Adventures on the Front Lines of Modern Librarianship – Guest Post from Adrienne Hannan of Wellington City Libraries

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Over the past couple of years I’ve run a number of projects testing the limits of the 21st century library – from online interactive storytelling to retail partnerships, live roleplay, and play-based learning for all ages.

With many community libraries in crisis, facing cuts and ignorance about their vital role in public life, the aim of these projects was to swiftly and dramatically push the boundaries of contemporary librarianship, setting precedents that could be exploited and developed after the first flowering.

One of my favourite places to visit during these adventures has been Wellington, New Zealand. Aotearoa’s capital city is small but lively. Its library ranks include the formidable Adrienne Hannan.

NZ Army reservist Adrienne invented the notion of the “Strategic Librarian” – a doctrine which sidesteps old-school leadership thinking to encourage innovation and accomplishment at all levels of a library organisation. Such an attitude is sorely needed if Australasian libraries, sometimes worryingly centralised, are going to avoid the fate of their kin in the UK.

In this guest post, Adrienne discusses some of Wellington City Libraries’ recent adventures on the front line of modern librarianship.

Getting back to human basics with our school holiday activities

At Wellington City Libraries we are intent on bringing stories alive for children and creating interactive experiences with them, so have embarked on a different way of running our school holiday activities recently.

We recognise that books, long seen as the bread and butter of libraries, are just a conduit to literacy, and children may require some kind of stimulating experience with the book to give it memorable context.

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Book publishing workshops for your library

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Last year, Parkes Shire ran a series of one-day publishing workshops for local teens. Our local libraries, high school, and TAFE joined forces to offer teens a game-based look at the business of selling books. This write-up lets you see what we did and run your own version.

Why publishing workshops?

Publishing is changing fast in the 21st century and people aren’t always clued in on how writers get their words out to readers. We wanted local teens to think about the business side of publication. What are the challenges of acquiring books for sale? How do publishers market their choices to the public in an age of social media? We wanted our event to be locally devised but relevant to the global publishing industry.

What did we do?

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Creation/Curation: Making Urban Myths in the Library

This week, screenwriter and critic Martyn Pedler joined us in Parkes for activities based on his 2011 movie EXIT.

EXIT follows a group of people who have come to believe that reality is a maze, thousands of years old. Human beings have lived in the maze for so long that some have settled down, had families, forgotten the impulse to escape. But the fabled exit door is still out there, for those who remember.

The Parkes team have already made youth activities featuring zombies, time travel, and kaiju. We wanted to build on this and offer something a little more cerebral. The premise of Martyn’s movie offers the perfect springboard for a range of games and creative play.

Audience for Martyn Pedler's talk

Martyn spent Tuesday in the library at Parkes High School, where he spoke about his career to over 200 students across two 90-minute sessions. They heard him explain how EXIT began with his 2008 exhibition Melbourne and Other Myths.

Martyn had become bored with the city he’d lived in for many years and was trying to reignite his love for Melbourne by creating new urban legends. For example, Houdini had visited in 1910. He dived into one of the city’s rivers. What, Martyn asked, if some of his unique magic had spilled into the water and infected Melbourne for generations to come?

The Old City Treasury Museum transformed these fantasies into a three-month exhibition. Melbourne and Other Myths presented Martyn’s words alongside found objects. In the exhibition, the stories became secret histories. And one of these myths, about a cult who believe the city is a maze they must escape, inspired EXIT.

In our first EXIT activity, Parkes teens created their own myths for an exhibition of weird and wonderful objects. You can find the instructions for ‘Curating Modern Myths’ below.

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Curating Modern Myths

You’ll need:

  • A selection of intriguing objects (at least 1 for every 4 participants)
  • 1 file card for every 4 participants
  • Rough paper and pencils
  • 1 coloured token for each participant
  • A prize for the winning group


1. Form a group of 3-4.

2. Choose an object from the collection.

3. Have each person in your group tell a story about the object. It can be as weird or as magical or as gruesome as you wish…

4. Choose one story from your group or combine your stories to create a single myth.

5. Write the main ideas from your myth on paper.

6. Collect a file card. You’ll use this to label your object in the exhibition.

7. Write a description of your object and your urban myth on the card.

8. Nominate a curator of your object, who will stay with it and explain its story to others.

9. Other members of group collect a token and walk around the exhibition, talking to the other groups’ curators.

10. Give the token to the curator of your favourite exhibit.

11. Each group’s curator will record all the tokens for their exhibit on the scoreboard (we used a whiteboard).

12. The urban myth with the most votes will win a PRIZE!

Over the coming school year, Parkes students will continue to create activites based on EXIT. Staff and students will make and play games based on the themes of mapping, puzzles, escape, and a world beyond the everyday – and you’ll find those games outside of the classroom too, on the school campus and even on the streets of the town.

