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.

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.


One Week, One Tool, Many Lessons

When I was a kid, I cherished the Paula Danziger book Remember Me to Harold Square, in which a group of kids call themselves the Serendipities, named for the experience of making fortunate discoveries accidentally.  Last week I found myself remembering the book over and over again as I helped develop Serendip-o-matic, a tool which introduces serendipity to research, as part of a twelve person team attending One Week | One Tool at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (RRCHNM).

In this blog post, I’ll take you through the development of the “serendipity machine”, from the convening of the team to the selection and development of the tool.  The experience turned out to be an intense learning experience for me, so along the way, I will share some of my own fortunate discoveries.

(Note: this is a pretty detailed play-by-play of the process.  If you’re more interested in the result, please see the RRCHNM news items on both our process and our product, or play with Serendip-o-matic itself.)

The Eve of #OWOT

@foundhistory: One Week | One Tool is Here! Meet the crew and join in! http://t.co/4EyDPllNnu #owot #buildsomething

Approximately thirty people applied to be part of One Week | One Tool (OWOT), an Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Twelve were selected and we arrive on Sunday, July 28, 2013 and convene in the Well, the watering hole at the Mason Inn.

As we circle around the room and introduce ourselves, I can’t help but marvel at the myriad skills of this group.  Each person arrives with more than one bag of tricks from which to pull, including skills in web development, historical scholarship, database administration, librarianship, human-computer interaction and literature studies.  It takes about a minute before someone mentions something I’ve never heard of and so the Googling begins.  (D3, for the record, is a Javascript library for data visualizations).

Tom Scheinfeldt (@foundhistory), the RRCHNM director-at-large who organized OWOT, delivers the pre-week pep talk and discusses how we will measure success.  The development of the tool is important, but so is the learning experience for the twelve assembled scholars.  It’s about the product, but also about the process.  We are encouraged to learn from each other, to “hitch our wagon” to another smart person in the room and figure out something new.

As for the product, the goal is to build something that is used.  This means that defining and targeting the audience is essential.

The tweeting began before we arrived, but typing starts in earnest at this meeting and the #owot hashtag is populated with our own perspectives and feedback from the outside.  Feedback, as it turns out, will be the priority for Day 1.

Day 1

@DoughertyJack: “One Week One Tool team wants feedback on which digital tool to build.”

Mentors from RRCHNM take the morning to explain some of the basic tenets of what we’re about to do.  Sharon Leon talks about the importance of defining the project: “A project without an end is not a project.”  Fortunately, the one week timeline solves this problem for us initially, but there’s the question of what happens after this week?

Patrick Murray-John takes us through some of the finer points of developing in a collaborative environment.  Sheila Brennan discusses outreach and audience, and continues to emphasize the point from the night before: the audience definition is key.  She also says the sentence that, as we’ll see, would need to be my mantra for the rest of the project: “Being willing to make concrete decisions is the only way you’re going to get through this week.

All of the advice seems spot-on and I find myself nodding my head.  But we have no tool yet, and so how to apply specifics is still really hazy.  The tool is the piece of the puzzle that we need.

We start with an open brainstorming session, which results in a filled whiteboard of words and concepts.  We debate audience, we debate feasibility, we debate openness.  Debate about openness brings us back to the conversation about audience – for whom are we being open?  There’s lot of conversation but at the end, we essentially have just a word cloud associated with projects in our heads.

So, we then take those ideas and try to express them in the following format: X tool addresses Y need for Z audience.  I am sitting closest to the whiteboards so I do a lot of the scribing for this second part and have a few observations:

  • there are pet projects in the room – some folks came with good ideas and are planning to argue for them
  • our audience for each tool is really similar; as a team we are targeting “researchers”, though there seems to be some debate on how inclusive that term is.  Are we including students in general?  Teachers?  What designates “research”?  It seems to depend on the proposed tool.
  • the problem or need is often hard to articulate.  “It would be cool” is not going to cut it with this crowd, but there are some cases where we’re struggling to define why we want to do something.
Clarifying Ideas

Clarifying Ideas. Photo by Mia Ridge.

A few group members begin taking the rows and creating usable descriptions and titles for the projects in a Google Doc, as we want to restrict public viewing while still sharing within the group.  We discuss several platforms for sharing our list with the world, and land on IdeaScale.  We want voters to be able to vote AND comment on ideas, and IdeaScale seems to fit the bill.  We adjourn from the Center and head back to the hotel with one thing left to do: articulate these ideas to the world using IdeaScale and get some feedback.

The problem here, of course, is that everyone wants to make sure that their idea is communicated effectively and we need to agree on public descriptions for the projects.  Finally, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel…until we hit another snag.  IdeaScale requires a login to vote or comment and there’s understandable resistance around the table to that idea.  For a moment, it feels like we’re back to square one, or at least square five.  Team members begin researching alternatives but nothing is perfect, we’ve already finished dinner and need the votes by 10am tomorrow.  So we stick with IdeaScale.

And, not for the last time this week, I reflect on Sheila’s comment, “being willing to make concrete decisions is the only way you’re going to get through this week.”  When new information, such as the login requirement, challenges the concrete decision you made, how do you decide whether or not to revisit the decision?  How do you decide that with twelve people?

I head to bed exhausted, wondering about how many votes we’re going to get, and worried about tomorrow: are we going to make a decision?

Day 2

@briancroxall: “We’ve got a lot of generous people in the #owot room who are willing to kill their own ideas.”

It turns out that I need not have worried.  In the winnowing from 11 choices down to 2, many members of the team are willing to say, “my tool can be done later” or “that one can be done better outside this project.”   Approximately 100 people weighed in on the IdeaScale site, and those votes are helpful as we weigh each idea.  Scott Kleinman leads us in a discussion about feasbility for implementation and commitment in the room and the choices begin to fall away.  At the end, there are four, but after a few rounds of voting we’re down to two with equal votes that must be differentiated.  After a little more discussion, Tom proposes a voting system that allows folks to weight their votes in terms of commitment and the Serendipity project wins out.  The drafted idea description reads:

“A serendipitous discovery tool for researchers that takes information from your personal collection (such as a Zotero citation library  or a CSV file) and delivers content (from online libraries or collections like DPLA or Europeana) similar to it, which can then be visualized and manipulated.”

We decide to keep our project a secret until our launch and we break for lunch before assigning teams.  (Meanwhile, #owot hashtag follower Sherman Dorn decides to create an alternative list of ideas – One Week Better Tools – which provides some necessary laughs over the next couple of days).

After lunch, it’s time to break out responsibilities.  Mia Ridge steps up, though, and suggests that we first establish a shared understanding of the tool.  She sketches on one of the whiteboards the image which would guide our development over the next few days.

This was a takeaway moment for me.  I frequently sketch out my projects, but I’m afraid the thinking often gets pushed out in favor of the doing when I’m running low on time.  Mia’s suggestion that we take the time despite being against the clock probably saved us lots of hours and headaches later in the project.  We needed to aim as a group, so our efforts would fire in the same direction.  The tool really takes shape in this conversation, and some of the tasks are already starting to become really clear.  (We are also still indulging our obsession with mustaches at this time, as you may notice.)

Mia sketchs app.

Mia Ridge leads discussion of application. Photo by Meghan Frazer.

Tom leads the discussion of teams.  He recommends three: a project management team, a design/dev team and an outreach team.  The project managers should be selected first, and they can select the rest of the teams.  The project management discussion is difficult; there’s an abundance of qualified people in the room.  From my perspective, it makes sense to have the project managers be folks who can step in and pinch hit as things get hectic, but we also need our strongest technical folks on the dev team.  In the end, Brian Croxall and I are selected to be the project management team.

