Monday 31 December 2018

Our endgame as librarians.

It's the end of the year, and this month's GLAMblogclub theme is "End".

As an annual milestone, the end of a year is often a time of reflection on the past year of our ongoing journey; where we were this time last year, then things that we've achieved, the challenges and setbacks, and the direction in which we're headed. And it got me thinking: where does this road lead, what is our endgame as librarians, and most importantly, how do we make it happen?

Firstly, as many of us know, the cultural sector is a very difficult nut to crack, and for many, the endgame is simply getting a coveted ongoing job as a librarian. It doesn't even have to pay that well, so long as there's a modicum of job security. The process of getting to that point as a new graduate can be so frustrating and fraught with setbacks that, once we finally get there, there's a feeling of, "Yes! I've made it! I'm a librarian!"

But then what? I was reminded of this question recently when I spotted the following tweet:

It seems that vocational awe is a concept that only librarians appear to be obsessed with - an online search will bring back many references to it, almost entirely in the context of libraries. For a good rundown on the topic, see this article by Fobazi Ettarh, who explains it far better than I can.

So, what do you do when you realise that all that glitters isn't actually gold? I'm often surprised when I ask librarians about their aspirations for effecting change, and they say words to the effect of, "Oh, I'm not really career-minded. I'm just happy to do this job as long as the work is interesting."

And I feel conflicted, because on one hand, we work in a sector where change is necessary on so many levels, and we need to be the ones doing that. At the same time, I feel like that's my vocational awe taking over, and that, at the end of the day, it's just work. For many, we're only paid to do the job that's in front of us. We're certainly not there to dismantle systems of oppression that are inherent in the institutions that we serve.

But if not us, then who? This is the stuff that keeps me awake late at night.

More importantly, how? In his latest post, Nathan Sentance highlights various ways that cultural institutions have contributed to colonial destruction of First Nations cultures. "As history institutions, they have helped in supplanting First Nations history with a newly created colonial memory, working almost as propaganda distributors for the settler state." He proposes that these institutions need to share their power with grassroots organisations that actively seek to repair colonial damage and prevent further harm.

And it's certainly not the first time I've heard the suggestion that librarians need to relinquish the power that they hold in their roles. Whether it be through enforcing oppressive vocabularies in their subject headings and classifications, or supporting cultural biases in the collections that they build or even in the application of library fines, we are supporting inequality in our society.
Of course, librarians are the best when it comes to making excuses for themselves - which are often justified. Whether it be a lack of support from peers / supervisors, limited resources, or it simply "out of our hands", too often we find ourselves in a situation we we have to stand by and watch on, frustrated that we can't do better. Especially when we should do better.

So, back to the original question: What is our endgame?

Do we keep our head down and work hard for years for that promotions so that, 5-10 years down the track, we're in a position where we might finally be able to effect the change we want to see - knowing the risk that, having reached that point, we might still be impotent to actually effect this kind of change?

Do we accept our fate as being implicit in supporting systems of oppression, since it's not just librarians but most professionals that are in this situation, and just try to make change where it's possible? After all, we all need to work, firstly, to put a roof over our heads and food in our mouths. Our jobs are not our lives.

Do we take up academic pursuits? If we can't effect change from within, then we critique our practices through academic research and published papers - though there's no guarantee than any critique - no matter how well it's based on evidence - will lead to changes in practice. If anything, it's just further supporting a system of observation and interpretation from a place of privilege, without motivating real social change.

Do we leave librarianship? After all, if we're so passionate about social justice, wouldn't it be better to work in an organisation that directly deals with these issues, and it's from those platforms that we can critique cultural institutions and externally lobby them for change. (Or better still, move into politics where we can legislate the change that's needed - much easier said than done, I know!)

At a dinner party last night, I raised this question and, other than a general consensus that I shouldn't be preoccupying myself with all this during the Christmas / New Year break, one of my friends stated, "I'm completely aware that I'm part of the problem. We all are. But I'm also selfish, and I can live with that."

It's not really a satisfactory conclusion for me to reach in this post, but it's an important reminder that, whilst it is a kind of selfishness, I also need to be kind to myself.

Happy new year.

Thursday 4 October 2018

New beginnings...

