Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Building balanced professional perspectives...

I was recently asked to speak to a group of LIS students about my "less than normal" career path, working in the international development sector.

I was pretty honest about this stage in my career - there wasn't much strategy behind it. I didn't set out to build some super set of transferable skills. The reality was that there were no opportunities within the library sector that interested me, so I sought out opportunities elsewhere. One slightly-different thing led to an even more different thing further away for a longer period of time, and pretty soon I was living on the other side of the world working in UN peacekeeping operations.

After several years of working overseas, in a very different sector, I felt like I had drifted too far from Australian libraries to realistically move back into this profession. I'd struggled enough previously job-hunting as an active librarian; I didn't like my chances as a lapsed one.

It was mostly lucky timing that, when I returned to Australia late last year, a position became available, and I was in the right places and ready to start working in some very good libraries.

And yet, I was also wary. I was worried that a return to libraries would be a "step backwards".

However, it turned out that spending a few years in the international field, away from libraries, was well-timed, and exactly what I needed to build a broader perspective of the socio-political landscape that libraries exist in, not only in Australia, but on a global level.

Earlier this year, ALIA passed a constitutional change to endorse the principles of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, following similar leadership from IFLA in 2016 with their International Advocacy Programme (IAP), supporting and promoting the role that libraries play in relation to the SDGs.

These strategic priorities on a global scale became evident when I went to the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in August, and it was like a convergence of both my Library and International Development worlds. I heard so many fascinating stories of libraries from all cultures and political situations, from war zones and geographically-remote locations, to bustling metropolitan hubs and underprivileged urban communities.

It made me realise, moreso than ever, how much of a one-sided bubble many of us live and work in, and how much we have to learn by stepping out of that bubble, and applying our skills in very different cultural and professional environments. As important as libraries are, we are not the centre of the universe, but rather one of many vital components that need to work on a global level in developing the capacity of our communities. We can't achieve this in isolation, disconnected from the work that other community and cultural development agencies are performing on a global level.

By opening ourselves to experiencing other professional perspectives, we create a more balanced perspective that we can bring back to the library field, creating future pathways for wider connections and partnerships.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Finding balance in our life's work...

So, in my last post, I looked a bit at the idea that success comes from being able to make a significant, lasting impact on one's wider professional community, and that quite often this come about through making various commitments outside of work.

This also seemed to be a bit of a recurring theme last year, when I interviewed a number of people who were new graduates back in 2006, which I guess would make them mid-career professionals now. Many of them consider their involvement with ALIA as an important part of their professional development, particularly in volunteering in various groups and advisory committees and conference organising committees. In the past, I've been fortunate enough to have had, at least on one occasion, a workplace that has supported me in my professional involvement, but by and large, most of us need to spend our "ALIA time" outside of the workplace.

And even if we're not the ones tirelessly organising events, drafting discussion papers, or coordinating advocacy programs, there's the hope that enough professionals will come on board - enough just to show up to an evening event, or write one blog post a month. Without attracting a critical mass of peers participants, it can feel like a thankless and futile task. And yet, even that absolute minimum amount of professional engagement - enough to get your PD points - can be a lot to to ask of the average person.

Which (finally) brings me to the month's theme - Balance. I'm not going to call it a "work/life balance", because it's a lot more complicated than that. For many of us, our work is what motivates us in other areas of life, and our personal lives can often take more work than our paid employment. Depending on one's personal situation, you might be juggling a combination of the following:

  • Work - be it full-time, part-time, or multiple jobs, depending on which of the following you're also trying to balance;
  • Family - you might be a carer to some capacity, or just have familiar expectations to spend time with your relatives;
  • Relationships - they don't magically look after themselves... they take time and energy;
  • Studies - some of you are crazy enough to go back for more, and I know better that to ask anybody how their PhD is going;
  • Health - doing regular exercise, buying groceries and cooking healthy meals. Yep, that's a thing that's important, but most of us don't find enough time to do it properly.
  • Creative hobbies - whether it's dancing, crafting, writing, learning a language or a musical instrument, there's enough evidence out there to show that plenty of this will keep your brain in good shape.
  • Socio-political engagement - At the very least, there's a whole lot of emotional labour involved here, in trying to engage with your peers in improving our society, let alone getting actively involved in advocacy campaigning on socio-political issues.

Now, for many of us, all of the above are going to be higher on our priority list than Professional Involvement, and I daresay that many of us struggle to find the time to maintain a balanced ratio of engagement with some of these aspects of life without neglecting others.

