Trapped in the Glass Cage

Imagine this scenario: you don’t normally have a whole lot to do at your job. It’s a complex job, sure, but day-to-day you’re spending most of your time monitoring a computer and typing in data. But one day, something goes wrong. The computer fails. You are suddenly asked to perform basic job functions that the computer normally takes care of for you, and you don’t really remember well how to do them. In the mean time, the computer is screaming at you about an error, and asking for additional inputs. How well do you function?

The Glass Cage

In Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage, this scenario is the frightening result of malfunctions with airplanes, and in the cases he describes, result in crashes and massive loss of life. As librarians, we are thankfully not responsible on a daily basis for the lives of hundreds of people, but like pilots, we too have automated much of our work and depend on systems that we often have no control over. What happens when a database we rely on goes down–say, all OCLC services go down for a few hours in December when many students are trying to get a few last sources for their papers? Are we able to take over seamlessly from the machines in guiding students?

Carr is not against automation, nor indeed against technology in general, though this is a criticism frequently leveled at him. But he is against the uncritical abnegation of our faculties to technology companies. In his 2011 book The Shallows, he argues that offloading memory to the internet and apps makes us more shallow, distractable thinkers. While I didn’t buy all his arguments (after all, Socrates didn’t approve of off-loading memory to writing since it would make us all shallow, distractable thinkers), it was thought-provoking. In The Glass Cage, he focuses on automation specifically, using autopilot technologies as the focal point–“the glass cage” is the name pilots use for cockpits since they are surrounded by screens. Besides the danger of not knowing what to do when the automated systems fail, we create potentially more dangerous situations by not paying attention to what choices automated systems make. As Carr writes, “If we don’t understand the commercial, political, intellectual, and ethical motivations of the people writing our software, or the limitations inherent in automated data processing, we open ourselves to manipulation.” 1

We have automated many mundane functions of library operation that have no real effect, or a positive effect. For instance, no longer do students sign out books by writing their names on paper cards which are filed away in drawers. While some mourn for the lost history of who had out the book–or even the romance novel scenario of meeting the other person who checks out the same books–by tracking checkouts in a secure computerized system we can keep better track of where books are, as well as maintain privacy by not showing who has checked out each book. And when the checkout system goes down, it is easy to figure out how to keep things going in the interim. We can understand on an instinctual level how such a system works and what it does. Like a traditional computerized library catalog, we know more or less how data gets in the system, and how data gets out. We have more access points to the data, but it still follows its paper counterpart in creation and structure.

Over the past decade, however, we have moved away more and more from those traditional systems. We want to provide students with systems that align with their (and our) experience outside libraries. Discovery layers take traditional library data and transform it with indexes and algorithms to create a new, easier way to find research material. If traditional automated systems, like autopilot systems, removed the physical effort of moving between card catalogs, print indexes, and microfilm machines, these new systems remove much of the mental effort of determining where to search for that type of information and the particular skills needed to search the relevant database. That is a surely a useful and good development. When one is immersed in a research question, the system shouldn’t get in the way.

Dr. Screen

That said, the nearly wholesale adoption of discovery systems provided by vendors leaves academic librarians in an awkward position. We can find a parallel in medicine. Carr relates the rush into electronic medical records (EMR) starting in 2004 with the Heath Information Technology Adoption Initiative. This meant huge amounts of money available for digitizing records, as well as a huge windfall for health information companies. While an early study by the RAND corporation (funded in part by those health information companies) indicated enormous promise from electronic medical records to save money and improve care. 2 But in actual fact, these systems did not do everything they were supposed to do. All the data that was supposed to be easy to share between providers was locked up in proprietary systems. 3 In addition, other studies showed that these systems did not merely substitute automated record-keeping for manual, they changed the way medicine was practiced. 4 EMR systems provide additional functions beyond note-taking, such as checklists and prompts with suggestions for questions and tests, which in turn create additional and more costly bills, test requests, and prescriptions. 5 The EMR systems change the dynamic between doctor and patient as well. The systems encourage the use of boilerplate text that lacks the personalized story of an individual patient, and the inability to flip through pages tended to diminish the long view of a patient’s entire medical history. 6 The presence of the computer in the room and the constant multitasking of typing notes into a computer means that doctors cannot be fully present with the patient. 7 With the constant presence of the EMR and its checklists, warnings, and prompts, doctors lose the ability to gain intuition and new understandings that the EMR could never provide. 8

The reference librarian has an interaction with patrons that is not all that different from doctors with patients (though as with pilots, the stakes are usually quite different). We work one on one with people on problems that are often undefined or misunderstood at the beginning of the interaction, and work towards a solution through conversation and cursory examinations of resources. We either provide the resource that solves the problem (e.g. the prescription), or make sure the patron has the tools available to solve problem over time (e.g. diet and exercise recommendations). We need to use subtle queues of body language and tone of voice to see how things are going, and use instinctive knowledge to understand if there is a deeper but unexpressed problem. We need our tools at hand to work with patrons, but we need to be present and use our own experience and judgment in knowing the appropriate tool to use. That means that we have to understand how the tool we have works, and ideally have some way of controlling it. Unfortunately that has not always been the case with vendor discovery systems. We are at the mercy of the system, and reactions to this vary. Some people avoid using it at all costs and won’t teach using the discovery system, which means that students are even less likely to use it, preferring the easier to get to even if less robust Google search. Or, if students do use it, they may still be missing out on the benefits of having academic librarians available–people who have spent years developing domain knowledge and the best resources available at the library, which knowledge can’t be replaced by an algorithm. Furthermore, the vendor platforms and content only interoperate to the extent the vendors are willing to work together, for which many of them have a disincentive since they want their own index to come out on top.

Enter the ODI

Just as doctors may have given up some of their professional ability and autonomy to proprietary databases of patient information, academic librarians seem to have done something similar with discovery systems. But the NISO Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) has potential to make the black box more transparent. This group has been working for two years to develop a set of practices that aim to make some aspects of discovery even across providers, and so give customers and users more control in understanding what they are seeing and ensure that indexes are complete. The Recommended Practice addresses some (but not all) major concerns in discovery service platforms. Essentially it covers requirements for metadata that content providers must provide to discovery service providers and to libraries, as well as best practices for content providers and discovery service providers. The required core metadata is followed by the “enriched” content which is optional–keywords, abstract, and full text. (Though the ODI makes it clear that including these is important–one might argue that the abstract is essential). 9 Discovery service providers are in turn strongly encouraged to make the content their repositories hold clear to their customers, and the metadata required for this. Discovery service providers should follow suggested practices to ensure “fair linking”, specifically to not use business relationships as a ranking or ordering consideration, and allow libraries to set their own preferences about choice of providers and wording for links. ODI suggests a fairly simple set of usage statistics that should be provided and exactly what they should measure. 10

While this all sets a good baseline, what is out of scope for ODI is equally important. It “does not address issues related to performance or features of the discovery services, as these are inherently business and design decisions guided by competitive market forces.” 11 Performance and features includes the user interface and experience, the relevancy ranking algorithms, APIs, specific mechanisms for fair linking, and data exchange (which is covered by other protocols). The last section of the Recommended Practice covers some of those in “Recommended Next Steps”. One of those that jumps out is the “on-demand lookup by discovery service users” 12, which suggests that users should be able to query the discovery service to determine “…whether or not a particular collection, journal, or book is included in the indexed content”13–seemingly the very goal of discovery in the first place.

“Automation of Intellect”

We know that many users only look at the first page of results for the resource they want. If we don’t know what results should be there, or how they get there, we are leaving users at the mercy of the tool. Disclosure of relevancy rankings is a major piece of transparency that ODI leaves out, and without understanding or controlling that piece of discovery, I think academic librarians are still caught in the trap of the glass cage–or become the chauffeur in the age of the self-driving car. This has been happening in all professional fields as machine learning algorithms and processing power to crunch big data sets improve. Medicine, finance, law, business, and information technology itself have been increasingly automated as software can run algorithms to analyze scenarios that in the past would require a senior practitioner. 14 So what’s the problem with this? If humans are fallible (and research shows that experts are equally if not more fallible), why let them touch anything? Carr argues that “what makes us smart is not our ability to pull facts from documents.…It’s our ability to make sense of things…” 15 We can grow to trust the automated system’s algorithms beyond our own experience and judgment, and lose the possibility of novel insights. 16

This is not to say that discovery systems do not solve major problems or that libraries should not use them. They do, and as much as practical libraries should make discovery as easy as possible. But as this ODI Recommended Practice makes clear, much remains a secret business decision for discovery service vendors, and thus something over which academic librarian can exercise control only though their dollars in choosing a platform and their advocacy in working with vendors to ensure they understand the system and it does what they need.


  1. Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (New York: Norton, 2014), 208.
  2. Carr, 93.
  3. Carr, 95.
  4. Carr, 97.
  5. Carr, 98.
  6. Carr, 101-102.
  7. Carr, 103.
  8. Carr, 105-106.
  9.  National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) Working Group, Open Discovery Initiative: Promoting Transparency in Discovery (Baltimore: NISO, 2014): 25-26.
  10. NISO ODI, 25-27.
  11. NISO ODI, 3.
  12. NISO ODI, 32.
  13. NISO ODI, 32.
  14. Carr, 115-117.
  15. Carr, 121.
  16. Carr, 124.

