Friday, 29 September 2017

Playing it safe...

We work in a risk-averse profession.

We learn to play it safe - whether it be in providing access to collections or making copies of materials... whether in committing resources to innovative services or trialling programs that are completely out of the circle we exist in.

Sure, there are the trailblazers who we all admire at conferences, but once the inspiration and associated endorphins wear away, we return to work - back to the safe old familiar surroundings.

And then there are times where we adopt new, exciting innovations - usually in the form of a software platform that an external vendor has developed, and done all the required risk analyses and beta-testing - and preferably one that another library has already used, so that we have an working example to observe first.

Of course, this all makes sense. We need to be accountable for our actions, decisions and the consequences that follow.

On the other hand, one of the core values of librarianship is defending and promoting Freedom of Expression as a fundamental human right.

Exercising one's freedom of expression is not safe. I've lived in countries where people aren't able to express themselves freely, because to do so would make them physically unsafe. Even here in Australia, there are many who cannot express a political opinion online without the consequence being a torrent of abuse - much of which involves threats or physical harm.

We see it happen to others and yet we remain silent, lest we become a target ourselves.

And of course, many of us are public servants, and have to choose our words carefully, in case we're perceived as being critical of the government employers and put our employment - and financial security - at risk.

We demand to have the right to be safe, but also the right to freedom of expression - even though, in practice, these two freedoms rarely coexist peacefully.

So, what's the solution? Continue to play it safe, keep our heads down, work hard, achieve results and get along with our colleagues, so that we can enjoy a safe and stimulating career? Or strive to be a revolutionary, railing against the systemic social biases and pushing for more equitably accessible services, build teams and collections that are more representative of our communities... and risk the inevitable push-back, whether it be those who would decry your actions with words such as "social justice warrior", "political correctness" or "playing identity politics", or, worse still, silent passive-aggression.

Or is this a false dichotomy?

Is it perhaps possible to be progressively outspoken and still play it safe?

Is it possible, as champions for intellectual freedom, to facilitate safe forums for the exploration of highly-contentious issues without the fear of some form or retribution? Or is this nothing more than preaching to the choir, tweeting outrage into our own homophilic echo-chambers, and avoiding real discourse - however dangerous - with those whose mindsets are truly opposite to ours.

I don't have the answers. Sometimes I feel emboldened and inspired to try to push for social change, but sometimes I feel exhausted enough just trying to stay on top of my professional work and maintain the professional relations I need with my peers. I know many people who keep these two parts of their lives completely separate - and that is, in itself, a way of playing it safe. But just as the personal is the political, so too is the professional.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Reflections on IFLA WLIC 2017

So, two weeks have transpired since I returned from my two-and-a-bit week trip from Australia to Poland and back. I've had to launch myself straight back into work, and have only recently managed to settle back into normal sleeping patterns.

Of the fifteen and a half days that I spent in Poland, seven of these were dedicated to attending the IFLA WLIC 2017 (that is, the International Federation of Library Associations' World Library and Information Congress), in the city of Wrocław.

I've been to quite a few conferences, but this one has left a lasting impression on me, in ways that other conferences haven't. Being a first-timer, I'm conscious of the fact that I haven't been able to fully process the sheer enormity of everything that this annual event has to offer, but here are a few reflections:

1. This is a conference for Libraries and Librarians, and they are doing a ton of awesome stuff. I think back to a recent GLAMR event that I attended, where one speaker declared that we need to stop using the terms Libraries and Librarians. If there's one event that really explores the breadth of this profession and the scope of what they do within every facet of society, it's WLIC. The wide range of topics and streams in the programme gave me plenty of food for thought regarding what my values are as a librarian, and the ways that I am currently specialising (i.e. as an art librarian in a National Library) and the ways that we, as librarians, need to further develop and focus our mindsets for the future, whether it's improving our knowledge and perspective on professional issues such as copyright reform, or becoming better advocates for ourselves and our communities. It's reminded me that this is a profession that is accomplished and diverse enough to easily fill six days of programming... plus satellite events!

