Tuesday, 3 April 2018

And she gave away the secrets of her past...

So, when last month's theme was announced, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of writing at length on it. I find the idea of professional work being tied to one's happiness hugely problematic - as do I find the idea of my work being tied to somebody else's happiness. But at least I had books.

Then this month's theme, Control, was announced - now there's a topic that I can get my teeth into. Cue the Joy Division soundtrack (i.e. press play below) and continue reading.

So, a little while ago, somebody came into work bemoaning the restrictive limitations that a certain State Library (which shall remain nameless for the sake of my future career prospects) had in its Special Collections Reading Room. Apparently, whilst certain manuscript collections were available for viewing in the reading room - albeit under controlled supervision - they were in no way allowed to take digital photographs of the material for future reference. They could, of course, transcribe and sketch (using a pencil, of course), and read the contents. But without express permission from the donor of the material - or, as is often the case, their descendants. Of course, the kicker is that (until January 1, 2019), all unpublished materials remain in copyright in perpetuity. The other unfortunate possibility is that once the material is no longer protected by copyright, it still might have restrictive access and copying conditions placed on it by a rights agreement between the donor and the library.

Now, I know what you're thinking - this is 2018. Who even cares about boxes of dead trees that were carved out half a century ago? The answer is - a lot of people. Especially when that knowledge is locked away in the physical world, whilst we're living in a digital world. It is literally buried treasure. The moment it is uncovered, captured and set free into the digital world, it no longer has value in its scarcity. Furthermore, once a manuscript collection / archive is fragmented into its parts, it no longer has value in its recordness as a formed set of documents, and it loses context, evidence - effectively, its story.

But I'm a librarian, not an archivist. I'm primarily focused on the needs of the reader, not the wishes of the creator - especially when that creator has been dead for thirty years. Here's why: The world has changed. Back in the 20th century, when old-fashioned rights agreements were being put together with donors, we didn't have digital cameras. We didn't have the internet. We had photocopiers - which were likely to cause irreparable damage to any delicate materials placed in them. Libraries didn't have the same mission to digitise and take collections to the world. The world had to come to the library, get their reader's ticket, get out the white gloves, and preferably have some kind of academic credentials to justify casting their naked eyes on a piece of history.

And people would donate a lifetime's worth of personal papers to the library, trusting that the library would do everything in their power to maintain a controlling eye over these collections, lest a careless reader corrupt the sanctity of their hand-written memories in their wake.

So, this is the legacy that we must contend with, when somebody wants to make digital copies of materials that have come from a time when the idea of digital copying was unfathomable. Furthermore, when archives come in endless boxes of mixed media, from unpublished written work to photos, newspaper clippings, letters from third parties and printed ephemera, the very thought of trying to dictate where copyright starts and ends for each item is enough to make any librarian say, "No!" (When what they're really saying is "I don't want to be responsible for sorting out this mess!")

So that's what (some) libraries do. They say, "No. Not without express permission from whoever it is that can authorise whatever it is that you want to copy. Even if it's just for research purposes and you're not going to actually reproduce the contents."

I say some libraries, because I was pleasantly surprised when attending a session at VALA last month, which addressed the question of how to ethically, morally and legally make digitised archives available through the web. Gavan McCarthy from the University of Melbourne described the archive space as a "Sartrean" space - that is to say that it's full of human variability, in the way that they do not behave in the way that machines do. So, imposing binary yes/no rules for accessing and using collections is always going to be a fraught process, especially when we often don't really know what's in them, and what kind of variables they have.

In the end, their solution was somewhat simple. They just put it out there, with a content notice, access conditions, and conditions of use. By providing your email address, you agreed to the terms, and then you would be sent a download link for the digital collection:

Effectively, they relinquished control, and placed the onus on the reader to be aware of the content, and to do the right thing in terms of accessing and using the materials.

A colleague of mine described this as "ballsy", and I won't lie - there's still a part of me that, as a librarian, is incredibly uncomfortable with this idea. That part of me that feels like this is a naive approach which will lead to mass replication that devalues the work, risks the public disclosure of personal information, and will eventually lead to lawsuits, takedown requests, and the loss of professional reputation (which is important for libraries that are trying to attract quality manuscript collections).

But at the same way, there's something quite liberating about taking a leap of faith, and letting go of that control.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Happiness is...

