My favourite books of 2014

I love a ‘best of’ list and the debate it generates, so here are my favourite books of 2014. Looking over the list, it is almost exclusively Australian authors. That wasn’t intentional but is testament to how many great books were published by local authors this year.

This House of Grief

This House of Grief by Helen Garner: Garner is a master of words and of tackling complex subjects. I loved how Garner took us into the courtroom to experience the awful tedium and the drama of this shocking tragedy. I felt that I was in safe hands as Garner led me through the moral dilemma of this story. Her personal reflections brought real humanity where all else was wretched.

singing

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: A dark, compelling book that I read mostly in one sitting. It burrowed into my mind and disturbed me for weeks afterwards. The only book I felt okay with knocking Richard Flanagan out of the winner’s seat for the Miles Franklin.

narrow

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: The first book I read in 2014 over the summer break and what a way to kick off a year of reading. To use a cliche, a masterpiece, but really it is. I have been a long-time fan of Flanagan. This is the grand novel he had to eventually write. Overlooked for the Miles Franklin in favour of the wonderful Evie Wyld, but ran away with the Man Booker prize.

burial

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: An obsession turned debut novel that became a run away success. I loved the spare prose and the evocation of life in Iceland in the nineteenth century. I’m looking forward to seeing where Hannah Kent goes next.

night

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett: A beautiful, poetic novel with a large boat and Antarctica drawn as sharply as the human characters. It made me want to head off on an Antarctic adventure. A novel with a perfectly executed ending – a feat I really admire.

cullen

Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen: A small book that packed a big punch. In contrast to the typical grand sweeping biographies, Jensen drew out his protagonist through focused vignettes. A heady dive into the world of a talented but troubled man. I hope Jensen writes more biography.

malouf

Earth Hour by David Malouf: We should all read more poetry, especially by local writers. Still going strong at 80, Malouf has produced another wonderful book of poetry.

spine

Cracking the Spine: ten short Australian stories and how they were written edited by Julie Chevalier and Bronwyn Mehan: I picked up this book after reading a review in The Australian. As the title suggests, it is a collection of ten short stories. Each story has an accompanying essay that gives insight into the writing process. A lovely little book for fans of the short story form.

If you are looking for other ‘best of’ lists for 2014 books, check out the State Library of Victoria’s Summer Read, 50 Great Reads by Australian Women in 2014 and The Best Fiction Books of 2014 from Readings, Australian writers pick the best books of 2014 from the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, The Best Fiction of 2014 from the Guardian, and Brainpickings 2014 selections.

What were your favourite books of 2014?

The nostalgia and romance of typewriters

For most of us, the mechanical staccato of the typewriter has faded into memory. The push of the heavy carriage, the slap of the keys striking paper, the fingers ink-stained from replacing ribbons – all sweet nostalgia for an obsolete technology. The digital world marches on.

Not so for a dedicated band of typewriter enthusiasts, collectors and artists who are leading a revival driven by their deep affection for these machines. In fact, some writers never stopped using them. Today, you are more likely to find a vintage typewriter restored for sale in a high-end vintage shop, rather than out on the nature strip for the hard rubbish collection.

Read more in my piece for the Spectrum section of The Age/ Sydney Morning Herald.

My piece features an interview with Helen Garner reflecting on her affection for her handsome black Corona portable typewriter.

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Fear, failure and frauds: is there an impostor in the library?

As the guest speaker at the 2014 VALA annual general meeting, I explored what it takes to succeed as a leader in the changing environment that libraries are facing. I looked at leadership qualities such as self-confidence, risk taking, resilience and creativity. I asked attendees to face their fears and embrace their failures. I asked the vexed question, ‘is there an impostor in the library’?

I did not write a paper to accompany my talk but you can listen to the audio on the VALA website. I have included the slides below.

 

Zine scene defies death by digital

 

My piece in the Sunday Age

My piece in the Sunday Age

Zines are low-cost, low-fi, handcrafted and independent print publications. I recently wrote a piece for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, about how zines are bucking the trend of death by digital. In this piece, I focused on the Melbourne zine scene. I looked at why people are attracted to making and buying zines, and why institutions such as libraries are collecting these ephemeral publications.

Read the whole article here.

Librarians: closing the confidence gap

Are librarians being held back in their careers by a lack of self confidence? How can LIS educators, professional associations and library leaders help close the confidence gap?

I recently ran some professional development workshops with groups of librarians. As one of the workshop exercises, I asked participants to identify a fear they would like to overcome in preparing to lead the library of the future. The workshop participants wrote their fear on a post-it note, discussed it in pairs, came up with some practical ways they might overcome their fear, and then stuck the post-it note on a wall for other participants to see. One participant dubbed this the ‘communal wall of terror’. Some of their fears centered on a perceived lack of technical skills. Strikingly though, most of their fears related to a lack of confidence around interpersonal communication, public speaking/presentations, leadership and decision-making.

A few examples of their expression of a lack of confidence were:

“Initiating contact with people I don’t know very well.”

“Do I have the ability to succeed?”

“People not taking me seriously.”

“Voicing my opinion.”

2014-02-07 17.11.22One participant said they didn’t like speaking in public. They feared that the audience would judge them because they are overweight. This was a very personal and brave statement to make. It really got me thinking about the role confidence plays in helping or hindering librarians in their careers. I had been reflecting on this when I stumbled across an article in The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap. The message of this article is that confidence matters as much as competence for success at work. The authors argue that there is a confidence gap between the genders which results in women being less successful than men, despite being equally or more competent. The authors describe confidence as a ‘virtuous circle’.

Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure.”

