Educating Your Campus about Predatory Publishers

The recent publication of Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella’s piece in College and Research Libraries News “Beyond Beall’s List: Better understanding predatory publishers” is a reminder that the issue of “predatory publishers” continues to require focus for those working in scholarly communication. Berger and Cirasella have done a exemplary job of laying out some of the issues with Beall’s list, and called on librarians to be able “to describe the beast, its implications, and its limitations—neither understating nor overstating its size and danger.”

At my institution academic deans have identified “predatory” journals as an area of concern, and I am sure similar conversations are happening at other institutions. Here’s how I’ve “described the beast” at my institution, and models for services we all can provide, whether subject librarian or scholarly communication librarian.

What is a Predatory Publisher? And Why Does the Dean Care?

The concept of predatory publishers became much more widely known in 2013 with a publication of an open access sting by John Bohannon in Science, which I covered in this post. As a recap, Bohannon created a fake but initially believable poor quality scientific article, and submitted it to open access journals. He found that the majority of journals accepted the poor quality paper, 45% of which were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals. At the time of publication in October 2013 the response to this article was explosive in the scholarly communications world. It seems that more than a year later the reaction continues to spread. Late in the fall semester of 2014, library administration asked me to prepare a guide about predatory publishers, due to concern among the deans that unscrupulous publishers might be taking advantage of faculty. This was a topic I’d been educating faculty about on an ad hoc basis for years, but I never realized we needed to address it more systematically. That all has changed, with senior library administration now doing regular presentations about predatory publishers to faculty.

If we are to be advocates of open access, we need to focus on the positive impact that open access has rather than dwell for too long on the bad sides of it. We also need faculty to be clear on their own goals for making their work open access so that they may make more informed choices. Librarians have limited faculty bandwidth on the topic, and so focusing on education about self-archiving articles (otherwise known as green open access) or choosing no-fee (also known as gold) open access journals is a better way to achieve advocacy goals than suggesting faculty choose only a certain set of gold open access journals. Unless we are offering money for paying article fees, we also don’t have much say about where faculty choose to publish. Education about how to choose a journal and a license responsibly is what we should focus on, even if it diverges from certain ideals (see Meredith Farkas on choosing creative commons licenses.)

Understanding the Needs and Preparing the Material

As I mentioned, my library administration asked for a guide that that they could use in presentations and share with faculty. In preparing this guide, I worked with our library’s Scholarly Communications committee (of which I am co-chair) to determine the format and content.

We decided that adding this material to our existing Open Access research guide would be the best move, since it was already up and we shared the URL widely already. We have a robust series of Open Access Week events (which I wrote about last fall) and this seemed to ideal place to continue engaging people. That said, we determined that the guide needed an overhaul to make it more clear that open access was an on-going area of concern, not a once a year event. Since faculty are not always immediately thinking of making work open access but of the mechanics of publishing, I preferred to start with the title “Publishing Your Own Work”.

To describe its features a bit more, I wanted to start from the mindset of self-archiving work to make it open access with a description of our repository and Peter Suber’s useful guide to making one’s own work open access. I then continued with an explanation of article publication fees, since I often get questions along those lines. They are not unique to open access journals, and don’t imply any fee to accept for publication, which was a fear that I heard more than once during Open Access Week last year. I only then discussed the concept of predatory journals, with the hope that a basic understanding of the process would allay fears. I then present a list of steps to research a journal. I thought these steps were more common sense than anything, but after conversations with faculty and administration, I realized that my intuition about what type of journal I am dealing with is obvious because I have daily practice and experience. For people new to the topic I tried to break down research into easy steps that help them to figure out where a journal is on the continuum from outright scams to legitimate but new or unusual journals. It was also important to me to emphasize self-archiving as a strategy no matter the journal publication model.

Lastly, while most academic libraries have a model of liaison librarians engaging in scholarly communications activities, the person who spends every day working on these issues is likely to be more versed in emerging trends. So it is important to work with liaisons to help them research journals and to identify quality open access journals in their disciplines. We plan to add this information to the guide in a future version.

Taking it on the Road

We felt that in-person instruction on these matters with faculty was a crucial next step, particularly for people who publish in traditional journals but want to make their work available. Traditional journals’ copyright transfer agreements can be predatory, even if we don’t think about it in those terms. Taking inspiration from the ACRL Scholarly Communications Roadshow I attended a few years ago, I decided to take the curriculum from that program and offer it to faculty and graduate students. We read through three publication agreements as a group, and then discussed how open the publishers were to reuse of material, or whether they mentioned it at all. We then included a section on addenda to contracts for negotiation about additional rights.

The first workshop received modest attendance, but included some thoughtful conversations, and we have promised to run it again. Some people may never have read their agreements closely, and never realized they were doing something illegal or not specifically allowed by, for instance, sharing an article they wrote with their students. That concrete realization is more likely to spur action than more abstract arguments about the benefits of open access.

Escaping the Predator Metaphor

If I could go back, I would get rid of the concept of “predator” attached to open access journals. Let’s call it instead unscrupulous entrants into an emerging business model. That’s not as catchy, but it explains why this has happened. I would argue, personally, that the hybrid gold journals by large publishers are just as predatory, as they capitalize on funding requirements to make articles open access with high fees. They too are trying new business models, and those may not be tenable either. As I said above, choosing a journal with eyes wide open and understanding all the ramifications of different publication models is the only way forward. To suggest that faculty are innocently waiting to be pounced on by predators is to deny their agency and their ability to make choices about their own work. There may be days where that metaphor seems apt, but I think overall this is a damaging mentality to librarians interested in promoting new models of scholarly communication. I hope we can provide better resources and programming to escape this, as well as to help administration to understand how to choose to fund open access initiatives.

In the comments I’d like to hear more suggestions about how to escape the “predator” metaphor, as well as your own techniques for educating faculty on your campus.

Trapped in the Glass Cage

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

The Glass Cage

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

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

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

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

Dr. Screen

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

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

Enter the ODI

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

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

“Automation of Intellect”

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

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


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

This Is How I (Attempt To) Work

Editor’s Note: ACRL TechConnect blog will run a series of posts by our regular and guest authors about The Setup of our work. The first post is by TechConnect alum Becky Yoose.

Ever wondered how several of your beloved TechConnect authors and alumni manage to Get Stuff Done? In conjunction with The Setup, this is the first post in a series of TechConnect authors, past and present, to show off what tools, tips, and tricks they use for work.

I have been tagged by @nnschiller in his “This is how I work” post. Normally, I just hide when these type of chain letter type events come along, but this time I’ll indulge everyone and dust off my blogging skills. I’m Becky Yoose, Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian, and this is how I work.

Location: Grinnell, Iowa, United States

Current Gig: Assistant Professor, Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian; Grinnell College

Current Mobile Device: Samsung Galaxy Note 3, outfitted with an OtterBox Defender cover. I still mourn the discontinuation of the Droid sliding keyboard models, but the oversized screen and stylus make up for the lack of tactile typing.

Current Computer:

Work: HP EliteBook 8460p (due to be replaced in 2015); boots Windows 7

Home: Betty, my first build; dual boots Windows 7 and Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

eeepc 901, currently b0rked due to misjudgement on my part about appropriate xubuntu distros.

Current Tablet: iPad 2, supplied by work.

