The Setup: What We Use at ACRL TechConnect

Inspired by “The Setup” a few of us at Tech Connect have decided to share some of our favorite tools and techniques with you. What software, equipment, or time/stress management tools do you love? Leave us a note in the comments.

Eric – Homebrew package manager for OS X

I love Macs. I love their hardware, their operating system, even some of their apps like Garage Band. But there are certain headaches that Mac OS X comes with. While OS X exposes its inner workings via UNIX command line, it doesn’t provide a package manager like the apt of many Linux distros to install and update software.
Enter Homebrew, a lifesaver that’s helped me to up my game on the command line without much ancillary pain. Homebrew helps you find (“brew search php“), install (“brew install phantomjs“), and update (“brew upgrade git“) software from a central repository. I currently have 36 packages installed, among them utilities that Apple neglected to include like wget, programming tools like Node.js, and brilliant timesavers like z, a bookmarking system for the command line. Installing a lot of these tools can be tougher than using them, requiring permissions tweaks and enigmatic incantations. Homebrew makes installation easy and checking thirty-six separate websites for available updates becomes unnecessary.
As a bonus, some Homebrew commands now produce unicode beer mugs.

Updated Homebrew from bad98b12 to 150b5f96.
==> Updated Formulae
autojump berkeley-db gtk+ imagemagick libxml2
==> Upgrading 1 outdated package, with result:
libxml2 2.9.0
==> Upgrading libxml2
==> Downloading ftp://xmlsoft.org/libxml2/libxml2-2.9.0.tar.gz
####################################### 100.0%
==> Patching
patching file threads.c
patching file xpath.c
==> ./configure --prefix=/usr/local/Cellar/libxml2/2.9.0 --without-python
==> make
==> make install
==> Caveats
This formula is keg-only: so it was not symlinked into /usr/local.
==> Summary
beer mug usr/local/Cellar/libxml2/2.9.0: 273 files, 11M, built in 94 seconds

[Note: simulation, not verbatim output]

Magic! And a shameless plug: Homebrew has a Kickstarter currently to help them with some automated tests, so if you use Homebrew consider a donation.

Margaret – Pomodoro Technique/using time wisely

Everyone works differently and has more effective times of day to complete certain types of work. Some people have to start writing first thing in the mornings, others can’t do much of anything that early. For me personally I find late afternoon the most effective time to work on code or technical work—but late afternoon is a time very prone to being distractible. So many funny things have been posted on the internet, and my RSS reader is all full up again. The Pomodoro technique (as well as similar systems) is a promise to yourself that if you just work hard on something for a relatively short amount of time that you will finish it, and then can have a guilt-free break.

Read the website for the full description of how to use this technique and some tools, but here’s the basic idea. You list the tasks you need to do, and then pick a task to work on for 25 minutes. Then you set a timer and start work. After the timer goes off, you get a 5 minute break to do whatever you want, and then after a few Pomodoros you take a longer break. The timer ideally should have a visual component so that you know how much time you have left and remember to stay on task. My personal favorite is focus booster. This is what mine looks like right now:

Pomodoro status bar

Note that the line changes color as I get closer to the end. It will become blue and count down my break when that starts. Another one I like a lot, especially when I am not at my own computer is e.ggtimer.com. This is a simple display, and you can bookmark http://e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro to get a Pomodoro started.

I can’t do Pomodoros all day—as a librarian, I need to be available to work with others at certain times—that’s not an interruption, that’s my job. Other times I really need to focus and can’t. This is the best technique to get started—and sometimes once I am started I get so focused on the project that I don’t even notice I am supposed to be on a break.

Jim – Tomcat Server with Jersey servlet: a customizable middleware/API system

The Tomcat/Jersey stack is the backbone of the library’s technology prototyping initiative. With this tool, our staff of research programmers and student programmers can take any webpage/database source and turn it into an API that could then feed into a mobile app, a data feed in a website, or a widget in some other emerging technology. While using and leveraging the Tomcat/Jersey stack does require some Java background, it can be learned in a couple weeks by anyone who has some scripting and server experience. The hardest thing to this whole pipeline is finding enough time to keep cranking out the library APIs — one that I got running over the winter holiday is a feed of group rooms that are available to be checked out/scheduled within the next hour at the library.

