Dumb luck, fear, and patriarchy

29 October 2017

Where am I? It’s a question begged by this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme “How I ended up here”. I don’t really like the idea of writing up my life story - it seems pretty self indulgent. But the whole reason we chose this topic was because we know there are lots of GLAM people with interesting backgrounds and we wanted them to share those stories. So I’m actually going to slot this into two posts. Today’s is about how I ended up here, as a librarian.

I graduated from UTas with a Bachelor of Arts, having taken every History class I was allowed. There weren’t a lot of job vacancies in Hobart for BAs with a hodge-podge of Australian, European and Asian history, so my father bought me a one-way air ticket to Melbourne and drove me to Wynyard Airport to catch the next flight out. After spending a few months outstaying my welcome at a friends’ parents’ house, I finally landed a Library Officer job in Melbourne’s leafy inner East after a union dispute led to 8 positions being advertised at once. Turned out to be the luckiest break of my life.

I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be a Library Officer for the rest of my life, and enrolled in a Graduate Diploma of Information Management at RMIT. Another lucky break allowed my to move straight into a Childrens’ and Youth Librarian role at the library I was working in, as soon as I graduated. This is a luxury most graduate librarians a decade later can only dream of. It was in that position that I first became truly aware of the different standards to which men and women are held in librarianship. As an Officer I had noticed that tradesmen and older men tended to assume that I had more authority than was true, simply because I was the only male staff member on site, and therefore clearly in charge 🙄. But as a male Children’s Librarian I could almost do no wrong. Inexperienced and not particularly fond of children, I was mediocre in the job at best, but every possible allowance was made and the most minor success was feted. It was hard to believe a woman in the same position would receive such support.

'Micro Blogging'

After two years I was growing tired of twice-weekly storytimes, and moved into an Information Librarian role - the role formerly known as a Reference Librarian. I spent a couple of years being jaded with libraries, but it was also during this time that I got serious about blogging and signed up for a Twitter account. Both of these were crucial to what happened in my library career subsequently. I was careful from the beginning to avoid mentioning my place of work. I wanted to explore some of the bigger questions in librarianship (and specifically public librarianship), and blogging allowed me to do this. I certainly didn't want to complicate things by appearing to speak for my organisation. Ironically, it didn’t hurt that my Manager read my blog, and I’m quite sure that blogging has helped me to get at least two jobs. As much as Twitter feels like a cesspool entering a death spiral now, in 2009 it was a revelation. I’d actually looked at Twitter when it was very new, as part of the ’23 Things’ program based on Helene Blowers' original program, a couple of years earlier. At that time, I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen online, but by 2009 it clicked. I met amazing switched-on librarians from all over the world, and doors were opened into completely new conversations, ideas, and thoughts. I’ve met great friends through Twitter, and it’s how I discovered In the Library With the Lead Pipe, ultimately joining the Editorial Board for a couple of years. Lead Pipe introduced me to a whole new world of North American librarianship, activist GLAM, and DIY publishing. Brett Bonfield taught me more than he probably realised about writing with clarity, and respectful communication. Emily Ford showed me how it’s possible to stay true to one’s values whilst working within a giant bureaucracy, and Erin Dorney showed me how to stay joyful about life even when things seem to be falling apart. Ellie Collier was one of the best editors I've ever had, and Gretchen and Micah showed me the amazing things that can happen when you combine passion for what you do with a willingness to critique it.

My run of luck continued. The Victorian State Government decided to fund every public library in the state to install wifi. The Manager of my library service asked if anyone had experience with managing wifi and I volunteered that I had a home wifi network. That was enough to get the gig managing the wifi rollout project. I didn't mention that it was my wife, with the TAFE certificates in IT, who had set up our home wifi. Nobody asked. Ultimately that project paved the way for a Systems Librarian position, and a timely retirement left a vacancy in the Team Leader position that supervised both my previous positions. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, but my working life has also been a classic case of Christine Williams' observations about the 'Glass Escalator' (🔒). From the beginning, I was encouraged to apply for leadership programs and more senior positions, and to move towards IT-based roles. I was always fairly inclined that way (more in the next post about that), but I'm not convinced that was the whole reason for it. My whole two years in CYS I was seen as a novelty who presumably didn't really want to be doing storytime for too much longer. That was true, but most people simply assumed.