How I Work (Margaret Heller)

Editor’s Note: This post is part of ACRL TechConnect’s series by our regular and guest authors about The Setup of our work.


Margaret Heller, @margaret_heller

Location: Chicago, IL

Current Gig: Digital Services Librarian, Loyola University Chicago

Current Mobile Device: iPhone 5s. It took me years and years of thinking to finally buy a smart phone, and I did it mainly because my iPod Touch and slightly smart phone were both dying so it could replace both.

Current Computer:

Work: Standard issue Dell running Windows 7, with two monitors.

Home: Home built running Windows 7, in need of an upgrade that I will get around to someday.

Current Tablet: iPad 3, which I use constantly. One useful tip is that I have the Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, Google Hangout, and Lync apps which really help with participating in video calls and webinars from anywhere.

One word that best describes how you work: Tenaciously

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Outlook and Lync are my main methods of communicating with other library staff. I love working at a place where IMing people is the norm. I use these both on desktop and on my phone and tablet. I love that a recent upgrade means that we can listen to voice mails in our email.

Firefox is my normal work web browser. I tend to use Chrome at home. The main reason for the difference is synced bookmarks. I have moved my bookmarks between browsers so many times that I have some of the original sites I bookmarked when I first used Netscape in the late 90s. Needless to say, very few of the sites still exist, but it reminds me of old hobbies and interests. I also don’t need the login to stream shows from my DVR at in my bookmark toolbar at work.

Evernote I use for taking meeting notes, conference notes, recipes, etc. I usually have it open all day at work.

Notepad++ is where I do most of my code writing.

OpenRefine is my favored tool for bulk editing metadata, closely aligned with Excel since I need Excel to get data into our institutional repository.

Filezilla is my favored FTP client.

WriteMonkey is the distraction free writing environment I use on my desktop computer (and how I am writing this post). I use Editorial on my iPad.

Spotify and iTunes for music and podcasts.

RescueTime for staying on track with work–I get an email every Sunday night so I can swear off social media for the next week. (It lasts about a day).

FocusBooster makes a great Pomodoro timer.

Zotero is my constant lifesaver when I can’t remember how to cite something, and the only way I stay on track with writing posts for ACRL TechConnect.

Feedly is my RSS reader, and most of the time I stay on top of it.

Instapaper is key to actually reading rather than skimming articles, though of course I am always behind on it.

Box (and Box Sync) is our institutional cloud file storage service, and I use it extensively for all my collaborative projects.

Asana is how we keep track of ongoing projects in the department, and I use it for prioritizing personal projects as well.

What’s your workspace like? :A large room in the basement with two people full time, and assorted student workers working on the scanner. We have pieces of computers sitting around, though moved out an old server rack that was taking up space. (Servers are no longer located in the library but in the campus data centers). My favorite feature is the white board wall behind my desk, which provides enough space to sketch out ideas in progress.

I have a few personal items in the office: a tea towel from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a reproduction of an antique map of France, Belgium, & Holland, a photo of a fiddlehead fern opening, and small stone frogs to rearrange while I am talking on the phone. I also have a photo of my baby looking at a book, though he’s so much bigger now I need to add additional photos of him. My desk has in tray, out tray, and a book cart shaped business card holder I got at a long ago ALA conference. I am a big proponent of a clean desk, though the later in the semester it gets the more likely I am to have extra papers, but it’s important to my focus to have an empty desk.

There’s usually a lot going on in here and no natural light, so I go outside to work in the summer, or sometimes just to another floor in the building to enjoy the lake view and think through problems.

What’s your best time-saving trick?: Document and schedule routine tasks so I don’t forget steps or when to take care of them. I also have a lot of rules and shortcuts set up in my email so I can process email very quickly and not work out of my inbox. Learn the keyboard shortcuts! I can mainly get through Gmail without touching the mouse and it’s great.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?: Remember the Milk is how I manage tasks. I’ve been using it for years for Getting Things Done. I pay for it, and so currently have access to the new version which is amazing, but I am sworn to secrecy about its appearance or features. I have a Google Doc presentation I use for Getting Things Done weekly reviews, but just started using an Asana project to track all my ongoing projects in one place without overwhelming Remember the Milk or the Google Doc. It tells me I currently have 74 projects. A few more have come in that I haven’t added yet either.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?: For a few more weeks, my breast pump, which I am not crazy about, but it makes the hard choices of parenting a little bit easier. I used to not be able to live without my Nook until I cut my commute from an hour on the train to a 20 minute walk, so now I need earbuds for the walk. I am partial to Pilot G2 pens, which I use all the time for writing ideas on scrap paper.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?: Keeping my senses of humor and perspective available for problem solving.

What are you currently reading?: How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman (among other things). So far I have learned how Victorians washed themselves, and it makes me grateful for central heating.

What do you listen to while you work?: Podcasts (Roderick on the Line is required listening), mainly when I am doing work that doesn’t require a lot of focus. I listen mostly to full albums on Spotify (I have a paid account), though occasionally will try a playlist if I can’t decide what to listen to. But I much prefer complete albums, and try to stay on top of new releases as well as old favorites.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?: A shy extrovert, though I think I should be an introvert based on the popular perception. I do genuinely like seeing other people, and get restless if I am alone for too long.

What’s your sleep routine like?: I try hard to get in bed at 9:30, but by 10 at the latest. Or ok, maybe 10:15. Awake at 6 or whenever the baby wakes up. (He mostly sleeps through the night, but sometimes I am up with him at 4 until he falls asleep again). I do love sleeping though, so chances to sleep in are always welcome.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions. Occasional guest author Andromeda Yelton.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?: You are only asked to be yourself. Figure out how you can best help the world, and work towards that rather than comparing yourself to others. People can adjust to nearly any circumstance, so don’t be afraid to try new things.

Making Open Access Everyone’s Business

Librarians should have a role in promoting open access content. The best methods and whether they are successful is a matter of heated debate. Take for an example a recent post by Micah Vandergrift on the ACRL Scholarly Communications mailing list, calling on librarians to stage a publishing walkout and only publish in open access library and information science journals. Many have already done so. Others, like myself, have published in traditional journals (only once in my case) but make a point of making their work available in institutional repositories. I personally would not publish in a journal that did not allow such use of my work, and I know many who feel the same way. 1 The point is, of course, to ensure that librarians are not be hypocritical in their own publishing and their use of repositories to provide open access–a long-standing problem pointed out by Dorothea Salo [2.Salo, Dorothea. “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel,” December 11, 2007.], among others2 We know that many of the reasons that faculty may hesitate to participate in open access publishing relate to promotion and tenure requirements, which generally are more flexible for academic librarians (though not in all cases–see Abigail Goben’s open access tenure experiment). I suspect that many of the reasons librarians aren’t participating more in open access has partly to do with more mundane reasons of forgetting to do so, or fearing that work is not good enough to make public.

But it shouldn’t be only staunch advocates of open access, open peer review, or new digital models for work and publishing who are participating. We have to find ways to advocate and educate in a gentle but vigorous manner, and reach out to new faculty and graduate students who need to start participating now if the future will be different. Enter Open Access Week, a now eight-year-old celebration of open access organized by SPARC. Just as Black Friday is the day that retailers hope to be in the black, Open Access Week has become an occasion to organize around and finally share our message with willing ears. Right?

It can be, but it requires a good deal of institutional dedication to make it happen. At my institution, Open Access Week is a big deal. I am co-chair of a new Scholarly Communications committee which is now responsible for planning the week (the committee used to just plan the week, but the scope has been extended). The committee has representation from Systems, Reference, Access Services, and the Information Commons, and so we are able to touch on all aspects of open access. Last year we had events five days out of five; this year we are having events four days out of five. Here are some of the approaches we are taking to creating successful conversations around open access.

    • Focus on the successes and the impact of your faculty, whether or not they are publishing in open access journals.

The annual Celebration of Faculty Scholarship takes place during Open Access Week, and brings together physical material published by all faculty at a cocktail reception. We obtain copies of articles and purchase books written by faculty, and set up laptops to display digital projects. This is a great opportunity to find out exactly what our faculty are working on, and get a sense of them as researchers that we may normally lack. It’s also a great opportunity to introduce the concept of open access and recruit participants to the institutional repository.

    • Highlight the particular achievements of faculty who are participating in open access.

We place stickers on materials at the Celebration that are included in the repository or are published in open access journals. This year we held a panel with faculty and graduate students who participate in open access publishing to discuss their experiences, both positive and negative.

  • Demonstrate the value the library adds to open access initiatives.

Recently bepress (which creates the Digital Commons repositories on which ours runs) introduced a real time map of repositories downloads that was a huge hit this year. It was a compelling visual illustration of the global impact of work in the repository. Faculty were thrilled to see their work being read across the world, and it helped to solve the problem of invisible impact. We also highlighted our impact with a new handout that lists key metrics around our repository, including hosting a new open access journal.

  • Talk about the hard issues in open access and the controversies surrounding it, for instance, CC-BY vs. CC-NC-ND licenses.

It’s important to not sugarcoat or spin challenging issues in open access. It’s important to include multiple perspectives and invite difficult conversations. Show scholars the evidence and let them draw their own conclusions, though make sure to step in and correct misunderstandings.

  • Educate about copyright and fair use, over and over again.

