A Reflection on Code4Lib 2016

See also: Margaret’s reflections on Code4Lib 2013 and recap of the 2012 keynote.

 


About a month ago was the 2016 Code4Lib conference in sunny Philadelphia. I’ve only been to a few Code4Lib conferences, starting with Raleigh in 2014, but it’s quickly become my favorite libraryland conference. This won’t be a comprehensive recap but a little taste of what makes the event so special.

Appetizers: Preconferences

One of the best things about Code4Lib is the affordable preconferences. It’s often a pittance to add on a preconference or two, extending your conference for a whole day. Not only that, there’s typically a wealth of options: the 2015 conference boasted fifteen preconferences to choose from, and Philadelphia somehow managed to top that with an astonishing twenty-four choices. Not only are they numerous, the preconferences vary widely in their topics and goals. There’s always intensely practical ones focused on bootstrapping people new to a particular framework, programming language, or piece of software (e.g. Railsbridge, workshops focused on Blacklight or Hydra). But there are also events for practicing your presentation or the aptly named “Getting Ready for Workshops” Workshop. One of my personal favorite ideas—though I must admit I’ve never attended—is the perennial “Fail4Lib” sessions where attendees examine their projects that haven’t succeeded and discuss what they’ve learned.

This year, I wanted to run a preconference of my own. I enjoy teaching, but I rarely get to do it in my current position. Previously, in a more generalist technologist position, I would teach information literacy alongside the other librarians. But as a Systems Librarian, it can sometimes feel like I rarely get out from behind my terminal. A preconference was an appealing chance to teach information professionals on a topic that I’ve accumulated some expertise in. So I worked with Coral Sheldon-Hess to put together a workshop focused on the fundamentals of the command line: what it is, how to use it, and some of the pivotal concepts. I won’t say too much more about the workshop because Coral wrote an excellent, detailed blog post right after we were done. The experience was great and feedback we received, including a couple kind emails from our participants, was very positive. Perhaps we, or someone else, can repeat the workshop in the future, as we put all our materials online.

Main Course: Presentations

Thankfully I don’t have to detail the conference talks too much, because they’re all available on YouTube. If a talk looks intriguing, I strongly encourage you to check out the recording. I’m not too ashamed to admit that a few went way over my head, so seeing the original will certainly be more informative than any summary I could offer.

One thing that was striking was how the two keynotes centered on themes of privacy and surveillance. Kate Krauss, Director of Communications of the Tor Project, lead the conference off. Naturally, Tor being privacy software, Krauss focused on stories of government surveillance. She noted how surveillance focuses on the most marginalized people, citing #BlackLivesMatter and the transgender community as examples. Krauss’ talk provided concrete steps that librarians could take, for instance examining our own data collection practices, ensuring our services are secure, hosting privacy workshops, and running a Tor relay. She even mentioned The Library Freedom Project as a positive example of librarians fighting online surveillance, which she posited as one of the premier civil rights issues of our time.

On the final day, Gabriel Weinberg of the search engine DuckDuckGo spoke on similar themes, except he concentrated on how his company’s lack of personalization and tracking differentiated it from companies like Google and Apple. To me, Weinberg’s talk bookended well with Krauss’ because he highlighted the dangers of corporate surveillance. While the government certainly has abused its access to certain fundamental pieces of our country’s infrastructure—obtaining records from major telecom companies without a warrant comes to mind—tech companies are also culpable in enabling the unparalleled degree of surveillance possible in the modern era, simply by collecting such massive quantities of data linked to individuals (and, all too often, by failing to secure their applications properly).

While the pair of keynotes were excellent and thematic, my favorite moments of the conference were the talks by librarians. Becky Yoose gave perhaps the most rousing, emotional talk I’ve ever heard at a conference on the subject of burnout. Burnout is all too real in our profession, but not often spoken of, particularly in such a public venue. Becky forced us all to confront the healthiness and sustainability of our work/life balance, stressing the importance not only of strong organizational policies to prevent burnout but also personal practices. Finally, Andreas Orphanides gave a thoughtful presentation on the political implications of design choices. Dre’s well-chosen, alternatingly brutal and funny examples—from sidewalk spikes that prevent homeless people from lying in doorways, to an airline website labelling as “lowest” a price clearly higher than others on the very same page—outlined how our design choices reflect our values, and how we can better align our values with those of our users.

I don’t mean to discredit anyone else’s talks—there were many more excellent ones, on a variety of topics. Dinah Handel captured my feelings best in this enthusiastic tweet:

Dessert: Community

My main enjoyment from Code4Lib is the sense of community. You’ll hear a lot of people at conferences state things like “I feel like these are my people.” And we are lucky as a profession to have plenty of strong conference options, depending on our locality, specialization, and interests. At Code4Lib, I feel like I can strike up a conversation with anyone I meet about an impending ILS migration, my favorite command-line tool, or the vagaries of mapping between metadata schemas. While I love my present position, I’m mostly a solo systems person surrounded by a few other librarians all with a different expertise. As much as I want to discuss how ludicrous the webpub.def syntax is, or why reading XSLT makes me faintly ill, I know it’d bore my colleagues to death. At Code4Lib, people can at least tolerate such subjects of conversation, if not revel in them.

Code4Lib is great not solely because of it’s focus on technology and code, which a few other library organizations share, but because of the efforts of community members to make it a pleasurable experience for all. To name just a couple of the new things Code4Lib introduced this year: while previous years have had Duty Officers whom attendees could safely report harassment to, they were announced & much more visible this year; sponsored child care was available for conference goers with small children; and a service provided live transcription of all the talks.1 This is in addition to a number of community-building measures that previous Code4Lib conferences featured, such as a series of newcomers dinners on the first night, a “share and play” game night, and diversity scholarships. Overall, it’s evident that the Code4Lib community is committed to being positive and welcoming. Not that other library organizations aren’t, but it should be evident that our profession isn’t immune from problems. Being proactive and putting in place measures to prevent issues like harassment is a shining example of what makes Code4Lib great.

All this said, the community does have its issues. While a 40% female attendance rate is fair for a technology conference, it’s clear that the intersection of coding and librarianship is more male-dominated than the rest of the profession at large. Notably, Code4Lib has done an incredible job of democratically selecting keynote speakers over the past few years—five female and one male for the past three conferences—but the conference has also been largely white, so much so that the 2016 conference’s Program Committee gave a lightning talk addressing the lack of speaker diversity. Hopefully, measures like the diversity scholarships and conscious efforts on the part of the community can make progress here. But the unbearable whiteness of librarianship remains a very large issue.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Code4Lib is entirely volunteer-run. Since it’s not an official professional organization with membership dues and full-time staff members, everything is done by people willing to spare their own time to make the occasion a great one. A huge thanks to the local planning committee and all the volunteers who made such a great event possible. It’s pretty stunning to me that Code4Lib manages to put together some of the nicest benefits of any conference—the live streaming and transcribed talks come to mind—without a huge backing organization, and while charging pretty reasonable registration prices.

Night Cap

I’d recommend Code4Lib to anyone in the library community who deals with technology, whether you’re a manager, cataloger, systems person, or developer. There’s a wide breadth of material suitable for anyone and a great, supportive community. If that’s not enough, the proportion of presentations featuring pictures of cats and/or animated gifs is higher than your average conference.

Notes

  1. Aside: Matt Miller made a fun “Overheard at Code4Lib 2016” app using the transcripts

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