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?