The data feed sends back a JSON array of available rooms, like this (abbreviated):

[{"roomName":"Collaboration Room 02 - Undergraduate Library",

"startTime":"10:00 AM",

"endTime":"11:00 AM",

"date":"1/27/2013"}, …
Bohyun – Get into the mood for concentration and focus

I am one of those people who are easily excited by new happenings around me. I am also one of those people who often would do anything but the thing that I must be doing. That is, I am prone to distraction and procrastination. My work often requires focus and concentration but I have an extremely hard time getting into the right mood.
there are no limits to what you can accomplish when you are supposed to be doing something else
The two tools that I found help me quite a bit are (a) Scribblet and (b) Rainy Mood. Scribblet (http://scribblet.org/) is a simple Javascript bookmarklet that lets you literally scribble on your web browser. If you tend to read more efficiently while annotating, this simple tool will help you a great deal with online reading. Rainy Mood (http://www.rainymood.com/) is a website that displays the window of any rainy day with even the sound of thunder sprinkled in. I tend to get much calmer on a rainy day which can do wonders for my writing and other projects that require a calm and focused state of mind. This tool instantly makes me have a rainy day regardless of the weather.
rainy mood websitescribblet website

Meghan – Evernote

Evernote is not a terribly technical tool, but it is one I love and constantly use.  It provides the ability for you to take notes, clip items from the web, attach files to notes, organize into notebooks, share notebooks (or keep them private) and search existing notes.  It is available to download for desktops but I use the web version primarily, along with the web clipper and the Android app on my phone.  Everything syncs together, so it is easy to locate notes from any location.  Here are three examples of how it fits into my daily life:

- An enormous pile of classified bookmarks: I am currently trying to get up to speed on Drupal development as well as looking at examples of online image collections and brainstorming for my next TechConnect blog entry.  The web clipper allows me to save things into specific piles by using notebooks and then add tags for classification and easier searching.  For example, I can classify an issue description or resolution in the my web development reference notebook, but tag it with the name for our site which is affected by the issue. This is especially useful when I know I have to change tasks and am likely to navigate away from my tabs in the browser.  When I return to the task in a day or so, I can search for the helpful pages I saved.  Classifying in notebooks is also good to build a list of sources that I consult every time I do a certain task, like building a server.

Evernote library

- Course and conference notes: Using the web or phone version, I can type notes during a lecture or conference session.  I can also attach a pdf of the slides from a presentation for reference later.  Frequently, I create a notebook for a particular conference that I can opt to share with others.

Conference notes in Evernote

- Personal uses:  I am learning to cook, and this tool has been really useful.  Say I find a great recipe that I decide I want to (try and) make for dinner tonight.  Clip the recipe using the web clipper, save it to my recipes notebook and then pull it up on my phone while I’m cooking to follow along (which also explains all the flour on my phone).  In a few months if I want to use it again, I’ll probably have to search for it, because all I will remember is that it had chickpeas in it.  But, that’s all I have to remember.

recipe in Evernote
There are lots of other add-ins for this application, but I love and use the base service the most often.


A co-operative model to circulating technology collections

Circulating technology collections are seeing increased popularity in academic settings. Devices like the iPad are designed to be refreshed about every year. Observers of the consumer electronics market will note that many of the devices so coveted are designed for obsolescence. This planned obsolescence poses problems for collecting and circulating technology.

Technology is a different type of resource than a book. Librarians know how to preserve books, but in general, the preservation and conservation of electronics is related to a rapidly changing marketplace. Considering the rate of obsolesce and the game we continually lose in the purchase of consumer electronics, what rental models do libraries need in order to maximize collections budgets in this area?

image of circulating technology

Circulating technology at the Undergraduate Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

The Nash Equilibrium may be instructive for co-operative models applied to library circulating collections. Two or more libraries that know each other’s choices can cooperate and still pursue individual best interests.  In general, this works because each cooperating group doesn’t change its approach based on what the other agent is doing; it assumes the other will continue its maximally beneficial strategy. This is germane to the collection of tech in circulating collections if we consider that no library is entering into the consumer electronics market alone; rather, we are all entering into the same problem area.

