Kate Torney

Kate Torney is the CEO of the State Library of Victoria. The Library is Australia’s oldest public library, with more 1.8 million visitors each year. In this interview, she discusses the role of libraries in the 21st century and how libraries (and librarians) can help writers to write.

Before moving to the State Library, Kate was the Director of ABC News. Kate had a variety of roles at the ABC over her twenty year career there, including reporter, producer, bureau chief, executive producer and editor.

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Nic Brasch: Kate Torney is the CEO of the State Library of Victoria, where we are fortunate enough to conduct most of The Garret interviews. Seeing as libraries have long played a significant role in the lives of writers and readers and researchers, I thought it'd be great to find out how those in charge of such institutions see this role today and into the future.
Kate, welcome to The Garret.
Kate Torney: Thank you for having me.
Nic: It's a pleasure. What are your earliest memories of libraries?
Kate: So, I grew up in Ballarat, and so my earliest memories was my mother taking me there after school, to the Ballarat library, a beautiful, old library. And that ritual of the card, of having your card, and just that beautiful sense of having it as a weekly ritual.
Then, of course, I have a memory of the State Library because I studied at RMIT, so I used the library quite a bit, more for distraction than anything else. Loved what's now Queen's Hall, which was the Art's Library at the time. I just remember feeling that sense of how extraordinary it was that this place was free and that it was just a space where you could retreat to.
Libraries have always been a big part of my life. When I had kids, again, I sort of reconnected with the public library, but then I had a bit of a break for a while until I came back here.
Nic: And we're sitting here in this magnificent library that has been here for so long, and like so many great Australian libraries, a lot of great works have been researched and written in libraries. Are you aware of or can you give us the titles of some possible great works of literature or non-fiction that you know have been written or researched here?
Kate: The list is long, and I suppose the one that we refer to all the time is Monkey Grip. Helen Garner wrote it under the Dome. One of the things that I love is that sense of walking through the Dome every day and not knowing what great works are being created.
One day – I've been here now for two years, and probably six months into my time here – I'd seen a woman who was there day in, day out, and I always walk past people wondering what they're working on. I'd always wondered what she was doing. And I went to a Wheeler Centre event, and there she was, and it was Abigail Ulman. I thought, ‘Isn't it fantastic that, on a daily basis, there she is. She's a fabulous career and going to have an amazing career, I'm sure, sitting with year 10, 11, and 12 students’. I think I love that about the Library.
The Fellowships at the library have seen some great writers come through: Chloe Hooper, Arnold Zable, Kaz Cooke, Morris Gleitzman. So many people talk about having inspiration here, researching material here. I mean, Clare Wright has written so many of her works here. Elliot Perlman. Shane Maloney. So many Melbourne writers have come through here. We often see Gideon Haigh here. I think that's the lovely thing about libraries, that you can have anonymity. And I think that's incredibly inspirational for those who are sitting with a VCE book as well.
Nic: Absolutely. It is a joy. When I come here and I see so many young people in a library, it's always a pleasure to see. Why does a library attract young people?
Kate: Well, isn't that interesting? I had a visiting journalist from the States a year ago. She rang me, and she said, ‘Look, I want to come. I'm here for two days, and I just want to come and have a look at your library’. She does a lot of writing around culture. I met her on the steps of the Library on Sunday, and she stood there and she said, ‘This is like a train station’. She said, ‘I have never seen anything like this’. And she said, ‘What I'm really surprised about is how many young people are here’.
That doesn't surprise me at all, because every day in that Dome you have people under the age of 30 who can sit in other parts of the Library where the furniture is more modern, the spaces are collaborative, you can talk etcetera, and yet they go to the Dome for the same reasons that people were going to the dome 160 years ago. It's for that sense of inspiration, that sense of purpose.
It doesn't surprise me at all. And I think, what a great thing. Twenty years ago, when there was all of those predictions about the demise of libraries with more information at your fingertips than ever before, why would you need a library?
Nic: Okay, so that is my question because that... That's a great segue. Just about everyone has the internet at home and at work, so why do we need libraries, really?
Kate: Look, I think, in a way, it's the same reason we needed libraries 160 years ago when this place was opened. But I think they're more and more important. And I think, I've come from a media background, so I'm not a librarian, and I've been really shocked by how far down the road of transformation libraries are in comparison to other sectors.
