The Dangerous Myth about librarians – Laurinda Thomas: OPEN17 LIANZA Conference

OPEN 2017 – the 2017 LIANZA Conference – officially kicked off on Sunday afternoon with a mihi whakatau and kai. Niamh Shaw the MC brought us together after that, and launched an afternoon of dangerous myths, future sounds, and an awards ceremony.

Kelsey Johnstone of Christchurch City Libraries, LIANZA councillor for the Aoraki region, introduced Laurinda Thomas.

Kelsey Johnston
Laurinda Thomas

Laurinda’s well known in library land for her TedX talk The Dangerous Myth about Libraries.

In this keynote, she looked into the dangerous myth about librarians.  This time it’s personal – it’s the things we tell ourselves:

Will we flourish or will we let the weight of that history hold us back from what we could be?

The most important resource in libraries? It’s librarians. And it is librarians that will determine what the future of the profession looks like.

This keynote was packed with ideas and conversations, and emphasised the importance of intentionality  – of knowing what we do, why we do it, and for whom. I’ve picked out some of her key points, and the slides that illustrated her ideas.

Laurinda focused on the here and now, not the future – the real work and real positive outcomes for the people we serve. We were social entrepreneurs before the phrase existed.

Libraries are powerful. They provide internet access and modern life relies on it completely.  Citizens can’t have human rights without access. We are providing people with a human right that opens up employment, communication with family, and democracy. The systematic cuts that UK libraries are enduring in the wake of austerity measures are not a politically neutral act. Cutting library budgets is reducing the education of citizens, and impacting on their rights.

We have power as librarians, and that can make us feel conflicted.  There is a hierachy amongst the people we serve, and the people we report to. These groups aren’t the same, one includes society’s most vulnerable, and the other includes some of the most privileged.

When we use the word “relevant”, we imply the opposite.

When we talk about “saving our libraries”, we signal powerlessness, and the need to be saved.

When Laurinda did her TEDx talk, a woman spoke to her and said the talk made her angry. It was a retired librarian, and she’d been part of the same conversations 30 years ago.

How do we have better conversations? Talk to the people who haven’t been into a library for ten years. Not everyone can afford books, or has a quiet place to go. Not everyone has internet access, or even a home.

Some people don’t give a damn about the social good of the library.

So find out what matters to them, and back up your stories with facts.

Dare to ask about the things we find confronting:

Are you represented?

If the library wasn’t here, what would you do?

Do you know someone who would never come to the library?

The elephants in the room:

  • Misusing numbers – conflating statistics with opinions about value, but really we are more interested in outcomes than numbers.
  • Relying on our “obvious” value (it’s not obvious)
  • Being lazy about biculturalism. (we haven’t moved enough in this area, not by a long stretch)
  • Looking for a single thing to save us (and I bet that thing will also make us “relevant”)
  • Avoiding politics.

Libraries are not ideologically neutral. We  support access to information, lifetime learning, and the social good. Political awareness is part of the job.

Get up there. Do public speaking. Speak from the heart. To be visible is to be courageous.

Make our profession impossible to ignore.

MetLib 2014 : My Intrepid Journey

This past week has seen me undertake my own ‘intrepid journey’ traveling through a week positively crammed with new experiences. The sheer joy of visiting beautiful spaces, amazing food, forging some wonderful and hopefully long term relationships with colleagues from around the world, – and did I mention lots and lots of good food? There was also the chance to listen to some truly inspiring speakers among them our very own Sam Johnson from the SVA with his mantra of dream it, plan it, do it.

There was thinking around change and the amazing things libraries are doing to remain relevant in the 21st century; and how we are serving diverse and often challenged communities. Libraries help facilitate the creation of content instead of just curating it. Gold Coast City is doing some interesting things in one of their new libraries around connecting with teens – ‘Loud in the Library” and Teen Tech Week connect young people with technology. They also have a Media Lab – a creative design hub which is not only bookable but free and the list goes on…. and on. Truly some great things happening on the Gold Coast.

The chance to be immersed in the MetLib culture for an entire week has been an amazing experience and one which has provided professional development beyond measure. The small cohort, the humour, the willingness to share ideas and the realization that we in New Zealand and especially at Christchurch City Libraries can hold our heads up in the sure and certain knowledge that we are up there with the best of them.

There is so much more I could share, more than there is space for in this forum – if you would like to know more about MetLib 2014 please do get in touch.

One final snippet I must share and one which is testament to our hosts and the loveliness of our country  – yesterday while enjoying the views from a cafe on Waiheke an Australian colleague was heard to comment “You know, I could live here.” The ultimate accolade indeed!