So, last month I waited for the last day of the month to write my GLAM Blog Club post, but since this month's theme is "beginning", I am attempting to get this out in the beginning of the month.

A little over two weeks ago, I started a process which resulted in me receiving this item of apparel in the mail.

Every enrolment comes with a free hoodie!
Yes, I applied to go back to university, and as of next month, I will be commencing a Graduate Certificate of Education (Educational Research), which consists of a couple of units of coursework and a minor research thesis. If that goes well, then I'll be on track to move on to a PhD.

So, the obvious question is... why?

Every other time I've gone to university, it's been about doing coursework to get a piece of paper that will improve my career prospects. But this time, it's different.

There have been a number of moments in the past year that have prompted me in this direction:

  • Running into my old LIS course coordinator from university, chatting about libraries for a while until I hear the inevitable question: "So... when are you going to finally do a PhD?"
  • Reading about opportunities for a PhD scholarship, researching the ways that collections represent multicultural Australia in National and State Libraries, and thinking, "That is exactly the kind of topic that I'd want to be researching, if I were doing a PhD!" and realising that whilst I'm completely unready to take on a PhD right now, I'd like to make sure that in the future, if such an opportunity were to arise, I'd be in a good position to apply.
  • Going to IFLA, and seeing presentations by librarians on topics such as the lived experiences of immigrant staff in German libraries, and thinking, "Wow, I wish were having these kinds of discussions in Australia."
  • Coming back to Australia, and then seeing discussions on Twitter from librarians attending the Joint Conference for Librarians of Color in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and thinking, "That sounds amazing! Why aren't we having events like this here in Australia?"

And of course, I know the reason why. I've known it all my life living in Australia, and yet I'm still often reluctant to call it out for what it is. The few times that I have, I've at best made people feel noticeably uncomfortable, and at worst been verbally abused.

So, I want to build my confidence to be able to investigate and critique the ways that cultural biases and whiteness exist in our cultural institutions, in a way that is accessible and intelligent - and I feel that pursuing academic research and publication is an effective way of doing this. I want to find ways to foster these kinds of discussions in Australia, and build a professional community that supports Australian librarians of colour in being able to share their lived experiences in a safe environment.

Yes, I'm a bit scared. I've always felt more like a creative than an academic, which seems like a ridiculous dichotomy, given that they involve very similar skills. Most of what I write comes from a place of emotion, motivated by hope, fear, inspiration and curiosity. I worry that I don't have what it takes to research and write academically. It's been quite a few years since I've had to write an essay, let alone take on even a minor thesis.

But seeing these research opportunities arise, and academic communities growing overseas, I want to be a part of that world, and so, this is a new beginning to take me on that path.

Wish me luck!

Sunday 30 September 2018

Returning to face the strange...

I love conferences, and I love travelling and working overseas. They are both opportunities to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, explore new ideas and cultures, get a sense of what's happening in other places, and really expand your outlook on everything from professional to socio-political, cultural and personal issues.

Returning, on the other hand, is strange. Everything's familiar, but you're looking at it all through a different lens.

This is something that I've encountered at multiple times in my life:

- Returning to live and work in Melbourne after 2.5 years in Darwin
- Returning to live and work in libraries in Melbourne, after living for most of year in Japan.
- Returning to live and work in libraries in Melbourne, after having spent most of a year working on various projects in the development sector in PNG and Vietnam. (Are you starting to see a trend?)
- Returning to Australia, after spending over two years working in the development sector in Vietnam and Kosovo, and swearing that you'll never go back to libraries, and then returning to libraries anyway - though not in Melbourne.

It also happens when I go off to a conference, whether for a few days or a couple of weeks, such as my recent IFLA adventure, fill my head with all of the big picture issues, and then return back to my everyday job.

So, what makes it strange?

Well, firstly, comparatively speaking, Australians are obscenely privileged. Even those who are marginalised. That's not to say that their lived experiences aren't legitimately challenging, but when you see the levels of poverty and social inequality that people experience in other parts of the world, and worked with people who have lived through war and genocide, it's hard to empathise with those in the library who might be, say, very upset about delays in their collection delivery, or the quality of the wifi in the reading room. It takes a while to get back into the headspace of the average Australian, which also means shutting out that voice in your head that says, "These are such First World problems" but instead accept that now I have to reprioritise my values in order to do my job well. And it's strange.

