According to my résumé, the first professional talk I gave to a librarianly audience was about accessibility in library-database search pages, back in 2004. (I had been speaking about ebooks for three years before that, but not to librarians.) I was busy that year; I went to Montreal later to do a rather grandiosely-titled workshop for the Extreme Markup (now Balisage) conference: “Classification, Cataloguing, and Categorization Systems: Past, Present, and Future.”
And therein hangs a tale… I closed that workshop talking about topic maps, since they bookended nicely with the back-of-book indexes I’d started with, only to find that one of the workshop attendees was none other than Steve Pepper, who invented topic maps. Never let it be said I can’t roll with a gut punch. (He was extraordinarily gracious about the whole thing.)
So I’ve been speaking to, about, and for librarians since before I was a librarian myself—I didn’t graduate library school until May 2005. During that decade I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to speak quite a lot, as I enjoy professional speaking a great deal more than I ever have professional writing. I’ve given lightning talks all the way up to three-hour workshops, for audiences of three to upwards of three hundred. As I look them all over, I can’t escape the belief that a few of those talks deserve a longer life than their original settings can give them. That is the reason for this vanity project of a book.
The title comes courtesy of UK law librarian Pete Smith, though of course it is a nod to the talk I did for the Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction conference in 2014: “The Purple Squirrel (and other damaging technology myths).” The purple squirrel, for those not familiar with this mythical beast, is the impossibly omnicapable dream technology employee who shows up in entirely too many poorly-considered job ads, the übergeek who can easily turn a hand to any technology task ever. All quirkiness aside, the purple squirrel seemed a fitting emblem for this book because I am frankly astonished at the breadth of topics I’ve been given a podium to run on about. A fair few speakers, even talented and well-regarded ones, would not be able to put together a book like this because every talk they do is a minimally-altered variation on one or two familiar themes. I’m different, and glad to be.
I’ve only done one talk that I’m ashamed of—it’s in here, and its foreword explains why I’m ashamed of it—though I’ve done several that weren’t as good as they could have been. If I’m an accomplished speaker now, I didn’t start out that way. I therefore consciously chose to present talks in chronological order, because I can clearly see myself honing my craft over the years and I think others might also, and find the exercise useful.
The text of each talk is derived from my slides and talk notes, edited for clarity and to achieve a slightly (but only slightly) more writerly tone. I have not troubled to remove outdated ideas, as I don’t care to pretend to infallibility. I have removed thoughtlessly hurtful and oppressive language where I saw it. It’s bad enough that I used it in the first place; I don’t see any reason to compound the error by reusing it. Except in one case, I will not call attention to what I have removed; I hope I can be forgiven this single impulse to retroactively-improved self-presentation.
I hope you enjoy reading these talks as much as I enjoyed composing and delivering them. I appreciate your attention now every bit as much as I did then. I have a name for a cynical, hypercritical, never-satisfied termagant, and I’m the last to say I didn’t earn it, but this is as much a truth as that: I believe we can be better than we are, all of us, in everything we do, and every last word I’ve ever spoken in public has had that aim in view.