Want my job? Five tips for the budding Creative in Residence

Jane Cowell, who hired me as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland 2016-2017, has five reasons why your organisation should create such a role over at her Medium account.

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In turn, I wanted to share five tips for people who might want to take on a role like mine.

1. Be passionate
Your job is to make good use of the unexplored gaps in an institution’s existing procedures; to be opportunistic, inventive, and positive about the merits of innovation. Like a catalyst in chemistry, your presence reduces the energy required for new reactions to happen. Your passion for the role and personal commitment to constructively challenge the status quo will play a large part in determining your ultimate success.

Human Library books from the State Library of Queensland

Human Library at State Library of Queensland

That might mean midnight phone calls across timezones to pick Canadians’ brains about Human Library projects; or driving a State Library web team to devise, develop, and then share the code behind an online comic maker. Caring enough to go that extra mile is a huge part of this role.

2. It’s not about you
I always remind my clients that your pay grade doesn’t determine how creative you are; it just reflects your responsibilities. Great ideas can come from anywhere in an organisation and we need a diversity of perspectives, from client-facing staff to policymakers, ancillary workers, and digital specialists, when we help our organisation respond to changing circumstances. A Creative-in-Residence role is also about paying attention, brokering partnerships, and supporting others in putting forward proposals like the FaceSwap Lab pitched by a State Library project officer.

I always made a point of spending time with as many different work units as possible in the State Library. I wanted to hear new ideas, spot potential innovators, understand both the organisation’s pressure points and also its areas of opportunity. I also put in the hard yards serving others, spending time on the set-up and pack-down for events both on- and off-site, or supporting project officers with some of their routine duties.

I spent one of my first weekends in Brisbane setting up and demounting gazebos for a partnership event involving our Indigenous team kuril dhagun and Brisbane’s rugby league stars, the Broncos. It was invaluable in getting to know the team, seeing exactly what services we offered, and showing that I wasn’t just going to waft around in a cushy role making others do the onerous stuff.

3. Be tenacious
Change is rarely straightforward, and bureaucracies aren’t always comfortable with creative or messy pursuits – yet a degree of messiness is necessary if we’re to avoid merely repeating the outcomes of the past. Institutions often seek out my skills because they have discovered the path to change is rarely smooth. As an outsider, you will face people who say, “But we’ve always done things this way” and “What’s the point of playing about with the status quo?” Their concerns need to be listened to and respected, but you must also be tenacious enough to serve as a role model when the going gets tough and the process of change starts to bite.

Remember, too, that some teams will already regard themselves as innovators or even feel that it is impossible to improve on their existing offer. They may not welcome the attention of a critical friend. Again, patient listening reaps enormous rewards. Common ground almost always exists: don’t give up on the quest to find it. Initiatives like the multi-team task forces established by State Library’s CEO Vicki McDonald in 2017 helped with this, encouraging staff members from across work units to collaborate for a specific strategic goal.

4. Allow yourself to be surprised
Given that your job is to serve the organisation, the best ideas and collaborations could come from anywhere – see point two above. One of the most satisfying parts of this role is the element of surprise.

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Australian TV icon Bernard King

When I joined the State Library of Queensland, I’d rarely worked with archivists or conservators. I figured they’d be timid souls, fond of procedure and loath to change or respond nimbly to events. Yet when I located the forgotten final interviews of gay Australian celebrity Bernard King, not only did our Queensland Memory team move swiftly  to acquire them from their owner in Sydney, they also agreed to fast-track the process as a gesture of LGBTQ solidarity in the wake of the 2016 Orlando shooting.

Their conservator colleagues, whose job is to look after our physical collections, also proved to be more playful than I had expected: they are scientifically minded problem solvers with a stronger future focus than almost any other division, always mindful of how later generations will encounter the objects in their charge. They were also keen to share their expertise through public engagement events like Fun Palaces. Working with these teams proved to be an unexpected delight during my residency.

5. Tell stories
Stories turn data into something we can relate to. Stories underpin the mission and vision statements which steer an organisation, and they also help individual work units to align with that overarching vision. Stories give human context to managerial edicts and they help management to understand the concerns and experiences of staff, users, and stakeholders. As case studies, stories help others to see what is possible; but better still, when you let people tell their own stories through role-play activities like Library Island, fabulous new ideas are brought to light.

Ultimately, what makes a Creative-in-Residence role different from an Artist-in-Residence or Writer-in-Residence is that your creative work focusses on the empowerment of the institution itself; you achieve this by listening closely to all its parts, and then helping that organisation to re-tell the story of what it does in ways which make a lasting practical impact.

Who can be a Creative-in-Residence?
Creatives in this role can be drawn from the ranks of your own staff, or brought in as outsiders – both options have their benefits and drawbacks. Residencies can be long, like mine – initially twelve months, then extended twice – or they can be short “tours of duty”. I’d love to see people experiment with these short stints as a way of bringing regional and marginal voices into the heart of major institutions.