To be honest, sometimes it's all I can do just to work all day, go home, cook some quick-and-dirty noodles for dinner, and read a chapter of a book, before falling asleep by 10pm.

So, on top of that, working on a professional committee, and using all your annual leave to self-fund and attend conferences to present a paper that you researched and wrote in your own time? It's pretty crazy and exhausting, and when I lay it all out like this, I don't know why anybody would choose this life. And yet, some of us do it again and again.

When I self-funded my trip to IFLA in Poland a few months ago, I was often asked, "Why would you spend your own time and money going to IFLA?" My response was quite simple - for some time, I've wanted to go to an IFLA conference, and I've also wanted to visit Poland. This seemed like a good opportunity to do both at once. For me, that's where the importance of balance lies - not in juggling a bunch of different unrelated things, but in finding intersections between these aspects of my life, and engaging there.

I work in a place that is highly engaged in culture and technology, with a good team of peers who are intelligent, sociable and supportive. I'm able to ride my bike to and from work, and live in a city where it's relatively easy to find and participate in cultural activities. Of course, it's not seamless - it still takes work, and this is where I'm still trying to figure out the missing piece - professional involvement.

Compared with other Australian cities I've lived in, Canberra has a relatively small number of people who are actively involved in their professional community. Part of me wonders whether this is because there isn't yet a "critical mass" of active professionals, like in other cities, or whether Canberra living isn't compatible with including professional involvement as part of a balanced lifestyle.

Part of the solution, of course, is to get employers to encourage their staff to at least participate in the wider professional community, both on a professional and social level. Again, balance. After all, I've often found that in the past, the most successful professional events that I've attended, are the ones where everybody has also gelled socially. (The ones where everybody is out the door the moment the final presenter finishes speaking - not so much.)

Once you get a bunch of people together who get along well socially, have exciting and fresh ideas, and trust each other to be able to successfully make it a reality - that's where the magic happens!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

That S-word...

Success.



No, it's not the latest one-word theme for #glamblogclub (yet!), but it's a word that comes up from time to time within one's professional career.

When we're students, we see success in terms of our grades, and graduating. As new graduates, that next goal is the much-coveted first professional position - which can already feel next-to-impossible for many, let alone getting a permanent job, in a sector / organisation of choice, and finally having a demonstrated track record of competent professional work.

All of these are important steps of achievement in establishing one's career as a professional. It takes years of hard work to get to that point, and yet, once achieved, the questions remain: "Am I now successful? If not, how will I know when I am? How do I define success as a professional?"

Such is the status anxiety of the mid-career professional. Having jumped through all the hoops, and followed all the advice laid-out for New Grads, you reach that plateau where you join the masses of other professionals who are at the same level, and have been doing pretty much the same professional level of work for as long as they can remember. And I've had plenty of colleagues who have reached this point, and are perfectly happy to stay there until retirement. Whilst they might be doing their job well, and even creating innovation and progress in their organisation - is that really success, or is that just doing your job?

So, I was reading my recent-arrived copy of Incite magazine, and on page 14, there was an article (the first of three!) entitled Defining Success. And I thought, "Okay, this will be interesting."

It followed two examples - one historical, and one current. The historical example followed South Australian librarian Arthur Mortimer, who spent a number of years lobbying for funding public libraries until a newly-elected premier Don Dunstan relented and provided the much-needed funds. Mortimer continued to advocate for libraries for 30 more years, and was recognised by ALIA in 1996 for his lifelong devotion to libraries. The current example looks at Melanie Mutch and Megan Tolney, Sydney public libraries, who established a not-for-profit organisation, Librarians' Choice (presumably in their own time outside work), which generates monthly reader advisory lists of new release titles, as voted for by librarians, building strong partnerships between librarians and the publishing industry.

The article identifies strategies for achieving success, but in spite of the article's title, I struggled to identify exactly how they define success. Is it something that you can only identify in hindsight - once you've reached the end of a lifelong career - in terms of the impact that you've made in the information profession? Does immediate / short term impact count? And how exactly does one measure this impact, particularly in terms of reach and long-term sustainable change? And whilst both of these examples are admirable, there is a growing expectation that professionals should devote their time and energy outside of work to the betterment of their professional community and society. This in itself feels like quite a privileged attitude, especially since most mid-career professionals have enough on their plate raising a family or managing other personal commitments.

