Today we’re joined by Australia’s Rob Thomson, a library worker and educator who trains library staff, runs conferences and events, and explores the future of the profession in a most adventurous way. We got to chatting after I read Charlie Spedding’s book From Last to First; in a previous entry on this blog, I explored a chapter of this book entitled “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Sports Psychology.”
Thanks for joining me, Rob. I got in touch for this chat after reading the section of Spedding’s book where he describes changing his approach while nursing a pint of beer:
“If thinking differently was going to make me a better runner, I could do it sitting in the pub. I smiled to myself and took another drink as I figured I was making myself a better runner right now.”
And I thought of you!
That is awesome! I am no runner, but I do get to thinking differently. Sometimes that happens whilst nursing a beer… sometimes it is over a coffee; or even descending the stairs… But a beer helps!
Often because it’s not at work, you’re in a different place, more relaxed and can take a longer, more considered, view of things and put 2 and 3 together better than when distracted by what goes on at work.
In a sense, it’s giving yourself permission to have some thinking time.
You’re kind of in the business of making better librarians, aren’t you?
Yes, I teach people to become library technicians – LTs – what Americans sometimes refer to as paraprofessionals.
LT’s are the hands-on, front-of-house “worker bees” of libraries whilst librarians are the manager types – although that’s often not a very good job description of what LT’s and librarians actually do.
In delivering a set curriculum, I do try and give my students my views on where libraries are headed and what they are likely to see in the first couple of years after they graduate and get a job in the real world of libraries. I am trying to give them the ‘heads-up’ for what’s about to happen (from my humble perspective) as the course was devised back in 2015 while they will be hitting the libraries of 2019-20 and beyond.
I have been somewhat buoyed by having a couple of my past students say that they have seen what I said would happen start to happen! I want them to be ready for where I think libraries are headed.
How do you perceive the LT/librarian/paraprofessional divide? I know there’s been some lively debate about that in the US especially…
I personally never experienced it – but, I started in libraries in a special library and there were in the end only 3 of us, 2 librarians and me as an LT. I got to do everything apart from budgets and some heavy-duty research stuff.
So, in my experience, the divide was never a thing. I do know that it has been for some people in the past a huge thing and I think a lot of my colleagues in the LT education space are also librarians but I still think of myself as a LT. That’s my qualification and that’s who ‘my people’ are!!
Ultimately, we are all (or should be) working to expand the library into the community and beyond. We should all be advocates for what the library is and does.
How did you get your start as an LT?
A job got advertised in the company I worked for! I was in Export Documentation just prior to making the move and the department was being threatened with having someone deployed to another area – which could have been down on the plant somewhere.
I saw the ad, looked at the criteria, thought I could do it, apparently said all the right things and got the position (with the offer that if things didn’t work out in the library they would give me a desktop publishing role) so as far as I was concerned win-win.
Then I started and went “what have I been doing with my life!?”
Libraries just made sense. I have a head full of useless trivia but in a library that’s a huge asset. ALIA’s latest campaign for Library Week was “Find yourself in the Library” and I certainly did.
It’s almost like an existential journey, as much as a professional one – which makes me think of that marathon runner Charlie Spedding again. He saw athletic training as being about realising your personal potential and he set his own personal goal as “feeling fantastic”. It’s as much about who you want to be as the formalities of your job, or the 9 to 5 of your working week.
What are you doing at the moment to help people think about who they want to be?
My “thing” at the moment kind of flows nicely from the marathon man in a pub thinking… I have this idea that we (as library people) have a lot to learn from Craft Brewers.
Now, I do like a good craft beer and in a moment of inspiration I realised that the big brewers make a beer (or beers) for everyone. Anyone who likes a beer can drink one of their beers. They are essentially inoffensive beers. Some craft brewers will say they just make the grade of what can be classed as a beer.
Craft brewers, though, make beers for somebody. They make New England IPA’s for people who like that style; stouts for dark beer lovers and so on. They have niched the market – and then niched the niches in the market. But (at least here in Australia) commercial beer is basically flat-lining with growth around 1% whilst craft beer is surging along with growth rates of 3-5%. So they must be doing something right!
So my next bout of inspiration was to link that idea with the framework of Asset Based Community Development (or ABCD). ABCD says to look at your community and see what it has – both in physical infrastructure and non-physical social infrastructure – rather than looking and seeing what it lacks. The concept of ABCD is very well known in community development work or social welfare work but is almost unknown in libraries.
What groups and organisations and clubs and commercial groups were in the area and then how does the library connect into and with them and what spaces can we collaborate on together to build a “thicker” network across the community. Craft brewers target niches and distinct groups of people and libraries should target distinct communities within our communities by offering services that would appeal to them.
We so often say, the library is everything for everyone when I’m advocating that we should be saying the library is something for someone.
I guess the challenge is that you can’t be all things to all people. Focussing on identified communities and needs makes sense.