My personal favourite from Tuesday’s activity was the “Cold War atomic briefcase” whose dual locks had to be simultaneously released to prevent a detonation.

Atomic briefcase myths

I think the students who came up with that need to watch Kiss Me Deadly before too long…

Central West Comics Fest, VALA, Parkes Writers’ Group, Sci-Fi and Squeam

Aaaand we’re……back from the long summer holidays in the sweltering Aussie heat! And straight into the whirlwind of adventure.

Saturday, February 15th 2014 is a historic date for comics fans of all ages from across the Central West region of New South Wales – marking the first comics festival for this part of rural Australia.

Australian comics creator Pat Grant, author of the acclaimed meditation on youth, migration, and coastal identity Blue, will be offering workshops to adults and older teens alongside Marcelo Baez, who has drawn for everyone from Marvel to Microsoft, National Geographic to GQ Magazine, and will be schooling us in the ways of comic-book storytelling. In addition, the lovely folk at Sydney’s Kings Comics are venturing out of the CBD to offer their wares to people from across the region – a chance to peruse and purchase the latest comics, merch, and memorabilia without making the epic voyage all the way to Sydney.

More information can be found on the Central West Comics Fest poster:

Information for the 2014 Central West Comics Fest

In related news, I was recently interviewed for Melbournian radio station Joy FM’s Sci-Fi and Squeam podcast, talking about pop culture, libraries, and, inevitably, zombies, with the smart and suave Emmet O’Cuana – you can find my segment on their podcast, from 26:50 on the Joy FM website.

There were also some kind words for Parkes Writers’ Group from 2013 Banjo Patterson Poetry Award winner Jim Cassidy (although I’m not sure how I feel about being compared to Andrew Flintoff!) – you can read them at the Parkes Champion Post website here and see the kind of strange, all-ages, continent-hopping, Barbra Streisand-themed activities we get up to at the group here.

Finally, next week sees my keynote speech to the biennial Australasian culture-and-technology conference VALA – expect Doctor Who references, current affairs, the history of librarianship, and musings on hipsterity alongside the usual celebration and championing of public libraries.

<vworp vworp!>

A season of adventure: September-November 2013 roundup

The robot warriors assemble on the eve of battle
The robot warriors from Parkes’ BIG BOX BATTLE assemble on the eve of conflict!

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that it’s been an intense season over here in Australia, creating new programmes, training librarians and writers in the arcane arts of roleplay and immersive storytelling, and even taking up cudgels on behalf of libraries everywhere.

I just finished giving a talk to librarians of the Australian Library and Information Association in Queensland – you can hear a short pre-recorded version of my presentation at Soundcloud.

This talk is the culmination of a season advocating for libraries to challenge their own boundaries and reach out in new ways, to new communities and new partners.

Of course, in 2013, every speaker at every library conference is preaching a gospel of change, innovation, and transformation – those are the buzzwords of the hour – but I’ve made the effort to link these concepts to practical, affordable, and unexpected examples – from comic book dice games in the Philippines to day-long zombie sieges and Godzilla-versus-robot battles for schoolkids in Australia, citywide time travel storylines in New Zealand, interactive storytelling for writers in Sydney, and – perhaps scariest of all – bringing Barbra Streisand songs into a rural writers’ group.

It has also involved pushing back against voices in the arts who sideline local libraries as venues for all forms of culture and knowledge – see the recent debate about e-books and community outreach for more on that. Serving marginal communities is one of the things librarians do best, and it is vital that the profession advocates for itself in this time of dramatic change.

Librarians and supporters of the local library must remember that libraries are under threat, especially from people who equate them with shelfy places good for little more than storing books. In the UK, public library visits have continued to decline, in a context of branch closures and volunteer-run libraries replacing trained information professionals. In New Zealand, proposed changes to the Local Government Act jeopardise funding for community library developments. In the USA, the EveryLibrary campaign has highlighted the challenges faced by Californian libraries seeking funding, and the mind-boggling story of the Louisiana election in which a parish councillor is seeking to trade a library for a jail, disparaging his librarians for serving “Mexicans, junkies, and hippies“!