These issues are complicated even for people who work on them every day, and are constantly changing. Workshops, handouts, and consultation on copyright and fair use can help people feel more comfortable in the classroom and participating in open access.

  • Make it easy.

Examine what you are asking people to do to participate in open access. Rearrange workflows, cut red tape, and improve interfaces. Open Access Week is a good time to introduce new ideas, but this should be happening all year long.

We can’t expect revolutions in policy and and practice to happen overnight, or without some  sacrifice. Whether you choose to make your stand to only publish in open access journals or some other path, make your stand and help others who wish to do the same.

  1. Publishers have caught on to this tendency in librarians. For instance, Taylor and Francis has 12-18 month repository embargoes for all its journals except LIS journals. Whether this is because of the good work we have done in advocacy or a conciliatory gesture remains up for debate.
  2. Xia, Jingfeng, Sara Kay Wilhoite, and Rebekah Lynette Myers. “A ‘librarian-LIS Faculty’ Divide in Open Access Practice.” Journal of Documentation 67, no. 5 (September 6, 2011): 791–805. doi:10.1108/00220411111164673.

Migrating to LibGuides 2.0

This summer Springshare released LibGuides 2.0, which is a complete revamp of the LibGuides system. Many libraries use LibGuides, either as course/research guides or in some cases as the entire library website, and so this is something that’s been on the mind of many librarians this summer, whichever side of LibGuides they usually see. The process of migrating is not too difficult, but the choices you make in planning the new interface can be challenging. As the librarians responsible for the migration, we will discuss our experience of planning and implementing the new LibGuides platform.

Making the Decision to Migrate

While migrating this summer was optional, Springshare will probably only support LibGuides 1 for another two years, and at Loyola we felt it was better to move sooner rather than later. Over the past few years there were perpetual LibGuides cleanup projects, and this seemed to be a good opportunity to finalize that work. At the same time, we wanted to experiment with new designs for the library’s website that would bring it in closer alignment with the university’s new brand as well as make the site responsive, and LibGuides seemed like the ideal place to experiment with some of those ideas. Several new features, revealed on Springshare’s blog, resonated with subject-area specialists which was another reason to push for a migration sooner than later. We also wanted to have it in place before the first day of classes, which gave us a few months to experiment.

The Reference and Electronic Resources librarian, Will Kent, as well as the Head of Reference, Niamh McGuigan, and the Digital Services Librarian, Margaret Heller, worked in concert to make decisions, as well as inviting all the other reference and instruction librarians (as well as anyone else who was interested) to participate in the process. There were a few ground rules the core team went by, however: we were migrating and the process was iterative, i.e. we weren’t waiting for perfection to launch.

Planning the Migration

During the migration planning process, the small team of three librarians worked together to create a timeline, report to the library staff on progress, solicit feedback on the system, and update the LibGuide policies to reflect the new changes and functions. As far as front-end migration went, we addressed large staff-wide meetings, provided updates, polled subject specialists on the progress, prepared our 400 databases for conversion to the new A-Z list, and demonstrated new features, and opened changes that they should be aware of. We would relay updates from Springshare and handle any troubleshooting questions as they happened.

Given the new features – new categories, new ways of searching, the A-Z database list, and other features, it was important for us to sit down, discuss standards, and update our content policies. The good news was that most of our content was in good shape for the migration. The process was swift and barring inevitable, tiny bugs went smoothly.

Our original timeline was to present the migration steps at our June monthly joint meeting of collections and reference staff, and give a timeline one month until the July meeting to complete the work. For various reasons this ended up stretching until mid-August, but we still launched the day before classes began. We are constantly in the process of updating guide types, adding new resources, and re-classifying boxes to adhere to our new policies.

Working on the Design

LibGuides 2.0 provides two basic templates, a left navigation menu and a top tabbed menu that looks similar to the original LibGuides (additional templates are available with the LibGuides CMS product). We had originally discussed using the left navigation box template and originally began a design based on this, but ultimately people felt more comfortable with the tabbed navigation. Whiteboard sketch of the LibGuides UI

For the initial prototype, Margaret worked off a template that we’d used before for Omeka. This mirrors the Loyola University Chicago template very closely. We kept all of the LibGuides standard template–i.e. 1-3 columns with the number of columns and sections within the column determined by the page creator, but added a few additional pieces in the header and footer, as well as making big changes to the tabs.

The first step in planning the design was to understand what customization happened in the template, and which in the header and footer which are entered separately in the admin UI. Margaret sketched out our vision for the site on the whiteboard wall to determine existing selectors and those that would need to be added, as well as get a sense of whether we would need to change the content section at all. In the interests of completing the project in a timely fashion, we determined that the bare minimum of customization to unify the research guides with the rest of the university websites would be the first priority.

For those still planning a redesign, the Code4Lib community has many suggestions on what to consider. The main thing to consider is that LibGuides 2.0 is based on the Bootstrap 3.0 framework, which Michael Schofield recently implored us to use responsibly. Other important considerations are the accessibility of the solution you pick, and use of white space.

LibGuides Look & Feel UI tabs The Look & Feel section under ‘Admin’ has several tabs with sections for Header and Footer, Custom CSS/JS, and layout of pages–Guide Pages Layout is the most relevant for this post.

Just as in the previous version of LibGuides, one can enter custom code for the header and footer (which in this case is almost the same as the regular library website), as well link to a custom CSS file (we did not include any custom Javascript here, but did include several Google Fonts and our custom icon). The Guide Pages Layout is new, and this is where one can edit the actual template that creates each page. We didn’t make any large changes here, but were still able to achieve a unique look with custom CSS.

The new LibGuides platform is responsive, but we needed to account for several items we added to the interface. We added a search box that would allow users to search the entire university website, as well as several new logos, so Margaret added a few media queries to adjust these features on a phone or tablet, as well as adjust the spacing of the custom footer.

Improving the Design

Our first design was ready to present to the subject librarians a month after the migration process started. It was based on the principle of matching the pages closely (example), in which the navigation tabs across the top have unusual cutouts, and section titles are very large. No one was very happy with this result, however, as it made the typical LibGuides layout with multiple sections on a page unusable and the tabs not visible enough. While one approach would have been to change the navigation to left navigation menu and limit the number of sections, the majority of the subject librarians preferred to keep things closer to what they had been, with a view to moving toward a potential new layout in the future.

Once we determined a literal interpretation of the university website was not usable for our content, we found inspiration for the template body from another section of the university website that was aimed at presenting a lot of dynamic content with multiple sections, but kept the standard header. This allowed us to create a page that was recognizably part of Loyola, but presented our LibGuides content in a much more usable form.

Sticky Tabs

Sticky Tabs

The other piece we borrowed from the university website was sticky tabs. This was an attempt to make the tabs more visible and usable based on what we knew from usability testing on the old platform and what users would already know from the university site. Because LibGuides is based on the Bootstrap framework, it was easy to drop this in using the Affix plugin (tutorial on how to use this)1. The tabs are translucent so they don’t obscure content as one scrolls down.

Our final result was much more popular with everyone. It has a subtle background color and border around each box with a section header that stands out but doesn’t overwhelm the content. The tabs are not at all like traditional LibGuides tabs, functioning somewhat more like regular header links.


Final result.

Next Steps

Over the summer we were not able to conduct usability testing on the new interface due to the tight timeline, so the first step this fall is to integrate it into our regular usability testing schedule to make iterative changes based on user feedback. We also need to continue to audit the page to improve accessibility.

The research guides are one of the most used links on our website (anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 visits per month), so our top priority was to make sure the migration did not interfere with use – both in terms of patron access and content creation by the subject-area librarians. Thanks to our feedback sessions, good communication with Springshare, and reliable new platform, the migration went smoothly without interruption.

About our guest author: Will Kent is Reference/Instruction and Electronic Resources Librarian and subject specialist for Nursing and Chemistry at Loyola University Chicago. He received his MSLIS from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2011 with a certificate in Community Informatics.

  1. You may remember that in the Bootstrap Responsibly post Michael suggested it wasn’t necessary to use this, but it is the most straightforward way in LibGuides 2.0

A Short and Irreverently Non-Expert Guide to CSS Preprocessors and Frameworks

It took me a long time to wrap my head around what a CSS preproccessor was and why you might want to use one. I knew everyone was doing it, but for the amount of CSS I was doing, it seemed like overkill. And one more thing to learn! When you are a solo web developer/librarian, it’s always easier to clutch desperately at the things you know well and not try to add more complexity. So this post is for those of you are in my old position. If you’re already an expert, you can skip the post and go straight to the comments to sell us on your own favorite tools.

The idea, by the way, is that you will be able to get one of these up and running today. I promise it’s that easy (assuming you have access to install software on your computer).

Ok, So Why Should I Learn This?

Creating a modern and responsive website requires endless calculations, CSS adjustments, and other considerations that it’s not really possible to do it (especially when you are a solo web developer) without building on work that lots of other people have done. Even if you aren’t doing anything all that sophisticated in your web design, you probably want at minimum to have a nicely proportioned columnar layout with colors and typefaces that are easy to adapt as needed. Bonus points if your site is responsive so it looks good on tablets and phones. All of that takes a lot of math and careful planning to accomplish, and requires much attention to documentation if you want others to be able to maintain the site.