One word that best describes how you work:


Don’t panic. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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

Essential work computer software and tools, in no particular order:

  • Outlook – email and meetings make up the majority of my daily interactions with people at work and since campus is a Microsoft shop…
  • Notepad++ – my Swiss army knife for text-based duties: scripts, notes, and everything in between.
  • PuTTY - Great SSH/Telnet client for Windows.
  • Marcedit – I work with library metadata, so Marcedit is essential on any of my work machines.
  • MacroExpress and AutoIt – Two different Windows automation apps: MacroExpress handles more simple automation (opening programs, templating/constant data, simple workflows involving multiple programs) while AutoIt gives you more flexibility and control in the automation process, including programming local functions and more complex decision-making processes.
  • Rainmeter and Rainlander – These two provide customized desktop skins that give you direct or quicker access to specific system information, functions, or in Rainlander’s case, application data.
  • Pidgin – MPOW uses both LibraryH3lp and AIM for instant messaging services, and I use IRC to keep in touch with #libtechwomen and #code4lib channels. Being able to do all three in one app saves time and effort.
  • Jing – while the Snipping Tool in Windows 7 is great for taking screenshots for emails, Jing has proven to be useful for both basic screenshots and screencasts for troubleshooting systems issues with staff and library users. The ability to save screencasts on is also valuable when working with vendors in troubleshooting problems.
  • CCleaner – Not only does it empty your recycling bin and temporary files/caches, the various features available in one spot (program lists, registry fixes, startup program lists, etc.) make CCleaner an efficient way to do housekeeping on my machines.
  • Janetter (modified code for custom display of Twitter lists) – Twitter is my main information source for the library and technology fields. One feature I use extensively is the List feature, and Janetter’s plugin-friendly set up allows me to highly customize not only the display but what is displayed in the list feeds.
  • Firefox, including these plugins (not an exhaustive list):

For server apps, the main app (beyond putty or vSphere) that I need is Nagios to monitor the library virtual Linux server farm. I also am partial to nano, vim, and apt.

As one of the very few tech people on staff, I need a reliable system to track and communicate technical issues with both library users and staff. Currently the Libraries is piggybacking on ITS’ ticketing system KBOX. Despite being fit into a somewhat inflexible existing structure, it has worked well for us, and since we don’t have to maintain the system, all the better!

Web services: The Old Reader, Gmail, Google Drive, Skype, Twitter. I still mourn the loss of Google Reader.

For physical items, my tea mug. And my hat.

What’s your workspace like?

Take a concrete box, place it in the dead center of the library, cut out a door in one side, place the door opening three feet from the elevator door, cool it to a consistent 63-65 degrees F., and you have my office. Spending 10+ hours a day during the week in this office means a bit of modding is in order:

  • Computer workstation set up: two HP LA2205wg 22 inch monitors (set to appropriate ergonomic distances on desk), laptop docking station, ergonomic keyboard/mouse stand, ergonomic chair. Key word is “ergonomic”. I can’t stress this enough with folks; I’ve seen friends develop RSIs on the job years ago and they still struggle with them today. Don’t go down that path if you can help it; it’s not pretty.
  • Light source: four lamps of varying size, all with GE Daylight 6500K 15 watt light bulbs. I can’t do the overhead lights due to headaches and migraines, so these lamps and bulbs help make an otherwise dark concrete box a little brighter.
  • Three cephalopods, a starfish, a duck, a moomin, and cats of various materials and sizes
  • Well stocked snack/emergency meal/tea corner to fuel said 10+ hour work days
  • Blankets, cardigans, shawls, and heating pads to deal with the cold

When I work at home during weekends, I end up in the kitchen with the laptop on the island, giving me the option to sit on the high chair or stand. Either way, I have a window to look at when I need a few seconds to think. (If my boss is reading this – I want my office window back.)

What’s your best time-saving trick?

Do it right the first time. If you can’t do it right the first time, then make the path to make it right as efficient  and painless as you possibly can. Alternatively, build a time machine to prevent those disastrous metadata and systems decisions made in the past that you’re dealing with now.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

Post it notes on a wall

The Big Picture from 2012

I have tried to do online to-do list managers, such as Trello; however, I have found that physical managers work best for me. In my office I have a to-do management system that comprises of three types of lists:

  • The Big Picture List (2012 list pictured above)- four big post it sheets on my wall, labeled by season, divided by months in each sheet. Smaller post it notes are used to indicate which projects are going on in which months. This is a great way to get a quick visual as to what needs to be completed, what can be delayed, etc.
  • The Medium Picture List – a mounted whiteboard on the wall in front of my desk. Here specific projects are listed with one to three action items that need to be completed within a certain time, usually within one to two months.
  • The Small Picture List – written on discarded Choice review cards, the perfect size to quickly jot down things that need to be done either today or in the next few days.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

My wrist watch, set five minutes fast. I feel conscientious if I go out of the house without it.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?

I’d like to think that I’m pretty good with adhering to Inbox Zero.

What are you currently reading?

The practice of system and network administration, 2nd edition. Part curiosity, part wanting to improve my sysadmin responsibilities, part wanting to be able to communicate better with my IT colleagues.

What do you listen to while you work?

It depends on what I am working on. I have various stations on Pandora One and a selection of iTunes playlists to choose from depending on the task on hand. The choices range from medieval chant (for long form writing) to thrash metal (XML troubleshooting).

Realistically, though, the sounds I hear most are email notifications, the operation of the elevator that is three feet from my door, and the occasional TMI conversation between students who think the hallway where my office and the elevator are located is deserted.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

An introvert blessed/cursed with her parents’ social skills.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I turn into a pumpkin at around 8:30 pm, sometimes earlier. I wake up around 4:30 am most days, though I do cheat and not get out of bed until around 5:15 am, checking email, news feeds, and looking at my calendar to prepare for the coming day.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.

You. Also, my cats.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Not advice per se, but life experience. There are many things one learns when living on a farm, including responsibility, work ethic, and realistic optimism. You learn to integrate work and life since, on the farm, work is life. You work long hours, but you also have to rest whenever you can catch a moment.  If nothing else, living on a farm teaches you that no matter how long you put off doing something, it has to be done. The earlier, the better, especially when it comes with shoveling manure.

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.”

Taking a trek with SCVNGR: Developing asynchronous, mobile orientations and instruction for campus

Embedding the library in campus-wide orientations, as well as developing standalone library orientations, is often part of outreach and first year experience work. Reaching all students can be a challenge, so finding opportunities for better engaging campus helps to promote the library and increase student awareness. Using a mobile app for orientations can provide many benefits such as increasing interactivity and offering an asynchronous option for students to learn about the library on their own time. We have been trying out SCVNGR at the University of Arizona (UA) Libraries and are finding it is a more fun and engaging way to deliver orientations and instruction to students.

Why use game design for library orientations and instruction?

Game-based learning can be a good match for orientations, just as it can be for instruction (I have explored this before with ACRL TechConnect previously, looking at badges). Rather than just presenting a large amount of information to students or having them fill out a paper-based scavenger hunt activity, using something like SCVNGR can get students interacting more with the library in a way that offers more engagement in real time and with feedback. However, simply adding a layer of points and badges or other game mechanics to a non-game situation doesn’t automatically make it fun and engaging for students. In fact, doing this ineffectively can cause more harm than good (Nicholson, 2012). Finding a way to use the game design to motivate participants beyond simply acquiring points tends to be the common goal in using game design in orientations and instruction. Thinking of the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) principle from a students’ perspective can help, and in the game design we used at the University of Arizona with SCVNGR for a class orientation, we created activities based on common questions and concerns of students.

scvngr home screen

scvngr home screen


SCVNGR is a mobile app game for iPhone and Android where players can complete challenges in specific locations. Rather than getting clues and hints like in a traditional scavenger hunt, this game is more focused on activities within a location instead of finding the location. Although this takes some of the mystery away, it works very well for simply informing people about locations that are new to them and having them interact with the space.

Students need to physically be in the location for the app to work, where they use the location to search for “challenges” (single activities to complete) or “treks” (a series of single activities that make up the full experience for a location), and then complete the challenges or treks to earn points, badges, and recognition.