Secondly, we don't necessarily do things much better in Australia. Going overseas and working in places that are challenging in terms of technical competence, bureaucracy and inefficiency, it's tempting to think at the time, "Oh, we don't have these problems in Australia." Except we do, and don't have the excuse of living in an under-resourced developing country. Occasionally, we're much worse. Which feels strange, all things considered.

Finally - and this is more in relation to my recent return - going off to IFLA and engaging with presentations and speakers from libraries all around the world, I'm reminded of all the big topics that we need to engage with when we work in libraries. We're inspired by technological innovation, and go deep in discussing problematic issues that are common across the world. I return to work, determined to be mindful of these things in practice, but everything feels incongruous with this mindset, and/or completely out of scope with my current duties. And it feels strange, because suddenly I don't know what I'm doing here, if I can't apply these principles into my work.

These thoughts remind me of a conversation I had with a colleague over a year ago, who was quite vocally "not a librarian", and challenged the idea that they - or anybody in the team, really - needed to study librarianship in order to do their job well. I didn't deny that this was true, but at the same time, I feel that what defines us as librarians isn't necessarily what we do in our operational day-to-day jobs, but how we engage with the professional issues within the sector, and push for change, whether it be institutional or on a wider scale. And I feel that sometimes, the only way we can really do that is to engage with the issues outside our bubbles - whether through travelling to conferences, working abroad or pursuing research - and when we return we should "face the strange". That is, really interrogate those things that just don't feel right in our work, and grate against our professional principles. Because these are the areas that need ch-ch-ch-changes...

Saturday 29 September 2018

17 Days in Malaysia: Part Six - Indigenous Matters and Sarawak

It's been over three weeks since I returned from Malaysia - longer than the time I actually spent away - so I'd best wrap this up, with my final post in this series!

Before flying to Kuching on Friday, I downloaded the Grab app onto my phone. Grab is basically Uber, but you pay cash to the driver, and when you're overseas and unfamiliar with the lay of the land, and can't necessarily rely on language skills, it's made such a difference. And like Uber, it's also cheaper than taxis.

So, when I arrived at Kuching Airport, I was able to dodge the usual gauntlet of taxi drivers, and its minefield of negotiations and potential scams, and instead request a Grab on my device - knowing exactly how much I'd be paying in advance. Arriving in the early evening, I checked into my hostel, and unwound by wandering up the Sarawak riverside, watching the sky turn with the sunset. As a regional city, Kuching is a lot more laid-back than Kuala Lumpur, with a huge Chinese influence in its businesses, architecture and, of course, street food - which I took in with enthusiasm.

Saturday morning came and I set off for the Sarawak State Library for Day One of the Indigenous Matters satellite meeting. The proceedings kicked off with the usual welcome speeches, and a performance of local indigenous dance in full traditional dress, which was wonderful and performed by local school students. Around the room there were stands set up showcasing crafts and traditions of the various local indigenous groups, from the local Iban, Bidayah and Orang Ulu people. What is fascinating is that Sarawak has over 27 different ethnic groups - though this number varies as sometimes different groups are categories together as sub-groups.

Moving into presentations, the first speakers were from the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Malaysia, discussing the digital platform that they'd developed for documenting the cultural heritage of the "Ring Ladies" of the Embhan community in remote mountainous Sarawak. After collecting thousands of items of visual data, there were challenges in compiling this information systematically, so they developed E-DIVO, an app designed specifically for labelling and describing visual images as cultural and ethnographic knowledge.

The next presenter was Dr Madeline Berma, from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (Consultancy), who gave quite an impassioned speech about the troubled state of Indigenous populations in Malaysia, often referred to in a wider sense as "Orang Asal". She started off talking about how in her lived experiences, people assume that she is of Chinese Malay origin, or possibly Burmese, given her name "Berma". But the reality is that in Malaysia, the mainstream is to think in terms of the three prevalent identities (Malay, Chinese, Indian), but don't consider the possibility that people might be of an Indigenous identity, and so they effectively become invisible in the community. They are often ignored when it comes to national representations of Malaysian cultural heritage - except when it comes to dancing for tourists, as more of an exotic addition to the mix. She then went on to talk about the usual socioeconomic problems that Indigenous people encounter - which are very common to First Nationals people around the world. Her overall point - culture is politicised, and in Malaysia, it is the Malay Muslim peninsular culture that dominates all others, effectively erasing Indigenous culture that is devalued and forgotten. If we're serious about development, then we cannot talk about development without talking about sustaining traditional communities and their knowledge.