Frameworks and preprocessors take care of many development challenges. They do things like provide responsive columnar layouts that are customizable to your design needs, provide “mixins” of code others have written, allow you to nest elements rather than writing CSS with selectors piled on selectors, and create variables for any elements you might repeat such as typefaces and colors. Once you figure it out, it’s pretty addictive to figure out where you can be more efficient in your CSS. Then if your institution switches the shade of red used for active links, H1s, and footer text, you only have to change one variable to update this rather than trying to find all the places that color appears in your stylesheets.

What You Should Learn

If I’ve convinced you this is something worth putting time into, now you have to figure out where you should spend that time.This post will outline one set of choices, but you don’t need to stick with this if you want to get more involved in learning more.

Sometimes these choices are made for you by whatever language or content management system you are using, and usually one will dictate another. For instance, if you choose a framework that uses Sass, you should probably learn Sass. If the theme you’ve chosen for your content management system already includes preprocessor files, you’ll save yourself lots of time just by going with what that theme has chosen. It’s also important to note that you can use a preprocessor with any project, even just a series of flat HTML files, and in that case definitely use whatever you prefer.

I’m going to point out just a few of each here, since this is basically what I’ve used with which I am familiar. There are lots and lots of all of these things out there, and I would welcome people with specific experience to describe it in the comments.

Before you get too scared about the languages these tools use, it’s really only relevant to beginners insofar as you have to have one of these languages installed on your system to compile your Sass or Less files into CSS.


Sass was developed in 2006. It can be written with Sass or SCSS syntax. Sass runs on Ruby.

Less was developed in 2009. It was originally written in Ruby, but now is in Javascript.

A Completely Non-Comprehensive List of CSS Frameworks

Note! You don’t have to use a framework for every project. If you have a two column layout with a simple breakpoint and don’t need all the overhead, feel free to not use one. But for most projects, frameworks provide things like responsive layouts and useful features (for instance tabs, menus, image galleries, and various CSS tricks) you might want to build in your site without a lot of thought.

  • Compass (runs on Sass)
  • Bootstrap (runs on Less)
  • Foundation (runs on Sass)
  • There are a million other ones out there too. Google search for css frameworks gets “About 4,860,000 results”. So I’m not kidding about needing to figure it out based on the needs of your project and what preprocessor you prefer.
A Quick and Dirty Tutorial for Getting These Up and Running

Let’s try out Sass and Compass. I started working with them when I was theming Omeka, and I run them on my standard issue work Windows PC, so I know you can do it too!


Stir to combine.

Ok it’s not quite that easy. But it’s not a lot harder.

  1. Sass has great installation instructions. I’ve always run it from the command line without a fuss, and I don’t even particularly care for the command line. So feel free to follow those instructions.
  2. If you don’t have Ruby installed already (likely on a standard issue work Windows PC–it is already installed on Macs), install it. Sass suggests RubyInstaller, and I second that suggestion. There are some potential confusing or annoying things about doing it this way, but don’t worry about it until one pops up.
  3. If you are on Windows, open up a new command line window by typing cmd in your start search bar. If you are on a Mac, open up your Terminal app.
  4. Now all you have to do is install Sass with one line of code in your command line client/terminal window: gem install sass. If you are on a Mac, you might get an error message and  have to use the command sudo gem install sass.
  5. Next install Compass. You’ve got it, just type gem install compass.
  6. Read through this tutorial on Getting Started with Sass and Compass. It’s basically what I just said, but will link you out to a bunch of useful tutorials.
  7. If you decide the command line isn’t for you, you might want to look into other options for installing and compiling your files. The Sass installation instructions linked above give a few suggestions.
Working on a Project With These Tools

When you start a project, Compass will create a series of files Sass/SCSS files (you choose which syntax) that you will edit and then compile into CSS files. The easiest way to get started is to head over to the Compass installation page and use their menu to generate the command line text you’ll need to get started.

For this example, I’ll create a new project called acrltest by typing compass create acrltest. In the image below you’ll see what this looks like. This text also provides some information about what to do next, so you may want to copy it to save it for later.


You’ll now have a new directory with several recommended SCSS files, but you are by no means limited to these files. Sass provides the @import command, which imports additional SCSS files, which can either be full CSS files, or “partials”, which allow you to define styles without creating an additional CSS file. Partials start with an underscore. The normal practice is to have a partial _base.scss file, where you identify base styles. You will then import these to your screen.scss file to use whatever you have in that file.

Here’s what this looks like.

On _base.scss, I’ve created two variables.

$headings: #345fff;
$links: #c5ff34;

Now on my screen.scss file, I’ve imported my file and can use these variables.

@import "base";

a {
    color: $links;

 h1 {
    color: $headings;

Now this doesn’t do anything yet since there are no CSS files that you can use on the web. Here’s how you actually make the CSS files.

Open up your command prompt or terminal window and change to the directory your Compass project is in. Then type compass watch, and Compass will compile your SCSS files to CSS. Everytime you save your work, the CSS will be updated, which is very handy.


Now you’ll have something like this in the screen.css file in the stylesheets directory:


/* line 9, ../sass/screen.scss */
a {
  color: #c5ff34;

/* line 13, ../sass/screen.scss */
h1 {
  color: #345fff;

Note that you will have comments inserted telling you where this all came from.

Next Steps

This was an extremely basic overview, and there’s a lot more I didn’t cover–one of the major things being all the possibilities that frameworks provide. But I hope you start to get why this can ultimately make your life easier.

If you have a little experience with this stuff, please share it in the comments.

What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality?

John Oliver describes net neutrality as the most boring important issue. More than that, it’s a complex idea that can be difficult to understand without a strong grasp of the architecture of the internet, which is not at all intuitive. An additional barrier to having a measured response is that most of the public discussions about net neutrality conflate it with negotiations over peering agreements (more on that later) and ultimately rest in contracts with unknown terms. The hyperbole surrounding net neutrality may be useful in riling up public sentiment, but the truth seems far more subtle. I want to approach a definition and an understanding of the issues surrounding net neutrality, but this post will only scratch the surface. Despite the technical and legal complexities, this is something worth understanding, since as academic librarians our daily lives and work revolve around internet access for us and for our students.

The most current public debate about net neutrality surrounds the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ability to regulate internet service providers after a January 2014 court decision struck down the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order (PDF). The FCC is currently in an open comment period on a new plan to promote and protect the open internet.

The Communications Act of 1934 (PDF) created the FCC to regulate wire and radio communication. This classified phone companies and similar services as “common carriers”, which means that they are open to all equally. If internet service providers are classified in the same way, this ensures equal access, but for various reasons they are not considered common carriers, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2005. The FCC is now seeking to use section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (PDF) to regulate internet service providers. Section 706 gave the FCC regulatory authority to expand broadband access, particularly to elementary and high schools, and this piece of it is included in the current rulemaking process.

The legal part of this is confusing to everyone, not least the FCC. We’ll return to that later. But for now, let’s turn our attention to the technical part of net neutrality, starting with one of the most visible spats.

A Tour Through the Internet

I am a Comcast customer for my home internet. Let’s say I want to watch Netflix. How do I get there from my home computer? First comes the traceroute that shows how the request from my computer travels over the physical lines that make up the internet.



Tracing route to []
over a maximum of 30 hops:

  1     1 ms    <1 ms    <1 ms
  2    24 ms    30 ms    37 ms
  3    43 ms    40 ms    29 ms
net []
  4    20 ms    32 ms    36 ms [6]
  5    33 ms    30 ms    37 ms
  6    27 ms    34 ms    30 ms
  7    30 ms    41 ms    54 ms []
  8     *        *        *     Request timed out.
  9    73 ms    69 ms    69 ms
 10    65 ms    77 ms    96 ms []

 11    80 ms    81 ms    74 ms []

Trace complete.

Step 1. My computer sends data to this wireless router, which is hooked to my cable modem, which is wired out to the telephone pole in front of my apartment.











2. The cables travel through the city underground, accessed through manholes like this one.

2-4. The cables travel through the city underground, accessed through manholes like this one.














5- . Eventually my request to go to Netflix makes it to 350 E. Cermak, which is a major collocation and internet exchange site. If you've ever taken the shuttle bus at ALA in Chicago, you've gone right past this building.

5- 6. Eventually my request to go to Netflix makes it to 350 E. Cermak, which is a major collocation and internet exchange site. If you’ve ever taken the shuttle bus at ALA in Chicago, you’ve gone right past this building. Image © 2014 Google.












7-9. Now the request leaves Comcast, and goes out to a Tier 1 internet provider, which owns cables that cross the country. In this case, the cables belong to CenturyLink (which recently purchased Qwest).

10. My request has now made it to Grand Forks, ND, where Netflix buys space from Amazon Web Services.

10. My request has now made it to Grand Forks, ND, where Netflix buys space from Amazon Web Services. All this happened in less than a second. Image © 2014 Google.











Why should Comcast ask Netflix to pay to transmit their data over Comcast’s networks? Understanding this requires a few additional concepts.


Peering is an important concept in the structure of the internet. Peering is a physical link of hardware to hardware between networks in internet exchanges, which are (as pictured above) huge buildings filled with routers connected to each other. 1.  Facebook Peering is an example of a very open peering policy. Companies and internet service providers can use internet exchange centers to plug their equipment together directly, and so make their connections faster and more reliable. For websites such as Facebook which have an enormous amount of upload and download traffic, it’s well worth the effort for a small internet service provider to peer with Facebook 2.