Taking this definition, confidence means you are more likely to take actions that lead to success, for example negotiating salary increases, applying for promotions or increased responsibilities, voicing an opinion, and taking risks.

I have been thinking that if the fifty or so librarians in the workshops I ran suffer from a lack of confidence then it probably represents a more wide spread professional issue. Librarianship is a female dominated profession, and one that often attracts introverts. These two features quite possibly tip the scales towards lower self confidence. If there is a confidence issue amongst librarians, and this is is holding them back from taking actions that might lead to more successful career, how can this confidence gap be bridged?

The good news, according to the authors of The Confidence Gap, is that confidence can be acquired.

While acquiring confidence is a complex and personal journey, there are some clear ways that it can be fostered. There is an opportunity here for LIS educators, professional associations and library leaders to focus on closing the confidence gap. What better gift could we give the next generation of librarians than self belief and the courage to act?

Self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to achieve something”, and is a useful starting point for thinking about how to support confidence growth. There are four sources of self-efficacy, according to this article:

  • Mastery experiences – things you have succeeded at in the past
  • Vicarious experiences – seeing people who are similar to you succeed
  • Social persuasion – hearing from others that you’re capable
  • Emotional status – staying positive, and managing stress

Library leaders, LIS educators and professional associations could consider ways to encourage these four sources of self-efficacy.

As a library leader or LIS educator, how can you create mastery experiences for your employees and students by setting stretch projects to build their confidence? How can you encourage social persuasion by giving constructive and positive feedback on performance? How can you support risk taking, learning from mistakes, perseverance and building resilience? How can you help your employees and students set and achieve realistic but challenging goals?

As a LIS educator or professional association, how can you design vicarious experiences for your students or members through mentoring support and networking opportunities? Are there other ways you can expose your students or members to successful peers that can role model action and success?

Of course, librarians also have to take individual responsibility for closing the confidence gap themselves. As a librarian, how can you take charge of tapping into your sources of self-efficacy to build your confidence? A few areas you could focus on are building on your past successes, surrounding yourself with successful peers and mentors, seeking constructive feedback and putting your hand up for stretch projects and challenging opportunities. Critically, you can also focus on managing your emotional status by being positive and motivated, managing stress and taking responsibility for your own success, or as the authors of The Confidence Gap say “stop thinking so much and just act”.

 

 

 

 

 

Transforming yourself for the future library: VALA 2014 bootcamp

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Bootcampers hard at work

What does the library of the future look like? How can librarians prepare themselves for leading the library of the future? These are the questions I asked a group of around 30 attendees at the bootcamp ‘Transforming yourself for the future library’, which I ran at the VALA 2014 conference in Melbourne. My slides for the presentation are below.

Joe Janes’ book Library 2020 was an excellent jumping off point for thinking about how libraries might look and work in the near future. I asked the bootcampers to imagine their library in 2020 by completing the sentence “My library in 2020 will be…”. You can see the diversity and imagination of their responses below. My personal favourite is the first one, so I’ve included the original post-it note. I’m hoping to discover the author.

Who is the mystery author of this post-it?

Who is the mystery author of this post-it?

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2014-02-04 11.49.40

@infoseer checks out the “My library in 2020 will be…” responses

After imagining their library in 2020, I put out the challenge to the bootcampers to think about their own skills and knowledge. The bootcampers identified a fear to overcome and a passion to embrace that would help them prepare for leading the library of the future. They then came up with ideas for creating transformational learning experiences to face their fears and pursue their passions.

It is confronting to speak with your peers about your fears. I was heartened by the honesty and openness of the bootcampers and their willingness to talk about their work related anxieties. The fears people named centered around themes such as: interpersonal communication and networking, public speaking and presentations/training, leadership and decision-making, reference skills, writing, time management and juggling priorities, and managing data, paperwork and finances. Perhaps these are the areas that library leaders, educators and professional associations could focus on for professional development opportunities for library staff.

2014-02-07 17.11.16 2014-02-07 17.11.13 2014-02-07 17.11.22

The passions people were not surprising given it was a group of librarians. The themes were: empowering, educating and connecting others, information/digital literacy, research, writing and publishing, sharing knowledge, collaboration, design, heritage, and technology. The bootcampers are clearly in the right profession to match their passions.

2014-02-07 17.13.49 2014-02-07 17.13.55

Running the bootcamp was great fun. I felt privileged to lead a group of passionate and engaged librarians through thinking about the future of libraries and their own professional development. I hope the bootcampers went away from the session with some practical ideas they can use when they get back to work.

Did you attend the bootcamp? What did you take away from the session?

The peer-reviewed paper that I wrote to accompany the bootcamp is available on the VALA 2014 website for conference delegates and VALA members. It will also be be available to the public in May, or you can contact me for a copy. The hashtag for the session was #vala14 #bcc.

Profile on Ash Davies: founder of publishing start-up, Tablo

Ash Davies is the 20 year old founder and CEO of publishing start-up, Tablo. Through his start-up, Ash is aiming to make writing and publishing a book easy and social. I first met Ash earlier this year when he presented at a session of the 2013 Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. I later interviewed and wrote a profile piece on Ash. My article was published today in The Age. If you are interested in writing, ebooks and the publishing industry, or the technology start-up scene, have a read.

The Great Library Swindle: Stealing Rare Books

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Rare books such as first editions and original author manuscripts fetch ever-increasing record prices. They are highly valued and sought after by collectors and make an attractive bounty for poachers.

Public, university and private library collections have all been targets for pilfering. Alongside large-scale heists by organised gangs, library insiders have insidiously whittled away precious collections, while daring individual thieves have simply walked out of libraries with rare books stuffed in their jacket pockets.