I reckon that's because librarians are really close to their communities. They know the people that they're serving. They're really focused on public service in the best sense of the word or the term. I think that they have just evolved really quietly to cater for changing demands.
So, I think if you think of the people that we're serving now, it's very much academics and authors and researchers and students, but more and more, it's a space where anyone is welcome. And I think that's harder and harder to find in communities these days where no transaction is needed: you don't have a buy a cup of coffee, you're not being moved out of shopping centres because you haven't purchased, and I think that's really important.
I think that's been the change in roles of libraries, but I think librarians have been able to see where there are new needs and they've been able to cater for those new needs.
Nic: Are libraries valued highly enough?
Kate: I think that, if you think about Victoria, and I think Victoria is a very particular success story in the library sector worldwide, actually, because Victorian libraries have never been busier and local communities here are investing in their libraries. I think they're valued, so more than half of Victorians are members of a library, which is phenomenal, really.
I think people love their libraries, but I think what we need to do is turn people into advocates for their libraries, because it's too late to campaign and voice your love of your library when your local council is closing it, as we see in the U.K. now. So I think it's really important that librarians encourage their communities to be vocal lovers of libraries, not have it as quiet place that they value. I think it's important to flip that a little bit.
Nic: A lot of our listeners are emerging writers who may or may not, I mean a lot of them would use libraries, but some of them may not. What are some of the ways in which libraries serve writers and people who want to write?
Kate: Well, you know, the State Library in particular, the relationships that I hear about – with the librarians, some of our historians, those that care for a nurture our collections – the relationships that they have with so many writers who are there to bring those collections to life, who are there to seek a sense of understanding of the worlds that they are creating or basing their works on, those relationships are so important.
As a former journalist, I think I'm just blown away by the collection, and blow away by the treasures in those collections. Often, I think, it's not the item itself that is of most interest to me – although, the items are amazing – it's often the story behind the story. How did that item come to us and what's its backstory?
So for writers, libraries are just this treasure trove, and I found the transition from journalism to the library really difficult because I would go down the rabbit hole. I'd see an item, and I'd be desperate to understand that sense of ‘what is that?’ and think of all the stories that that evokes. I think, we talk about the space, we talk about the inspiration of a room like our Dome Reading Room, but, at the State Library, it's so much more than that because our collection is just so valuable in terms of creativity and stimulation.
Nic: And, of course, with libraries one of the great resources which people forget is obviously the people that work in the library.
Kate: Completely.
Nic: When I started as a writer, researcher many, many years ago, I would come to libraries, but I was sort of scared, intimidated, I didn't want to ask. As I got over that, I learned how much time you save by actually asking a librarian, and how they can lead you down paths you never even thought of and introduce you to collections that you find a treasure trove of stuff that you would not have found without them. People should remember the people in libraries, the librarians are there. They want to help.
Kate: That’s right. And that's the whole purpose. That's their vocation. I have not met a person who works with me here for whom the State Library is not a vocation. And how lucky are we to have that environment? I think so many people go through their lives not feeling that sense.
John Clark, the wonderful satirist…
Nic: The great John Clark.
Kate: Yeah. He told me a story. I worked with him at the ABC, and when I got this job he told me he was terribly jealous, had he known that it was available, he would've applied for it. But he was telling me a story that he had what he described as a hiatus, and he decided to do his family history. Really he wanted to spend a fair bit of time in Ireland, so he came into the State Library – and he was a great user of the library, he knew the collection so much better than most people – he said he came to the Library to really get a bit of advice from our family history team about where he needed to go in Ireland to source the information that he needed, and he really wanted to elongate this trip, he wanted to go for as long as possible, so he was wanting for them to really him that he needed to go across Ireland. He said he walked out two hours later with every piece of document that he needed. And he was terribly frustrated, but he said that was the beauty of librarians. He said, you know, these people who just had this extraordinary capacity and talent and skillset, but a professional generosity as well. They just absolutely prompted him to think differently about the questions that he was asking.
Nic: Since taking on the job, what are some of the most surprising things that you've discovered that the Library does or contains that you had no idea beforehand?
