Institutions at Play: Library Island coverage at the Finnish Library Association

“Eye-opening, polyphonic and above all fun” – at least, that’s how Google translates this piece on Library Island by the Finnish librarian Riitta Kangas.

Riitta focusses on the playful and collaborative aspects of the activity. Library Island allows people to jointly approach difficult issues in a safely fictional setting, before taking the lessons learned back into the real world, where they may be applied to achieve practical goals.

You can read more about Library Island here, or check out the website of the Finnish Library Association for Riitta’s article.

 

Bandersnatch: Choosing a Future, Letting People Surprise You

Over at The Cultural Gutter, there’s a thoughtful piece about Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

The choose-your-own adventure film allowed viewers to shape the story of a young programmer trying to develop a computer game in 1984. Presented with either-or choices to make via their TV’s remote control, someone watching Bandersnatch can influence the outcome of the narrative – but as the story develops, the choices are increasingly unpalatable and the question of who is controlling whom becomes increasingly prominent.

The Cultural Gutter’s Alex Macfadyen writes:

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want.

Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

Playing Bandersnatch, and reading Macfadyen afterwards, reminded me of a British Library Labs event I attended a couple of years back.

Jon Ingold, who has made several great choose-your-own adventure games including the subtle and troubling World War 2 drama The Interceptspoke about the relationship between players and authors of such adventures.

Rejecting the language of “empowering players” or “co-creating game narratives together”, Ingold described adventure games as puzzles where the author attempts to lure the player into a trap of their own choosing – a trap to which the player must then find a brilliant escape. The player is never in control of the story, any more than the rat who turns left or right at a given corner is in control of the maze.

These problems of choice and control lie at the heart of the workshops I’ve been running over the past couple of years. To what extent can we allow participants in an event to surprise us?

I’ve devised participatory sessions for literary festivals, conferences, and training events; run live-action games where players must battle zombies and solve practical problems; I’ve even written a book review in the form of an online choose-your-own adventure for Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

The challenge for me has always been – how can you let people surprise you?

Choose-your-own adventures, from Bandersnatch to Ingold’s more sophisticated offerings, are ultimately more like mazes which one can only choose to run or not run. (The promo art for Bandersnatch helps to make this clear).

black-mirror-bandersnatch

In activities like Library Island, I’ve been trying to devise opportunities for people to tell their own stories and genuinely shape the outcome of a collective narrative – the benchmark for this being whether the players were able to do something the author didn’t see coming.

Library Island players have brought fraud, civil unrest, and workers’ rights issues to sessions – helping us to address the most serious challenges to a community within the safer space of a playful, fictional setting. In the very first pilot for the game, a character stole a plane which they had illegally bought using government funds – something I definitely hadn’t accounted for – and an event which led on to serious discussion of scrutiny, oversight, and accountability for the use of public money.

Since then, players have only made the problem worse — delightfully worse.

Games which genuinely let people contribute to the outcome of a story also have the potential to change the way we look at the future.

Too often, when planning for the months and years to come, we see our options as constrained, like the forking but pre-written paths of Bandersnatch and its kin, railroading us towards a limited number of possible futures.

This can sap our ability to imagine a better world than the one we expect, but it can also make us vulnerable to harmful futures we didn’t see coming; financial crises, political upsets, and environmental disasters, for example.

In a turbulent era, finding ways to allow many voices to offer their story and participate in constructing plausible future scenarios help us to prepare for the world which is to come – a world which has not been pre-written by a game designer, and which therefore denies us both the safety and constraint of someone else’s narrative.

Read more about Library Island here.

Play The Lifted Brow‘s “choose-your-own adventure book review” here.

A different way to plan your 2019

Are you thinking about the year to come? Do you make New Year’s resolutions, or use January 1st as a turning point for your life at work or home?

Here’s a quick & easy planning tool I sometimes use in workshops. It’s adapted from the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, where it’s called “Arrows of Time”.

You just need a piece of paper – even a napkin will do! – and something to write on it with.

First, put the paper in landscape orientation, with the long sides at the top and bottom, and draw an arrow from the bottom left corner, pointing right. This represents the past.

Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 13.15.34

Now, around this arrow, answer these questions:

  • What will we still be dealing with in 2019?
  • What issues from the past can’t we get away from?
  • What isn’t finished yet from the year just gone?

When this is done, draw another arrow from the top right corner, pointing left. This represents the future.

Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 13.15.49

Now, around this arrow, answer these questions:

  • What do we know is coming in 2019?
  • What do we fear about the coming year? What do we hope for?
  • What do we expect to happen?
  • What have we failed to prepare for in 2019?
  • What can’t we avoid about the year to come?

Between these two arrows lies your room to manoeuvre. In the space between them, draw a box, representing your capacity to choose the future you wish for.

Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 13.16.04

In the box, answer these questions:

  • What do you want to happen? What can you plausibly achieve next year?
  • What actions should you take to meet these goals?
  • What can you do to prepare against unpleasant surprises, or outcomes you wish to avoid?
  • What can you do to be ready for happy accidents and unexpected opportunities next year?

This is just a quick, simple activity, but it helps you to plan in a way that allows for the turbulence and uncertainty of any future – looking not just towards your objectives but the context in which you will need to make them happen.

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As Oxford University’s Rafael Ramirez put it in our recent discussion on scenario planning, such “back-of-the-napkin” activities can be valuable as a starting point, or in constrained financial circumstances:

The metaphor I use is buying a television. If you don’t have a lot of time, or your organisation has been cut back, you may have to do only a good-enough piece of work: like buying a cheap black-and-white television to see who has won the World Series.