We decide to ask the remaining team members where they would like to be and see where our numbers end up.  The numbers turn out great: 7 for design/dev and 3 for outreach, with two design/dev team members slated to help with outreach needs as necessary.

The teams hit the ground running and begin prodding the components of the idea. The theme of the afternoon is determining the feasibility of this “serendipity engine” we’ve elected to build.  Mia Ridge, leader of the design/dev team, runs a quick skills audit and gets down to the business of selecting programming languages, frameworks and strategies for the week. They choose to work in Python with the Django framework.  Isotope, a JQuery plugin I use in my own development, is selected to drive the results page.  A private Github repository is set up under a code name.  (Beyond Isotope, HTML and CSS, I’m a little out of my element here, so for more technical details, please visit the public repository’s wiki.)  The outreach team lead, Jack Dougherty, brainstorms with his team on overall outreach needs and high priority tasks.  The Google document from yesterday becomes a Google Drive folder, with shells for press releases, a contact list for marketing and work plans for both teams.

This is the first point where I realize that I am going to have to adjust to a lack of hands on work.  I do my best when I’m working a keyboard: making lists, solving problems with code, etc.  As one of the project managers, my job is much less on the keyboard and much more about managing people and process.

When the teams come back together to report out, there’s a lot of getting each side up to speed, and afterwards our mentors advise us that the meetings have to be shorter.  We’re already at the end of day 2, though both teams would be working into the night on their work plans and Brian and need I still need to set the schedule for tomorrow.

We’re past the point where we can have a lot of discussion, except for maybe about the name.

Day 3

@briancroxall: Prepare for more radio silence from #owot today as people put their heads down and write/code.

@DoughertyJack: At #owot we considered 120 different names for our tool and FINALLY selected number 121 as the winner. Stay tuned for Friday launch!

Wednesday is tough.  We have to come up with a name, and all that exploration from yesterday needs to be a prototype by the end of the day. We are still hammering out the language we use in talking to each other and there’s some middle ground to be found on terminology. One example is the use of the word “standup” in our schedule.  “Standup” means something very specific to developers familiar with the Agile development process whereas I just mean, “short update meeting.”  Our approach to dealing with these issues is to identify the confusion and quickly agree on language we all understand.

I spend most of the day with the outreach team.  We have set a deadline for presenting names at lunchtime and are hoping the whole team can vote after lunch.  This schedule turns out to be folly as the name takes most of the day and we have to adjust our meeting times accordingly.  As project managers, Brian and I are canceling meetings (because folks are on a roll, we haven’t met a deadline, etc) whenever we can, but we have to balance this with keeping the whole team informed.

Camping out in a living room type space in RRCHNM, spread out among couches and looking at a Google Doc being edited on a big-screen TV, the outreach team and various interested parties spend most of the day brainstorming names.  We take breaks to work on the process press release and other essential tasks, but the name is the thing for the moment.  We need a name to start working on branding and logos.  Product press releases need to be completed, the dev team needs a named target and of course, swag must be ordered.

It is in this process, however, that an Aha! moment occurs for me.  We have been discussing names for a long time and folks are getting punchy.  The dev team lead and our designer, Amy Papaelias, have joined the outreach team along with most of our CHNM mentors.  I want to revisit something dev team member Eli Rose said earlier in the day.  To paraphrase, Eli said that he liked the idea that the tool automated or mechanized the concept of surprise.  So I repeat Eli’s concept to the group and it isn’t long after that that Mia says, “what about Serendip-o-matic?”  The group awards the name with head nods and “I like that”s and after running it by developers and dealing with our reservations (eg, hyphens, really?), history is made.

As relieved as I am to finally have a name, the bigger takeaway for me here is in the role of the manager.  I am not responsible for the inspiration for the name or the name itself, but instead repeating the concept to the right combination of people at a time when the team was stuck.  The project managers can create an opportunity for the brilliant folks on the team to make connections.  This thought serves as a consolation to me as I continue to struggle without concrete tasks.

Meanwhile, on the other side the building, the rest of dev team is pushing to finish code.  We see a working prototype at the end of the day, and folks are feeling good, but its been a long day.  So we go to dinner as a team, and leave the work behind for a couple of hours, though Amy is furiously sketching at various moments throughout the meal as she tries to develop a look and feel for this newly named thing.

On the way home from dinner, I think, “there’s only two days left.”  All of the sudden it feels like we haven’t gotten anywhere.

Day 4

@shazamrys: Just looking at first logo designs from @fontnerd. This is going to be great. #owot

We start hectic but excited.  Both teams were working into the night, Amy has a logo strategy and it goes over great.  Still, there’s lots of work to do today. Brian and I sit down in the morning and try to discuss what happens with the tool and the team next week and the week after before jumping in and trying to help the teams where we can, including things like finding a laptop for a dev team member, connecting someone with javascript experience to a team member who is stuck, or helping edit the press release.  This day is largely a blur in my recollection, but there are some salient points that stick out.

The decision to add the Flickr API to our work in order to access the Flickr Commons is made with the dev team, based on the feeling that we have enough time and the images located there enhance our search results and expand our coverage of subject areas and geographic locations.

We also spend today addressing issues.  The work of both teams overlaps in some key areas.  In the afternoon, Brian and I realize that we have mishandled some of the communication regarding language on the front page and both teams are working on the text.  We scramble to unify the approaches and make sure that efforts are not wasted.

This is another learning moment for me.  I keep flashing on Sheila’s words from Monday, and worry that our concrete decision making process is suffering from”too many cooks in the kitchen.” Everyone on this team has a stake in the success of this project and we have lots of smart people with valid opinions.  But everyone can’t vote on everything and we are spending too much time getting consensus now, with a mere twenty-four hours to go.  As a project manager, part of my job is to start streamlining and making executive decisions, but I am struggling with how to do that.

As we prepare to leave the center at 6pm, things are feeling disconnected.  This day has flown by.  Both teams are overwhelmed by what has to get done before tomorrow and despite hard work throughout the day, we’re trying to get a dev server and production server up and running.  As we regroup at the Inn, the dev team heads upstairs to a quiet space to work and eat and the outreach team sets up in the lobby.

Then, good news arrives.  Rebecca Sutton-Koeser has managed to get both the dev and production servers up and the code is able to be deployed.  (We are using Heroku and Amazon Web Services specifically, but again, please see the wiki for more technical details.)

The outreach team continues to work on documentation, and release strategy and Brian and I continue to step in where we can.  Everyone is working until midnight or later, but feeling much better about our status then we did at 6pm.

Day 5

@raypalin: If I were to wait one minute, I could say launch is today. Herculean effort in final push by my #owot colleagues. Outstanding, inspiring.

The final tasks are upon us.  Scott Williams moves on from his development responsibilities to facilitate user testing, which was forced to slide from Thursday due to our server problems.  Amanda Visconti works to get the interactive results screen finalized.  Ray Palin hones our list of press contacts and works with Amy to get the swag design in place. Amrys Williams collaborates with the outreach team and then Sheila to publish the product press release.  Both the dev and outreach teams triage and fix and tweak and defer issues as we move towards our 1pm “code chill”, a point which we’re hoping to have the code in a fairly stable state.

We are still making too many decisions with too many people, and I find myself weighing not only the options but how attached people are to either option.  Several choices are made because they reflect the path of least resistance.  The time to argue is through and I trust the team’s opinions even when I don’t agree.

We end up running a little behind and the code freeze scheduled for 2pm slides to 2:15.  But at this point we know: we’re going live at 3:15pm.

Jack Dougherty has arranged a Google hangout with Dan Cohen of the Digital Public Library of America and Brett Bobley and Jen Serventi of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, which the project managers co-host.  We broadcast the conversation live via the One Week | One Tool website.