Yes I think so. Look at most library programs and there’s the Baby Rhyme Time, the Toddler reading Group, the Preschool Program, the kids program and then the teens and youth and then nothing much until the Seniors. What about all the other groups of people out there? If there’s a cricket club how does the library appeal to them or to the skateboarding teens?
We need to get out of the four walls and do more pop-up libraries, and invite more community experts into the library. It’s not about “oh, we don’t have the funding for that” but who can we partner with to deliver this idea.
In New South Wales, 51% of people aren’t members of the library and whilst ever we stay inside our four walls and only preach to the converted, none of those 51% will ever find out how awesome a library really is.
You’re very much into looking at other industries & sectors for lessons we can learn – not even just our GLAM cousins but even breweries and the like. What about the work you’ve been doing with sound recording studios?
I visited the sound recording studios to just ‘have a look’ and was suddenly struck by how similar each institution was to each other. We are both into collaboration and creativity; we both crave silence – and noise! And a harmonious noise at that.
Australia’s Studios 301 have just finished building the largest, newest, most acoustically perfect sound recording studios in the world. I was there early last week to see the finished highly polished article. It is stunning. Money was no object in building the best studios on the planet. And I get to go there and hang out and walk through it and be a gobsmacked by it. I have no idea what some of it does but am just blown away by it all.
They are ready to help libraries transfer magnetic audio (so tapes; oral histories and the like) to digital which needs to happen before the Deadline 2025.
Having met the manager, I just thought libraries need to hear this, so I invited them along to a library unconference I run and got them to tell library peeps what they do and how they can help because I suspect most libraries don’t know or if they do, don’t know who can help them do it.
So making connections is a big part of it. Not just within libraryland, but within the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, and Museums) sector and even beyond.
Are you a natural networker or did you have to develop those skills?
If we only connect to other library peeps well, we’re all singing from the same hymn sheets. GLAM people are same-same but different. Sometimes very different. But similar in that we are all in a similar industry. We need to connect to the sound recording studios, the craft brewers, the artisanal bakers, the event organisers, the creative industry types – get out of our collective bubbles and make connections.
I don’t think I am a natural connector at all. You do have to work at it. I am actually rather shy – especially with new people. (My wife can walk up to complete strangers and have an in-depth deep and meaningful with them in a matter of minutes! Not me). However, turning up is a big part of networking. You never know who will be there and what conversations you will have if you don’t turn up! Just turn up!
At least at library events, everyone is on the same page and know why they do what they do. Outside of that, GLAM people are pretty much the same from my experience.
Beyond that is a bit harder, but I have had some great conversations with Craft Brewers and trying to get them to see where I am coming from with my analogy of craft brewing and libraries. (It’s an ongoing conversation, let’s just say that!!)
Turning up is really half the battle. And make relationships is about being present as much as anything – after all, you can’t force a human connection.
That’s so true. And you can’t make a connection if you don’t just turn up! And it doesn’t always happen. So if it doesn’t happen the first time, don’t go “well, that sucked! Not going next time.” Go the next time and you will be better at it and there will be a whole lot of new people there next time and you just never know who will talk to you, or who you will talk to and where that conversation will take you!
It’s so good for people to hear this. They think that “good networkers” have a technique or are born to it or massively extroverted, whereas actually it’s really just about being interested and being present. Both in the room and in the moment! That’s not to say it’s easy, but it’s not some kind of ninja technique either…
Do you ever find it hard to make the case for this kind of imaginative, metaphorical, outside-the-box approach to professional development – does it scare managers who want training & development closely linked to existing institutional objectives?
Well…as I am the entire teaching staff of the library course at my institution that’s not really a worry! They don’t quite know what it is I do (Libraries are, as ever, something of a mystery!!) so they tend to leave me alone.
So going a bit rogue with my unconventional approach to professional development with things like unconferences and visits to music studios and the like is not a big thing, or at least, it hasn’t been up to now.
Small is beautiful, sometimes. I found that too in rural New South Wales – sometimes a small service that feels as if it’s somehow on the periphery can actually be more nimble than a big place with lots of cash. And you can build more authentic relationships because you aren’t dependent on a bureaucratic staffing structure.
You mentioned a bit about only 51% of people in NSW being library users. And of course some cuts have been announced to the bit of money offered by state government. How do you see the NSW situation – in public libraries but also other parts of the sector – and how could this more creative approach to innovation & relationship building help in straitened times?
I saw something earlier on Twitter from the UK library association CILIP mentioning a survey about the future of libraries and of their 100% of librarians surveyed something like 78% said growing more community connections with libraries was the way to ensure the future of libraries. Only 12% said more funding.
The poll results revealed that the vast majority of respondents believe that the most important element that will ensure the future success of libraries is the transition towards a more community-focused library.
So it gets back to taking the ABCD thing (or Library-Based community development) more seriously. Making a thicker network of connections and collaborations across the community will help ensure the survival of the library.
