant connection.

So, when I found a Princeton file full of buttons in the OCLC archives, I basically freaked out. I was giddy to find such a rich history of library buttons that were specific to OCLC.

But how did OCLC come to have such an extensive collection?

Pins in the timeline of cooperative librarianship

From 1984 to 1988, OCLC held an annual contest asking librarians to submit slogans to be considered for printing on promotional buttons.

historic_buttons_325They were handed out at library events throughout the year. I love all of these, but my favorites were the winners. “Terminals of Endearment” got me thinking about the first days of online, cooperative cataloging. “You Send Me” had me singing Sam Cooke all day while I imagined cataloging on an old OCLC terminal. And “Access Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” could still be a rallying cry for librarians.

I wanted to pin them all to my jean jacket and go run into some librarians. And I wanted the contest to live again.

Bringing the buttons back

The return of the OCLC Button Contest this year gave us the opportunity to again ask librarians to submit quips, slogans and puns that would reverberate throughout the community today. And the results we received didn’t disappoint. Carol Welch and Jon Finkel, ILL librarians at the Chester County Public Library in Exton, Pennsylvania, submitted the slogan librarian voters deemed best:

Either a Borrower or Lender Be.”

Carol and Jon’s button debuted at ALA Midwinter in Atlanta this year. Librarians stopped by the booth and picked them up for themselves and other staff members at home. I saw people wearing them around the conference and felt that same old feeling I used to get when I’d run into someone wearing the same band button as me.

A button is a visible piece of metadata you can wear to help other people identify who you are. It’s a visual tag, a quick way to signal to someone that you are a part of the same club. The slogan and the design communicate in just a few words and colors an entire concept, value system or lifestyle.

My buttons catalog me as a rocker…and a librarian. What do yours say about you?