Reflections on Code4Lib 2018

A few members of Tech Connect attended the recent Code4Lib 2018 conference in Washington, DC. If you missed it, the full livestream of the conference is on the Code4Lib YouTube channel. We wanted to  highlight some of our favorite talks and tie them into the work we’re doing.

Also, it’s worth pointing to the Code4Lib community’s Statement in Support of opening keynote speaker Chris Bourg. Chris offered some hard truths in her speech that angry men on the internet, predictably, were unhappy about, but it’s a great model that the conference organizers and attendees promptly stood in support.


One of my favorite talks at Code4lib this year was Amy Wickner’s talk, “Web Archiving and You / Web Archiving and Us.” (Video, slides) I felt this talk really captured some of the essence of what I love most about Code4lib, this being my 4th conference in the past 5 years. (And I believe this was Amy’s first!). This talk was about a technical topic relevant to collecting libraries and handled in a way that acknowledges and prioritizes the essential personal component of any technical endeavor. This is what I found so wonderful about Amy’s talk and this is what I find so refreshing about Code4lib as an inherently technical conference with intentionality behind the human aspects of it.

Web archiving seems to be something of interest but seemingly overwhelming to begin to tackle. I mean, the internet is just so big. Amy brought forth a sort of proposal for ways in which a person or institution can begin thinking about how to start a web archiving project, focusing first on the significance of appraisal. Wickner, citing Terry Cook, spoke of the “care and feeding of archives” and thinking about appraisal as storytelling. I think this is a great way to make a big internet seem smaller, understanding the importance of care in appraisal while acknowledging that for web archiving, it is an essential practice. Representation in web archives is more likely to be chosen in the appraisal of web materials than in other formats historically.

This statement resonated with me: “Much of the power that archivists wield are in how we describe or create metadata that tells a story of a collection and its subjects.”

And also: For web archives, “the narrative of how they are built is closely tied to the stories they tell and how they represent the world.”

Wickner went on to discuss how web archives are and will be used, and who they will be used by, giving some examples but emphasizing there are many more, noting that we must learn to “critically read as much as learn to critically build” web archives, while acknowledging web archives exist both within and outside of institutions. And that for personal archiving, it can be as simple as replacing links in documents with, Wayback Machine links, or WebRecorder links.

Another topic I enjoyed in this talk was the celebration of precarious web content through community storytelling on Twitter with the hashtags #VinesWithoutVines and #GifHistory, two brief but joyous moments.


The part of this year’s Code4Lib conference that I found most interesting was the talks and the discussion at a breakout session related to machine learning and deep learning. Machine learning is a subfield of artificial intelligence and deep learning is a kind of machine learning that utilizes hidden layers between the input layer and the output layer in order to refine and produce the algorithm that best represents the result in the output. Once such algorithm is produced from the data in the training set, it can be applied to a new set of data to predict results. Deep learning has been making waves in many fields such as Go playing, autonomous driving, and radiology to name a few. There were a few different talks on this topic ranging from reference chat sentiment analysis to feature detection (such as railroads) in the map data using the convolutional neural network model.

“Deep Learning for Libraries” presented by Lauren Di Monte and Nilesh Patil from University of Rochester was the most practical one among those talks as it started with a specific problem to solve and resulted in action that will address the problem. In their talk, Di Monte and Patil showed how they applied deep learning techniques to solve a problem in their library’s space assessment. The problem that they wanted to solve is to find out how many people visit the library to use the library’s space and services and how many people are simply passing through to get to another building or to the campus bus stop that is adjacent to the library. This made it difficult for the library to decide on the appropriate staffing level or the hours that best serve the users’ needs. It also prevented the library from showing the library’s reach and impact based upon the data and advocate for needed resources or budget to the decision-makers on the campus. The goal of their project was to develop automated and scalable methods for conducting space assessment and reporting tools that support decision-making for operations, service design, and service delivery.

