The State Library of Victoria has a significant model of supporting staff creativity, both through a Residency program, and through staff exhibitions as well! Enjoy! Erinn

Melbourne Mayhem, by Andrew McConville, collage. (image: Andrew McConville)

Melbourne Mayhem, by Andrew McConville, collage. (image: Andrew McConville)

by Dominique Dunstan, Curator

The State Library of Victoria is a great cultural institution and not surprisingly there are many talented people working here, including writers, artists and musicians. Some of their work can be found in the library’s collections. The Joyce McGrath Gallery was an initiative of the Shared Leadership Program that staff have participated in for some years.  Established in December 2010, the gallery recognises the wide range of creativity within the Library and provides a collegial, creative environment to bring staff together. It promotes imagination, collaboration and celebrates the wealth of talent in our staff. JMG draws diverse staff together to collaborate on imaginative projects of their own design. One of the defined goals of the library is to be open and inviting – to surprise delight and inform by sharing stories, collections, spaces and expertise. This exhibition and the gallery itself embodies that goal beautifully.

The Gallery… draws diverse staff together to collaborate on imaginative projects of their own design.

Detail of the layout process, hanging ribbons to hold the cards. (photo:Naomi Crotty)

Detail of the layout process, hanging ribbons to hold the cards. (photo:Naomi Crotty)

There hadn’t been an exhibition in the gallery for a while so we (the gallery committee) decided a group exhibition would be a good way to get people involved. I began thinking about a theme that could include everyone, regardless of creative ability. In October last year I read an article about the last printing of OCLC catalogue cards. Like most libraries, we stopped generating catalogue cards at the SLV some years ago. The article made me reflect on the prodigious human effort of generating all those individual cards. The card catalogue at the State Library is vast. Once the great cornerstone of collection access, this leviathan now sleeps in the catacombs under the reading rooms, overtaken by the information revolution.

Like most libraries, we stopped generating catalogue cards at the SLV some years ago… [it] made me reflect on the prodigious human effort of generating all those individual cards.

Greg Gerrand and Dominique Dunstan arranging cards on the gallery walls (photo:Naomi Crotty)

Greg Gerrand and Dominique Dunstan arranging cards on the gallery walls (photo:Naomi Crotty)

There were still a few bundles of abandoned cards hidden away in nooks and crannies about the library and I wanted to use them to acknowledge this transition. No longer used for their intended purpose could they still be used to capture and share information?

One half of the completed installation. 170 cards formed the opening installation on May 6, suspended on ribbons and held in place with small red pencils which were also used to produce art work. The cards included writing, poetry, drawing, sculpture, collage and other media. New works have been added since the launch and the exhibition now extends onto a third wall.

One half of the completed installation. 170 cards formed the opening installation on May 6, suspended on ribbons and held in place with small red pencils which were also used to produce art work. The cards included writing, poetry, drawing, sculpture, collage and other media. New works have been added since the launch and the exhibition now extends onto a third wall.

The other half of the story came from the little red pencils. The library has offered scrap paper and half size red HB pencils at service desks in the reading rooms for a long time. Over the years the little red pencils have disappeared in their thousands, recording innumerable notes, ideas and messages in their travels. They are generous tokens of what the library means and invite our users to write something down, to connect thought and action.

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The cards were grouped to form themes and tell stories. This area featured portraits of staff, including a series of silhouettes by Ann Copeland. (photo:Naomi Crotty)

The pencils and cards coexisted in the library for many years – the cards offering their knowledge, the pencils passing it on or interpreting it in the form of reader’s notes, before pursuing a fancy free existence circulating in the wide world of ideas, reminders, shopping lists and doodles.

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Detail of “Turtle card” with double ended pencil, by Naomi Crotty. (photo:Naomi Crotty)

This exhibition unites these two icons – the catalogue cards and little pencils – the obsolete and the ephemeral

This exhibition unites these two icons – the catalogue cards and little pencils – the obsolete and the ephemeral, to see what they might become, released from the rules of organized knowledge. It is a chance to reflect on time spent at the library learning, imagining, creating, and to share some of those thoughts.

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Staff reading the catalogue and admiring 3d works at the launch of the exhibition on 6 May 2016 (photo:Naomi Crotty)

In developing the concept for the exhibition I wanted to offer of an idea that everyone could take part in and could include all sorts of formats – drawing, writing, collage, even music. The more I thought about the cards and pencils the more I liked it. It was a small personal format that did not require a big investment or intimidate participants.  The materiality of the cards and pencils had great appeal and familiarity, and could unify a diversity of styles and voices. Using found and discarded materials meant the cost of producing the show would be low. The next step was submitting the proposal to the gallery committee for approval. The proposal was endorsed and we then set about planning how to realize the exhibition. The gallery committee consists of a small group of volunteers that includes staff from building facilities, community programs and collections. This mix makes for a great range of skill and functionality across the library.  It means we can get a lot done with very few people and everyone on the committee has access to different people who can support and help us.

Using found and discarded materials meant the cost of producing the show would be low.

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Detail of “Recorded iceberg, after Frank Hurley”, with “melting” pencil, by Dominique Dunstan. (photo Dominique Dunstan)

The exhibition was promoted to staff through emailed invitations, informal conversations and information sessions. The response was overwhelmingly positive which was so encouraging. People loved the idea. Getting people to actually start making work for the show was a little bit harder. There is always something more important that demands attention. However from a slow start, with lots of encouragement, lunchtime drawing sessions, emails and even a little begging, the cards started rolling in. As the curator of the exhibition I got to see all of them first. It was a constant source of surprise and delight. The imagination and diversity of the cards is wonderful. At the opening there were 170 cards from about 40 staff. It was a great event with over 60 people attending. Kate Torney, our CEO, officially launched the exhibition with warm words and high praise for everyone who had contributed. The exhibition is organic and more cards have come in since the opening. It will continue to grow until the exhibition closes in September.

With lots of encouragement, lunchtime drawing sessions, emails and even a little begging, the cards started rolling in.

Detail of catalogue card bracelet and pencil brooch by Shelley Jamieson. The exhibition including two display cases of 3d works. (photo Dominique Dunstan)

Detail of catalogue card bracelet and pencil brooch by Shelley Jamieson. The exhibition including two display cases of 3d works. (photo Dominique Dunstan)

I think Wildcards and Fugitives still has the potential to expand and grow as a project. As an installation it could be reconfigured in many different contexts. I’d be interested to hear from creative people in other libraries who would like to contribute. It would be nice to see the exhibition in a more public venue. One of the drawbacks of the staff gallery space is that it is not in a public area of the library so access to a wider audience is limited. Perhaps we can find another gallery to exhibit in so more people can have the chance to enjoy it.

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Staff enjoying the show, 6 May 2016 (photo:Naomi Crotty)

It can be challenging taking on projects like this above and beyond “normal” work, especially when resources are stretched in the first place. You need to be pretty committed to achieving your aims as there is always something more pressing demanding your attention and everyone is busy. You also need a few people who feel the same way so you can encourage and support each other.  It’s not easy but it is really rewarding. I am so proud of what we have achieved with Wildcards and Fugitives and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s been a revelation and a joy discovering each new contribution.  So many stories have been told and connections made that I think this exhibition will keep on giving and making things happen well after the show is taken down. Library workers are a notoriously humble lot. We are so dedicated to the communities we serve that we rarely find time to acknowledge and value our colleagues and our own work. It is really affirming and important to do this once in a while.

 

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-8-20-56-pmDominique Dunstan is an Arts Librarian in charge of Collection Development & Discovery at the State Library Victoria.

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