Wednesday, 29 June 2016

State Library of Queensland: Something Wicked This Way Comes

This year we have the distinct pleasure of hosting updates from Dr. Matt Finch, with whom we’ve worked on a number of LAIP features, as he serves as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland, Australia. He’s working to support the work that State Library staff do to plan and implement large-scale cultural programming for a huge swath of the Australian library community. Enjoy! ~Laura

by Matt Finch

A rumble of trucks in the night. Lights flickering in the dark, just beyond the city limits. At dawn, a familiar smell of candy floss carries on the breeze. A sense of anticipation suffuses the whole town.

The carnival has come to visit once more.

Or is it the library?

Last time on Library as Incubator, we talked about the Signature Team at State Library of Queensland (SLQ), a “seven-fingered fist” responsible for creating year-long themed programs and partnerships in a state three times the size of France. That’s a tall order for any organisation, but when you also have to provide activities and events for a major city-centre venue in the same year, it’s nigh-on impossible.

That’s where the library’s Regional Partnerships team come in. Luckily, impossible is their specialty.

Regional Partnerships

“Our job is to keep the 340 libraries across Queensland FIT,” says Deb Miles, the team’s executive manager. “We give them funding, ideas, and training.”

Like most of her team, Deb is not herself a librarian. A formal social worker and community development officer, her eclectic resume also includes running restaurants, working in a pineapple canning plant, and front of house roles with a roving funfair.

Deb’s not the only regional outreach officer who has a carnival background. Michelle Hughes, Coordinator of Public Library Services for SLQ, is one of the team’s fully qualified librarians, but she’s also a biker and former journalist who also had a “spangles and sequins” phase as a trapeeze-swinging circus aerialist.

“We’re trying to support and inspire people across Queensland – our mission is inspiring the state’s creativity forever,” explains Michelle. “But it’s the public librarians who inspire me. There’s a lot of spreadsheets to be completed in my job but when I hear what they’re up to in the regions, that’s what keeps my enthusiasm up. I’d never have thought of putting robots in a swimming pool, for example – but Logan City Libraries are planning just that, using waterproof Sphero devices.”

Project Officer Tammy Joynson is another ex-journo and former teacher who cut her teeth on regional newspapers before ending up on the front lines of public library engagement.  “That time in the newsroom gave me curiosity and an instinct for finding the human story behind social issues and technological change.”

I recently teamed up with Tammy and her colleague Eva Ruggiero (who also drove trucks for a travelling carnival!) on a robot game design project which let me understand what it was like for a state body to work with regional communities.

Australia can often see communities in terms of cities versus regions, with rural areas sometimes feeling treated as second class citizens. This tendency has to be fought. Events I ran in regional New South Wales like the infamous zombie siege showed that rural areas can actually be more resourceful and better suited to swift innovation than some urban settings.

There’s also a digital access problem, in a country of 23 million people spread out over a landmass which is bigger than Europe and in places very inhospitable. It’s simply the case that Australian regional internet access is still very patchy – although modern day agriculture is more advanced and computer-based than ever before. The question for us is often: how do libraries engage rural communities in the digital age?

By going out and listening, of course.

The Case of the Cotton-Picking Robots

This led to me sitting in the cab of a combine harvester for a day out on the Darling Downs, home to Queensland’s cotton industry. By spending that time listening carefully, and paying attention, we saw that even small family farms were loaded with digital technology.

“Sixty years ago these farms were worked with horses,” one farmer said to me. “What will we be using sixty years from now? Will we even be in the fields?”

This inspired us to create a package of youth activities using Ozobots: tiny programmable robots which follow lines drawn on sheets of paper. SLQ sends Ozobots out to libraries across the state, where staff like Toowomba’s Jo Beazley devise amazing activities.


Ozobots play on local maps as part of SLQ’s 2016/16 grant to regional libraries. Image by activity creator Jo Beazley of Toowoomba Libraries.

How can we support such regional libraries, especially ones which may have very limited staffing, to run play sessions – but also not stifle their creativity and expect them merely to implement our instructions?

Tammy, Eva, and I came up with a two-tier game using the Ozobots to let children play at being at farmers of the future. Pretending that the Ozobots were “Universal Farming Machines” of the year 2050, players had to overcome various challenges to successfully plant a field full of crops. Small regional libraries could simply play this game using our rules, the Ozobots, and some pens and paper.

But for librarians who were keen to do something different, we challenged them to expand on, adapt, and rewrite our game to make it better. We used our farm visit to approach the agricultural sector for sponsorship and prize money to offer the regional library who created the best adaptation.

The challenge is always to offer creativity, freedom, and flexibility alongside support for already-busy regional librarians. We try to light small sparks and fan the flames which might ignite greater things further down the line.

Bridging The Digital Divide

For Strategic Projects Officer Eva, these kind of games could seem a little tame. Prior to her library role, she worked in health promotion and has a decade’s experience working with injecting drug users.

“There’s less phlebotomy involved in my current role,” she laughs, “but at heart there’s a great overlap between public health and public librarianship. They’re both about empowering members of the community, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they do.”

Eva often works alongside Senior Project Officer Lyn Thompson, herself a former nurse – although Lyn has also been a senior retail manager and has visual merchandising skills to boot. They’re always in demand when a project is in the final stages of design and presentation.

Lyn has a special focus on working with older people and the Tech-Savvy Seniors program.

“There’s a surprising number of people who still don’t even know what a mouse is. There are some people who haven’t touched or connected with the technological changes of recent years, so haven’t seen the relevance of what it would bring to their lives. There was 93-year-old gentleman from Rockhampton who had assumed the Internet was something for young people, all games and trivia; we helped him to research his interest in horses and poultry.”

“The Digital Divide isn’t just about older people, though,” she says. “We have youth programs and programs for seniors, but we also have a lot of people in the 35-50 age bracket who need help with new technology. And they’re also the age range we’re trying to encourage into public libraries.”

The team’s newest member is fine artist and librarian Janet McGuinness, who worked with refugee communities in Victorian libraries before heading to the Sunshine State and working at Noosa Council library. Janet recently supported the rollout of the Welcome Toolkit for community engagement, working in a team of nine librarians from across the state: “We’ve developed a tool to help libraries design, devise, and deliver their own community engagement outreach programs.” You can download a PDF of the Toolkit here.

Creative and clever, determined but responsive to the communities they serve, the Regional Partnerships team are an example of how non-librarians work within library organisations to support their mission of access to knowledge and culture through research, play, and learning.

When you hear the RP team approach…it’s like the carnival coming to town.

To find out more, get in touch with the team at

Matt Finch is the 2016 Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland and author of the newsletter Marvellous, Electrical. Find out more at 


from Library as Incubator Project

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