The code goes live and the broadcast starts but my jitters do not subside…until I hear my teammates cheering in the hangout.  Serendip-o-matic is live.

The Aftermath

At 8am on Day 6, Serendip-o-matic had its first pull request and later in the day, a fourth API – Trove of Australia – was integrated.  As I drafted this blog post on Day 7, I received email after email generated by the active issue queue and the tweet stream at #owot is still being populated.  On Day 9, the developers continue to fix issues and we are all thinking about long term strategy.  We are brainstorming ways to share our experience and help other teams achieve similar results.

I found One Week | One Tool incredibly challenging and therefore a highly rewarding experience.  My major challenge lay in shifting my mindset from that of a someone hammering on a keyboard in a one-person shop to a that of a project manager for a twelve-person team.  I write for this blog because I like to build things and share how I built them, but I have never experienced the building from this angle before.  The tight timeline ensured that we would not have time to go back and agonize over decisions, so it was a bit like living in a project management accelerator.  We had to recognize issues, fix them and move on quickly, so as not to derail the project.

However, even in those times when I became acutely more aware of the clock, I never doubted that we would make it.  The entire team is so talented; I never lost my faith that a product would emerge.  And, it’s an application that I will use, for inspiration and for making fortunate discoveries.

@meghanfrazer: I am in awe. Amazing to work with such a smart, giving team. #owot #feedthemachine

Team Photo

The #OWOT team. Photo by Sharon Leon.

(More on One Week | One Tool, including other blog entries, can be found by visiting the One Week | One Tool Zotero Group.)

Advice on Being a Solo Library Technologist

I am an Emerging Technologies Librarian at a small library in the middle of a cornfield. There are three librarians on staff. The vast majority of our books fit on one floor of open stacks. Being so small can pose challenges to a technologist. When I’m banging my head trying to figure out what the heck “this” refers to in a particular JavaScript function, to whom do I turn? That’s but an example of a wide-ranging set of problems:

  • Lack of colleagues with similar skill sets. This has wide-ranging ill effects, from giving me no one to ask questions to or bounce ideas off of, to making it more difficult to sell my ideas.
  • Broad responsibilities that limit time spent on technology
  • Difficulty creating endurable projects that can be easily maintained
  • Difficulty determining which projects are appropriate to our scale

Though listservs and online sources alleviate some of these concerns, there’s a certain knack to be a library technologist at a small institution.[1] While I still have a lot to learn, I want to share some strategies that have helped me thus far.

Know Thy Allies

At my current position, it took me a long time to figure out how the college was structured. Who is responsible for managing the library’s public computers? Who develops the website? If I want some assessment data, where do I go? Knowing the responsibilities of your coworkers is vital and effective collaboration is a necessary element of being a technologist. I’ve been very fortunate to work with coworkers who are immensely helpful.

IT Support can help with both your personal workstation and the library’s setup. Remember that IT’s priorities are necessarily adverse to yours: they want to keep everything up and running, you want to experiment and kick the tires. When IT denies a request or takes ages to fix something that seems trivial to you, remember that they’re just as overburdened as you are. Their assistance in installing and troubleshooting software is invaluable. This is a two-way street: you often have valuable insight into how users behave and what setups are most beneficial. Try to give and take, asking for favors at the same time that you volunteer your services.

Institutional Research probably goes by a dozen different names at any given dozen institutions. These names may include “Assessment Office,” “Institutional Computing,” or even the fearsome “Institutional Review Board” of research universities. These are your data collection and management people and—whether you know it or not—they have some great stuff for you. It took me far too long to browse the IR folder on our shared drive which contains insightful survey data from the CCSSE and in-house reports. There’s a post-graduate survey which essentially says “the library here is awesome,” good to have when arguing for funding. But they also help the library work with the assessment data that our college gathers; we hope to identify struggling courses and offer our assistance.

The web designer should be an obvious contact point. Most technology is administered through the web these days—shocking, I know. The webmaster will not only be able to get you access to institutional servers but they may have learned valuable lessons from their own positions. They, too, struggle to complete a wide range of tasks. They have to negotiate many stakeholders who all want a slice of the vaunted homepage, often the subject of territorial battles. They may have a folder of good PR images or a style guide sitting around somewhere; at the very least, some O’Reilly books you want to borrow.

The Learning Management System administrator is similar to the webmaster. They probably have some coding skills and carry an immense, important burden. At my college, we have a slew of educational technologists who work in the “Faculty Development Center” and preside over the LMS. They’re not only technologically savvy, often introducing me to new tools or techniques, but they know how faculty structure their courses and have a handle on pedagogical theory. Their input can not only generate new ideas but help you ground your initiatives in a solid theoretical basis.

Finally, my list of allies is obviously biased towards academic libraries. But public librarians have similar resources available, they just go by different names. Your local government has many of these same positions: data management, web developer, technology guru. Find out who they are and reach out to them. Anyone can look for local hacker/makerspaces or meetups, which can be a great way not only to develop your skills but to meet people who may have brilliant ideas and insight.

Build Sustainably

Building projects that will last is my greatest struggle. It’s not so hard to produce an intricate, beautiful project if I pour months of work into it, but what happens the month after it’s “complete”? A shortage of ideas has never been my problem, it’s finding ones that are doable. Too often, I’ll get halfway into a project and realize there’s simply no way I can handle the upkeep on top of my usual responsibilities, which stubbornly do not diminish. I have to staff a reference desk, teach information literacy, and make purchases for our collection. Those are important responsibilities and they often provide a platform for experimentation, but they’re also stable obligations that cannot be shirked.

One of the best ways to determine if a project is feasible is to look around at what other libraries are doing. Is there an established project—for instance, a piece of open source software with a broad community base—which you can reuse? Or are other libraries devoting teams of librarians to similar tasks? If you’re seeing larger institutions struggle to perfect something, then maybe it’s best to wait until the technology is more mature. On the other hand, dipping your toe in the water can quickly give you a sense of how much time you’ll need to invest. Creating a prototype or bringing coworkers on board at early stages lets you see how much traction you have. If others are resistant or if your initial design is shown to have gaping flaws, perhaps another project is more worthy of your time. It’s an art but often saying no, dropping a difficult initiative, or recognizing that an experiment has failed is the right thing to do.

Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

One of the first items I accomplished on arrival at my current position was setting up a staff-side wiki on PBworks. While I’m still working on getting other staff members to contribute to it (approximately 90% of the edits are mine), it’s been an invaluable information-sharing resource. Part-time staff members in particular have noted how it’s nice to have one consistent place to look for updates and insider information.

How does this relate to technology? In the last couple years, my institution has added or redesigned dozens of major services. I was going to write a ludicrously long list but…just trust me, we’ve changed a lot of stuff. A new technology or service cannot succeed without buy-in, and you don’t get buy-in if no one knows how to use it. You need documentation: well-written, illustrative documentation. I try to keep things short and sweet, providing screencasts and annotated images to highlight important nuances. Beyond helping others, it’s been invaluable to me as well. Remember when I said I wasn’t so great at building sustainably? Well, I’ll admit that there are some workflows or code snippets that are Greek each time I revisit them. Without my own instructions or blocks of comments, I would have to reverse engineer the whole process before I could complete it again.

Furthermore, not all my fellow staff are on par with my technical skills. I’m comfortable logging into servers, running Drush commands, analyzing the statistics I collect. And that’s not an indictment of my coworkers; they shouldn’t need to do any of this stuff. But some of my projects are reliant on arcane data schemas or esoteric commands. If I were to win the lottery and promptly retire, sophisticated projects lacking documentation would grind to a halt. Instead, I try to write instructions such that anyone could login to Drupal and apply module updates, for instance, even if they were previously unfamiliar with the CMS. I feel a lot better knowing that my bus factor is a little lower and that I can perhaps even take a vacation without checking email, some day.