Peering relies on some equality of traffic, as the name implies. The various tiers of internet service providers you may have heard of are based on with whom they “peer”. Tier 1 ISPs are large enough that they all peer with each other, and thus form what is usually called the backbone of the internet.

Academic institutions created the internet originally–computer science departments at major universities literally had the switches in their buildings. In the US this was ARPANET, but a variety of networks at academic institutions existed throughout the world. Groups such as Internet2 allow educational, research, and government networks to connect and peer with each other and commercial entities (including Facebook, if the traceroute from my workstation is any indication). Smaller or isolated institutions may rely on a consumer ISP, and what bandwidth is available to them may be limited by geography.

The Last Mile

Consumers, by contrast, are really at the mercy of whatever company dominates in their neighborhoods. Consumers obviously do not have the resources to lay their own fiber optic cables directly to all the websites they use most frequently. They rely on an internet service provider to do the heavy lifting, just as most of us rely on utility companies to get electricity, water, and sewage service (though of course it’s quite possible to live off the grid to a certain extent on all those services depending on where you live). We also don’t build our own roads, and we expect that certain spaces are open for traveling through by anyone. This idea of roads open for all to get from the wider world to arterial streets to local neighborhoods is thus used as an analogy for the internet–if internet service providers (like phone companies) must be common carriers, this ensures the middle and last miles aren’t jammed.

When Peering Goes Bad

Think about how peering works–it requires a roughly equal amount of traffic being sent and received through peered networks, or at least an amount of traffic to which both parties can agree. This is the problem with Netflix. Unlike big companies such as Facebook, and especially Google, Netflix is not trying to build its own network. It relies on content delivery services and internet backbone providers to get content from its servers (all hosted on Amazon Web Services) to consumers. But Netflix only sends traffic, it doesn’t take traffic, and this is the basis of most of the legal battles going on with internet service providers that service the “last mile”.

The Netflix/Comcast trouble started in 2010, when Netflix contracted with Level 3 for content delivery. Comcast claimed that Level 3 was relying on a peering relationship that was no longer valid with this increase in traffic, no matter who was sending it. (See this article for complete details.) Level 3, incidentally, accused another Tier 1 provider, Cogent, of overstepping their settlement-free peering agreement back in 2005, and cut them off for a short time, which cut pieces of the internet off from each other.

Netflix tried various arrangements, but ultimately negotiated with Comcast to pay for direct access to their last mile networks through internet exchanges, one of which is illustrated above in steps 4-6. This seems to be the most reasonable course of action for Netflix to get their outbound content over networks, since they really don’t have the ability to do settlement-free peering. Of course, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, didn’t see it that way. But for most cases, settlement-free peering is still the only way the internet can actually work, and while we may not see the agreements that make this happen, it won’t be going anywhere. In this case, Comcast was not offering Netflix paid prioritization of its content, it was negotiating for delivery of the content at all. This might seem equally wrong, but someone has to pay for the bandwidth, and why shouldn’t Netflix pay for it?

What Should We Do?

If companies want to connect with each other or build their own network connections, they can do under whatever terms work best for them. The problem would be if certain companies were using the same lines that everyone was using but their packets got preferential treatment. The imperfect road analogy works well enough for these purposes. When a firetruck, police car, and ambulance are racing through traffic with sirens blazing, we are usually ok with the resulting traffic jam since we can see this requires that speed for an emergency situation. But how do we feel when we suspect a single police car has turned on a siren just to cut in line to get to lunch faster? Or a funeral procession blocks traffic? Or an elected official has a motorcade? Or a block party? These situations are regulated by government authorities, but we may or may not like that these uses of public ways are being allowed and causing our own travel to slow down. Going further, it is clearly illegal for a private company to block a public road and charge a high rate for faster travel, but imagine if no governmental agency had the power to regulate this? The FCC is attempting to make sure they have those regulatory powers.

That said it doesn’t seem like anyone is actually planning to offer paid prioritization. Even Comcast claims “no company has had a stronger commitment to openness of the Internet…” and that they have no plans of offering such a service . I find it unlikely that we will face a situation that Barbara Stripling describes as “prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt.”

I certainly won’t advocate against treating ISPs as common carriers–my impression is that this is what the 1996 Telecommunications Act was trying to get at, though the legal issues are confounding. However, a larger problem facing libraries (not so much large academics, but smaller academics and publics) is the digital divide. If there’s no fiber optic line to a town, there isn’t going to be broadband access, and an internet service provider has no business incentive to create a line for a small town that may not generate a lot of revenue. I think we need to remain vigilant about ensuring that everyone has access to the internet at all or at a fast speed, and not get too sidetracked about theoretical future possible malfeasance by internet service providers. These points are included in the FCC’s proposal, but are not receiving most of the attention, despite the fact that they are given explicit regulatory authority to do this.

Public comments are open at the FCC’s website until July 15, so take the opportunity to leave a comment about Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, and also consider comments on E-rate and broadband access, which is another topic the FCC is currently considering. (You can read ALA’s proposal about this here (PDF).)

  1. Blum, Andrew. Tubes: a Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: Ecco, 2012, 80.
  2. Blum, 125-126.

Library & Academic Tech Conferences Roundup

Here we present a summary of various library technology conferences that ACRL TechConnect authors have been to. There are a lot of them and some fairly niche. So we hope this guide serves to assist neophytes and veterans alike in choosing how they spend their limited professional development monies. Do you attend one of these conferences every year because it’s awesome? Did we miss your favorite conference? Let us know in the comments!

The website might be of interest, as it compiles LIS conferences of all types. Also, one might be able to get a sense of the content of a conference by searching for its hashtag on Twitter. Most conferences list their hashtag on their website.


  • Time: late in the year, typically September or October
  • Place: Canada
  • Website:
  • Access is a Canada’s annual library technology conference. Although the focus is primarily on technology, a wide variety of topics are addressed from linked data, innovation, makerspace, to digital archiving by librarians in various areas of specialization. (See the past conferences’ schedules: Access provides an excellent opportunity to get an international perspective without traveling too far. Access is also a single-track conference, offers great opportunities to network, and starts with preconferences and the hackathon, which welcomes to all types of librarians not just library coders. Both preconferences and the hackathon are optional but highly recommended. (p.s. One of the ACRL TechConnect authors thinks that this is the conference with the best conference lunch and snacks.)


  • Time: early in the year, typically February but this year in late March
  • Place: varies
  • Website:
  • Code4Lib is unique in that it is organized by a group of volunteers and not supported by any formal organization. While it does cover some more general technology concepts, the conference tends to be focused on coding, naturally. Preconferences from past years have covered the Railsbridge curriculum for learning Ruby on Rails and Blacklight, the open source discovery interface. Code4Lib moves quickly—talks are short (20 minutes) with even shorter lightning talks thrown in—but is also all on one track in the same room; attendees can see every presentation.

Computers in Libraries

  • Time: Late March or early April
  • Place: Washington, DC
  • Website:
  • Computers in Libraries is a for-profit conference hosted by Information Today. Its use of tracks, organizing presentations around a topic or group of topics, is a useful way to attend a conference and its overall size is more conducive to networking, socializing, and talking with vendors in the exhibit hall than many other conferences. However, the role of consultants in panel and presentation selection and conference management, as opposed to people who work in libraries, means that there is occasionally a focus on trends that are popular at the moment, but don’t pan out, as well as language more suited to an MBA than an MLIS. The conference also lacks a code of conduct and given the corporate nature of the conference, the website is surprisingly antiquated.
  • They also run Internet Librarian, which meets in Monterey, California, every fall.
    — Jacob Berg, Library Director, Trinity Washington University

Digital Library Federation Forum

  • Time: later in the year, October or November
  • Place: varies
  • Website:
  • We couldn’t find someone who attended this. If you have, please add your review of this conference in the comments section!


  • Time: late in the year, typically November
  • Place: Richmond, VA
  • Website:
  • Not a library conference, edUI is aimed at web professionals working in higher education but draws a fair number of librarians. The conference tends to draw excellent speakers, both from within higher education and the web industry at large. Sessions cover user experience, design, social media, and current tools of the trade. The talks suit a broad range of specialties, from programmers to people who work on the web but aren’t technologists foremost.

Electronic Resources & Libraries

  • Time: generally early in the year, late-February to mid-March.
  • Place: Austin, TX
  • Website:
  • The main focus of this conference is workflows and issues surrounding electronic resources (such as licensed databases and online journals, and understanding these is crucial to anyone working with library technology, whether or not they manage e-resources on a daily basis. In recent years the conference has expanded greatly into areas such as open access and user experience, with tracks specifically dedicated to those areas. This year there were also some overlapping programs and themes with SXSW and the Leadership, Technology, Gender Summit.

Handheld Librarian

  • Time: held a few times throughout the year
  • Place: online
  • Website:
  • An online conference devoted specifically to mobile technologies. The advantage of this conference is that without traveling, you can get a glimpse of the current developments and applications of mobile technologies in libraries. It originally started in 2009 as an annual one-day online conference based upon the accepted presentation proposals submitted in advance. The conference went through some changes in recent years, and now it offers a separate day of workshops in addition and focuses on a different theme in mobile technologies in libraries. All conference presentations and workshops are recorded. If you are interested in attending, it is a good idea to check out the presentations and the speakers in advance.