So, this month's GLAM Blog Club theme is "happiness", and today is the International Day of Happiness, so it seems like the right day to be writing this post.

So, this may seem like a blasphemous thing for a 21st century librarian to say (up there with "Librarians don't necessarily need to learn how to code"), but I'm going to say it anyway.

You know what I love most about being a librarian? More than helping people? More than working in a creative and cultural sector? More than connecting people with online content? More than working with passionate, intelligent and general colleagues? More than taking on a really interesting reference enquiry that takes you on a journey of research and discovery?

The books.

I mean, I love all those other things. But mostly books.

Books make me happy. Always have. Always will.

A post shared by Andrew F (@lib_idol) on

(Especially when I win free books on social media, and they arrive on the same day.)

And no, it's not about the smell. Get your nose out of it, you pervert.

That is all.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Looking back, looking forward...

Something I learned recently, was that when I'm really busy, I'm less inclined to write blog posts. But something I'm trying to learn (and let's face it, I've been trying all my life) is to have the discipline to stick to important routines that I've committed myself to. And apparently, blogging monthly is one of them. This month's #glamblogclub topic is "What I want to learn in the year ahead / What I learned in the past year."

Something else I recently learned is that it's much easier to write a Top 5 "listicle", than it is to write a proper blog post, but it's harder than it looks to write a good one. So, here goes...

Top five things I learned in the past year (in no particular order).

5. The idea of change is a lot more painful than the change itself. I recently had wisdom teeth extracted, in the chair with a local anaesthetic. It was far from a pleasant experience, but the anticipation of it was far, far worse. And still people don't believe me when I said it "wasn't that bad". Seems like a good metaphor for lessons in change management. Sometimes you just gotta strap people down and pull out their wisdom teeth, and they'll thank you and pay you for it.

4. When you find yourself at a crossroads, and feel paralysed by choice, then they're probably both the right choice, and whilst you'll be propelled down a particular pathway, you'll still be fine. Just pick one and commit to it. Again, metaphors. There were a few big decisions made last year, as there were every year for as long as I can remember.

3. Being nice makes all the difference. I had the pleasure of working with people and clients who were not only exceedingly competent, but some of them were exceedingly nice about it. It's an important reminder to make the effort to create social connections alongside professional collaborations.

2. The wider I broaden my scope, the more conservative things can get. I have the privilege of inhabiting a number of extremely progressive and dynamic social and professional bubbles. I've also ventured far beyond these bubbles, and been everything from disappointed to offended by the conservative nature of many of the broader and mainstream sentiments - especially once I start interacting with communities on a national and global level. It's political correctness gone too far the other way.

1. Copyright reform. I learnt a lot about it. This isn't a metaphor or a vague allusion - but it's still important.

Top five things I want to learn in the year ahead. (Some of these may be reminiscent of the above list.)

5. Change management. Frankly, I love the JFDI, sink-or-swim, ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission approach, but it doesn't work for everybody else. I can go about changing things in my personal workplan or even in my team, but that's not necessarily going to lead to sustainable change for the wider organisation. I want to learn how to be more strategic in implementing sustainable institutional change.

4. Decision making. I'd like to learn how to be better at making decisions, rather than just trusting my instincts and committing to my resolve. I'm probably not going to, though, if I'm really honest with myself. Maybe the thing to learn is to be more zen about the decisions I make, and don't stress so much about what might or might not happen.

3. Making social connections. I struggle with this at the best of times, and I feel like I'm getting worse at it as I get older. I find it easier to empathise with clients at work, and get emotionally involved in them and their projects, than I do in connecting with people in my social circles. I think there's something in that (hopefully not that I should spend more time at work!).

2. Widen the bubbles that I inhabit. Using NewCardigan as an example - whilst I'm actively involved in writing blogs and interacting online with other professionals in this professional scene, I work in a GLAM organisation of around 400 people and only a handful of them would be aware of NewCardigan, and even fewer would actually engage with it. Going wider, there are a huge number of GLAM professionals working in the ACT... and if I felt that I could get one percent of them to attend a NewCardigan event, then I'd be the first one to put my hand up to organise such an event (hint hint).

1. Copyright reform. Yeah, I still have more to learn, as well as get better at making risk analyses where the area is grey, due to archaic legislation...

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...


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...