What exactly is Library Island anyway?

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the last two years working on something called “Library Island”. You might have seen photos, videos, or social media posts appearing online as university staff, health workers, museum professionals, students, and, yes, librarians take part in this interactive training activity.

Later this year, a free CC-licensed print-and-play kit for Library Island will be released, so that people anywhere can take this activity and use it with their institutions, companies, and communities.

But what exactly is Library Island? Read on to find out…

What is Library Island?

Library Island is an activity which simulates five years in the life of a nation’s library services. Participants become librarians, government officials, or community members on this island and face the challenges created by conflicting wants, needs, and limited resources. There is an Indigenous community and colonial history to be reckoned with, plus a range of political interests with their own agenda for the library.

Once players have played a round of “Library Island” to get used to the game, it can be adapted to any institution which serves a community, including hospitals, museums, and places of learning.

Library Island is playful and intense. It’s a simple game played with nothing more than office furniture, pens, and paper, but it swiftly leads to rich and complex scenarios. The fictional setting allows us to explore structural issues, political challenges, and even some of the disruptive behaviour that professionals may face from their users, within the relative safety of a “make-believe” context.

What’s the point of Library Island?

This approach offers professional development which is open-ended, rather than didactic. It creates an opportunity for participants to explore relationships, values, and structural challenges as part of their ongoing development. It can also be played with your community and other stakeholders to expand their understanding of what an institution is and what it can do.

When other professionals play the game, adapting the activity to their institutions and communities – Healthcare Island, Museum Island, etc. – the aim is to help people dynamically challenge and expand their understanding of their institution’s relationship to society.

Library Island also relates to the principles of scenario planning, where organisations and communities look to a range of plausible possible scenarios in order to better prepare for a turbulent and uncertain future. I’ve written about this previously with the Said Business School’s Professor Rafael Ramirez.

Where did the idea come from?

I’m a strategic consultant who also has experience devising playful, participatory activities for communities and institutions – from choose-your-own-adventure book reviews to a live action teen zombie battle in rural Australia, citywide time travel adventures, and a game explaining the science of wild turkeys’ life cycle.

I’m also passionate about moving professional development away from an instructional model to one which is about exploration.

If you have 100 people in a room to learn about their profession, is the best use of their time for 1 person to talk and 99 people to listen? Or should everyone have the opportunity to articulate, develop, share, and challenge their ideas?

I’ve been working with conferences, think tanks, writers’ festivals, and other bodies to explore these issues.

It was natural to bring these things together in a playful event which moved away from instructional models and encouraged open-ending learning, where the participants were in control, not the facilitator.

Why is this playful approach useful when it comes to thinking about institutional futures?

Professionals need to be able to define their role and the value of their work in a way which makes sense to the communities they serve, to stakeholders, and to those who fund the institution.

Library Island challenges participants to step into someone else’s shoes and see the system from a different perspective, considering the wider social context of an entire community.

Library Island gets people out of their silos and seeing things in a whole new light. Being able to tell the story of what you do, in a dynamic and responsive way, is the key not only to advertising and justifying services – it actually helps us to better understand and define our mission in a changing world.

What has happened on Library Island in the past?

In New Zealand, a player in the role of a conservative tycoon managed to carry out a coup on the Island and imprison dissidents until the librarians mounted a resistance. This was achieved by some very astute political game playing, and although the scenario was wild, it forced people again to think about their values and how they would act in the face of political extremism.

In Tennessee, protestors and Indigenous activists clashed while staging a sit-in at the “Ministry of Shelves”, and in an event for the Guardian in London, the Indigenous community of Library Island lobbied the Ministry for recognition by bombarding them with social media posts.

(As we hadn’t been able to set up a fake social network for the game, the Indigenous players had carried this out by handwriting tweets onto scraps of paper and physically pelting the Ministry with them).

In the very first Library Island, a particularly quick-witted player in the role of a government official managed to defraud the government – he bought himself a plane from the Ministry budget! The community had to improvise rules to apprehend and punish the player, but also to think about how they regulated the funding – bringing us back to the serious issue of integrity and scrutiny of our processes.

One of our Healthcare Islands suffered the opposite problem. Players in the role of government officials developed a complex and difficult funding application process. Those players were in fact patient care representatives who were usually advocating to cut hospital bureaucracy! Giving them the purse strings forced them to reflect on how and why bureaucratic processes develop to manage resources responsibly.

One Library Island saw homeless people refuse to leave a library which had been closed, sleeping on the floor instead. This led to a wider discussion about disruptive behaviour, inclusion, and how these issues also arise in academic libraries or specialist settings such as health libraries. You can see a real world version of this need to engage with the homeless community in the superlative work of New Zealand’s Rachael Rivera.

There are more examples and information from Library Islands around the world in this Google Doc.

What happens after the Island and how does it benefit participants?

Many countries are facing the challenge of cuts to funding of public services in general, and libraries in particular. Not only must leaders adapt to the changing nature of their service, but they must also do so under financial and political constraints. It adds another layer of challenge, but the best leaders tend to be resourceful, creative, and determined – knowing when to advocate, push back, innovate, or adapt to the changing environment within which they work.

Library Island is a way of playfully opening up difficult topics as a basis for wider strategic thinking. It moves us away from the operational level to think in a broader, long-term way about where our institutions are headed. Because it incorporates debate, discussion, and difference of opinion, it also forces us to recognise the messy and turbulent nature of change, and the possibility of unintended outcomes to our actions.

Because the Island involves political conflict and diverse identity groups in a fictional setting, fraught and controversial topics like structural inequality can also be addressed before reframing to consider their real world impact.

After a game of Library Island, we sometimes use activities like Napkins in Copenhagen to help people have swift, strategic conversations with staff and stakeholders alike.

My clients often express a need to move away from their organisation’s slide decks and spreadsheets to a more human level, the need to sit down for a cup of coffee with someone and be able to have the conversation: “Look, this is what we do, this is how we help our community, these are the challenges ahead, and this is where we need to go in the future, what do you think and how can we help each other?”

If you can sketch the situation on the back of a napkin, explain it over a cup of a coffee, and communicate in a way which gets the other person on board with your mission, that’s a huge win for any institution.  That connection, response, and rapport can serve as the basis for everything you do. And that’s just one of the things you develop on a trip to Library Island.

Would you like to run your own Library Island? The full print-and-play kit will be available as a free, CC-licensed PDF later this year, or contact Matt now to find out more.

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