Travis McDade’s latest book, Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It uncovers America’s worst library book theft ring. In Depression-era New York, a network of crooked booksellers and gangsters carried out a daring heist of rare books from the New York Public Library. The gang, led by ringleader and antiquarian bookseller Charles Romm, stole rare first editions by authors such as Melville, Poe and Hawthorn. Corrupt booksellers would peddle these treasures to collectors who were willing to overlook their dubious origins. G. William Bergquist, the library’s special investigator, busted the ring and the thieves were eventually caught, but some of the books were never recovered.

The Romm Gang’s spectacular caper, while notorious, is sadly not an isolated case.

Earlier this year, the library of London’s Lambeth Palace revealed that it was the scene of a major book crime dating back to the 1970s, which the library only recently discovered. A former library employee stole around 1400 publications and hid them in his attic. Among the precious books was an early Shakespeare edition. The theft was only uncovered when the library received a posthumous letter from the thief alerting them to his plundering of the collection.

In another recent case, a serial biblioklept, William Jacques, has twice been jailed for his crimes against British libraries. Over many years, Jacques removed rare books and pamphlets hidden in his jacket from the Royal Horticultural Society Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library.

McDade, who is the curator of rare law books at the University of Illinois (and a leading expert on crimes against rare books) says, ‘some of these guys have been known to travel around, stealing from hundreds of libraries and archives, for years and years’. McDade names Stephen Blumberg and James Shinn, who operated in the 1970s and 1980s, as the most infamous book thieves in the United States. ‘They managed to do serious damage to libraries,’ he says.

The damage to libraries goes beyond the loss of the historical and cultural value of the items themselves. McDade says ‘there is often a sense of personal violation for the people who work at institutions that have been victims’. He adds, ‘if the crime remains unsolved for any period of time, mistrust seeps into the relationships between coworkers. A major unsolved theft often creates a toxic work environment at the victim institution.’

McDade contends that stealing the books is the easy part of the crime. ‘This is not a fact that ordinarily occurs to the amateur thief,’ he says. Off-loading the goods is the more difficult part, with a thief risking capture every time he tries to sell stolen material. McDade gives an example of four college boys from Kentucky in the United States. ‘One of them took a tour of his college’s special collections, and was startled when the librarian told the group about the millions of dollars the books were worth. Visions of yachts and fast cars and Ocean’s Eleven swirling in his head, he and some friends set out on an ill-conceived, though somewhat successful, theft. By the time they decided that approaching Christie’s was their best chance at getting paid, their goose was cooked,’ he says.

Crimes against rare books are not limited to theft. Thieves will often damage rare books to remove identifying marks, seals and binding to make them easier to sell on the market and more difficult to trace their origins. Other culprits cut out maps and image plates, famous signatures and dedications to sell, leaving the source books damaged and library’s collection significantly devalued.

‘Libraries are an easy target,’ says Jo Ritale, collections services manager at the State Library of Victoria, ‘because we do make our collections accessible’. Ritale reassures that there hasn’t been the history of book theft in Australia that has occurred in the United Kingdom and United States. The State Library counts among its rare books a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, one of only 120 copies remaining intact. A copy recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London for US $11.5 million. Other rarities include William Caxton’s Myrrour of the Worlde, as well as first editions of Galileo and Isaac Newton.

The State Library safeguards its collections against theft and damage through an electronic theft detection system and roving security staff and bag checks. Rare and heritage material can only be viewed in a secure room controlled by staff, with strict rules around use. The library stores rare and heritage material in a separate wing where access is limited to designated staff. Ritale says that the drawback of this approach is ‘the need for extra vigilance and security measures to protect rare collection material is in direct contrast with the library’s policy to make material accessible with as few barriers to that access as possible’. To account for all rare books and ensure that none have gone missing, the library does a regular audit of high value materials.

It can be embarrassing for a library to lose rare books that have been trusted to its care. ‘For a long time it was the norm for libraries to keep thefts quiet. Fortunately, this is changing,’ McDade says. By being up front about the loss of books, libraries have a greater chance of seeing them identified. Antiquarian booksellers, libraries and police cooperate to identify stolen books and have them returned. Kay Craddock, antiquarian bookseller and convener of Melbourne Rare Books Week, describes the steps that booksellers take. ‘We have a strict procedure when buying from private vendors, which includes photo ID and registration. This is mandatory and regularly checked by police.’ The Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers is part of the ILAB global stolen books network, which works with libraries and within the UNESCO Unidroit Convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural treasures. ‘The book trade has been responsible for helping to catch book thieves in the USA and Europe,’ says Craddock. ‘If we are concerned that a book bearing library marks is stolen, then we contact that library.’

The impact of the loss of rare books, archival sources or manuscript materials from libraries is that ‘the information they contained might be lost to humanity forever,’ says McDade. ‘The materials in libraries are the thing upon which our history and culture is built. When they disappear, there is no getting them back.’

This article was originally published on the Wheeler Centre Dailies website.

Seattle: Pioneer Square galleries

Pioneer Square is the historic centre of Seattle, rebuilt after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. It was the city’s heart of industry with the first lumber mill, where the phrase skid road/row was coined due to the logs being skidded down the road from the mill. The beautiful brick buildings of the area are the largest concentration of Romanesque architecture in the United States. Today, these buildings are home to galleries, antique stores, book shops, rug galleries, bike shops, restaurants and cafes.

