The dance of the Librarians

August 1, 2018

If I look back at the highlights of my various speaking engagements over the years then those to librarians are right up there in the highlights. I gave the opening keynote this morning and picked up on theme of identity introduced by the inspiring Opeta Alefaio, Director, National Archives of Fiji who had closed day one. He had talked about the issues of an oral culture facing an encounter with an imperium focused on records and the need for ordinary people to own those records in the context of their day to day lives. I talked about the need to re-establish the role of an oral culture in a modern age through narrative; and the need to empower and engage people by allowing them to interpret their own narrative rather than just submit it as an anthropological curiosity to the dominant power. Neither of us used those words by the way – this is a summary. My slides can be found here but the session was not recorded I’m afraid, but related material is in this TedX and a longer lecture on leadership. The tweet stream from around 0930 Brisbane time at #APLIC18 will give you a sense of the reception. Librarians generally fall into the category of people who care and who want to help others and are not afraid of language so you can’t really ask for more in an audience.

The various conversations were interesting but it was tonights dinner that triggered this post. Judy Nunn of Home and Away fame, but here in her capacity as a major author of historically based novels was the pre dinner speaker. There was an interesting discussion around where fact and fiction interact within that genre but the really interesting question was when she was asked for the memory of her first use of a public library and that triggered some memories of my own. Younger readers may not remember this, but back in the days of my youth you had library tickets (I was allowed three and graduated to six when I demonstrated responsibility and interest). Every week you went to the library and handed in three books, got your tickets back and selected another three. The card from the book was then placed in your ticket and stored alphabetically in a mahogany drawer. There was a wonderful ritual around this and of course all the books had plastic covers so the whole thing was very tactile. For holidays family tickets were pooled – I was only allowed to take out books that might sister might also read and vice versa as three weeks in a caravan with Welsh weather created a need to reading material.

The library was more than that for me. It was situated and Mold Town Hall and my mother was a local councillor. So I was often left in the care of the librarian while she attended meetings in the adjacent council chamber. I still remember those sessions as one of the only adult conversations I had outside of family and teachers. Books were suggested, my comments (as an over serious pre-teen) listed to with respect. She introduced me to the Russian classics at an early age and instilled a long term love of Dostoevsky, less so Tolstoy & Pushkin. Crime and Punishment hooked me while The Idiot and the Brothers Karamazov awaked a nascent interest in Psychology and Philosophy of the Mind. I read everything before I was fourteen and probably understood less than 20%, but I came back to those novels time and time again as I matured and the two Librarians (I am ashamed I can’t remember their names) who invested time in a solitary boy were formative in my life.

These days the ritual of the library ticket, of human interaction, the smell of books has been lost in a digital age. These days I buy books, and bought books for my own children. I can’t help thinking that is a loss.

But I will confess that I left the conference dinner before the sweet was served. There was a lot of talk about dancing and less than 5% of those present were male. Wine was flowing, the dance floor cleared and I retired before my incompetence was made visible. I also have to get up at 0500 to make a flight to Hobart tomorrow. The theme of the conference was Roar-Leap-Dare three qualities that were intellectually exhibited during the various day time events but were almost certainly physically manifest after I left! Librarians know how to enjoy themselves ….

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