In my mind, the question still remains: How does one define success as a mid-career professional? Is it when you feel like you're making a tangible, sustainable difference in your communities? Is it when you're finally "following your passion" and getting paid for it? Is it when you're actually making the average individual Australian wage? Is it when you've pushed through to a management position? Is it something else entirely?

Or is success itself overrated? Are we being too hard on ourselves, setting an unreasonable expectation to achieve some elusive abstract ideal goal that we can't quite define, but figure that we'll know what it is once we've achieved it?

What do you think?

Monday, 30 October 2017

Life before libraries...

I feel like I've already spoken / written at length about the winding sometimes-exciting, sometimes-frustrating path that I've taken in the past eleven-ish years. I feel like any success over this time can be attributed to either being in the right place at the right time or (when I wasn't so lucky) taking a leap into the unknown and hoping for the best.

But it's easy to forget that there were twenty-something years of my life prior to getting my first library job, and they were certainly formative years in terms of setting me on my current path. So, that's what I want to explore today - after all, we are talking about Origin Stories this month.

I didn't always want to become a librarian. I'm pretty sure that option never crossed my mind during my childhood. To be honest, I don't think I ever really knew what I wanted to be, growing up. I think I figured that I'd just do as well as I could in high school and see where that got me. I probably would have done better if I didn't spend so much time arranging music, hanging out in the drama room, or spending late nights dialling in to Bulletin Board Systems (these were the days before the Internet, after all). But I graduated with good enough marks to get into an Arts / Engineering double-degree course at Melbourne Uni, so that seemed a good idea at the time.

A couple of years later, I dropped out of the Engineering degree - strangely enough, there was so much more maths involved than I really cared for, and I was far too busy managing several student clubs, performing in theatre productions, and otherwise hanging out with role-players and re-watching Labyrinth, Willow, and episodes of Red Dwarf for the gazillionth time. My first paid job was a casual position working for the university's School's Liaison Unit, talking to visiting school groups about how awesome student life was at Melbourne Uni.

These activities grew into bigger things. I became heavily involved in student arts, and in my next paid gig, I was the Communications Officer for MUDfest, a biennial festival of the arts. Also, every summer, I would volunteer my time developing learning activities for a VCE Summer School which was delivered to students from underprivileged backgrounds, and eventually I was paid to co-run the whole program. At the same time, I picked up ongoing casual work, sitting at the front desk of a computer lab in the Baillieu library, helping students connect to the wifi, figure out the printing system, look up journal articles on databases, and show academics how to use EndNote.

Plus my academic life was picking up again - I'd discovered the Classics and English Literature departments, and one of my favourite subjects was medieval paleography and codicology, where my lecturer had developed state of the art software for reading digitised medieval manuscripts. It was awesome.

In hindsight, it seems so obvious that I'd become a librarian. Not the traditional sort which was still prevalent back then, but the kind that we talk about now. But it hadn't crossed my mind yet. I had more interesting things to do than to put books on shelves.

Eventually, in 2004, I graduated and was forced to go out into the real world. I still had my library computer lab job, and my younger friends at uni, but I couldn't stay there forever, and they would graduate soon enough. My problem was, I still didn't know what to do with my life - other than all the cool, interesting and rewarding things I'd been doing as a student. I eventually brainstormed a whole lot of vocational fields, based on my skills and interests, and the top three options (in no particular order) were:

- Secondary Education
- Arts Administration
- Librarianship / Information Management

I seriously considered going into teaching - even though I (correctly) had my doubts as to whether I'd be a good school teacher. Similarly, I would have loved to have gone into the Arts sector and worked at a fringe or writers festival, but the pragmatist in me felt that it wasn't really a sustainable option. Libraries, on the other hand - now *there* was a solid investment in my future! After all, there are so many kinds of libraries - it couldn't be that competitive to get in, right? The course could be done online, and fees were subsidised by the government. Plus I kinda had a bit of relevant knowledge and experience, with my computer lab work and English Literature degree.

So, I signed up, and quickly found some part-time volunteer work assisting the librarian in a small disability non-profit organisation. By the end of that year, I was invited to an interview that would become my first full-time job as a library officer in a public library. The rest, as they say, is history.

I never set out to become a librarian, but now that I look back, it's felt like an inevitable destination. It's extraordinary how well this field has suited my range of interests - a combination of culture, technology, learning, community-building, social justice - in ways that I couldn't have predicted at the time.

And, I mean, really? Me, an engineer? At least if I screw up something in the library, the ensuing damage would be limited...

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.