Unfurl that frame keynote talk on ‘participation’


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.


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.


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”.






The insider’s guide to freelance writing

IMAG0380_1I wasn’t expecting to learn about meth labs when I signed up for the Australian Writers’ Centre course ‘Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1′ but it was just one of the interesting war stories shared by experienced freelance writers Claire Halliday and Valerie Khoo over the weekend. The dynamic duo told tales of broken micro cassettes, rude celebrities, and dodgy editors. They gave some great insights into the writing process as well as practical tips for making freelance writing a viable career.

The course was held at the Abbotsford Convent in the midst of cafe-goers, a wedding, a photography course, families celebrating mother’s day, and a large group of vespa riders (cue the photo). Half of Melbourne seemed to be gathered there enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.

Our group of around a dozen students got an insider’s guide on how to; come up with ideas for features, structure a feature article, analyse a publication, interview a subject, approach people for information, pitch to editors, and negotiate fair rates for your work.

We each interviewed a class mate, wrote a profile on them and got feedback on our writing. This was one of the highlights of the course. The exercise was a great opportunity to apply what we had learnt as well as getting to know each other better.  

The course gave me increased confidence in my freelance writing. I feel motivated and now have practical strategies to ramp up my writing. I left the course with several ideas I could pitch to editors for feature articles. It gave me a much better sense of what makes a high quality and engaging feature article.

The take away message from the course for me was that success in feature writing depends on building good relationships with editors (and being a decent writer).

If you want to explore feature writing as a hobby or career, it is definitely worth checking out this course.

Five tips for compelling and persuasive business writing


Read any position description for a senior role and you will find written communication skills on the list of key selection criteria. Unless you’ve had tertiary or vocational training in writing, you may find writing for work a chore.

It doesn’t need to be.

Whether you are writing a business case, board paper, blog post or job application, these five tips will help you craft writing that is persuasive and compelling.

Know your audience

You probably wouldn’t wear the same outfit to a job interview as you would on a date. This is because your audience is different. The same goes for writing. You need to understand what interests, motivates and moves your audience when writing for them. You also need clear objectives. Are you trying to influence them to a decision, reassure them about a risk, or prompt them into action? Adjust your “voice” as well as the type of information you present depending on your audience and the medium you are writing for. Whether you are working with 140 characters in a Twitter message, or 140 pages in a discussion paper, always keep it professional. Remember that social media messages can be broadcast way beyond your intended audience.

Tell a story

If it feels boring to write something, it will most likely be boring to read too. If you are looking for ways to liven up your writing and move your audience, try telling a story. In her recent book Power Stories, Valerie Khoo says we absorb stories more easily than lists and data, and points out how stories are fundamental to humans and can inspire, influence and move people. Leave your bullet points behind and summon up the power of storytelling that you enjoy in books and films.

Avoid jargon

You don’t need fancy words to convey fancy ideas. Many of us fall into the trap of writing in corporate speak – using bureaucratic, passive language. The result is dry and inaccessible writing. Whenever you can, use simple, direct and active language. Use short sentences. Avoid jargon. This will help make your writing more engaging. It will be easier to understand. It can take practise and patience to change your writing style after years of writing like an automaton but you can do it.

Use visual information

With the proliferation of information we all encounter via email, social media, advertising, and in our in-trays, it becomes more difficult to grab your readers’ attention. The next time you need to convey complex information consider alternatives to text-based information, such as video. You can shoot and edit a simple video on a smartphone or tablet that is suitable for a presentation or intranet. And it’s fun to experiment with new formats and technologies.

Learn from the experts

Is there a writer whose work you admire? If you know and trust them, ask them for feedback on drafts of your writing. They are likely to be flattered. If you don’t know them, read and analyse their writing. What works, what elements do you like, what tone and language do they use, how do they structure their writing? You can apply what you learn to improve your writing. If you are really interested in developing your writing abilities, learn from the experts by doing a course such as one offered by the Australian Writers’ Centre.

This article originally appeared in Women’s Agenda

Four tips for making your job search an affirming experience

Women can find themselves having an extended break from work for many reasons such as becoming a parent, taking some time out to study, illness, or retrenchment. Some of these situations are the woman’s choice while others are unplanned. Whether by choice or not, looking for a new role after an interruption to work can be daunting. Many women take on this challenge with reduced self-confidence and a fear that they have been de-skilled by their time away from work.

There’s plenty of sound advice out there about how to best approach job search; treat it as a full-time job, establish a social media profile, find a mentor, develop a killer resume, practice your interview techniques and network network network. You know the drill. And for most women it is a drill. A long, slow, arduous journey of ups and downs, knock-backs, great interviews and interesting leads that go nowhere, and a telephone that just won’t ring no matter how many times you check it.

If your self-esteem is already fragile to begin with, it’s at risk of being pummeled by the job search process. A shredded ego is not going to have a positive impact on helping you land your dream job. So, how do you turn your job search into an affirming experience and use it an opportunity for development and growth?

Here are four tips that could help

1. Remind yourself why you are awesome

Before you do anything else related to your job search, write an affirmation statement. This can be a paragraph, a whole page, or a couple of dot points that confirms why you deserve a fabulous job. Write down what you are good at, what achievements you are proud of, and what qualities make you awesome. This is a helpful start to shaping your resume, but also a positive point of reference when you are feeling defeated during your job search. Read it and re-read it and believe it.

2. Learn something new

Learning is a very motivating experience and will give you a sense of accomplishment. It will help keep your skills and knowledge up to date, and you may be able to include it in your resume. It doesn’t need to be formal or expensive. Read, go to a conference, do an online course, attend a lunchtime talk, or do some training. Think creatively and aim to learn something outside of your comfort zone. Pick a topic you’ve always been curious about but have never had the time to pursue. This can bring a new perspective to your area of expertise, or take you down a path you may not have considered before. It can also be a great way to expand your network. Check with your professional association, The Fetch and Eventbrite for interesting events for professionals in your city.

3. You need a project

One of the frustrations of job search is feeling like you’re on the usefulness scrapheap. This is pretty challenging if you are used to working in a demanding job where you tick off lots of achievements every day. You need a project to work towards so you can do something meaningful and rewarding. It need not be a big commitment of time, just something you find engaging. Ideally, choose a project that builds on your skills and experience. A well-chosen consultancy project will help you make connections with prospective employers and can enhance your resume. More importantly, it will make you feel good. If you can’t find a paid gig, consider offering your consulting services on a probono basis. If consulting isn’t your cup of tea, think about other projects that might inspire you. For example, interview someone whose job you aspire to and write it up as a guest post for a blog that relates to your profession or sector.

4. Go social and have fun

You’ve set up your LinkedIn profile and got yourself a Twitter handle but you don’t understand how to make it work for your job search. Yes, you can use social media to build your reputation, positioning and profile. However, if you approach it as a personal branding exercise it will be as joyless as re-writing your resume for the 28th time. Instead, treat it as an opportunity to connect and hang out with interesting people, and contribute to stimulating conversations. Social media is also a great listening post. If you keep your ear to the ground you will get useful insights into what individuals and organisations are talking about. This can help you shape an approach to them to pitch for work before a position gets advertised. Also, consider other ways to get more social. For example, spend a day a week in a co-working space. This will get you out the house and connecting with other professionals. You never know where these connections might lead.

Job search can be an affirming experience if you open yourself up to learning and doing new things and meeting new people. Treat it as a developmental opportunity and it will be much more rewarding. If you find it hard to stay positive and it is really getting you down, get some professional help: Beyond Blue

This article originally appeared in Women’s Agenda