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Needle In a Library Stack

The ‘unseen labor’ that helps us find the data we’re looking for

You might not know exactly what metadata cataloguers do, but if you’ve ever looked anything up in a library database, you’ve benefited from their work.

Metadata is data about data—in other words, it’s information about books, articles, and other library resources, and it’s essential for helping patrons find what they need. Because of metadata’s behind-the-scenes nature, cataloguers’ work is often unseen, and those who are aware of it may see it as more mechanical than creative. But Ann Kardos, UMass Amherst metadata librarian, is hoping to change that with the community embroidery project “Unseen Labor.”

Library cataloging and metadata professionals from around the United States and several other countries answered Kardos’ call to share cross stitch and embroidery pieces inspired by their unseen physical and emotional labor. The pieces submitted were displayed in the Science and Engineering Library at UMass Amherst during the Spring 2022 semester, and are also available to browse in an online gallery. Here are a few highlights from the collection.

Embroidered image of a hand with a circle of clouds, stars, and lightning bolts around it. Image text: Keywords are magic and I’m the magician

Mysteries of Discoverability
Stitched and lettered by Erin Jerome (Massachusetts)
Mystic Sky (PAT0724S) pattern available from DMC

Cross-stitched image of flowers below image text: Bad character (I)

Bad Character 
Cross stitch
Stitched by Nicola C. (London, UK)
Pattern and font chart designed by Kate J. Blandford (Bristol, UK)

Embroidered image of a skeleton hand reaching out of the ocean surrounded by technical words and mouths

Drowning at Sea 
Embroidery with cotton floss on cotton shirting and quilting cotton
Designed and stitched by Elena Colón-Marrero (Michigan)

Cross-stitched image of the words “Metadata—it’s complicated.”

It’s Complicated!
Cross stitch
Designed and stitched by Natasha Hollenbach (Indiana)

Cross-stitched and embroidered image of the Google logo with the quote “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” —Neil Gaiman

(Librarians) NOT (Google)
Cross stitch and embroidery
Stitched by Tricia Jauquet (Indiana)
Designed by Pretty Witty Patterns

Embroidered image of an ostrich on a unicycle, wearing a hat and juggling multicolored balls. Image text: Optimum maintenance with incomplete information

This is My Job
Stitched and lettered by Ann Kardos (Massachusetts) 
Juggling Ostrich (PAT1307S) pattern available from DMC

Cross-stitched image of flowers and button bees. Image text: Without cataloging there is no discovery

Busy Bees
Cross stitch with buttons
Stitched by Amanda Mack (California)
Plant patterns designed by Susan Bates

Cross-stitched image of three colorful robots. Image text: Library catalogs are not compiled by robots or crawlers—they are made by librarians

Librarians vs. Robots
Cross stitch
Stitched by Alison Messier (Massachusetts)
Designed by Ann Kardos (Massachusetts): robots adapted from DMC, font chart by Hayley Pierson-Cox