This was followed by a visit to the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, where we were served lunch, learned about the ways that they collected traditional knowledge related to local plants and wildlife, and visited their ethnobotanical garden.

After a late afternoon break, we were picked up from our hotels and taken to a dinner reception, where we were treated to cultural performances, an array of local dishes, and invited to participate in some "traditional" dancing (which was strangely almost-identical to the Electric Boogie / Slide).

Sunday morning began with a keynote presentation from Camille Callison of the University of Manitoba and the IFLA Indigenous Matters committee. She spoke at length about the work that she'd done with the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) in establishing Indigenous Matters working groups, improving Indigenous representation from across all provinces and territories, and developing their own protocols for sharing and communicating Indigenous knowledge.

This was followed by a tour of the Sarawak State Library, including a separate children's area, computer study area, American Corner and maker space, reading rooms, and special collections of local history and local publications.

After lunch, the final event was a panel session with members of the IFLA Indigenous Matters standing committee, where there were many topics discussed, but to be perfectly honest, I was starting to run out of steam. One clear message I do recall from this discussion stuck, though, and that was that before we can decolonise our collections, we need to first decolonise our practices, attitudes and ways of thinking as professionals. Which sounds obvious when put like that, but we still have a long way to go.

I felt privileged to be able to attend the first ever satellite event of the Indigenous Matters section, and to meet and get to know those involved in the standing committee, being from Canada, USA, New Zealand, France, and Sweden. There were not-so-subtle hints that they'd love to have somebody from Australia, and I promised that I'd mention it when I returned home - especially as they're calling for new committee members in the near future. I was also excited to hear that next year, Indigenous Matters is running a joint satellite meeting with the Library Services for Multicultural Populations section in Georgia, and between the opportunity to visit Georgia and the diverse discussions that are bound to be explored, I am already primed to book my ticket to go!

Most importantly, though, with the end of this session came the realisation that... I was finally on holiday! I had four full days, which I used to explore museums and cultural sites, visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Sanctuary, cruise the Santubong wetlands, and explore Bako National Park. My pro-tip: organised tours are expensive, and you can visit most of these places on public transport for a fraction of the price. Just make sure you give yourself time. But Kuching was the perfect city to be based whilst doing day-trips in the region.

A post shared by Andrew F (@lib_idol) on

Thursday evening came, and with it, the long arduous journey that consisted of four flights from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to Sydney and finally, Canberra. It was pretty much the most painful part of the trip, with its share of delays but none of which resulted in a missed flight. At midnight on Friday, I arrived back at my apartment, relieved to finally be home.

Sunday 23 September 2018

17 Days in Malaysia: Part Five - The rest of IFLA WLIC 2018

So, at some point on Tuesday, the realisation hit me that I was reaching the halfway mark for my overseas trip. Fortunately, the bulk of my "work" for the conference was out of the way, and I was ready to sit back and just absorb and engage, without having to stress out too much about what I needed to do!

Which leads me to a reminder - when going to huge events like WLIC, make sure you give yourself breathing space. It's a huge conference, especially when also attending satellite events and business meetings!

But first up for the day was the Public Library of the Year Awards, where the winner would be announced. If you want a rundown of the finalists, you can see them listed here.

It was at this point that I realised that the Tampines Regional Library, which I'd visited the previous week, was one of the finalists! And the competition was very high, with each library bringing its unique regional focus and priorities to the fore. I was particularly intrigued by the Norwegian "youth-only" public library, Deichman Biblo Toyen, for its innovative and engaging ways of providing services to youth from disadvantaged and underprivileged backgrounds - and hearing about the challenges of managing services and user behaviour, once they'd opened the doors.

However, the winner went to the Netherlands for the KopGroep Bibliotheken (School 7), where they had taken an old school, and turned it into a public library, both maintaining the heritage of the building, but creating unique internal design, such as transforming toilet cubicles into private story time nooks! One interesting point about this library, which relates to the previous day's session on Librarian Fashion, is that School 7's staff were involved in the design and style of the staff uniform (as seen below) which prompted a few conversations after the session.