2. This is a real International Conference. I heard stories of libraries and librarians from all over the world - from war-torn regions of Somalia and oppressive regimes in the Phillipines to public libraries in Scandinavia and the USA, and innovations in remote Indonesia. It's so easy to lose perspective of everything else when we spend our professional lives in a library workroom, or even at the reference desk. Furthermore, initiatives such as the IFLA Library Map of the World, collecting worldwide data on libraries, and sharing success stories related to the United Nations SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), and the IFLA Global Vision strategy, create more of a united front for the library profession, on an international scale.

3. Sometimes, it is as much about sharing as it is about listening. At many of the sessions I attended, there would be a number of speakers giving a brief presentation, but then the session would be turned around to the audience, and we would discuss the wider topics in small groups, and then eventually present to the rest of the room. I really enjoyed this aspect of the conference - something that I'd perhaps like to see more of in Australian library events.

4. Volunteering is a great way to get involved. For the first time, the conference opened up the volunteer program to the international library community. This meant that I could sign up as a volunteer, and then attend the event for free. Considering that registration for the event cost close to $1500 (AUD), volunteering was a great way to make my attendance more affordable. It also gave me the chance to meet other people who were also volunteering. The only downside was that it's also a considerable commitment (a total of 24 hours) which meant that I wasn't able to attend some of the sessions that I wanted to attend. But as it turned out, my duties involved checking passes for sessions - some of which I wouldn't have thought to attend, but turned out to be quite interesting. Like issues for agricultural librarians, or metadata standards for law librarians. It's also meant that I've had a good "test run" for my first IFLA conference - and now I've got a much better idea of how to get the most out of the event in the future, where I will commit to putting up the big bucks for attending, and get a better return on that investment.

5. I'm still very much a newbie in this profession. So, I've been working in libraries since 2000, and as a professional since 2006, and I've done my time in the past in the ALIA New Graduate's Group to the point that, in general, I don't feel much like a new graduate anymore. But arriving at IFLA feels a bit like showing up to the first day at University after having spent the past thirteen years at school. It's next-level stuff, and you're back at the bottom of the pecking order, with all the international big-wigs in attendance. Fortunately, I was far from the only person in this position, and was fortunate enough to fall in with the IFLA New Professionals Special Interest Group (NPSIG), who ran the satellite event, IFLAcamp, and quickly became friendly familiar faces around the event.

And so, I'm already looking forward to next year's congress, which is a little closer to home, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! Australia was fairly well-represented in Poland, but I would hope to expect a much larger contingent where distance is less of a factor. It's been an experience that I would thoroughly recommend to any librarian, as developing international perspectives not only gives us an opportunity to learn from one another, but creates a greater sense of what librarianship is, as an international profession, and what we can continue to achieve in the future.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The privilege of silence in libraries...

In my high school, the librarian didn't insist on silence; she insisted on grace and decorum. Which is a pretty big ask for teenagers. For starters, they'd have to look it up in a dictionary. We didn't have the internet back then.

Grace and decorum. Some might interpret that as being the epitome of courteous, elegant good-will and propriety that is fitting to the setting of the library. And sometimes, that would certainly mean silence - like, if we were expected to sit and read without interruption. Other times, discussion and learning necessitated noise, and that was also acceptable, so long as it was respectful and productive noise.

But when it came down to it, our school librarian was also a formidable no-bullshit kind of woman. On top of teaching us all how to navigate the library's collections, and cultivate fantastic reading programs, she was a champion against bullying, sticking up for the little guy, and had no hesitation in kicking out anybody who even started acting up in the library. In this way, an understanding of grace and decorum could be summed up by Wheaton's Law: Don't be a dick.

Like many librarians, I cut my teeth through the trial-by-fire rite of passage that is the public library service. By the time I was working there, we had done away with arcane rules of "silence" and patrons were even able to bring drinks into the library, which was deemed far considering that they were just going to borrow the books and read them over a cup of tea at home anyway. And although, silence wasn't enforced, the space was often very quiet, mostly with the regulars who'd come in and read the newspapers in their usual couch, or use the public access computers for hours.

