Scripturient: Interview with Trish Hepworth

In the latest instalment of my column for Information Professional, I interview Trish Hepworth, Director of Policy and Education at the Australian Library and Information Association, ALIA. You can find the column here and read the full conversation below.

MF: What was your journey to libraryland?

TH: I originally did a law degree. I was admitted as a practitioner to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), was working as in-house counsel for a government department, and I fell into libraries by complete accident.

I joined the precursor to today’s Australian Libraries and Archives Copyright Coalition, who look after copyright policy and training for the entire library sector, and the Australian Digital Alliance, a cross-sectoral group advocating for fair copyright reform, with members ranging from libraries to tech companies, education institutions, and organisations like Vision Australia which support people in getting access to media and materials. These groups were looking at some of the fundamental values which hold the library sector together: equitable access to knowledge, information, and culture.

I found myself suddenly based at the National Library of Australia, in this wonderful institution, surrounded by amazing library and information professionals, delving deep into the intricacies of the copyright act. This is a confusing, often quite antiquated patchwork of legislation, which sometimes doesn’t even make sense; one of the greatest achievements in our copyright reforms has been that it’s no longer an offence to file document delivery request slips in chronological order!

We were looking at ways to make life easier for libraries and information services, when this act from 1968, which has since been amended in various ways, still doesn’t really sit very well with the changes which have been brought by digital. We faced, and still face, frustrating situations where there is an amazing wealth of archival materials, and no legal way to make these accessible to people. There are still obstacles, for example, to people accessing materials remotely – which, during a pandemic, has basically cut off access to huge swathes of knowledge and culture. Even when we’re not under conditions of COVD and lockdown, it still disproportionately favours people who live in large metropolitan centres and close proximity to the physical collections. Why should people who live in rural areas, or whose disabilities make travel difficult, be disadvantaged relative to people, say, who live in the centre of Melbourne? With all of the technologies and capabilities that we have, it’s slightly ridiculous that this is even an issue.

MF: What made that initial copyright job interesting to you?

TH: I was drawn to the idea of advocating for fair access – that really spoke to me – and having been in a public sector job for a long while, the idea that it would involve a degree of travel also sounded really nice! And your workplace was the National Library, a really gorgeous building. Like a fair number of people who find themselves in the library and information sector, I’d experienced the school library as a kind of refuge for people who didn’t conform to conventional ideas of what was cool, being the sporty kid, all that kind of stuff. If you wanted something else from life than going to play footy out on the oval, the library was a space for you to explore that. My grandmother was the senior school librarian for MLC School in Sydney, so I got to spend my holidays hanging out in her library: that was great, because in the early 90s, that meant you had access to pretty much the only computers in the whole school. I spent one particularly blissful summer holiday pretty much immersed in Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

MF: That fits with your later globe-trotting career. 

You say were drawn to that idea of advocating for fairness, and so much of what you talk about today relates to ethics and values. Where does that interest come from?

TH: That’s a big question! I’m very outcomes-focussed, so I feel that if you want the world to be a pretty good place, you have to do your best to make it that way. I fundamentally think you only do that by being values-aligned. 

We all have to live in this world, and most of the time it’s not that bad, but on occasion it can be pretty awful. And I just think, if you’ve got the choice, why wouldn’t you do something to make it a little bit better?

MF: So your time at the National Library reconnected you with those happy high school experience, but then Libraryland reeled you in, deeper and deeper.

TH: Working for the ALCC was amazing, because it really meant I saw the full breadth of library and information services. It was a vantage point that very few people get to see things from, and I owe the hugest debt of gratitude to countless amazing professionals who sat me down and walked me through each aspect of the sector. People who were patient enough to explain digipres to me – and then patiently explain to me that it wasn’t the same thing as digitisation; who could talk me through how the interlocking systems of inter-library loans worked in theory and in practice; and the academic librarians who helped me to understand scholarly publishing, and who continue to educate me on these issues today.

These people were really inspiring. I like working with competent people, and the library sector is full of incredibly competent people who are also kind, and generous with their knowledge.

MF: In your recent piece for Civica’s “One Thing” thought leadership series, you talk about how there is a continuity of ethics and values even as the realms of technology, intellectual property, and so on, continue to shift. 

TH: It always annoys me when people throw around the idea that libraries are static, or libraries haven’t kept up, because librarians are the ultimate change people! They exist to serve communities, whether that’s an academic library serving students, researchers, and faculty, or a school library serving its students, or a public library serving a wider community. 

As communities change and continue to change, that will affect what libraries do. The fundamental thing about that institution is not that it stores knowledge away, and carefully catalogues it, it’s about access. It’s about making sure you have what people need and that they can find them, or you can deliver them. So libraries constantly change while remaining connected to that fundamental identity. The reason you want a strong library service is that you want a community that is equitable, informed, and literate. The library is the tool for delivering that, whether that’s a government library which allows a department to create informed policy, or a public library system that helps the wider community with issues like digital literacy.

