Profile: Margaret Allen, State Library of WA

Photos: Margaret Allen and the exterior of the State Library of WA

Margaret Allen is the CEO and State Librarian of the State Library of Western Australia. She is NSLA's current Chair and a member of the IFLA Leadersip Program. 

Tell us briefly about your career path
My first role after graduating was in a public library, in the very early days of library automation, where I was involved in developing a library management system from scratch. I then went to work for the IT company that built the system. I was there for 15 years, in every role from customer support to testing, software design, training, and finally as general manager of the division. We had lots of clients in Australia but also overseas – it was an exciting time.

After a company merger I moved to the State Library of South Australia as Associate Director. I was involved in the building redevelopment there which really was a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only physically rebuild the library but also to build an organisation that supported the services from the new building. In late 2004 I moved to the State Library of Western Australia.

What is the most challenging thing about leading a library in the digital age?
Meeting multiple expectations. There are those who expect a very traditional approach – almost a 19th century model – and this has to be balanced against what is obviously the future in terms of really engaging with the broader community through the digital realm; making sure that our library is well and truly part of that digital world. So it's striking a balance both in terms of community expectations and staff expectations.

Of course there are always challenges relating to the resources you have and how wisely you need to invest those to get the best possible outcome. It's about getting the right technologies behind you but getting the right resources behind you too – sometimes you have to compromise or take an evolutionary path.

What has been the most difficult/rewarding moment of the past twelve months?
Getting our legal deposit legislation reinstated after twenty years has been really important and rewarding. The most difficult part has been responding to the economic situation over the last 12-15 months.

Where do you see your library in five years?
I see libraries as having a very bright and strong future. Libraries have always evolved in response to the communities in which they operate. I’m most comfortable and optimistic that we will continue to evolve. In five years we will have made more gains in engaging with the digital world, changing the view of us as a place of books to a place of information and knowledge. We've always had that role but it's been so inextricably linked with books and print; in five years it will be around a whole lot of things, helping the community engage with knowledge, information and stories.

 In your time with NSLA, has there been a piece of work that has particularly resonated with you?
I am in awe of the work that we do achieve. The extent of the collaboration is astounding and how effectively we collaborative over nine or ten jurisdictions. That's what I'm particularly impressed with. The outputs are fabulous but the willingness of people to engage, to give of their time, to work collaboratively, to make the compromises that collaboration means sometimes, to further the aims of us all together is the thing that impresses me most.

We have some fabulous people across our organisations doing some amazing work with the support of the project office.

Tell us about your work with IFLA over the last few years – what are the highlights?
Being part of the IFLA leadership program has been fabulous in terms of giving me a world view of some of the issues we have here. We exercise our minds with questions like "can we get the right technology to help people access information?" or "can we get ebooks and the content we want?" – then you’re brought back down to earth when you have a colleague who says "we haven’t even got reliable power".

It helps to ground you in terms of what's really important and critical. We are amazingly well-off by world standards in both the resourcing that we have, the services we provide and the skills and people we have. When you look at developing countries they have such a long way to go. Hopefully we can share the work that we do to help bring the whole up; to lift the capability of libraries globally.

IFLA is doing a fabulous job of lobbying at the international level on issues that are important to us such as copyright, e-content, and freedom of access to information. These are issues driven in an international forum with groups like the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) so it's great IFLA can be there to represent libraries and argue the case for us – and they do.