Thursday, 15 June 2017

Creative leadership, building a future: Interview with Vicki McDonald, CEO State Library of Queensland

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. Today’s post is an interview with the State Librarian of Queensland (Australia), Vicki McDonald. She and Matt talk future-facing libraries, creativity, and highlight some fun projects featured at SLQ.

by Matt Finch

Over the past year’s columns here at Library as Incubator, I’ve been looking at teams across the State Library of Queensland (SLQ), thinking about how they promote creative collaboration and advocate for libraries as incubators of the arts. From regional programs to themed signature events, heritage collections & musical libraries, we’ve explored innovation and adventure across a range of library activities.

When looking for people doing cool stuff in libraries, my natural inclination is to check out the grassroots work. Staff who interact directly with the community often have the most valuable insights and experiences, and it’s always good to remind ourselves that your pay grade reflects your responsibilities, it doesn’t determine your creativity. The brightest ideas can come from anywhere in an organisation’s hierarchy.

Still, the mood of an organisation is set by its chief executive, so for this installment of my column, I went up to the fifth floor of the State Library for an interview with our big boss, State Librarian Vicki McDonald.

Vicki has been in the role since September 2016. When I visited her at the beginning of March, she was pleased to be finished with her Master’s degree in executive leadership – the last assignment had gone in on Sunday.

“I have two years’ worth of books lying in the ‘to read’ pile beside my bed,” she told me. “I’m just eager to get started.”

Completing the Master’s degree is a major milestone for Vicki, who knows the importance of libraries as learning spaces well.

“I didn’t finish high school, which is something not a lot of people might know,” she explained. “Growing up in the rural Queensland town of Dalby, I wanted to be a schoolteacher, but the prospects of my family being able to send me away to study were just non-existent. I took a job in the town library in my teens, studied nights for my library technician’s certificate at a college of further education, then went on to do my BA by correspondence.”

Since then, Vicki’s career has encompassed public library management, library director and executive director roles at Queensland University of Technology and the State Library of New South Wales, plus strategic programming roles at Brisbane City Council and a previous stint doing policy development for the State Library of Queensland.

“Last time I worked here at SLQ, we had a big overhaul of our building on Brisbane’s South Bank. Looking ahead to the future of libraries, we introduced the State Library’s Infozone – a ground-floor space which emphasised comfort, collaboration, and computer access over shelves and collection items. We also introduced The Corner, a children’s play space for under-8s.”

Talking about future-facing libraries led us to R. David Lankes’ call for librarians to create a “new nostalgia” beyond the old imagery of shelves and silence. For Vicki, spaces like The Corner represent one aspect of that. “When I was at the State Library of New South Wales, we saw that a lot of Sydneysiders had memories of studying for their school leaving exams in our Mitchell Library Reading Room. Now, thanks to The Corner, there’ll be a new generation of Brisbanites whose first memories of SLQ will be boisterous play in a warm and welcoming space incorporating art, literacy, and digital activities.”

“After moving to New South Wales, I kept stalking this library for seven years, watching what they did. That’s the thing – they were doers, an organisation that moved on things. Queensland, of all Australia’s state libraries, is the one least held back by legacy issues – some large libraries are still trying to resolve inherited collection issues which are decades old. We’re not entirely immune to that here, but largely we can focus on the business of the day.”

On her return to SLQ, Vicki toured every work unit in the first months of her tenure, “taking the temperature” of the organisation and making sure staff got a sense of how she worked.

“I met lots of people who look at things in really different ways,” she said. “As CEO it’s my job to give them scope to put ideas forward and the freedom to get things done.”

“I asked each group what they would do if they were in my position as CEO. Most people spoke of change, but one person said, ‘I would be proud of what I inherited.'”

Vicki was clearly pleased with this. “I have an idea of what I’d like to see happen, but of course the best way to build a future is to let it come from your staff, from their collective voice – and to build on the ground of what’s already there.”

To turn creative aspirations into real action, the CEO established task forces focussed on particular challenges such as communications and client-centred services. Staff from across the library were invited to volunteer for these groups, which broke down silos and worked to tight timescales, coming up with practical solutions to library-wide challenges.