We all have a limited collections budget and we are all highly concerned with getting the most out of our shrinking collections budgets — all while innovating and keeping pace with a changing digital landscape.

One non-profit business model I’ve pondered is setting up a type of library co-operative where libraries (the set of all libraries that collect technology for loaning to patrons) do not actually purchase any of the electronics that are planned to become obsolete but rather, by size of their co-operative set are able to pool resources into rental paradigms. We would be able to do this through an open online interface that showed what individual libraries wanted to offer, and what they were able to contribute in order to rent the given technology.

On the co-op’s website, a library or other educational institution would indicate they would like to rent consumer electronics equipment, once the co-op hits a profitable/break-even threshold for renting, then all libraries will get the contract to rent. The reason why this works is because all libraries have chosen to rent for a set period at a set price using Nash equilibria to modulate the rental threshold algorithm.

When the renting contract expires, the co-op can (a) get our rentals back, and sell wholesale, but not as a rule keep any inventory, or (b) if the library (rentee) thinks the technology isn’t obsolete by the time the contract ends, they can purchase at a marked down rate. This is not completely without precedent, since many libraries use a rental option for their new release books.

Such a tech cooperative helps to mitigate the risk of consumer electronic obsolescence for libraries – - there isn’t any purchase, except as managed through the cooperative. And since we know all too well that consumer electronics are built in with designed-obsolescence, it doesn’t make financial sense for a library or educational institution to purchase an item that will not be in demand later, or will only be useful for a short time.

Is this the year for a library technology co-op? Is ALA a place that could manage such an operation; a Tech Co-op housed within LITA? Would your institution participate in such a rental paradigm?


Disruptive Educational Models and Open Education

Eating Your Own Dog Food

One of the most memorable experiences I had as a library student was becoming a patron of my own library. As on online library school student* I usually worked either in my office at pre-approved times, or at home. However, depending on the assignment, sometimes I worked out at the reference area public access computers. It nearly drove me mad, for a very simple reason – this was in the day before optical mouse devices, and the trackballs on our mice were incredibly sticky and jerky, despite regular cleaning routines. It was so bad I wondered how students could stand to work on our workstations, and how it made them feel about the library in general, since there is nothing like a solid hour or so of constantly repeated, albeit small, irritations to make a person develop indelible negative feelings towards a particular environment.

I’ve heard the same thing from colleagues that have started graduate programs here at my university; they are shocked at how hard it can be to be a student in the library, even with insider knowledge, and it can be demoralizing (and galvanizing) to watch classmates and even instructors dismiss library services and resources with “too confusing” or “learning curve too steep” as they ruthlessly practice least-effort satisficing for their information needs.

In information technology circles, the concept of having to use your own platforms/services is known as “eating your own dog food” or “dogfooding.” While there are pitfalls to relying too heavily on it as an assessment tool (we all have insider knowledge about libraries, software, and resources that can smooth the process for us), it is an eye-opening exercise, especially to listen to our users be brutally frank about what we offer — or don’t.

DIY Universities and Open Education

I am suggesting something related but complementary to dogfooding — sampling the models and platforms of a burgeoning movement that has the potential to be a disruptive force in higher education. DIY U and the coming transformation of education are all the rage (pun intended) these days, as prestigious universities and professors, Edupunks, loose collaboratives, and start-ups participate in collaborative free online offerings through various platforms and with different aims: CourseraKhan AcademyP2PUMIT OpenCourseWareUdacityNYU Open Education, and many more. This is a call to action for us as librarians. Instead of endlessly debating what this might mean, or where it might be going, and this movement’s possible effect on academic libraries, I suggest actually signing up for a course and experiencing it first-hand.

For library technologists facing the brave new world of higher education in the 21st century, there are three major advantages to taking a class in one of the new experimental DIY universities. We get to experience new platforms, delivery mechanisms, and modes of teaching, some of which may be applicable to the work of the academic library. In addition, many of the courses offered are technical courses that are directly applicable to our daily work. Thirdly, it allows us as academic participants to personally assess the often intemperate and hyperbolic language on both sides of the debate: “can’t possibly be as good as institutional campus-based face-to-face EVER” versus “This changes everything, FOREVER.” How many faculty on your campuses do you think have actually taken an online class, especially in one of these open educational initiatives? This is an opportunity to become an informed voice in any local campus debates and conversations. These conversations and debates will involve our core services, whether faculty and administrators realize it or  not.

