Being open

My intention with writing a post about attending OPEN17, this year’s LIANZA Conference was always to pick a session or two of interest and report back on them… however as often happens at these kind of events, what you think going in, and what you think coming out, are vastly different things. Some sessions I thought would fire with me didn’t, others that I didn’t expect much from resonated. You just never can tell from an abstract, I guess.

And just as important as the individual sessions is the way that themes and ideas from different ones can interact with each other in your mind, achieving a kind of cerebral synergy. So please bear with as I attempt to un-knot some of these intertwined ideas and explain their relationships to each other.

In terms of keynotes there were two that really got me thinking; Laurinda Thomas – The Dangerous Myth about librarians – and Vinh Giang – Open your mind. The appeal of the first was not so much of a surprise to me. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Laurinda in the past about some of the issues she touched on in her presentation so I was fairly sure she and I would be on the same wavelength. We both believe that libraries have fallen into the trap of helping perpetuate narratives that do not serve our industry well. That we chronically undersell ourselves and use language that belittles us. That we need to be bold and open to change and think about ourselves in a completely different way.

"Words have power" slide from Laurinda Thomas's keynote
“Words have power” slide from Laurinda Thomas’s keynote

Vinh Giang’s presentation was very different from this (as you would expect from a motivational speaker/magician) but in common were the ideas of changing your perception to change your reality, how the words you use (what he called “linguistic influence) can have a powerful effect, and self-belief. In many ways Laurinda’s talk was the “what that might look like in a library context” other half of Vinh’s session. He also talked about taking the blinders off and actively looking for opportunities. Advice that I took during conference myself, to great effect (more on that later).

Vinh Giang gives his keynote
Vinh Giang gives his keynote

Creating opportunities was something that came up in Hana O’Regan’s keynote too – namely how her determination to reclaim te reo created opportunities for her to learn her own history. Without this skill the Māori world would be largely closed off to her, the discovery of a Māori literary heritage (in the form of Niupepa) would not have been accessible to her and the ability to deconstruct the myths that Māori hold about themselves would have been greatly diminished. Hana spoke with great heart and it was clear that much of what she has achieved in building te reo capability within her own children is through sheer bloody-mindedness and – there’s that word again – self-belief.

Away from the keynotes some of the smaller sessions contained gold if you looked for it too. In particular I was very taken with Jane Cherry’s session, An Open Smile, which looked into the science and research behind smiling and why frontline staff should absolutely be doing it despite their many reservations – all of which were voiced to sometimes rather comical effect by Jane – including a stubborn determination to not be as friendly as “a shop”… for some reason. I found this session brought up many of the themes as discussed above, including the rather limiting “that’s not what a library does” perception still held by some.

Jane Cherry presenting at LIANZA conference 2017
Jane Cherry presents at Open 17. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

On a personal level, I decided to be open to opportunities in a most practical fashion – despite never having bothered with it before (partly because I am deathly afraid of having awkward conversations with salespeople) – I undertook to get my conference passport stamped at all the vendor stands in the exhibition hall, and then enter the prize draw. This turned out to be quite the mission, though not too onerous, and in the process I acquired “swag” that has resulted in sunflower plants starting to grown in our garden, returning to the office bestowing gifts like the King Midas of pens, and my toddler now has a new favourite bedtime pal aka a little stuffed lion (courtesy of the generous folk at Emerald Publishing). I also entered every vendor competition I came across.

Result? I won a Fitbit that I didn’t particularly want but which I am now borderline obsessed with and a nice bottle of wine. Keep your eyes open for opportunities and amazing things (and free plonk) can happen!

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.