It’s never been more important for libraries to demonstrate, on a practical, grassroots level, their relevance to every member of the community. I’m pleased that library organisations and senior managers are addressing questions of branding and strategy, but it’s also vital that we make a difference on the front line, in grassroots settings and customer-facing roles.

A great essay by Adrienne Hannan of Wellington City Libraries in New Zealand – probably the single best piece about libraries I’ve read this year – sets out how librarians of all ranks should act strategically, working with integrity and immediacy as a fighting force on behalf of the forces of culture, literacy and knowledge. Read ‘The Strategic Librarian‘ here…and prepare for battle.

Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins

Here’s an update on last week’s Great Popcorn Debate which covered e-books, community outreach, and the future of Australian libraries.

Start with this image:

This was the picture that EWF Digital Festival Director Connor Tomas O’Brien used to illustrate his position on libraries’ attempts to secure e-book lending rights with publishers.

It’s in ‘A very quiet battle’, Connor’s piece for Kill Your Darlings on publishers and libraries’ negotiations around digital lending of e-books. He claims to be neutral in this debate, but his piece includes comments like:

I’m tempted to believe that ebooks and public libraries fundamentally just don’t mix.


It’s unclear how public libraries can lend out ebooks without either becoming conduits for piracy (even now, it’s not hard to loan out an ebook, strip the DRM, then send out copies of the file) or cannibalising ebook sales, nor is it clear why anybody would want to visit a physical space just to load digital files onto their ereader. After all, if you don’t need to visit a real-world space to loan the ebook, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the public library existing physically as a cultural hub?

That last line comes dangerously close to an argument against public libraries having a physical presence of any kind in the community.

Concerned by this, I approached Connor for an interview. In his piece, Connor had tried to protect himself from seeming like an enemy of libraries by writing:

The public library, in other words, is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever.

Therefore, I asked him: What do you think a public library should be doing in 2013?

Connor’s response offered Melbourne’s city-centre based Wheeler Centre as an example:

The issue public libraries face is largely that there often isn’t that critical mass of energy. Instead, that energy is usually spread across state writers’ centres, universities, cafes, and bookstores. Melbourne already has the Wheeler, but in other states I hope likeminded groups converge to set up similar spaces. If you have one or two central spaces for books and ideas in a city, all the energy flows through those spaces, and it has a catalysing effect.

For me, that sounded like a centralising impulse which would deprive neighbourhoods, especially in our most disadvantaged, remote, rural, and suburban areas, of their local librarian. Instead, marginalised communities would be expected to find their way under their own steam to “one or two central spaces for books and ideas in a city”.

Public librarians exist to give every community member access to all of human knowledge and culture, whether rich or poor, young or old, urban, suburban, or rural. (Caitlin Moran has written especially eloquently about this at The Huffington Post).

Therefore, I felt that Connor’s idea was A Bad Thing.

Connor’s probably a very nice man, but his words lend ammunition to the enemies of libraries and damage the future prospects for marginal communities to have the full local support of their own public librarians as information and culture professionals.

I wrote in response:

I sometimes feel uncomfortable with all those big-city cultural venues. It’s not the institutions’ fault, rather it’s that of the funding bodies, but when did the Sydney-based NSW Writers Centre, allegedly a state-wide body, last have the money to run a programme west of the Blue Mountains? And the “national” Centre for Youth Literature at State Library of Victoria is crewed by a team of awesome badasses, who do make the effort to tour Victorian schools – but it seems to be “national” only in the sense that any Australian can access their website.

In the ensuing Twitter discussion, which got somewhat tetchy as these things do in 140-character bites, I gently challenged  Melbourne’s Centre for Youth Literature on their city-centre focus.

The author Cory Doctorow, whose work explores decentred and future-facing solutions to the problems of 21st century economics, knowledge, and culture, is visiting the Centre this month – but all they’re doing with him is hosting the same old city-centre panel discussions and speeches and workshop events.