Some libraries have made their own mobile scavenger hunt activities without the aid of a paid app. For example, North Carolina State University uses the NCSU Libraries’ Mobile Scavenger Hunt, which is a combination of students recording responses in Evernote, real time interaction, and tracking by librarians.  One of the reasons we went with SCVNGR, however, is because this sort of mobile orientation requires a good amount of librarian time and is synchronous, whereas SCVNGR does not require as much face-to-face librarian time and allows for asynchronous student participation. Although we do use more synchronous instruction for some of our classes, we also wanted to have the option for asynchronous activities, and in particular for the large-scale orientations where many different groups will come in at many different times. Although SCVNGR is not free for us, the app is free to students. They offer 24/7 support and other academic institutions offer insight and ideas in a community for universities.

Other academic libraries have used SCVNGR for orientations and even library instruction. A few examples are:


How did the UA Libraries use SCVNGR?

Because a lot of instruction has moved online and there are so many students to reach, we are working on SCVNGR treks for both instruction and basic orientations at the University of Arizona (UA). We are in the process of setting up treks for large-scale campus orientations (New Student Orientation, UA Up Close for both parents and students, etc.) that take place during the summer, and we have tested SCVNGR  out on a smaller scale as a pilot for individual classes. There tends to be greater success and engagement if the Trek is tied to something, such as a class assignment or a required portion of an orientation session that must be completed. One concern for an app-based activity is that not all students will have smartphones. This was alleviated by putting students into groups ahead of time, ensuring that at least one person in the group did have a device compatible to use SCVNGR. However, we do lend technology at the UA Libraries, and so if a group was without a smartphone or tablet, they would be able to check one out from the library.

trek page for ais197b at ua libraries

trek page for ais197b at ua libraries

We first piloted a trek on an American Indian Studies student success course (AIS197b). This course for freshmen introduces students to services on campus that will be useful to them while they are at the UA. Last year, we presented a quick information session on library services, and then had the students complete a scavenger hunt for a class grade (participation points) with pencil and paper throughout the library. Although they seemed glad to be able to get out and move around, it didn’t seem particularly fun and engaging. On top of that, every time the students got stuck or had a question, they had to come back to the main floor to find librarians and get help.  In contrast, when students get an answer wrong in SCVNGR, feedback is programmed in to guide them to the correct information. And, because they don’t need clues to make it to the next step (they just go back and select the next challenge in the trek), they are able to continue without one mistake preventing them from moving on to the next activity. This semester, we first presented a brief instruction session (approximately 15-20 min) and then let students get started on SCVNGR.

You can see in the screenshot below how question design works, where you can select the location, how many points count toward the activity, type of activity (taking a photo, answering with text, or scanning a QR code), and then providing feedback. If a student answers a question incorrectly, as I mention above, they will receive feedback to help them in figuring out the correct answer. I really like that when students get answers right, they know instantly. This is positive reinforcement for them to continue.

scvngr answer feedback

scvngr answer feedback

The activities designed for students in this class were focused on photo and text-based challenges. We stayed away from QR codes because they can be finicky with some phones, and simply taking a picture of the QR code meets the challenge requirement for that option of activity. Our challenges included:

  • Meet the reference desk (above): Students meet desk staff and ask how they can get in touch for reference assistance; answers are by text and students type in which method they think they would use the most: email, chat, phone, or in person.
  • Prints for a day: Students find out about printing (a frequent question of new students), and text in how to pay for printing after finding the information at the Express Documents Center.
  • Playing favorites: Students wander around the library and find their favorite study spot. Taking a picture completes the challenge, and all images are collected in the Trek’s statistics.
  • Found in the stacks: After learning how to use the catalog (we provided a brief instruction session to this class before setting them loose), students search the catalog for books on a topic they are interested in, then locate the book on the shelf and take a picture. One student used this time to find books for another class and was really glad he got some practice.
  • A room of one’s own: The UA Libraries implemented online study room reservations as of a year ago. In order to introduce this new option to students, this challenge had them use their smartphones to go to the mobile reservation page and find out what the maximum amount of hours study rooms can be reserved for and text that in.

SCVNGR worked great with this class for simple tasks, such as meeting people at the reference desk, finding a book, or taking a picture of a favorite study spot, but for tasks that might require more critical thinking or more intricate work, this would not be the best platform to use in that level of instruction. SCVNGR’s assessment options are limited for students to respond to questions or complete an activity. Texting in detailed answers or engaging in tasks like searching a database would be much harder to record. Likewise, because more instruction that is tied to critical thinking is not so much location-based (evaluating a source or exploring copyright issues, for example), and so it would be hard to tie these tasks and acquisition of skill to an actual location-based activity to track. One instance of this was with the Found in the Stacks challenge; students were supposed to search for a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelf, but there would be nothing stopping them from just finding a random book on the shelf and taking a picture of it to complete the challenge. SCVNGR provides a style guide to help in game design, and the overall understanding from this document is that simplicity is most effective for this platform.

Another feature that works well is being able to choose if the Trek is competitive or not, and also use “SmartRoute,” which is the ability to have challenges show up for participants based on distance and least-crowded areas. This is wonderful, particularly as students get sort of congested at certain points in a scavenger hunt: they all crowd around the same materials or locations simultaneously because they’re making the same progress through the activity. We chose to use SmartRoute for this class so they would be spread out during the game.

scvngr trek settings

scvngr trek settings

When trying to assess student effort and impact of the trek, you can look at stats and rankings. It’s possible to view specific student progress, all activity by all participants, and rankings organized by points.

scvngr statistics

scvngr statistics

Another feature is the ability to collect items submitted for challenges (particularly pictures). One of our challenges is for students to find their favorite study spot in the library and take a picture of it. This should be fun for them to think about and is fairly easy, and it helps us do some space assessment. It’s then possible to collect pictures like the following (student’s privacy protected via purple blob).

student images of ua main library via scvngr

student images of ua main library via scvngr

On the topic of privacy, students enter in their name to set up an account, but only their first name and first initial of their last name appear as their username. Although last names are then hidden, SCVNGR data is viewable by anyone who is within the geographical range to access the challenge: it is not closed to an institution. If students choose to take pictures of themselves, their identity may be revealed, but it is possible to maintain some privacy by not sharing images of specific individuals or sharing any personal information through text responses. On the flip side of  not wanting to associate individual students with their specific activities, it gets trickier when an instructor plans to award points for student participation. In that case, it’s possible to request reports from SCVNGR for instructors so they can see how much and which students participated. In a large class of over 100 students, looking at the data can be messier, particularly if students have the same first name and last initial. Because of this issue, SCVNGR might be better used for large-scale orientations where participation does not need to be tracked, and small classes where instructors would be easily able to know who is who in the data for activity.

Lessons learned

Both student and instructor feedback was very positive. Students seemed to be having fun, laughing, and were not getting stuck nearly as much as the previous year’s pencil-and-paper hunt. The instructor noted it seemed a lot more streamlined and engaging for the class. When students checked in with us at the end before heading out, they said they enjoyed the activity and although there were a couple of hiccups with the software and/or how we designed the trek, they said it was a good experience and they felt more comfortable with using the library.

Next time, I would be more careful about using text responses. I had gone down to our printing center to tell the current student worker what answers students in the class would be looking for so she could answer it for them, but they wound up speaking with someone else and getting different answers. Otherwise, the level of questions seemed appropriate for this class and it was a good way to pilot how SCVNGR works, if students might like it, and how long different types of questions take for bringing this to campus on a larger scale. I would also be cautious about using SCVNGR too heavily for instruction, since it doesn’t seem to have capabilities for more complex tasks or a great deal of critical thinking. It is more suited to basic instruction and getting students more comfortable in using the library.


