Monday, 16 January 2017

How I learned to stop worrying and love the GLAMR label...

I first heard the term GLAM about eight years ago when I was working at the State Library of Victoria. At the time, it was used in relation to the scope for collaboration and partnership between the major cultural agencies within the State Government, namely the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. This made sense - they were all cultural institutions that acquire priceless collections to preserve the cultural memory of the region, much of their public engagement involved public programs and exhibitions, they were based on similar principles of cultural collection management, and together, they make a cool acronym.

These connections became more apparent when I had the opportunity to use my librarian experience, particularly in working with local history collections, to work in a number of museums. During this time, I attended some professional development run by the University of Queensland, which explored the principles of "Museum 2.0" (this was back in the days when 2.0 was still a relatively new concept!) and for about 90% of the content, you could have replaced "Museum" with "Library" and it would have echoed everything I'd been reading in the library industry at the time.

And then, whilst my career moved more into NGO / intergovernmental agencies, focusing on the implementation of information and knowledge management in the international development sector, the GLAMR (the "R" being for Records Management) label took off back in Australia, acknowledging the scope and intersections between professionals in these industries. No longer were people like me simply librarians - no, we were GLAMR professionals!!

Except that I was working as an information professional outside of the GLAMR sector. I'd see my former colleagues and peers heading off to GLAMR events, and feel excluded. Sure, I could have turned up anyway, but they'd probably be talking about libraries and museums and records management principles - things that weren't a part of my professional life at that time.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it's not that I was being excluded by the industry - I'd pretty much taken my skills and left the industry in order to work elsewhere. And that's okay too. 99% of people in the GLAMR industry aren't going to be interested in working in the development / peacekeeping / humanitarian sector, and nor are their activities going to be relevant outside the context of the GLAMR sector. At the same time, information professionals working in civilian crisis information management or digital humanitarian aid going to be attending professional development for that field, and probably not the next ALIA conference.

And it's important, not only to open the scope of one's sector, as LIS has expanded to GLAMR, but also to recognise its boundaries, in order to manage their own brand and their community. The question I often dread in a new job is, "Where were you before?" as people make a snap judgement about your immediate past experience and its relevance to your new role. Generally speaking, most people in the GLAMR sector are familiar with what most other people in the GLAMR sector do. Other sectors... not so much.

And I must say, it's very exciting to see how far the library industry has come over the years. It would have been not even ten years ago where I'd witness fierce arguments over whether a library should consider recruiting professionals with non-LIS qualifications as librarians, but now I work in libraries where librarians might come from diverse fields such as teaching, museum studies, art curation, journalism and so on. Yes, it means having to compete with a wider range of professionals for those coveted jobs, but it makes for a much more interesting workplace. Plus, if I ever get bored of libraries, there's a wider range of fields to move into more organically.

By embracing this professional diversity, opportunities open up for us to question each other's professional practices, and learn from the successes across these intersecting sectors. And whilst I'm still a little sad to have left my not-so-GLAMR'ous (see what I did there?) career path behind, I'm pretty excited to be back in the GLAMR sector, and to see what this brave new world has in store.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Difficulty of "Yes"

So, I may have been a little flippant in my last post when I stated that to "just say yes" is the easiest lesson. I should perhaps say that it's as easy as jumping off a cliff. Technically speaking, it's just a matter of moving in a certain direction, and you're there. You've even got gravity on your side.

But, of course, it's a little more complicated than that, and I feel that I need to acknowledge this. For every opportunity that I've "just said yes" to, I've also been faced with an opportunity that I've agonised over, and eventually said "no" to. They were really awesome opportunities too.

The reality is that, by saying "yes", you're inviting a huge change into your life. It could be a geographic change, a turn in your career path - either a slight deviation or a complete change of track - new colleagues, new expectations, and new challenges.

Many of these are unpredictable, which leads me to my main point - the paradox of making the "right decision".

We're raised in life to make decisions, and we're more or less taught that there is a "right" and "wrong" choice. The more informed we are of the consequences, the better position we are in to make these choices.