For this project, they chose an area bounded by four smart control access gates on the first floor. They obtained the log files (with the data at the sensor level minute by minute) from the eight bi-directional sensors on those gates. They analyzed the data in order to create a recurrent neural network model. They trained the algorithm using this model, so that they can predict the future incoming and the outgoing traffic in that area and visually present those findings as a data dashboard application. For data preparation, processing, and modeling, they used Python. The tools used included Seaborn, Matplotlib, Pandas, NumPy, SciPy, TensorFlow, and Keras. They picked the recurrent neural network with stochastic gradient descent optimization, which is less complex than the time series model. For data visualization, they used Tableau. The project code is available at the library’s GitHub repo:

Their project result led to the library to install six more gates in order to get a better overview of the library space usage. As a side benefit, the library was also able to pinpoint the times when the gates malfunctioned and communicate the issue with the gate vendor. Di Monte and Patil plan to hand over this project to the library’s assessment team for ongoing monitoring and to look for ways to map the library’s traffic flow across multiple buildings as the next step.

Overall, there were a lot of interests in machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence at the Code4Lib conference this year. The breakout session I led at the conference on these topics produced a lively discussion on a variety of tools, current and future projects for many different libraries, as well as the impact of rapidly developing AI technologies on society. This breakout session also generated #ai-dl-ml channel in the Code4Lib Slack Space. The growing interests in these areas are also shown in the newly formed Machine and Deep Learning Research Interest Group of the Library and Information Technology Association. I hope to see more talks and discussion on these topics in the future Code4Lib and other library technology conferences.


One of the talks which struck me the most this year was Matthew Reidsma’s Auditing Algorithms. He used examples of search suggestions in the Summon discovery layer to show biased and inaccurate results:

In 2015 my colleague Jeffrey Daniels showed me the Summon search results for his go-to search: “Stress in the workplace.” Jeff likes this search because ‘stress’ is a common engineering term as well as one common to psychology and the social sciences. The search demonstrates how well a system handles word proximities, and in this regard, Summon did well. There are no apparent results for evaluating bridge design. But Summon’s Topic Explorer, the right-hand sidebar that provides contextual information about the topic you are searching for, had an issue. It suggested that Jeff’s search for “stress in the workplace” was really a search about women in the workforce. Implying that stress at work was caused, perhaps, by women.

This sort of work is not, for me, novel or groundbreaking. Rather, it was so important to hear because of its relation to similar issues I’ve been reading about since library school. From the bias present in Library of Congress subject headings where “Homosexuality” used to be filed under “Sexual deviance”, to Safiya Noble’s work on the algorithmic bias of major search engines like Google where her queries for the term “black girls” yielded pornographic results; our systems are not neutral but reify the existing power relations of our society. They reflect the dominant, oppressive forces that constructed them. I contrast LC subject headings and Google search suggestions intentionally; this problem is as old as the organization of information itself. Whether we use hierarchical, browsable classifications developed by experts or estimated proximities generated by an AI with massive amounts of user data at its disposal, there will be oppressive misrepresentations if we don’t work to prevent them.

Reidsma’s work engaged with algorithmic bias in a way that I found relatable since I manage a discovery layer. The talk made me want to immediately implement his recording script in our instance so I can start looking for and reporting problematic results. It also touched on some of what despairs me in library work lately—our reliance on vendors and their proprietary black boxes. We’ve had a number of issues lately related to full-text linking that are confusing for end users and make me feel powerless. I submit support ticket after support ticket only to be told there’s no timeline for the fix.

On a happier note, there were many other talks at Code4Lib that I enjoyed and admired: Chris Bourg gave a rousing opening keynote featuring a rallying cry against mansplaining; Andreas Orphanides, who keynoted last year’s conference, gave yet another great talk on design and systems theory full of illuminating examples; Jason Thomale’s introduction to Pycallnumber wowed me and gave me a new tool I immediately planned to use; Becky Yoose navigated the tricky balance between using data to improve services and upholding our duty to protect patron privacy. I fear I’ve not mentioned many more excellent talks but I don’t want to ramble any further. Suffice to say, I always find Code4Lib worthwhile and this year was no exception.

Yet Another Library Open Hours App

a.k.a. Yet ALOHA.

It’s a problem as old as library websites themselves: how to represent the times when a library building is open in a way that’s easy for patrons to understand and easy for staff to update?

Every website or content management system has its own solution that can’t quite suit our needs. In a previous position, I remember using a Drupal module which looked slick and had a nice menu for entering data on the administrative side…but it was made by a European developer and displayed dates in the (inarguably more logical) DD/MM/YYYY format. I didn’t know enough PHP at the time to fix it, and it would’ve confused our users, so I scrapped it.