Pioneer square

Pioneer square

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Two galleries I stumbled into had particularly interesting exhibitions. The Jackson Street Gallery was showing photographs by Edward S Curtis. Curtis was a photographer who set out on an ambitious project to compile a 20 volume work of photographs documenting the Native Americans in the early 1900s. The work was based on subscription to the set. He failed to secure enough subscriptions and funding and it took around 20 years to finally complete his project. By this time, he had faded into obscurity and this type of photography had gone out of fashion. Few copies of his work remain today, and now fetch very high prices. Complete sets of the 20 volume work sell in the millions. The exhibition showcases many examples of Curtis’ photographs.

Edward S Curtis via Library of Congress Creative Commons

Edward S Curtis via Library of Congress Creative Commons

Davidson Galleries is currently showing an exhibition of hand-coloured lithographs from John J Audubon’s mid 19th century works Birds of America and The Quadrupeds of North America. Like Curtis’ work, these folios were produced based on subscription, with Birds of America now holding the record for the world’s most expensive book. There are only 120 copies remaining intact, with one of them held in Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria.

John J Audubon's Birds of America

John J Audubon’s Birds of America

It is Melbourne Rare Book Week back home, so it seemed serendipitous to find both of these exhibitions by chance while exploring Seattle.

God bless America

God bless America

Seattle: sightseeing

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The Seattle Centre is home to a variety of museums, galleries, music venues and Seattle’s most famous sight, the Space Needle. I finally succumbed to tourist fever and went up to the observation deck, which is around 57 stories high and has incredible 360 degree views over Seattle. From there you can see out across Puget Sound, Lake Washington, out to Mount Ranier, as well as getting a bird’s eye view of downtown Seattle and its suburbs.

Space Needle viewed from inside the glasshouse

Space Needle viewed from inside the glasshouse

Below the Space Needle is the Chihuly Garden and Glass. An exhibition of glass art works by local artist, Dale Chihuly, set amongst a garden. This place blew my mind. The glass is beautiful and intricate. The colours and shapes are stunning. Some pieces are on a grand scale and it is a substantial collection.

Glasshouse in Chihuly Gardens

Glasshouse in Chihuly Gardens

Chihuly Gardens

Chihuly Gardens

Chihuly Gardens

Chihuly Gardens

From Chihuly, I walked down to the Seattle waterfront via the Seattle Museum of Art’s Olympic Sculpture Park. The park is a former industrial site that has been transformed into a public park with sculptures. From the park, there are great views of the city skyline and waterfront. It is the perfect place to take some time out and have a quiet place to reflect.

Olympic Sculpture Park

Olympic Sculpture Park

The Olympic Sculpture Park extends down to a small beach which has been restored. The beach adjoins Myrtle Edwards Park, a green oasis where locals walk their dogs, have picnics and go jogging.

The beach

The beach

Cute!

Cute!

From the park, I walked all along the waterfront and back to my hotel. After a few hours walking it was time to hit Le Panier, a local patisserie for a pain au chocolat.

View down 1st Ave from my hotel room

View down 1st Ave from my hotel room

Seattle: conference wrap

‘Libraries make everything better,’ according to Joe Janes (@joejanes) the editor of the book Library 2020. Janes delivered the closing session of the AALL 2013 conference. In Janes’ book, he asked a number of contributors to write essays starting with the line ‘The Library in 2020 will be…’. Janes’ presentation summarised the divergent views expressed in these essays, organised around the themes of stuff, place, people, community, leadership and vision. Some of these views are optimistic, while others paint a bleaker picture of the future for libraries.

Janes’ view is that the library of 2020 will be characterised by the things librarians uniquely bring such as service orientation, organisation, literacy, quality, depth, authority and detail. He believes that successful libraries will serve niches and that their focus will move away from giving access and acting as middlemen, since middlemen are increasingly redundant. Just look at travel agents and record store owners as examples.

Janes’ session was a perfect way to close the conference. He was very entertaining and his ideas were provocative. Janes concluded by asking the audience to reflect on their own libraries and where they want them to be in 2020.

Another session I enjoyed over the last few days was a presentation on integrating iPads into an academic library at Duke Law. The presenters focused on reference services, classroom teaching and library services. Their papers are online.

Steve Hughes (@stevehughes) ran a session on giving great presentations where he focused on opening your session powerfully, tips for good presentations, making your session interactive, and being confident through body language and eye contact with the audience. Hughes was a engaging and funny presenter, and made the session interesting, practical and fun. The tips I found most useful were ideas for having an intriguing introduction to your presentation, and making the most of people’s natural curiosity to get them engaged, energised and interacting with you during presentations.

A panel discussion on ebooks raised more questions than resolutions. What I found most interesting was that American libraries are struggling with ebook lending, licensing and formats just as much as Australian libraries. Libraries and publishers alike have a long way to go to resolve a workable model for ebooks. I think ebooks will go the way of CD-Roms and be replaced by more sophisticated digital formats.

But conferences aren’t all about sessions, there’s also the social side of things…

Last night was the ‘Member Appreciation Event’, a big conference party. The event was hosted at the incredible Experience Music Project, a music museum. Food, drinks, music and the museum’s exhibitions made for a great party. My favourite exhibitions were the Nirvana and Women Who Rock ones.

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After the party, we discovered the fabled publisher hospitality suites in the conference hotel. A tip for anyone attending this conference in the future, find the hospitality suites. The big legal publishers rent out suites and provide fully stocked bars for delegates every night of the conference, open into the wee hours of the morning. No wonder they charge so much for subscriptions.

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The conference is over now and I am a little sad. My new found American library friends are headed back to their home towns across the country and now I’m solo in Seattle. But my library business is not over yet. Next up, a tour of the Seattle public library, and a meeting with one of the directors there. Stay tuned.

triple j’s Hottest 100: where were the women?

