LIANZA 2017 Keynote

I’m pleased to say I’ll be joining the librarians of Aotearoa / New Zealand for this year’s LIANZA conference, 24-27 September at Addington Raceway.

More news to follow.

Sunday Read, Supplemental: Dancing Zombie Cops Can Only Be A Good Thing

I just saw the Running Man Challenge video recorded by police in New Zealand Aotearoa this week.

The video is part of a drive by Kiwi cops to recruit more officers, especially from Maori, Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Island, and Indian backgrounds.

I did a double take, because the cop who closes out the routine is Sergeant Sonny Iosefo of South Auckland.

Sonny also starred in our 2013 zombie siege at Tupu Youth Library, as an officer who came in to protect a group of teens from an invasion of the living dead.

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Sunday Read: Beyond Secret Cinema

My belated Sunday morning read is this piece from the Guardian on London’s Secret Cinema, which blends movie screenings with theatrical experiences and themed activities:

I’m a big fan of participatory live-action storytelling and I’m fascinated by opportunities to blur the line between fiction and “real” experience, creating events where attendees shape the outcome of a story.

I went to a Secret Cinema event a few years back and was pretty disappointed – the set design and costumes were fancy, but the opportunities to get involved in the storytelling were minimal. I’d gone to see Casablanca and while it was cool to sing La Marseillaise at a bunch of actors in Nazi uniform, the rest of the “immersive experience” consisted of overpriced snacks and a “casino” barely worthy of a student union’s James Bond night. The Guardian piece captures the extent to which Secret Cinema events are now more about taking your money than letting you step into the world of a story.

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We The Humanities: Interview with Natasha Barrett, University of Leicester

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Today I’m joined by Natasha Barrett, a British researcher and cultural heritage expert currently studying for a doctorate at the University of Leicester.

Natasha tells me: 

I’m researching commercial colonial-era photographs (1860s-1914) of Māori (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) and their taonga/cultural treasures. Essentially I’m looking at the meaning of these photographs to Māori, and how they have been used over time both within and outside of museums. I’m also considering how Māori perspectives can inform the way these photographs are understood in museums. My approach treats photographs as three-dimensional objects. I pay close attention to their material qualities, such as the albums they are placed in, any writing on their surfaces. As well as, the sensorial or different ways people engage with photographs, inlcuding looking at, talking about and touching them.

You’ve returned to academia after a long time working in the cultural heritage sector; what’s it like returning to research and how have your experiences off-campus shaped what you do now? Read more

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.

Life after Dark Night: Auckland’s barroom librarians

Some projects make a big splash right away. With others, it’s something of a slow burn.

Just as the sun sets on this year’s Fun Palaces, I was pleased to see an old programme finally achieving its potential back in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Auckland Libraries have just launched Reading Between the Wines, a monthly book club which tours bars in the central suburbs of New Zealand’s biggest city. Librarians bring a selection of books to the bar for patrons to check out and discuss on the first Thursday of each month.

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The Thrill of Heritage: Playful, postapocalyptic, postcolonial cultural programming

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady
TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

Heritage is one of the most exciting challenges in community outreach. It’s an opportunity to dispel the myth that the past is staid or somehow divorced from the present. Many public and private bodies hold weird and wonderful archives, unique traces of the generations that have preceded us.  Everything we do and dream is rooted in what has gone before, whether we like it or not, and yet the past is not fixed, as we uncover new truths, new ways of looking at those who have gone before us. The strange and beautiful thing about historical narrative and memory is that even a path you’ve already trodden can still change course in retrospect.

Two years ago I visited Auckland in New Zealand for a six month contract as Service Development Adviser to the city’s libraries. My brief was “to push the boundaries in how our large public library network creates innovative programmes for children and young people […] to inspire others to experiment and learn from the experience of working in fresh, even unexpected ways.”

During my stay, Auckland celebrated its 2013 Heritage Festival, an annual “opportunity for everyone, locals and visitors to Auckland, to celebrate and remember our past and discover our heritage.”

With my Auckland Council hat on, I looked for ways to make the past thrilling, and immediate, and to create opportunities for each neighbourhood library to take responsibility for devising and delivering inspired, playful programming.

A trip to Chromacon, the city’s festival of illustration, led to a meeting with British expatriate artist Nicola Brady. Her drawing of a crumbling present-day Auckland was the perfect inspiration for a time-travelling heritage event.

Nicola’s doomy vision provoked questions: What if we made our heritage programming about both the future and the past? What if we turned it into a dynamic mission of rescue, with participants making their own choices about the value of history?

TimeQuest was born: a season of cultural programming for the school holidays, with a heritage theme and an overarching narrative:

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. Time has run out for the planet Earth, but we can still rescue the best of our heritage and take it with us to our new home.

Where will you go – and when?

What will you choose to save?

Time Quest – Raid the past to save the future.

For me, it was important to create a storyline which respected New Zealand’s bicultural past and future. If we were going to imagine a postapocalyptic science fiction setting, it would be one where Māori identity was front and centre. Our defiant genius hero would be a Māori woman and a scientist, who invited TimeQuest participants to make their own decisions about the value of heritage, rather than accept some dusty authoritarian imposition.