The complaints would only really happen when the children's programs occurred... "This is a library, and they're making so much noise, singing and running around!" That phrase, "this is a library", indicating a holy place of silence, the sanctity of which the children's library had violated. Grace and decorum - children should be seen, and not heard. We politely addressed such complaints with the information that the library runs children's programs at these hours, and that perhaps they might prefer to visit the library at a different time.

Then there was the time that I was running sessions for the English Conversation Club. I'd set up a discrete corner of the library with a little coffee table, and there would be a small gathering of people from the community who were usually non-native English speakers, and spend an hour mostly just having a chat, with occasional explanations of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the English language.

It was at this time that I received the most vehement - and somewhat personal - complaint. "This is a library, and I can't read my newspaper when it's sounding like a Chinese laundry." He practically spat out the words. It seemed so nonsensical - I mean what the hell was a Chinese laundry? But the imagery was direct - invoking that of a horde of immigrants, creating cacophony and chaos, and destroying their civilised order and silence. In his eyes, we were the antithesis of grace and decorum. In my eyes, he was being a dick.

However, the library is for everybody, and we were soon able to move into a separate meeting room, where nobody would be disturbed.

I've worked in libraries for quite a while since then, and every time the issue of silence has come up, it's been at the instigation of the library user, as a result of another library user either engaging actively with computers, with each other, or seeking assistance from me. This is particularly the case, when assisting elderly people who are hard of hearing and need patient help using the internet, and as government services become more automated and online, it's going to be a growing demand in libraries that have online computer access. Every time somebody complains, that phrase "This is a library" is uttered, and each time, I have responded with, "We're here to help everybody who asks for it."

And the fact is that, generally speaking, you need to make noise to ask for help. It's the silent ones who are privileged enough not to need help, as they already have the skills and knowledge to be able to use the library unassisted. They don't need to be told that they're welcome in the library - they already expect it.

It's everybody else that we need to make noise with - to speak to, engage with, sing to, share stories and listen to. In that sense, grace and decorum means having the goodwill to welcome everybody into the space, and connecting with them in a meaningful way that allows them to succeed in whatever their needs are that have motivated them to visit the library. These people, who need the library - rather than those who demand the library, and silence - have just as as much right to be in the library space, using its collections. And anybody who thinks that these people don't belong is probably being a dick.

Monday, 21 August 2017

IFLA 2017 - First impressions

It's Monday night, and I'm in the city of Wroclaw, Poland, attending my first ever IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC). I've been wanting to attend IFLA since it was first announced that this world-class library profession event would be held in Brisbane... and then wasn't!

Flash forward to last year, when I had already made vague plans to visit Poland, and discovered that WLIC 2017 would be held there, and so my mind was set!

I arrived in Wroclaw last Wednesday, a few days early, so that I could attend IFLAcamp 5 - the satellite event of the New Professionals Special Interest Group. Running over two days, with the theme "Librarians are on the move", the first day consisted of a creative movement workshop and an unconference of discussions. The second day, a bicycle tour around the city of Wroclaw and some of its libraries.

The NPSIG people was super-friendly and welcoming - a perfect start to my first IFLA experience, and the cycling tour was a wonderful way to explore this beautiful city, and its exquisite library collections, engaging spaces and innovative services. And on Saturday, we decided to put together a librarian flashmob...

And then there was the congress itself. Before coming along, I asked Clare Mckenzie if she had any tips for attending IFLA, and she suggested that I attend some of the business meetings for the standing committees of different sections. I ended up sitting in on the Art Libraries meeting and the National Libraries meeting, and it was an insightful way to start to understand how the sections at IFLA operate. I also made some good connections with other art librarians, who became friendly faces in the crowds of attendees at sessions and the vendor exhibition.