Polly Jean Harvey

Polly Jean Harvey

Over the weekend, the ABC’s youth broadcaster triple j played the top 100 songs from the past 20 years of its ‘Hottest 100‘ series, as voted by its listeners via a recent poll.

‘Best of’ lists are by their nature subjective, and will leave some listeners unsatisfied, even outraged. The results of this poll whipped up plenty of passionate debate about the merits of the songs that were included, while disappointed fans took to social media to lament the omission of their favourite tunes and artists. Complaining, debating and celebrating the song choices are all part of the fun of these polls.

During the conversation over the weekend, and as the songs progressively counted down from 100 to one, fans also started calling out a glaring gap in the poll. There were virtually no female artists. Apart from the addition of rare solo artists, including Lana Del Rey and M.I.A., and the occasional band with a female lead such as The Cranberries and Florence + the Machine, women’s voices were noticeably quiet.

The triple j website reports that there were only five songs sung by female leads and fourteen songs played by female musos. That is a total of 19 tracks out of 100 that featured women over the past 20 years of music.

You don’t have to try too hard to name women who have shaped and influenced music over the past two decades. Polly Jean Harvey is a prolific, lauded and much awarded singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Harvey has released eight studio albums and collaborated with singers such as Nick Cave, Bob Dylan and Thom Yorke. Her accolades include being the only artist (male or female) to win two Mercury Prize awards, and two of her albums are included in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Looking closer to home, multiple ARIA award winner Sarah Blasko has also had an impressive musical career. With three studio albums going Platinum, and her Seeker Lover Keeper collaboration with Holly Throsby and Sally Seltman going Gold, Blasko has also contributed to soundtracks and tribute albums, toured extensively, and in 2009 received the J Award for Australian Album of the Year.

These two women have been widely recognised by their peers and the music industry, yet they failed to make the cut in the Hottest 100. They can count themselves among a roll-call of other high profile female artists and female fronted bands who didn’t resonate with voters including Bjork, Amy Winehouse, Martha Wainwright, Missy Elliot, Hole, Feist, Garbage, No Doubt, Luscious Jackson, L7, Veruca Salt, Magic Dirt, The Breeders, Tori Amos, Clare Bowditch, KD Lang, The Waifs, Catpower, The Gossip and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to name just a few.

Why were these women and others so noticeably absent from the list? Close to a million votes were cast in the poll. Without statistics on the gender of voters we can only assume that both male and female voters shunned female artists. Why is it that women who are recognised through awards, accolades and high sales volumes aren’t vote winners with the public? It is hardly a celebration of the past 20 years of music without women’s voices, women’s riff-playing and women’s drum-pounding.

How can we ensure women musicians are represented and heard? We have the Stella Prize promoting women writers in Australia and the Forbes Most Powerful Women List celebrating women in business, society and politics. Maybe we need to take a similar approach with an all-female music poll.

Let’s ask voters for their favourite songs of the past 20 years as sung by female solo artists, all-girl groups, or bands with female leads. Let’s pay tribute to their talent and their important contribution to the soundtrack of the past two decades. Of course, this idea will raise concerns about ghettoising female artists in the same way the Stella Prize is criticised in relation to sidelining women writers. But at least it would allow for female musicians to be heard over the din of their male counterparts.

This article originally appeared in Women’s Agenda

The terrain and emotion of the written word

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I recently read three pieces that coalesce around shared themes of the physicality and emotion of reading and writing. The first was Mal Booth’s (@malbooth) posts on his blog FromMelbin. These posts are digital photos of his handwritten journal entries. Mal reflects on his appreciation of handwriting as an expressive art, the emotion of committing writing to paper, and what handwriting can convey to the reader. I was scrolling through Twitter posts at the tram stop when I happened upon Mal’s blog entry. The tram arrived. I would otherwise have put my phone in my pocket and forgotten about the blog posts. It was Mal’s decision to post them as handwritten entries that caused me to return to them once I was settled in my seat on the tram. It was like receiving a handwritten letter. It felt personal. I wanted to linger. It reminded me of the pen pals I corresponded with as a young teenager. I was always so excited to open letters from the other side of the world. Each author with their own distinctive handwriting, writing style and tales to tell.

The second piece I read was a Meanjin blog post by Bethanie Blanchard (@beth_blanchard). In this post, she describes a favourite tumblr of hers, Together, as always. It is ‘a collection of images of the dedications and inscriptions on inside covers’ of books given as gifts. She describes the reading of these inscriptions as a voyeuristic pleasure. She writes also about the inscriptions on her own books. They are markers of her life’s journey. The inscriptions prompt memories of the givers. They personalise the books. Like in Mal’s blog entries, the handwriting conveys emotion. I reminisced on the books given to me by friends and lovers, holding their inscriptions, containing their secret messages.

The third piece was an article in Scientific American which examines how technology changes the way we read and how reading on the screen affects our comprehension of the text. The article evokes the tactile experience of reading on paper. Reading on paper engages the senses and creates a topography. According to the article, we recognise words on paper like a mental map of terrain, much like we do with physical landscapes, our cities, our houses, a walking trail, a mountain incline.  We experience the thickness and smell of paper, the sound of turning pages, the weight of the book, the placement of text on the relative space of a page. This textual landscape orients us and helps us navigate.

This piece draws an interesting distinction between reading on paper and on screen. The experience of reading on paper is more emotional. The suggestion is that this aids our comprehension of the text. The reading experience helps integrate our understanding.

