In a regular new series on Better Reading – Behind the Scenes – we put the spotlight on the people who bring you the best stories. We will talk to the publishers, the librarians, the booksellers, the people with a passion for books, about working behind the scenes with books.
(If you know someone who loves and works with books get in touch and nominate them for this column.)
In the first of the series we talk to Jan Richards, a regional librarian made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to libraries earlier this year. Jan was born and raised in Newcastle, and in that other steel city, Wollongong, and in Orange. She’s been working in libraries since she left school and has been Manager at Central West Libraries in Orange since 1994. She is a past President of the Australian Library and Information Association and current Chair of the Australian Public Library Alliance. She is a member of the Library Council of New South Wales and is actively involved in IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations), holding a number of positions.
Better Reading: How do you feel about your recent accolade – making the Australia Day Honours list and becoming a Member of the Order of Australia?
Jan Richards: I am incredibly honoured and humbled by the Award which came as a huge surprise. Knowing that I was nominated by my peers makes it even more special. The public library sector in Australia is incredibly collaborative and I see the Award as recognition of what so many of us have achieved working together. Must admit I did a little happy dance when I found out!
BR: What role do you think libraries have to play in the future of Australia and the community?
JR: We’ve been asked about the future of libraries constantly over the past 10-15 years and people predict our demise with the growing focus on technology but the reality is that the number of people using libraries continues to grow. Our offer is now so much more than ‘just books’ whether printed or ‘e’. Increasingly public libraries are community living rooms, safe places to go where visitors can access a diverse range of resources, programs and activities. As the world changes around us the public library provides a place where everyone is treated equally and has equal access to information.
BR: We understand you almost became a nurse, instead of a librarian. Are you happy you made the change early on in your career?
JR: My aspirations to be a nurse were possibly influenced by a fascination with Cherry Ames novels in my youth and I think there are many people who will be glad that I chose librarianship over nursing! I loved working in libraries from my first day and I have never regretted the decision I made. I have worked with so many amazing people and had such fantastic opportunities, coming to work has always been a joy. I spent a bit of time in hospital with my parents in their later years and occasionally would contemplate my career choice as I watched the nurses go about their tasks. I couldn’t do what they do, they are heroes.
BR: You’ve been in the library service for over 40 years. How much has changed in that time for libraries?
JR: One of the most obvious changes is the look and feel of libraries. They’re bright, open spaces with a bookshop atmosphere. They’re often quite noisy with lots of activities for young children that actively invite participation. Internet access is now mandatory and many of our resources and programs are available online 24/7. What hasn’t changed is the customer service philosophy that libraries embody. Library staff are connected to their communities and know many of their members by name. Programs are often developed in partnership with the community to meet local needs.
BR: Have you seen a big change in the popularity of Australian books over international ones during your career as a librarian?
JR: Australian writers have always been popular with readers but we’re now much more exposed to our home grown talent and have access to the voices of local writers through the print and electronic media, social media and writers’ festivals. Being able to immerse yourself in a story where you can identify with the environment is a great incentive to explore local titles.
JR: I am very eclectic in my reading tastes with a preference for Australian writers. My favourite book is often the last one I’ve read (The Dry by Jane Harper) but my desert island read would have to be either Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I keep going back to both of them.
BR: Were you a big reader growing up? How important is it that children today incorporate reading into their lives and what do you think parents can do to encourage them?
I have always been an avid reader and my parents modelled great reading behavior – I was read aloud to as a child; weekly trips to the Library were a family event; curling up with a book was a natural part of our lives as was discussing what we were reading. The affirmation that reading was a valued and shared activity molded my behavior. These are the methods that we still encourage parents to use. We love seeing families visit the library together and take the time to explore, select and maybe share a story.
My Mum was English and many of the early books she shared with me reflected this heritage – Wind in the Willows and all things Pooh. Once I discovered the school library my attention turned to the Famous Five (I know that my knowledge of how to make invisible ink using lemon juice will someday come in useful!) and to reading my way through the CBC Children’s Book of the Year shortlist.