Monday, June 27, 2011

Organizing is what librarians do

On Saturday, I gave a talk at TEDxLibrariansTO.

I feel I should add that the theme of the day's event was "Librarians as Thought Leaders" and this challenging theme was occasionally misunderstood. The speakers were not intended to be put forward or understood as "thought leaders". The idea behind the event was to explore the idea  how librarians are thought leaders in our society.

This deliberate and shift of focus away from library to librarian is oddly rare in libraryland - and I hadn't even noticed it's absence until TEDxLibrarians organizers Shelley Archibald and Fiacre O’Duinn brought it to my attention. And because of their dedication to this pursuit, I was reminded of the importance of showing our public face as we do the public's work: as keepers and cultivators of the cultural commons, as loremasters, as defenders of intellectual freedom, providers of tools and ideas who protect a refuge of the slow and good that is being encroached by the corporate and consumer. Their work has has reframed our work.

The following is the text of the talk that I gave as I tried to respond to their challenge. I offer my profound thanks to all those involved in TEDxLibrarians who made it such a wonderful and meaningful day.

Organizing is what librarians do

The beginning of the Gulf War – the one in 1991 – coincided with the beginning of my first year of university. And what I remember most about my first undergraduate year was the constant feelings of fear and loathing – most of which was self-loathing as my miserableness was just the normal anxieties of the first year experience. But – looking back at it all – I was also affected by the backdrop of the war and this led to changes in me in ways that I didn’t appreciate until now.

I opposed the war. But no one knew that - because I found I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t really have the words, the arguments or even a borrowed voice to frame my discomfort with what was happening. Everyday I would pass the TV room of my co-ed residence, the guys who were very enthusiastic about the war would hold court as CNN played in the background. And I would say nothing. Talk of war was everywhere and none of it reflected the doubts and fears that I held.

I felt angry. I felt mute. And so I kept my head down and stuck to my calculus, my biology, my chemistry, and my physics.

I was at university when the next invasion of Iraq took place – the one that started in 2003. Except this time I was on another campus and I wasn’t a student anymore - I was a science librarian. And while it has been 8 years now, I distinctly remember being in my office with fellow librarian Lisa Sloniowski  and we were talking about this inevitable war, about the fraud of the 'weapons of mass destruction’ and about the shamefulness of the mass media that were beating the war drums instead of asking the difficult questions and who not giving a voice to those did not consent to war in their name.

And then Lisa said, 'we should do something – give me the phone'. I watched her as she called a couple professors to see if they'd be interested in speaking on a possible panel about Mass Media Coverage and the war. They said yes. And within five minutes, it was decided upon and an  event was set in motion. Within hours we had space in the library secured and so we sent upon the work of promoting the panel discussion with a poster, fliers, a supplemental website dedicated to alternative and international news sources, more phone calls and email.

Days later we had 100 people show up in the Leddy Library staff lounge for our panel discussion- more people attended this even than for any talk or workshop we had held previously held at the library – and, beyond the numbers, we knew it was a success because after immediately after the thank yous and goodnights, the room filled with noise as neighbour turned to neighbour to talk amongst themselves of what they had seen and heard and they their carried conversations out of room.

And as they were filing out, one student came up to Lisa and told her that she had walking around all day on campus, feeling miserable and unable to find a way to act or react or speak to what was happening. But she didn’t feel that way anymore and she thanked us for hosting the talk.

I am standing here to extend an invitation to all of you. I believe that we - our profession, our community, our country, our planet - need more collaborative events to bring us together. We need more opportunities to host conversations. We need more opportunities to change the conversation. And so my invitation that I am extending is not to a particular event - but a personal invitation to all of you to organize an event for others.

Event organizing takes work - it can take a lot of work. And I will admit that inexperience might lead to mistakes that probably could be avoided - but I strongly believe that the act of organizing is within your ability.