  • Ability to reach many students and asynchronously
  • Anyone can complete challenges and treks; this is great for prospective students and families, community groups, and any programs doing outreach or partnerships outside of campus since a university login is not required.
  • Can be coordinate with campus treks if other units have accounts or a university-wide license is purchased.
  • WYSIWYG interface, no programming skills necessary
  • Order of challenges in a trek can be assigned staggered so not everyone is competing for the same resources at the same time.
  • Can collect useful data through users submitting photos and comments (for example, we can examine library space and student use by seeing where students’ favorite spots to study are).


  • SCVNGR is not free to use, an annual fee applies (in the $900-range for a library-only license, which is not institution-wide).
  • Privacy is a concern since anyone can see activity in a location; it’s not possible to close this to campus.
  • When completing a trek, users do not get automatic prompts to proceed to the next challenge; instead, they must go back to the home location screen and choose the next challenge (this can get a little confusing for students).
  • SCVNGR is more difficult to use with instruction, especially when looking to incorporate critical thinking and more complex activities
  • Instructors might have a harder time figuring out how to grade participation because treks are open to anyone; only students’ first name and last initial appear, so if either a large class completes a trek for an assignment or if an orientation trek for the public is used, a special report must be requested from SCVNGR that the library could send to the instructor for grading purposes.



SCVNGR is a good way to increase awareness and get students and other groups comfortable in using the library. One of the main benefits is that it’s asynchronous, so a great deal of library staff time is not required to get people interacting with services, collections, and space. Although this platform is not perfect for more in-depth instruction, it does work at the basic orientation level, and students and the instructor in the course we piloted it on had a good experience.



Nicholson, S. (2012). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper Presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI. Retrieved from


About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.

Reflections on Code4Lib 2013

Disclaimer: I was on the planning committee for Code4Lib 2013, but this is my own opinion and does not reflect other organizers of the conference.

We have mentioned Code4Lib before on this blog, but for those who are unfamiliar, it is a loose collective of programmers working in libraries, librarians, and others interested in code and libraries. (You can read more about it on the website.) The Code4Lib conference has emerged as a venue to share very new technology and have discussions with a wide variety of people who might not attend conferences more geared to librarians. Presentations at the conference are decided by the votes of anyone interested in selecting the program, and additionally lightning talks and breakout sessions allow wide participation and exposure to extremely new projects that have not made it into the literature or to conferences with a longer lead time. The Code4Lib 2013 conference ran February 11-14 at University of Illinois Chicago. You can see a list of all programs here, which includes links to the video archive of the conference.

While there were many types of projects presented, I want to focus on those talks which illustrated what I saw as thread running through the conference–care and emotion. This is perhaps unexpected for a technical conference. Yet those themes underlie a great deal of the work that takes place in academic library technology and the types of projects presented at Code4Lib. We tend to work in academic libraries because we care about the collections and the people using those collections. That intrinsic motivation focuses our work.

Caring about the best way to display collections is central to successful projects. Most (though not all) the presenters and topics came out of academic libraries, and many of the presentations dealt with creating platforms for library and archival metadata and collections. To highlight a few: Penn State University has developed their own institutional repository application called ScholarSphere that provides a better user experience for researchers and managers of the repository. The libraries and archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dealt with the increasingly common problem of wanting to present digital content alongside more traditional finding aids, and so developed a system for doing so. Corey Harper from New York University presented an extremely interesting and still experimental project to use linked data to enrich interfaces for interacting with library collections. Note that all these projects combined various pieces of open source software and library/web standards to create solutions that solve a problem facing academic or research libraries for a particular setting. I think an important lesson for most academic librarians looking at descriptions of projects like this is that it takes more than development staff to make projects like this. It takes purpose, vision, and dedication to collecting and preserving content–in other words, emotion and care. A great example of this was the presentation about DIYHistory from the University of Iowa. This project started out initially as an extremely low-tech solution for crowdsourcing archival transcription, but got so popular that it required a more robust solution. They were able to adapt open source tools to meet their needs, still keeping the project very within the means of most libraries (the code is here).

Another view of emotion and care came from Mark Matienzo, who did a lightning talk (his blog post gives a longer version with more details). His talk discussed the difficulties of acknowledging and dealing with the emotional content of archives, even though emotion drives interactions with materials and collections. The records provided are emotionless and affectless, despite the fact that they represent important moments in history and lives. The type of sharing of what someone “likes” on Facebook does not satisfactorily answer the question of what they care about,or represent the emotion in their lives. Mark suggested that a tool like Twine, which allows writing interactive stories could approach the difficult question of bringing together the real with the emotional narrative that makes up experience.

One of the ways we express care for our work and for our colleagues is by taking time to be organized and consistent in code. Naomi Dushay of Stanford University Library presented best practices for code handoffs, which described some excellent practices for documenting and clarifying code and processes. One of the major takeaways is that being clear, concise, and straightforward is always preferable, even as much as we want to create cute names for our servers and classes. To preserve a spirit of fun, you can use the cute name and attach a description of what the item actually does.

Originally Bess Sadler, also from Stanford, was going to present with Naomi, but ended up presenting a different talk and the last one of the conference on Creating a Commons (the full text is available here). This was a very moving look at what motivates her to create open source software and how to create better open source software projects. She used the framework of the Creative Commons licenses to discuss open source software–that it needs to be “[m]achine readable, human readable, and lawyer readable.” Machine readable means that code needs to be properly structured and allow for contributions from multiple people without breaking, lawyer readable means that the project should have the correct structure and licensing to collaborate across institutions. Bess focused particularly on the “human readable” aspect of creating communities and understanding the “hacker epistemology,” as she so eloquently put it, “[t]he truth is what works.” Part of understanding that requires being willing to reshape default expectations–for instance, the Code4Lib community developed a Code of Conduct at Bess’s urging to underline the fact that the community aims at inclusion and creating a safe space. She encouraged everyone to keep working to do better and “file bug reports” about open source communities.

This year’s Code4Lib conference was a reminder to me about why I do the work I do as an academic librarian working in a technical role. Even though I may spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer looking at code, or workflows, or processes, I know it makes access to the collections and exploration of those collections better.

Aaron Swartz and Too-Comfortable Research Libraries

*** Update: Several references and a video added (thanks to Brett Bonfield) on Feb. 21, 2013. ***

Who was Aaron Swartz?

If you are a librarian and do not know who Aaron Swartz is, that should probably change now. He helped developing the RSS standard, was the co-founder of Reddit, worked on the Open Library project, downloaded and freed 20% (2.7 million documents) of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database that charges access fees for the United States federal court documents, out of which about 1,600 had privacy issues, played a lead role in preventing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and wrote the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.

Most famously, he was arrested in 2011 for the mass download of journal articles from JSTOR. He returned the documents to JSTOR and apologized. The Massachusetts state court dismissed the charges, and JSTOR decided not to pursue civil litigation. But MIT stayed silent, and the federal court charged Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. If convicted on these charges, Swartz could be sentenced to up to 35 years in prison at the age of 26. He committed suicide after facing charges for two years, on January 11, 2013.

Information wants to be free; Information wants to be expensive

Now, he was a controversial figure. He advocated Open Access (OA) but to the extent of encouraging scholars, librarians, students who have access to copyrighted academic materials to trade passwords and circulate them freely on the grounds that this is an act of civil disobedience against unjust copyright laws in his manifesto. He was an advocate of the open Internet, the transparent government, and open access to scholarly output. But he also physically hacked into the MIT network wiring closet and attached his laptop to download over 4 million articles from JSTOR. Most people including librarians are not going to advocate trading their institutions’ subscription database passwords or breaking into a staff-only computer networking area of an institution. The actual method of OA that Swartz recommended was highly controversial even among the strongest OA advocates.

