Crisis and Consequence: On Libraries’ Response to the Christchurch Earthquakes

In 2010 and 2011, the city of Christchurch faced the most severe natural disasters in the history of New Zealand / Aotearoa. The librarians of “ChCh” responded to the crisis with flexibility, courage, and innovation.

I wrote about the Christchurch quakes and the response of Kiwi librarians for CILIP Update, the in-house journal of the UK librarians’ association, CILIP.

You can read a PDF copy of the article by clicking on the image below.

Crisis and Consequence by Matt Finch

You can also check out my previous Update article, “Pushing the limits: play, explore, experiment”, as a PDF download.

Stepping into the Story: Interactive Storytelling at New South Wales Writers’ Centre

Ahead of this Saturday’s Storytelling for a 21st Century Audience course at the New South Wales Writer’s Centre (NSWWC) in Sydney, I was interviewed for the NSWWC website:

What is interactive storytelling and how can immersive narratives enhance the storytelling experience?
Interactive storytelling means creating an event where all participants shape the outcome of the story. It breaks down barriers between the teller and the audience, so that people work together to develop a shared narrative. In some ways this is very traditional – oral storytelling always involves taking account of your audience, and even a book is never interpreted in quite the same way by different readers – but immersive narratives incorporate aspects of theatre, gaming, and play so that you can step into the world of a story and make choices with consequences for your character.

What makes a successful storytelling event? Is there one that you’re particularly proud to have created?
A successful interactive storytelling event brings satisfying outcomes which the organisers didn’t design or foresee. The recent zombie siege in Tullamore, NSW saw eighty people including police, firefighters, librarians and high schoolers immersed in a four-and-a-half hour survival scenario. Individual players took the outline they’d been given and came up with smart, in-character ways to carry out their roles, leading to moments of high drama which we never could have scripted – on one occasion, a zombie-bitten police officer had to be wrestled to the ground and restrained with his own handcuffs before he “turned”!

Your work uses popular culture to great effect, and you’ve run some diverse events, involving comics, time-travel, and zombies, among other things. What draws you to a narrative and makes you want to share it with others?
I like finding unexpected connections between the everyday world and the universe of dreams, stories, and fantasy. There’s an image from an event I ran in Auckland which captures this beautifully – a Rebel Alliance pilot from Star Wars greeting a man in a hoodie with a traditional Māori hongi – connecting the here-and-now of New Zealand’s multicultural traditions with Hollywood’s “galaxy far, far away”.

Finding Library Futures, 5: “I Was Elected To Lead, Not To Read” – Thoughts On Library Leadership

Part 5 in my series on Finding Library Futures.

In my travels, I’ve met some incredible and inspiring library leaders. Managers and specialists delivering incredible stuff: people like Hamish Curry, the Melbournian library superhero who gets kids making Ned Kelly armour in his library, or Adrienne Hannan in the New Zealand capital Wellington, a children’s and youth specialist whose role outside traditional management structures gives her freedom and flexibility to innovate. But sometimes libraries’ own bureaucracy impedes them: sometimes, even when the media, local communities, and local politicians, too, are supporting libraries’ attempts to be audacious, internal process can be an obstacle. So – here’s three thoughts on a style of leadership which will let libraries be the sword-hand of literacy and the major cultural player they so clearly ought to be in the new Information Age.

1. Library leaders need to be librarians.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking my role out of existence – outsiders to library service have a value in stirring the pot, bringing in new ideas, cross-pollinating between librarianship, education, theatre, creative writing, marketing, etc – but I truly believe that the people at the head of a library organisation need to have walked the floor, stacked the shelves, held their own on a desk shift, and put contact plastic on a few books in their time. Read more

Finding Library Futures, 2: We Built This City – Embedding Stories in a Community

In part one of this blog series, I took a look at TimeQuest, the citywide programme which I devised for Auckland Libraries’ school holiday programmes – an opportunity to embed storytelling, adventure, and literacy into the life of an entire city.

The TimeQuest team created a simple storyline which all Auckland’s library branches could use as a leaping-off point for their own activities over the holidays. We might have been imposing a half-dozen lines of text, but there’s a real difference between this imposition and the various ‘One Book, One City’ programmes which have gained ground around the world.

Read more

Finding Library Futures, 1a: A Love Letter to Auckland

Auckland Libraries - Timequest
Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo

I wrote the recent Auckland Libraries school holiday programme TimeQuest as a love letter to the city – a science fiction romance with time-travelling heroes using libraries to save the heritage of New Zealand’s largest conurbation. Creating the activity, I thought about what I might go back in time to save from Auckland Libraries. My experience with both the library system and the city itself was intense, challenging, and ultimately rewarding – but along the journey, there were days where I might not have been sad to see Auckland blown into the time vortex!