Choose Wisely

The honest truth is that smaller institutions cannot afford to invest in every new and shiny object that crosses their path. I see numerous awesome innovations at other libraries which simply are not wise investments for a college of our size. We don’t have the scale, skills, and budget for much of the technology out there. Even open source solutions are a challenge because they require skill to configure and maintain. Everything I wrote about sustainability and allies is trying to mitigate this lack of scale, but the truth is some things are just not right for us. It isn’t helpful to build projects that only you can continue, or develop ones which require so much attention that other fundamental responsibilities (doubtless less sexy—no less important) fall through the cracks.

I record my personal activities in Remember the Milk, tagging tasks according to topic. What do you think was the tag I used most last year? Makerspace? Linked data? APIs? Node.js? Nope, it was infolit. That is hardly an “emerging” field but it’s a vital aspect of my position nonetheless.

I find that the best way to select amongst initiatives is to work backwards: what is crucial to your library? What are the major challenges, obvious issues that you’re facing? While I would not abandon pet projects entirely, because sometimes they can have surprisingly wide-ranging effects, it helps to ground your priorities properly.[2] Working on a major issue virtually guarantees that your work will attract more support from your institution. You may find more allies willing to help, or at least coworkers who are sympathetic when you plead with them to cover a reference shift or swap an instruction session because you’re overwhelmed. The big issues themselves are easy to find: user experience, ebooks, discovery, digital preservation, {{insert library school course title here}}. At my college, developmental education and information literacy are huge. It’s not hard to align my priorities with the institution’s.

Enjoy Yourself

No doubt working on your own or with relatively little support is challenging and stressful. It can be disappointing to pass up new technologies because they’re too tough to implement, or when a project fails due to one of the bullet points listed above. But being a technologist should always be fun and bring feelings of accomplishment. Try to inject a little levity and experimentation into the places where it’s least expected; who knows, maybe you’ll strike a chord.

There are also at least a couple advantages to being at a smaller institution. For one, you often have greater freedom and less bureaucracy. What a single individual does on your campus may be done by a committee (or even—the horror—multiple committees) elsewhere. As such, building consensus or acquiring approval can be a much simplified process. A few informal conversations can substitute for mountains of policies, forms, meetings, and regulations.

Secondly, workers at smaller places are more likely to be jack-of-all trades librarians. While I’m a technologist, I wear plenty of more traditional librarian hats as well. On the one hand, that certainly means I have less time to devote to each responsibility than a specialist would; on the other, it gives me a uniquely holistic view of the library’s operations. I not only understand how the pieces fit together, but am better able to identify high-level problems affecting multiple areas of service.

I’m still working through a lot of these issues, on my own. How do you survive as a library technologist? Is it just as tough being a large institution? I’m all eyes.


[1]^ Here are a few of my favorite sources for being a technology librarian:

  • Listservs, particularly Code4Lib and Drupal4Lib. Drupal4Lib is a great place to be if you’re using Drupal and are running into issues, there are a lot of “why won’t this work” and “how do you do X at your library” threads and several helpful experts who hang around the list.
  • For professional journals, once again Code4Lib is very helpful. ITAL is also open access and periodically good tech tips appear in C&RL News or C&RL. Part of being at a small institution is being limited to open access journals; these are the ones I read most often.
  • Google. Google is great. For answering factual questions or figuring out what the most common tool is for a particular task, a quick search can almost always turn up the answer. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Google usually leads me to one of a couple excellent sources, like Stack Overflow or the Mozilla Developer Network.
  • Twitter. Twitter is great, too. I follow many innovative librarians but also leading figures in other fields.
  • GitHub. GitHub can help you find reusable code, but there’s also a librarian community and you can watch as they “star” projects and produce new repositories. I find GitHub useful as a set of instructive code; if I’m wondering how to accomplish a task, I can visit a repo that does something similar and learn from how better developers do it.

[2]^ We’ve covered managing side projects and work priorities previously in “From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work.”

A Librarian’s Guide to OpenRefine

Academic librarians working in technical roles may rarely see stacks of books, but they doubtless see messy digital data on a daily basis. OpenRefine is an extremely useful tool for dealing with this data without sophisticated scripting skills and with a very low learning curve. Once you learn a few tricks with it, you may never need to force a student worker to copy and paste items onto Excel spreadsheets.

As this comparison by the creator of OpenRefine shows, the best use for the tool is to explore and transform data, and it allows you to make edits to many cells and rows at once while still seeing your data. This allows you to experiment and undo mistakes easily, which is a great advantage over databases or scripting where you can’t always see what’s happening or undo the typo you made. It’s also a lot faster than editing cell by cell like you would do with a spreadsheet.

Here’s an example of a project that I did in a spreadsheet and took hours, but then I redid in Google Refine and took a lot less time. One of the quickest things to do with OpenRefine is spot words or phrases that are almost the same, and possibly are the same thing. Recently I needed to turn a large export of data from the catalog into data that I could load into my institutional repository. There were only certain allowed values that could be used in the controlled vocabulary in the repository, so I had to modify the bibliographic data from the catalog (which was of course in more or less proper AACR2 style) to match the vocabularies available in the repository. The problem was that the data I had wasn’t consistent–there were multiple types of abbreviations, extra spaces, extra punctuation, and outright misspellings. An example is the History Department. I can look at “Department of History”, “Dep. of History”, “Dep of Hist.” and tell these are probably all referring to the same thing, but it’s difficult to predict those potential spellings. While I could deal with much of this with regular expressions in a text editor and find and replace in Excel, I kept running into additional problems that I couldn’t spot until I got an error. It took several attempts of loading the data until I cleared out all the errors.

In OpenRefine this is a much simpler task, since you can use it to find everything that probably is the same thing despite the slight differences in spelling, punctuation and spelling. So rather than trying to write a regular expression that accounts for all the differences between “Department of History”, “Dep. of History”, “Dep of Hist.”, you can find all the clusters of text that include those elements and change them all in one shot to “History”. I will have more detailed instructions on how to do this below.

Installation and Basics

OpenRefine was called, until last October, Google Refine, and while the content from the Google Refine page is being moved to the Open Refine page you should plan to look at both sites. Documentation and video tutorials refer interchangeably to Google Refine and OpenRefine. The official and current documentation is on the OpenRefine GitHub wiki. For specific questions you will probably want to use the OpenRefine Custom Search Engine, which brings together all the mix of documentation and tutorials on the web. OpenRefine is a web app that runs on your computer, so you don’t need an internet connection to run it. You can get the installation instructions on this page.

While you can jump in right away and get started playing around, it is well worth your time to watch the tutorial videos, which will cover the basic actions you need to take to start working with data. As I said, the learning curve is low, but not all of the commands will make sense until you see them in action. These videos will also give you an idea of what you might be able to do with a data set you have lying around. You may also want to browse the “recipes” on the OpenRefine site, as well search online for additional interesting things people have done. You will probably think of more ideas about what to try. The most important thing to know about OpenRefine is that you can undo anything, and go back to the beginning of the project before you messed up.

A basic understanding of the Google Refine Expression Language, or GREL will improve your ability to work with data. There isn’t a whole lot of detailed documentation, so you should feel free to experiment and see what happens when you try different functions. You will see from the tutorial videos the basics you need to know. Another essential tool is regular expressions. So much of the data you will be starting with is structured data (even if it’s not perfectly structured) that you will need to turn into something else. Regular expressions help you find patterns which you can use to break apart strings into something else. Spending a few minutes understanding regular expression syntax will save hours of inefficient find and replace. There are many tutorials–my go-to source is this one. The good news for librarians is that if you can construct a Dewey Decimal call number, you can construct a regular expression!

