This piece is part of a special series on Libraries + Media. Click here for the whole series.
Australia’s oldest public library, and one of the first free public libraries in the world, celebrated its 160-year anniversary on Feb. 11, 2016, and is now Australia’s busiest library: over 1.7 million people visit each year. The library, per its website, has branded itself “keeper of Victoria’s history” and provides free journals, databases and e-books, major exhibits and collections, and collaborates with the community to tell millions of stories.
As Laurie Putnam wrote in an article published on MediaShift in Nov. 2015: “Librarians are masters of sharing, and we need more ways to network our resources and spread our innovations.” Kate Torney is the perfect example of sharing resources.
I contacted Kate via email to talk about why she made the switch, what libraries can learn from the media and vice versa, and how libraries and the media can both benefit from storytelling as a way to build an audience for information services. As State Library Victoria’s tagline asks: What’s your story?
What’s Your Story?
MediaShift: We love knowing how the library has influenced people’s lives: When did you first realize you loved libraries?
Torney: I wasn’t a star pupil at school but I was naturally curious and I remember thinking that there was no question that couldn’t be answered in the school library. The librarians there were amazing—they showed me the power of research and they gave me a set of tools which helped shape my career.
So then what made you go in the news/media direction?
Torney: I love stories and storytelling. The most complex issue can be explained effectively through the stories of those at the heart of the matter. Growing up I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else.
You noted that you wanted to be challenged in your new role as CEO of State Library Victoria, and to continue to be involved in cultural change: How do you see yourself accomplishing that?
Torney: I think this is a rare moment for the library sector. Libraries across the globe have been undergoing a quiet transformation for some time—rethinking the role of the library and identifying the skills needed to meet the existing and future needs of library users.
Your daughter reportedly asked you: “Do they know you’re not a librarian?” How did you respond to that, and to other people who note that this is not your field of immediate expertise?
Torney: I work with some of the best librarians in the world at SLV, and while I’m not a librarian, I have strong leadership experience [in the] information sector in the digital age.
I am busy devouring all the books, articles, blogs and podcasts I can find about libraries to learn more, and I haven’t ruled out formal training—finding the time right now is challenging. I’m always looking for new information to read, new people in the library sector to follow on social media, and new debates and discussions about the sector, and would welcome useful tips!
The Future of State Library Victoria
What’s your vision for State Library Victoria?
Torney: The SLV team and I want the library to be a place where anyone and everyone can discover, learn, create, and connect. We want to build services, programs, and spaces that are highly valued by, and relevant to, a broad range of people. And we want to develop a culture that allows the library to seamlessly respond to changing community needs in the future.
So many people tell me how much they love the State Library and speak fondly of a period they spent here studying or intensively working on projects, but they are not regular users. SLV exists to serve all Victorians and visitors, and with 8 million items (books, pictures, manuscripts, maps, audio, video, film,and ephemera) our collection has something for everyone and it’s available to everyone, for free.
The collection’s true value is only realized if it is shared, if generations have the chance to see it, enjoy and learn from it, and add to it. So I’m keen to let people know that there are eight million reasons to visit regularly! And beyond the collection we have spaces and programming to cater to most needs and interests.
In your ideal world, how would the library be positioned to serve everyone?
Torney: By providing easy access to the collection, online and on site, and by being able to respond quickly to the changing needs of the public we serve. The State Library has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for innovation in the programs and services provided, and we are also inspired by the work of our colleagues in various libraries in Australia and around the world.
Libraries and Media
Do you see opportunities for more collaboration between libraries and the media? What might that look like to you?
Torney: Absolutely. Both sectors are grappling with disruption and there’s so much we can learn from each other.
And for libraries, I think we need to lift the profile of the sector and celebrate the transformation that’s already taking place. We read and hear about digital disruption of the media and other industries all the time. We should be hearing more about the library journey—there’s a lovely humility in the library sector, but sometimes it’s important to raise your voice and proudly share your story. And the library story is an inspiring one.
What does greater collaboration look like? The opportunities are endless, but a couple of good examples spring to mind: SLV has partnered with the ABC to promote literature for young people through an initiative called Splash. We co-host interactive sessions with authors which are webcast through the ABC and library sites, and those have been incredibly popular. We also recently hosted the national broadcaster’s local radio station at the State Library for an entire week—from breakfast to evening programming. It was a chance for the broadcast teams to be immersed in a community hub, and an opportunity for the library to highlight the depth of services offered and the talent of the library teams. I think there are also great opportunities to collaborate on storytelling—drawing on the wonderful stories within the library’s collections.
We are all in the information business. Journalists and librarians exist to share information and knowledge. Our goals are very similar.
What have you learned on the job so far?
Torney: That while other industries have been busy talking about the best way to respond to disruption, libraries have been quietly getting on with it. There are great examples of inspiring innovation and a willingness to quickly identify new demands, respond, and adjust services as needed.
Finally, and of particular importance given that State Library Victoria just celebrated its 160th anniversary: what, to you, is the continued value of physical library spaces and face-to-face community gathering?
Torney: I think this is more important than ever. Our digital connectivity has huge advantages and has transformed our societies, but I strongly believe that it will increase our need for physical connections to the community around us.
I love walking through the library and seeing the diversity. The library is not a community of like-minded individuals, it’s a wonderful and eclectic mix of people from all walks of life.
Alison Peters is a freelance writer happy to be joining the librarian ranks, with a Master’s in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University in May 2016. Alison shares her love for all things bookish on Book Riot, and you can find her serious professional side on LinkedIn.
The Libraries + Media series is sponsored by the School of Information at San José State University. Your source for master’s degrees and professional certificates to propel your career in the information professions.