Then there’s the practice of simply manually updating an HTML fragment that has the hours written out. This approach has advantages that aren’t easily dismissed: you can write out detailed explanations, highlight one-off closures, adjust to whatever oddity comes up. But it’s tedious for staff to edit a web page and easy to forget. This is especially true if hours information is displayed in several places; keeping everything in sync is an additional burden, with a greater possibility for human error. So when we went to redesign our library website, developing an hours application that made entering data and then reusing it in multiple places easy was at the forefront of my mind.

Why is this so hard?

One might think displaying hours is easy. The end products often look innocuous. But there are a bevy of reasons why it’s complicated for many libraries:

  • open hours differ across different branches
  • hours of particular services within a branch may not fully overlap with the library building’s open hours
  • a branch might close and re-open during the day
  • a branch might be open later than midnight, so technically “closing” on a date different than when it opened
  • holidays, campus closures, unexpected emergencies, and other exceptions disrupt regular schedules
  • in academia, schedules differ whether class is in session, it’s a break during a term, or it’s a break in between terms
  • the staff who know or determine a branch’s open hours aren’t necessarily technically skilled and may be spread across disparate library departments
  • dates and times are unique forms of data with their own unique displays, storage types, and operations (e.g. chronological comparisons)

Looking at other libraries, the struggle to represent their business hours is evident. For instance, the University of Illinois has an immense list of library branches and their open hours on its home page. There’s a lot to like about the display; it’s on the home page so patrons don’t have to go digging for the info, there’s a filter by name feature, the distinct open/closed colors help one to identify at a glance which places are open, the library branch rows expand with extra information. But it’s also an overwhelming amount of information longer than a typical laptop screen.

Hours display on the UIUC Libraries' home page.
Hours display on the UIUC Libraries’ home page.

Many libraries use SpringShare’s LibCal as a way of managing and display their open hours. See Loyola’s Hours page with its embedded table from LibCal. As a disclaimer, I’ve not used LibCal, but it comes with some obvious caveats: it’s a paid service that not all libraries can afford and it’s Yet Another App outside the website CMS. I’ve also been told that the hours entry has a learning curve and that it’s necessary to use the API for most customization. So, much as I appreciate the clarity of the LibCal schedule, I wanted to build an hours app that would work well for us, providing flexibility in terms of data format and display.

Our Hours

Our website CMS Wagtail uses a concept called “snippets” to store pieces of content which aren’t full web pages. If you’re familiar with Drupal, Snippets are like a more abstract version of Blocks. We have a snippet for each staff member, for instance, so that we can connect particular pages to different staff members but also have a page where all staff are displayed in a configurable list. When I built our hours app, snippets were clearly the appropriate way to handle the data. Ideally, hours would appear in multiple places, not be tied to a single page. Snippets also have their own section in the CMS admin side which makes entering them straightforward.

Our definition of an “open hours” snippet has but a few components:

  • the library branch the hours are for
  • the date range being described, e.g. “September 5th through December 15th” for our Fall semester
  • a list of open hours for each weekday, e.g. Monday = “8am – 10pm”, Tuesday = “8am – 8pm”, etc.

There are some nuances here. First, for a given academic term, staff have to enter hours once for each branch, so there is quite a bit of data entry. Secondly, the weekday hours are actually stored as text, not a numeric data type. This lets us add parentheticals such as “8am – 5pm (no checkouts)”. While I can see some theoretical scenarios where having numeric data is handy, such as determining if a particular branch is open on a given hour on a given date, using text simplified building the app’s data model for me and data entry for staff.

But what about when the library closes for a holiday? Each holiday effectively triples the data entry for a term: we need a data set for the time period leading up to the holiday, one for the holiday itself, and one for the time following it. For example, when we closed for Thanksgiving, our Fall term would’ve been split into a pre-Thanksgiving, during Thanksgiving, and post-Thanksgiving triad. And more so for each other holiday.

To alleviate the holiday problem, I made a second snippet type called “closures”. Closures let us punch holes in a set of open hours; rather than require pre- and post- data sets, we have one open hours snippet for the whole term and then any number of closures within it. A closure is composed of only a library branch and a date range. Whenever data about open hours is passed around inside our CMS, the app first consults the list of closures and then adjusts appropriately.