Some ideas for librarians


(A) Typos

Above I described how you would use OpenRefine to clean up messy and inconsistent catalog data. Here’s how to do it. Load in the data, and select “Text Facet” on the column in question. OpenRefine will show clusters of text that is similar and probably the same thing.

AcademicDept Text Facet

AcademicDept Text Facet


Click on Cluster to get a menu for working with multiple values. You can click on the “Merge” check box and then edit the text to whatever you need it to be. You can also edit each text cluster to be the correct text.

Cluster and Edit

Cluster and Edit

You can merge and re-cluster until you have fixed all the typos. Back on the first Text Facet, you can hover over any value to edit it. That way even if the automatic clustering misses some you can edit the errors, or change anything that is the same but you need to look different–for instance, change “Dept. of English” to just “English”.

(B) Bibliographies

The main thing that I have used OpenRefine for in my daily work is to change a bibliography in plain text into columns in a spreadsheet that I can run against an API. This was inspired by this article in the Code4Lib Journal: “Using XSLT and Google Scripts to Streamline Populating an Institutional Repository” by Stephen X. Flynn, Catalina Oyler, and Marsha Miles. I wanted to find a way to turn a text CV into something that would work with the SHERPA/RoMEO API, so that I could find out which past faculty publications could be posted in the institutional repository. Since CVs are lists of data presented in a structured format but with some inconsistencies, OpenRefine makes it very easy to present the data in a certain way as well as remove the inconsistencies, and then to extend the data with a web service. This is a very basic set of instructions for how to accomplish this.

The main thing to accomplish is to put the journal title in its own column. Here’s an example citation in APA format, in which I’ve colored all the “separator” punctuation in red:

Heller, M. (2011). A Review of “Strategic Planning for Social Media in Libraries”. Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, 24 (4), 339-240)

From the drop-down menu at the top of the column click on “Split into several columns…” from the “Edit Column” menu. You will get a menu like the one below. This example finds the opening parenthesis and removes that in creating a new column. The author’s name is its own column, and the rest of the text is in another column.

Spit into columns


The rest of the column works the same way–find the next text, punctuation, or spacing that indicates a separation. You can then rename the column to be something that makes sense. In the end, you will end up with something like this:

Split columns

When you have the journal titles separate, you may want to cluster the text and make sure that the journals have consistent titles or anything else to clean up the titles. Now you are a ready to build on this data with fetching data from a web service. The third video tutorial posted above will explain the basic idea, and this tutorial is also helpful. Use the pull-down menu at the top of the journal column to select “Edit column” and then “Add column by fetching URLs…”. You will get a box that will help you construct the right URL. You need to format your URL in the way required by SHERPA/RoMEO, and will need a free API key. For the purposes of this example, you can use 'http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/api29.php?ak=[YOUR API KEY HERE]&qtype=starts&jtitle=' + escape(value,'url'). Note that it will give you a preview to see if the URL is formatted in the way you expect. Give your column a name, and set the Throttle delay, which will keep the service from rejecting too many requests in a short time. I found 1000 worked fine.


After this runs, you will get a new column with the XML returned by SHERPA/RoMEO. You can use this to pull out anything you need, but for this example I want to get pre-archiving and post-archiving policies, as well as the conditions. A quick way to to this is to use the Googe Refine Expression Language parseHtml function. To use this, click on “Add column based on this column” from the “Edit Column” menu, and you will get a menu to fill in an expression.


In this example I use the code value.parseHtml().select("prearchiving")[0].htmlText(), which selects just the text from within the prearchving element. Conditions are a little different, since there are multiple conditions for each journal. In that case, you would use the following syntax (after join you can put whatever separator you want): forEach(value.parseHtml().select("condition"),v,v.htmlText()).join(". ")"

So in the end, you will end up with a neatly structured spreadsheet from your original CV with all the bibliographic information in its own column and the publisher conditions listed. You can imagine the possibilities for additional APIs to use–for instance, the WorldCat API could help you determine which faculty published books the library owns.

Once you find a set of actions that gets your desired result, you can save them for the future or to share with others. Click on Undo/Redo and then the Extract option. You will get a description of the actions you took, plus those actions represented in JSON.


Unselect the checkboxes next to any mistakes you made, and then copy and paste the text somewhere you can find it again. I have the full JSON for the example above in a Gist here. Make sure that if you save your JSON publicly you remove your personal API key! When you want to run the same recipe in the future, click on the Undo/Redo tab and then choose Apply. It will run through the steps for you. Note that if you have a mistake in your data you won’t catch it until it’s all finished, so make sure that you check the formatting of the data before running this script.

Learning More and Giving Back

Hopefully this quick tutorial got you excited about OpenRefine and thinking about what you can do. I encourage you to read through the list of External Resources to get additional ideas, some of which are library related. There is lots more to learn and lots of recipes you can create to share with the library community.

Have you used OpenRefine? Share how you’ve used it, and post your recipes.


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.

Taking Google Forms to the Next Level

Many libraries use Google Forms for collecting information from patrons, particularly for functions like registering for a one-time event or filling out a survey. It’s a popular option because these forms are very easy to set up and start using with no overhead. With a little additional effort and a very small amount of code you can make these forms even more functional.

In this post, we’ll look at the process for adapt a simple library workshop registration form to send a confirmation email and introduce you to the Google Apps Scripts documentation. This is adapted from a tutorial for creating a help desk application, which you can see here. I talked about the overall process of creating simple applications for free with minimal coding skills at this year’s LITA Forum, and you can see the complete presentation here. In this post I will focus on the Google Forms tricks.

A few things to keep in mind before you get started. Use a library account when you actually deploy the applications, since that will remain “owned” by the library even if the person who creates it moved on. These instructions are also intended for regular “consumer” Google accounts–there are additional tools available for Google Apps business customers, which I don’t address here.

Creating Your Form

Create a form as you normally would. Here’s an example of a simple workshop registration form.

There are a few potential problems with the way this form is set up, but here’s an even bigger problem. Once the person signing up clicks submit, the form disappears, and he receives a page saying “Thank you for registering!”

If this person did not record the workshop, he now has no real idea of what he signed up for. What he intended to do and what he actually did may not be the same thing!

What comes next? You, the librarian hosting the workshop, goes into the spreadsheet to see if anyone has signed up. If you want to confirm the sign-up, you can copy the patron’s email address into your email program, and then copy in a message to confirm the sign-up. If you only have a few people signed up, this may not take long, but it adds many unnecessary  steps and requires you to remember to do it.

Luckily, Google has provided all the tools you need to add in an email confirmation function, and it’s not hard to use as long as you know some basic Javascript. Let’s look at an example.

Adding in an email confirmation

To access these functions, visit your spreadsheet, and click on Script Editor in the Tools menu.

You will get many options, which you can use, or you can simply create a script for  a Blank Project (first option) You will get this in your blank project:

function myFunction() {


Change the name of the function to be something meaningful. Now you can fill in the details for the function. Basically we use the built-in Google Spreadsheet functions to grab the value of each column we want to include and store these in a variable. You just put in the column number–but remember we are starting from 0 (which is the Timestamp column in our current example).

function emailConfirm(e) {
  var userEmail = e.values[3];
  var firstName = e.values[1];
  var lastName = e.values[2];
  var workshopDate = e.values[4];
                    "Registration confirmation", 
                    "Thanks for registering for the library workshop on " + workshopDate + " \n\nYou will " +
                    "recieve a reminder email 24 hours prior. \n\nLibrary",                    

The MailApp class is another built-in Google Apps script. The sendEmail method takes the following arguments: recipients, subject, body, optAdvancedArgs. You can see in the above example that the userEmail variable (the patron’s email address in the form) is the recipient, the subject is “Registration confirmation”, the body contains a generic thank you plus the date of the workshop, which we’ve stored in workshopDate variable. Then we’ve put in advanced arguments the name “Library”–this is optional, particularly if it’s coming from a library email account.

