Meet Caroline Butler-Bowdon

Photo of Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon, State Librarian, State Library of New South Wales
Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon, State Librarian, State Library of New South Wales

As the new State Librarian, Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon will oversee the next chapter of the State Library of New South Wales. We invited her to share a bit about herself, her vision for the library in the next five years, and her thoughts on leading a library in the digital age.

Tell us briefly about your career path.

I worked for over 20 years as a curator and director in museums, curating exhibitions, writing books, and then leading programs and initiatives for some of Australia’s most important museums and institutions including Hyde Park Barracks, Museum of Sydney, Rose Seidler House and Vaucluse House at the Historic Houses Trust, and before that at the Art Gallery of NSW. My career has been dedicated to leadership that connects citizens and visitors to special places, culture and heritage through a broad range of statewide public engagement programs. Before starting here at the Library, I was a Deputy Secretary for Cities and Active Transport for NSW Government, where my work focused on major policy and program of investment in NSW addressing the wellbeing, walkability and activation in our streets, and civic places. Those four years in central government working on a Premier’s Priority I think really added to what I had learnt in the cultural sector, broadened my focus and world-view but I am happy to come home to the world of cultural institutions! I have also been lucky enough to learn from peers throughout my career on a range of juries, committees and boards to promote the power of place, culture, community and public space in Australia.

What attracted you to work at the State Library of New South Wales?

I grew up in a world where books, ideas, language, research and art were big themes. The opportunity to take up my dream job feels like my life has come full circle in the best possible way. My mother was a huge reader — three books a week — a very literary person and my dad was an artist as well as an architect. He made the most exquisite woodblock prints of Italian cities. When I got this new job, my siblings reached out and said our parents would be the most proud, because books and culture were their life. My mum always said if you have books, you have a good life. We were the lucky ones with these two guiding lights.

The State Library of NSW is an important cornerstone in our community. Its location, its position, its deep and rich collections, its clever, knowledgeable and creative staff, its global reach coupled with its statewide brief are inspiring and fill me with genuine excitement. Together we are and will ensure that every citizen has access to this great Library and its public network across NSW, as places of experience, learning, research, connection and community. This is an irresistible purpose and I am thrilled to work with our outstanding team to make the most of this opportunity. It has been wonderful to really get under the surface of the Library. I did a range of curatorial projects with the staff at the Library over the years and some of my happiest hours during my PhD were spent poring over diaries, drawings and sketches in the architectural collection here among the incredible two million images and photographs in the collection.

Since taking up the role of State Librarian, what’s been a significant moment for you?

To be honest there isn’t one, but many. It has been a series of significant moments in the stacks, on the exhibition floor, in the reading rooms, in the café, in the boardroom, on the road visiting public libraries on the mid-north coast, and mostly talking to the people who know the Library best, the staff, the community and the Library Council and donors. From them I have developed a great picture of why the Library is so loved, what are our strengths, what are our opportunities. The generosity of spirit and the welcome from the Library family and beyond has been exceptional.

What’s the most challenging thing about leading a library in the digital age?

I see it as a huge opportunity. We are open 24/7 as a place for engagement, learning, connection. Our physical site is at the very heart of the city and offers essential services and magical experiences. The growth of our digital programs extends our reach across NSW and well beyond. If there is a specific challenge it is how to do it all, how to deliver at the highest standards for our readers and visitors, onsite, online and on tour. This calls for us to be really clear on our priorities and how we can make the most of our wealth of opportunity. If one experience in a library or through that ‘aha’ moment in the digital space, changes the way somebody sees something, or a connection with one librarian encourages somebody to explore something new or think about something differently, that’s something to celebrate. I think that’s happening day in, day out across the whole library network.

I look forward to growing our reach and programs to realise the great opportunity of our physical spaces and digital reach long into the future, the incredible combination of this storied institution with all its contemporary relevance on Macquarie Street, through our network and to the world through our digital offer.

Where do you see your library in five years?

To continue the transformation and reach of all the Library’s programs. To know that every child, every citizen feels welcome to our Library and across the library network. That we continue to be known across the globe as having not only the best collections but the best experiences too. Everything from undertaking research, going to the cafe, the rooftop bar, coming to a talk, ordering a book, seeing an exhibition. To have that sense that there’s something for them, whether it’s right here on Macquarie Street or across the city and the state. At the heart of this are proper partnerships that, firstly, match and, secondly, grow the core purpose of the institution. That’s what really interests me. Partnerships that draw on the deep expertise and the collections across the Library. I see incredible opportunity. It’s the type of work that I’ve been doing for the past 15 to 20 years.

Libraries, in my mind, are like parks. The absolute bedrock of cities and places. The best democracies in the world have great libraries. Libraries are all about place, thinking, belonging, connection. Obviously learning and research as well. They can transform people’s lives. The profile and potential of libraries has soared. They are becoming increasingly valued and innovative as cultural and public spaces. We’ve seen that around the globe. COVID underscored their value even more, if we’d ever doubted it. People are craving social exchange but, critically, they’re craving places that are different. Places that are distinctive, have meaning and that successfully cross time.

I look forward to growing our reach and programs to realise the great opportunity of our physical spaces and digital reach. Take our schools audience as just one community. Some schools will always visit. But how do we get to the schools — those in the city, regional NSW and beyond — that might not otherwise ever think of visiting in real life or connect with digital programs? I want every child, every citizen to have access to a library, like I was able to experience as a child. I’m thinking about how we might work towards that bigger invitation for communities who might otherwise not visit.

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