Although the people wearing them looked great, and professional and stylish, a uniform is not going to suit everybody's personal fashion sense, or everybody's body type! I was also curious as to what the uniform was for the male staff at the library.

After a lunch break, I headed to a session run by the Library Services to Multicultural Populations section, entitled "Library Services: Empowering people to develop their inter-cultural identities. There were some great takeaway messages from these session that really touched on topics that were close to my heart in libraries, such as the idea that the staff of a multicultural library should reflect the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the communities that they work with. One presentation by Leslie Kuo looked at the challenges faced by immigrant library workers in Germany, not only in the relationships that they have with library users, but also with their colleagues who may not be able to empathise with these challenges. It was also refreshing to hear somebody getting up and speaking out about these issues on an international forum, because it's important, but I feel that it's rarely addressed - particularly not on an academic platform - in Australia.

Another great presentation from Raquel Ortiz of the Centre for Puerto Rican studies, CUNY, looked at the delivery of bilingual programs and books to Puerto Rican communities, and another from Bernadette Lopez-Fitsimmons, Manhattan College, explored ways of developing multicultural competencies - looking to interculturalism as a transformative process where cultures interact and adapt for one another, as distinguished from multiculturalism where cultures exist alongside each other. Furthermore, it's a process by which we examine our own culture and our power relationships with others from an intersectional approach, considering not just cultural and racial identity, but gender, sexuality, class, etc. Whilst  personally, I already try to be intersectional in the ways I consider issues of identity and power relationships, this is actually the first time I've heard the term "interculturalism", and I think it's an important idea that we're going to be hearing more about in the future.

At the end of the session, it was time for the IFLA General Assembly - which I have to confess to skipping out of, whilst paying attention to the action on Twitter, as the library associations debated changes to membership fees for some time. Meanwhile, I ended wandering the Pasar Seni (old Art Market) and Chinatown for souvenir shopping and dinner with a couple of other librarians, in what was a relatively subdued evening compared with the previous few nights.

Wednesday - the final day of the congress - commenced with the session of the President-elect, Australia's own Christine McKenzie, which had various sessions about collaborations in the Library world that were contributing to the IFLA Global Vision. One thing that struck me, though, was the focus on "Opportunity 10: We must give young professionals effective opportunities to learn, develop and lead." I'm quite self-conscious of the fact that, despite being active in the New Professionals Special Interest Group, I'm not really a "new professional". Nor am I a "young professional". And yet these terms are often interchangeable, and in these kinds of forums, all eyes turn to me and others at the young-er end of the spectrum. The truth, however, is that there are much newer and younger voices out there that deserve to be heard much more than ours.

The IFLA President-elect with the "young" professionals of IFLA... I definitely felt like an imposter here!
This session was followed by one on library advocacy, "Every Librarian an advocate", where my key takeaway message was from the ever-inspiring Deborah Jacobs: Advocacy isn't rocket science. When you make too big a deal about advocacy, you scare people off. She instead used the example of a conversation that she might have with somebody at the shops, and using relatable conversation-starters with everyday people as being the most effective form of advocacy. The other presentation, from IFLA's Stephen Wyber, focused on the fact that everywhere we live, there will be somebody local to us who influences policy that affects libraries. These are the people we need to have to visit and lobby, and it's something that we can all do.

Afterwards, I grabbed some lunch and ended up networking with some of the folks from the Library Services to Multicultural Populations section, before running off to another meeting where people were (I couldn't believe it) starting conversations about planning sessions for next year's congress in Athens.

Before I knew it, it was time for the closing ceremony. There were speeches, but the real highlight was the worst-kept secret for the whole conference - the announcement that the IFLA congress in 2020 would be held in Auckland, New Zealand! There was singing, flag-waving, and a special video message:

And it was all over. Well, not really, because the New Professionals SIG decided to have an impromptu after-party drinks at the Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Trader's Hotel, which had this amazing view:

With Thursday, came the opportunity for more library tours, but instead I opted for some sleeping in, shopping, and enjoying my final night in Kuala Lumpur on, what turned out to be an auspicious occasion, as it was the eve of Hari Merdeka (Independence Day), which traditionally has fireworks at midnight. Unfortunately, from our hostel rooftop, we could only hear the fireworks and catch glimpses of them reflected off nearby skyscrapers, but it was still lovely to see some of the locals celebrating the occasion with songs.