In this role, you’ll work harder than you ever thought possible, catalysing change with little more than your wits, a phone, a computer, and a desk. But you’ll also be free: free to innovate, experiment, explore, inspire, and genuinely make a difference to the lasting business of change. It’s a lot of fun. You should give it a go.

Why hire a Creative in Residence?

Jane Cowell of State Library of Queensland has not one, but five answers for you over at Medium.

Jane hired me back in January 2016 for a residency intended to develop staff, challenge convention, engage the wider community, and showcase the organisation’s creative practice. Now, more than a year later, we’re looking back on a successful stint embracing libraries, communities, and partner organisations across Australia’s Sunshine State.

Read more about creative residencies over at Jane Cowell’s Medium account.

A Quick Chat About The Digital Future

In my final week with the State Library of Queensland, I managed to squeeze in a short discussion about what digital technologies might mean for communities in rural and regional Australia.

I spoke with Donna Hancox of Queensland University of Technology and Tyler Wellensiek, who works on coding & robotics initiatives for the State Library of Queensland.

Check it out:

Three sentences – a good day’s work

Sometimes three sentences are a good day’s work.

I’ve been helping library leaders to refine an elevator pitch for the work State Library of Queensland does with public libraries.

RAPL, the Regional Access and Public Libraries team, has a range of duties – from administering grants to delivering professional development, fostering peer-to-peer networking, and setting industry standards. RAPL staff also promote literacy and wellbeing for children under five years old, support the digital skills of senior citizens, and advocate to local government on libraries’ behalf.

How do we condense that into something that is clear, elegant, brief, and compelling?

Well, here’s what we came up with:

Our scope, our goal, our offer:

Queensland has over 300 public libraries and Indigenous Knowledge Centres in communities from the desert to the reefs, from the mountains to the Torres Strait.

Together with local government, we ensure all Queenslanders have access to great public libraries that help communities thrive.

We advocate for public libraries, support their collections, their staff, and their programmes, and we share their successes.

Read more

Cocktails at the end of the world

Some nice feedback from a recent professional development session for library staff in Moreton Bay, Queensland.

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Project officer Karen Hewett from the town of Noosa evaluated an Innovation in Libraries training day run by State Library of Queensland together with Moreton Bay Libraries.

She wrote:

“If you have already had the pleasure of hearing Matt present, you will know to expect the unexpected. He had us replicating cocktails to find a solution to stop the world ending. Using a pack of playing cards with STEM careers on them, we managed to do just that.”

Sounds a bit far out? Here were the practical and applicable insights Karen took away from the session:

“We could easily replicate this activity in the branches during a team meeting. It would take about 10-15 minutes. It really cemented the concept that no matter what is thrown at you, if you look at it creatively you will find the tools to solve the problem.”

“Library staff constantly think on their feet to meet customers’ changing needs. It really made me appreciate the diversity of our team and how each of us has specialised skills making the collective team adaptable and resourceful.”

Read Karen’s full report at the State Library of Queensland website.

Outback adventures with Tammy & Matt

I spent last week on the road with the State Library of Queensland’s Tammy Joynson, delivering professional development with a twist & consulting with librarians & local government on future policies, strategies, plans and schemes.

You can see a 2-minute recap of our adventures here.

On the road in the Central Highlands

I’m off road-tripping with the State Library’s Regional Partnerships team from Tuesday 7th February.

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Queenslanders in Emerald and the Central Highlands can join us for a day of Library Island adventures as we kick off the tour, then we’ll be hitting the road to talk with GLAM professionals across the region.

See more in “When Librarians Ruled The Earth” over at the State Library website.

Sing Me A Library

My latest column for Library as Incubator explores the links between libraries and musicians, from Glenn Gould’s radio documentaries to English community choirs and digital experiments in today’s Australia.

Read “Sing Me A Library” at Library as Incubator.

Happy Holidays

Hard even to know what to say about a year like 2016. So much upset and upheaval in the world, but I’m still hopeful for the shape of things to come.

It’s been hectic, but productively so, for us here at the State Library of Queensland. I worked with teams on public projects like Human Library and the Scrub Turkey sessions, adding oral histories from TV chef Bernard King and Doctor Who‘s Janet Fielding to our digital collections, and encouraging digital experiments like the State Library’s remixable comic maker and Ozofarm game.

I also got to partner with a number of outside organisations, including healthcare agencies and allied health professionals across Queensland, from Metro South Health Board to the occupational therapy students of Griffith University. A long-held desire to explore the difficult field of ‘death literacy’ came to fruition with a panel discussion for Brisbane’s inaugural ‘Deathfest’ last month.

I also got to work with the Brisbane Writers Festival and various other events across Australia on devising alternatives to the usual conference formats of panels and presentations.

There was even time to interview some personal heroes like the Kransky Sisters, Matti Bunzl of the Vienna Museum, and the makers of Danger 5. This was part of exploring a different corner of Queensland life every week at Marvellous, Electrical, a project that will return in 2017.

Until then, have a good break.

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