But nothing could prepare me for the opening ceremony... I'd truly never seen so many librarians in the one place, and in the UNESCO world heritage listed Centennial Hall, the opening event was somewhat akin to a rock concert - complete with smoke machines, acrobats and all-singing-and-dancing performances, alongside speeches and a most fascinating lecture about the socio-political history of Poland. Only at an event like this, with over 3000 attendees, could such extravagance be possible at a library conference. And it was glorious.

In the last two days, I have already attended some truly stimulating events - from stories of tragedy and hope for libraries attempting to survive through times of crisis and turmoil, to keynotes about library trends and the how libraries and support the SDGs, and creating a united voice and global vision for all libraries around the world. And then there were some that I would never attended - such as sessions on cataloguing and subject access for law libraries - because I had also signed up as a conference volunteer (which I will reflect more on in a future post).

All in all, it's been an amazing experience so far. I've made many new professional connections, and reconnected with a few other familiar faces from the past. But most importantly, it's helped me maintain my sense of perspective as an international professional - something that I didn't realise I was yearning for since returning to Australia. My personal aim for the rest of this conference is to figure out how I can best maintain these connections and perspectives, once the event has finished and I return to Australia... To be continued!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

On finding Asian-Australian voices in our nation's memory...

Over at the #GLAMBlogClub, this month's theme is identity. Being a person of colour, specifically an Asian-Australian, racial identity is a topic that I tend to shy away. I was brought up in a multicultural community, singing "We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come... we share a dream, and sing with one voice... I am, you are, we are Australian." I also grew up, quite conscious of racism, and even to this day I am super-conscious when I overhear casual racism, and feel personally hurt when I become the target of racial slurs by unknown passers-by - which happens more often than I'd like to admit.

Besides, as far as I was concerned, I was Australian, and anybody who suggested otherwise because of my racial background, wasn't worth engaging in a pointless argument with.

But recently, there's been a growing amount of literature in the field of critical librarianship which analyses and addresses whiteness in the industry. It's something that I've become super-conscious of, and I feel that it's a topic that I should engage with more. The problem is that when I've occasionally brought it up in conversation with colleagues, at best it's acknowledged politely, at worst, I'm accused of invoking identity politics, and playing the race card. I haven't done it in a while, purely because I care about my career and don't want to make any of my colleagues feel offended / upset / guilty / awkward.

I have a lot of admiration for my peers and friends who are actively feminist, especially in addressing the ways that patriarchy is still are present in our society and workplaces. Yes, even the library industry, where over 85% of librarians are women, and yet male librarians still earn $6.9k more on average every year. And yet, I still feel strangely reluctant to speak out when there's a noticeable lack of representation, perhaps not always in our workplace, but certainly in our collections. I don't even sense any kind of solidarity amongst Australian librarians of colour, where I can comfortably discuss these issues to any depth.

I recently attended a talk at the National Library of Australia, outlining two of the exhibitions currently on display. One is an impressive collection of Japanese "kuchi-e" woodblock prints from the Meiji period, and the other is a collection of Chinese propaganda posters from 1949-1976. These, like most collections from the NLA's Asian Collections, are managed by language, focusing on the countries that collections are derived. It also includes Australian works which are published in foreign languages in these countries. And this is all good and important - as a collecting agency, we need to engage and collaborate with our regional neighbours.

However, there's a part of me that's deeply uncomfortable with the "otherness" that is associated with Asian culture in this context. We are looking outward at Asian cultures external to this nation, where there have been plenty of Asian communities and influencers in Australian society since the mid-19th Century. I'm conscious of this in state collections, particularly from my time working in the Northern Territory, and some of the Victorian collecting agencies, such as the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Museum. And, of course, the Immigration Museum has done important work in acknowledging the changing face of Australian society over the last two centuries.

And yet, when it comes to our national collections, I am conscious of the absence of these representations, when I browse these organisations that are charged with preserving Australia's national memory. One of my colleagues occasionally teases me about the fact that much of my work involves moving boxes full of papers of dead white people. It's become a reminder to me to keep an eye out for boxes full of papers that may be from people of colour. Their voices may tell a different story of what it means to be Australian. These are important voices, but so far they are literally buried in the stacks - waiting to be heard.