Even a developed country like Australia with a world-class education system has significant levels of low functional literacy. It’s increasingly difficult for people to function in society without those skills, and when they need help, the place they turn to is the public library.

We’re not just about collecting information for evermore, but ensuring people can benefit from it. That’s the fundamental goal of the library, and it’s supported by values like access to information and community literacy. 

The entire sector and the profession are driven by those values, even as they’re expressed in different ways to suit a changing world. In many ways, the discussions are becoming more sophisticated: for example, when we’re talking critically about metadata practices, and how they have systems of racism and misogyny embedded into them. We look at these practices with a fresh eye, and recognise the need for change. That includes recognising that sustainability, social justice, and a more sophisticated discussions of equity are part of the sector’s work.

MF: What are the principal challenges and opportunities when it comes to improving access in the future?

TH: The restrictions take different forms. If you belong to a local council that doesn’t fund a library, or a school which decides it doesn’t need a school librarian to run its library, you might theoretically have access to a collection, but it’s not really giving you access to the information that you need. If you don’t have people who know what they’re doing, then communities lose out.

There are also legal barriers. In the last swathe of Australian copyright reforms, I was so pleased to see disability access addressed. That let, amongst other things, people who had a print disability make accessible copies themselves. That is a level of access that should never have been in question in the first place. It’s fundamentally unfair that someone, for example, who had a visual impairment couldn’t take an eBook and run it through a screen reader without infringing copyright.

With the shift to digital, we have seen a strengthening in the power of publishers to potentially restrict things; that’s a fundamental shift in access, where the library sector is still trying to work with publishers, readers, and other actors to figure out what might work going forward. Digital licensing can mean increased control over who you can sell to, and at what price. One major publisher in Australian won’t licence ebooks to public libraries at all. Under COVID lockdowns, that needlessly disenfranchised a great proportion of the community who didn’t have the option of borrowing in hard copy in some areas. We see it with academic publishers, too, putting conditions on their contract licences which claim to overwrite copyright exceptions, things that were built into legislation to ensure that socially useful work could be done with that material. 

MF: You’re saying that access isn’t just about ensuring a door is held open, it’s an ongoing process. Librarians sound like rock climbers, constantly trying to keep moving, finding a way through.

TH: It’s truly the most agile profession! Things never say the same.

MF: You talked specifically about kindness in your Civica piece on ethics and values. Can you say more about the part you see kindness playing in the profession, now and in the future?

TH: The first part is the sheer, practical, outcomes-focussed strategic aspect: if you can do things with kindness, they’re more likely to work! If you’ve got a profession that’s driven by serving community, then you have to look at not just what you are doing, but how. That’s where the kindness factor comes in.

Libraries, especially school and public libraries, offer a physical space which we’ve missed a lot during COVID: a place of refuge, a place where you can go without being judged, without being expected to spend lots of money. It’s a space where you are allowed to exist without lots of demands and expectations. That sort of space is quite rare, and it means that among our library users, a significant proportion will be people for whom receiving a little bit of kindness is not their default experience over the course of their day.

With those people, a little kindness can make a huge difference. A library technician in Melbourne told me about an elderly man who came in seeking help after his wife had passed away, and she’d had the password to his Kindle. He figured the library could help, and the technician sat down with him for three quarters of an hour trying to fix things. They didn’t solve his password problem on the day, but he felt heard, and he came back, and became a regular library user.

We instituted show and tell in my office during lockdown, and it was such a positive reminder of the good such things can do. The act of sharing is a kindness, but the act of being shared to is also a kindness. It leads to bonding and community. It’s fundamental to strengthening the community that your library serves: the institution needs the community coming through the doors and that happens through ensuring the presence of kindness. If we want to survive, it’s absolutely in our interest to be nice to people!

This is also about kindness to the other professionals around you. People can very tell you which places they’ve worked where the colleagues showed kindness to one another, and the ones where they didn’t! Nobody’s super productive in a toxic workplace, it’s not a pleasant thing to endure, and it won’t do any good for the community you serve.

MF: Your Kindle story reminds me of discussions in the world of medical general practice about when to do nothing – rather than over-ordering tests or carrying out excessive medical interventions. Jessica Watson talks about the importance of sometimes simply bearing witness.

TH: You can’t take somebody’s grief away, some bad situations can’t be remedied by a library. We’re not homeless shelters, or food banks, or social service job providers, even if we support all of those functions through our community role. There are things that we can’t do, but when a library has the staffing and resources, then we can be there and hear people and let them have a safe space and access to information and recreation, and I think it’s one of the most powerful things we can do.

MF: It’s another side to the role of the “information institution”: that the librarian is willing to be informed about how someone else is doing, how their life is going, when perhaps the world doesn’t seem to notice or care. “Libraries connect us to people, information, and stuff,” as Stephanie Chase puts it.

TH: Even if you can’t fix the problem, you can acknowledge the person. It’s the connection that matters. Public libraries give people an excuse to talk to other people, whether it’s a tech problem or a reference enquiry or some other kind of help. It gives you a reason to start a conversation with people, which might not be available in many spaces.