Next: Off to Sarawak for Indigenous Matters and rainforest adventures.

Thursday 20 September 2018

17 Days in Malaysia: Part Four - Fashion, Art and Culture!

So, Monday morning came along. It was the moment for the New Professional SIG to shine - our own IFLA session: "Librarian fashion: What does the way we dress say about us?"

IFLA President, Gloria Pérez-Salmerón, doing her part to help promote our session
We had two hours to fill, with one hour's worth of lightning talks, followed by a number of activities that we'd brainstormed over the preceding months, but never really thought through, including:

- A discussion panel
- A fashion parade, complete with catwalk and fashion-themed music
- A powerpoint presentation of outfits, as shared on social media using the hashtag #librarianfashion
- A crafty socio-political statement with pins, to promote diversity and social inclusion in libraries
- A creative activity with coloured textas, paper dolls, and paper outfits.

We'd also been allocated a *huge* space, with the capacity for 1,300 people, which seemed a bit crazy, since this was IFLA, where sessions can have anything from as few as a dozen people to maybe 300 people.

There were also a few potential hiccups along the way:

1. We wanted to have pins made with some kind of rainbow-coloured theme and an appropriate image / symbol, but (a) it turns out that unless you're making thousands, pins are kinda expensive, and (b) Malaysia doesn't have the most inclusive tolerance of such imagery, and we'd somehow need to get them into the country.
2. A week before the session, we discovered that there were literally thousands of photos submitted via social media following an extensive campaign to librarians to send their fashion stylings. None of us were keen to volunteer to download all the images into powerpoint slide.
3. We wanted to be able to have some kind of sound system set up for the fashion parade, but the conference presentation system was pretty much only good for powerpoint and web browsing.
4. By our estimations, we still had a good 45 minutes of unplanned time to fill.

So, here's how we put it all together.

1. I bought a badge machine. I'd wanted an excuse to buy one anyway, and they're only, like, $100 on eBay. After extensive discussion, with various designs changing due to disagreements and copyright issues, we settled on the following design:

With the words "Open to all", inspired by the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio. I was a little nervous bringing them through immigration and customs in my checked luggage, lest some overzealous official might find the contents sacrilegious or seditious, but fortunately nobody checked. We scattered the badges on the big tables toward the front of the room to encourage people to take up those seats first. As it turned out, our fears of a small turnout were clearly unfounded, as the enormous room just kept filling up with more and more people.

2. The night before, our dedicated co-convenor, Antoine, put together a fantastic scrolling display of images picked from the many submitted photos, and we started playing it on the big screens as delegates arrived.

3. I kept my fingers crossed that the Spotify web player was going to work, and had a YouTube playlist on standby. Fortunately, whilst Spotify was not yet available in Malaysia, my account still worked, and we had our fashion soundtrack to get everybody in the mood.

4. And as it turned out, we didn't really need to worry about going under time.

The session started with a keynote from the fabulous Loida Garcia-Febo, ALA President and, incidentally, one of the founding members of NPSIG back in 2004. She covered a number of topics related to fashion, but the one point that stood out for me was that as librarians, we need to focus on improving our communication, and the way we present ourselves is the way that we first communicate with people, such as new patrons in the library.

Then we got into the lightning talks, starting with the ever-stylish Amy McKenzie, introducing the following video, featuring a line-up of Australian librarians:

This was followed by

  • a demonstration of how librarians can be adaptable by Raymond Pun and Jesus Lau - in this case, adapting to the tropical heat, where Jesus gave Ray a live clipper haircut up on stage
  • explorations of traditional dress for librarians in Borneo, Indonesia, and India
  • a presentation by Dina from Egypt, about dressing professionally as a way of challenging librarian stereotypes (with some comment about not having tattoos or piercings, much to the chagrin of a number of other librarians present!)
  • and finally, a rousing presentation from Fara Wahidah from Malaysia, who is both a librarian and professional image consultant.
After an hour of presentations, we took the risk and, turning the music on again, we invited people to come up on the stage and strut their stuff on the stage / catwalk. And the risk paid off - so many came up on stage, including the likes of Claudia Lux and Donna Scheeder! The impromptu show went for over ten minutes, with many many photos taken:
Once all the excitement had died down, we moved into a discussion panel where some of the topics of the presentation were explored, along with other important topics such as diversity, freedom of expression, cultural appreciation or appropriation. The beauty of this theme is that whilst it was seemingly a fun topic on the surface, it had plenty of scope to delve into all kinds of important issues,  both within the library sector, and also with the wider community.