The open hours for the current day are displayed prominently on our home page. When we rebuilt our website, surfacing hours information was a primary design goal. Our old site’s hours page wasn’t exactly easy to find…yet it was the second most-visited page behind the home page.1 In our new site, the hours app allows us to show the same information in a few places, for instance as a larger table that shows our open times for a full week. The page showing the full table will also accept a date parameter in its URL, showing our schedule for future times. This lets us put up a notice about changes for periods like Thanksgiving week or Spring break.

Hours API

What really excited me about building an hours application from the ground up was the chance to include an API (inside the app’s file, which in turn uses a couple functions from The app’s public API endpoint is at and by default it returns the open hours for the current day for all our library branches. The branch parameter allows API consumers to get the weekly schedule for a single branch while the date parameter lets them discover the hours for a specific date.

// GET
    Materials: "11am - 4pm",
    Meyer: "8am - 5pm",
    Simpson: "9am - 6pm"

I’m using the API in two places, our library catalog home page and as an HTML snippet when users search our discovery layer for “hours” or “library hours”. I have hopes that other college websites will also want to reuse this information, for instance on our student portal or on a campus map. One can see the limitation of using text strings as the data format for temporal intervals; an application trying to use this API to determine “is a given library open at this instant” would have to do a bit of parsing to determine if the current time falls within the range. In the end, the benefits for data entry and straightforward display make text the best choice for us.

To summarize, the hours app fulfills our goals for the new website in a few ways. It allows us to surface our schedule not only on our home page but also in other places, sets us up to be able to reuse the information in even more places, and minimizes the burden of data entry on our staff. There are still improvements to be made—as I was writing this post I discovered a problem with cached API responses being outdated—but on the whole I’m very happy with how everything worked out.


  1. Libraries, I beg you, make your open hours obvious! People want to know.

Working with a Web Design Firm

As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, my library is undergoing a major website redesign. As part of that process, we contracted with an outside web design and development firm to help build the theme layer. I’ve done a couple major website overhauls in the course of my career, but never with an outside developer participating so much. In fact, I’ve always handled the coding part of redesigns entirely by myself as I’ve worked at smaller institutions. This post discusses what the process has been like in case other libraries are considering working with a web designer.

An Outline

To start with, our librarians had already been working to identify components of other library websites that we liked. We used Airtable, a more dynamic sort of spreadsheet, to collect our ideas and articulate why we liked certain peer websites, some of which were libraries and some not (mostly museums and design companies). From prior work, we already knew we wanted a few different page templates types. We organized our ideas around how they fit into these templates, such as a special collections showcase, a home page with a central search box, or a text-heavy policy page.

Once we knew we were going to work with the web development firm, we had a conference call with them to discuss the goals of our website redesign and show the contents of our Airtable. As we’re a small art and design library, our library director was actually the one to create an initial set of mockups to demonstrate our vision. Shortly afterwards, the designer had his own visual mockups for a few of our templates. The mockups included inline comments explaining stylistic choices. One aspect I liked about their mockups was that they were divided into desktop and mobile; there wasn’t just a “blog post” example, but a “blog post on mobile” and “blog post on desktop”. This division showed that the designer was already thinking ahead towards how the site’s theme would function on a variety of devices.

With some templates in hand, we could provide feedback. There was some push and pull—some of our initial ideas the designer thought were unimportant or against best practices, while we also had strong opinions. The discussion was interesting for me, as someone who is a librarian foremost but empathetic to usability concerns and following web conventions. It was good to have a designer who didn’t mindlessly follow our every request; when he felt like a stylistic choice was counterproductive, he could articulate why and that changed a few of our ideas. However, on some principles we were insistent. For instance, we wanted to avoid multiple search boxes on a single page; not a central catalog search and a site search in the header. I find that users are easily confused when confronted with two search engines and struggle to distinguish the different purposes and domains of both. The designer thought that it was a common enough pattern to be familiar to users, but our experiences lead us to insist otherwise.

Finally, once we had settled on agreeable mockups, a frontend developer turned them into code with an impressive turnaround; about 90% of the mockups were implemented within a week and a half. We weren’t given something like Drupal or WordPress templates; we received only frontend code (CSS, JavaScript) and some example templates showing how to structure our HTML. It was all in single a git repository complete with fake data, Mustache templates, and instructions for running a local Node.js server to view the examples. I was able to get the frontend repo working easily enough, but it was a bit surprising to me working with code completely decoupled from its eventual destination. If we had had more funds, I would have liked to have the web design firm go all the way to implementing their theme in our CMS, since I did struggle in a few places when combining the two (more on that later). But, like many libraries, we’re frugal, and it was a luxury to get this kind of design work at all.

