Discovering new pathways to information: How I discovered library size and location increasingly matter less

The Helen Zwartz Scholarship, in memory of librarian Helen Zwartz, is offered each year to a librarian serving a smaller community in New Zealand. It enables that librarian to undertake professional development via an internship at the National Library of New Zealand.

Working as a librarian at Te Anau public library, I met the criteria and saw this as an opportunity too good to miss.

Helen Zwartz Scholarship

Librarian’s experience to benefit community — Southland Express newspaper article

Soaking up scholarship experience — Advocate South newspaper article

Stirling Point Signpost Bluff
Stirling Point Signpost Bluff. Photo: from Wikimedia Commons

Te Anau library

Te Anau is a town of approximately 2500, located in Southland and bordering the mighty Fiordand National Park, The library is one of seven small community libraries and a mobile library service, comprising the Southland District Library service. The closest city to Te Anau is Invercargill - a two-hour drive away.

Working in this setting, my colleague and I have become accustomed to requests for a wide variety of information at the library, but have sometimes struggled to meet everyone's needs.

Common requests here in Te Anau include:

  • books and material documenting the area's history
  • genealogy records, and
  • guidance regarding the recording and preservation of personal histories.

Like most small public libraries, our collection is limited, and we do not have access to subject specialists. However, we have always endeavored to ensure that our library users are not disadvantaged by their location.

Te Anau

Southland District Libraries

My goals for the internship

Embarking on the internship, my goal was to acquire knowledge and skills that would enable me to better identify and access relevant information from our base in a remote location. I was particularly eager to develop my knowledge of the scope of the National Library collection and online National Library services.

The internship programme organized for me included numerous meetings with library specialists across multiple departments, work-shadowing and opportunities to learn how to make use of online resources. I was able to ask questions to better understand the vision for the future of National Library services, and identify opportunities to access information via the National Library website.

My experience of the National Library website before the internship

Prior to this internship, I had utilized the National Library website infrequently and with varied success. I had never explored the full content of some of the services offered nor attempted to retrieve many digital resources.

The National Library felt both physically and mentally remote from my day-to day work as a librarian in Te Anau, and consequently many of my searches did not include the National Library at all!

Understanding of the National Library website after the internship

Whilst completing the internship I was particularly struck by the enormous variety and volume of the online collection. I discovered many valuable materials that would enable me in my small public library, to meet previously difficult to meet information requests.

I wonder whether other public librarians are aware of the full extent of the collection accessible online?

National Library Website
National Library website collections page. Photo: National Library of New Zealand

My favourite collections and online services from the National Library

Some of my favourite collections and services are listed below.

Papers Past — digitised New Zealand newspapers, magazines and journals, letters and diaries, and Parliamentary Papers.

Digital NZ — this site includes 'Make it Digital' (an invaluable set of guidelines for those embarking on their own digitisation project.

Digital images — information to help preserve and organize digital image files

Index New Zealand — abstracts of articles from a huge range of New Zealand periodicals and information about how to get them.

A - Z Collections — a list of collections that you can search.

Services to Schools — content to support school libraries and supplement classroom resources.

Music Hire Service — get performance material or list your own collection.

Ask a Librarian — I also discovered an invaluable service offered by the National Library on their website called ‘Ask a Librarian'.

By selecting this service, library users are able to seek specialist support and advice regarding their research needs. Items are regularly scanned and emailed to remote library users at minimal cost.

I would urge all public librarians to explore and bookmark these services. Keep them in mind when you are asked for resources beyond the scope of your library collection.

You can access National Library collections and specialist staff support wherever you are

When meeting with the various staff who respond to these online research enquiries, it was clear to me that they all shared a genuine desire for the collections they manage to be utilized throughout the country. I was inspired by their determination to meet the needs of the requestor and support the development of research skills nationwide

You clearly no longer need to live in, or travel to Wellington to access many of the library collections or specialist staff support.

By Michal Klajban [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

The way forward to new information pathways

The opportunity to learn about National Library Services has opened my eyes to new information pathways. Whilst many librarians, like me, can access only small physical collections in their locality, institutions such as the National Library are making a significant difference to the variety and volume of information librarians can share.

With a variety of user-friendly online services and an easy to navigate catalogue, I now see the National Library is an essential resource for every public librarian — connecting people to a wealth of information.

A call for action

Below are some ideas that could help dvelop a closer relationship between public libraries and the National Library of New Zealand:

Helen Zwartz alumni

I feel it would be really beneficial to connect with previous and future recipients of this scholarship, to share ideas and find out how the experience has impacted upon them professionally. As a group, we may also be ideally positioned to help promote National Library services within the public library sector.

Practical ‘toolbox’

In order for small communities such as mine to really benefit from the wide range of services provided by the National Library, public librarians must first be well informed and confident about using them.

I suggest that it would help public librarians if a practical 'toolbox’ was developed to use within small libraries. It could include:

  • guidance about the use of the National Library catalogue
  • information about the variety of digital and print resources available via the National Library
  • information about the ongoing digitisation process at the National Library, and
  • the ‘ask a librarian’ option available on the website.

Additional information could include explanations and guidance for counter enquiries relating to:

  • International Standard Numbers
  • legal deposits
  • Services for Schools
  • Print Disability Services, and
  • the preservation of regional history via print and oral recordings.
Toolbox with some tools lying next to it
Photo: Pixabay

Library Managers encourage use of National Library resources

Not every librarian will be as fortunate as I was to spend time at the National Library. Therefore library managers will need to actively encourage their staff to explore and become familiar with National Library resources.

Regional library training programmes

By incorporating learning about National Library services in regional library training programmes, hopefully more librarians will make use of them.

The more public librarians utilize services such as these, and connect communities to the wealth of knowledge maintained by the National Library, the more equitable access to information can become.

Encourage feedback

Encourage public librarians to provide feedback to the National Library on services they use. This can help to develop connections between the professionals involved.

Reciprocal staff exchanges

National Library staff might benefit from opportunities to experience the challenges presented in public libraries, particularly in small and remote branches. This could be via short reciprocal staff exchanges or more economically, through the establishment of online discussion groups or library partnerships.

Thank you and our libraries are special places

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given to learn from staff at the National Library and would particularly like to thank the family of Helen Zwartz, and all of the staff at the library who shared their time, knowledge and skills with me.

Small, community libraries are special places, each with their own unique story to tell; by connecting remotely to big information repositories, librarians and library users can have the best of both worlds.

By Jo Mann

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