Can Aussie libraries learn from their Kiwi cousins?

It’s a cheeky question, really. A few days back I was trying to tease the Centre for Youth Literature team at the State Library of Victoria on Twitter, as they ran an event which saw authors debating the relative merits of zombies and unicorns:

All I was really doing was stoking the old trans-Tasman banter between Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, suggesting that Melbourne were all about the author talks, while the Kiwis rolled up their sleeves and waded into the front lines of storytelling and outreach.

The State Library of Victoria is one of my favourite libraries in the world: a beautiful building to rival the New York Public Library, home to non-shelfy treasures like Ned Kelly’s armour, staffed by people like the superheroic Hamish Curry running gaming and cinema events, the Centre for Youth Literature’s Adele Walsh creating activities like “comic book speed dating”, and the zombies versus unicorns ringmaster herself, Jordi Kerr, who wrote for this very site on roller derby and librarianship last year.

So why tease such lovely people?

Well, it was this talk of zombies vs unicorns – a debate for the schools element of the Melbourne Writers Festival featuring authors Justine Larbalestier and Margo Lanagan – a spin-off from Justine’s anthology of the same name.

When I saw that the Melbourne Writers Festival was charging schools $7 per student to visit the city centre and hear writers debate “zombies versus unicorns” on stage, I got to thinking about the work we’d been doing in New Zealand over the last six months, which focussed on taking storytelling off its pedestal and out of the city centre; getting out in the community and inviting kids into the world of stories through roleplay and immersive storytelling.

New Zealand is remote and not heavily populated. It isn’t always the first stop on anyone’s international tour – the first time I went to stay there, it made the Kiwi evening news that Justin Bieber was visiting Australia, never mind New Zealand. And if you pit Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city and Australasia’s largest public library system, against artsy Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria, of course the youthful Kiwi conurbation is outgunned by a UNESCO City of Literature.

So, in Auckland, rather than host author events in the CBD and charge students to be in the audience, we took zombies to the streets and offered teens in deprived areas the chance to experience a real life apocalypse survival situation, free of charge. The teens were on the television and in the newspaper, immersed in a hands-on siege scenario, facing down hordes of the undead in person and online in a game written by our own library staff.

MacGyver - Sure he wasn't a Kiwi?
MacGyver – Sure he wasn’t a Kiwi?

This kind of activity chimes with the best tradition of Kiwi ingenuity – the MacGyverish spirit of No. 8 Wire. The same grassroots resourcefulness that Christchurch Libraries showed in the wake of the earthquakes which shattered the city in recent years.

If you can’t always get the celebrity authors to hop across the Tasman, and your budgets don’t always stretch, you have to be resourceful and find alternatives.

Could this approach offer a more embracing, inspiring, and inclusive route to community literacy and literature outreach than the usual diet of schools tours and writers’ festival events?

Of course, I’m joking when playing off Aussies versus Kiwis; after all, my zombie events were born in rural New South Wales, where Australian library staff, teachers, and kids all exhibit the same can-do attitude I found in some corners of Aotearoa. This year, in towns across Central West New South Wales, I’ll be looking to push the boundaries further, with more complex and thrilling blends of art, science, drama, and literacy in community settings.

After all, this kind of playful, affordable approach to storytelling and community doesn’t just belong to public libraries, with their global mandate to cover all aspects of culture and knowledge.

Street Reads - Badass choose-your-own adventure from Brisbane Writers' Festival - click to find out more!
Street Reads – Badass choose-your-own adventure from Brisbane Writers’ Festival – click to find out more!

You do find it in some writers’ festivals: for example, tomorrow sees the launch of an epic and exciting choose-your-own adventure (with zombies!) in the Australian city of Brisbane.  And in London this year, I took part in the “Future Foyles” event of industry professionals discussing the future of bookstores as cultural destinations, which also reached beyond the traditional “author talks and selling from the shelves” format to consider how 21st century book retail could look more like an immersive and viscerally satisfying experience.

In the meantime, want to see how simple it can be to deliver this kind of activity? In November, you can find me at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre for a one-day event on Storytelling in the 21st Century. And online, here’s a six-step plan to devise your own immersive activities.

Watch this space for more excitement, adventure, and storytelling from awesome folk on both sides of the Tasman…

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