In fact, it has never been easier to organize a gathering. With the Internet, we no longer have to rely on mass media outlets to decide if they are going to promote our event for us or not.  Many of us are already connected, networked and linked to friends and friends of friends, and beyond. And with the Internet, you can host conversations before the event, during the event - way beyond the confines of the room.  To be an organizer, all you need to do to have a concern that you know are shared with others. And if you host an event, those who attend will so grateful for a outlet where their voices can be heard and their questions be raised- that they will not ask for your credentials.

Really the biggest barrier to organizing is within ourselves. To be an organizer, and dare I say, an activist, all you have to do is to overcome your fear of speaking in front of other people.

Trust me – I know this fear very well. Very very well.

But I also know some of the ways how to overcome these inhibitions which is both the how and the why I am speaking to you today.

If you feel that you need a strategy to overcome your fear of public speaking, I would recommend sleep deprivation as a means to dull the parts of your brain that would normally talk yourself out of doing such things.

Sleep deprivation is the only reason I can give as to why, on a Thursday morning in May I sent an email to to a local blogger who I only kinda sorta knew - and asked him if he’d be interested in doing a Jane’s Walk with me on Saturday.

The Jane in Jane’s Walk is Jane Jacobs – the patron saint of live-able streets. A Jane’s Walk is a free neighbourhood walking tour that anyone can give about any aspect of a place that they care about. The idea behind the the Jane’s Walk is to get people more in touch with their environment and with each other. These walks can be held at anytime but since 2007, the first weekend in May is when most of the Jane’s Walks are held in many cities across the country and in other countries around the world.

Now the story of my Jane’s Walk takes place in 2009. I was on maternity leave - hence the sleep deprivation - and I had  already been walking through my neighbourhood once and twice a day for months. And maybe I would have chickened out if I didn’t get a response from that first email I sent, but the blogger that I sent that email to was Chris Holt and he responded almost immediately - with a “it’s a little late but what the heck. Let’s do it. And hey, let’s invite Andrew too”

Now, I don’t suggest that you should organize an event in only two days but I will tell you that it is possible. It is especially possible if you decide to co-organize an event with established bloggers who already have a readership who share the same concerns as you do.

This is how we organized the first Jane’s Walk in Windsor, Ontario. On Thursday afternoon, we met at our local cafe to create a possible route and hash out the stories that we wanted to share. That night we wrote about the upcoming walk on our respective blogs. On Friday, I test-walked our proposed route,  put up some posters, and sent out some more promotional email. On Saturday we all met again at the same neighbourhood cafe but this time there were about 30 other people there to join us. And then we all had a beautiful walk through our neighbourhood.

A Jane’s Walk has many of the qualities of what I consider a perfect collaborative event.

  • The barriers of participation are next to none. There is no cost to walk in your neighbourhood.
  • You don’t have to be an expert. You just have to care about something enough that you want to share with others
  • The walk is on your home turf - so you are speaking from a place where you already feel comfortable
  • giving a tour requires no expensive technology - it requires no special skills
  • The event is scalable - you can give a tour to one other interested person to up to 50 people - maybe even more
  • And the walk provides ample opportunities to those in the group to effortlessly talk to each other about what they are seeing and what you are saying. You aren’t just having one conversation - you are hosting a moving salon
There have been long-established organizations dedicated to leadership through public speaking like the Toastmasters Organization. But what I personally find fascinating is the emerging practice of new collaborative events that are provided for as models that are meant to copied. Jane’s Walks are an example - Independently Organized TED Events are an obvious example, and Pecca Kucha talks I think are a particularly interesting example.  Pecca Kucha - which is Japanese for chit-chat- is a format that allows participants to speak on either a particular topic or any topic, as long as its conveyed in 20 slides at 20 seconds a piece. Now it's tempting to pass off these type of events as a form of Powerpoint karaoke but I think that would be a mistake. There more going on here that meets the eye.

These particular events give an opportunity for individuals - regardless of their day job- to step forward as an educator, an advocate, an artist, or an entertainer. Speakers can learn the finer the points of public speaking from each other and through ubiquity of online video, they can also learn from the best speeches from other events held earlier and elsewhere. And these events are also a learning opportunity for the volunteer organizers too because they are able to host an event that comes with a built-in support network able to answer questions and provide encouragement - as well as setting the guidelines.

