ROSEMARY SORENSEN meets LEA GILES- PETERS STATE LIBRARIAN
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’.’’