This week I spoke at the Future Libraries two-day event at the State Library of Queensland. It was an opportunity for public librarians from across Australia’s Sunshine State to discuss plans, dreams, and schemes for the coming year.
There’s always a tension at such sessions, though hopefully it’s a productive one. On one hand, people like to be engaged, inspired, and provoked by speakers who they might not otherwise get a chance to hear or question. On the other, Powerpoint preachers don’t always make a lasting change, they don’t necessarily listen to the experience and creativity already in the room, and all too often those voices broadcasting from the stage are drawn from the same pool.
So, at Future Libraries, with just seventy-five minutes in the “naptime slot” straight after lunch, I tried to give Queensland librarians the best of both worlds.
We made comics together, but I also shared stories of the Lambeth library siege and Birmingham’s library cuts alongside the threats faced in Australia. We celebrated how public librarians are at their best under pressure, from Christchurch to Ferguson, but then it was time to get the whole room talking.
So we tried a version of the Presenterless Workshop.
This is an activity I’ve piloted with various groups, including library staff development sessions in London and regional England. Participants are each given one sheet of instructions from a set of five. By following the instructions on their sheet, they form groups which discuss what libraries should and can do from a range of perspectives. Those groups then share their discussion as a presentation or exhibition, and even the ways in which they interpret the instructions can be provocative and productive.
As libraries evolve to meet today’s needs, and transform their own institutional processes and bureaucracy, we so often hear the mantra “Don’t ask permission, beg forgiveness”. Even I’ve said it in presentations, but I now I see that the spirit of the phrase is not quite right.
Although it encourages people to be less hesitant about trying new things, and has a rebellious ring to it, it also forces innovators into the position of the naughty schoolboy, breaking the rules but still ultimately desirous of, and dependent on, the institution’s resources, support, and long-term approval.
Instead, this presenterless workshop encourages participants to consider that organizational rules are more like guidelines to be interpreted than rules to be either obeyed or broken. A lot of the work I do is finding ways to marry up bright ideas and inspiring fun – like zombie sieges or time travel workshops – with the policies, plans, and success measures of big bureaucratic organizations. There’s almost always some wiggle room somewhere for you to justify creative activities, it just takes a little negotiation.
If you want to listen to a library superstar who is not your typical rebel-posing white bloke, I recommend Wellington Libraries’ Adrienne Hannan, a reservist combat medic and children’s librarian who compares library policies to military rules of engagement – not laws to be transgressed, but a framework within which soldiers must make serious practical decisions, under pressure, in a timely way.
Presenterless Workshop Resources
If you fancy running a presenterless staff development workshop in your library, I’ve included the relevant worksheets as free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF files in this blog post. Download them, play with them, give them a go — and let me know how you get on.