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Rob Thomson is a lover of craft beer and libraries.  He is Teacher-In-Charge of Library and Information Services at TAFE NSW, conference presenter and a creator of nine unconferences.

How did you get involved in libraries and, later, in teaching library courses?

Way back in 1992, I was working in Export Documentation at BHP Port Kembla at the Steelworks. I would go down to the ships taking steel overseas and process all the documents the ship’s captain, the owners, the insurers and customs would need processed. It was an interesting job but tide dependent. Which meant some late nights and early mornings. Anyway, at the start of 1992 there were rumours that our department was going to be downsized and someone would be redeployed to another department – and I wasn’t keen on going down onto the steel plant somewhere when a job came up on the internal system for a Library Technician at the Library. I had only discovered the steelworks had a library about a year earlier (I used to collect company ties and I needed to track down addresses for overseas companies so I could write to them and see if I could score a tie). Anyway, I looked through the job description and thought I could do most of it, or could learn how to do the rest of it, applied for the job, said all the right things and got the job. One week in and it was like “what have I been doing with my life!!” ALIA’s latest campaign for Library and Information Week was Find yourself in the Library…and I did!

I was in that Library from 1992 to 2009 (with the same head Librarian over all those years). Because we were a small team (at one point it was just her and I for about six months) I got to do most of the roles in a Library apart from budgets and staff planning/rostering type roles. I even ran a ‘branch’ of the library on my own for a couple of years (we had 2 sites).

In 2009 there was a review of all the roles at what was now Bluescope Steel Research Labs and my role was deemed redundant so I was “set free to explore other options” in January 2010 and then managed to secure a teaching role at TAFE at Wollongong in February 2010. I didn’t get much of a break! I began by delivering the Diploma course online…and that’s what I do now. Course rationalisation and falling numbers meant we (I) now only deliver the Diploma Library and Information Services course ‘flexibly’ across a wide geographic footprint of NSW – and Italy! (I have one student who started the course here, but is now home in Italy completing the course offshore. Last year I also delivered the Diploma to two students in Qatar.)

Could you briefly describe what an UnConference is and tell us what motivated you to start running unconferences?

I first read about the concept of an unconference back in 2005 from a blog post by a company called Anecdote in Melbourne. They wrote that often when people go to conferences or seminars they get talking with people about something they are quite passionate about…and then someone rings a bell and they troop off to a seminar and sit and listen to a speaker which might be interesting, but it will be on something that wasn’t what they had just spent time talking about. Then morning tea or lunch break will happen and they will regather in their small group to pick up the previous conversation. So, they mused, what would happen is you got rid of the paid speakers and just let people gather in small groups to talk about the things they are passionate about and floated the idea of the Unconference.

Fast forward to 2008 and I had been banging on about this idea for a while and floated the possibility of running one at an ALIA NSW LT Group meeting and the rest of the committee said, “Well, you seem to be the only person who knows what you’re doing, so you run it”. Which was fine, apart from the bit about me knowing what I was doing! Therefore, I put out the call, and people came, and I ran the first ever Library-based unconference in NSW at ACU in North Sydney in August 2009.

Since then I have run 9 unconferences with the last one being the first GLAM unconference in NSW. I did it because no one else would, I guess. I was motivated to do it because I could see there was a need for a very low cost event that encouraged people to interact with each other and learn from each other. In effect, I was providing a space for conversations to happen and for connections to be made. How very Library of me!!

Everyone who comes to an unconference nominates topics they would like to talk about or learn more about and my job is to then sort through that and match up the numbers and distribute the topics across the day so that there are 4 or so conversations on 4 topics happening in 4 break out sessions across the day. I get everyone to bring a plate (in that curious Australian tradition) and we go to a pub or somewhere nearby for lunch (and another de facto session) to keep costs to zero. I charge a donation which for the last couple of years has gone to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

And, so far, it has worked brilliantly!

If you could impart one skill or piece of knowledge to your students, and to those reading this blog, what would it be?

My one skill or piece of knowledge I’d like to impart is basically Just Turn Up. Turn up to every opportunity you can. Whether that is dropping in to check out a library, museum, gallery or archive while you’re out and about, or attending a networking event, or a dinner, or a drink, or a chat with another professional, – just turn up!

Because you never know what bit of inspiration, what conversation, what person you will meet and have and where it might take you and who they might introduce you to unless you are there and turn up. That includes social media too. You just have to turn up and be a part of the ongoing conversation.

If you had your time in the GLAMR industry over again what, if anything, would you do differently?

Yes!! I would have started in Libraries earlier!!!

However, I think if I had I wouldn’t have had the life experiences I was able to bring to libraries when I did start in the industry so perhaps starting earlier might not have been the best. When I started in Libraries we were in such a small specialised library (I was the only library technician working in a steel-focused special library in Australia) that we were always looking outwards and trying to benchmark what we did against what was happening in other libraries. So, I have always been focussed on ‘continuing professional development’ anyway, just not in a formal way. If you think once you get your Diploma or Degree that that’s it, you could not be more wrong. Libraries have changed so much in just the last 3 years let alone since I started in 1992. Heck, we didn’t even have the Internet till Christmas 1994 in the Library! I can still remember when Google ‘boasted’ of having indexed 3 million web pages! 3 million!!

So in fact, to answer the question, no. I don’t think, really, I would have changed anything. However, I rather wish I had thought of Libraries as a career a lot earlier than I did.

Finally, is there any advice you would like to give library students and new professionals?

My answer to this is a variation on my answer to Question 3. Just Turn Up. However, do not restrict yourself to Just Library Stuff. Turn up to all sorts of places. Look beyond the Library world and even beyond the GLAM industries (but don’t forget the other parts of GLAM!)

In 2016 I went to the ALIA National Conference in Adelaide and met the manager of Studios 301 who invited me to come and tour the studios. I was able to invite the manager and an engineer to my unconference to help them connect with libraries and get the word out of what they can do to help libraries digitise their audio tape and oral history collections. I toured the studios and was suddenly and unexpectedly struck by how much music and sound recording studios and libraries had in common.

In recent times I have made a connection with how libraries can probably learn a lot from how craft brewers are targeting various niches in the beer drinking world. This insight combined with what libraries can learn from the social welfare world and Asset Based Community Development means that we can better target our communities and help to build connections and conversations and collaborations between them and build thick networks.

Look beyond the normal collaborators, out into the creative industries, and see what they can teach us. So, Just Turn Up but not in the usual places.

Networking is vital and just turning up is so much a part of doing that.


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