Kate: Well, I feel that my knowledge of the collection prior to this was so limited. It was limited to my interests, and I suppose in my own area of study, too, when I was using it in a concentrated way in my early 20s. And so, the breadth of the collection is phenomenal, and I think, if I can achieve anything in this role, it's to share that with Victorians and with visitors because it belongs to Victorians. You know, it's a collection worth more than $300 million.
I challenge you to introduce me to someone for whom I could not find some part of the collection which would blow their minds.
People think of it as rare books. It is, and it's an amazing collection of rare books for which we're so proud. But it's so much more than that as well. I think we have a great culture of preserving and conserving. That's been so important. I think what we now need to do is add to that a real focus on sharing, and sharing those stories in a way that's compelling. There's no point in making the collection broadly available because it would be intimidating. We need to find ways of making it accessible and telling stories in a way that are compelling.
Nic: And what are some of the ways in which you're planning on doing that, you are doing it or planning on doing it? Because community changes, don't they? People change in terms of the way that they receive knowledge and information. Do you have to change the way you deliver it?
Kate: Yeah, I think you do have to change the way you deliver it. If you think about libraries, in a way, exhibiting is not necessarily what you expect as a core function of a library. What you sort of expect is that you will walk in and you will access the information that you need from library staff. I think what we need to be able to do is take elements of our collection and tell the stories behind the stories.
I think an interesting example is the Ned Kelly and the Redmond Barry story. At the moment, we have an amazing Ned Kelly collection. It's fantastic, and we have a beautiful display. But this story of Ned Kelly and Redmond Barry and the fact that he was sentenced to death, all of it, the Library is so central to that history as well, telling that and not expecting you to actually put those pieces together. I think what we need to understand is that we are in an information age in which people have expectations around the display and storytelling. And we have such great storytellers. We now need to focus a bit more on that.
Nic: In these times, existence isn't a given in terms of funding from governments. Institutions are constantly having to justify their existence. You're doing a lot of redevelopment here at the State Library of Victoria here at the moment. Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about what's being done, but, most importantly, how this redevelopment is reshaping the Library to be relevant in the future so it continues to be funded and loved and utilised.
Kate: Look, I'll start by... When I moved to the Library from the ABC, I think, at the ABC we were very focused on ensuring that we had a diverse audience. One of our great challenges was that our audience was, particularly broadcast, largely over the age of 50. I remember coming to the Library when I was thinking about applying for the job and spending an afternoon here. And A, blown away by the fact that it was packed and that there were people sitting on the floor. There were not enough chairs. Who would've thought? And B, by the diversity of that audience. You look at all the visitors. You looked around, and plenty of young people and plenty of people from a range of different backgrounds. I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing opportunity’.
So with the redevelopment, I think the wonderful thing for us as a cultural institution is popularity is not a problem for us. We're one of the most popular libraries in the world. I think the wonderful thing about the Victorian Government is that they have acknowledged that and they have acknowledged that, actually, this library is probably one of the world's leaders in terms of transformation because it is still attracting people. So, they invested significant funds in redevelopment. That's to take the footprint… the Library covers a whole city block, it's about 23 separate buildings. The front of the Library was the original library, and it's been built on. The money was really to say, ‘All right. Let's look at the space. Let's keep the footprint, but what do we need to do to use that space more effectively?’
We have lots of parts to the Library that are closed to the public, so Ian Potter Queen's Hall is one of the most beautiful rooms in Melbourne. That's been closed to the public for 15 years because the Library hasn't had the money to upgrade it. That becomes a new reading room, that will truly be one of the most glorious rooms in Melbourne once it's refurbished.
What we've really done with the redevelopment, it's $90 million. The government have given us 60 million, which is a big, big investment in any cultural institution, let alone a library, so it's a kind of vote of confidence in the future of the Library. We raised another $30, and I think that's worth just pondering because, I think, in terms of philanthropy and in terms of fundraising, libraries haven't necessarily been in that space to the tune of $30 million.
Nic: Sure. It's not an easy space to be in to be raising money.
Kate: It's not an easy space to be in, and often fundraising has been around collection. So I think that was a very ambitious thing to say, ‘All right. We're going to go out there, and we're going to find $30 million’. And I think that says a lot about the Victorian community, too, a lot about our major donors, who saw the value in ensuring that there are spaces where people can access information and knowledge for free. So the redevelopment will open up 40 per cent more space, and I think it will allow us to zone the Library in a more effective way.