But life isn't like that. The most amazing opportunities in life are the ones where the possibilities are boundless - and with it, so are the variables. Yes, there are some known consequences, and these might be:

- You're leaving your home behind.
- You won't see most, if not all, your friends and family for a while.
- You'll be ending many of your current working relationships.
- You'll be ending a personal relationship.
- You'll be resuming a personal relationship - if that decision is to move back home to a former partner.
- You'll get to work in an organisation that you've always wanted to work with.
- You'll get to work in a team with somebody who inspires you.
- You'll get to live in an exciting place where you've always wanted to live.

These kinds of known outcomes are what you can base your decisions on. Everything else is purely conjecture - and that's a scary thing.

On the other hand, to "just say no" is, conversely, just saying yes to many of the things that are already present in your life. But that's not to say that this choice isn't without its unpredictable factors either. Life can turn around even the most seemingly-stable lives.

The important thing to remember is that a "yes or no" choice doesn't necessarily mean you're making a "right or wrong" choice.

It might mean honouring commitments, or seeking new ones. Staying put or flying away. Choosing adventure or stability. But you do need to actively make a choice, either way. Worrying about hypothetical "what-ifs", or if it's the right or wrong choice is wasted time - just look at the options in front of you, and pick one.

You always have a choice.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Ten Years of Lessons Learnt

So, given my ten years of professional work, I must have learnt a few valuable lessons, right? The kinds of things you can’t learn through the usual academic coursework and research? I had a good think about the main lessons I learned through my extensive experience.

Just say yes. This is the first, and easiest lesson - when a valuable opportunity comes by and taps you on the shoulder, say yes. In my case, it launched my career working in Darwin as a professional, which quickly turned into valuable management experience and working in top cultural agencies, and then working overseas. People often say that they're jealous of what I've been able to do, but they could have done it too, if they'd just said yes. Of course, this goes hand in hand with…

Be prepared to take risks. I’ve taken a lot of risks in my career, as you can clearly see from my earlier post. Some of them didn’t pay off in the short-run, to my perpetual frustration, but they all amounted to something in the end. I still take risks, opting for short-term contracts in dream jobs, rather than long-term security in something that’s less suited to my professional interests. 

Find your champions. Network in the industry and seek out those people who can provide you with support and advice - particularly those in higher places who you would ideally like to work for, and those who care about the future of the library industry, and want to foster the careers of those who will come after them.

Be confident and ask for opportunities. It’s not arrogance to talk yourself up and put yourself forward for upcoming opportunities. Most hiring managers often have an idea of who the main contenders are for a role that they hire for, and it’s important to be a contender. As above - network, and be mindful of your strengths, so that you can promote yourself and match your skills with a position when discussing an upcoming opportunities, whether it be a project or a vacancy for an ongoing position.

Know your limits. The beauty of having ten years of professional experience is that I now know what I want for my career - and what I don’t. I don’t waste my time - or a recruiter’s time - by applying for a job that’s not suited to my skills or interests. And know when to walk away.

Take time out. The nine months that I spent in Japan five years ago was one of the best things that I could have done for me career. Sometimes it’s important to take time out, recharge, and adjust one’s perspective.

It’s not who I am, but what I do, that defines me as a professional. Yes, I totally paraphrased that line from Batman Begins, but it’s an important realisation that I came to a couple of years ago. A professional career doesn’t amount to a historical list of position titles, but rather what my achievements have been in those roles. It made me realise that the scope for professional work was much wider than I’d originally conceived.

But you can’t have it both ways. There was a time when I wished I’d just stayed in my first job, and done the hard yards, building a ten-year career with one organisation. I see people who have done that, and are in much higher positions than I am now, and are in a position to be able to start a family, get a mortgage, etc. Having spent ten years building a strong portfolio of professional skills, I do feel that now is a good time to settle for the long haul with one employer - and if that opportunity comes up, then I would give it very careful consideration. If it doesn’t, then the long and winding journey continues…


So, what am I still working on? Here’s a few lessons that I still need to learn, and I’m working on every day…

Being a change agent. One valuable aspect of working at the UN is that it’s extremely process-oriented, and it’s meant that when I come to a new organisation, I’m keen to document and review operational processes in my role. Of course, something that goes with this is a desire to improve processes, when the opportunity to do arises. Unfortunately, whilst I am highly attuned to detecting these opportunities, and proposing solutions, the act of influencing senior colleagues and implementing changes to operational processes is still something that I need to develop my skills in. Key to this is developing working relationships, and building the confidence of those colleagues who I don’t necessarily work closely with, so that when I go to them with proposed changes, they can trust my judgement. But in large organisations, this can still be a challenge.