Re-reading the three pieces together builds an appreciation of the different ways we engage with the written word, whether in handwriting, or otherwise in print. We lose some of this by reading on the screen.

It made me reflect on why I have resisted reading ebooks. I am not technology-averse, quite the opposite. As the Scientific American article points out, ebooks and other screen formats are a poor simulation of the aesthetic of paper books, so why bother trying to replicate the experience? The challenge for publishers and content creators is to seize the opportunities for the new reading possibilities and experiences offered by these technologies.

Given the poor simulation of paper, it seems inevitable that there will be a shift away from text-based content for reading on the screen in favour of visual formats such as video. This infographic predicts the volume of video in 2015.

I am excited by the possibilities promised by digital content and new ways of reading on the screen. Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed my trip into nostalgia for handwritten letters and journals, book inscriptions and dog-eared paper books marked with my reading journeys.

Ebooks and libraries: the digital disruption

Ebook publication and use has grown exponentially over the last few years. Libraries, publishers and rights holders are all struggling to adapt to the new digital landscape, and to find a workable commercial model which preserves rights and revenue, but also meets the information needs and preferences of library users.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) held a think tank (#aliathinktank) in Melbourne today to explore some of the issues for libraries related to ebooks and elending. Similar sessions are being held around the country. From these think tanks, ALIA hopes to develop a sector response to assist libraries to navigate the challenges associated with collecting and lending ebooks. ALIA has developed an issues paper on the topic.

We heard from several speakers who presented from the perspectives of different types of libraries, including public, academic, state and special libraries. Panel sessions invited audience participation and dissected the issues raised in the presentations.

While ebooks promise many advantages such as reducing shelf space, and meeting user preferences for digital content and 24/7 access, there are also many challenges facing libraries in relation to ebooks. Libraries account for around 12% of book sales in Australia, so they don’t have great market power. There are difficulties negotiating reasonable contractual terms with publishers and ebook aggregators. Costs are high and escalating. There are a lack of consistent ereader devices and ebook formats. Technologies for searching and discovery do not integrate well. Ebooks are not being developed to offer the functionality promised by the digital content experience. There are licencing and lending restrictions. Libraries perceive a lack of engagement by publishers to understand their role. It is a bleak picture.

Publishers are also facing uncertain times in the wake of ebook popularity. The presenters raised thoughtful points on the opportunities for libraries in this environment. Library associations around the world are increasing their advocacy efforts to raise the public awareness of the role of libraries. Libraries hold library usage data that is of value to publishers. They meet a market demand for those who want free access to ebooks. Libraries create new audiences for buying books. They build spaces to encourage interaction with ereading. Libraries train and educate the public in ereader technologies. They provide a nexus between print and digital content. Libraries can influence publishers to produce content that meets the information needs and preferences of readers.

These are all positive and interesting points but they are not ground breaking. After 600 years of print as the dominant technology for reading, ebooks are part of a digital content revolution. As the think tank progressed it became clear that the response needed by libraries is to break and rebuild the library business model. The music industry, magazines, newspapers and publishing are all seeing their old business models disintegrate and be reimagined. Libraries are no different.

Ebooks are merely containers for content. The containers will be replaced by new ones. Just think of VHS, floppy discs and CDs. Libraries should focus on their role in facilitating access to content. Maybe this means self-publishing, forming direct relationships with authors, and curation of content. Perhaps it means becoming co-producers in partnership with publishers or others. Or it might be facilitating access to content through education, training and integration into the workflows of users. It is probably a combination of these depending on the library and the context in which it operates.

At a fundamental level libraries need to ask: what is their core purpose? Who are they serving? Who are they competing with? What is their role?

Whatever the future, it is disruptive. Ebooks are the thin end of the digital wedge. It will be fascinating to see how ALIA and the library sector responds to the challenge.

Presentations from the think tank will be available on the ALIA website.

Badass storytelling for libraries

“I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” – Jeanette Winterson, The Passion.


Humans are natural storytellers. Stories engage us, help us understand, and connect us. The Moth live story telling events are huge. Podcasts such as Serial have a cult following. Even in the corporate world, storytelling courses and presentation techniques are the new black. It’s no surprise then that cultural institutions, including libraries, are thinking of ways of using storytelling as a way to connect with their audiences. 

I recently experienced two brilliant storytelling events which got me thinking about how to apply some of what I experienced back in my library.

It all started on a steamy summer day in Manhattan. On a reprieve from the heat and Pokemon Go players outside, I was lounging in my very tiny and poorly air conditioned hotel room flicking through the Time Out, New York magazine when I landed on an ad for a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tour was titled Badass Bitches of the Met and it was run by a crew called Museum Hack. I was pretty much sold on the title alone. I booked my ticket for a two hour tour that promised me I would:

FALL IN LOVE WITH SOME AMAZING WOMEN YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

TAKE ACTUAL STEPS TO DISMANTLE THE PATRIARCHY

COMPETE TO FIND THE BADDEST BITCH IN THE MET

HEAR PLENTY OF ‘F’ BOMBS (‘FEMINISM’, THAT IS)

LEAVE INSPIRED TO CHANGE THE WORLD

The next day I turned up at the Met after having being lost in the Ramble in Central Park and then caught in the most spectacular afternoon downpour. I stood ringing my dripping hair and clothes into a puddle on the marble floor of the very crowded Met foyer. I was spotted by one of the Museum Hack guides who whisked me into the bathroom to pat myself dry with paper towels. Then onwards to my tour. Two energetic, knowledgeable, fun young women raced us around the museum telling us stories of women artists, women muses, and women art collectors represented (or not) in the collection. We played games, took photos and were encouraged to share our own stories. It was renegade and subversive and by far the most fun two hours I’ve ever had in a museum. I learnt about a bunch of inspiring women I had never heard of and left with a head full of fascinating stories. 

