My Visit to Library Island: Sherlonya Turner, Ann Arbor District Library

Library Island, the participatory activity which reaches the parts other professional development cannot reach, is here! You can read more and download your copy of the free, CC-licensed PDF file here.

I’m featuring some accounts of the Island from people who have attended Island sessions, or run Islands of their own, to give you a better sense of what it means to take part in, or even organise, your own Library Island. 

Today, Sherlonya Turner of Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) in Michigan, USA joins us for her account of running Library Island. Sherlonya and her colleagues ran a tailor-made session at LibCamp 2019, a professional development event for regional librarians hosted by AADL.

Sherlonya is a great public library leader, and, in her regular contributions to AADL’s culture blog Pulp, one of Libraryland’s most talented writers. Here’s what happened when she took charge of Library Island earlier this year.

When Managers Cut Loose: Being Playful with Colleagues

My first experience with the Battle for Library Island came in October of 2017, when Matt Finch visited the Ann Arbor District Library. I engaged with the game as a player, somewhat hesitantly. The hesitation was not about the game itself, but about the fact that I was playing it with colleagues, several of who report to me. I believe that people need space to learn, think, and experiment, especially in an interactive activity such as this one. So I was nervous that my presence could impede others’ ability to fully engage in the exercise. It turned out that I was in my head too much in thinking about this.

I was also in my head too much when I had the opportunity to facilitate the exercise. I am the type of gal who does her homework. As a result, I can’t even state how many times I read the materials that Matt made available on his website. In fact, as I reflect on the experience later, I still have the copy that I printed out several months ago.  

The Ann Arbor District Library hosts an event called Library Camp, an unconference aimed at library workers, library students and library enthusiasts. The morning portion of the unconference was dedicated to Library Island.  There we were, with approximately 70 participants in the room waiting to play.

In preparation for the event, Eli Neiburger and I made some tweaks to some of the characters. The brainwork was his in this endeavour.

We changed the Donald character – a wealthy, controversial, conservative figure – to Rich Old Grump and Pauline – another conservative figure, with a focus on heritage – to Jean E. Ologist. This gave participants a bit more room to interpret what these characters, particularly Donald in our current news environment. 

Eli used an online breaking news maker in order to visually communicate newsworthy events as they happened during this simulation. Our Library Island’s world-changing events were a flood that ruined collections, an out break of bookworms which also ruined collections, and a presidential election which meant that there would be no funding for services meant to serve those who speak Verbalese.

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Getting People Engaged, and Making Sense of The Experience

One thing about having this sort of event in the morning is that the audience that you’re facing very much has that morning look in their eyes. You know the look, the I’m-not-quite-awake-look. I leaned on humor, my favorite crutch, and warned people that they were about to be asked to…participate. I think that this successfully broke the ice in the room, though I did notice some people pointedly avoiding making eye contact with me. When preparing to facilitate this exercise, I had thought quite a bit about how I would go about it. When I sat down to write about the experience, I thought that I would focus that aspect of my experience this time around with Library Island. 

Usually, when I sit down at the keyboard words virtually fall out of my fingertips, especially when it is something that I had spent time pondering. However, this time, the words did not come.  I have been writing long enough that I know that when words aren’t coming it is because I am either holding something back, or I am not fully being honest about something. (The overlap in the Venn diagram between these two conditions are often significant.)

In Matt’s work at the library in 2017, one of the things that struck me was his acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples who are the original owners of the land where this exercise took place; it felt important. I have since learned that this has become a common practice in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I knew that I wanted to keep this as a part of facilitating his game. I wish, however, that I had done more research in advance. I had carefully researched who are the original owners of the land where this event was facilitated, but I hadn’t understood that importance of verb tense in the acknowledgement. Immediately following the introduction, but before the activity commenced, I was politely corrected. 

I am glad that was corrected on this, but it did throw me off of my game a little bit. I regularly address audiences of people and am usually am able to focus on this task at hand, but not this time. How did I, a thorough, do-your-homework person, miss this?  I wished that I had prepared a specific script, as opposed to what I usually do, prepare a sentiment and then deliver it based on the feeling in the room at the time.

Then during the facilitation of the exercise, I remained a bit fixated on this error, asking myself whether this person’s experience of the exercise would now be tainted. Had I taken something from this person? Because Library Island depends on participation, and creating the appropriate environment supports participation, I was stuck in this cerebral loop. Also, because Library Island involves serving Bookish-speaking colonizers and a Verbalese-speaking indigenous population, I was more fixated on this than I might have otherwise been.

Explaining the game went quite well. Participants had some questions, but it was find or create their own answers as they participated in the game. 

Facilitation and Fiction: Breaking The Fourth Wall, or Entering The Game

I had not anticipated, though, that some people would attempt to involve me in the world that the exercise created.  At a few times during the game, Library Island inhabitants approached me because the Ministry of Shelves had referred them to me. I, then, had to make a choice; I rebuffed them, exiting the game by saying that I didn’t know why the Ministry had sent them my way. Or did I exit the game? Within the context of what was happening, this could have been perceived as the incompetence of an authority figure. Can one, after setting the stage, truly opt out?

Here, I started to think about the overlap between the ideas of a role-playing game and storytelling and improv. I definitely saw myself as a narrator in this world, and not a character, but how much does that matter when you’ve invited people to actively and collectively tap into their own imaginations? Maybe this is not a facilitator’s decision. 

As the game was played, I walked around the room listening to different conversations, observing how different people from these different library environments approached problem solving.

I hadn’t been prepared for the protest.

It felt like I turned my back for a moment, and a good number of people had stormed the Ministry of Shelves and demanded change!

Debriefs and Lessons Learned

The debriefing session went well, people talking about their experiences.

Library Island made them think about how decisions are made and how uncomfortable the pressures on all sides of a decision can be. It seemed that this also, even without the brainstorming portion of the event, allowed many of them to see their own work from a different angle. Maybe they even saw themselves differently, or came to see that they may be working with more tools than they had been aware of in a work context.

This time around, Library Island made me see the role of the facilitator from a different angle, opening up questions about the borders around and the interpretations of that role.


Thanks to Sherlonya Turner for her reflections on this event. Read more about Sherlonya’s work here or find out more about Library Island on this site.

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