Managing expectations - of clients and colleagues, and of myself. Starting a new job, I’m often asked by colleagues, (a) what my position / team is, and (b) where I worked before. I daresay that the way I respond to these questions will then prescribe that colleague’s expectations of me. Coming from a very diverse professional background, I still struggle with getting my “elevator pitch” right. Similarly, with clients, I’m probably seem more as “that youngish-looking guy on the front desk” rather than “an information professional with over ten years of progressive experience in Australia and overseas across government, education and cultural organisations”. The more that I’m able to convey to colleagues and clients the value of what I have to offer them, the more professionally satisfying and productive the interactions will become within the workplace, which as far as I can see would be a win-win situation. Similarly, I’m always needing to manage my own expectations of a role that I’m in. After all, at the end of the day, it’s not about me. If I wasn’t there, then somebody else would be doing the same job…

Making myself indispensable. And this is a clincher. With a wide range of experience and knowledge, I still need to learn to find ways to capitalise on those skills which are in high demand in an organisation. Anybody with a Masters in Information Management can do most of the individual jobs that I’ve done. However, by finding ways to take the initiative and offer something outside the square which is much-needed in an organisation, then I place myself in a position where I bring something valuable to an organisation, rather than just being a replaceable cog. I recognise that my current career path is unique and valuable - I just need to learn to leverage that specifically to my advantage.

So, that’s enough navel-gazing for now. I wonder how things will change, looking back on these posts ten years from now…

Monday, 2 January 2017

Grand Ambitions

I don't do New Year's Resolutions. My life hasn't changed overnight since the clock ticked over, and I don't have any regrets for which I want to redeem myself with the new year.

However, it's three months since I returned to Australia, and lately I've felt myself overcome with a dreadful feeling of inertia - that I'm moving with the passing of time, but nothing's really changing. Of course, I've spent most of my energy settling into new jobs, and sorting out my domestic arrangements. However, now that I have moved all my things to Sydney, and have a place to live for the foreseeable future, it's time for me to get my shit together.

So, these are not new years resolutions, so much as grand ambitions for getting my life back on track. I turn 40 years old next year, so it seems an arbitrary a deadline as any to achieve the following:

Make new friends and form closer connections. This is probably the most vital part of settling into a new place, but I find it the most difficult. I feel like making friends used to be simple - especially during my uni years. You either made friends in class, or at uni, then you hung out more often, and suddenly you have an interconnected social web of friends. And being an expat in another country, friendships were easier because most people were in the same boat - isolated foreigners who needed to connect to maintain their sanity. These days, it feels more complex. You might make friends at a choir or swing dancing classes, but you’d rarely see them outside those activities. Many people my age are coupled-off and starting young families, which takes up the bulk of their time. Somebody recently said to me that there needs to be a support group for single people in their late 30s, and maybe that’s true. I also realise that, in recent years, I’ve become a fiercely independent person, and I need to learn to let people into my life, and allow closer friendships to form. I’m not entirely sure what else the solution is, other than try to take every opportunity that I can to go out and meet new people - something I find hugely exhausting after a while.

Establish job security with a permanent job. I am extremely lucky to have two awesome jobs, which take up quite a bit of my time, but is worth every minute. The trade-off is that they are on renewable short-term contracts, which means that there is always the risk that I will be unemployed in a matter of months. I do not regret this at all - I’d much rather be in a contract that progresses my career than be in a permanent job on a dead-end career path. However, there’s no reason it needs to be an either/or situation… especially if I want to…

Buy property. I’m ready. I don’t care if it’s a tiny shoebox of a studio apartment, as long as it’s in a good location, and it’s mine. I haven’t wanted this in the past, but something that’s shifted in my mind these past couple of years, and just really want a place to call my own, that I can decorate with my own furniture and books and stuff. It doesn’t have to be much, as long as it’s home.

