ALIA Information Online 2017

I didn’t hear a single presentation pondering the future of libraries at the ALIA Information Online conference this year. What a relief! The profession seems to finally be stepping out with confidence and just getting on with things.

There were a few years there where everyone was anxious about the future relevance of the library. Perhaps that was a natural reaction to, dare I say the word, disruption. We took a good look at ourselves, had a shake up and now we are moving ahead.

I tweeted my takeaways themes from the conference. 

The stand-out theme for me was prototyping and experimenting, having a minimal viable product, and being quick to market. This theme came up in a number of talks including Paula Bray’s keynote.

Slide from Paula Bray’s keynote

Perhaps the newly embraced confidence of the profession means we are finally willing to let go of perfection, loosen up and experiment more.

Copies of the papers and presentations I co-presented are up on the conference site. The New UX at State Library Victoria gives the inside story on our in progress major redevelopment project. Around the world in not-quite-80 libraries looks at major trends in library spaces across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Check out the conference program for the latest thinking and interesting projects in the Australian library sector.

No Novel is an Island: Digital Writers Festival


How can libraries, writers, readers and publishers evolve together through online writing communities? In late 2016, I was part of an online panel discussing this question at the Digital Writers Festival. The event is available to watch online. The audio is a bit dodgy to begin with but it improves, I promise!

Here’s the blurb from the festival website:

‘Writing no longer needs to be a solitary occupation. The digital age has allowed writer’s groups and communities to spring forth across time(zones) and space. Society, friends and family can be part of the process, in fact online communities can grow audience, expand craft, and build a publishing career. Just like the writer, libraries are evolving too. But how can libraries, writers and publishing evolve together? This panel discusses untraditional collections, the value of audience, and innovation within independent publishing.’

I hope you enjoy the chat. We did.

Listicles, muesli bars & mansplaining

What do best books listicles, the discovery of a 25-year-old muesli bar and a Swedish hotline for mansplaining have in common? They are the topics I discussed on Radio National Drive’s ‘My Feed’ segment.

I also talked about librarians on social media, book discussions on Twitter and how I use Goodreads to inform my reading.

You can listen to the podcast of the show here.

If you would like to explore some 2016 best books listicles, here are some good ones to start with:

Near the end


Heavy rain came thundering down onto the roof just as Richard Flanagan was about to walk onto the stage. Thick heat had been pressing in on Melbourne all day and now finally relief. Flanagan looked up and noted the thunderous welcome before beginning his lecture. He was speaking on the role of environment in shaping his writing. A sudden deluge seemed a fitting introduction to his coming tide of ideas.
Flanagan took us on a journey pulsing through the rapids and pausing in the quiet places of Tasmania’s Franklin River. He guided us through the primordial temperate rainforests of the Tarkine wilderness of his childhood. Equal parts homage and lament for these places are no longer what they were, gradually stripped away by forestry, mining and tourism. The wildlife disappearing into extinction and receding into myth to be known only through story. The Tasmanian Tiger his parents pulled him from the car to see one late night standing in the rain and searching in the headlights, but it was already gone.

‘Loving Tasmania is like loving a beautiful junkie. You are always disappointed’.

Flanagan dragged us away from the remote West Coast of Tasmania and across the globe to London, metropolis, where he first encountered a large city, the shock of being alone in a heaving mass of humanity. ‘Who would be there for me?’ he asked. Flanagan reflected on what we have lost by being city-dwellers, our connection, our humanity and at what cost?

Of course, he talked about writing too. His searching for a voice when trying to write about cities, which he didn’t understand, and then going back to his muse the river, and finding his voice in the air pocket where he was stuck underwater for hours facing death. This voice did not fit the model of Australian literature he was told, and so he made a new cast and filled it overflowing with the river. He wound the tendrils of death and decay of the rainforest around his words to bind them.

And now, he looks out from his cabin on Bruny Island, observing from the edges as the species around him ever decline and he sees the mirror of nature smashed into a thousand shards that we think we might now like to reassemble but it is too late. And if we look into what remains of that mirror we find the greatest loss is ourselves and we fear our own demise.

And he said other things too, but I did not take notes. I fixed my gaze on the pattern of bluestone behind him. Maybe there was some humour and I hung on for some hope. But all I felt was a sharp arrow pierce my black heart.

We walked out into air washed clean by the rain. Down into the crowd together alone to find a place to eat. And when we sat down and our meal arrived, and we were lifting our food to our mouths and trying to pick apart the noodles and our thoughts, a man died on the floor right next to us. We watched and we looked away and we could not look away as the paramedics pushed down hard on his chest, their equipment scattered all around, our table shoved out of the way, the music switched off and the lights turned up bright. And they kept pushing hard on his chest. And then we said to each other he’s breathing.

Image credit: State Library Victoria @library_vic

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’

image

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.

 

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.