It was in these two positions - Systems Librarian and Team Leader for the Information Team - that I really came to be interested in how software works, and realised how powerful it is to konw why a particular software system works the way it does. Struggling in the twilight zone of 'Systems Librarian' - considered a librarian by IT people and an IT person by librarians - I also quickly came to realise how little most librarians really know about how our tools work. It scared me. I started to dabble a litle in code, though as I'll explain in my next post, it took a while to get going.

Moving on

After a couple of years of managing a branch, I decided it was time to move on. Athough the longest I'd held any one position was four years, I had been with the same library service for 14 years. It felt like if I didn't leave soon, I'd be there forever, and I was getting bored and frustrated. By this stage I'd started the INELI Oceania program and met some amazing librarians from across Oceania and Australasia. Seeing the challenges many of them were facing to get library services and literacy to their communities, and the creativity and passion they had, made me realise why I was starting to feel a bit hollow inside. A Coordinator opportunity presented itself on the other side of Melbourne - the complete opposite of the leafy inner-east - combining library IT and collections. I was told I wasn't ready to be a Coordinator yet. I probably wasn't. I applied anyway. The Glass Escalator did its work and I was offered the job via email while I was holidaying in Tokyo.

While all this was going on I joined the VALA Committee. VALA runs arguably the most anticipated library conference in Australasia. It's been fascinating to see how it runs, and be part of the decisions VALA makes. I was determined to make my time on VALA Committee count, and ultimately that led to the creation of the standalone event VALA Tech Camp. It wasn't perfect, but Tech Camp represented a lot of my thinking about how librarians should be interacting with and talking about technology. It was hands-on and about doing stuff. We avoided an exhibition hall and institution-sanctioned papers. We made an effort to check whether we were accidentally biasing our speaker list towards men, and ended up pretty much 50/50 men and women speaking. By library standards this is way too many men, but by tech event standards it's not bad. People seemed, mostly, to enjoy it, and it felt like we'd made a very small ding in the universe.


My experience with Lead Pipe, VALA, and INELI all combined in 2015 with a sense of renewed energy. With a bunch of awesome librarians, and, later, archivists, I founded newCardigan in June that year. This has been one the wildest rides of my life and so eye-opening. We wanted it to be fun, forward-thinking (that's the "new" - it's not about newgrads) and embrace everything GLAM - libraries, archives, museums and, hopefully, galleries. I'm so glad we did this. I've learned a huge amount about archives and archivists, and museum practice, and I know I've barely scratched the surface. Talking to each other about what we do makes all of us do our jobs so much better. We started by running Cardi Parties, then we launched CardiCast led by the energetic Justine Hanna, and now, here we are, all writing for GLAM Blog Club.

It is not ambition that drives me, but fear. As I read about what has happened in the UK, I fear there may not be a future for public libraries in Australia. As I read about AI and automation, I fear I may not have a job in future. newCardigan was, in part, driven by fear of what would happen to libraries and librarians if our professional development and communication didn't change radically. As I see Library Managers turned into Library Coordinators or Managers of Library And ...And ...And, I fear what my future job might be. I fear I’m becoming jaded. I fear I fear too much. One of my early branch managers, Michael Byrne, liked to quote Susan Jeffers' famous book title - Feel the fear ...and do it anyway. At newCardigan we have a slightly more salty way of putting it. As a bunch of mid-career information professionals we reflected on what frustrated us most about our profession and our institutions. We talked a lot about conservatism, bureaucracy and reluctance to change. Every day I try to remember the mantra we agreed on over beers that chilly June night next to Flinders Street Station:

Just Fucking Do It.