Like a franchise, these events set a certain set of expectations for the audience – and by doing so this reduces the fear of the unknown that can scare off the less adventurous around us.

But franchise isn’t the right word to describe it. Fractal is better. Small local events don’t feel so small when you know that they are the same shape of something larger - and that they are a fundamental part of something larger.

That’s what I think ChangeCamp was for me. I had heard Mark Kuznicki - the originator of ChangeCamp on the radio talk about this particular unconference and how various cities across Canada were hosting their own ChangeCamps to bring people together to answer a particular question. The question was “how can we re-imagine government in the age of participation?”

That question personally resounded with me and I was very interested in this odd thing called an  unconference. At that point, I hadn’t been to one myself but I had been dong some reading about them and I was really curious. Could it be true? With a minimal agenda, rules, technology, and facilitation, why were so many people writing about how much more they enjoyed an unconference than to the real thing?

Well, after attending three unconferences and after organizing the Windsor-Essex ChangeCamp with three others, I think I can tell you why. Unconferences - otherwise known as camps - have no audience - they only have participants. The event is designed so that any question or discussion on the subject at hand can be raised and those willing to talk about that issue can find each other. And because the day’s conversations generally occur in small groups, sitting in a circle, even the shiest among us can find a safe place to speak. And in essence, that’s all an unconference is: a given time to submit topic ideas, the creation of the schedule that assigns a place and time dedicated to those ideas, and then people sitting in a circle taking those ideas on.

As an unconference only requires space, chairs, a blank wall, post-it notes and pens - they can be set up quickly. In fact, they are now taking place as soon as a crisis hits - literally. CrisisCamps are now an established practice that bring volunteers together to help NGOs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But don’t wait for a disaster to host an unconference. If your community is home to those who have voices but no place to be heard, then you already have your reason to host one.

Because this is TEDxLibrarians, let me add this: librarians are positioned as perfect hosts of an unconference. We have access to public space. We serve all sectors of our communities : small businesses, the arts community, service organizations and we strive to serve all residents. As Barbara Fister has said, unconferences are cheap, accessible, and open and as such they are are lot like libraries. Libraries are a gathering of people and ideas mixed together.  Democratic dialog cannot and should not reduced and relegated to the comment wars on newspaper websites. The public needs a public space to come together..

OK. So now I have told you my harrowing stories of survival. How I survived a panel discussion, a walking tour and an unconference. But I would be remiss if I did not warn you of some of the possible consequences that were unforeseen due to my actions.

In my experience, I have found that you host an event for your community, you will find that people will want you to do it again. People will see that you are willing to take responsibility for your and they will reward you with more responsibility. They will want the conversation that you help start, to continue.

No other aspect of my work has had the evoked same demand from my community.

In April I was told at a party  that there was a friend of a friend who really wanted to give a Jane’s Walk, but wouldn't because no one had asked him to do it. I regret that I didn't get his contact information, call him up immediately and put forward the invitation myself. But I didn't think it should work that way. I didn’t think it was my responsibility.

But now I understand that I was wrong and for some people, they do need an invitation to step forward. In order to see this important work through, it's not enough for me to stand in front of you and tell you how fulfilling this work is, how much you can learn, how much it’s appreciated and how much this work is needed by your community.  An invitation must be given before it can be received.

And as for myself, the next time I organize an event, I’m going to bring along someone who has never done it before. Because this is how we start a movement, this is how we build and maintain community  - this is how we keep the conversations going - one invitation at a time.


....Mike Ridley said...

Amazing talk Mita. Thanks. It set an inspirational tone for the entire day.


Wendy Reynolds said...

Mita - thank you for providing the text of your talk. It was a highlight of the day. I find sometimes that our colleagues can be a little parochial, and the Jane's Walk story should inspire us to get out into our world more. It was also important for us to hear a call to action - it's far too easy to sit in a room and bemoan the fate of libraries/librarians.