Keep travelling. Even if it’s just one big trip a year, I want to keep seeing new places. The IFLA conference is in Wroclaw this August, so that’s what I’ll be aiming for, with a few more weeks scheduled to explore the parts of Eastern Europe that I didn’t make it to when I lived in Kosovo.

Write a new show. In some ways this is the easiest of my grand ambitions, as I only have to rely on myself to get this done. I have a basic premise, I just need to give myself time.

And that’s the real clincher, when it comes to my grand ambitions - time. At the moment, I’m working 39 hours and travelling 16 hours a week. The time I have available for socialising - or doing anything outside of work, really - feels quite limited. Ultimately, I need to exercise more discipline in the ways that I use my time. Develop better sleep patterns so that I can get up earlier, use the time I have better, and have the energy to be awake when I need to be. Spend less time on social media and prioritise my pop culture consumption to the bare essentials (i.e. enough to remain socially engaged and informed!).

It feels like life used to be so much easier… but it’s probably just that I didn’t worry about these things as much as I should have. Now I have to play catch-up before my mid-life crisis sets in!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Ten Long Years in the Saddle...

I was recently looking at a calendar, and it realisation struck me that it's been 20 years since I graduated from High School, and 10 years since I graduated from my professional qualification and started working as a library and information professional.

It's hard to remember the kind of person I was at 18, and what my hopes and dreams were for the following 20 years of my life. High school for me had mostly been about studying hard and spending the rest of my time in creative ventures like choirs, orchestras and school plays. I guess the plan was to study hard, and then get a job and see what happened. Of course, it was never that straightforward...

But I won't talk about that decade - I'll save it for when I finally get around to writing the Great Australian Novel which will probably be best described as Zigzag St meets Praise meets He Died With a Felafel in his Hand

However, ten years as a library and information professional definitely feels like a milestone worth noting. Through my years of involvement with the New Graduates Group, there was the recurring question of what the definition of "New Graduate" was - which tended to vary between the first five and ten years of one's career. At any rate, I'm officially no longer a new graduate by any stretch of the imagination.

But, being the sometimes-prolific librarian blogger that I have been, I've been able to look back over the years, and gauge my ten year journey...

2006 - My First Librarian Job. I'd been working full-time in public libraries for almost two years, and was desperate to get a "real librarian job". Not content to be a library officer anymore, I jumped at the first professional opportunity, working as a liaison librarian at Charles Darwin University. It was a jump into the deep end, and a steep learning curve. After six months, an opportunity arose for a Team Leader position within Darwin City Council, and I took it, moving back into more familiar territory, and with it, opportunities to take leadership opportunities.

2007 - Finding my feet. Taking on leadership roles, first as the Reference Team Leader and then a Branch Manager, I found my confidence in asserting myself as a professional. Possibly a little too much, too soon, I was definitely precocious - some might say arrogant, even. I was enthusiastic about contemporary innovations in technology, but impatient with my peers' seeming unwillingness to adopt them. Furthermore, I wanted to apply my knowledge in my interaction with library users, but felt undervalued for what I - and my library - had to offer the communities that I served.

2008 - The Librarian Idol. A creative venture that arose out of the simple premise that through mainstream pop culture, librarians could reclaim their rightful elevated place in society. On the surface it was a silly self-indulgence, but at its heart, it was very personal. I daresay that I reached more people through performing at gigs and fringe festivals than I ever did at the reference desk. And they were valuable connections. I also started working as a Reference Librarian at the Northern Territory Library - one of the highlights of my career so far. The work was stimulating and enjoyable - even if my social / personal life was a shambles at the time. Around that time, the National Treasures touring exhibition came to Darwin, and I had the opportunity to meet and hear staff from the NLA who visited with the exhibition. At the behest of a few friends in my professional network, I also started applying for roles at the National Library of Australia, and came very close to getting in a couple of times, and although these roles eluded me, it became a personal goal to eventually work with these amazing collections at the NLA. I had the privilege of getting involved with the Centre for Youth Literature as an Inky Awards judge. I was also on the organising committee for the New Librarian's Symposium, held in December that year, where I met a whole bunch of amazing peers who still remain friends to this day. It was a huge year.

