Ready for 2020: Meet the Chair and Deputy Chair of NSLA

Vicki McDonald and Marie-Louise Ayres
Vicki McDonald and Marie-Louise Ayres

After the recent NSLA CEOs’ meeting in Hobart, incoming Chair, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, and Deputy Chair, Vicki McDonald, got together for a chat about their long relationships with NSLA and their thoughts on the coming two-year term.

Tell us about your history with NSLA.

Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General, National Library of Australia: I’ve worked at the National Library for 17-and-a-half years, and for probably 15 of those I’ve been involved in NSLA and its predecessor projects. My first really big activity was around the Faster Access to Archives project which I led in late 2008-2009. It made me really understand the power of working together, and that we actually all had common problems that we wanted to solve.

When I moved into the position that is responsible for Libraries Australia and Trove, there was a Trove community of practice around NSLA and lots of discussion that led into a whole lot of the collaborative work that we do on services. I do think it would probably be one of the proudest things of my career that I was right there at the very birth of NED, and that we grasped together the opportunity offered to us to build better collections together and we saw it through.

I think of myself as a problem solver, I like fixing things, so that aspect of NSLA really appeals to me. I often think of the National Library that one of the things that is in our DNA is that we set ourselves big tasks and we stick at it until they’re done. I feel exactly the same way about NSLA.

Vicki McDonald, State Librarian and CEO, State Library of Queensland: I think my first involvement with NSLA was back in the days of the Big Bang. As a group we got together to imagine a future based around collaboration, and I remember at the time being really excited about the fact that I was meeting with other peers from other state libraries across Australia, but also the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand.

So I was involved in that initially, the thinking around it and the strategic framework around reimagining. I left the State Library of Queensland and went to QUT – a completely different profile – but then coming back to the State Library of Queensland in 2016 and being a member of the CEOs’ group it’s been really good to see just how much we continue to work together.

What does NSLA do best?

Vicki: I think it’s one of those organisations that you get so much more out of than what you actually put in, and that’s a real strength in the collaboration, in working together.

Marie-Louise: I agree, you get much more out than you put in and that’s a rare thing in anybody’s working life. Every time I come for a NSLA meeting, people say, ‘You poor thing, two days of meetings’ and I say ‘No, we get stuff done! This is actually our most powerful strategic group because we actually achieve things together.’

Vicki: We’re continuously thinking about ‘what’s in it for our clients? How will this benefit our clients?’ and that really sits behind a lot of the discussions that we have. I think the other real value for me of the NSLA CEOs coming together is it really highlights how many common issues and common things we’re all thinking about. And through that discussion are shared solutions, so that we can actually have an impact back in our home institutions. So it helps to solve some of the things you’re thinking about but also to give a different perspective, and I think that’s really part of the value of coming together with peers.

Marie-Louise: One of the great things about this group of colleagues is that some of us have known each other for a long time, but we also have colleagues who have come into the NSLA fold from outside the library arena, who are newer to the business, and who bring really divergent thinking and quite different approaches to things which keeps things fresh.

It’s incredibly important that people feel heard, particularly in our environment where we’ve got some very large libraries and some very small libraries. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about NSLA, is that we sit here as peers on a very even platform despite vast disparities in the sources and resources that are available to our libraries.

What are your hopes for NSLA over the next two years?

Marie-Louise: The thing that I don’t think will change at all is the way in which we work through people and of course these CEO meetings are just the tip of the iceberg of what happens with NSLA. We have so many people involved in the groups, who see it as part of their everyday professional life and responsibility. So the work that we do happens with quite large numbers of people working together across huge geographic distribution, we still seem to make it work.

One of the things that I think is emerging right now is even more focus on the centrality of collections. A lot of our NSLA work over the years has been around the ‘how’ of collections. How can we process things more quickly? How can we do this? At [the meeting] table today, we’re focusing on the ‘why’. Why are we collecting? For whom are we collecting? And increasingly the question is, where does it make sense to collect together and where does it not make sense to do that? So I can see a focus on the philosophy and rationale, the deep stuff of why we collect, being a larger thread.

In the people space, we clearly are going to have even more of a focus on how we create, nurture, sustain, nourish, culturally safe libraries – and our own understanding of what that means is going to change along the way. For me, that’s a huge learning opportunity.

Vicki: For me, reflecting back on the last two days [of this meeting], I think we’ve talked a lot about the work we’ve done over the last several years, and looking ahead and thinking about our business plan, it’s really continuing to build on our achievements.

So we’ve worked together to build NED as a platform, but we’re continuing to talk about how we take that to the next level, to build on that, to continue to grow it, and I guess it’s that further consolidation of our efforts to actually provide something for the Australian community, and I think that really lies at the heart of everything we do.

How does the NSLA program complement the work going on at your own library?

Vicki: Top of mind for me at the moment is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. We’ve just this week launched our exhibition, Spoken, celebrating Queensland’s languages, and it’s really giving us an opportunity to profile the significant amount of work we’ve done this last decade around documenting, preserving and making language accessible. This exhibition provides an opportunity to profile that to the communities that we’ve worked with but also the general community of Queensland and international visitors as well.

I think in the context of the work that NSLA is doing around cultural competency, it all fits together really well, to actually profile the importance of understanding our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and the context that it has in our roles as state libraries and the National Library.

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