Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins

Here’s an update on last week’s Great Popcorn Debate which covered e-books, community outreach, and the future of Australian libraries.

Start with this image:

This was the picture that EWF Digital Festival Director Connor Tomas O’Brien used to illustrate his position on libraries’ attempts to secure e-book lending rights with publishers.

It’s in ‘A very quiet battle’, Connor’s piece for Kill Your Darlings on publishers and libraries’ negotiations around digital lending of e-books. He claims to be neutral in this debate, but his piece includes comments like:

I’m tempted to believe that ebooks and public libraries fundamentally just don’t mix.

and:

It’s unclear how public libraries can lend out ebooks without either becoming conduits for piracy (even now, it’s not hard to loan out an ebook, strip the DRM, then send out copies of the file) or cannibalising ebook sales, nor is it clear why anybody would want to visit a physical space just to load digital files onto their ereader. After all, if you don’t need to visit a real-world space to loan the ebook, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the public library existing physically as a cultural hub?

That last line comes dangerously close to an argument against public libraries having a physical presence of any kind in the community.

Concerned by this, I approached Connor for an interview. In his piece, Connor had tried to protect himself from seeming like an enemy of libraries by writing:

The public library, in other words, is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever.

Therefore, I asked him: What do you think a public library should be doing in 2013?

Connor’s response offered Melbourne’s city-centre based Wheeler Centre as an example:

The issue public libraries face is largely that there often isn’t that critical mass of energy. Instead, that energy is usually spread across state writers’ centres, universities, cafes, and bookstores. Melbourne already has the Wheeler, but in other states I hope likeminded groups converge to set up similar spaces. If you have one or two central spaces for books and ideas in a city, all the energy flows through those spaces, and it has a catalysing effect.

For me, that sounded like a centralising impulse which would deprive neighbourhoods, especially in our most disadvantaged, remote, rural, and suburban areas, of their local librarian. Instead, marginalised communities would be expected to find their way under their own steam to “one or two central spaces for books and ideas in a city”.

Public librarians exist to give every community member access to all of human knowledge and culture, whether rich or poor, young or old, urban, suburban, or rural. (Caitlin Moran has written especially eloquently about this at The Huffington Post).

Therefore, I felt that Connor’s idea was A Bad Thing.

Connor’s probably a very nice man, but his words lend ammunition to the enemies of libraries and damage the future prospects for marginal communities to have the full local support of their own public librarians as information and culture professionals.

I wrote in response:

I sometimes feel uncomfortable with all those big-city cultural venues. It’s not the institutions’ fault, rather it’s that of the funding bodies, but when did the Sydney-based NSW Writers Centre, allegedly a state-wide body, last have the money to run a programme west of the Blue Mountains? And the “national” Centre for Youth Literature at State Library of Victoria is crewed by a team of awesome badasses, who do make the effort to tour Victorian schools – but it seems to be “national” only in the sense that any Australian can access their website.

In the ensuing Twitter discussion, which got somewhat tetchy as these things do in 140-character bites, I gently challenged  Melbourne’s Centre for Youth Literature on their city-centre focus.

The author Cory Doctorow, whose work explores decentred and future-facing solutions to the problems of 21st century economics, knowledge, and culture, is visiting the Centre this month – but all they’re doing with him is hosting the same old city-centre panel discussions and speeches and workshop events.

I suggested they should take him to a marginalised venue instead, and use digital technology to connect Doctorow to the usual, privileged, CBD audience. To show that I’m not just taking a cheap shot, I wrote a short proposal on how they could use Doctorow’s visit to ‘hack Australian literary culture’:

My suggestion was this:

Imagine if SLV hacked old-school literary festival practice and used Doctorow’s visit to celebrate culture at the margins for once. Imagine if he was speaking, not in the Melbourne city centre, but at a marginal, underutilized venue; perhaps a school or library in one of Melbourne’s less privileged suburbs.

SLV and its Centre for Youth Literature, who organized Doctorow’s visit, could encourage attendees to come out to the suburbs using their networks – but they could also ensure a city-centre audience by streaming Doctorow’s presentation to the[ir high-tech] Experimedia suite.

It’s an opportunity to reverse the opposition between the city centre and the margins. Anna Burkey, SLV’s Reader Development Manager, is clearly under pressure to deliver footfall through the SLV’s city-centre doors – it must be necessary for SLV to justify all that expensive real estate! – so why not run a makerspace in SLV on the day of the talk?

Invite Melbournian makers in to Experimedia, celebrate their work, remind people that libraries are about more than books on shelves (or e-books, for that matter), and really bring to life the work of the man who wrote a novel called Makers

(I’m not pretending it’s perfect, but if I can come up with that on my coffee break, I expect the talented people at the Centre could do much better as part of their actual day job – and although Doctorow was careful not to annoy his Melbournian hosts, he posted a timely blog on librarianship at Tumblr which was in favour of both local libraries in general, and libraries having e-books).

Connor responded, “Broadly I agree w/ some of your points, Matt, but I don’t think your proposals are very practical.