So, what else can I do?

As a Reference Librarian, there are opportunities to shine a light on parts of the collection that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some colleagues in recent years have identified indigenous content that we weren't even aware of, and made important and meaningful connections between them and the communities that they came from. I personally feel like I need to do more delving into the collections, and develop my own familiarity with the voices and stories that lie therein, so that I can then increase the wider awareness of diverse representations in these collections.

But most importantly, I would encourage Asian Australians who have played a part in this nation's history and culture - whether they are writers, artists, politicians, community leaders, etc. - to consider donating their papers, whether they be sketches, diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, computers, hard drives, and so on, to the National Library. It might currently be a place that's full of boxes of papers by dead white dudes, but it doesn't always have to be that way. This way, we can preserve a national memory that's representative of the diversity of Australian culture.

It's a start, anyway.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Day 30 : Farewell to another Blogjune!

I made it! Blogjune is done for another year!

I also made it through my first month in a new role. Today was a good day. It turned out that all the frustration from yesterday paid off, and all the difficulties I addressed yesterday paved the way to get a heap of things progressed forward today. So, it's a timely reminder to myself to be more patient - both with myself, and with the process - and to keep on keeping on, and these things will sort themselves out.

And looking back at the month, it's been a big one. Possibly the biggest this year so far. The new role, obviously, played a major part in it, and whilst I haven't blogged overtly about it, there are aspects of it that have prompted a few of my posts, and, if nothing else, affected my mood and the corresponding tone. It's brought career development into the fore of my thoughts, as I learn new processes and develop new skills, and wonder which direction this big change will take me.

Speaking of professional development, I mused about the mentor programme - which I did decide to sign up for! I attended the ALIA New Librarians' Symposium, and found a renewed sense of professional exuberance. Perhaps they should rename it the Renewed Librarian's Symposium...? Actually, I was always a fan of the Emerging Leading Library & Information Professional Symposium Experience - or ELLIPSE... I do love a good acronym! But I digress...

Looking back at the past month, and comparing it to Blogjune 2017, I feel like I'm in a much better place now. I'm definitely starting to settle back into my life in Australia, and I currently have a stable basis for continuing my career, and a solid plan for the immediate future, with a few exciting adventures on the way. I look forward to looking back onto these posts in future years, as I have recently on past years, and appreciate how much my life has changed, and continues to change who I am, and where I'm going.

Until next June!

(Or whenever I decide to blog again in the meantime...)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Day 29: Post-conference comedown... and making a plan.

So, it finally hit me today. The post-conference comedown.

I'm not talking about physically crashing - that happened on Monday! No, I'm talking about the crash to reality after a weekend at NLS8 - feeling inspired and motivated about being in a socially and technologically progressive professional community, and like we were ready to take on the whole world and change it.

I mean, really, today was just one of those days - everything that I tried to do got hit with frustrating setback after another, and by the end of the day I felt like I'd gotten nothing done, compounded by the fact that I had my rostered evening shift, which turned it into a ten-and-a-half hour day. We have those days, sometimes, and my brain should know this.

But no, suddenly it felt like the world was crumbling around me, and all my professional dreams that I'd been striving for for the past twelve years were turning to utter crap, and I may as well just give up rather than keep deluding myself that this is a profession worth being a part of. Admittedly, I do sometimes have those days, but not so often.

So, what did I do?

I sat down and worked on the ALIA Career Development Kit. Strange choice, I know, but (a) I needed to do an activity to get my PD points up a bit further this month, and (b) what better time to be brutally honest with yourself about your career path than when you're feeling negative and disillusioned about it?

And you know what? It kinda made me feel better. I identified nine professional development priorities, identifying people in my professional network who could support me in developing certain skills and knowledge, and other external courses / activities to pursue over the next twelve months. Which is good timing, since it's almost performance review time anyway, where I get to propose PD activities for the next year.

I mean, sure, it's not a perfect plan, and most of it may go out of the window, but there's something comforting about at least having a plan.