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.