Even in those toughest times, I found things to make me cherish the city. Places and people and even items on the library shelves. In one such case, it wasn’t a book, but a song. A song which belongs to pop culture in general, and Auckland in particular: that Australasian underdog which is still only slowly recognising how awesome it is and how much greater it could yet be.

This song, set on Takapuna Beach, alludes to the death of songwriter Don McGlashan’s brother at the age of 15. In it you find pop, melancholy, honesty. It belongs to specifc people, and specific places; it speaks of birthday parties and city politics, but also reaches out to touch something beyond everyday life. In four minutes, it gives me everything I love in a piece of art.

So…if you were on Auckland’s TimeQuest, saving your cultural heritage in the face of apocalypse, what one item would you rescue from your library?

Finding Library Futures, 1: TimeQuest – A Scientific Romance for Libraries

Auckland Libraries - Timequest
Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo
This school holiday season has seen Auckland’s library branches join forces to deliver a programme of activities built around a single citywide storyline, “TimeQuest.” Working with the city’s Service Development advisers Anne Dickson and Danielle Carter, I wrote the short text which frames the whole season:

Auckland, 2379. It’s the end for planet Earth – a red sun burns in the sky and the ground is parched of life.

The last survivors are preparing to leave for a new home on the other side of the galaxy, when the scientist Maia completes her greatest invention – a time portal that can take you to any moment in Auckland’s history.

Her plan: to send you back in time to recover the best books, art, and objects from New Zealand’s past.

Where will you go – and when?

What will you choose to save?

TimeQuest – Raid the past to save the future.    

Read more

Busy week, lucky country

It’s been another busy week out here in Central West New South Wales.

On Monday, I interviewed the Australian comics creator Pat Grant for the New South Wales Writers’ Centre. You can read Pat’s comics Blue and Toormina Video online. Pat and I will both be teaching courses at the Centre later this year – Pat’s on Graphic Storytelling and mine on Storytelling for a 21st Century Audience.

Time Travel Detectives poster

Talking to Pat was timely, because I’d just arranged for Sydney’s superlative comic store Kings Comics to send our local library a vast selection of comics on sale-or-return, which we then allowed the public to choose from in a series of all-ages workshops which I ran to determine our new collection. (Kings mistook me for Doctor Who, too, which only endeared them to me more).

Tuesday saw the kick-off of Time Travel Detectives, an immersive role-play programme for 5-12 year olds which invited local children to enter the Parkes Library Time Travel Lab and venture back to 1873 to prevent a time-lost Justin Bieber and his strange minion creatures from changing history and taking over the town.

The event included two new artworks by the Melbournian artist Peter Miller, Spirit Box and the Life Projector, which became Victorian scientists’ devices for detecting the time-travelling intruders – with Peter and his wife Wendy taking on the roles of rival 19th-century inventors battling to outdo one another. Read more

Can Aussie libraries learn from their Kiwi cousins?

It’s a cheeky question, really. A few days back I was trying to tease the Centre for Youth Literature team at the State Library of Victoria on Twitter, as they ran an event which saw authors debating the relative merits of zombies and unicorns:

All I was really doing was stoking the old trans-Tasman banter between Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, suggesting that Melbourne were all about the author talks, while the Kiwis rolled up their sleeves and waded into the front lines of storytelling and outreach.

The State Library of Victoria is one of my favourite libraries in the world: a beautiful building to rival the New York Public Library, home to non-shelfy treasures like Ned Kelly’s armour, staffed by people like the superheroic Hamish Curry running gaming and cinema events, the Centre for Youth Literature’s Adele Walsh creating activities like “comic book speed dating”, and the zombies versus unicorns ringmaster herself, Jordi Kerr, who wrote for this very site on roller derby and librarianship last year.

So why tease such lovely people?

Well, it was this talk of zombies vs unicorns – a debate for the schools element of the Melbourne Writers Festival featuring authors Justine Larbalestier and Margo Lanagan – a spin-off from Justine’s anthology of the same name.

When I saw that the Melbourne Writers Festival was charging schools $7 per student to visit the city centre and hear writers debate “zombies versus unicorns” on stage, I got to thinking about the work we’d been doing in New Zealand over the last six months, which focussed on taking storytelling off its pedestal and out of the city centre; getting out in the community and inviting kids into the world of stories through roleplay and immersive storytelling.