One example was a proposed expansion of the FunFaces activity which allows library visitors to digitally transfer their faces into iconic Queensland images from heritage collections.

The activity was developed for SLQ’s 2016 Fun Palaces after a previous staff-wide call out for ideas and inspiration from all ranks. Vicki arranged for FunFaces to visit the Australian national library conference ALIA, where it was embraced by attendees.

“If a CEO can demonstrate that they are nimble and will back up their staff, these are the kind of ideas which can come to fruition,” Vicki told me. She admitted she was particularly pleased with Faceswap because it links users to the State Library’s collections: “The collection is still what makes a library unique and distinct from other institutions. Without a collection, why would you have a library?”

“We capture history even as we focus on the future: and that’s as much about ordinary lives and little moments as well as the great and the grand highlights of our times.”

Although any individual library has only a single collection, for Vicki it’s important that the library offers different points of access for users – playful, digital, traditional, or completely unexpected as they may be. “We need to make the collection interesting and offer people different ways to explore it. The collection defines us, but the community can choose to approach it from any angle.”

At the State Library’s South Bank site, she indicated the Black Opium art installation as a highlight.

Black Opium consists of a series of booths along one of the open walkways on the building’s third floor. These booths, which are available as drop-in spaces for study, discussion, or reading, each contain references to Queensland’s 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.

Ostensibly designed to protect Indigenous people from the drug trade, in practise this Act led to forced removals of Aboriginal communities and an ongoing legacy of oppression, exclusion, and subjugation. The Black Opium display is crowned with a sculpture of metal poppies suspended from the ceiling. 

People work within the installation every day – the booths are among the most sought-after spaces in the building – and have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a difficult and often forgotten corner of Queensland’s history. For Vicki this is yet another route to lead people into the heart of the institution’s collection.

“The power of libraries is in their responsiveness.  Our community can ask to see anything in the collection; and we strive to encourage serendipity. If you think of a local public library and the way a community feels comfortable to walk through the doors and ask for our help, our services, it’s very different to how the public treat a museum or a gallery. At the State Library level, that means responding to the curiosity in people – and even encouraging them to be more curious!”

This is a goal Vicki has set for SLQ staff as much as the wider community: “If the public can use the library creatively by exploring its collections, I want a similar freedom for the staff. My authority as CEO is important insofar as it lets the story of what we do cascade from the strategic plans we agree at the highest level down to the personal plans – the wants, needs, and hopes – of our staff. That goes both ways, with staff inspiring us across the hierarchy – but it also means that everyone at SLQ gets a realistic picture of what’s achievable and what’s affordable.”

“The challenge is that our state is so big and so diverse, encompassing everything from the Torres Strait Islanders to Brisbane City Council, the largest local authority in Australia. We advocate for public libraries throughout Queensland; it’s our job to talk with the executives and speak up for libraries, and to support our friends and partners who work in communities statewide. Queensland has to see the ways in which we can deliver on all kinds of good outcomes for this state via the public library network.”

For Vicki, thinking of “libraries as creative spaces” must include not just artistic endeavours, but ventures like SLQ’s Business Studio. This is a space offering resources for entrepreneurs, from which the public might graduate to one of the city’s dedicating startup spaces. “A place like that is about supporting people to write the story of their own lives, in the real world, with lasting and meaningful consequences. The fact I’m sitting here now, at the CEO’s desk, is testament to the power of that kind of narrative.”

Thoughts of those early days, when the boardroom of SLQ was an unimaginable place for a girl from the Darling Downs to end up, bring us back to values and priorities that have remained with Vicki throughout her career.

“It’s funny how you can return to those days of study, when you had the freedom to really explore a topic. It’s something you only get glimpses of now when you write policy and strategy. I remember writing an essay for my BA on freedom of access and intellectual freedom. They didn’t seem like the most pressing issues of the time, yet now I return to them in this age of debates around authenticity of information, “fake news” and open access. They’re incredibly relevant to what we do every day – so I guess you see that thread running through your career, the story of your own life.”


from Library as Incubator Project

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