Finally - for our creative exercise (with only 10 minutes left in the session!), we made an activity sheet which we put out on each of the tables. Even with the limited time, there were some creative results:

All in all, this session was a huge success - and as it turned out, we ended up with over 600 attendees, which to the best of my knowledge was one of the highest-attended sessions this year. It was certainly  one of my highlights of the conference, and I like to think that it created some lasting memories for others in years to come, when people say, "Hey, remember that year at IFLA when there was a fashion parade in the middle of the session?"


I'd talk about all the other sessions I attended that day, but to be honest, it's a bit of a blur. High on the success of the session (or maybe it was just being overheated from wearing a suit in the tropics), I headed back to the hostel to change, and returned to the conference in time for a session on Art Libraries and their Users, and there's some wonderful innovation out there, like the Sitterwerk Art Library, where books and objects all have RFID tags, and an RFID sensitive table identifies everything that is placed on the table and the software links content that is related to one another. Users are encouraged to put books back on the shelf in whichever order they like, and the catalogue is updated every night to reflect the new shelf order of the collection - now there's an idea that I find far more attractive than Dewey shelf order! Another library had an audio guide that you listen to as you walk through the space and past the materials, focusing on "emotional, philosophical and choreographically encounters in the library".

Pretty soon, it was time to go back and change clothes (once again! stupid tropical weather!) for the Cultural Evening - a highlight of every IFLA conference.

Held at the Malaysian Tourism Centre in KL, there was so much local food - from the usual street food staples of satay and noodles, to gelatinous cakes and ais kacang. And along with the usual offerings of wine, there was also pots of freshly made teh tarik made behind the bar, so if you didn't want to get tipsy, you could get hyper on the sugar instead! Inside, there was a cultural show, presenting traditional dances from many of the different cultural groups in Malaysia, which was then transformed into a dance floor to take us into the late hours of the evening.

Librarians hitting the dance floor...
All in all, an excellent way to end what was truly an epic day.

Next up: the final days of IFLA...

Sunday 16 September 2018

17 Days in Malaysia: Part Three - the opening weekend of IFLA WLIC 2018

So, Saturday morning came around, and it was time for the actual conference! How best to summarise four and a half days of conference presentations? In hindsight, the whole thing is a bit of a blur, and I regularly found myself struggling to choose between a number of consecutive sessions that I really wanted to attend, often switching sessions between presentations, and occasionally hovering in the back row waiting to see if I really wanted to stick around or not.

On top of that, there were various meetings - planning our own session for the Monday morning, running into people that I wanted to network with that I ended up having long chats / coffees with - and then those moments where I felt my body telling me that I needed time out, and I'd go find a quiet spot to zone out. The location of the conference centre was conveniently next to the KLCC park, which was a great place to escape the A/C and soak up the lush tropical greenery for a good 15 minutes until the heat / humidity became overwhelming, and it was time to escape back into a controlled environment. And the Suria KLCC shopping centre next door was also a nice escape to occasionally pick up souvenirs, such as postcards - many of which I wrote and sent to the four corners of the earth - and I'd also pop down to the Isetan (Japanese department store) during lunch breaks and pick up amazing bentos for 10-15 ringgit ($3-5).

But I digress - back to the programme. First up was the opening ceremony, which had its usual speeches and addresses, but the highlight is always the performance. This time, we had a performance that showcased the diversity of Malaysian culture and how they relate to reading and information: (performance starts at 1hr 1min)

From there, I went to a session on advocacy, where the standout presentation was from the United States Public Library Association, presenting on Project Outcome, which provides resources to help public libraries collect data from clients, and then use that data to improve services, create more impact, and communicate value to the board / donors - especially when those people are aware of what the library does, but not what the value is. My takeaway message from that session was to be aware of when quantitative data stops telling you anything new (i.e. that everything is "business as usual") and when that happens, focus more on collection qualitative data, such as feedback and stories, to demonstrate impact.