2009 - Return to Melbourne. Then it happened. After two and a half years in Darwin, I decided it was time to go back to Melbourne. After applying for a bunch of jobs from Darwin, with its share of phone interviews or, worse, straight from a red-eye flight to the face-to-face interview, I decided just to move back and try my best. By an amazing fluke, I picked up some project work at the State Library of Victoria almost immediately, which kept me afloat for a few months. But it was a tough year, with a few months of unemployment in the second half. I'd felt like my professional experience in Darwin wasn't considered equivalent to a similar role in Melbourne, and that those years had been a waste of time. Still, I was fortunate enough to pick up a few interesting projects, and by the end of the year, I was offered a job managing a school library in 2010.

2010 - Back to School. This was an interesting year. Back in a management role, I was back in my element - managing budgets,  re-creating the library space that I envisioned, being a change agent in a risk-averse environment. I enjoyed that. However, whilst it was, generally speaking, a good place to work, I was always conscious that it was a dead-end job. Without a teaching qualification, I wouldn't be able to progress from that role on to something bigger and better. I knew that I wanted to aspire to something more, but didn't quite know what.

2011 - Turning Japanese. I stayed on at the school for another six months, part-time, spending that time handing over the role and completing a big project with the A/V collections. But the opportunity came to move to Japan - for the foreseeable future - so I took it. I can't say what the deciding factor was, but at that point, I'd reached complete disillusionment with the library industry. I needed a break. I was also lucky that I was able to keep a toe in the door by working on an online local history project. I had an amazing time - it was my first time really living overseas, and in many ways change my outlook on life. 

2012 - Back to Reality. So, it turned out that my new life in Japan was only to last for about ten months. After staying long enough to enjoy the cherry blossom season of Spring, I moved back to Melbourne, and into the Black Ness - a wonderful rundown share house in Northcote with a rotate cohort of creative housemates. Again, I was fortunate to pick up some project-based work, focusing on community development and cultural programming in libraries. It kept me busy, and I was connected with my creative interests, both in my professional and personal lives. When that contract ended, I started writing full-time, and within a couple of months, I'd written a new cabaret show - inspired by the impending apocalypse of 2012.

2013 - A Crazy Year. In lieu of having an actual job at the beginning of the year, I went and debuted the show at the Adelaide Fringe, and then went backpacking around SE Asia for a month. As you do. By the time I returned, I'd applied for two international development assignments back to back in Papua New Guinea working in libraries and museums. As you do. I returned to Melbourne long enough to revise my show for the Sydney Fringe and Darebin Feast Festivals, and then headed to Vietnam, working in museums in the amazing town of Hoi An. Professionally, it took me to completely new places, both geographically and in the way that I approached my work. Equal parts stimulating and frustrating, it was never boring, and I learned to apply my professional principles of information management outside the conventional library environment.

2014 - Bibliotheque Bound? With a newfound determination for professional practice, I took on a new library management role in a modern school in a fantastic location in Melbourne. It should have been a dream job. It turned out to be a bad fit, and I acknowledged this very quickly, resigning after four months, and taking on another international development role, this time working as a knowledge management consultant with a Vietnamese NGO in Hanoi. As much as I was keen to settle back into the library industry in Australia, the opportunity to live in Hanoi was too seductive to resist! Still, I returned to Melbourne in the week of my birthday to speak at the ALIA National Conference, and by this time my philosophy was that what defines us as professionals wasn't so much about "being a librarian" but rather in looking at the actual professional work that we do and the achievements that we accomplish.

2015 - Peacekeeper. At some point in the previous years, I'd signed on to the UN Volunteer register. In January, I was contacted for an interview for a position as an Associate Information Management Officer at the UN Mission in Kosovo, and by mid-February I'd received an offer, starting in mid-April. Again, working in a completely different environment with a different focus provided me with opportunities to develop my professional skills from a new direction. Plus, I'd never been to Europe before, and by the end of the year, I'd managed to fill up my passport with new stamps!

