So last Wednesday morning I had a bitter-sweet internal debate about whether or not to wear my Terry Pratchett pin, decided in the affirmative, and then headed over to the State Library of Victoria (SLV) for its one-day mini conference: Renew, Rethink, Revitalise.
This initiative of the SLV/Public Libraries Victoria Network was a showcase for innovation at public libraries around the state, and proved so popular that it didn’t just sell out – it actually had more than a few gatecrashers. I saw the tell-tale extra chairs being set out. The SLV’s Libraries Manager (and MC for the day) Debra Rosenfeldt would tell us in her opening address that we were 240+ public library staff, representing 41 of Victoria’s 47 public library services.
By the time the conference officially started, I had already run into several of my former colleagues from different library services, and been asked on every occasion if I’d changed my hair. The answer to this question is always: yes. In fact I’ve actually changed my hair since the mini-conference. I’m like Cindy Sherman. Or the Terminator.
Anyway, catching up with old co-workers is the greatest thing ever. I love hearing about what’s new and who’s doing what and how everyone is going. I love seeing familiar faces, and getting the invitation to be a little bit sentimental. Awesome too is catching up with people I know from Twitter (hello Jennifer Strover, Ozge Sevendik and Anna Walker), and people from my own library service, who (somewhat ironically) I pretty much never get the chance to talk to. It’s lovely.
As the start of the day Debra Rosendfeldt promised that we’d leave exhausted, but inspired. This was of course a very prescient comment, so now that I’ve had the weekend to recover and organise my thoughts, here are some of the things Renew, Rethink, Revitalise left me thinking about:
- Corrinne Hill from Chattanooga Public Library talked a lot about “commander’s intent”. In order to lead a group of people, everyone must understand the mission, and must understand what success actually looks like. She emphasised the need to be able to clearly articulate the Why of what you’re doing, and to give staff the power to make their own decisions. There was a lot of talk throughout the day about the value of experimentation – creating space within our libraries to try new things, to fail, and to be surprised
- And parallel to this, Hill also encouraged us to cultivate an understanding of our own personal reasons for doing what we do, as understanding this can help guide us through hard times
- Sue Roberts from the State Library said that leadership is about change, and that change is about grief, loss, and renewal. She also talked about the way in which moving beyond our comfort zones can take us into ambiguous, uncertain, uncomfortable spaces, and about how handling this is a component of leadership. This is a fascinating idea for me – change does indeed include elements of grief and loss, even in instances when change is joyous and anticipated. What can these experiences teach us about how we’re faring as leaders? How can these lessons strengthen our ability to show good leadership, in whatever form it takes? Managing the tension between what is new and what is familiar means understanding how change works, and, I suppose, understanding how we work when we’re changing
- Makerspaces – letting the community figure out what they want to do in a makerspace, and how they want to use it. Corrinne Hill suggested that admitting the library doesn’t actually know everything makes room for people to find their own way. Borrowers keen to use the tools in the makerspace figure out how things work, and in doing so, become part of the space themselves. There’s a sense of community ownership, something which would be harder to cultivate if the library adopted a more prescriptive or gatekeepery model
- Inviting volunteers from migrant communities to come into the library – I love the idea of explicitly welcoming people from migrant/CALD backgrounds, and encouraging them to share their knowledge and skills with each other, with us, and with the community at large. This gives everyone an opportunity to form and extend their networks, to show leadership, and encourages greater appreciation of the value of cultural diversity within our communities. So don’t get me wrong – I think this is a good start. But having done this, I feel like we need to think about how to extend it further. Are there ways for volunteers to become paid workers? Are there pathways for them to become part of the library’s management? How inclusive are we really, if our organisations (and our management teams) don’t reflect the diversity of our communities?
- And following on from this – when we’re designing programs for borrowers from marginalised groups, we need to be rigorous. Really rigorous. If we’re not a member of that group (and sometimes even if we are), it’s possible that we’re operating on biased assumptions, rather than quality information. There’s a good chance that we will replicate the same oppression that people from these groups already experience in the wider world. (And even though we may not mean to do it, you know what they say about the road to hell). If there was one thing I took away from the day, it was the reminder that however much we might talk about libraries being radical, subversive and disruptive, this is all hot air if our radical, subversive, disruptive activities are (unintentionally or not) reinforcing systematic inequalities. If our libraries are replicating racism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia etc through their programs or policies, then we are disrupting nothing. We need much more nuanced conversations about this in our public libraries, and the responsibility for this is something we all bear – don’t wait to have it pointed out to you, go find out for yourself.