MetLib 2014 : Intrepid Libraries

2014-05-15 15.04.23-2What do librarians enjoy doing at conferences even more than networking with other librarians? Visiting libraries of course and Metlib has given ample opportunities for that. I could hardly contain myself as, reminiscent of a school trip, with much excited chattering and a sense of anticipation of what was to come we clambered aboard our bus on a glorious Auckland day, We set off on a trip that would see us visit libraries at Botany and Mt Roskill, Tupu  – Auckland’s dedicated youth library – as well as the Marae at Unitec.

Highlights for this self confessed architecture junkie had to be the Botany Library with its elements of industrial chic. It is a space that delivers on so many levels and a forerunner in its day of RFID and incorporating a retail model in a mall setting. It features some stunning design elements such as the amazingly lit seating in the YA area.

As if this wasn’t feast enough for the senses, Thursday afternoon saw us on the ferry bound for Waiheke to visit the new library there. Unfortunately  due to construction difficulties the building is somewhat behind schedule and is not yet complete. However we were allowed to wander through and it promises to be another stunning building in Auckland City Libraries retinue.

The architect explained that the premise of the building is that the library is gathered under a sheltering canopy of trees. Light wells in the space are filtered through a patterned layer to mimic the lighting of an exterior grove of pohutakawa. A beautiful exterior amphitheatre lies north – accessible through almost an entire wall of glass doors and the library itself is accessed through a courtyard shared with additional spaces including a small gallery and a piano museum.

New Zealand really does do great libraries.

MetLib 2014 – Intrepid Journeys: The Journey Begins

After a mayoral reception at the Auckland Hilton no less, MetLib Conference 2014: Libraries at the edge of discovery got underway in earnest on the Monday at Auckland’s Central Library with a very moving powhiri and an inspiring opening address by poet and erstwhile librarian Robert Sullivan. Robert described growing up in a nearly book-less household and the huge impact the library had on his life. The library was for him an oasis staffed by “enchanted librarians”: places which enable human thought and creativity. We are , he said, ‘the inheritors of Alexandria’ and without librarians we would have books shelved by colour or shape!

Afternoon highlights for me were hearing about a new central library in Halifax, Canada; and Jaana Tyrni from Espoo Library in Finland discussing how to facilitate change in everyday life in libraries. For those who ask “why change”? Jaana used a very evocative key analogy  – they have been around for centuries but look very different these days! Her advice on enabling change? ‘Never say no’ and ‘the boss doesn’t always need to know everything that is happening’.

VALA 2014 – Streaming with possibilities

The biennial conference VALA’s theme this year was ‘Streaming with possibilities’ and the conference featured sessions ranging from data to ‘the cloud,’ from user experience to social media.

The State Library of Victoria

Monday was a day for people to brush up on some of the subjects to be covered with VALA’s L-Plate series before the conference began proper on the Tuesday. I took some time on the Monday to visit the Melbourne Museum and the State Library of Victoria to see how they compared with the libraries we have here in Christchurch.

I found the State Library to be well-used – especially the use of the free wifi – but also the number of people using it for research. During one of the sessions at the conference, the presenter referred to the La Trobe Reading Room with its huge dome as having been designed along the same lines as a prison back in the 1800s, where all the tables pointed into a central point, rather like a star, where the librarian / warden could sit and see everything going on.

I liked the addition of art galleries within the library but it was the very stereotype of a library with little talk and or interaction and in the time I was there I only saw one librarian and no children at all.


The conference began with a brief welcome on the Tuesday followed by the first Plenary session. These sessions were easily the most informative. Two of them mentioned Christchurch City Libraries, both presenters, Gene Tan (Director, National Library of Singapore) and Matt Finch (Parkes Shire, NSW) saying that our response after the earthquakes was the reason they are motivated and inspired by libraries.

Gene said that when he is feeling down about his work he thinks about our response and what we did for the community and feels inspired again. His talk was on the Singapore Memory Project, which Cath and Dyane mentioned in their coverage of the IFLA conference, and how the idea came about, getting it off the ground and the ongoing struggle to keep it running successfully whilst dealing with the politics and pressures associated with such a large project. The project is an attempt to build a library of the entire Singapore experience. He wants to collect photos, memories, ideas (Where’s the richest place in the world? The graveyard because that is where millions of ideas have died along with their owners. If they had been tried or even recorded they would still have a chance), even video and social media posts, everything that makes up being a Singaporean. Gene hopes to have the Museum of ME – the library of social media – finished before the National Library conference in 2016. Sounds ominous and messy and Gene says it should be. People are too complex to be put into categories or demographics and that that is one reason to collect all the memories from Singapore.

Matt Finch on the other hand spoke about ‘The book of the world: crossing boundaries in culture and outreach.’ He spoke about his events with zombies  and getting the whole school and fire department involved so as to get real engagement from the participants.

