Libraries and Lifelong Learning: In Conversation with Kate Torney and Vanessa Gillam

Kate Torney, CEO of the State Library of Victoria, sat down with Vanessa Gillam, our Student Roving Reporter at this year's EduTECHThe State Library of Victoria is Australia’s oldest and busiest public library, with nearly 1.8 million visitors each year and 3.5 million visitors to its website.  

Before joining the State Library, Kate was the Director of News at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, leading the broadcaster through a critical period of change in the global media sector, including the rapid expansion of online and mobile news services.

In her conversation with Vanessa, Kate Torney discusses the importance of storytelling and why libraries are still a hub of learning and curiosity for people of all ages.

Watch the full interview here.

CEO is a very important role - what exactly does your role entail?

My children ask me that all the time - what is a CEO? I lead a team of around 300 people at the State Library of Victoria, and our roles range from the preservation of the state’s stories and history, to the services that we deliver as a library on a daily basis, both on site and online. 

Kate Torney Quote 3 

How does your role directly influence education?

If you walk through the State Library anytime of the day, you’ll see that it is a space for students. Particularly around exam time, there are people sitting on the floor, using our collections and using our wi-fi. It’s an inspirational place.


It’s a truly beautiful building and the dome in particular just has a fantastic feel about it, so I find it really interesting that in the age of Google, our library is busier than it’s ever been before. 1.8 million people visit us every year and it’s busier than most libraries around the world.


I think it's interesting that individuals and students in particular still want a sense of space and place in terms of their education.


Speaking about the age of Google, how does your library keep up with technologies ever advancing?

For an institution like the State Library, it offers opportunities to deliver our content to those people who have never otherwise had access to our collection or used our programs. So for us, it’s a massive opportunity to reach more people and to share the collection with more individuals. 

When did you know this was exactly what you wanted to do?

This time last year, I would have been shocked if you told me that I would be sitting here as CEO of a library. But when this opportunity came to me, I went and spent some time in the State Library. I'm from Melbourne, and I know the building well - it's an iconic Australian building. I spent a few hours in the library just watching people and I was so impressed with the diversity of the people in those rooms; using the library’s collection, looking through the incredible items the library has, from manuscripts, to books, to pictures, to maps.

I just thought it was a fantastic opportunity to do a similar thing to what I did at the ABC – and that is to take a very traditional organisation, much loved and valued by the community, and ensure that we make the most out of the digital opportunities in front of us.

In your previous role as news director of the ABC, you brought it to be ranked third in the digital marketplace. What skills do you think helped you to reach that ranking?

As a leader, the greatest skill I can use is to surround myself with really smart people to help shape a vision that we can work towards. At the ABC, we recognised that we were very good at delivering scheduled news on radio and television, but we needed to develop a capacity to deliver news as it happened.

As the needs of the broader audience were changing, we realized that we needed to change the culture within our news organisation. We thought about how to retain the skills that deliver programs like the 7:30 Report, Australian Story and Four Corners, while also being agile and responsive.

I think News24 was a really big component of that. We had an online service but the focus still remained on our broadcast capacity. News24 was a cultural shift and meant everyone, no matter where they were working, had to think about how to deliver news as it happened, and to understand our audiences' need for in-depth coverage as well. Through this, we learnt how to cater to a range of different needs.

What was the catalyst for the development and launch of ABC News24?

I imagine the organisation was already thinking about how and when to make that shift. I was EP of Insiders in 2005 and it was the second Bali bombing – a tragic event. We were given responsibility to cover that story and it took us 4 or 5 hours to mount rolling coverage and I remember the audience was not particularly happy about that.

That was when I decided that as an organisation we really needed to think about how to get better at delivering to the needs of the public. At that point in time, the public's needs had shifted away from waiting for us to deliver the news at 7 o’clock that night in a news bulletin or on the hour on radio, towards wanting something more immediate.

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How do you think your skills from that previous role have assisted you in your current capacity as CEO of State Library?

I’m a trained journalist and I got into journalism because I love storytelling. I’m naturally curious and stories help me understand complexity. It just so happened that through my journalism I clearly demonstrated some leadership skills. I didn’t ever aspire to sit in particular leadership roles but I found those roles quite comfortable.


In this digital age, it’s all about understanding how to work with the community and the audience to not only deliver those stories, but to get engagement back as well.

It’s great to hear those skills transfer. I think younger people are facing that challenge of having so many different jobs in our lifetime, so it’s good to hear that one skillset has helped you in the next.

I think it's very exciting. When I was first approached about the library job, my initial reaction was that I’m not a librarian and wondering what I could offer. But I think it’s important to be open minded and to recognise that the skillsets that you have are not unique to the profession you're in at the time, so do be courageous.

I’ve been so heartened that the library sector have been welcoming as I've worked through the particular complexities of the sector, and it’s been invigorating to change careers at this point in time.

I want to take you back to your university days. What university experiences stand out to you as assisting you in your current or previous role?

I did a Media Studies course at RMIT which was fantastic, but I was very impatient. I couldn’t wait to get out and work. So I worked through university, doing overnight producing at the Today Show which I loved.

University was important in teaching me theoretical skills, and working out what I wanted to do. Not only was it a fantastic tertiary institution but it was also a great place for me to develop contacts and lifelong friends that still exist today.

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Where do you see the future of education going and what role do you think technology will play in that in 5 to 10 years?

I do think technology is so important. However, I have an 18 year old daughter and I was interested to see that last year, while doing her HSC in Sydney, she spent her weekends at the State Library of New South Wales. Again, I think it comes back to that sense of space.

So while I do think technology is important, I also think that there’s a need and a desire to ensure connectivity. The more connected we are in the digital space, sometimes the less connected we are to each other.

I think education will be boosted by technology, but I also think that spaces and programs delivered by places like the State Library of Victoria will be really important.

Lifelong learning is such an important component for us to encourage young people to pursue, because formal education is one thing but an informal, lifelong love of learning - having a sense of curiosity and never feeling that you have all the answers - is so important for everyone.

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As a female role model as well, what challenges do you think women are facing in the workplace today, and do you have any solutions to overcome them?

I think sometimes women need to step up. When I think about my experience at the ABC, there are so many women who are everyday leaders. They don’t have a title, they’re not managers, but in a newsroom they are the influencers. They are the people that others seek out for advice and feedback.

I’ve tried to encourage those women to step up into leadership roles and there’s been a reluctance which is understandable, some for personal reasons. But for others, it’s a sense of confidence. When you talk about leadership capacity, there’s often a sense that it has to be management but it doesn’t - I think leadership is innate.

I’d love to encourage more women to step out of everyday leadership roles where there are no formal accountabilities, but where on a daily basis they are accountable for fabulous leadership, it should be recognised and celebrated.

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What are you addressing at EduTECH?

I’m speaking about my observations after 6 months in the library sector, and the need for the library sector to raise its voice. When I was in the media we talked about disruption and the need to change our business models. But in the library sector, instead of talking about it, they’ve got on with it and they’ve really transformed their sector in a way that’s remarkable. We should all be looking to libraries as a model to learn from in terms of digital disruption and shifting to cater for the needs of their particular communities.

Watch Kate Torney and Vanessa Gillam's full interview


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