The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

HOW did a wo­man who left school at 15 get to be a state li­brar­ian? Lea Giles- Peters pauses, de­bates with her­self a mo­ment about whether she wants to talk about ‘‘ per­sonal stuff’’, then be­gins to tell her story. Giles- Peters, the first wo­man to be ap­pointed Queens­land state li­brar­ian when she took up the po­si­tion in 2001, has over­seen the com­plete re­de­vel­op­ment of the li­brary’s cen­tral build­ing on Bris­bane’s South Bank. Apace with that, she has been im­ple­ment­ing her agenda for change in the li­brary’s role.

The changes, she says, are ‘‘ not quite revo­lu­tion­ary’’, but it is a revo­lu­tion of sorts, the GilesPeters pro­gram for li­brary ser­vices, and that is not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing she stud­ied with and mar­ried the head of the school of revo­lu­tion­ary stud­ies at La Trobe Univer­sity.

Giles- Peters’s story be­gins in a work­ing- class sub­urb of Melbourne. ‘‘ My dad left school at 13, and while my mother had ma­tric­u­lated I think there was some dis­ap­point­ment that she hadn’t done any­thing with her intelligence,’’ GilesPeters says. ‘‘ And then I felt some frus­tra­tion, I think, that my mum hadn’t pushed me to go on with school, too.’’

Within a cou­ple of years of leav­ing school, Giles- Peters was mar­ried and preg­nant. Yet, right from the start, she wasn’t sat­is­fied.

‘‘ The next year I started back do­ing my in­ter­me­di­ate at high school, which is why I am so in­ter­ested by the idea of pre­sent­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to peo­ple for a sec­ond and third chance at ed­u­ca­tion,’’ she re­calls.

Giles- Peters had mar­ried a teacher who was posted to a rural com­mu­nity. When her sec­ond child, born pre­ma­turely, died, the hospi­tal left her with­out as­sis­tance in the mid­dle of a ward of moth­ers and ba­bies, while her hus­band ‘‘ never said a word, not even, ‘ How do you feel?’ ’’ Alone in the house, with­out a li­cence to drive, she would hitch a ride with a lo­cal farmer into War­ri­gal, the near­est town, to take out books from the pub­lic lend­ing li­brary.

She de­cided to do the HSC, at­tend­ing the same school at which her hus­band was teach­ing. This was the era of blos­som­ing fem­i­nism, a pe­riod, Giles- Peters says, that young women such as her two daugh­ters ( one a fash­ion de­signer in Lon­don, the other an aid worker in In­dia) can’t quite un­der­stand. What do you mean you didn’t have fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence?

It wasn’t only that women of­ten didn’t have ac­cess to fam­ily bank ac­counts and also were con­sid­ered un­likely and in­com­pe­tent car driv­ers, let alone pi­lots, en­gi­neers or man­agers. It was, for Giles- Peters, the fact she had to ‘‘ wait on men, scut­tle around mak­ing beds and do­ing house­work be­fore he got home, have the tea on the ta­ble’’.

The dis­cov­ery of her hus­band’s af­fair with a fel­low teacher was the straw that broke the camel’s back, al­though it came at the end of a tur­bu­lent pe­riod when, hav­ing ma­tric­u­lated and got into the arts fac­ulty at the Univer­sity of Melbourne, Giles- Peters’s con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion had be­come a se­ri­ous source of con­flict be­tween them. She laughs now at the ironic turn of events that took her to La Trobe Univer­sity and into the revo­lu­tion­ary stud­ies course, where she met Andrew, the head of the de­part­ment.

Giles- Peters de­scribes him as a gen­tle man, a philoso­pher. He needed to be. Af­ter years of mov­ing from one job to an­other, mostly within the li­brary sec­tor but with in­creas­ingly wide ex­pe­ri­ence gained from projects aimed at im­prov­ing ac­cess for com­mu­ni­ties dis­ad­van­taged by dis­tance or ed­u­ca­tion, Giles- Peters de­cided it was time to move out of the com­fort­able and suc­cess­ful life they had in Melbourne.

When asked how she main­tained her rad­i­cal edge when so much of her work has re­quired her to work with gov­ern­ment, Giles- Peters tells the story of how she was ap­pointed to the Dar­win­based post of di­rec­tor of li­brary and in­for­ma­tion ser­vices for the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. She pref­aces it by say­ing, cryp­ti­cally, ‘‘ You can be quite rad­i­cal with­out ap­pear­ing rad­i­cal.’’

She goes on to de­scribe her phone con­ver­sa­tion with the man who would even­tu­ally ap­point her. She ques­tioned why the ad­ver­tised job was for only two years. He replied that it was so they could get rid of the per­son if they turned out to be a dope. Stand­ing her ground, Giles- Peters said, ‘‘ I hope you wouldn’t ap­point a dope in the first place’’, and asked for a three- year term: ‘‘ One to un­der­stand, one to do and one to live with what I’ve done.’’

She stayed in Dar­win for six years and cred­its sev­eral mem­bers of the team there as be­ing among the ‘‘ re­ally in­ter­est­ing peo­ple who have shared and en­abled me to do things dif­fer­ently’’.

A large part of Giles- Peters’s strength comes from her com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing li­brary ser­vices for the most dis­ad­van­taged sec­tor of the com­mu­nity, re­mote in­dige­nous set­tle­ments. There is an in­dige­nous knowl­edge cen­tre, Kuril Dh­a­gun, at the State Li­brary of Queens­land, but cen­tres are also be­ing set up across the state, in places such as Hope Vale in the far north.

Giles- Peters has been state li­brar­ian for six years and is con­tracted for an­other four. She has more than enough to keep her on her toes, with a staff of about 300 in a li­brary that is de­vel­op­ing in­no­va­tive ap­proaches to in­dige­nous col­lec­tions, to chil­dren’s pro­grams, to her­itage and ‘‘ me­mory’’ col­lec­tions, as well as to the chal­lenges of in­for­ma­tion stor­age in a dig­i­tal age.

One of her tasks is to bro­ker the del­i­cate new re­la­tion­ships be­tween state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment brought about by the coun­cil amal­ga­ma­tions in a state where the lo­cal li­brary is part of a vast net­work. She is used to mov­ing be­tween the two tiers of gov­ern­ment and re­it­er­at­ing the mantra that li­braries mat­ter, but says that is only twothirds of the pic­ture.

‘‘ The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has never seen pub­lic li­braries as mat­ter­ing, and it is re­ally im­por­tant that changes now,’’ Giles- Peters says. ‘‘ In the old days, when you had li­braries re­stricted by the walls in which they were housed, it was less im­por­tant, but now, when any­one, any­where, can see what we do and get ac­cess to it, there is a real need for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to con­trib­ute to pub­lic li­braries and make it three­tier gov­ern­ment sup­port.

‘‘ If you have a healthy, en­gaged lo­cal com­mu­nity, that has a huge im­pact at both state and com­mon­wealth level. The li­brary is one of the few places that peo­ple from all walks of life can come and feel ‘ this is a place for me’.’’

Pic­ture: Lyn­don Mechielsen

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