And then came the Exhibition Opening Party, with its many vendor stalls, and poster presentations, all in the one hall. Of course, there was also wine and finger food, with which came what was perhaps the greatest wonder of innovative design that I have seen in quite some time:

Photo: Romany Manuell. Hands: mine.
Yes, that's right, you can comfortably hold your wine glass and plate together, and have a hand free for picking up food, flyers, shaking hands, etc. There's nothing more awkward than trying to juggle a glass, a plate and then wish you had a third hand. Conference organisers, take note: this is the future.

Afterwards, all the IFLA office bearers went off to their opening night reception, which is also the time that NPSIG traditionally has it's social evening. So, I led a group of intrepid librarians off to Bukit Bintang (literally means Star Hill) which is the main shopping strip of KL, but also home to Jalan Alor, one of the most popular spots in KL for street food.

Once everybody had enjoyed some local food and a few beers, I ducked over to the local fruit stall, and returned with the question, "So... who would like to try some durian?" Responses varied from naive curiosity to repulsion at even the idea of eating it. For those brave enough to try, the violent retching was surprisingly minimal, but I heard that it was a good season this year.

The next day, it was time to get into a full day of conference sessions. For the first session, I switched between sessions for the Library History Special Interest Group and the Indigenous Matters Section. The former had a fascinating keynote from Brendan Luyt, looking at the Raffles Library and Museum in Singapore, where the presenter started by stating that the horrors of the British colonial past are often forgotten, especially where tourism capitalises on colonial nostalgia (full disclosure: I am guilty of having dressed up and gone to high tea at Raffles Hotel. It was nice.) However, libraries can generate counter discourses by using Library History to make observations about the wider historical context - in this case, of colonial Singapore.

I then ducked across to the Indigenous Matters session, hoping to catch the presentation  on Utilising Te Tiriti o Waitangi to decolonise practices at New Zealand Tertiary Institutions, but unfortunately the presentations were given in the order listed in the program, and so I sadly missed it. I did, however manage to catch a fascinating presentation from Bibliothèques Sans Frontières on the fascinating work that they are doing with Indigenous communities in developing countries.

Of course, also being on Twitter, I started getting FOMO about two other concurrent sessions after reading some of their tweets, and so I ducked into a session on National Libraries and social media, and managed to catch some of the discussion whereby the US National Archives are crowdsourcing responses to their reference questions using their History Hub website. Whilst I like it, I'm not sure how that kind of suggestion would go down with my workplace's reference services!

In the afternoon, I caught fellow Aussie Leonee Derr's presentation on challenging the ideas of safety / sanctuary and neutrality in public libraries, and there were other stimulating papers on serving the information needs of queer homeless youth in Toronto, and one on how considerations of inclusivity and community development were factored into the redesign of the Madison Public Library.

Next up, I headed to the Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) session, which explored Intellectual Freedom in a Polarised World - which you can watch here. I particularly enjoyed the second speaker, looking at the historical and legal context surrounding freedom of speech in Malaysia, and the implications of the recent change of government - where they have committed to doing away with their Sedition Act and their Printing and Publications Act

Then I switched across to the session on "Social Networks: looking for the next big thing" - which, unfortunately, I found less than inspiring, and also heard afterwards that there were some great presentations happening in concurrent session which was all about digital marketing, including social media. Again - one of the pitfalls of such a huge conference, is that sometimes you make a calculated risk, and lose. Then again, the programming committee could have done better than having two very similar topics on at the same time.

Finally, the evening arrived, and with it, some more socialising and networking. I'd received an invitation to the Global Libraries networking reception at the Grand Hyatt - which was also the farewell party for the Global Libraries programme, which was wrapping up after over 20 years of amazing work around the world. The who's who of the international library world were there, and there were many inspiring speeches, and fascinating conversations with people who have led much more interesting careers than myself.

We were amused to find Australian wine on offer. Photo: Amy McKenzie
And from there, many people then moved on to the OCLC party, but I was thoroughly exhausted, and we had to be up early and ready for our big moment on Monday morning... to be continued!