Matt’s talk was called ‘The book of the world’ after a Dr Who script that was never made into an episode but floats around on the Internet. In it, the Doctor takes two librarians with him on his journey. The Tardis takes the visitor, both their body and their mind, on a journey just like libraries do. Librarians are like Dr Who, Time Lords who know to use the library / Tardis and can take visitors on a journey of exploration and adventure and books are like doors, opening up new worlds and enabling the user to explore as they see fit. Maybe the new library should be shaped like a giant blue telephone box, our own Tardis?

Public library websites

Two presentations were particularly pertinent to me. Usability of public library websites in Australia provided some interesting information on library websites in Australia. It said that a good website should be easy to use, have good, up-to-date information and be well designed. Most websites reviewed did not provide easy to find contact information or have up-to-date content and do not use web 2.0 technologies well (which she defined as social media only) or at all. It was good to see that we cover all of the bases and a surprise that so many do not. Speaking to someone afterwards, they said it was a reality and based on the fact that they do not have dedicated teams to do the work but it is a list of things to be done by a centralised Council web team or when a librarian has time i.e. never.

Journey into the user experience: creating a library website that’s not for librarians was given by AUT who have recently redeveloped their library website. This was done in response to the needs of the students having changed. They were bringing their own devices as opposed to using University supplied devices and the majority of these were mobile devices which necessitated a responsive website. Students were interviewed to get their opinion of the existing website, which was predominantly negative as it had too many links, most of which led to information the student had no interest in.

Google Analytics, expert reviews and heat maps as well as focus groups and interviews backed this up and showed that in fact students only used a tiny fraction of the links on the home page. Personae and a content audit was done and design went through several iterations before the final one was agreed upon. The site was designed with the user in mind, not the librarian and this meant that change had to happen not only to the website but also to the thinking of librarians. User-centric means basing the design on what the user wants, not the librarians.

Other things of interest said in the talk included remembering that the website is a gateway to other services and so it is important to get the vendors on board as well; you are never finished – there are always things to do and improvements to make – Go responsive. Users are increasingly mobile so delivering a mobile friendly site is more important than ever.

Finally they saw Instagram as the place youth are going to and have been focusing on that social media channel. I found this talk interesting as it showed that what we are doing is along the right path and that maybe we should be taking a step back from what we want on the site and going back to the basics and offering our users what they want in an easily accessible manner.

Social media and more

There were several presentations related to social media. The perfect storm: the convergence of social, mobile and photo technologies in libraries from Bond University in Queensland conducted a study of libraries from around the world using Instagram to see what their experiences were like from capturing and sharing photographs. Their research showed their were only 74 libraries worldwide using Instagram. A limited number of these participated in their study which concluded that the reason for using Instagram was to create a friendly and approachable image. Different libraries used it in different ways such as Singapore Libraries using it to show pets with books photos. The presenter’s library had more Instagram than Facebook followers and used a tool called Nitrogram for measuring use of Instagram.

Another presentation Is it Tweet-worthy? discussed use of Twitter by librarians and found that most are liberals and like cats. Seems nothing can be a cat tweet or Facebook post. Their research found that most librarians use their personal Twitter account to tweet about work and their personal life and are happy to mix these together, not concerned about their tweets being related to the organisations they work for. Librarians are also quite happy to tweet about their political views and controversial subjects even though their professional colleagues could see it. This research also showed that a lot of librarians share content on Twitter.

A plenary on social media as an agent of change  covered everything from American presidential campaigns and their use of social media especially with Obama’s campaign through to use of social media in the Spring uprisings in the Middle East. As the presenter Johan Bollen is from a University background and relies on funding and grants to do his research he presented a case in which he concluded that aggregating information from a crowd can yield better decisions than from individuals, even experts, a kind of collective intelligence. He suggested that if funding was distributed this way, the best people and projects would get the best money whilst at the same time saving billions in administration and application processes.

Michelle Hudson of Kiama Library talked about their journey to being one of the first libraries in Australia to connect to the national broadband network (NBN) and the challenges they faced, having to deal with state government, funding, training, digital literacy and the consequent increased use of ebooks and tablets.

Another on streaming archives was interesting because a local television station offered the Woolongong Library their 1964-1984 news collection. If the Library refused to take them they would have been dumped. There were over 1,000 reels of footage and associated scripts that had to be digitised and have metadata associated with it so it would be findable. The presentation detailed some of the hurdles they faced with technology, copyright and logistics to get to the point where the archives are now available to be viewed online.

Other sessions looked at data, what it is, how it can be manipulated, how important it is to make it accessible, the risks associated with that in regards to releasing all data related to research as well as doing data analysis using such tools as SPARQL, which is apparently a great tool for queries, and Openrefine, a tool for cleaning up and reconciling data.

On top of the sessions themselves there was the opportunity to meet other delegates and compare notes. This helps us in think about our services, our new Central Library, and what 21st century libraries  should be.