Thursday, August 09, 2007

Pushing Towards Greatness...

...was the title of the keynote address at the Public Libraries Australia Conference just held in Adelaide this week. Rivkah Sass is currently director of the Omaha Public Library, and also (US?) Librarian of the Year in 2006. If you would like to read a very good article see here for a summary of her career (I'm lazy - it's the first hit if you Google her name). And a very good and funny speaker she was too, just right for opening the conference, which attracted a very respectable 300+ delegates (of whom I was 1 of only about 10 delegates from Queensland - and I didn't manage to meet even one of them!! ie my fellow Queenslanders. But I did meet a very friendly and interesting bunch of people from Victoria and South Australia).

Some of the things I took away from Rivkah's talk:

"Money allows you to innovate with things; not having money allows you to innovate with ideas." How true. We do heaps of programs on shoestring budgets - and we are in the main very proud of them. Not that we don't seek/accept real money - but it's true, it tends to be for purchasing things - refurbs, computers etc that don't necessarily return a very innovative result.

One of her greatest challenges is tackling 'community ennui' - you know, books are obsolete, we have Google - she does this on a very personal level, beating a path to every local group or opinion maker, selling the idea and excitement of libraries at every opportunity. Has encouraged me to lift my game in this area too.

"Retool, rethink, reorganize" - as the article points out, Rivkah inherited a bit of a dinosaur library with too many librarians doing low level work, and too much old crap on the shelves (yes she uses the word crap liberally - ah a librarian after my own heart). I could relate to a sister weeder, I am a very heavy weeder, in fact I don't necessarily think that a library's collection needs to keep getting bigger over time - it's OK for a collection to remain in stasis as far as size goes (removes the pressure for ever more expensive library space) as long as the collection is changing, dynamic, turning over. And as long as there's at least one archiving library that you can freely borrow from (the role of the State Libraries/National Library I think.)

"Make it easier, make it better". A practical difficulty for Rivkah was the plethora of different and hard to remember opening times across all the branches - I found it extremely interesting that they found that this impacted negatively on library patrons' use of the library - I can relate to this - I have experienced as a borrower a library system that had different hours every day of the week, including being closed some mornings (of course you can never remember which mornings) - this actually discouraged me from going to the library "in case" it was shut and I had made a wasted trip. One of the first things I did (20 years ago!) was to simplify our hours - they are basically 9-5 + extended hours at some branches on a predicable pattern eg Wednesday nites to 8 pm.

Rivkah also emphasised leading with programming, which I think we do pretty well in the main in Australia. She pointed out that sometimes the outcome is building a relationship (especially with youth programming), and not always the expected resources-related outcome, that's important.

I was able to have a quick one-on-one chat with Rivkah at the airport (poor woman couldn't escape librarians even after an exhausting conference and visiting program!) and I found her to be every bit as engaging and sincere as she appeared on the podium. Of course I couldn't help but do a little infomercial about our own library services. As Rivkah pointed out, it's the similarities between Australian and American libraries, and the concerns of its librarians that is remarkable, not the differences.

More insights from the PLA Conference to follow...


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