Note that if a patron hits “reply” to cancel or ask a question, the email will automatically go to the email account that deployed the application. But you may want reply emails to go somewhere else. You can modify the last “advanced” argument to be some other email address with the replyto argument. (Note that this doesn’t always work–and that people can see that the email comes from elsewhere, so make sure that someone is checking the email from which the application is deployed).

 {name:"Library", replyto:"mheller@dom.edu"});
Running the script

Once you’ve filled in your script and hit save (it will do a quick debug when you save), you have to set up when the script should run. Select “Current script’s triggers…” from the Resources menu.

Now select the trigger “On form submit”. While you’re here, also click on notifications.

The notifications will tell you any time your script fails to run. For your first script, choose “immediately” so you can see what went wrong if it didn’t work. In the future you can select daily or weekly.

Before you can save either your trigger or failure notifications, you need to authorize that Google can run the script for you.

Now your script will work! Next time a patron fills out your form to register for a workshop, he will receive this email:

Doing More

After working with this very basic script you can explore the Google Apps Script documentation. If you are working with Google Forms, you will find the Spreadsheet Services classes very useful. There are also some helpful tutorials you can work through to learn how to use all the features. This one will teach you how to send emails from the spreadsheet–something you can use when it’s time to remind patrons of which workshops they have signed up for!

Tablets in Library Workflows: Revolution & Healthy Skepticism

Tablet Revolution: Healthy Skepticism

Tablets and mobile computing have been the subject of a lot of Internet hype. A quick search for “tablet revolution” will confirm this, but if we’re appropriately skeptical about the hype cycle, we’ll want to test the impact of tablets on our library ourselves. We can do this in a few ways. We can check the literature to see what studies have been done. 1 We can check our web analytics to see which devices are being used to access our web sites. 2 We can also walk the public areas in our libraries and count patrons working on tablets. These investigations can tell us how and how often tablets are being used, but they don’t tell us how or if tablets are revolutionizing library use.

In order to better answer this question, I started a little project. Over the last year, I’ve been using informal methods to track the effects that tablet use have on my work. I secured some equipment funding and acquired an Apple iPad 2 and an Android tablet, the Asus Transformer Prime. I started doing my work on these devices, keeping an eye on how they changed my daily workflow, how suited they were to my daily tasks, and whether or not they increased my productivity or the quality of my work. Over the course of the year I can report that tablets have changed the way I work. Most of the changes are incremental, but there are at least a couple cases of genuine revolution to report.

Deploying Tablets in my Workflow

As I spent some time doing my work using the tablets, I discovered there were three possible results to my efforts to integrate them into my daily work. Some tasks simply did not translate well to the tablet environment. Other tasks translated fairly seamlessly to the tablet environment; what I could do on a computer I could also do on a tablet. Finally there were a few cases where the affordances of the tablets: touch interface, networked portability, and app environment enabled me to do my work in new ways, ways not possible using a traditional workstation or laptop.

The first sort of task, the kind in which tablets failed to produce positive results, tended to involve heavy processing requirements, the need to connect peripheral devices, or involved complex software programs not ported to mobile apps. Examples included editing image, sound, or video files; analyzing datasets; and creating presentation slides. The tablets lacked the processing power, peripheral interfaces, or fine interface control to make them adequate platforms for the editing tasks. Statistical analysis software shares the same heavy processor requirements and I was unable to find mobile apps equivalent to SPSS or Atlas TI. In the case of presentation slides, all the necessary conditions for success seemed to be present. Keynote for iOS is a great app, but I was never satisfied with the quality of my tablet-created presentations and soon returned to composing my slides in Keynote on my laptop. As a general rule of thumb, I found tasks that require lots of processing power, super-fine input control (fingers and even styli are imprecise on touch screens), or highly-specialized software environments to be poor candidates for moving to tablets.

The majority of my day-to-day work tasks fell into a second set of tasks, these tasks enabled me to easily replace my traditional computer with a tablet. I discovered that after a little research to discover the proper apps and a little time to learn how to use them, a tablet was a good as a computer, most of the time. At first, I experimented with treating the tablet as a small portable computer. I acquired Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard and the keyboard dock accessory for the Transformer and was able to do word processing, text editing and coding, email, instant messaging, and pretty much any browser-based activity without significant adjustment. I found text entry without a keyboard to be too clumsy a process for serious work. Tablets also are ideal for server-administration, since the computer on the other end handled the heavy lifting. There are SSH, FTP, and text editing apps that make tablets perfect remote administration environments. I also found text-based tasks like writing, email, chat, reading, and most things browser-based or whose files live in the cloud or on a server can be done just as well on a tablet as it can on a workstation or laptop.

The limitation to this general rule is that in some cases the iPad presented file management difficulties. The iOS defaults push users into using iTunes and iCloud to manage documents. If you like these options, there is no problem. I found these options lacking in flexibility, so I had to engage in a little hackery to get access to the files I needed on the iPad. Dropbox and Evernote are good examples of cloud storage apps that work once you learn how to route all your documents through them. In the end, I found myself preferring apps that access personal cloud space (Jungledisk) or my home NAS storage (Synology DS File) in my workflow. The Transformer Prime required fewer document-flow kluges and its keyboard accessory includes a USB flash-drive interface which is very useful for sharing documents with local colleagues and doesn’t require a fancy workaround.

A second limitation I encountered was in accessing web video content. Not frequently, but often enough to be noticed, certain web video files (Flash encoded) would not play on the iPad. The Android tablet is Flash capable and suffered fewer of these problems. Video isn’t a key part of my workflow, so for me this is mearly an annoyance, not a serious hindrance to productivity.

Touching Revolution

Of course, simply duplicating the capabilities of traditional computer environments in a smaller form-factor is not revolutionary. As long as I was using a tablet as if it were a smaller computer, then my work didn’t change, only the tools I was doing it with changed. It was when I started working outside of the keyboard and mouse interface model and started touching my work that new ways of approaching tasks presented themselves. When I started using a stylus to write on the screen of a tablet the revolution became apparent.

As an undergraduate, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book 3 was a required reading and their lesson on annotation while we read stuck with me. When it comes to professional development reading, annotation is absolutely necessary to comprehension and integration of content. Thus Amazon’s Kindle reader app for Android and iOS became my favorite ebook platform, due to its superior system for taking and sharing reading notes across platforms. I rely so heavily on annotations that I cannot do my work using ebook platforms that don’t allow me to take notes in text. In the same vein, I use personal copies of printed books for my research instead of borrowed library copies, because I have to write in the margins to process ideas.

Tablets revolutionized my reading when I discovered PDF annotation apps that allowed me to use a stylus to write on the top of documents. Apps like Notetaker HD and iAnnotate for iOS and ezPDF Reader for Android give readers the digital advantage of unlimited amounts of text without the bulk and weight of paper printouts. They also give the reader analog advantages of free-hand highlighting and writing notes in the margin. Combine these advantages with Zotero-friendly apps such as Zotpad, Zotfile, and Zandy that connect my favorite discovery tool to my tablet and I found myself reading more, taking better notes, and drawing clearer connections between documents. The portability of digital files on a mobile wirelessly connected device combined with the stylus and touch-screen method of text input enabled me to interact with my reading in ways impossible using either printed paper or a traditional computer monitor and keyboard. Now, my entire library and all of my reading lists came with me everywhere, so I carved out more time to read each week. When I opened a text, I was able to capture my thoughts about the reading more accurately and completely. This wasn’t just reading in a different medium, it was reading in a different method and it worked better than the way I had been doing before.