- Library as a community platform – As Corrinne Hill put it, “not a set of services delivered by experts from on-high, but a program delivered by the community itself.” I saw that Corrinne’s presentation had a slide making reference to R. D. Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, which talks about this in depth, and provides a lot of great starting points for implementing this approach in a public library
- Libraries as means for storytelling – This was a very strong theme in Sue Roberts’ talk, and a thread which wound through several other presentations as well. As Mare Maticevski from Darebin Libraries put it, “stories are humanising”, and conversations offer us a way to build better communities
- Promotion of the library and its activities through our own personal networks, bringing people in by telling them about what’s going on at work, at gatherings and through social media – This is kind of an interesting one, because a lot of librarians I know (myself included) don’t have a well-defined border between their personal and their professional lives. I think it could be very successfully argued that for a segment of the population (i.e middle class professionals) such a thing is growing scarcer, and it often surprises me how comfortable with this so many people seem to be (see also the deeply scary Work Life Integration). I think this is too complicated a subject to really get into here, but it’s definitely something I came away from the day reflecting on. Being a librarian is part of my identity, so it’s ever-present, it’s “always on”. But like most people the idea of no delineation between personal and professional sounds like a special kind of terrible. And so somewhere in between these two extremes, I suppose I’ve already drawn a line. How did I decide? What did I base that decision on? Have I created this boundary thoughtfully, or should I reflect on it a little bit more? What say you – have you drawn this line? How did you decide where?
- Community engagement, not collections – I’ve paraphrased a tweet from someone attending the session I wasn’t at, because this theme ran through so many of the discussions, and I think that in itself is worth noting. There was a time when saying that a public library’s collection is secondary to its other activities would have sounded almost nonsensical, and now this idea is everywhere. And to be honest, I think the shift has been more one of perception than it has been a question of libraries drastically changing their activities. (That said, I realise this is a pretty bold call to make given the rate of technological change over the last 40 years, so I’m happy to discuss this one further if you want to)
- Digital librarianship – Sue Roberts talked about the fact that strategy at the State Library doesn’t mention digital resources, because at this point they are so fundamental to the library’s activities it is redundant to discuss them specifically. As T. Scott Plutchak said it in his fantastic paper – Breaking the barriers of time and space: the dawning of the great age of librarians – “if we are not all thinking of ourselves as digital services librarians, we are in trouble.”
- UX – On the subject of redesigning the State Library’s website, Peter McMahon talked about keeping the emphasis on the user’s own ability to tell stories, rather than on the collection. I loved this, because it’s a great example of design being guided by the over-arching values of an organisation. Supporting this kind of user experience ties in to the State Library’s bigger themes of community storytelling – to me this kind of coherence is a key characteristic of a great user experience
- Technology and our perception of space – what is its relationship to the physical/emotional/psychological space the library occupies? Yes, all the virtual-meatspace-cocktail stuff is my favourite thing ever, I love this subject dearly. Corey Greenwood and Leanne Averill from Moonee Valley Libraries gave a great presentation about the use of Near Field Communication in the library, and how they’ve used this technology to connect these spaces to each other.
- Cool stuff – And on the subject of NFC, Jennifer Strover showed me her NFC ring, which directs you to her LinkedIn profile when she fist-bumps your phone:
- Learning spaces – Stephen Heppell‘s provocative discussion about engaging students through the kinds of learning spaces we offer them picked up the day’s threads about user experience and community engagement. Empowering students to make their own decisions about the features and configuration of their learning spaces leads to better outcomes – educationally, socially and creatively. (and FYI Heppell’s Pinterest Boards are great)
As was promised, by the end of the day I was indeed exhausted. The last time I attended a PLVN event I was a not-officially-but-really-basically-a-librarian with long black hair and no idea what people even used Twitter for. And speaking of which – Stephen Heppell did take a moment to chide the librarians who don’t have an account. If you’re one of them, I’d say think about giving it a go. Connect with some of the brilliant people coming up with new ideas and insights, and keep the conversation going instead of waiting until the next time you run into your friend at another library conference.
The only other thing I’d add is that there is so much more to be said on the subject of libraries and institutionalised oppression, and as my knowledge grows, I hope to join the conversations which are already taking place. Raising this stuff is not always very well received, but to my mind that only makes addressing it all the more important.
Thank you so much to the SLV and the PLVN! Thank you to everyone who spoke, the organisers, the tweeters, and the attendees. This was a wonderfully thought-provoking event and I feel so lucky that I was able to attend.
- Turn off your notifications if you’re live-tweeting a conference – OMG, nothing makes you feel like the newb you are like forgetting to do this. Sorry inbox, I should treat you with more respect. Apparently the conference’s hashtag, #slvPubLib was the 5th-ranked trend in Australia that day, which doesn’t surprise me given the volume of tweeting I saw in the stream. I made a personal record of 162 tweets, after which I was totally overstimulated and had to go home to quietly sip herbal tea in a darkened room
- Dim your mobile/iPad screen if you’re live-tweeting – because people can (quite reasonably, I feel) find that very distracting
- Good ideas are strategic, and they are values-driven – this was a point made by Sue Roberts that I love because it really encourages us to reflect on the activities underway in our libraries, and gives us insight into what we’re doing, as well as a metric for determining how successful they are
AND ONE MORE THING
- To Loom it may concern – Chattanooga Public Library has a loom. Loom! I find myself suddenly consumed with the wish to loom. Like hey guys, not much, just heading over to my local library to get my loom on. I feel like a strong case could be made to get Saori weaving into libraries – it’s very easy to learn, doesn’t require a great amount of strength or dexterity, and produces some astoundingly beautiful results. Just saying.