It will also encourage some future-oriented thinking about where libraries could fit into this changing educational landscape. One of the more interesting possible effects in these collaborative,  open-to-all ventures is the necessity of using free or open access high quality resources. Where will that put the library? What does that mean for instructional resources hidden behind a particular institution’s authentication wall? Academic libraries and services have been tied to a particular institution — what happens when those affiliations blur and change extremely rapidly? There are all sorts of implications for faculty, students, libraries, vendors, and open access/open educational resources platforms. As a thought exercise, take a look at these seven predictions for the future of technology-enabled universities from JISC’s Head of Innovation, Sarah Porter. Which ones DON’T involve libraries? As a profession, let’s get out on the bleeding edge and investigate the developing models.

I just signed up for “Model Thinking” through Coursera. Taught by Professor Scott E. Page from the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan, the course will cover modeling information to make sense of trends, social movements, behaviors, because “evidence shows that people who think with models consistently outperform those who don’t. And, moreover people who think with lots of models outperform people who use only one.” That sounds applicable to making decisions about e-books, collection development, workflow redesign, and changing models of higher education, et cetera.

Some Suggestions:

  • Coursera offers clusters of courses in Society, Networks, and Information (Model Thinking, Gamification, Social Networking Analysis, among others) and Computer Science (Algorithims, Compilers, Game Theory, etc.). If you have a music library or handle streaming media in your library, what about Listening to World Music? If you are curious about humanities subjects that have depended on traditional library materials in the past, try A History of the World since 1300 or Greek and Roman Mythology.
  • Udacity offers Building a Search Engine, Design of Computer Programs, and Programming a Robotic Car (automate a bookmobile?).
  • Set up your own peer class with P2PU, or take Become a Citizen Scientist, Curating Content, or Programming with the Twitter API.
  • If you are in the New York City area and can attend an in-person workshop, General Assembly offers Storytelling Skills, Programming Fundamentals for Non-Programmers, and Dodging the Dangers of Copyright Law (taught by participants in Yale Law School’s Information Society Project) as part of a menu of  tech and tech-business related workshops. These have fees ranging from $15 to $30.
  • Before I take my Model Thinking class, I’m planning to brush up my algebra at Khan Academy.
  • Try the archived lectures at Harvard’s “Building Mobile Applications“, hosted in their institutional repository.
  • Health Sciences Librarian? What about Information Technology in the Health Care System of the Future from MIT OpenCourseWare?

 

* Full disclosure: I am a proud graduate of University of Illinois’ LEEP (5.0) MSLIS program, and I also have another master’s degree done the old fashioned way, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of online education done correctly.


Lazy Consensus and Libraries

Happy feet

Photo courtesy of Flickr user enggul

Librarians, as a rule, don’t tolerate anarchy well. They like things to be organized and to follow processes. But when it comes to emerging technologies, too much reliance on planning and committees can stifle creativity and delay adoption. The open source software community can offer librarians models for how to make progress on big projects with minimal oversight.

“Lazy consensus” is one such model from which librarians can learn a lot. At the Code4Lib conference in February 2012, Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia Scholar’s Lab encouraged library development teams to embrace this concept in order to create more innovative libraries. (I encourage you to watch a video or read the text of her keynote.) This goes for all sizes and types of academic libraries, whether they have a development staff or just staff with enthusiasm for learning about emerging technologies.

What is lazy consensus?

According to the Apache software foundation:

Lazy Consensus means that when you are convinced that you know what the community would like to see happen you can simply assume that you already have consensus and get on with the work. You don’t have to insist people discuss and/or approve your plan, and you certainly don’t need to call a vote to get approval. You just assume you have the community’s support unless someone says otherwise.
(quote from http://incubator.apache.org/odftoolkit/docs/governance/lazyConsensus.html)

Nowviskie suggests lazy consensus as a way to cope with an institutional culture where “no” is too often the default answer, since in lazy consensus the default answer is “yes.” If someone doesn’t agree with a proposal, he or she must present and defend an alternative within a reasonable amount of time (usually 72 hours). This ensures that the people who really care about a project have a chance to speak up and make sure the project is going in the right direction. By changing the default answer to YES, we make it easier to move forward on the things we really care about.