The second brilliant storytelling adventure wasn’t in a cultural institution. This time it was in the tourism industry. Onboard the Rocky Mountaineer, I travelled through the snow dusted peaks of the Canadian Rockies from Jasper National Park through to Vancouver via Kamloops. In between spotting coyotes, bears, bald eagles and big-horned sheep (and being fed North American mega-portion meals) the highly-skilled storytelling staff narrated a fascinating tale of frontier life, the natural environment and adventure. Their rich stories brought the landscape to life with human endeavour, loss, love and triumph.

Both the Museum Hack tour and the Rocky Mountaineer guides highlighted for me the colour, life and emotional hook that a highly-skilled storyteller can bring to an experience – whether that experience is an artwork or a landscape. 

Libraries are institutions that are full of stories. Stories about collections and collectors, stories about communities, stories about people. The challenge is how libraries can tell stories in playful, engaging ways to appeal to broader audiences.

What would a badass library hack tour look like? 

Civic Digest: new imaginings of libraries

  
Civic Digest is a new public library experiment in Newcastle, New South Wales. Their website bills the venue as “an Australian-first contemporary library… cutting edge library technology is combined with quality food and beverage services to create an ambient and creative space for culture consumers to meet”. 

I ventured in to try the coffee (pretty good) and to check out the library aspects of the operation. It is a space created in the Civic Theatre so it is ideal for a pre or post show drink. I visited on a cold winter’s morning. The sun was streaming in through the windows making it cosy and inviting and it wasn’t busy so I had my choice of seats.

  
The cafe has a focus on digital library content such as magazines, journals and ebooks that you can access either through the large touch tables or via an app which you can download. There is also high speed free wifi, web browsing, games and what’s on information for Newcastle.

   
  

I asked the barista about the staffing model and he told me that no library staff work in the space but they can call them in to trouble shoot technology problems on the odd occasion something goes awry.
Later that day at a gallery opening, I also asked a couple of Newcastle locals what they think of Civic Digest. My small sample of two, including one Newcastle City councillor, reported support for the concept and a willingness to experiment and adjust as they learn. It has only been open for two months.

Read more about it in the Newcastle Herald.

Newcastle always seems to have interesting cultural ideas popping up. If you are in town, check out Civic Digest and give your support to an innovative imagining of a regional public library.

   
   

Evangelising about libraries

  
Speaking at library conferences feels like preaching to the converted. Sure, it is great to get out there amongst the familiar faces to share our work and learn from each other but what other opportunities are there?

Reaching out to other sectors and industries through their conferences opens up a whole new world of learning and networking. It is also a chance to showcase the brilliant work of libraries, do a little evangelising and gather some new library fans.

I have spoken at two digital conferences this year and both were absolutely worthwhile experiences. 

The first was Pause Fest 2016 in Melbourne. Pause bills itself as “a catalyst for innovation, a uniter of industries, a platform for the future. Pause Fest stands for the content you can’t Google.” 

Sounds a bit like the mission of a library. So my colleague, Peter McMahon and I presented a TED-style talk called ‘So uncool it’s cool, the natural tension of the library’. Here’s the video.

The second conference was REMIX Sydney 2016, a culture, technology and entrepreneurship summit. At Remix I spoke on a panel titled ‘Incubating and scaling ideas: developing new innovation networks and spaces for the creative industries’ along with: 

  • Katrina Sedgwick, Director, ACMI
  • Peter McMahon, Director, Digital, Marketing and Communications, State Library Victoria
  • Anna Lise De Lorenzo, Founder, MakerSpace &company
  • Jon Holloway, Vice President and Managing Director, R/GA 

At both events I was able to bust some myths and speak about innovation and transformation in libraries. People sought me out after the talks and were genuinely surprised and impressed to hear about how libraries are evolving. Both events have led me to new contacts and exposed me to new ideas.

Get out there and evangelise about libraries! You never know who you might meet and what you might learn. As Steven Johnson says “chance favours the connected mind”.

Unfurl that frame keynote talk on ‘participation’

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These are my speaking notes from a talk I gave at the ‘Unfurl that Frame’ symposium at the National Library of Australia on 11 December 2014.

My talk today is going to be full of questions for you to reflect on. It also includes a call to action.

The theme for this session is ‘Participation: shaping, creating, learning to share spaces and resources in new ways, with new people’

My first question is “What does participation feel like?”

I ask that question because participation is an emotive word.

  • participation feels involving and engaging
  • it is the act of sharing, taking part, and it implies being an equal, and being respected
  • participation feels like being invited to be part of something bigger than yourself
  • it feels like a supportive and nurturing environment
  • it feels active, which by deduction means it can’t be passive
  • it feels positive, which means there is a benefit or value to it and it is enjoyable
  • to participate in something you have to be present – in body and mind!

My next question is “If participation feels like that, then what does it look like in a library?”

I believe there are 4 frames of participation. You are very welcome to challenge them or unfurl them, or even break them completely because I have made them up and they aren’t grounded in any tested theory. These frames will be enacted differently depending on the type of library you work in. I will explain each frame, and give you some examples from the State Library of Victoria to illustrate these.

The 4 frames are:

  • Social participation
  • Cultural participation
  • Staff participation
  • Personal participation

1. Social participation

By social participation I mean opening up the possibilities for people to have a voice. Giving people the opportunity to take part in social, cultural, educational or economic activity. Supporting people into social mobility, and feeling included in something bigger than themselves, and as a consequence, building a more civil society. It’s about giving people hope. These might sound like lofty ideals (and they certainly aren’t very popular with governments of certain persuasions) but I believe this is the business of libraries.