If you have enough time or funds, you can buy yourself a big colour television which shows more detail about what is happening. […] To get more detail, better arguments, better references: a better, more detailed colour picture on your television. But getting started costs very little indeed.

An organisation’s intent should be clear, compelling, and easy to articulate succinctly. So should your plans for 2019.

Why not grab a piece of paper today and sketch out where you’d like to head in the year to come?

What did you see? Where to next?

Well, what did you see this year? Where did you go, and where do you want to go next?

2018 has been eventful for me, with lots of travel and some big projects.

(That doesn’t mean I found no time to read; you can see some of my favourite books from the last 12 months in this blog post).

This year I got to some places I’d never been before, as well as revisiting others that have long been important to me.

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Four (or more) reads from 2018

I got through a lot of books this year, so I just want to pick out a few that were especially important to my work in 2018.

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Wayne & Shirley Wiegand’s The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South was recommended by librarians in Mississippi, when I visited the state to run Library Island in April.

The Wiegands’ book is a useful historical study in how public institutions comply with, mitigate, abet, or resist an abusive regime. To really get to grips with this issue, you should follow it with Margaret Stieg’s 1992 article on how public libraries transformed in the Germany of the 1930s.

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My Mississippi trip also allowed me to visit the state’s Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. It’s one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. You can read more about the place in this New York Times article.

the enemy

Collaborating with the Enemy, by Adam Kahane, looks at peacemaking and negotiation work, drawing on examples from Thailand, South Africa, and Colombia. Kahane is remarkably honest about his frustrations and failures, as well as his successes, in projects intended to promote collaboration under the most difficult conditions. It’s well worth a read, to challenge and inspire you.

kottler

I read Jeffrey Kottler and Jon Carlson’s Bad Therapy as part of a Kottler binge earlier this year, seeking insights to borrow from other relationship-focussed disciplines.

For Bad Therapy, the authors interviewed a number of leading practitioners on the topic of their greatest failures. The resulting discussions are brave, humbling, and food for thought in any profession.

What would it mean to focus on one’s failures in this way? What do bad librarianship, bad journalism, bad teaching or curation or medicine or design look like when the practitioner themselves admits to a job done poorly? This book is excellent for anyone interested in professional learning and growth, whatever field they work in.

Being_Mortal

Finally, I was four years late to an encounter with Atul Gawande’s Being Mortala 2014 reflection on the decisions and dilemmas associated with end-of-life care.

The challenges faced in caring for those who are close to death emphasise and highlight problems which we confront in any healthcare setting. These include the limits of the patient’s right to choose, the authority of the physician over those in their care, and quality of life versus the drive to preserve life at all costs.

Gawande’s typically sensitive and personal discussion of these topics reminded me of Sherwin Nuland’s 1992 National Book Award winner How We Die. The challenge that faces us in healthcare is that the same issues Nuland identified more than twenty-five years ago still plague our health systems today.

Gawande – who more recently wrote for the New Yorker about the frustrations of medical software – is a humane and articulate guide to this territory. I’ll return to this topic in the new year.

These were my best reads of 2018. They’ll stay with me, joined by new writers and new volumes, in the year to come.

What were your best reads from the year just gone?

Institutions at Play: Library Island in Perspektiv Magazine

How does a playful simulation help institutions to “see themselves from the outside”, reimagining their vision, mission, operations, and relationships?

In the new issue of Perspektiv, the magazine of Denmark’s library union, you can read about Library Island and its variants.

Whether you’re a fluent Danish speaker, or empowered by the magic of machine translation, you can read Sabrine Mønsted’s article “Library Island: Se biblioteket udefra” here.

Stopping to Start: Allowing for Creation

I visited Vienna’s superlative Jewish Museum on my recent trip to the city. Their exhibitions and programmes are always sharp, relevant, and thoughtfully curated.

Currently, they’re hosting an exhibition on Kabbalah, the esoteric branch of Judaism which has been popularised by various celebrities from David Bowie to Madonna.

I wandered round, learned a little, and made some unexpected connections as well.

bowie.jpg

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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… Read more

The Future Sound of Libraries, Revisited: Interview with Martin Kristoffer Bråthen

martinkbrathenToday I’m joined by Norway’s Martin Kristoffer Bråthen. Martin is head of innovation and product development at Biblioteksentralen, the cooperative business which supplies libraries across Norway with collection materials, equipment and services.

 

Prior to that, Martin worked at Deichman Bibliotek, the Oslo Public Library, in a range of project roles. During that time, he wrote a robust defence of public libraries in the age of the e-book in response to a comment by a senior Norwegian arts editor that “digitisation leaves public libraries on the scrapheap of history.”

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#NotEnoughSciFi: Feels, Facts, and Reason

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

These days, it can feel as if reason, facts, and truth themselves are under assault. As if the institutions and professions – the academy, journalism, research, librarianship – which have allowed many of us to understand and discuss the world on common ground are beleaguered.

In pop culture, can we find new ways of imagining these figures for the coming world? Do science fiction, fantasy, and the study of our society overlap and can this overlap help us?

I’ve just finished a couple of books which turned out to converge in weird and useful ways: William Davies’ Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World and Una McCormack’s production history and critical response to a 1980s BBC TV serial, The Curse of Fenric. Read more