MF: It resonates with your comments on copyright and licensing, too: that you can frame a regulation or a policy or the letter or law to seek a certain outcome, but at every level, this work is so much about care, and intent, and the values underpinning it all. 

TH: When we did the unpublished works copyright reforms, some of the things people wanted to get to were items relating to their family history. Often it was people who wanted to gather materials for elderly parents and grandparents, to make that connection to their earliest years and memories as they came towards the end of their journey. Even things that sound really arcane, like ending perpetual copyright on unpublished works, are about something that’s intimate and personal, and a desire to connect which is being held back by a law which is doing nothing useful. The frustration and determination of a librarian facing that situation is something to behold!

Sometimes, a person in mourning will be looking for a newspaper clipping of, say, their grandfather hitting a six in cricket, to share at a funeral service. Or someone will be seeking a song that was sung in primary school in the 1940s, for a relative who’s in aged care with dementia, nonverbal but still able to sing if you can find the right music. Is it possible that we can find a way to shape the copyright rules that works for such private and domestic uses, as well as research and education?

MF: Can you see moves that organisations make which foster the kindness you’re describing?

TH: One of the reasons that kindness resonates so well with libraries is that it’s at the basis of the concept: inviting people into a space to share knowledge and culture. Even law libraries, specialist libraries in corporate institutions, they’ll tell you: the number of judges who go and hang out in the law library, because of the space, the inbuilt kindness, and the sense of welcome. Front-line librarianship is very customer service oriented, not in the sense of putting on a fake smile because I’m getting paid to say certain words, but because of that fundamental value stance: kindness with a purpose. Libraries are one of the key cornerstones of making kindness structural, turning that behaviour into a ripple effect. We see how social media can amplify anger, and discontent, and fear. That doesn’t make society healthier, happier, or safer. Kindness is the antidote to that, and libraries are a contributor. It fits, too, with those nations that are moving to a more wellbeing-based framework in terms of measuring what matters to them.

MF: How does this sit with the conversation around vocational awe, scope creep, and the burdens placed on library workers?

TH: One of the things I love about libraries, and the wider profession, is the set of core common values we hold – though they play out so differently across the sector, from a resource description expert working in an academic library to the person who is in charge of programming in a major regional public library, or the liaison librarian in a research library serving a particular research group. Each one of those people has a really different working day!

Similarly, scope changes according to your setting. Libraries figure out where they fit based on the needs of the community. Some academic libraries run the university press and the publishing infrastructure, supporting research grants, providing bibliometrics, running the teaching and learning function; others, smaller ones, focus their strengths on collections. Similarly, some public libraries have huge outreach programmes and become part almost of the local social welfare infrastructure, while others are focussed on a core service offering. I don’t think there’s necessarily a good way or a bad way, except that you need to find the way that suits your community. One of the things that ALIA is looking at, in particular through the Professional Pathways project, is ensuring that whatever the library service, we’ve got the pathways which mean that people will have shared values and the right skills for the role that they play in meeting their community’s needs, plus the career-long support which will see you through the changing needs and opportunities presented by your community.

The other thing that really makes a difference is being valued. This is a struggle we see a lot in the library and information service. The sector is full of amazing people, with incredible skills, knowledge, and competence. Often, they aren’t valued the way they should be, and that limits their effectiveness. Cracking that value nut is one of the tasks for ALIA: it’s fundamental to making this all work.

Professional Pathways is a $1.6million investment in the people who work in library and information services. It’s very much about finding what we do to get that diverse, supported, valued workforce that has the right skills, knowledge, and ethics to both meet the needs of the community now, and anticipate emerging needs. That means working with existing LIS educators to strengthen it: combining academic rigour with cutting-edge research and ensuring that courses are industry-relevant. It means finding alternative entry routes to the sector, and pathways which lead to working in the library without necessarily becoming a librarian per se. It means ensuring that lifelong learning is integral to work in the library and information sector.

There’s this thing in churches: it’s not the building, it’s the people.

MF: I’ve heard the same thing said of museums: “The building is only our most visible tool.”

TH: Right — what you need is for them to have the right skills, the right knowledge, and a growth mindset. An information service could be a digital offering, a huge cultural institution, or two people at a desk in an office in a government agency. 

MF: When you look ahead to the horizon, what do you see?

TH: The most pressing and immediate challenge we face is the reduction in footfall after the COVID lockdowns. I’m also expecting that many parts of the sector will see a somewhat constrained funding environment in the next couple of years, and I’m cautious about the fact that any excuse to cut may come into play. It’s also possible that lockdown has changed the routine of people who used to come into libraries as a matter of course; whether that’s students coming on campus or people popping into the public library with their kids for weekly storytime. People have fallen out of their routines, but libraries are very strongly part of the solution to revitalising public spaces again. That includes reaching people who may have gotten out of all their habits of seeing other people, people who may now be isolated and vulnerable: libraries can be part of that solution.

Thanks to Trish for this conversation. Find more from her at Twitter, where she’s @trishhepworth.

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