When you care about delivering the best possible experience and set of services for your library patrons, you should advocate for ways to make that happen and spend your time thinking about how to make that happen. Nowviskie points out the kinds of environments in which this is likely to thrive. Developers and technologists need time for research and development, “20% time” projects, and freedom to explore new possibilities. Even at small libraries without any development staff, librarians need time to research and understand issues of technology in libraries to make better decisions about the adoption of emerging technologies.

Implementing lazy consensus

Implementing lazy consensus in your library must be done with care. First and foremost, you must be aware of the culture you are in and be respectful of it even as you see room for change and improvement. Coming in the first day at a new job is not the moment to implement this process across the board, but in your own work or your department’s work you can set an example and a precedent. Nowviskie provides a few guidelines for healthy lazy consensus. Emphasize working hard and with integrity while being open and friendly. Keep everyone informed about what you are working on, and keep your mission in mind as the centerpiece of your work. In libraries, this means you must keep public services involved in any project from the earliest possible stages, and always maintain a commitment to maintaining the best possible user experience. When you or your team reliably deliver good results you will show the value in the process.

While default negativity can certainly stifle creativity, default positivity for all ideas can be equally stifling. Jonah Lehrer wrote in a recent New Yorker article article that the evidence shows that traditional brainstorming, where all ideas are presented to a group without criticism, doesn’t work. Creating better ideas requires critiquing wrong assumptions, which in turn helps us examine our own assumptions. In adopting lazy consensus, make sure there is authentic room for debate. Responding to a disagreement about a course of action with reasoned critique and alternate paths is more likely to result in creative ideas, and brings the discussion forward rather than ending it with a “no.”

Librarians know a lot about information and people. The open source software community knows a lot about how to run flexible and transparent organizations. Combining the two can create wonderful experiences for our users.


The Start-Up Library

“Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens.” - David Foster Wallace*

What if a library operated more like an Internet start-up and less like a library?

To be a library in the digital era is to steward legacy systems and practices of an era long past. Contemporary librarianship is at its worst when it accepts the poorly crafted vended services and offers poorly thought through service models, simply because this is the way we have always operated.

Internet start-ups, in the decade of 2010, heavily feature software as a service. The online presence to the Internet start-up is of foundational concern since it isn’t simply a “presence” to the start-up — the online environment is the only environment for the Internet start-up.

Search services would act and look contemporary

If we were an Internet start-up, we wouldn’t use instructional services as a crutch that would somehow correct poor design in our catalogs or other discovery layers. We wouldn’t accept the poorly designed vendor databases we currently accept. We would ask for interfaces that act and look contemporary, and if vendors did not deliver, we would make our own. And we would do this in 30-day time-lines, not six months and not years to roll out, as is the current lamentable state of library software services.

Students in the current era will look at a traditional library catalog search box and say: “that looks very 90s” – we shouldn’t be amused by that comment, unless of course we are trying to look 20 years out of date.

We would embrace perpetual beta.

If the library thought of its software services more like Internet start-ups, we would not be so cautious — we would perpetually improve and innovate in our software offerings. Think of the technology giants Google and Apple, they are never content to rest on laurels, everyday they get up and they invent like their lives depended on it. Do we?

We wouldn’t settle.

For years we’ve accepted legacy ILS systems – we need to move away from accepting the status quo, the way things have always been done, and the way we always work is not the way we should always work — if the information environments have changed, shouldn’t this be reflected in the library’s software services?

We would be bold.

We need to look at massive re-wiring in the way we think about software as a service in libraries; we are smarter and better than mediocrity.

The notion of software services in libraries may be dramatically improved if we thought of our gateways and virtual experiences more like Internet start-ups conceptualize their do or die services; which are seemingly made more effective and efficient every thirty to sixty days.

If Internet start-ups ran their web services the way libraries contently run legacy systems, the company would surely fold, or more likely, never have attracted seed funding to start operating as a start-up. Let’s do our profession a favor and turn the lights out on the library way of running libraries. Let’s run our library as if it were an Internet start-up.

___

* also: “… this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.” – David Foster Wallace