But in his Guerrilla OA manifesto, Swartz raised one very valid point about the nature of information in the era of the World Wide Web. That is, information is power. (a) As power, information can be spread to and be made useful to as many of us as possible. Or, (b) it can be locked up and the access to it can be restricted to only those who can pay for it or have access privileges some other way. One thing is clear. Those who do not have access to information will be at a significant disadvantage compared to those who do.

And I would like to ask what today’s academic and/or research libraries are doing to realize Scenario (a) rather than Scenario (b). Are academic/research libraries doing enough to make information available to as many as possible?

Too-comfortable Internet, Too-comfortable academic libraries

Among the many articles I read about Aaron Swartz’s sudden death, the one that made me think most was “Aaron Swartz’s suicide shows the risk of a too-comfortable Internet.” The author of this article worries that we may now have a too-comfortable Internet. The Internet is slowly turning into just another platform for those who can afford purchasing information. The Internet as the place where you could freely find, use, modify, create, and share information is disappearing. Instead pay walls and closed doors are being established. Useful information on the Internet is being fast monetized, and the access is no longer free and open. Even the government documents become no longer freely accessible to the public when they are put up on the Internet (likely to be due to digitization and online storage costs) as shown in the case of PACER and Aaron Swartz. We are more and more getting used to giving up our privacy or to paying for information. This may be inevitable in a capitalist society, but should the same apply to libraries as well?

The thought about the too-comfortable Internet made me wonder whether perhaps academic research libraries were also becoming too comfortable with the status quo of licensing electronic journals and databases for patrons. In the times when the library collection was physical, people who walk into the library were rarely turned away. The resources in the library are collected and preserved because we believe that people have the right to learn and investigate things and to form one’s own opinions and that the knowledge of the past should be made available for that purpose. Regardless of one’s age, gender, social and financial status, libraries have been welcoming and encouraging people who were in the quest for knowledge and information. With the increasing number of electronic resources in the library, however, this has been changing.

Many academic libraries offer computers, which are necessary to access electronic resources of the library itself. But how many of academic libraries keep all the computers open for user without the user log-in? Often those library computers are locked up and require the username and password, which only those affiliated with the institution possess. The same often goes for many electronic resources. How many academic libraries allow the on-site access to electronic resources by walk-in users? How many academic libraries insist on the walk-in users’ access to those resources that they pay for in the license?  Many academic libraries also participate in the Federal Depository Library program, which requires those libraries to provide free access to the government documents that they receive to the public. But how easy is it for the public to enter and access the free government information at those libraries?

I asked in Twitter about the guest access in academic libraries to computers and e-resources. Approximately 25 academic librarians generously answered my question. (Thank you!) According to the responses in Twitter,  almost all except a few libraries ( mentioned in Twitter responses) offer guest access to computers and e-resources on-site. It is to be noted, however, that a few offer the guest -access to neither. Also some libraries limit the guests’ computer-use to 30 minutes – 4 hours, thereby restricting the access to the library’s electronic resources as well. Only a few libraries offer free wi-fi for guests. And at some libraries, the guest wi-fi users are unable to access the library’s e-resources even on-site because the IP range of the guest wi-fi is different from that of the campus wi-fi.

I am not sure how many academic libraries consciously negotiate the walk-in users’ on-site access with e-resources vendors or whether this is done somewhat semi-automatically because many libraries ask the library building IP range to be registered with vendors so that the authentication can be turned off inside the building. I surmise that publishers and database vendors will not automatically permit the walk-in users’ on-site access in their licenses unless libraries ask for it. Some vendors also explicitly prohibit libraries from using their materials to fill the Interlibrary loan requests from other libraries. The electronic resource vendors and publishers’ pricing has become more and more closely tied to the number of patrons who can access their products. Academic libraries has been dealing with the escalating costs for electronic resources by filtering out library patrons and limiting the access to those in a specific disciplines. For example, academic medical and health sciences libraries often subscribe to databases and resources that have the most up-to-date information about biomedical research, diseases, medications, and treatments. These are almost always inaccessible to the general public and often even to those affiliated with the institution. The use of these prohibitively expensive resources is limited to a very small portion of people who are affiliated with the institution in specific disciplines such as medicine and health sciences. Academic research libraries have been partially responsible for the proliferation of these access limitations by welcoming and often preferring these limitations as a cost-saving measure. (By contrast, if those resources were in the print format, no librarian would think that it is OK to permanently limit its use to those in medical or health science disciplines only.)

Too-comfortable libraries do not ask themselves if they are serving the public good of providing access to information and knowledge for those who are in need but cannot afford it. Too-comfortable libraries see their role as a mediator and broker in the transaction between the information seller and the information buyer. They may act as an efficient and successful mediator and broker. But I don’t believe that that is why libraries exist. Ultimately, libraries exist to foster the sharing and dissemination of knowledge more than anything, not to efficiently mediate information leasing. And this is the dangerous idea: You cannot put a price tag on knowledge; it belongs to the human race. Libraries used to be the institution that validates and confirms this idea. But will they continue to be so in the future? Will an academic library be able to remain as a sanctuary for all ideas and a place for sharing knowledge for people’s intellectual pursuits regardless of their institutional membership? Or will it be reduced to a branch of an institution that sells knowledge to its tuition-paying customers only? While public libraries are more strongly aligned with this mission of making information and knowledge freely and openly available to the public than academic libraries, they cannot be expected to cover the research needs of patrons as fully as academic libraries.

I am not denying that libraries are also making efforts in continuing the preservation and access to the information and resources through initiatives such as Hathi Trust and DPLA (Digital Public Library of America). My concern is rather whether academic research libraries are becoming perhaps too well-adapted to the times of the Internet and online resources and too comfortable serving the needs of the most tangible patron base only in the most cost-efficient way, assuming that the library’s mission of storing and disseminating knowledge can now be safely and neutrally relegated to the Internet and the market. But it is a fantasy to believe that the Internet will be a sanctuary for all ideas (The Internet is being censored as shown in the case of Tarek Mehanna.), and the market will surely not have the ideal of the free and open access to knowledge for the public.

If libraries do not fight for and advocate those who are in need of information and knowledge but cannot afford it, no other institution will do so. Of course, it costs to create, format, review, and package content. Authors as well as those who work in this business of content formatting, reviewing, packaging, and producing should be compensated for their work. But not to the extent that the content is completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to purchase but nevertheless want access to it for learning, inquiry, and research. This is probably the reason why we are all moved by Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto in spite of the illegal implications of the action that he actually recommended in the manifesto.

Knowledge and information is not like any other product for purchase. Sharing increases its value, thereby enabling innovation, further research, and new knowledge. Limiting knowledge and information to only those with access privilege and/or sufficient purchasing power creates a fundamental inequality. The mission of a research institution should never be limited to self-serving its members only, in my opinion. And if the institution forgets this, it should be the library that first raises a red flag. The mission of an academic research institution is to promote the freedom of inquiry and research and to provide an environment that supports that mission inside and outside of its walls, and that is why a library is said to be the center of an academic research institution.

I don’t have any good answers to the inevitable question of “So what can an academic research library do?” Perhaps, we can start with broadening the guest access to the library computers, wi-fi, and electronic resources on-site. Academic research libraries should also start asking themselves this question: What will libraries have to offer for those who seek knowledge for learning and inquiry but cannot afford it? If the answer is nothing, we will have lost libraries.