Tablets with reading annotation apps revolutionized the way that I read and organized my reading notes, but they had an even bigger impact on the way that I grade student papers. I love teaching, but grading essays is a task that I dread. Essays are heavy and hard to carry around. When I have essays with me, I have a constant and irrational background fear that someone will steal my car and I’ll lose irreplaceable student work. When I started using the tablet, I had my students submit their essays in PDF format. Then, I read their work in a similar manner to my professional reading. I read the essays on a tablet, using the stylus to highlight passages and write feedback in the margins. When I was finished, I could email the document back to the student and also keep an archived copy. This solved a number of paper distribution and unique copy problems. The students got better feedback more quickly and I always had a reference copy if questions arose later in the term.

A Personal Revolution

Taken by themselves, these reading and grading innovations may sound like incremental changes, not revolutions. For example, laptops are quite portable and we’ve had the ability to add notes and comments to PDF documents for a long time. There is no reason I couldn’t adopt this workflow without buying an additional expensive gadget, except that I couldn’t. I tried electronic reading and grading workflows before I had a tablet and rejected them. Reading on a computer monitor and typing comments into a PDF didn’t result in interesting thoughts about the reading. I tried grading by adding comments to PDF documents on a laptop and found my feedback comments to be arid and less helpful than the remarks I wrote in the margins of paper essays, so I switched back to colored pen on paper. These experiences are all anecdotal and personal, but accurately describe my experience. With a tablet, the feel of touching a screen and writing with a stylus enabled an organic flow of thoughts from my brain to the text. I can list the affordances of mobile computing that make this possible: ubiquitous wireless broadband networking, touch interface, lightweight and portable devices, a robust app ecology, and cloud storage of documents. The revolution lies in how these technical details combined in my workflow to creates an environment where I did better work with fewer distractions and more convenience.

Next Steps

One requirement to justify the time and expense of this project is that I share my findings. This post is an effort in that direction, but I will also be offering a series of faculty workshops on using tablets in academic workflows. I’m planning a workshop where faculty can put their hands on a range of tablet devices, a petting zoo of tablets. There will also be a workshop on reading app for tablets and one on grading workflows. One challenge to presenting what I’ve learned about tablets is that most of what I have learned is personal. I’ve spoken with scholars who do not share my preference for hand-written thoughts; my workflows are not revolutionary for them. What ultimately may be the most beneficial result of my project is uncovering a method for effectively communicating emerging technology experiences with non-technologically inclined colleagues.


  1. Pew. Tablet and E-book reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift-Giving Period. Pew Internet Libraries. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/01/23/tablet-and-e-book-reader-ownership-nearly-double-over-the-holiday-gift-giving-period/.
  2. Wikipedia contributors. 2012. Mobile web analytics. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., September 13. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mobile_web_analytics&oldid=510528022.
  3. Mortimer Adler, How to read a book, Rev. and updated ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).

Workflow Automation in Technical Services: Part 2

Note: This is part two of a two part series on workflow automation in Technical Services. Part one covered the what and process of workflow automation and an example of an item level workflow automation process. Part two will discuss batch level workflow automation and resources/tools for workflow automation.

Last time, we discussed the basics of workflow automation and some examples of item-level automation in cataloging and acquisitions workflows. Automating workflows on an item-to-item basis provides greater consistency and efficiency in daily tasks done by staff, allowing them to spend more time on more complex workflows and tasks that may not be so readily automated. Item level workflow automation can be a low barrier investment in creating a more efficient operation.

Then you have the electronic journals, ebooks, and databases. You have large record files that are tied to physical resources – for example, record downloads from WorldCat Cataloging Partners. And then there are all those records in the system – MARC, XML, whatnot – that have missing or incorrect information (the infamous “dirty data”). Why can’t we just stick with item-level processing for everything?

Item level automation or batch automation?

For item level automation, you have a very granular level of control over the process, dealing with items one at a time. If the items are very similar in nature or have only a couple differences in how each item will be processed, though, then going through each item individually probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the other hand, batch processing allows you to go through many items at once, which makes adding or maintaining resources a quicker job than going through item by item. You do give up a certain level of control over details with batch processing, however, which leaves you to decide where the “good enough” marker should go in terms of data quality.

Overall, you want to avoid sub-optimizing your workflow. Sub-optimization happens when a part of an organization focuses the success of its own area instead of the entire organization’s success [1]. Going through each resource record individually might give you the greatest control over the record, but if you’re going through a file containing 10,000+ records individually, even with an item level automated workflow, the turnaround time for creating access for all those resources will be much higher than if the file was processed at once. However, with the right tools, you can deal with record batches with speed and a good level of control over the data.

MarcEdit is your friend

Many people have at least heard about MarcEdit, or have colleagues who have used it extensively. MarcEdit is a freely available program (for Windows) created by Terry Reese that works with MARC records in a variety of ways. You can add, delete, or modify fields in records, create MARC records from data in spreadsheets, crosswalk to and from the MARC format, split files, join files, generate call numbers, de-duplicate records – and that’s only part of what you can do with MarcEdit. Also, if you find yourself going through the same batch workflow for the same files on a regular basis, MarcEdit’s Script Wizard helps with automating routine batch processing workflows.

Example: Missing 041 1_ subfield h, or, this item is a translation, not in two languages!

Many of you may have moved your older library catalogs to a newer discovery layer; I’ve survived one move at my previous place of work and will probably have another move under my belt soon. One consequence of moving to a new discovery layer is that data previously ignored by the previous layer sticks out like a sore thumb in the new layer. This example is one of those dirty data discoveries: a particular MARC variable field incorrectly indicated that an item is in two or more languages instead of a translation. Not only you have unhappy library users who thought you had a copy of The Little Prince in both French and English, but this error exists in a few thousand records, finding yourself with a potentially resource intensive cleanup project.

If you can isolate and export those records in one (or a couple of) files from your database, then you can use MarcEdit to clean up the field in a relatively short time. Open the file in MarcEdit’s MarcEditor, and make your way to the “Edit Subfield” under the tools menu. Let’s say that there are a lot of records that have engfre in the 041 field and you want to change all the records with that entry at once. Replace the engfre field data with eng$hfre and you’ve taken care of all those records in one pass.

Since you probably have more than engfre in your file, you can use regular expressions in MarcEdit to change multiple fields at once regardless of language code. Using the Find/Replace tool, search for the 041 field subfield a, but this time add your regular expression and mark the “Use regular expression” box. The following expression is assuming that the 041 field has two language codes that are three letters in length, so you will have to do a little cleanup after running this replace command to catch the three or more language codes as well as two letter language codes. (h/t to zemkat for the regular expression!)

Libraries and modules and packages, oh my!

What if you’ve been learning some code, or are looking for an excuse to learn? You’re in luck! Some of the common programming languages have tools to deal with MARC data. Rolling your own batch automation scripts and applications allows you the most flexibility in working with other library data formats as well. However, if you haven’t programmed before, choose smaller projects to start. In addition, if the script or application doesn’t work, you’re your own tech support.

Example: Creating order records for patron driven acquisition (PDA) items triggered for purchase

Patron driven acquisition usually involves the ingestion of several hundred to thousands of records into the local database for items that are not technically owned by the library at that point in time. Depending on the PDA vendor one uses, the item is triggered for purchase after it reaches a use threshold (for example, 10 page views). The library will receive an invoice with these purchases, but we will still need to create order records in the system to show that these items have been bought. Considering that on a given week,  the number of purchases can range from single digits to higher double digits, that’s a lot of order records to manually key in.