Let me give you some examples from The State Library where we are inviting people to participate:

Purely on numbers we are increasing participation. We are the busiest public library in Australia. In 2013/14 we had close to 1.8 million visitors through the doors and over 3 million visitors online. We expect both of these figures to continue to grow as Melbourne grows and as we reach out to new audiences.

At a simple level, we give people shelter and a safe place to hang out, with no expectation that they have to spend money to justify being there. Last summer during a heatwave, we and other people in the community took to social media to promote the library as one of the few free places in the CBD where homeless people were welcome to come in and get out of the heat.

We run an ‘open access’ program that brings kids from disadvantaged schools into the library for a memorable and emotionally resonant ‘rite of passage’. The aim is to activate their learning and critical thinking, and to encourage life-long engagement with the Library. Their library. It is free. It is their first visit to the library. It is profound.

The Library has just launched a new website which moves from being a place to curate information and present it for people to view, to being a platform that opens up our collections and content, and asks people for their ideas and input. It lights the fire of curiosity and rewards that curiosity in spades. A new section of the site will launch in the new year called “contribute and create” which will focus on crowd-sourced and community created content.

We recently ran an event called ‘Hear the people sing’, an open invitation mass choir inspired by our Victor Hugo: Les Misérables – From Page to Stage exhibition. We were attempting to create the biggest public performance of a song from the musical. Everyone was welcome. Around 1000 people crowded the forecourt for this joyous community singing event.

At a strategic level the Library has just re-branded itself to align with its strategic direction. As well as updating the style of our communications to be more contemporary, we have a new positioning ‘tag’ which is ‘What’s your story?’. This is an invitation to the public to share with us, and to have their stories and voices heard. We are collecting stories from the public and from our own staff. These stories will appear both on the website as videos and in an exhibition we have planned for early next year.

My question for you is “How does your library activate social participation for its community?”

2. Cultural participation

By cultural participation I mean how your library engages with your city or town, your university, or how it partners with other institutions or organisations. Being part of the cultural fabric of your community.

At the State Library we participate in major cultural events and festivals in Melbourne and Victoria. Earlier this year we took part in White Night Melbourne. Half a million people packed the Melbourne CBD for this arts event. We turned our domed reading room into a huge blank canvas for a projection piece called Molecular Kaleidescope. Giant viruses crawled over the walls of the dome accompanied by a suitably creepy soundtrack. On that one night 21,000 people came through the library, many were first time visitors. And tens of thousands of people took in the projections on the library’s Swanston St facade.

We partner with many institutions and organisations across the state, from public libraries, to universities, to arts and cultural institutions, and community groups. We partner closely with the University of Melbourne on exhibitions, programs and creative fellowships. This year we held a joint exhibition at the library on Piranesi, an 18th century Italian printmaker. The exhibition was accompanied by public programs and lectures, a symposium and other events that reached a wider and more diverse audience than we could reach on our own. 4,000 people came through the Piranesi exhibition on White Night alone.

My question for you is “How does your library participate in the cultural fabric of your community.”

3. Staff participation

By staff participation I mean how do you design jobs, goals, teams, projects, meetings and decisions to be participative, collaborative and peer-based. And to be clear, I don’t mean democratic, or deferring authority to a group. I mean, giving your staff a chance to have a voice and taking accountability for that voice.

When I started working at the State Library 18 months ago, my department had 4 layers of management. It’s very hard to hear the voices of staff when they are so many layers removed. We now have a flatter structure and more forums and opportunities for staff to have a say directly to me.

All of us on the Leadership Team have committed to role-modelling a more participative way of working. We have been trained in and have introduced a more open style for meetings where everyone is encouraged to contribute to discussions. Staff are respectful of their peers. The meetings are less authoritative and hierarchical, and a lot more rewarding and enjoyable. I think we make better decisions too.

This year we ran a project to review our service model at the library. The starting point for this work was the recognition that library visitors have different needs. As our community becomes more diverse and we reach out to new audiences, we experience tensions in our services and spaces. We needed to understand and resolve these tensions. We used a design thinking approach for this review. Penny Hagan is speaking on design thinking tomorrow so I won’t go into too much detail about what that means, except to say that it’s a customer centred approach to designing services, and is highly participative. Around half of the 300 staff at the library helped to identify issues with our current service delivery and turn these into opportunities and service concepts. Building on staff ideas we co-created a new service model which is a blueprint for service development. Staff were very positive about the process and the level of input they had. It was a very different approach to past service reviews which ended up bogged down in industrial conflict.

My question for you is “How do you support your staff to co-create your library?”

4. Personal participation

By personal participation I mean what you, as an individual, bring to your library, your team, your peers, your profession and yourself. Being present, attentive, positive, active, supportive, generous and respectful. I don’t just mean towards others but towards yourself as well.

I don’t feel I need to give examples for this one. You are here today so I’m preaching to the converted.

However, I will say a couple of things.

Women (and let’s face it libraries are full of women) are generally good at getting others to participate, but no so good at being confident to step up and participate themselves. Their confidence doesn’t always match their high levels of competence. Women can be self-defeating, shun recognition, worry too much and be afraid of failure.

Does any of that sound familiar?

I believe we can make our profession stronger by building our collective confidence.

So I’m not going to ask you a question about personal participation. Instead, I’m giving you a call to action.

Let’s make our profession stronger. Build your confidence. Build the confidence of your peers and your staff. Build the confidence of your community.