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.