As far as I can see, my suggestion was no more or less practical than the existing model, I just moved physical presence to the needy periphery and digital outreach to the already privileged centre. I did a double-check and ran the Doctorow ideas past a few tech and community outreach people, who seemed to think it wouldn’t be such a struggle. I’m Skyping a talk soon from rural Australia to a conference in the city of Brisbane, for example, and Auckland Libraries has only recently run a city-centre makerspace within their walls.

I’m not a raving fan of Steve Jobs, but when I hear people like Connor being naysayers and merchants of the “can’t-do” attitude, I do think of that Jobs quote: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

That should definitely be true for arts people in bleeding-edge roles like director of a digital festival for emerging writers. Surely they should be the most audacious, innovative, and swashbuckling agents of change in a nation’s literary culture?

But the truth is, librarians may actually be more radical, more relevant, and more engaged with our most marginal and dispossessed communities than the city-centre arts crowd.

Connor has just posted a new piece on this topic at The Writers Bloc.

He frames the issue as being about individual writers’ choices to stay in the regions or migrate to cities like Melbourne. He writes,

Writing in regional areas – South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and rural New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia – is not impossible, because it is possible to write from anywhere, but subtle infrastructure gaps do make sustaining your writing practice more difficult. Internationally renowned authors routinely visit Melbourne to deliver lectures, creating an invigorating culture of ideas in that city that sends a strong signal that writing matters. When you’re writing in a regional area, that culture can be lacking, making it infinitely more likely that prospective writers will never open their word processor in the first place.
[…]
There are also questions to be raised about the goal of outreach programs: do Melbourne-based organisations travel to regional areas to preach the benefits of living and working in Melbourne (to some degree, I think so – that’s one reason I’m now living here), or do they travel to regional areas to encourage those in the region to stay put and establish their own infrastructure (I think this happens, too)?

What saddens me is that Connor, in his role as director of a digital writers’ festival, doesn’t seem to be clear whether he wants to support the regions or try to consolidate power in places like Melbourne. He acknowledges that effort has gone into giving Melbourne “an invigorating culture of ideas in that city that sends a strong signal that writing matters”, but won’t use his privilege to help other places share that culture and that signal.

It’s even more disheartening when you remember that this is a man who has questioned the value of local branch libraries and proposed a consolidated model based on places like the Wheeler Centre: his words sap power and potential from marginal, rural, suburban and disempowered communities, despite his acknowledgement that “stories from the margins […] can be the most vital”.

The truth is that digital technology, transport, and telecommunications are better and cheaper than ever. That we have ever more people writing, blogging, creating fan fiction; using literacy to express themselves in an unimaginable diversity of ways. (Maori librarian Kris Wehipeihana in New Zealand questioned Connor’s “narrow definition of who is a ‘writer'” in her impassioned response to his post.)

American author Matt de la Peña wrote this week about his work in schools outreach – about identifying tough kids, not the superstars, not the self-identified writers, who have great potential to become the storytellers of tomorrow. Their stories resonated with Matt’s own experience as an author who himself didn’t read a novel all the way through until after high school.

The sad truth is that Cory Doctorow visiting Melbourne CBD, and Connor effectively telling marginal writers, “It’s up to you if you stay or go”, will do nothing for the Australian equivalent of Caitlin Moran, or Matt de la Peña, or those tough kids of whom Matt wrote.

Even that I could forgive if Connor would just give real and wholehearted support to local libraries. If his festival won’t be there for the writers and readers of rural and marginalized Australia, local librarians will be – but they need his support, not popcorn complacency.

6 thoughts on “Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins

  • Matt, I’m going to need to bow out of this now. You’re deliberately misinterpreting things I say in a way that’s utterly perplexing. To suggest that I “won’t use [my] privilege to help other places share that culture and that signal” is baffling. You’ve set me up as some kind of straw man Melbourne-based arts worker, when I’m actually a regional writer living in Melbourne as part of a residency program, working with the express purpose of creating a festival that will share Melbourne’s literary culture with cities like Adelaide (the city I’m from). You’ve actually dismissed projects designed to “share the signal” with regional centres like Hobart (because you think it’s too “hipster” and therefore apparently undeserving), so we’re at an impasse.

    Your criticisms of arts organisations are, in general, misplaced and unfair: most organisations operate with significant time and budgetary constraints, and must make tough choices about where to direct time and money. Also: not every arts org is the same. Some arts orgs focus their attention on large cities, others on regional centres, and others on more rural areas. Regional Arts Victoria does amazing work, for example. The ebookstore platform I manage also donates 10% of sales to the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, which aims to improve literacy standards in remote and marginalised communities. As you can see: different orgs serving different groups in different ways. I’d be wary of criticising any org for not doing absolutely everything – these organisations all play to their strengths, and would not be well-served if forced to stretch their remit.

    • Hi Connor,

      Thanks for your comments – I entirely understand about your pulling back at this stage. This isn’t about personalities but the broader issue of libraries and outreach in the field of arts and literature.

      I’m really pleased that we drew the conversation out a little further and moved beyond simply ‘grabbing the popcorn’. I wish you well in your endeavours and hope that when the opportunity arises, you’ll be able to show your support for Australia’s countless librarians working at the margins to promote literacy, storytelling, arts, and knowledge across the board.

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