Read more

Complete control: New Zealand censorship, security, space, word, and image

For a while now I’ve been fascinated about the links between space, word, and image – starting with a talk I gave to the State Library of New South Wales about the comics medium last year.

Our recent panel on censorship at Auckland Libraries opened up some more explicit links between space and media – in the way New Zealand polices its physical borders and its cultural ones.

NZ Censorship Images
Did you know that New Zealand’s chief censor, Andrew Jack, comes from a background as a legal adviser to New Zealand police and customs?

That the man he replaced, Bill Hastings, left censorship to run the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, which decides on issues of residency, deportation, and refugees?

Or that New Zealand’s censorship began in the 1850s, more than thirty years before the first Offensive Publications legislation, when customs officers began to regulate importation of material they saw as indecent?

It’s as if the business of policing material and cultural boundaries were interchangeable in the eyes of the Kiwi state. Coming to New Zealand as a foreigner and a native of that other Island Nation, so implicated in NZ’s colonial and postcolonial history, it’s interesting to see the tensions between the country’s physical and cultural border controls, even when the tradition of censorship is relatively liberal.

NZ Censor's StampIn the interwar years of the 20th century, American comics and movies were the boogeyman feared by the New Zealand state. Comic imports were banned from 1938 under regulations which considered US comics to place an “undue emphasis” on “sex, obscenity, horror, crime, and cruelty”, while in the 1920s the Manawatu Daily Times had expressed concern that US films were showing Kiwi youth “life through the artificial, spurious, and meretricious glare of Broadway, New York.” But material which the state finds objectionable comes from within NZ’s borders, as well as without – from undesirable persons to controversial teen literature.

Our panel last week was part of a broader event which looked at the history of the sex industry in Auckland’s Karangahape Road, urban development in New Zealand’s largest city, and the ways in which women’s bodies are policed and controlled in Kiwi culture. It felt timely, as it seems the tensions around policing cultural and physical boundaries in New Zealand are rising once again.

The Kiwis might just have celebrated their first gay marriages, but at the same time women are being told that tampons are a luxury item – the female body as the object of state control.

New Zealand censored reportage from the First and Second World Wars in the interests of national morale. Now a government communications security bill and questions around reporting on the NZ SAS link restrictions on Kiwi media to the surveillance state.

Culturally, too, the issue of censorship is beginning to bubble over in this small Pacific nation. The winner of New Zealand’s most prestigious children’s book award has been submitted for age classification.There’s also a growing debate over the legal status of Alan Moore’s controversial but widely acclaimed comic Lost Girls.

As part of my legacy work at Auckland Libraries, I’ve set up a teen feminism working group in collaboration with Auckland University of Technology. This project, run by female librarians for teenage girls, will help to develop a media literacy curriculum with a focus on gender, sexuality, and their representation in the media: exploring everything from an infamous (and awesome) Bodyform advert to Adventure Time‘s gender-flipped episodes with Fionna and Cake, and beyond.

In doing so, it chimes with the best of the liberal tradition in the Kiwi state, recalling a 1989 ministerial inquiry which found: “A media-literate public, well-educated about human sexuality, sex stereotyping, the demeaning treatment of women and minorities, and the misuse of violence in entertainment is the best defence against the harmful effects of the media. This is especially important in the face of fast developing communications technologies.”

Public libraries, with their principle of free public access to all human knowledge and culture, have a key role to play in arming and empowering the public to make their own decisions about the material they read or watch. It will be interesting to see how the debate moves forward in 21st century New Zealand…

For more on the history of Kiwi censorship, visit A Brief History of Censorship in New Zealand.

See coverage of Auckland’s protest against the GCSB online.

Tuesday at Method and Manners: Auckland Libraries Panel Discussion

As part of a fringe art festival exploring sex and sexuality in the media, and a sequel to June’s successful Dark Night festival, Auckland Libraries presents a panel discussion with creators and commentators looking at controversial literature in New Zealand.

We’ll be supporting Auckland’s artists by contributing a panel discussion on the boundaries of acceptability in literature – from the history of censorship in Aotearoa to the scandal around Ted Dawe’s Into The River – the prize-winning NZ teen book which has now been been submitted for age-restricted classification!

The panel will feature cartoonist Dylan Horrocks and literary columnist Craig Ranapia alongside librarian Karen Craig. Aucklanders can catch that dream team of literati walking the boundaries of scandal and culture on Tuesday, 6pm-8pm at Method and Manners on Level 2, 6 Upper Queen Street, Auckland.
See more about the upcoming festival events here.

Dark Night at Auckland Libraries
Image by Dylan Horrocks