If we are “hard-wired’ into the community it’s a lot harder to get rid of us. Without being there, this is difficult to say, but it would appear that this may have been a part of the problem for UK Libraries in the past that didn’t get addressed soon enough. In order for libraries to survive into the future we have to make libraries integral to the communities we are part of be they academic, commercial/corporate, health, special or town/city communities.
And in a society which is increasingly built on knowledge management, information, and data, why wouldn’t you have librarianship in all its forms woven into the community?
I think Lancashire’s Get It Loud in Libraries program (which is now across more than Lancashire) is a case in point of thinking outside the square and making the library space more than just the books.
As Libraries we know stories, and stories are what changes the world. We need to tell a better story than we have been telling. To get out and connect with people who have never heard and tell them a compelling story.
If you want to change the world you tell a different story. We are the storytellers and the keepers of stories. We just are not very good at telling them to the right people.
Library-Based Community Development, if done properly, will get us in touch with the connectors in our communities and with their help we will tell a different story of connection, collaboration, cooperation and community and creativity.
Chicago Library via Urban Libraries Council published the Engaged Library report and toolkit a while ago which basically sets out the steps to take to build a detailed overview of your community. Libraries make a difference in any community. We here in NSW have seen massive jumps in memberships and patron involvement whenever a new library if opened. Once the people get inside the new library space they “get it” and “find themselves” in the library space. The spaces in libraries need to used to build that sense of community and allow for the creativity and collaboration to happen.
“If you book them, they will come”!
Your work running the COGLAMERATION unconference is also about that kind of hosting — making that convivial space for people to be present and to connect with one another.
My initial idea was to give people a space where they can connect and have a conversation – and in the process talk about stuff they wanted to talk about and swap ideas. But essentially giving a low-cost or zero-cost PD opportunity for anyone connected with libraries to come and in a neutral environment talk about what they were doing and the ideas they had and swap stories and tell stories.
It works because everyone who’s there doesn’t have to explain why they work in libraries, or what they do – we all know that so the fear factor (I hope) is reduced and amongst 30-40 ‘friends’ everyone is then free to talk about the stuff they’re passionate about.
COGLAMERATION18 was my ninth unconference (that’s the 1 8 bit!) and was the first GLAM based unconference in NSW- as far as I am aware.
And in the end nobody else was going to do it…so I did. And it worked!!
It just takes that one person with the will to get things going.
It’s a bit the same with the guys from Studios 301. They got to meet lots of library people at the National Conference but it was only me that seems to have made the connection and continue the conversation. They said that they need me to help them learn the language of libraries so they can talk to libraries. So I’m kind of acting as the bridge from one culture to another. And trying to connect more libraries to what they can do for them.
That’s a fabulous niche. Helping libraries, communities, and institutions speak freely with one another.
Yes, that would be an awesome role… Often the best jobs are the one’s people invent for themselves!
(By the way, the new recording studios are just gobsmackingly good. What a space!! And they have borrowed ideas from libraries by providing hot-desks for collaborations.)
I guess there’s an issue, too, around budget. If you’re not getting money for fancy spaces, how you can still create that atmosphere for collaboration & brilliant ideas?
Yeah, so forget about trying to build something you haven’t got – ABCD is about seeing what spaces you have already available that you can use. It might be a church hall or Masonic Lodge or school hall that you could use for an event – or a pop-up library at the skatepark or at the swimming pool or hosting a teddy bear’s picnic in a park. And yes, the more people outside of the library-world you can connect to, the more chances you have that they will spark off an idea you’ve never considered before.
Yes! Nicely put.
I do what I can!
You do it very well. It always makes me happy to see the good work you are up to and the message you are spreading.
It’s also another reason to go and visit libraries, and museums and galleries. Just to get a different perspective and see what they are up to! I’m also trying to get out of the Sydney-centric thing and open up people to a different way of thinking – and tell a different story! Hitting up the rural and regional libraries.
Yes! Life outside of state capitals – that’s another Aussie issue…
One I guess is particular to us. It’s that “NSW = Newcastle Sydney Wollongong” thing. Regional areas must operate in a virtual vacuum sometimes. I’d love to see if we can find some like-minded people in the bush.
I went to an ALIA Sydney thing at the start of the year and met someone there who said she’d been waiting four years to meet me – which is both really humbling and really scary at the same time! How the hell did she know me and what had I done to impress her? Then we had a great conversation and she was lovely and wants to be a part of the CRAFTBRARY thing when I organise that.
It’s going to be great. If people want to know more, where can they read more and how can they get in touch?
Always up for a conversation! I’m on the Twitter as @robthomson2528 (LordRobThomson) and you can message me that way.
Happy to expand on my craft brewing and Library Based Community Development idea with anyone who’s interested in exploring this further. Beer tasting may be involved and ideally we’d visit a few libraries (and breweries) in the process! LOL.
But seriously, I do think that this is something libraries need to seriously explore. Making these “thick” connections and weaving the story of the library into the fabric of our community makes our communities stronger and our libraries stronger.
Thanks for the chat!!