In August last year, the organisers of LIANZA Open 2017 invited me to be a keynote at their conference, the national gathering for the librarians of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Last week, it all happened – an incredible adventure which brought the audience onto the stage, delivered a library service within the keynote hall itself, and got us coverage on New Zealand’s national news.
So what exactly took place over in the city of Christchurch, how did we get here, and what can we do with the experience? If I share with you not only the product, but the process, could you see your way to trying something like this…or even going beyond what we achieved in New Zealand?
After the LIANZA invite in August 2016, I contacted colleagues from the State Library of Queensland to join me in a collective keynote, run “chat show style” from the conference stage. We did something similar at the 2016 Queensland Heritage Leaders’ Workshop, which ended with the guests rotated out into the audience and audience members speaking from the stage.
LIANZA were supportive of our proposal, but couldn’t easily transport, register, and accommodate a whole group of Australian speakers when they had only budgeted for one Finch. However, we did manage to negotiate a separate speaking slot, plus flights & acommodation, for Lesley Ahwang Acres, a Murri and Torres Strait Islander woman working with Indigenous Knowledge Centres across Queensland.
I knew I wanted to engage the LIANZA audience with the question of storytelling – especially participatory, open-ended storytelling – and of activities where the leader or organiser themselves can’t predict the outcome.
I think this is one of the things which distinguishes libraries from other knowledge & culture institutions: even back in the shelfy old days, users chose their books from the collection, and then read them as they saw fit. Librarians are not teachers or preachers, and at their best, the institution’s priority is access for the user, not control by the professional.
It’s still hard to apply that more broadly, however. Some people get fixated on digital technology as the panacea, but rollout of digital tech & infrastructure is pretty uneven, and you can create immersive, responsive, unpredictable activities with little more than pen and paper…so I was looking for something low-fi.
Late in 2016, I drafted a talk on the back of an envelope which would look at the perils and pleasures of a digitally connected world, the moral duty of librarians, and the rigour with which creative work is researched and put together. It looked like this:
The envelope sat at my desk and stared at me for months. I might still give that talk one day, but I knew it wasn’t going to be enough for LIANZA. If I’m given the huge privilege of delivering a keynote, I need it to push boundaries for the audience…and I need to challenge myself too.
Then Legion arrived on our television screens in February 2017.
I’m not as big a TV watcher as I’d like, but certain shows grab me and I binge them. Legion was one of them – the story of a man who may be mentally ill, or may have incredible psychic powers. The tale itself was so-so, but creator Noah Hawley and his team told it in a compelling, unusual way, with a number of musical sequences carrying the action.
When I saw the Bolero sequence in Legion, I knew what I was going to do for LIANZA. (Read more about my Legion binge here). I would deliver a keynote, as far as possible, without uttering a word. There would be music. There would be dance. Everyone in the room would collaborate.
I started recruiting people I knew would be at LIANZA – Turbitt & Duck, Lesley Acres, and staff from Christchurch Libraries. Jane Hackett is the Christchurch Team Leader for Bindery & Distribution; Danny McNeil runs Programme Design and Delivery Special Projects for the service. I asked them to help me gather resources for the audience to build a library within the hall where the keynote was taking place.
Danny and Jane started collecting shelves, crates, furniture, and withdrawn books from the Christchurch collection, plus bits of technology like 3D printers and a self-check machine. Lesley, Sally, and Amy got to work on their contributions to our project. I just had to work out what would fill the rest of the time.
I spent months listening to tracks, thinking about stories, histories, the meanings and associations that attached to them. I knew a great story about the writing of David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ from Paul Trynka’s biography of the man. I had a few stories of my own about songs from my youth. And I’d always wanted to connect people with Ann Magnuson’s The Jobriath Medley, a powerful concept album about the true story of America’s first openly gay rock star.
The threads started drawing together. Months before, I’d spoken at the International Association of Music Librarians’ Australian conference, delivering a session with a lot of pop music, to see what it was like gauging an audience response when you were playing tunes instead of speaking words.
I narrowed down the song choices, rehearsed alone and in front of friends & colleagues, and when I read Mel Hidalgo’s brilliant book on Morrissey fandoms in the US-Mexican borderlands, I realised that we’d have to have some of his music in there too.
In fact, Morrissey’s ‘Sing Your Life’ ended up being the song which kicked off the whole thing.
Next time, I’ll tell you what happened on the day.