Librarians, active content creation & going beyond what is expected

In early May 2010 I gave a talk at the State Library of NSW to a meeting of reference librarians. Ostensibly it was to talk to a series of images that I took while making a curatorial visit to Iraq for the Australian War Memorial in late 2008, but I thought that I’d put that trip in context by discussing why I think getting curators, archivists and librarians out “into the field” is important. So here is the gist of my talk. The embedded slideshow above should be viewed with this outline of my thoughts.

I wonder whether we are too passive?

I also wonder whether we are we too obsessed with how technology works (and not really using it to its potential)? Everywhere we talk about data mash-ups, catalogue improvements, better discovery & search tools, mobile platforms, cloud computing and digitising content. All of these things are worthy of our attention but surely there is more we can do aside from using technology better and there are other more fundamental tasks to focus on as well. Also, as far as technology goes, is the tail wagging the dog? Have we already lost control?

I’m sure most of our users and patrons all not be satisfied by cultural institutions that simply present and ever increasing echo chamber or a means of reflecting user-generated data. I think they want and expect more from us than that.

We can create and we must also be more proactive in collecting and developing our collections to reflect contemporary content, not just what has been collected by those who came before us. It isn’t sufficient to rely only on subscription services and commercial publishers.

My inspiration for these thoughts comes from other things that I see and hear about. Generally it comes from those who do create and perform, for example, the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Recently they again dazzled audiences around Australia by mixing pieces from more recent composers (Shostakovich, Shoenberg and Pärt) within Bach’s Missa Brevis in G Minor. It worked for me and I think it provided another way to interpret and enjoy Bach’s older work. The performance seemed to breathe new life into this work. The ACO constantly push boundaries and collaborate with cartoonists, writers, actors, and modern singers in order to keep their audiences both surprised and delighted.

Surely we can take a leaf out of their book and do what is not expected of us nor taught to us. Something more. Something beyond the rules. Not more of the same. We need to get beyond our traditional boundaries.

We need to create and to facilitate or encourage the creative talents of our patrons by modelling that behaviour ourselves, not just by providing the technological tools and spaces, nor by just digitising what was collected by those who came before us. We also need to get out there and collect contemporary content now from each of our “communities” whether they be an institution, region, small town, state or nation.

It will be good for us: being fun & playful; being a rich new experience; uncovering hidden talents; and by making our profession more interesting, stimulating and attractive. It should also delight our patrons. We must play out instruments and ride our bikes, not just leave them aside, locked up in a safe place.

So what are some of the options are available to us now?

  • curating exhibitions;
  • writing & story-telling – online and traditionally;
  • actively collecting (not just contracting it out);
  • facilitating online open access publication (particularly for academic libraries);
  • hosting digital repositories;
  • running film and short-story festivals, poetry slams, readings & other competitions;
  • facilitating community cultural projects like co-curation projects;
  • producing, directing and finding sponsors for artist/geek/writer/gamer/musician/visionary-in-residence programs;
  • producing and editing online magazines;
  • creating local content for our library collections (film, audio, music, games, animations, photo collections, even artists’ books) – and this can be done with what makes your community different or unique, just as the AWM’s focus is on Australian experience of war, yours might be an industry, local pioneers or veterans, immigrant families, famous families, a factory, an institution, craft, a crop, farms, etc.;
  • producing photo essays;
  • hosting travelling exhibitions; and
  • exhibiting (not just displaying) our special collections.

So, now to talk about my collecting visit in Iraq and the in 2008.

It may not sound relevant to reference and information service librarians in all kinds of libraries, but it is all about asking for what you want (to do), grasping your chances when they come and creating content yourself.

We (i.e. my senior curatorial colleagues in our museum) had been asking to send curators and archivists to the field for years, so when the opportunity presented itself, I had very little time to prepare for it and there was no time to stop and think about whether it was wise, safe, advisable, practical, the right thing to do, in my duty statement, feasible, etc. I just went.

There were no rules or guide books. Other than some general telling me to “do as you’re told!”.

The Australian War Memorial obviously has a strong focus on its own community and works very hard to maintain trusted and respected relationships with its key stakeholders and their representatives. It knows its core business and as a library/archive we needed to get more strongly aligned and involved with that.

We had set up and run collection groups focusing on the Australian Defence Force’s recent and ongoing operational commitments overseas. A subset of this was an official records working group looking at the challenges of ensuring a lasting record of war was being made and kept in the digital age. First, we had to identify what that records was and update our knowledge and processes from the Vietnam era! Since then all trains had changed on all platforms. This was impossible to scope from Canberra by meeting with a group of archival bureaucrats.

We had a couple of things on our side (eg. AWM’s reputation, my security clearance), but essentially I had to quickly learn how to select a “target” (no pun intended), get in someone’s face, establish trust, ask relevant questions, cover rights and permissions, grab and/or create something and then keep going.

Generally speaking, not many of us are trained to do all of that and we hardly ever practice it, but I can think of many reasons we should.

Somewhere, someone realised that the end of 2008 was probably going to be our last opportunity in Iraq and Northern Gulf waters to identify what we wanted as a record of years of Australian involvement. We didn’t know what there was nor what it looked like.

Over the course of the trip, there were many amazing opportunities that presented themselves and I just needed to take them when they were offered.

Some libraries are focusing on the creation of content (e.g. the Edge at the State Library of Queensland) and I think this is a good example of something feasible for all librarians if they can think beyond the norm and of the possibilities that are easily done now for digital story telling, taking and sharing images and small oral histories (from just local events and local people). All we need to do is get started.


  1. Penny

    wow! awesome opportunity. The public library with which we are connected to are very active in collecting oral histories of the local area. They also ran a "Launch my Lyrics" competition in conjunction with NZ Music Month. Anika Moa is going to present the winning winner with something soon.

  2. Kathryn Greenhill

    Yes! I don't think libraries will continue if we don't co-create with our users. How can we expect our users to co-create with the library if we are not seen to be doing it ourselves?

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