MitoQ Hero: Rachel Esson, Aotearoa's new National Librarian Te Pouhuaki

While researching this piece for the MitoQ Heroes occasional column, we were delighted to discover that our new National Librarian Te Pouhuaki, Rachel Esson, has a close association with the University of Otago School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which is where the key MitoQ ingredient was invented. She describes her time both in the medical library there, and part of the teaching team, as a “real privilege”, and credits the experience with helping her to develop knowledge and understanding of evidence-based practice which is something she uses constantly in her work today.

Her time with the University of Otago is just one piece in a varied career path that started in the Alexander Turnbull Library as a library assistant in the photographic archive, and later as Associate Chief Librarian Research Collections there. Most recently Rachel held the position of Director of Content Services at the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa. In announcing her as the new Pouhuaki – a strategic leadership position charged with setting the direction for the National Library – Internal Affairs Deputy Chief Executive Information and Knowledge Services Peter Murray said the appointment panel had been looking for a leader who would cover collaboration, professional leadership, Te Ao Māori, strategy and delivery. “Rachel stood out due to her passion for libraries after a long career in various library areas,” he said.

We asked Rachel to take time out of a busy schedule in her new role (which only began in mid-December) to answer some questions about the path her professional life has taken, some of the early priorities she’s identified in her position as National Librarian Te Pouhuaki, and what she does in her personal life to maintain her resilience for such a demanding day job, a question that elicited some unexpected answers …

The career that has led to your new position as National Librarian Te Pouhuaki is a long and varied one. Was your wish to be a librarian borne out of an early love of reading, or did you come to be a librarian after starting off in another field?

I have always been an avid reader and loved being set a book to read as home work at school, it never felt like work to read a book. When I left school, I started training as a physiotherapist, however I dropped out and after studying English and economics at University thought I’d be an economist – that didn’t work out either. It wasn’t until I got a job, through a flatmate, at the Alexander Turnbull Library as a library assistant in the photographic archive that I found my place. I loved the work, it suited my curiosity and that led me to complete a library qualification.

You spent time as the medical librarian at the University of Otago School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which is where the MitoQ ingredient was invented. How did your work there differ from your roles in other library organisations?

Provision of timely and accurate information is always important when you work as a librarian however it is particularly important when the information you are providing has an impact on patient care and outcomes. Knowing that you have helped provide information that has led to a good clinical decision for a patient is very rewarding. My time at the medical library also was where I developed knowledge and understanding of evidence-based practice which is something I use constantly in my work. I was part of the teaching team for two of the courses for the 4th year medical students and that experience working with clinicians to help train the next generation of doctors was a real privilege.

The role of National Librarian comes with many responsibilities and pressures, as no doubt did your previous position as Director for Content Services at the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa. How do you maintain the resilience and energy for these high-powered roles?

I walk the dog at 6am every morning with my sister and that really energises me. I also have a wide range of interests, including a book group (of course), an art buying group and playing tennis. Over the last couple of years, I’ve also developed an interest in gin made in Aotearoa. My current favourite gin is Little Biddy made on the West Coast in Reefton.

The National Library has as one of its goals creating a nation of readers in Aotearoa, and is spearheading the initiative to appoint a National Reading Ambassador. Tell us why this aim is of personal importance to you.

I have seen the difference that reading for pleasure makes in people’s lives. I’ve seen it with my own children and OECD research has shown that reading for enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. Being able to immerse yourself in an alternative world teaches you so much about other people and their lives, as well as opening up other worlds. Reading is a gateway to fully participating in society.

The most recent OECD Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) results show a marked decline in reading for pleasure, with nearly half of New Zealand 15-year-olds never reading for enjoyment. It’s important to me that the National Library helps support educators, families, and whānau to build and sustain reading cultures in our communities.

Another important priority in the reading area is our contribution to the revitalisation of te reo Māori by improving access to reading and learning resources. We are working to digitise books that are written in te reo Māori.

Would you like to share any other strategic aims or initiatives that you’ve pinpointed as a priority in your early days in the role?

The New Zealand Libraries partnership programme is a hugely exciting initiative that we are delivering in partnership with public libraries around the motu. We received significant COVID-19 recovery funding from the government to support libraries and their communities. We have funded over 150 library staff to work in libraries across the country in areas like digital inclusion and community engagement.

The funding recognises the work that librarians and libraries do to support job-seekers, learners and others during times of economic hardship, and will primarily utilise and build skills and experience of librarians currently employed in the local government sector.

It also includes funding for specialist library services to help schools and young people with the greatest need during the recovery, and the package also includes a 20 percent increase to the Public Lending Right fund – the money paid to New Zealand authors that have books available through New Zealand libraries.

As the funding is for a limited time, library stakeholders have told us that they’d like to work with us to develop a library sector plan to ensure the programme establishes opportunities for the sector to build and strengthen its role in community recovery and longer term social and economic wellbeing.

You are actively involved with the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA), as Immediate Past President, so nurturing the skills and careers of other librarians is obviously important to you. What advice would you have for someone keen to venture into librarianship?

I remember a friend wanting to retrain after having children – she talked to all her friends and discovered that the people who loved their jobs the most were the librarians she knew, so she retrained as a librarian and has never regretted it.

It is a wonderful profession with a huge variety of roles and the profession keeps evolving in new and exciting ways. We are seeing an increasing need for people with digital skills to enter the profession, areas like digital preservation and artificial intelligence are where there are huge opportunities. We are also wanting to encourage a more diverse workforce, to reflect the diversity of the people using our libraries.

MitoQ Heroes is an occasional column, initiated by sponsors of the Best First Book Awards at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards MitoQ, that showcases everyday heroes in the books and literature ecosystem doing extraordinary things in their professional and personal lives. You can read about our other MitoQ Heroes here, and learn more about Rachel and her National Library role here.