Librarians as actors.

The email looked innocuous enough.  Since the restructure those who managed to hold on to their jobs have been constantly been told that we are here to help students and academics, that we are in a service environment and that we are now much more accountable.

Actually this is fair enough.  Sometimes libraries lived in a world where the mentality was ‘that’s what we do, you come and get it. Take it or leave it’.  And I think every work place is like that now, and we should be no different.

The nature of the Library at universities has also changed.  I haven’t touched a book for years.  New books are not those made from dead trees anymore, they’re mostly made up of flows of electrons that students with an internet connection can access anytime, anywhere with few clicks of a mouse.  Those books who are still made up of paper are ordered automatically.  All we need to tell the suppliers is a Dewey range and subject headings and they will send the books that are relevant.

So the role of the university librarian has changed where the main focus has shifted towards helping academics in ensuring their students know how to research, use and evaluate information.  And this required us to move away from our information desks.

While the last thing I want to do is stereotype, my observation is that many librarians, while not necessarily wallpaper flowers, they are not the most extrovert out there people either.  The profession has traditionally attracted people that in past times, enjoyed the quietness of the library and interaction was limited to a few people coming to the desk asking where to find stuff.

Not anymore.  Now we are required to hold classes in lecture theatres, as lecturers do.  So our managers thought it would be a good idea to engage two professionals from the Theatre Department to conduct workshops on presentation skills. The email described these as ‘Highly practical, workshop-based sessions focusing on effective use of voice and movement while presenting.”

The email came a few days before I was going overseas.  There were going to be three sessions, two in December and one in January, and the latest one had to be the one for me.

“It’s confronting” one colleague who already did this in December warned me.  This raised alarm bells.  Confronting?  How?  I am the type of person who gets annoyed when I hear a trainer saying at the start “and now turn to the person next to you etc.”  Really? do we have to?  It is always so awkward and for me forced.  So anything which is confronting didn’t sound good.

In any case I knew then that this training wasn’t going to be  a sitting down and take notes type.  I gently explored what type of things we had to do, even though they were sworn to secrecy as apparently the trainers didn’t want those who didn’t do the training to know too much.

So the day started with some exercises.  These were not too daunting, such as being in a circle and look around and once an acknowledgement was achieved to swap places. Or to go around and shake hands and tell your name.  One that was more challenging was when we had to go around and give different stares at each other.

The other thing that made me feel a bit like a goose was when we had to move with our words, that is move around to ‘feel’ the pattern of the word.

I wasn’t against this.  I could see the value and in fact I volunteered for a few things. So much so that when the trainer asked for a volunteer and no one was coming forward a colleague turned to me and said “go on Guido. You’re the extrovert one”.  The source of me being at times uncomfortable was that it was with colleagues.  I get along really well with them all, but the relationship I have with them is a definite one within the boundaries of work.  Stretching that boundary I sometimes felt uneasy.

In my twenties I went through a phase where I threw myself in various type of therapies, including groups ones where we all played roles (often being a parent or a partner) and with the guidance of the psychologist we would act out our fears, anger, whatever.  It was heavy stuff.  Big cushions were employed to ensure that the anger surfacing during the therapy didn’t actually hurt someone.  But it was our choice and we knew what we were in for.  While the type of work in the training I did was very much less intense and much ‘safer’ if was with people I work with.  And we had to go, there was no choice in the matter.

Having said that the second day where we had to speak in the one of the largest Lecture Theatre in the University (500 seats) was invaluable.  I did see how some of the exercises we did the previous day could be used to give a better presentation.  For instance how to use a space, how to be aware of a space when talking.  How to use gestures, how to engage an audience etc.

Will this make me a better presenter?  Probably.  I will use some of the knowledge I acquired at this training, such as using more pauses and move when delivering a concept. But I must admit I was happy to go back to my safe space of my desk and my computer the next day.


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