The final code took a few months to deliver, mostly due to a single user interface bug we pointed out that the developer struggled to recreate and then fix. I was ready to start working with the frontend code almost exactly a month after our first conversation with the firm’s designer. The total time from that conversation to signing off on the final templates was a little under two months. Given our hurried timeline for rebuilding our entire site over the summer, that quick delivery was a serious boon.

Code Quirks

I’ve a lot of opinions about how code should look and be structured, even if I don’t always follow them myself. So I was a bit apprehensive working with an outside firm; would they deliver something highly functional but structured in an alien way? Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised with how the CSS was delivered.

First of all, the designer didn’t use CSS, he used SASS, which Margaret wrote about previously on Tech Connect. SASS adds several nice tools to CSS, from variables to darken and lighten functions for adjusting colors. But perhaps most importantly, it gives you much more control when structuring your stylesheets, using imports, nested selectors, and mixins. Basically, SASS is the antithesis of having one gigantic CSS file with thousands of lines. Instead, the frontend code we were given was about fifty files neatly divided by our different templates and some reusable components. Here’s the directory tree of the SASS files:


Other than the uninformative “misc”, these folders all have meaningful names (“about-us” and “collections” refer to styles specific to particular templates we’d asked for) and it never takes me more than a moment to locate the styles I want.

Within the SASS itself, almost all styles (excepting the “reset” portion) hinge on class names. This is a best practice for CSS since it doesn’t couple your styles tightly to markup; whether a particular element is a <div>, <section>, or <article>, it will appear correctly if it bears the right class name. When our new CMS output some HTML in an unexpected manner, I was still able to utilize the designer’s theme by applying the appropriate class names. Even better, the class names are written in BEM “Block-Element-Modifier” form. BEM is a methodology I’d heard of before and read about, but never used. It uses underscores and dashes to show which high-level “block” is being styled, which element inside that block, and what variation or state the element takes on. The introduction to BEM nicely defines what it means by Block-Element-Modifier. Its usage is evident if you look at the styles related to the “see next/previous blog post” pagination at the bottom of our blog template:

.blog-post-pagination {
  border-top: 1px solid black(0.1);
  @include respond($break-medium) {
    margin-top: 40px;
  .blog-post-pagination__title {
    font-size: 16px;
  .blog-post-pagination__item {
    @include clearfix();
    flex: 1 0 50%;
  .blog-post-pagination__item--prev {
    display: none;

Here, blog-post-pagination is the block, __title and __item are elements within it, and the --prev modifier effects just the “previous blog post” item element. Even in this small excerpt, other advantages of SASS are evident: the respond mixin and $break-medium variables for writing responsive styles that adapt to differing device screen sizes, the clearfix include, and these related styles all being nested inside the brackets of the parent blog-post-pagination block.

Trouble in Paradise

However, as much as I admire the BEM class names and structure of the styles given to us, of course I can’t be perfectly happy. As I’ve started building out our site I’ve run into a few obvious problems. First of all, while all the components and templates we’d asked for are well-designed with clearly written code, there’s no generic framework for adding on anything new. I’d hoped, and to be honest simply assumed, that a framework like Bootstrap or Foundation would be used as the basis of our styles, with more specific CSS for our components and templates. Instead, apart from a handful of minor utilities like the clearfix include referenced above, everything that we received is intended only for our existing templates. That’s fine up to a point, but as soon as I went to write a page with a HTML table in it I noticed there was no styling whatsoever.

Relatedly, since the class names are so focused on distinct blocks, when I want to write something similar but slightly different I end up with a bunch of misleading class names. So, for instance, some of our non-blog pages have templates which are littered with class names including a .blog- prefix. The easiest way for me to build them was to co-opt the blog styles, but now the HTML looks misleading. I suppose if I had greater time I could write new styles which simply copy the blog ones under new names, but that also seems unideal in that it’s a) a lot more work and b) leads to a lot of redundant code.

Lastly, the way our CMS handles “rich text” fields (think: HTML edited in a WYSIWYG editor, not coded by hand) has caused numerous problems for our theme. The rich text output is always wrapped in a <div class="rich-text">, which made translating some of the HTML templates from the frontend code a bit tricky. The frontend styles also included a “reset” stylesheet which erased all default styles for most HTML tags. That’s fine, and a common approach for most sites, but many of the styles for elements available in the rich text editor ended up being reset. As content authors went about creating lower-level headings and unordered lists, they discovered that they appeared just as plain text.