Internet Librarian

  • Time: October
  • Place: Monterey, CA
  • Website:
  • Internet Librarian is for-profit conference hosted by Information Today. It is quite similar to Information Today’s Computers in Libraries utilizing tracks to organize a large number of presentations covering a broad swath of library information technology topics. Internet Librarian also hosts the Internet @ Schools track that focus on the IT needs of the K12 library community. IL is held annually in Monterey California in October. The speaker list is deep and varied and one can expect keynote speakers to be prominent and established names in the field. The conference is well attended and provides a good opportunity to network with library technology peers. As with Computers in Libraries, there is no conference code of conduct.


  • Time: varies, typically in the second half of the year
  • Place: varies, international
  • Website:
  • The annual conference devoted to the Koha open source ILS.

 Library Technology Conference

  • Time: mid-March
  • Place: St. Paul, MN
  • Website:
  • LTC is an annual library conference that takes place in March. It’s both organized by and takes place at Macalester College in St. Paul. Not as completely tech-heavy as a Code4Lib or even an Access, talks at LTC tend to run a whole range of technical aptitudes. Given the time and location of LTC, it has historically been primarily of regional interest but has seen elevating levels of participation nationally and internationally.
    — John Fink, Digital Scholarship Librarian, McMaster University
  • We asked Twitter for a short overview of Library Technology Conference, and Matthew Reidsma offered up this description:

LITA Forum

  • Time: Late in the year, typically November
  • Place: varies
  • Website:
  • A general library technology conference that’s moderately sized, with some 300 attendees most years. One of LITA’s nice aspects is that, because of the smaller size of the conference and the arranged networking dinners, it’s very easy to meet other librarians. You need not be involved with LITA to attend and there are no committee or business meetings.

Open Repositories

  • Time: mid-summer, June or July
  • Place: varies, international
  • Website: changes each year, here are the 2013 and 2014 sites
  • A mid-sized conference focused specifically on institutional repositories.

Online NorthWest

  • Time: February
  • Place: Corvallis, OR
  • Website:
  • A small library technology conference in the Pacific Northwest. Hosted by the Oregon University System, but invites content from Public, Medical, Special, Legal, and Academic libraries.


  • Time: all the time
  • Place: varies, international
  • Website:
  • Every THATCamp is different, but all revolve around technology and the humanities (i.e. The Technology And Humanities Camp). They are unconferences with “no spectators”, and so will reflect the interests of the participants. Some have specific themes such as digital pedagogy, others are attached to conferences as pre or post conference events, and some are more general regional events. Librarians are important participants in THATCamps, and if there is one in your area or at a conference you’re attending, you should go. They cost under $30 and are a great networking and education opportunity. Sign up for the THATCamp mailing list or subscribe to the RSS feed to find out about new THATCamps. They have a attendee limit and usually fill up quickly.

Lightweight Project Management Tools in the Real World

My life got extra complicated in the last few months. I gave birth to my first child in January, and in between the stress of a new baby, unexpected hospital visits, and the worst winter in 35 years, it was a trying time. While I was able to step back from many commitments during my 8 week maternity leave, I didn’t want to be completely out the loop, and since I would come back to three conferences back to back, I needed to be able to jump back in and monitor collaborative projects from wherever. All of us have times in our lives that are this hectic or even more so, but even in the regular busy thrum of our professional lives it’s too easy to let ongoing commitments like committee work completely disappear from our mental landscapes other than the nagging feeling that you are missing something.

There are various methods and tools to enhance productivity, which we’ve looked at before. Some basic collaboration tools such as Google Docs are always good to have any time you are working on a group project that builds into something like a presentation or report. But for committee work or every day work in a department, something more specialized can be even better. I want to look at some real-life examples of using lightweight project management tools to keep projects that you work on with others going strong—or not so strong, depending on how they are used. Over the past 4-5 months I’ve gotten experience using Trello for committee work and Asana for work projects. Both of them have some great features, but as always the implementation doesn’t depend entirely on the software’s functionality. Beyond my experience with these two implementations I’ll address a few other tools and my experience with effective usage of them.


I have the great fortune of having an entire wall of my office painted with white board paint, Asana Screenshotand use it to sketch out ideas and projects. For that to be useful, I need to be physically be in the office. So before I went on maternity leave, I knew I needed to get all my projects at work organized in a way that I could give tasks I would normally do to others, as well as monitor what was happening on large on-going projects. I had used Asana before in another context, so I decided to give it a try for this purpose. Asana has projects, tasks, and due dates that anyone in a workspace can follow and assign. It’s a pretty flexible system–the screenshot shows one potential way of setting it up, but we use different models for different projects, and there are many ideas out there. My favorite feature is project templates, which I use in another workspace that I share with my graduate assistant. This allows you to create a new project based on a standard series of steps, which means that she could create new projects while I was away based on the normal workflow we follow and I could work on them when I returned. All of this requires a very strict attention to keeping projects organized, however, and if you don’t have an agreed upon system for naming and organizing tasks they can get out of hand very quickly.

We also use Asana as part of our help request system. We wanted to set up a system to track requests from all the library staff not only for my maternity leave but in general. I looked at many different systems, but they were almost all too heavy-duty for what we needed. I made our own very lightweight system using the Webform module in Drupal on our intranet. Staff submits requests through that form, which sends an email using a departmental email address to our Issue Tracking queue in Asana. Once the task is completed we explain the problem in an Asana comment (or just mark completed if it’s a normal request such as new user account), and then send a reply to the requestor through the intranet. They can see all the requests they’ve made plus the replies through that system. The nice thing about doing it this way is that everything is in one place–trouble tickets become projects with tasks very easily.


Trello screenshotTrello is designed to mimic the experience of using index cards or sticky notes on a wall to track ideas and figure out what is going on at a glance. This is particularly useful for ongoing work where you have multiple projects in a set of pipelines divvied up among various people. You can easily see how many ideas you have in the inception stage and how many are closer to completion, which can be a good motivator to move items along. Another use is to store detailed project ideas and notes and then sort them into lists once you figure out a structure.

Trello starts with a virtual board, which is divided into lists of cards. Trello cards can be assigned to specific people, and anyone can follow a card to get notifications. Clicking on a card brings up a whole set of additional options, including who is working on the project, attachments, due dates, color coding, and anything else you might want. The screenshot shows how the LITA Education Committee uses Trello to plan educational offerings. The white areas with small boxes indicate cards (we use one card per program/potential idea) that are active and assigned, the gray areas indicate cards which haven’t been touched in a while and so probably need followup. Not surprisingly, there are many more cards, many of which are inactive, at the beginning of the pipeline than at the end with programs already set up. This is a good visual reminder that we need to keep things moving along.

In this case I didn’t set up Trello, and I am not always the best user of it. Using this for committee work has been useful, but there are a few items to keep in mind for it to actually work to keep projects going. First, and this goes for everything, including analog cards or sticky notes, all the people working on the project need to check into it on a regular basis and use it consistently. One thing that I found was important to do to get it into a regular workflow was turn on email notifications. While it would be nice to stay out of email more, most of us are used to finding work show up there, and if you have a sane relationship to your inbox (i.e. you don’t use it to store work in progress), it can be helpful to know to log in to work on something. I haven’t used the mobile app yet, but that is another option for notifications.

Other Tools

While I have started using Asana and Trello more heavily recently, there are a number of other tools out there that you may need to use in your job or professional life. Here are a few:


Many institutions have some sort of “cloud” file system now such as Box or Google Drive. My work uses Box, and I find it very useful for parts of projects where I need many people (but a slightly different set each time) to collaborate on completing a single task. I upload a spreadsheet that I need everyone to look at, use the information to do something, and then add additional information to the spreadsheet. This is a very common scenario that organizations often use a shared drive to accomplish, but there are a number of problems with that approach. If you’ve ever been confronted with the filename “Spring2014_report-Copy-Copy-DRAFT.xlsx” or not been able to open a file because someone else left it open on her desktop and went to lunch, you know what I mean. Instead of that, I upload the file to Box, and assign a task to the usernames of all the people I need to look at the document. They can use a tool called Box Edit to open the file in Excel and any changes they make are immediately saved back to the shared document, just as a Google Doc would do. They can then mark the task complete, and the system only sends email reminders to people who haven’t yet finished the task.

ALA Connect

This section is only relevant to people working on projects with an American Library Association group, whether a committee or interest group. Since this happens to most people working in academic libraries at some point, I think it’s worth considering. But if not,  skip to the conclusion. ALA Connect is the central repository for institutional memory and documents for work around ALA, including committees and interest groups. It can also be a good place to work on project collaboratively, but it takes some setup. As a committee chair, I freely admit that I need to organize my own ALA Connect page much better. My normal approach was to use an online document (so something editable by everyone) for each project and file each document under a subcommittee heading, but in practice I find it way too hard to find the right document to see what each subcommittee is working on. I am going to experiment with a new approach. I will create “groups” for each project, and use the Group Headings sidebar to organize these. If you’re on a committee and not the chair, you don’t have access to reorganize the sidebar or posts, but suggest this approach to your chair if you can’t find anything in “General News & Discussions”. Also, try to document the approach you’ve taken so future chairs will know what you did, and let other chairs know what works for your committee.