I suggested they should take him to a marginalised venue instead, and use digital technology to connect Doctorow to the usual, privileged, CBD audience. To show that I’m not just taking a cheap shot, I wrote a short proposal on how they could use Doctorow’s visit to ‘hack Australian literary culture’:

My suggestion was this:

Imagine if SLV hacked old-school literary festival practice and used Doctorow’s visit to celebrate culture at the margins for once. Imagine if he was speaking, not in the Melbourne city centre, but at a marginal, underutilized venue; perhaps a school or library in one of Melbourne’s less privileged suburbs.

SLV and its Centre for Youth Literature, who organized Doctorow’s visit, could encourage attendees to come out to the suburbs using their networks – but they could also ensure a city-centre audience by streaming Doctorow’s presentation to the[ir high-tech] Experimedia suite.

It’s an opportunity to reverse the opposition between the city centre and the margins. Anna Burkey, SLV’s Reader Development Manager, is clearly under pressure to deliver footfall through the SLV’s city-centre doors – it must be necessary for SLV to justify all that expensive real estate! – so why not run a makerspace in SLV on the day of the talk?

Invite Melbournian makers in to Experimedia, celebrate their work, remind people that libraries are about more than books on shelves (or e-books, for that matter), and really bring to life the work of the man who wrote a novel called Makers

(I’m not pretending it’s perfect, but if I can come up with that on my coffee break, I expect the talented people at the Centre could do much better as part of their actual day job – and although Doctorow was careful not to annoy his Melbournian hosts, he posted a timely blog on librarianship at Tumblr which was in favour of both local libraries in general, and libraries having e-books).

Connor responded, “Broadly I agree w/ some of your points, Matt, but I don’t think your proposals are very practical.

As far as I can see, my suggestion was no more or less practical than the existing model, I just moved physical presence to the needy periphery and digital outreach to the already privileged centre. I did a double-check and ran the Doctorow ideas past a few tech and community outreach people, who seemed to think it wouldn’t be such a struggle. I’m Skyping a talk soon from rural Australia to a conference in the city of Brisbane, for example, and Auckland Libraries has only recently run a city-centre makerspace within their walls.

I’m not a raving fan of Steve Jobs, but when I hear people like Connor being naysayers and merchants of the “can’t-do” attitude, I do think of that Jobs quote: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

That should definitely be true for arts people in bleeding-edge roles like director of a digital festival for emerging writers. Surely they should be the most audacious, innovative, and swashbuckling agents of change in a nation’s literary culture?

But the truth is, librarians may actually be more radical, more relevant, and more engaged with our most marginal and dispossessed communities than the city-centre arts crowd.

Connor has just posted a new piece on this topic at The Writers Bloc.

He frames the issue as being about individual writers’ choices to stay in the regions or migrate to cities like Melbourne. He writes,

Writing in regional areas – South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and rural New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia – is not impossible, because it is possible to write from anywhere, but subtle infrastructure gaps do make sustaining your writing practice more difficult. Internationally renowned authors routinely visit Melbourne to deliver lectures, creating an invigorating culture of ideas in that city that sends a strong signal that writing matters. When you’re writing in a regional area, that culture can be lacking, making it infinitely more likely that prospective writers will never open their word processor in the first place.
There are also questions to be raised about the goal of outreach programs: do Melbourne-based organisations travel to regional areas to preach the benefits of living and working in Melbourne (to some degree, I think so – that’s one reason I’m now living here), or do they travel to regional areas to encourage those in the region to stay put and establish their own infrastructure (I think this happens, too)?

What saddens me is that Connor, in his role as director of a digital writers’ festival, doesn’t seem to be clear whether he wants to support the regions or try to consolidate power in places like Melbourne. He acknowledges that effort has gone into giving Melbourne “an invigorating culture of ideas in that city that sends a strong signal that writing matters”, but won’t use his privilege to help other places share that culture and that signal.

It’s even more disheartening when you remember that this is a man who has questioned the value of local branch libraries and proposed a consolidated model based on places like the Wheeler Centre: his words sap power and potential from marginal, rural, suburban and disempowered communities, despite his acknowledgement that “stories from the margins […] can be the most vital”.

The truth is that digital technology, transport, and telecommunications are better and cheaper than ever. That we have ever more people writing, blogging, creating fan fiction; using literacy to express themselves in an unimaginable diversity of ways. (Maori librarian Kris Wehipeihana in New Zealand questioned Connor’s “narrow definition of who is a ‘writer'” in her impassioned response to his post.)