After dabbling with pymarc at code4lib 2010, I thought this would be a good project to learn more about pymarc and python overall. Here is an outline of the script actions:

  1. In the trigger report spreadsheet, extract the local control numbers for the items triggered for purchase.
  2. Execute a SQL query against the local database for our locally developed next generation catalog, matching the local control number and extracting the MARC records from database.
  3. In each MARC record:
  • add a 590 and 790 field for donor/fund information
  • add a 949 field containing bibliographic record overlay and the order record creation information for the system, including cost of the item extracted from the spreadsheet.
  • change the 947 field data to indicate that the item has been purchased (for statistical reporting later on)
  1. Write the MARC records to a file for import into the ILS.

The output file is then uploaded into the ILS manually, which gives staff the chance to address any issues with the records that the system might have before import. Overall, the process from downloading the trigger report spreadsheet to uploading the record file into the ILS takes a few minutes, depending on the size of the file.

Which automation tools and resources to use?

There are a multitude of other automation tools and resources that cannot be fully covered in two blog posts. Your mileage may vary with these tools; you might find Macro Express to be a better fit for your organization than AutoIt, or you find that working with ruby-marc is easier for you than MarcEdit (resource links listed below). The best way to figure out what’s right for you is to play around with various tools and get a feel for them. More often than not, you’ll end up using multiple tools for different levels and types of workflow automation.

Don’t forget about the built-in tools in existing applications as well! Sometimes the best tools for the job are already there for you to take advantage of them.

For your convenience, here are the tools mentioned in the two blog posts, including a few others:

[1] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/business-english/sub-optimization

Workflow Automation in Technical Services: Part 1

Note: This is part one of a two part series on workflow automation in Technical Services. Part one will cover the what and process of workflow automation and an example of an item level workflow automation process. Part two will discuss batch level workflow automation and resources/tools for workflow automation.

The mysterious door at the library

Door leading into Technical Services

Photo by author

A majority of you might have passed by this door many times in your library lives. Sometimes it isn’t even a door; maybe a room divider, or an invisible line that runs across the room. In any case, you may have ventured into the space called “Technical Services” (or a similar name), but do you know what goes on there? For most libraries, Technical Services staff acquire, create, and maintain access to library materials, spanning from books and a box of rocks to various electronic databases and digitized local collections. Without them, it would be hard for a library to serve its users: no physical items to borrow, no electronic journals to search for articles, and no metadata in the library discovery layer for users and staff to search for those resources. With the variety of items come a variety of workflows to process those items, many of which are repeated at various intervals: some once a week while others repeated multiple times a day. Staff time and resources are spoken for every time a workflow is repeated. Every time a workflow is manually repeated, less time and resources can be spent on other projects or on new projects that would add value to existing collections or add new collections for library users to use. Technology provides a variety of strategies for workflow automation that reduce time spent on repetitive workflows.

What is workflow automation?

The oversimplified answer to this question is that workflow automation is the process where you have the computer do the things that it can be programmed to do, thereby reducing repetitive manual actions by the staff member.

There are two types of automation to consider when you look at your workflows:

  1. Data Entry: This type of automation is fairly straight forward, and you’ve probably already done this type of automation already without realizing it. For example, the automation script completes a form with data that remains the same for each form or types out standard text in an email being sent to a vendor. Useful for automating repetitive keystrokes, be it system codes, text, or even creating new documents in certain applications, such as an item recor. The automation script is hard-coded, meaning that the output of that script will be the same every time you run it.
  2. Decision Making: This type of automation makes all the decisions for you! Okay, while it won’t make every decision for you, several automation languages and programs can handle fairly complex decision making flowcharts using standard conditionals. For example, if bibliographic record “A” has field “B”, then do action ”C”; else do action “D”. As you probably already guessed, this type of automation resembles coding to a certain extent. The automation script that is designed to deal with several possible outcomes is not hard-coded like the data entry script described above.

What can be automated?

Most Technical Services departments acquire, create, and maintain access to a variety of different formats, from physical to electronic formats. Traditionally, workflows focus on the individual item going through the department and its various teams: acquisitions, cataloging, and processing, for example. With the changeover to electronic formats, workflows are going more towards a batch approach, processing and/or cataloging multiple items (for example, a collection of ebooks) at once.

In addition to adding materials to library collections, a library’s Technical Services staff do a fair amount of database maintenance for the library’s ILS (Integrated Library System). The term “dirty data” is thrown around the TS departments, covering database projects dealing with misspellings, outdated codes, or incorrect codes – anything that could inhibit a library user’s access to the resource.

Why should I automate my workflows?

  • Better quality control of workflow and data. Any time you let a human near a workflow, errors can be introduced into a workflow: incorrect codes, mistyped text, or mishandled items. Having an automated workflow cuts down on the workflow’s fail points and allow for better overall consistency and accuracy.
  • Save staff time.  You and your staff spend a good amount of time with repetitive keystrokes and decisions. Even small repetitive actions add up during the work day, resulting in hours of valuable staff time and resources. By automating the repetitive actions, you free up staff time to work on more complex workflows which are not as easily automated.

How do you decide what workflows to automate?

  • Flowchart your workflow.  A simple flowchart from the beginning of the workflow to the end might reveal several places where current manual decision making can be relegated to a script. If a person is currently looking for a code in the order record to figure out what location code they should enter in the item record, the script could be set to do the same.
  • What are the patterns? In each step, what data remains constant throughout all items? What codes, phrases, or fields do you insert every time you go through the workflow? Is there a pattern of going from one application to another at the same point in every workflow? One record to another?
  • How will the script access the data? Working with a file of MARC records will be different than working with a bibliographic record that is open in your ILS. Having a file of data is easier, but if you’re automating an item-level workflow, you will be dealing with windows that you have to work with. Getting data from a window can be tricky; sometimes you are able to access the data directly, and other times you will have to scrape the screen to get to the data that you want to work on with the script.

Example: Receipt Cataloging

At my former place of work, Technical Services had three levels of cataloging: receipt cataloging, copy cataloging, and original cataloging. All monographs would go through the receipt cataloging process, with items being bumped to the two higher levels of cataloging. The majority of items that go through receipt cataloging, having met a list of 40+ criteria, are fast-tracked to physical processing, shortening the time between the item arriving at the library to being placed on the shelf, which is the overreaching goal of receipt cataloging. The criteria range from determining if the record is DLC (Library of Congress) to determining if the 008, 050, and 260 ‡c dates match in the bibliographic record (if not a conference publication).

Given that the criteria and the decision making flowchart are fairly standard and straightforward, this workflow was built with automation in mind. My predecessor used Macro Express (ME) for the first version of the receipt cataloging macros. When we got to the point where we were bumping up against ME’s limits, I migrated the macros to AutoIt, where I was able to include many more quality control checks on the bibliographic and item records.

Below is a screencast where I walk through the receipt cataloging process. If I wasn’t explaining what was happening, the whole process would have taken a minute and 10 seconds to complete, a couple of seconds more if the item was bumped to another team in the department. Compared to a five minute turnaround time if our staff manually checked every criteria, the macros allows the department to go through more items during the day with better quality control.

Bonus Example: Ordering from GOBI

Another workflow at my former place of work involved ordering monographs from GOBI. The workflow, unlike receipt cataloging, have a lot more complex decision making flowchart and more exceptions. While I could not automate on the level of receipt cataloging, there were still patterns and routines that I could automate, such as searching the library catalog with information supplied by GOBI, and determining which codes to enter in the 949 field in the OCLC record (for exporting into our database).

Below is a screencast that shows a part of the notification ordering automation script set.

Preview for Part 2

In this post, I covered more of the item level workflow automation possibilities. More of Technical Services workflows, however, are changing towards dealing with many items at once. In part 2, I will discuss some examples of batch process automation and several tools (including those mentioned in this post) that can assist in making life easier in Technical Services.