Leaving Library Land

After 24 years in the industry I have left the Land of Libraries. It has been a busy, interesting, and rewarding time that has passed by in the blink of an eye.

Back in 1996 when I began my first job in a public library there were still card catalogues about. The automated library system used DOS and I remember using the keyboard prompts to operate the green cursor on the black screen. The World Wide Web was just emerging and Hotmail soon became the wonder of communication. Mobile devices were still a long way off. Social Media and ebooks were not things yet.

Now Google is the place everyone goes to for information; not a book in a library. Amazon is where people go to buy books either in print or as an ebook. We all carry our computers in our pockets for 24 hour connection. We go to iTunes for music, Netflix for movies and TV, and news is sent to us.

I have done everything in libraries: helping customers, handling the books, system administration, website design, reports to local and state government, presenting to groups large and small, social media, photo setups, organizing events, author talks, book launches, trivia nights, school holiday activities, budget management, recruitment, staff management, moving large collections, cataloguing, buying shelving and furniture, making ads, videos, and promotions, and much more.

My career highlights have been:

  • Involvement with the IFLA Global Vision
  • Involvement with the Victoria’s Libraries 2030 strategies
  • Library Manager at a regional library service
  • Presenting at a School Libraries Association of Victoria Conference
  • Presenting at a Red Cross Conference
  • Being involved with the Public Libraries Victoria LibMark Special Interest Group and helping to organise and deliver the Annual Conference.

I have worked with some great people and excellent teams. I have also worked with some less than satisfactory people and poorly functioning teams. It has been a profound learning journey that has been satisfying intellectually and ethically. This work gives back to the local community and is appreciated every day.

For me it is the perfect time to step away. I feel the continuing decline of public libraries and wonder how long they will operate on goodwill. For me a “community hub” is a poor replacement for what was a Library. My soul feels the affront.

On my first day away from the industry I was surprised to feel that at heart I remain a Designer. This was my first love, first pursuit, and I have dabbled over the years as a hobbyist. But I also applied the design thinking, creativity, project management and problem solving skills to all that I did in my work in libraries.

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The numbers are not adding up

I love number crunching, gathering statistics, looking at the trends over time, converting to graphs and charts, and then interpreting this into a narrative.

Tim Sherratt is a Master Data Visualiser and has created some exceptional work that illustrates a beautiful narrative. As a leader in his field the University of Canberra is lucky to have him and someone I can look up to when I feel my geeky tendencies are weird.

The Public Libraries of Victoria have kept data over decades and it is freely available online for all to see and interpret. Of course questions arise when you look at this data, such as, how were the ‘visits’ data counted? And does that data count both in and out, or just one, one leg or both, a baby stroller? Has the counter been knocked out of alignment or is the system for the gates not working?

The overall narrative that emerges from this data is important when communicating to others the messages about what is going on; especially for those in government who control the funds and share out the cash for public services.

The numbers tell us that: physical visits are decreasing continuing to follow a trend over many years of tracking. Loans of physical library items also continue to follow a downward trend. Memberships too continue to fall and so not as many people in our community think it is important to join their public library.

And yet by observation we see that story-time sessions are overflowing, reservation lists for the latest item are long, every chair has a body sitting on it, and the public computers are full all day every day. So what is going on here?

This is where the data interpretation leads us – to ask more questions. To find out what the data gathering might miss.

We hear that people in difficult social and economic circumstances will come into the library spaces, but not join or borrow items out of fear of fines or loss of materials.

We know that people are staying longer in our spaces and that the questions people ask take longer to answer and satisfy. So far this had not been adequately accounted for in the data analysis.

The impact of the Internet and the corporate giants of Google, Amazon, and Apple, is a major factor for public libraries. eBooks are cheap and easy to access online. So too is information and ‘facts’. Books hiding on dark shelves arranged in systems only Librarians understand is a model long gone.

So what?

Library leaders have been proactive over many years by creating gorgeous new public library spaces, offering electronic collections, making library websites and catalogues dynamic and easy to access, highlighting collections through displays, exhibitions, programs and events, and interesting and relevant collaborations with other organisations.

Academic research by industry leaders have resulted in some excellent work that describes the library work in context and with hope.

  • Libraries Work! The socio-economic value of public libraries – 2018
  • Reading and Literacy for all: A strategic framework for Victorian public libraries – 2015-18
  • Creative Communities:  The cultural benefits of Victoria’s public libraries – 2014
  • Victorian Public Libraries 2030 Strategic Framework – 2013
  • Dollars Sense and Public Libraries The landmark study of the socio-economic value of Victorian public libraries report – 2012
  • Being the Best We Can framework and toolkit- 2011
  • Libraries Building Communities – 2005

These reports can be found here.

My own number crunching and analysis provides positive stories too, and these I share with the team I work with in order to make advocates of us all.

And yet the library industry remains under threat. Precious public funding goes elsewhere.

I believe that “libraries change lives” or I wouldn’t have worked in this field for so long. Especially when it was not my first choice for a career.

So what choice is there than to continue to work hard, go with the flow, and find inspiration from the good stories we hear every day, knowing our work is of value.