American author Matt de la Peña wrote this week about his work in schools outreach – about identifying tough kids, not the superstars, not the self-identified writers, who have great potential to become the storytellers of tomorrow. Their stories resonated with Matt’s own experience as an author who himself didn’t read a novel all the way through until after high school.

The sad truth is that Cory Doctorow visiting Melbourne CBD, and Connor effectively telling marginal writers, “It’s up to you if you stay or go”, will do nothing for the Australian equivalent of Caitlin Moran, or Matt de la Peña, or those tough kids of whom Matt wrote.

Even that I could forgive if Connor would just give real and wholehearted support to local libraries. If his festival won’t be there for the writers and readers of rural and marginalized Australia, local librarians will be – but they need his support, not popcorn complacency.

The Worst Song I Ever Loved, or: What Can You Do With A Writers’ Group?

Every now and then, I get asked to run a writers’ group in whatever community I’m currently working in.

This is one of the most intimidating challenges for a stranger in town, because each group is its own unique beast. Some people go to these things because they’re working on their magnum opus and are seeking feedback; others want exercises to stimulate their creativity; still others want to write in silent company; and some will be simply be there for the social contact.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve found myself leading a three-hour group with participants ranging in age from 14 to 65, and trying to solve this riddle:

What do you do with the buggers for that long?

Well, just like when running immersive storytelling events for kids and teens, I start off by stealing an idea.

It’s like Newton standing on the shoulders of giants – I dig out something like Daniel Nester’s lovely writers’ course idea ‘The Worst Song I Ever Loved.’

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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”.

Popcorn? Connor Tomas O’Brien and Chris Cormack on the battle for libraries’ future

Find an update to this blog debate at Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins, on this site.

Today on the blog I’m joined by writer, web developer, and Australian creative-man-about-town Connor Tomas O’Brien plus Kiwi open source advocate (and fellow developer) Chris Cormack of Koha.

Connor is the director of the EWF Digital Writers’ Festival. He came to my attention after a Twitter conversation which led to his article “A very quiet battle” for the journal Kill Your Darlings. In it, he addressed sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin’s argument that publishers are deliberately making it untenable for public libraries to loan e-books to their patrons.

Connor Tomas O'Brien at Kill Your Darlings

“That’s probably true, and actually not very surprising,” Connor replied, suggesting that “ebooks and public libraries fundamentally just don’t mix”:

After all, if we accept that one of the core roles of the public library system is to make work freely available, and to make that work as convenient as possible to access… well, it’s already extremely easy to acquire ebooks freely and easily online without paying a cent. If we ignore the copyright implications, the torrenting website The Pirate Bay is, in a sense, like a modern day Library of Alexandria […D]igital lending systems are so complex, restrictive, and counterintuitive that it’s far more convenient for somebody with a limited income to pirate an ebook than rent it from their public library. The Pirate Bay, though illicit, offers a superior system of unrestricted free digital access to written work than any public library in existence. (For reference, here’s a breakdown of a typical library’s ebook checkout restrictions).

It’s hard to see things improving. Public libraries were established to facilitate the distribution of physical objects, not digital files. The conceptual framework for lending – involving one patron visiting a physical space, removing a book from the collection for a limited period, then returning it for others to enjoy – breaks down when it comes to ebooks, which can be accessed anywhere and endlessly duplicated.

Connor acknowledged that “The public library […] is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever”, but without giving examples of what he expected the library to do in this brave new world. And when he signed off the article like this:

For now, there’s not much to do, really, but grab the popcorn and sit back and watch as publishers and librarians battle it out (very, very quietly, of course).

Well, of course this got my dander up. I was minded of Edward Burke’s “All that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is that good men do nothing.” If people complacently munch popcorn while public libraries ail and the smallest, most disadvantaged communities lose their free point of access to human knowledge and culture, they’re actually helping a deeper slide into inequality across the nation.

So I got in touch with Connor and asked him to talk through his ideas about the future of public libraries – and to bolster my limited technical knowledge, I talked also with Chris Cormack of Koha, an open-source software developer who spoke at this year’s Auckland Libraries Youth Hui. I won’t deny I’ve got a soft spot for Chris ever since I found out he arranged for the Māori hero Maui to attend his son’s birthday party – the kind of parenting that chimes so well with the spirit of playful learning.

