A woman in a library smiles at the camera.

Lela says that working in the ACT Public Library System is just as wonderful as she imagined.

24 April 2024

Lela still remembers the smell of her local public library from her childhood—and how much she loved it.

Growing up in Newcastle, she can recall visiting it with her family as a young girl, exploring the stories it housed, and her desire to work there. And while she didn’t study Information Sciences at university and isn’t a librarian, Lela has now been working in the ACT Public Library System for five and half years—and it’s just as wonderful as she imagined.

“The thing that connects me to my work is I love stories and that’s been something that sort of stuck when I was at high school and studied through university—that idea of being challenged by new and different ideas through stories,” she says.

“When I was in high school, I actually dreamed of owning my own video store, so I think there’s a link there with the storytelling…but I really understood the core principles of what public libraries are about.”

Starting her career managing the Belconnen library branch, she’s now working as the Director of the Libraries ACT Service Delivery Team. However, Lela admits that prior to starting her role, she didn’t know how much it takes to deliver a public library service—including the challenges in supporting the community, maintaining a sense of welcome, and de-escalating any friction that may arise between people using the library setting.

“As a service we really do our best to keep up with the evolving needs of the community but to ensure that we have a safe and meaningful evolution of our service, we have to consider all the facets of change,” explains Lela.

“That includes the safety of any changes that we’re making, the impact of any change that we’re making on the people who currently enjoy the service…there are certain services that historically have been a point of escalation for people. Public computers are a really good case in point.”

A woman wheels a cart of books in a library.

“It’s not what we’re here for as a team.”

Lela is no stranger to experiencing the frustration of the community. Wanting to maintain libraries as safe and welcoming places for people to visit, she says it’s unsettling seeing negative behaviours spill into the library space—including verbal abuse and physical violence.

“The primary source of negative behaviours would be that persistent and insidious degrading commentary that we sometimes get from areas in the community, like comments around not being able to do your job properly,” she says.

“There is a lot of expectation that the public library setting is a safe environment and as much as we do to make sure that it’s a welcoming and pleasant space—a community lounge room as it were—it is still a place that is accessible to everyone…we’ve seen people who have just come in to create trouble and things have escalated. We’ve had some physical violence, but not a lot…It’s not what we’re here for as a team and the rest of the community using the space aren’t expecting it either.”

Wishing that the public knew the amount of energy that the teams at Libraries ACT use to support the community, for Lela every aspect of her job is rewarding—but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting, physically and psychologically.

“There are conversations you have through the day where you just know in your heart of hearts that for some people, that might be the only conversation they have for the day. And sometimes those conversations aren't as easy - sometimes the conversations are ‘My aunt just died’ or ‘I've just lost my dog’ or ‘I'm feeling really lonely’ and sometimes people really expose that vulnerability because they feel safe,” she says.

With the Directorate’s Safety Team currently doing a deep dive into occupational violence to explore the challenges that they face, Lela believes that the staff working at Libraries ACT will soon have more clear answers on what they can do to better equip themselves, so they’re not hit so hard.

Because for Lela, the library is still a magical place—and she intends to do what she can to keep it that way for everyone.

A woman in a library types on a computer.

“The team that works in our public library service really loves delivering services to the community. And I can't emphasise that enough, it's the engagement and the value that they take away from their work, as exhausted as they may be at the end of every working day. They really feel like they've given something meaningful to the Canberra community,” she says.

“It’s a place of belonging, where we don't have a lot of those left in the community if you look. People have to seek out those places these days…I think we've become a little blinkered and the pandemic didn't help that. Having a space where people can go that's free to find that sense of belonging and connection—and not just with the library staff but with the rest of the community—it’s a pretty special thing.”

Find out more about how you can help make Canberra's workplaces free from aggression and violence.

ACT Government employees featured in these articles have volunteered their stories to raise awareness around occupational violence and the impact this has on them and the Canberra workforce.

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