My Auckland supervisor, Peter Thomas, is a Māori public servant with extensive experience offering guidance and representation to government bodies working in New Zealand. He helped us to choose the right name for our rebellious female science-hero, and also took me through the process needed to approve the use of a quote I’d found at Auckland Museum, which became the motto of TimeQuest:

“Haere mai, e tai, kei te wera te ao”

“Come and see, the world is going to be burned”

These were the words recalled by an eyewitness to the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, a violent natural disaster which decimated communities. I had seen the quotation in a display on volcanoes and earthquakes at the Auckland Museum, and saw it as a symbol of our programme’s link between an imagined future and authentic historical accounts. Peter helped guide me through the sensitivities around using a quotation in this way.

To balance out the gravity and drama of our programme, we also created an alternate promotional image which was friendlier and more cartoony, for TimeQuest events featuring younger children.

Auckland Libraries - Timequest
Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo

Having established our storyline, we wanted to be sure that local communities would create their own events and not just copy some central voice of authority. We wanted local stories, local histories, local art, and local play – so rather than create a prescriptive centralised programme, we created a resource pack with eight model activities to serve as inspiration for local librarians to devise their own versions.

By kind permission of Greg Morgan and the team at Auckland Libraries, I’ve been allowed to share the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF download. 

Our simple missions included robotic dress-up, Nerf gun battles, creative writing, and research activities for a variety of age ranges. In many ways these events were the forefathers to later projects like Time Travel Detectives, Write Your Own Urban Myths, and Big Box Battle.

Auckland’s librarians ran with the inspiration they’d been given and came up with sessions such as these:

  • Time travellers from the year 2379 are on their way to find out information about the culture and life of the tweens and teens of today. They’ve asked us to make a teen’s room that they can teleport to the future. Help us to design and decorate a representation of what a teen’s room looks like in 2013.
  • Life in 2379 is rather bleak. With the sun burning out, life on earth is dying. The time travellers have come back to 2013 to gather enough knowledge and resources to save the future generations. But they will need enough sustenance to do this. Tweens and teens will be asked to investigate the vitamins and minerals humans need to keep healthy and strong. They will then be blending up some fruity concoctions for the travellers to take back with them to help them save the world.
  • Time travellers, to slow the sun and save the future you have been asked to bring back to the future Maui, the Māori hero of How Maui slowed the sun. Listen to the story and help Maui to catch and slow the sun again by making your own fishhooks and ropes.

It was great to watch local librarians take on the challenge and the opportunity of a heritage programme that left space for their own creativity. TimeQuest was just one of many experiments in Auckland over my six month stint there: everything from zombie battles to librarians in comic book stores and a national youth libraries conference.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched with pleasure as participatory, local, and lively approaches to culture and creativity have spread. For me, the most promising model for a decentered, participatory approach to the arts in local communities has been Fun Palaces, the British event co-directed by the Kiwi-raised Stella Duffy from an original 1960s idea by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price. If it’s true that the neighbourhood public library is the gateway to all human knowledge and culture, then Fun Palaces are a beautiful fit for libraries’ swashbuckling cultural mission.

You can download the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF file – and read more about the project in my blog “A Scientific Romance for Libraries.”

A quick question about the history of libraries

I’ve done a fair bit of work with libraries over the last few years. Most of it has involved encouraging play of all kinds. I had previously worked with schools and other organisations, but I became convinced of public libraries’ importance after visiting Christchurch in the wake of the 2010 earthquakes. Carolyn Robertson and her team showed, through their actions in that period, that libraries were never more important than in times of grave crisis. When I think about librarianship as a heroic vocation, I think of people like Carolyn, and Penny Carnaby of the National Library of New Zealand, who did their profession proud in a difficult moment.

Carolyn Robertson of Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand
“We understand the word “library” in the widest possible sense.” – Carolyn Robertson, Christchurch City Libraries

When I was at Auckland Libraries last year, I discovered the Public Library Missions agreed by UNESCO and the international library association IFLA back in 1994:

The following key missions which relate to information, literacy, education and culture should be at the core of public library services:

  • creating and strengthening reading habits in children at an early age;
  • supporting both individual and self conducted education as well as formal education at all levels;
  • providing opportunities for personal creative development;
  • stimulating the imagination and creativity of children and young people;
  • promoting awareness of cultural heritage, appreciation of the arts,
  • scientific achievements and innovations;
  • providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts;
  • fostering inter-cultural dialogue and favouring cultural diversity;
  • supporting the oral tradition;
  • ensuring access for citizens to all sorts of community information;
  • providing adequate information services to local enterprises, associations and interest groups;
  • facilitating the development of information and computer literacy skills;
  • supporting and participating in literacy activities and programmes for all age groups, and initiating such activities if necessary.

I think this is an incredibly strong mandate which gives librarians clear freedom to engage in all kinds of play, performance, technological and cultural activity. The missions have been around for twenty years, and yet so many library conferences and professional discussions still revolve around debating what libraries should or should not be doing in the 21st century; so many public discussions about libraries reveal that people still think of them largely as “shelfy”, book-storing institutions.

Part of my eclectic scholarly career was spent as an intellectual historian, so these are the questions that occur to me:

What happened in librarianship in the 1980s/1990s to lay the ground for such a radical, positive, and future-proofed global mission statement?

Why didn’t the missions gain more traction?

What lessons could we learn for today from the history of these missions, and the process that led to their writing?

If you have any answers to my questions, contact me via the comments on this site, or at my Twitter account @drmattfinch.

I’ve written about applying the Public Library Missions to play activities in the library here, and also overthought the nature of librarianship here.

Two of my favourite discussions of librarianship – from actual librarians! – come from Adrienne Hannan on “Strategic Librarianship” and Tracie Mauro on “Wonder-based library programmes”.

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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