The following interview comes from stitching together e-mail discussions with Connor and Chris. Connor ran out of time because of his work with the Digital Writers’ Festival, but I hope interested readers will be able to pursue the issue further online – you can find Connor online as @mrconnorobrien and Chris as @ranginui.

After reading Connor’s article, I asked him: “Aren’t the systems around e-book lending only so complex because publishers are trying to enforce unenforceable, outdated business systems? It’s so easy to publish an ebook now: aren’t publishers trying to create an artificial scarcity, because the traditional business model was based on scarcity of the physical text? I’ve heard it argued that libraries should directly value and reward authors for the work that they do, rather than the distributors who might be increasingly irrelevant. Rather than the problem being libraries, isn’t the problem a publishing business model which places intrinsic value not on the work, but on its transmission?”

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A brief round-up on All Hallows’ Eve

I’m just back from Manila after flitting around Australia and the Philippines for a couple of weeks, running various events for libraries and art galleries. 7 flights in 8 days…that’s more than enough!

Zombies are people too - a survivor tries to escape the zombie hordes in Tullamore with a disguise
Zombies are people too – a survivor tries to escape the zombie hordes in Tullamore with a disguise and some pro-zombie sentiments

On the 10th and 11th of October, Parkes Shire Library ran our biggest and best zombie roleplay event to date, working in collaboration with three local schools, police, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. We had two days of around 70 people taking part in a 4 1/2 hour unbroken zombie-fighting roleplay with real emergency services. You can see video from the news coverage at the ABC website. 

That event was the culmination of about a month’s work creating immersive theatre and learning activities in country libraries; you can find out more under the Finding Library Futures tag at this site. As the zombie dust settled, I spent a week training librarians around the region before flying to Sydney during the bushfires, which give the city a rather unnervingly apocalyptic skyline:

Sydney skyline - image via @peteresho's Twitter account
Sydney skyline – image via @peteresho’s Twitter account

The next day, I was off to Manila’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Design to give a talk and run another day of events. This included activities like making storytelling dice with comic-book panels on each face:

Teens make comic book storytelling dice at Manila's MCAD art museum
Teens make comic book storytelling dice at Manila’s MCAD art museum

The kids were very cool but it was pretty intense work – in fact, just walking down the street was pretty intense! Tho’ I’ve been to bustling cities in Peru and Indonesia, this was another level of wild traffic, wealth disparity, and sheer volume of humanity. Five minute taxi rides generated impressions that will take a long time to process. I felt privileged to be invited to work with the talented staff at MCAD and the youth museum Museo Pambata.

On my last night in the city, I went to a gallery launch but ended up sneaking off with another artist, Leeroy New (designer of a Lady Gaga dress, not the infamous meat one), to see his exhibition Gates of Hell, which I found utterly wonderful:

Leeroy New as Buddha encased in expanding foam
Leeroy New as Buddha encased in expanding foam

Leeroy’s transgressive, playful, pop-cultural take on the sacred had an impact as soon as you entered the room, yet when you ventured beneath the carapace of oozy foam which encased many of his holy subjects, there was a serious engagement with the numinous and transcendent. Gates of Hell reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Toby Litt’s troubling, surrealist fairytale-for-adults Hospital. With its psychopomps and defiantly rebellious bodies, its unyielding but indefinable laws of magic, It’s one of those flawed yet lingering novels – see this Telegraph review for a decent skewering of the flaws – which, despite it all, I can’t recommend enough.

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I loved Leeroy’s work for recalling the grotesquerie of Bosch as much as the claymation splurge of the British 1980s cartoon Trap Door. Gates of Hell marked a perfect balance between pop culture and traditional spirituality, those two rival paths towards a world beyond the everyday. No wonder Lady Gaga had Leeroy make wearable art for her.

After escaping the Gates of Hell, I chaired an evening panel on monsters in children’s literature for the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (you can see a great write-up here from panellist Nyssa Harkness) before finally flying home (my 7th flight in 8 days)…

To recover from all that adventure, I spent a long weekend in a darkened room with too many comics and now I’m back in the game. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s big interview/discussion piece on e-books, publishing, and the future of libraries…

Update: just to round off the festivities on this ghoulish night, you can find a six-minute recording of my piece There’s No Terror In The Carelessness of Flesh online at Soundcloud. Strictly NSFW – an adult exploration of blood, bodies, desire, and dismay. Happy Hallowe’en!