In his talk about the Internet Archive’s Open Library project at the Code4Lib Conference in 2008 (at 11:20), Swartz describes how librarians had argued about which subject headings to use for the books in the Open Library website. And he says, “We will use all of them. It’s online. We don’t have to have this kind of argument.” The use of online information and resources does not incur additional costs for use once produced. Many resources, particularly those scholarly research outputs, already have established buyers such as research libraries. Do we have to deny access to information and knowledge to those who cannot afford but are seeking for it, just so that we can have a market where information and knowledge resources are sold and bought and authors are compensated along with those who work with the created content as a result? No, this is a false question. We can have both. But libraries and librarians will have to make it so.

Videos to Watch

“Code4Lib 2008: Building the Open Library – YouTube.”

“Aaron Swartz on Picking Winners” American Library Association Midwinter meeting, January 12, 2008.

“Freedom to Connect: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) on Victory to Save Open Internet, Fight Online Censors.”


“Aaron Swartz.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Aaron Swartz – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Aaron Swartz on Picking Winners – YouTube.” 2008.

“Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Shows the Risk of a Too-comfortable Internet – The Globe and Mail.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Academics Remember Reddit Co-Founder With #PDFTribute.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“After Aaron, Reputation Metrics Startups Aim To Disrupt The Scientific Journal Industry | TechCrunch.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

American Library Association, “A Memorial Resolution Honoring Aaron Swartz.” 2013.

“An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy –” 2013. Accessed February 10.

Bonfield, Brett. 2013. “Aaron Swartz.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (February 20).

“Code4Lib 2008: Building the Open Library – YouTube.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Daily Kos: What Aaron Swartz Did at MIT.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

Dupuis, John. 2013a. “Around the Web: Aaron Swartz Chronological Link Roundup – Confessions of a Science Librarian.” Accessed February 10.

———. 2013b. “Library Vendors, Politics, Aaron Swartz, #pdftribute – Confessions of a Science Librarian.” Accessed February 10.

“FDLP for PUBLIC.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Freedom to Connect: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) on Victory to Save Open Internet, Fight Online Censors.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Full Text of ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

Groover, Myron. 2013. “British Columbia Library Association – News – The Last Days of Aaron Swartz.” Accessed February 21.

Hellman, Eric. 2013a. “Go To Hellman: Edward Tufte Was a Proto-Phreaker (#aaronswnyc Part 1).” Accessed February 21.

———. 2013b. “Go To Hellman: The Four Crimes of Aaron Swartz (#aaronswnyc Part 2).” Accessed February 21.

“How M.I.T. Ensnared a Hacker, Bucking a Freewheeling Culture –” 2013. Accessed February 10.

March, Andrew. 2013. “A Dangerous Mind? –” Accessed February 10.

“MediaBerkman » Blog Archive » Aaron Swartz on The Open Library.” 2013. Accessed February 22.

Peters, Justin. 2013. “The Idealist.” Slate, February 7.

“Public Access to Court Electronic Records.” 2013a. Accessed February 10.

“Publishers and Library Groups Spar in Appeal to Ruling on E-Reserves – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Remember Aaron Swartz.” 2013. Celebrating Aaron Swartz. Accessed February 22.

Rochkind, Jonathan. 2013. “Library Values and the Growing Scholarly Digital Divide: In Memoriam Aaron Swartz | Bibliographic Wilderness.” Accessed February 10.

Sims, Nancy. 2013. “What Is the Government’s Interest in Copyright? Not That of the Public. – Copyright Librarian.” Accessed February 10.

Stamos, Alex. 2013. “The Truth About Aaron Swartz’s ‘Crime’.” Unhandled Exception. Accessed February 22.

Summers, Ed. 2013. “Aaronsw | Inkdroid.” Accessed February 21.

“The Inside Story of Aaron Swartz’s Campaign to Liberate Court Filings | Ars Technica.” 2013. Accessed February 10.

“Welcome to Open Library (Open Library).” 2013. Accessed February 10.

West, Jessamyn. 2013. “ » Blog Archive » On Leadership and Remembering Aaron.” Accessed February 21.


Test-driving Purdue’s Passport gamification platform for library instruction

Gamification in libraries has become a topic of interest in the professional discourse, and one that ACRL TechConnect has covered in Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services and Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Gamification. Much of what has been written about badging systems in libraries pertains to gamifying library services. However, being an Instructional Services Librarian, I have been interested in tying gamification to library instruction.

When library skills are not always part of required learning outcomes or directly associated with particular classes, thinking more creatively about promotion and embeddedness of library tutorials prompted me to become interested in tying a badging system to the University of Arizona Libraries’ online learning objects. For a brief review on badges, they are visual representations of skills and achievements. They can be used with or instead of grades depending on the scenario and include details to support their credibility (criteria, issuer, evidence, currency).


Becoming a beta tester for Purdue’s Passport platform gives me the opportunity to better sketch out what our plans are and to test how gamification could work in this context. Passport, according to Purdue, is “A learning system that demonstrates academic achievement through customizable badges.” Through this platform, instructors can design instruction for badges to be associated with learning outcomes. Currently, Passport can only be used by applying to be a beta tester. As they improve the software, it should be available to more people and have greater integration (it currently connects with Mozilla Open Backpack and within the Purdue system).We are still comparing platforms and possibilities for the University of Arizona Libraries, and testing Passport has been the first step in figuring out what we want, what is available, and how we would like to design this form of instruction. I will share my impression of Passport and using badging technology for these purposes from my experience using the software.

Refresher on motivation

It’s important to understand how motivation works in relation to a points and badges system, while also having a clear goal in mind. I recently wrote a literature review on motivation in gamified learning scenarios as part of my work toward a second Master’s in Educational Technology. The general ideas to take away are the importance of employing game mechanics thoughtfully into your framework to avoid users’ relying solely on the scoring system, as well as focusing on the engagement aspects of gamification rather than using badges and points just for manipulation. Points should be used as a feedback mechanism rather than just promoting them as items to harvest.

Structure and scalability

Putting this into perspective for gamifying library instruction at the University of Arizona, we want to be sure student motivation is directed at developing research skills that can be visually demonstrated to instructors and future employers through badges, with points serving as feedback and further motivation. We are using the ACRL Information Literacy Standards as an outline for the badges we create; the Standards are not perfect, but they serve well as a map for conceptualizing research skills and are a way we can organize the content. Within each skill set or badge, activities for completion are multidimensional: students must engage in a variety of tasks, such as doing a tutorial, reading a related article or news story, and completing a quiz. We plan to allow for risk taking and failure — important aspects of game design — so students can re-try the material until they understand it (Gee, 2007).

As you can see in this screen capture, the badges corresponding to the ACRL Standards include: Research Initiator (Standard 1), Research Assailant (Standard 2), Research Investigator (Standard 3), and Research Warrior (Standard 4). As a note, I have not yet created a badge for Standard 5 or one to correspond with our orientations (also, all names you can see in any image I include are of my colleagues trying out the badges, and not of students). A great aspect of this platform is the ability to design your own badges with their WYSIWYG editor.

Main challenge screen

Main challenge screen

Because a major issue for us is scalability with limited FTE, we have to be cautious in which assessment methods we choose for approving badges. Since we would have a hard time offering meaningful, individualized feedback for every student who would complete these tasks, having something automatic is more ideal. Passport allows options for students to test their skills, with multiple-choice quizzes, uploading a document, and entering text. For our purposes, using multiple-choice quizzes with predetermined responses is currently the best method. If we develop specific badges for smaller courses on a case-by-case basis, it might be possible to accept written responses and more detailed work, but in trying to roll this out to campus-at-large, automated scoring is necessary.

Leveling up

Within each badge, also referred to as a challenge, there are tasks to complete. Finishing these tasks adds up to earning the badge. It’s essentially leveling up (which is progressing to the next level based on achievement); although the way Passport is designed, the students can complete the tasks in any order. Within the suite of badges, I have reinforced information and skills throughout so students must use previous skills learned for future success. In this screen capture, you can see the overall layout by task title.