Reflecting on these issues, they boil primarily down to insufficient communication on our part. When we first asked for design work, it was very much centered around the specific templates we wanted to use for a few different sections of our site. I never specifically outlined a need for a generic framework which could encompass new, unanticipated types of content. While there was an offhand mention of Bootstrap early on in our discussions, I didn’t make it explicit that I’d like it or something similar to form the backbone of the styles we wanted. I should have also made it clearer that styles should specifically anticipate working within our CMS and alongside rich text content. Instead, by the time I realized some of these issues, we had already approved much of the frontend work as complete.


For me, as someone who has worked at smaller libraries for the duration of their professional career, working with a web design company was a unique experience. I’m curious, has your library contracted for design or web development work? Was it successful or not? As tech savvy librarians, we’re often asked to do everything even if some of the tasks are beyond our skills. Working with professionals was a nice break from that and a learning experience. If I could do anything differently, I’d be more assertive about requirements in our initial talks. Outlining expectations about that the styles include a generic framework and anticipate working with our particular CMS would have saved me some time and headaches later on.

Information Architecture for a Library Website Redesign

My library is about to embark upon a large website redesign during this summer semester. This isn’t going to be just a new layer of CSS, or a minor version upgrade to Drupal, or moving a few pages around within the same general site. No, it’s going to be a huge, sweeping change that affects the whole of our web presence. With such an enormous task at hand, I wanted to discuss some of the tools and approaches that we’re using to make sure the new site meets our needs.

Why Redesign?

I’ve heard about why the wholesale website redesign is a flawed approach, why we should be continually, iteratively working on our sites. Continual changes stop problems from building up, plus large swaths of changes can disrupt our users who were used to the old site. The gradual redesign makes a lot of sense to me, and also seems like a complete luxury that I’ve never had in my library positions.

The primary problem with a series of smaller changes is that that approach assumes a solid fundamental to begin with. Our current site, however, has a host of interconnected problems that makes tackling any individual issue a challenge. It’s like your holiday lights sitting in a box all year; they’re hopelessly tangled by the time you take them out again.

Our site has decades of discarded, forgotten content. That’s mostly harmless; it’s hard to find and sees virtually no traffic. But it’s still not great to have outdated information scattered around. In particular, I’m not thrilled that a lot of it is static HTML, images, and documents sitting outside our content management system. It’s hard to know how much content we even have because it cannot be managed in one place.

We also fell into a pattern of adding content to the site but never removing or re-organizing existing content. Someone would ask for a button here, or a page dictating a policy there, or a new FAQ entry. Pages that were added didn’t have particular owners responsible for their currency and maintenance; I, as Systems Librarian, was expected to run the technical aspects of the site but also be its primary content editor. That’s simply an impossible task, as I don’t know every detail of the library’s operations or have the time to keep on top of a menagerie of pages of dubious importance.

I tried to create a “website changes form” to manage things, but it didn’t work for staff nor myself. The few staff who did fill out the form ended up requesting things that were difficult to do, large theme changes that I wasn’t comfortable making without user testing or approval from our other librarians. The little content that was added was minor text being ferried through this form and myself, essentially slowing down the editorial process and furthering this idea that web content was solely my domain.

To top our content troubles off, we’re also on an unsupported, outdated version of Drupal. Upgrading or switching a CMS isn’t necessarily related to a website redesign. If you have a functional website on a broken piece of software, you probably don’t want to toss out the good with the bad. But in our case, similar to how our ILS migration gave us the opportunity to clean up our bibliographic records, a CMS migration gives us a chance to rebuild a crumbling website. It just doesn’t make sense to invest technical effort in migrating all our existing content when it’s so clearly in need of major structural change.

Card Sort

Making a card sort
Cards in the middle of being constructed.

Not wanting to go into a redesign process blind, we set out to collect data on our current site and how it could be improved. One of the first ways we gathered data was to ask all library staff to perform a card sort. A card sort is an activity wherein pieces of web content are put on cards which can then be placed into categories; the idea is to form a rough information architecture for your site which can dictate structure and main menus. You can do either open or closed card sorts, meaning the categories are up to the participants to invent or provided ahead of time.