2016 - Onward and upward. I completed my contract with the UN in June, and decided that it was the best time to take everything I'd learned and bring it to a new professional role. I spent the following couple of months backpacking around Europe, whilst applying for the best jobs that were out there. By the time I'd returned to Australia in October, I'd picked up work at two employers of choice, and so far, I've managed to successfully juggle two jobs in two cities! I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be working in amazing organisations with wonderful collections and supportive teams, and hopefully it will be the beginning of a beautiful (working) relationship.

So, wow, that's been a long post. Ten years - that's over a quarter of my life, which I've devoted to this profession, and whilst it's had its ups and downs, it's wonderful to finally feel like I'm in a good place. 

If you've made it this far, here's a song to reward your efforts - which inspired the title of this post...

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Reverse culture shock

People often talk about reverse culture shock, like it's just another first-world problem. For example:
- Having to leave the house an hour early to get to work on time, and they're *still* running late.
- Experiencing rude customer service at a shop.
- ZOMG beer is so expensive again.
- All I want to talk about is my amazing travels over the past years, and none of my friends really get it.

These certainly can be challenging experiences for a recently-returned expat. But it's not what keeps me up at night.

I'll tell you what does.

When working in a developing country, you become super-aware of all the usual development issues. Whether it's gender inequality, hatred / discrimination against those of a particular cultural identity, access to education, gender-based violence, insufficient rule of law, political corruption, or just an unwillingness to follow due process, you become more finely attuned to the social justice pitfalls of the region.

And there are definitely times when I've thought to myself, "This place is f***ed. I just want to go home."

The problem is - by that stage, I already had a rose-tinted perspective what things were really like back home. Maybe before I left, my immediate social circle was more progressive, or maybe I'd just forgotten. And it's easier to be judgmental when you're an outsider looking in.

But returning home - to "civilisation" when your brain is on development worker mode is a bit like turning the light on when you've got night-vision goggles on. It's overwhelming.

And it's not just neglect or apathy when it comes to social justice matters. People actively fight against what I consider to be progressive social stances. From politicians using refugees and terrorism as a way of dividing communities and scoring political points, to people being openly racist and misogynistic in the streets, and taunting "lefties" to go hide in their "safe spaces", lest they be "triggered". It's getting really nasty, and I don't remember things being this bad when I left? Maybe it was, and I just hadn't noticed. Working and travelling overseas broadens your perspective, but also makes you notice these things more.

Worst of all, it feels like those who aren't perpetrating, are too self-involved in their own lives to worry about what's going on around them. Maybe it's a survival instinct, and they've got enough on their minds, worrying about their careers and mortgages and families and upcoming business meetings. 

I can understand that. I've been lucky, and since returning two months ago, managed to pick up work with some amazing employers, but it's kept me so busy that it's all that I can really focus on right now, along with working out where I'm going to live, and if I need to leave the house an hour early to get to work on time.

But when I look up from my work, and listen to the prevailing discourse, can't help but feel that sense of dread that this country is going to hell in a handbasket, and it's taking us all with it.

So, maybe that's what reverse culture shock is - an inability to manage one's expectations because you've come to see the world more clearly for what it really is.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Unexpected Journey continues...

So, this afternoon, I am back on the road again, both figuratively and actually.

When I spoke at the ALIA National Conference in 2014, my paper was titled "The road goes ever on and on: a Librarian's Unexpected Journey." I never expected that my choice to become a librarian would take me to Darwin, let alone PNG, Vietnam, and the Balkans. I honestly don't know what will come next, but I'm comfortable with that now...

I'm also heading to Belgrade for a few days. From Pristina, it's a problematic journey, as I need to enter Serbia via one of its official border crossings, which means travelling two hours in the opposite direction (i.e. South) and then catching another bus from Skopje, Macedonia, which will then take me North the long way around. But I'm looking forward to spending some relaxing time floating on the Danube River and visiting the fortress in Novi Sad.

If you're keen to keep following my adventures, feel free to check out my instagram account where I'll try to take photos of pretty things and places along the way.

Otherwise, that's me checking out of BlogJune for yet another year. Who knows where I'll be, once next June comes around...

- A.