You also need to make a firm commitment as a chair to hold certain types of discussions on your committee mailing list, and certain discussions on ALA Connect, and then to document any pertinent mailing list discussions on ALA Connect. That way you won’t be unable to figure out where you are on the project because half your work is in email and half on ALA Connect. (This obviously goes for any other tool other than email as well).


With all the tools above, you really have no excuse to be running projects through email, which is not very effective unless everyone you are working with is very strict with their email filing and reply times. (Hint: they aren’t—see above about a sane relationship with your inbox.) But any tool requires a good plan to understand how its strengths mesh with work you have to accomplish. If your project is to complete a document by a certain date, a combination of Google Docs or Box (or ALA Connect for ALA work) and automated reminders might be best. If you want to throw a lot of ideas around and then organize them, Trello or Asana might work. Since these are all free to try, explore a few tools before starting a big project to see what works for you and your collaborators. Once you pick one, dedicate a bit of time on a weekly or monthly basis to keeping your virtual workspace organized. If you find it’s no longer working, figure out why. Did the scope of your project change over time, and a different tool is now more effective? This can happen when you are planning to implement something and switch over from the implementation to ongoing work using the new system. Or maybe people have gotten complacent about checking in on work to do. Explore different types of notifications or mobile apps to reinvigorate your team.

I would love to hear about your own approach to lightweight project management with these tools or others in the comments.


Taking a Practical Look at the Google Books Case

Last month we got the long-awaited ruling in favor of Google in the Authors Guild vs. Google Books case, which by now has been analyzed extensively. Ultimately the judge in the case decided that Google’s digitization was transformative and thus constituted fair use. See InfoDocket for detailed coverage of the decision.

The Google Books project was part of the Google mission to index all the information available, and as such could never have taken place without libraries, which hold all those books. While most, if not all, the librarians I know use Google Books in their work, there has always been a sense that the project should not have been started by a commercial enterprise using the intellectual resources of libraries, but should have been started by libraries themselves working together.  Yet libraries are often forced to be more conservative about digitization than we might otherwise be due to rules designed to protect the college or university from litigation. This ruling has made it seem as though we could afford to be less cautious. As Eric Hellman points out, the decision seems to imply that with copyright the ends are the important part, not the means. “In Judge Chin’s analysis, copyright is concerned only with the ends, not the means. Copyright seems not to be concerned with what happens inside the black box.” 1 As long as the end use of the books was fair, which was deemed to be the case, the initial digitization was not a problem.

Looking at this from the perspective of repository manager, I want to address a few of the theoretical and logistical issues behind such a conclusion for libraries.

What does this mean for digitization at libraries?

At the beginning of 2013 I took over an ongoing digitization project, and as a first-time manager of a large-scale long-term project, I learned a lot about the processes involved in such a project. The project I work with is extremely small-scale compared with many such projects, but even at this scale the project is expensive and time-consuming. What makes it worth it is that long-buried works of scholarship are finally being used and read, sometimes for reasons we do not quite understand. That gets at the heart of the Google Books decision—digitizing books in library stacks and making them more widely available does contribute to education and useful arts.

There are many issues that we need to address, however. Some of the most important ones are what access can and should be provided to what works, and making mass digitization more available to smaller and international cultural heritage institutions. Google Books could succeed because it had the financial and computing resources of Google matched with the cultural resources of the participating research libraries. This problem is international in scope. I encourage you to read this essay by Amelia Sanz, in which she argues that digitization efforts so far have been inherently unequal and a reflection of colonialism. 2 But is there a practical way of approaching this desire to make books available to a wider audience?

Providing Access

There are several separate issues in providing access. Books that are in the public domain are unquestionably fine to digitize, though differences in international copyright law make it difficult to determine what can be provided to whom. As Amelia Sanz points out, Google can only digitize Spanish works prior to 1870 in Spain, but may digitize the complete work in the United States. The complete work is not available to Spanish researchers, but it is available in full to US researchers.

That aside, there are several reasons why it is useful to digitize works still unquestionably under copyright. One of the major reasons is textual corpus analysis–you need to have every word of many texts available to draw conclusions about use of words and phrases in those texts. Google Books ngram viewer is one such tool that comes out of mass digitization. Searching for phrases in Google and finding that phrase as a snippet in a book is an important way to find information in books that might otherwise be ignored in favor of online sources. Some argue that this means that those books will not be purchased when they might have otherwise been, but it is equally possible that this leads to greater discovery and more purchases, which research into music piracy suggests may be the case.

Another reason to digitize works still under copyright is to highlight the work of marginalized communities, though in that case it is imperative to work with those communities to ensure that the digitization is not exploitative. Many orphan works, for whom a rights-holder cannot be located, fall under this, and I know from some volunteer work that I have done that small cultural heritage institutions are eager to digitize material that represents the cultural and intellectual output of their communities.

In all the above cases, it is crucial to put into place mechanisms for ensuring that works under copyright are not abused. Google Books uses an algorithm that makes it impossible to read an entire book, which is probably beyond the abilities of most institutions. (If anyone has an idea for how to do this, I would love to hear it.) Simpler and more practical solutions to limiting access are to only make a chapter or sample of a book available for public use, which many publishers already allow. For instance, Oxford University Press allows up to 10% of a work (within certain limits) on personal websites or institutional repositories. (That is, of course, assuming you can get permission from the author). Many institutions maintain “dark archives“, which are digitized and (usually) indexed archives of material inaccessible to the public, whether institutional or research information. For instance, the US Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information maintains a dark archive index of technical reports comprising the equivalent of 6 million pages, which makes it possible to quickly find relevant information.

In any case where an institution makes the decision to digitize and make available the full text of in-copyright materials for reasons they determine are valid, there are a few additional steps that institutions should take. Institutions should research rights-holders or at least make it widely known to potential rights-holders that a project is taking place. The Orphan Works project at the University of Michigan is an example of such a project, though it has been fraught with controversy. Another important step is to have a very good policy for taking down material when a rights-holder asks–it should be clear to the rights-holder whether any copies of the work will be maintained and for what purposes (for instance archival or textual analysis purposes).

Digitizing, Curating, Storing, Oh My!

The above considerations are only useful when it is even possible for institutions without the resources of Google to start a digitization program. There are many examples of DIY digitization by individuals, for instance see Public Collectors, which is a listing of collections held by individuals open for public access–much of it digitized by passionate individuals. Marc Fischer, the curator of Public Collectors, also digitizes important and obscure works and posts them on his site, which he funds himself. Realistically, the entire internet contains examples of digitization of various kinds and various legal statuses. Most of this takes place on cheap and widely available equipment such as flatbed scanners. But it is possible to build an overhead book scanner for large-scale digitization with individual parts and at a reasonable cost. For instance, the DIY Book Scanning project provides instructions and free software for creating a book scanner. As they say on the site, all the process involves is to “[p]oint a camera at a book and take pictures of each page. You might build a special rig to do it. Process those pictures with our free programs. Enjoy reading on the device of your choice.”

“Processing the pictures” is a key problem to solve. Turning images into PDF documents is one thing, but providing high quality optical character recognition is extremely challenging. Free tools such as FreeOCR make it possible to do OCR from image or PDF files, but this takes processing power and results vary widely, particularly if the scan quality is lower. Even expensive tools like Adobe Acrobat or ABBYY FineReader have the same problems. Karen Coyle points out that uncorrected OCR text may be sufficient for searching and corpus analysis, but does not provide a faithful reproduction of the text and thus, for instance, provide access to visually impaired persons 3 This is a problem well known in the digital humanities world, and one solved by projects such as Project Gutenberg with the help of dedicated volunteer distributed proofreaders. Additionally, a great deal of material clearly in the public domain is in manuscript form or has text that modern OCR cannot recognize. In that case, crowdsourcing transcriptions is the only financially viable way for institutions to make text of the material available. 4 Examples of successful projects using volunteer transcriptors or proofreaders include Ancient Lives to transcribe ancient papyrus, What’s on the Menu at the New York Public Library, and DIYHistory at the University of Iowa libraries. (The latter has provided step by step instructions for building your own version using open source tools).

So now you’ve built your low-cost DIY book scanner, and put together a suite of open source tools to help you process your collections for free. Now what? The whole landscape of storing and preserving digital files is far beyond the scope of this post, but the cost of accomplishing this is probably the highest of anything other than staffing a digitization project, and it is here where Google clearly has the advantage. The Internet Archive is a potential solution to storing public domain texts (though they are not immune to disaster), but if you are making in-copyright works available in any capacity you will most likely have to take the risk on your own servers. I am not a lawyer, but I have never rented server space that would allow copyrighted materials to be posted.

Conclusion: Is it Worth It?

Obviously from this post I am in favor of taking on digitization projects of both public domain and copyrighted materials when the motivations are good and the policies are well thought out. From this perspective, I think the Google Books decision was a good thing for libraries and for providing greater access to library collections. Libraries should be smart about what types of materials to digitize, but there are more possibilities for large-scale digitization, and by providing more access, the research community can determine what is useful to them.

If you have managed a DIY book scanning project, please let me know in the comments, and I can add links to your project.