Lots of the early feedback that I received when I came onboard came in the form of complaints from people who really wanted traditional library services and were concerned that they couldn't find a chair, they couldn't find a quiet space, and that they really wanted to focus on research and the collection and yet they felt that they were sitting with people who wanted to watch a movie on their iPad. So I think this redevelopment allows us to have worked with designers to look at all the needs of our library users and, hopefully, come up with some zoning solutions which cater better to the cross-section.
Nic: You came from one much loved institution, the ABC, and ended there as News Director, and you come across to another much loved institution. What's the main differences that you've found between the two jobs and the two institutions?
Kate: Well, I did... And I think it is one of the realities of a leadership job at the ABC. One of the things that I noticed quite quickly is that I was no longer going to dinner parties on a Saturday night and defending Leigh Sales or Kerry O'Brien's interview with the Prime Minister for that particular week. That was a little perk.
Nic: Yes, indeed.
Kate: But…
Nic: Those pesky journalists.
Kate: Those pesky journalists. While there are lots of people who do love the ABC, even the greatest ABC lovers are always more prone to tell you what they hate about the ABC before they tell you what they love about the ABC. I suppose the thing about the Library is that people do have such strong feelings of nostalgia for the Library.
So the stories of the Library were beautiful stories, really, really heartwarming stories. The thing I noticed most is when I would say, ‘Well, when was the last time you were in the Library?’ People would say, ‘Oh, it'd be five, no ten’. And then it was suddenly twenty years ago. I think that's interesting, too. Lots of people felt a sense of nostalgia and loved the Library. I think our challenge is how to ensure that those people have a life journey with the Library, that it doesn't stop once they finish studying or finish their piece of research, that we give people a reason to come back, and, as I was saying before, access that collection.
Nic: You'll have to buy more chairs.
Kate: That's right.
Nic: You have here, at the Library, a number of Creative Fellowships that you offer for writers and historians, researchers, anybody with an artistic bent. Can you just tell us a little bit about them that maybe that people don't know about them? They're wonderful.
Kate: I think... Yeah, they are wonderful, and I think this has just been one of those gifts that I've come to discover around the Library, because bringing the collection to life is so important. The Fellowships are really special, and anyone who is interested, please go to our website and have a look. We really encourage people to come for different durations of time and to work with our teams and to work with the collection to bring the collection to life. You can come up with any concept as long as you are working with the collection.
For most of our Fellowships, we have no expectation, and yet, for most Fellowships, something beautiful is produced whether it's a performance, a piece of art, books, manuscripts, music. It's so inspiring. I think there are just moments in your life when you're creative where you have the wonderful luxury of pausing and focusing on something and being surrounded by people who want to support you in that endeavour.
If you speak to our Fellows, it's a really special time for them. The cohorts, the annual cohorts become quite tight. The Fellowships, I think, are really, really important, not only for the Library, but I think that's also giving back to the creative community and encouraging people to just pause and really have time to focus on things that they are passionate about.
Nic: Just finally, what's the best part of your job?
Kate: Look, it's really funny. I do, every day when I walk in here or most days when I walk in here, before the Library opens, I do deliberately walk through that Dome because it did... I mean, how lucky, really?
Nic: I was just going to say, every visitor that comes to Melbourne, I take them to the Dome, the Reading Room. It is my favourite space in Melbourne, and it cannot fail to inspire someone. I can see exactly why you would do that.
Kate: And I think, too, I'm very lucky because I am usually there alone. It's perfectly still, the books are perfectly stacked, and, just for that split second, you kind of think, ‘Okay. Imagine…’ And you will never know. The beauty is that you will never know of all of the productivity and creativity that will go on there that day. But imagine over 161 years, everything that has been achieved whether it's just imagining or daydreaming. It's just... I kind of think, ‘Gee. We're so lucky. So lucky to walk into a place like this every day’. If ever I'm having a bad moment, I'll find ten minutes to just walk into that dome and walk through and think, ‘Wow. How great is this?’
Nic: Fantastic.
Kate: Yeah.
Nic: Well, continue the great work and continue delivering such wonderful resources and services and events and what have you to the public of Victoria and Australia. Thank you very much for giving us some of the insight into libraries and the State Library.
Kate: No, thanks for having us.
Nic: Yes, Kate. Cheers.