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...

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