  1. Hellman, Eric. “Google Books and Black-Box Copyright Jurisprudence.” Go To Hellman, November 18, 2013.
  2. Sanz, Amelia. “Digital Humanities or Hypercolonial Studies?” Responsible Innovation in ICT (June 26, 2013).
  3. Coyle, Karen. “It’s FAIR!” Coyle’s InFormation, November 14, 2013.
  4. For more on this, see Ben Brumfield’s work on crowdsourced transcription, for example Brumfield, Ben W. “Collaborative Manuscript Transcription: ‘The Landscape of Crowdsourcing and Transcription’ at Duke University.” Collaborative Manuscript Transcription, November 23, 2013.

Responsibilities For Open Access

In honor of Open Access Week, I want to look at some troubling recent discussions about open access, and what academic librarians who work with technology can do. As the manager of an open access institutional repository, I strongly believe that providing greater access to academic research is a good worth pursuing. But I realize that this comes at a cost, and that we have a responsibility to ensure that open access also means integrity and quality.

On “stings” and quality

By now, the article by John Bohannon in Science has been thoroughly dissected in the blogosphere 1. This was not a study per se, but rather a piece of investigative journalism looking into the practices of open access journals. Bohannon submitted variations on an article written under African pseudonyms from fake universities that “any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry…should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately.” Over the course of 10 months, he submitted these articles to 304 open access journals whose names he drew from the Directory of Open Access Journals and Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory open access publishers. Ultimately 157 of the journals accepted the article and 98 rejected it, when any real peer review would have meant that it was rejected in all cases. It is very worth noting that in an analysis of the raw data that Bohannon supplied some publishers on Beall’s list rejected the paper immediately, which is a good reminder to take all curative efforts with an appropriate amount of skepticism 2.

There are certainly many methodological flaws in this investigation, which Mike Taylor outlines in detail in his post 3, and which he concludes was specifically aimed at discrediting open access journals in favor of journals such as Science. As Michael Eisen outlinesScience has not been immune to publishing articles that should have been rejected after peer review–though Bohannon informed Eisen that he intended to look at a variety of journals but this was not practical, and this decision was not informed by editors at Science. Eisen’s conclusion is that “peer review is a joke” and that we need to stop regarding the publication of an article in any journal as evidence that the article is worthwhile 4. Phil Davis at the Scholarly Kitchen took issue with this conclusion (among others noted above), since despite the flaws, this did turn up incontrovertible evidence that “a large number of open access publishers are willfully deceiving readers and authors that articles published in their journals passed through a peer review process…” 5. His conclusion is that open access agencies such as OASPA and DOAJ should be better at policing themselves, and that on the other side Jeffrey Beall should be cautious about suggesting a potential for guilt without evidence. I think one of the more level-headed responses to this piece comes from outside the library and scholarly publishing world in Steven Novella’s post on Neurologica, a blog focused on science and skepticism written by an academic neurologist. He is a fan of open access and wider access to information, but makes the point familiar to all librarians that the internet creates many more opportunities to distribute both good and bad information. Open access journals are one response to the opportunities of the internet, and in particular author-pays journals like “all new ‘funding models’ have the potential of creating perverse incentives.” Traditional journals fall into the same trap when they rely on impact factor to drive subscriptions, which means they may end up publishing “sexy” studies of questionable validity or failing to publish replication studies which are the backbone of the scientific method–and in fact the only real way to establish results no matter what type of peer review has been done 6.

More “perverse incentives”

So far the criticisms of open access have revolved around one type of “gold” open access, wherein the author (or a funding agency) pays article publication fees. “Green” open access, in which a version of the article is posted in a repository is not susceptible to abuse in quite the same way. Yet a new analysis of embargo policies by Shan Sutton shows that some publishers are targeting green open access through new policies. Springer used to have a 12 month embargo for mandated deposit in repositories such as PubMed, but now has extended it to all institutional repositories. Emerald changed its policy so that any mandated deposit to a repository (whether by funder or institutional mandate) was subject to a 24 month embargo  7.

In both cases, paid immediate open access is available for $1,595 (Emerald) or $3,000 (Springer). It seems that the publishers are counting that a “mandate” means that funds are available for this sort of hyrbid gold open access, but that ignores the philosophy behind such mandates. While federal open access mandates do in theory have a financial incentive that the public should not have to pay twice for research, Sutton argues that open access “mandates” at institutions are actually voluntary initiatives by the faculty, and provide waivers without question 8. Additionally, while this type of open access does provide public access to the article, it does not address larger issues of reuse of the text or data in the true sense of open access.

What should a librarian do?

The issues above are complex, but there are a few trends that we can draw on to understand our responsibilities to open access. First, there is the issue of quality, both in terms of researcher experience in working with a journal, and that of being able to trust the validity of an individual article. Second, we have to be aware of the terms under which institutional policies may place authors. As with many such problems, the technological issues are relatively trivial. To actually address them meaningfully will not happen with technology alone, but with education, outreach, and network building.

The major thing we can take away from Bohannon’s work is that we have to help faculty authors to make good choices about where they submit articles. Anyone who works with faculty has stories of extremely questionable practices by journals of all types, both open access and traditional. Speaking up about those practices on an individual basis can result in lawsuits, as we saw earlier this year. Are there technical solutions that can help weed out predatory publishers and bad journals and articles? The Library Loon points out that many factors, some related to technology, have meant that both positive and negative indicators of journal quality have become less useful in recent years. The Loon suggests that “[c]reating a reporting mechanism where authors can rate and answer relatively simple questions about their experiences with various journals seems worthwhile.” 9

The comments to this post have some more suggestions, including open peer review and a forum backed by a strong editor that could be a Yelp-type site for academic publisher reputation. I wrote about open peer review earlier this year in the context of PeerJ, and participants in that system did indeed find the experience of publishing in a journal with quick turnarounds and open reviews pleasant. (Bohannon did not submit a fake article to PeerJ). This solution requires that journals have a more robust technical infrastructure as well as a new philosophy to peer review. More importantly, this is not a solution librarians can implement for our patrons–it is something that has to come from the journals.

The idea that seems to be catching on more is the “Yelp” for scholarly publishers. This seems like a good potential solution, albeit one that would require a great deal of coordinated effort to be truly useful. The technical parts of this type of solution would be relatively easy to carry out. But how to ensure that it is useful for its users? The Yelp analog may be particularly helpful here. When it launched in 2004, it asked users who were searching for some basic information about their question, and to provide the email addresses of additional people whom they would have traditionally asked for this information. Yelp then emailed those people as well as others with similar searches to get reviews of local businesses to build up its base of information. 10 Yelp took a risk in pursuing content in that way, since it could have been off-putting to potential users. But local business information was valuable enough to early users that they were willing to participate, and this seems like a perfect model to build up a base of information on journal publisher practices.

This helps address the problem of predatory publishers and shifting embargoes, but it doesn’t help as much with the issue of quality assurance for the article content. Librarians teach students how to find articles that claim to be peer reviewed, but long before Bohannon we knew that peer review quality varies greatly, and even when done well tells us nothing about the validity of the research findings. Education about the scholarly communication cycle, the scientific method, and critical thinking skills are the most essential tools to ensure that students are using appropriate articles, open access or not. However, those skills are difficult to bring to bear for even the most highly experienced researchers trying to keep up with a large volume of published research. There are a few technical solutions that may be of help here. Article level metrics, particularly alternative metrics, can aid in seeing how articles are being used. (For more on altmetrics, see this post from earlier this year).

One of the easiest options for article level metrics is the bookmarklet. This provides article level metrics for many articles with a DOI, or articles from PubMed and arXiv. offers an API with a free tier to develop your own app. An open source option for article level metrics is PLOS’s Article-Level Metrics, a Ruby on Rails application. These solutions do not guarantee article quality, of course, but hopefully help weed out more marginal articles.

No one needs to be afraid of open access

For those working with institutional repositories or other open access issues, it sometimes seems very natural for Open Access Week to fall so near Halloween. But it does not have to be frightening. Taking responsibility for thoughtful use of technical solutions and on-going outreach and education is essential, but can lead to important changes in attitudes to open access and changes in scholarly communication.



  1. Bohannon, John. “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Science 342, no. 6154 (October 4, 2013): 60–65. doi:10.1126/science.342.6154.60.
  2. “Who Is Afraid of Peer Review: Sting Operation of The Science: Some Analysis of the Metadata.” Scholarlyoadisq, October 9, 2013.
  3. Taylor, Mike. “Anti-tutorial: How to Design and Execute a Really Bad Study.” Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week. Accessed October 17, 2013.
  4. Eisen, Michael. “I Confess, I Wrote the Arsenic DNA Paper to Expose Flaws in Peer-review at Subscription Based Journals.” It Is NOT Junk, October 3, 2013.
  5. Davis, Phil. “Open Access ‘Sting’ Reveals Deception, Missed Opportunities.” The Scholarly Kitchen. Accessed October 17, 2013.
  6. Novella, Steven. “A Problem with Open Access Journals.” Neurologica Blog, October 7, 2013.
  7. Sutton, Shan C. “Open Access, Publisher Embargoes, and the Voluntary Nature of Scholarship: An Analysis.” College & Research Libraries News 74, no. 9 (October 1, 2013): 468–472.
  8. Ibid., 469
  9. Loon, Library. “A Veritable Sting.” Gavia Libraria, October 8, 2013.
  10. Cringely, Robert. “The Ears Have It.” I, Cringely, October 14, 2004.