Task progress by users

Task progress by users

When including tasks that require instructor approval (if students were to submit documents or write text), an instructor would click on each yellow box stating that approval is needed to determine if the student successfully completed the task and supply personalized feedback (image above). And you can see the breakdown of tasks under each challenge to review what was learned; this can serve as confirmation for outside parties of what kind of work each badge entailed (image below).

Badge work details

Badge work details

Showing off

Once badges are earned, they can be displayed in a user’s Passport profile and Mozilla Open Badges. Here is an example of what a badge portfolio looks like:

User badge portfolio

User badge portfolio

Passport “classrooms” are closed and require a log in for earning badges (FERPA), but if students agree to connectivity with Mozilla’s Open Badges Backpack, achievements can then be shared with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other networks. Badges can also connect with e-portfolios and resumes (since it’s in Beta this functionality works best with Purdue platforms). This could be a great, additional motivator for students in helping them get jobs. From Project Information Literacy, we do know employers find new graduates are lacking research skills, so being able to present these skills as fulfilled to future employers can be useful for soon-to-be and recent graduates. The badges link back to more information, as mentioned, and employers can get more detail. Students can even make their submitted work publicly available so employers, instructors, and peers can see their efforts.

Wrapping up

Whether or not it is possible to integrate Passport fully into our library website for students to access, using this tool has at least given me a way to essentially sketch out how our badging system will work. We can also try some user testing with students on these tasks to gauge motivation and instructional effectiveness. Having this system become campus-wide in collaboration with other units and departments would also aid in creating more meaning behind the badges; but in the meantime, tying this smaller scale layout to specific class instruction or non-disciplinary collaborations will be very useful.

Although some sources say gamification will be taking a huge nosedive by 2014 due to poor design and over-saturation,  keeping tabs on other platforms available and how to best incorporate this technology into library instruction is where I will be looking this semester and beyond as we work on plans for rolling out a full badging system within the next couple of years. Making learning more experiential and creating choose-your-own adventure scenarios are effective in giving students ownership over their education. Using points and badges for manipulating users is certainly detrimental and should fall out of use in the near future, but using this framework in a positive manner for motivation and to support student learning can have beneficial effects for students, campus, and the library.

Additional Resources


Dignan, A. (2012). Game Frame. New York: The Free Press.

Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.


Because Play Matters: A game lab dedicated to transformative games and play for informal learning environments in the iSchool at Syracuse:

Digital badges show students’ skills along with degree (Purdue News):

Gamification Research Network:

TL-DR: Where gamers and information collide:


About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.

From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work

Cool or Useful? A guide to incorporating hobby projects into library work

Sometimes I have trouble creating a clear line between geeky hobby projects I do on my own time and professional tasks for MPOW (my place of work.) This time, the geeky-thing-I-think-is-cool is a LibraryBox. LibraryBox is a hardware hack created by Jason Griffey.  What I’m currently trying to work out is, is this project a viable solution to a practical work-place problem? Of course, I have to watch out for Maslov’s Law of the Instrument which can be paraphrased: “To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” These days I’m seeing a lot of LibraryBox-shaped nails. I’m eager to find potential applications for my new toy tool. My project in today’s post is to describe the LibraryBox project and describe a method of determining whether or not it has a work-related application.

What is a LibraryBox?

A LibraryBox is a very portable pocket-sized device that serves up digital content to wifi devices. It is designed to provide free ebooks to readers with wifi devices but without access to reliable Internet or power. The best introduction to LibraryBox may be found on the LibraryBox site. Jason Griffey has done an excellent job with the site’s design and has written comprehensive instructions for building and deploying LibraryBoxen. The site describes the project as: “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.”

The LibraryBox project was designed to solve a very specific kind of problem. It is useful in scenarios involving all of the following conditions:

  • Either no access or sporadic access to Internet and electrical utilities
  • a need to distribute digital content
  • users that have wifi enabled devices

In order to meet these objectives, the LibraryBox

  • uses inexpensive parts and hardware.
  • runs off of batteries and is highly portable.
  • uses open source software. (The code is both kinds of free; both libre and gratis.)
My LibraryBox

Building the LibraryBox was fun and easy. I bought the necessary parts: a mobile router, a large usb flash drive, plus an optional battery. (I’m using a Sony Cycle Energy CP-EL I found on sale at the grocery store for $13). Then I went through the instructions. The process is easy and straightforward. A friend of mine completed them while his baby daughter was down for a nap. I took a little longer because I didn’t read the instructions through before starting and did some steps out of order. If you more diligent with following directions than I am, Jason’s instructions will get you from start to finish easily and without a hitch. Once I had my LibraryBox up and running, I filled the flash drive with some free and creative commons licensed content. I tested it out and was happy to see that I could use it to download ebooks onto my phone, laptop, and tablet. Once I demonstrated that it worked, I began to look for practical applications where it could be more than just cool, I wanted my hobby project to be useful.  To keep myself honest and keep my project enthusiasm in check, I’m using a series of questions to help determine whether I’m being blinded by the new shiny thing or whether it is, in fact,  an appropriate tool for the job at hand. These questions help with the tool/toy distinction, especially when I’m under the spell of the law of the instrument.

  1. Does this tool or technology offer a solution to an existing problem?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, does it solve the problem better (more efficiently, cheaply, etc.) than alternate solutions?
  3. Does this tool or technology introduce unintended consequences or side-effects that are worse than the original problem?
Applying the Questions:

There are two ready applications for a LibraryBox at MPOW. Neither directly involve the library, both involve faculty projects in our Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. Both are interesting projects and both project leads have indicated interest in using a LibraryBox to solve a problem. The first case involves using a LibraryBox to allow visitors to a remote historical site the ability to download and install a mobile app. My colleague Brett Oppegaard is leading development of a mobile app to provide visitors to a historic site access to interpretive materials. The location is somewhat remote and mobile broadband coverage is spotty at best and varies depending on the cell provider. My thought was to provide visitors to the site a reliable method of installing and using the app. Applying the three questions from above to this project, I learned that the answers to the first two questions are an unqualified yes. It solves a real problem by allowing users to download a digital file without an active net connection. It does so better than alternate solutions, especially due to its ability to run off of battery power. (There are no utilities at the site.) However, the third question reveals some real difficulties. I was able to successfully download and install the app from its .apk file using the LibraryBox. However, the steps required to achieve this are too convoluted for non-technical end users to follow easily. In addition, the current version of the app requires an active Internet connection in order to successfully install, rendering the LibraryBox workaround moot. These issues may be able to be resolved with some hacking, but right now the LibraryBox isn’t a working solution to this project’s needs. We’ll keep it in mind as the project develops and try new approaches.

Fortunately, as I was demonstrating the LibraryBox to the CMDC faculty, another colleague asked me about using it to solve a problem he is facing.  John Barber has been working on preserving The Brautigan Library and re-opening it to submissions. The Brautigan Library is a collection of unpublished manuscripts organized in the spirit of  the fictional library described in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The Brautigan Library manuscripts currently are housed at the Clark County Historical Museum and we tested the LibraryBox there as a source for providing mobile access to finding aids.  This worked, but there were speed and usability issues. As we tested, however, John developed a larger plan involving a dedicated tablet kiosk, a web-app template, and a local web server connected to a router in the building. While we did not choose to use LibraryBox to support this exhibit, it did spark useful conversation that is leading us in promising directions.

