Saturday, 5 October 2019

Reflecting on Paul Reynolds (1949 - 2010)

A short speech given at the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga on 4 October 2019, when Gareth Seymour was awarded the Paul Reynolds ‘No Numpties’ Award. The award, administered by LIANZA, was set up following Paul’s death in 2010; it has been awarded 5 times, and expires in 2020. The 2019 recipient is Gareth Seymour, of Ngā Taonga.

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Paul's blog, People Points, is still alive on the internet. His quizzical face still looks out at you from the top right hand corner of the Blogger template.

In his final blog post, published on 19 May 2010, Paul updated his readers on a lecture series he'd just delivered around the country for the New Zealand Computer Society. He wrote:

The presentation opened with a speculative challenge as to whether we - that's anyone involved in boot-strapping the next phase of the Internet as an open digital public space - are in touch with the historical parallels of the 18th Century Enlightenment and of how the subsequent gold seams of science and technology came about in part, in addition to the long march to democracy, by embedding public education and literacy as a key public good? 

Turning to current challenges, my thesis is that the current definition/policy frameworks around open data - especially around government-owned or managed data sets - needs to radically expand to include all the cultural/heritage data assets contained in the myriad of cultural institutions - libraries - galleries - archives - museums, which in turn are one of the great products of, and containers for, the inheritance of the 18th century Enlightenment. 

And that, not only were these rich cornucopias of assets and opportunities key ingredients to the development of a 19th and 20th century public literacy, in turn they are key contributors to the development of 21st century digital public space, and its mystic twin - public digital literacy. 

Over the previous 18 days of May on his blog - while travelling to present in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland, mind you – he had …

  • recapped an appearance on Jim Mora's National Radio programme 
  • touted the call for papers for the National Digital Forum conference scheduled for November 
  • written about Tuhoe's settlement under negotiation with the Crown at that time, 
  • shared a video on the concept of Web 3.0 
  • referenced Derrida 
  • shared a campaign to save Middlesex University Philosophy School (Middlesex was his alma mater) 
  • shared a TED talk 
  • noted that France had adopted a law change enabling the return of toi moko
  • and posted a video of a 2 and a half year-old handling an iPad for the first time. 

I hope that single extract and that quick list - all from fewer than 20 days in 2010 - will give you, if you didn't have the good fortune of knowing Paul, something of an insight into the breadth of his interests, his erudite and capacious mind, his twinkling curiosity, the role he took as a communicator and connector, and his dedication to causes he felt that would uplift and connect people, allow them to learn the lessons of our histories and make a richer future together.

Paul died on 24 May 2010. Today would have been his 70th birthday.

Preparing for this presentation, I read back over the tributes people posted when news of Paul's shockingly sudden death reached us all - fittingly, largely through the internet channels he himself used. He was remembered for his humour, his emphasis on community access and contributions to knowledge, his work with libraries and the wider GLAMs sector, his passion for collaborative action, for being the best kind of friend and colleague: funny, smart, supportive and challenging.

And a word that got used a lot was "visionary". The older I get the more I realise what a rare and special characteristic this is, and how hard it is to maintain over a lifetime. Experience is a wonderful thing but it has a tendency to narrow you down a bit. Paul was always, always expansive, always asking you to think bigger, be bolder.  

That's why I find it so fitting that the No Numpties award was established after Paul's death, donations from National Library, Internet New Zealand, and friends of Paul’s, namely Penny Carnaby, John Truesdale and Sue Sutherland. Sue contacted me in advance of this afternoon - she's very sorry she couldn't make it - and the way she spoke of Paul in her message reminded me what an example that group of friends and colleagues set for me and my group of friends and colleagues: of people excitedly united in a vision of creating benefits for all of Aotearoa by joining the wealth of our collections and taonga, our knowledge and mātauranga, with the communities they all ultimately stem from.

Gareth - congratulations on your award. Very best of luck for your travel to Canada, and your work and connection with First Nations projects there. Paul would have been thrilled to see your nurturing of mātauranga and kaitiakitanga supported through this initiative.

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Giving this speech yesterday caused me a lot of reflection. I felt somewhat hypocritical to start with. Paul (along with that whole coterie - him, Penny, Sue, John, the dreamers and doers of a connected and collaborative GLAM sector) was very influential on my early career, those years when I was working at National Library under their leadership. I'd seen Paul around the Library regularly, and had the odd beer with him in Auckland, and was briefly on the National Digital Forum board with him. But I feel like I didn't know know him, not like (I whisper inside my head) not like the grown-ups did. Not like the people who could talk about Paul as a dear friend, who knew him in the round rather than in the faceted way that I did.

And yet. What it also made me reflect on was a thing I've mulled over a lot in the past 5 or 6 years. The National Library environment at the time I was there (2006 to 2010) felt like a golden age: all the best qualities of libraries (the value of connecting people with information and knowledge that benefits their lives in multitudinous ways; the creation, care, and accessibility of collections that reflect Aotearoa New Zealand) being souped up by the digital revolution; the relaxing and expanding effects of Web 2.0, giving collecting institutions a new role in people's lives; the atmosphere of innovation and experimentation driven by Penny Carnaby, who as National Librarian and Chief Executive brought all her knowledge and love of the library sector to the role, and drove the organisation into the future (with much energy, love, and bullheadedness).

It was also a time of real focus on collaboration: EPIC, the Aotearoa People's Network Kaharoa, Digital New Zealand, the National Digital Forum. Today tt feels like our cultural institutions (my own included) are so busy keeping our own hamster wheels turning, battling resourcing that feels like it's being chipped away (or just is being chipped away) as costs and expectations rise, that we've lost our collaborative muscle tone.

But, reflecting more: it's just time and priorities, isn't it? And leaders and staff who want to work together, are willing to accept the lag that accompanies collaboration because they see the wider benefits it creates. And people like Paul, who challenge us to think bigger than we currently are. If we can't wait for another catalyst to come along, perhaps we just have to shoulder his mantle ourselves.

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