Next Steps:

After learning that the LibraryBox isn’t a turn-key solution for either project, I still have some productive work to do. The first step is to install a light-weight web server (lighttpd) on the hardware currently running LibraryBox. (Fortunately, someone has already done this and left directions.) It’s possible, but unlikely, that will meet our needs. After that we’re going to test our plans using more powerful hardware in a similar setup. I’ve acquired a Raspberry Pi to test as a web server for the project and may also try running a web server on a more powerful router than the TL-MR3020 LibraryBox is based on. (Some open-WRT capable routers have as much as 128mb of RAM, which may be enough.) There is also work to do on the Ft. Vancouver project. The next steps there involve working on-site with the design team to more clearly articulate the problem(s) we are trying to solve.

In both cases my hobbyist tinkering is leading to practical and productive work projects. In both cases the LibraryBox has served as an excellent kluge (jury-rigged temporary solution) and has helped us see a clearer path to a permanent solution. These solutions will probably not resemble my early amateur efforts, but by exercising a little discipline to make certain my toys tools  are being employed productively, I’m confident that my hobby tinkering has a place in a professional workplace. At very least, my leisure time spent experimenting is benefiting my professional work. I also think that the kind of questions used here have application when considering other library toys fads innovations.


Hacker Values ≈ Library Values*

* The ≈ symbol indicates that the two items are similar, but not equal, to each other.


Hacker is a disputed term. The word hacker is so often mis-applied to describe law breaking, information theft, privacy violation, and other black-hat activities that the mistake has become permanently installed in our lexicon. I am not using hacker in this sense of the word. To be clear: when I use the word hacker and when I write about hacker values, I am not referring to computer criminals and their sketchy value systems. Instead, I am using hacker in its original meaning: a person who makes clever use of technology and information to solve practical problems. 


With the current popularity of hackerspaces and makerspaces in libraries, library hack-a-thons, and hacking projects for librarians; it is clear that library culture is warming to the hacker ethic. This is a highly positive trend and one that I encourage more librarians to participate in. The reason I am so excited to see libraries encourage adoption of the hacker ethic is that hackers share several core values with libraries. Working together we can serve our communities more effectively. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially due to a very common public misconception that hacker is just another word for computer-criminal. In this post I want to correct this error, explain the values behind the hacker movement, and show how librarians and hackers share core values. It is my hope that this opens the door for more librarians to get started in productive and positive library hackery.

Hacker Values

First, a working definition: hackers are people who empower themselves with information in order to modify their environment and make the world a better place. That’s it. Hacking doesn’t require intruding into computer security settings. There’s no imperative that hackers have to work with code, computers, or technology–although many do. Besides the traditional computer software hacker, there are many kinds of crafters, tinkerers, and makers that share core the hacker values. These makers all share knowledge about their world and engage in hands-on modification of it in order to make it a better place.

For a richer and more detailed look into the hacker ethic than provided by my simplified definition I recommend three books. First try Corey Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother 1. This novel highlights the hacker values of self-empowerment with information, hands-on hacking, and acting for the public good. Little Brother is not only an award-winning story, but it also comes with a bibliography that is one of the best introductions to hacking available. Next, check out Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution 2. Levy details the history of hackers in the early 1980s and explains the values that drove the movement. Third, try Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution 3. Anderson tells the story of the contemporary maker movement and the way it is combining the values of the traditional do-it-yourself (DIY) movement with the values of the computer hacker community to spark a vibrant and powerful creative movement across the world.

In the preface to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer revolution,  Levy observed a common philosophy that the hackers shared:

It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and improve the world.

The Wikipedia entry on the hacker programming subculture builds on Levy’s observations and revises the list of core hacker values as:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Engaging in the Hands-on Imperative. 

These values are also restated and expanded on in another Wikipedia article on Hacker Ethics. Each of these articulations of hacker values differs subtly, yet while they differ they reinforce the central idea that there are core hacker values and that the conception of hacker as computer criminal is misinformed and inaccurate. (While there clearly are computer criminals, the error lies in labeling these people as hackers. These criminals violate hacker values as much as they violate personal privacy and the law.)

Once we understand that hacking is rooted in the core values of sharing, openness, collaboration, and hands-on activity; we can begin to see that hackers and librarians share several core values and that there is a rich environment for developing synergies and collaborative projects between the two groups. If we can identify and isolate the core values that librarians share with hackers, we will be well on our way to identifying areas for productive collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between our cultures.

Library Values

If we are going to compare hacker values with library values, an excellent starting point is the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. I recently had the pleasure of attending a keynote presentation by Char Booth who made this point most persuasively. She spoke eloquently and developed a nuanced argument on the topic of the narratives we use to describe our libraries. She encouraged us to look beyond the tired narratives of library-as-container-of-information or library-as-content-repository and instead create new narratives that describe the enduring concept of the library. This concept of library captures the values and services libraries provide without being inextricably linked to the information containers and technologies that libraries have historically used.

Library bill of rights

Char Booth’s distillation of the 1948 Library Bill of Rights into five core values

As she developed this argument, Char encouraged us to look to library history and extract the core values that will continue to apply as our collections and services adapt and change. As an example, she displayed the 1948 Library Bill of Rights and extracted out of each paragraph a core value. Her lesson: these are still our core values, even if the way we serve our patrons has radically changed.

Char distilled the Library Bill of Rights into five core values: access, freedom, advocacy, inquiry, and openness. If we compare these values with the hacker values from above: sharing, openness, collaboration, and the hands-on-imperative, we’ll see that at least in terms of access to information, public openness, freedom, sharing, and collaboration libraries and hackers are on the same page. There are many things that hackers and libraries can do together that further these shared values and goals.

It should be noted that hackers have a traditionally anti-authoritarian bent and unlike libraries, their value of open access to information often trumps their civic duty to respect license agreements and copyright law. Without trivializing this difference, there are many projects that libraries and hackers can do together that honor our shared values and do not violate the core principles of either partner. After all, libraries have a lot of experience doing business with partners who do not share or honor the core library values of freedom, openness, and access to information. If we can maintain productive relationships with certain parties that reject values close to the heart of libraries and librarians, it stands to reason that we can also pursue and maintain relationships with other groups that respect these core values, even as we differ in others.

At the end of the day, library values and hacker values are more alike than different. Especially in the areas of library work that involve advocacy for freedom, openness, and access to information we have allies and potential partners who share core values with us.

Library Hackery

If my argument about library values and hacker values has been at all persuasive, it raises the question: what do hacker/library partnerships look like? Some of the answers to this have been hinted at above. They look like Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox project. This wonderful project involves hacking on multiple levels. On one level, it provides the information needed for libraries to modify (hack) a portable wifi router into a public distribution hub for public domain, open access, and creative-commons licensed books and media. LibraryBoxes can bring digital media to locations that are off the net. On another level, it is a hack of an existing hacker project PirateBox. PirateBox is a private portable network designed to provide untraceable local file-sharing. Griffey hacked the hack in order to create a project more in-line with library values and mission.

These partnerships can also look like the Washington DC public library’s Accessibility Hack-a-Thon, an ongoing project that brings together, civic, library, and hacker groups to collaborate on hacking projects that advance the public good in their city. Another great example of bringing hacker ethics into the library can be found in TechConnect’s own Bohyun Kim’s posts on AJAX and APIs. Using APIs to customize web services is a perfect example of a library hack: it leverages our understanding of technology and empowers us to customize and perfect our environment. With an injection of hacker values into library services, we no longer have to remain at the mercy of the default setting. We can empower ourselves to hack our way to better tools, a better library, and a better world.

An excellent example of hackery from outside the library community is Audrey Watters’ Hack Education and Hack [Higher] Education blogs. Just as computer hackers use their inside information of computer systems to remake the environment, Audrey users her inside knowledge of education systems to make positive changes to the system.

  1. Doctorow, Cory. 2008. Little brother. New York: Tom Doherty Associates.
  2. Levy, Steven. 2010. Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Cambridge: O’Reilly Media, Incorporated.
  3. Anderson, Chris. 2012. Makers the new industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business.