For our card sort, I chose to do an open card sort since we were so uncertain on the categories. Secondly, I selected web content based on our existing site’s analytics. It was clear to me that our current site was bloated and disorganized; there were pages tucked into the nooks of cyberspace that no one had visited in years. There was all sorts of overlapping and unnecessary content. So I selected ≈20 popular pages but also gave each group two pieces of blank paper on which to add whatever content they felt was missing.

Finally, trying to get as much and as useful data as possible, I modified the card sort procedure in a couple ways. I asked people to role play as different types of stakeholders (graduate & undergraduate students, faculty, administrators) and to justify their decisions from that vantage point. I also had everyone, after sorting was done, put dots on content they felt was important enough for the home page. Since one of our current site’s primary challenges in maintenance, or the lack thereof, I wanted to add one last activity wherein participants would write a “responsible staff member” on each card (e.g. the instruction librarian maintains the instruction policy page). Sadly, we ran out of time and couldn’t do that bit.

The results of the card sort were informative. A few categories emerged as a commonality across everyone’s sorts: collections, “about us”, policies, and current events/news. We discovered a need for new content to cover workshops, exhibits, and events happening in the library which were currently only represented (and not very well) on blog posts. In terms of the home page, it was clear that LibGuides, collections, news, and most importantly our open hours needed to represented.

Treejack & Analytics

Once we had enough information to build out the site’s architecture, I organized our content into a few major categories. But there were still several questions on my mind: would users understand terms like “special collections”? Would they understand where to look for LibGuides? Would they know how to find the right contact for various questions? To answer some of these questions, I turned to Optimal Workshop’s “Treejack” tool. Treejack tests a site’s information architecture by having users navigate basic text links to perform basic tasks. We created a few tasks aimed at answering our questions and recruited students to perform them. While we’re only using the free tier of Optimal Workshop, and only using student stakeholders, the data was till informative.

For one, Optimal Workshop’s results data is rich and visualized well. It shows the exact routes each user took through our site’s content, the time it took to complete a task, and whether a task was completed directly, completed indirectly, or failed. Completed directly means the user took an ideal route through our content; no bouncing up and down the site’s hierarchy. Indirect completion means they eventually got to the right place, but didn’t take a perfect path there, while failure means they ended in the wrong place. The graph’s the demonstrate each tasks’ outcomes are wonderful:

Data & charts for a task
The data & charts Treejack shows for a moderately successful task.
"Pie tree" visualizing users' paths
A “pie tree” showing users’ paths while attempting a task.

We can see here that most of our users found their way to LibGuides (named “study guides” here). But a few people expected to find them under our “Collections” category and bounced around in there, clearly lost. This tells us we should represent our guides under Collections alongside items like databases, print collections, and course reserves. While building and running your own Treejack-type tests would be easy, I definitely recommend Optimal Workshop as a great product which provides much insight.

There’s much work to be done in terms of testing—ideally we would adjust our architecture to address the difficulties that users had, recruit different sets of users (faculty & staff), and attempt to answer more questions. That’ll be difficult during the summer while there are fewer people on campus but we know enough now to start adjusting our site and moving along in the redesign process.

Another piece of our redesign philosophy is using analytics about the current site to inform our decisions about the new one. For instance, I track interactions with our home page search box using Google Analytics events 1. The search box has three tabs corresponding to our discovery layer, catalog, and LibGuides. Despite thousands of searches and interactions with the search box, LibGuides search is seeing only trace usage. The tab was clicked on a mere 181 times this year; what’s worse, only 51 times did a user actually search afterwards. This trace amount of usage, plus the fact that users are clearly clicking onto the tab and then not finding what they want there, indicates it’s just not worth any real estate on the home page. When you add in that our LibGuides now appear in our discovery layer, their search tab is clearly disposable.

What’s Next

Data, tests, and conceptual frameworks aside, our next stage will involve building something much closer to an actual, functional website. Tools like Optimal Workshop are wonderful for providing high-level views on how to structure our information, but watching a user interact with a prototype site is so much richer. We can see their hesitation, hear them discuss the meanings of our terms, get their opinions on our stylistic choices. Prototype testing has been a struggle for me in the past; users tend to fixate on the unfinished or unrefined nature of the prototype, providing feedback that tells me what I already know (yes, we need to replace the placeholder images; yes, “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet” is written on every page) rather than something new. I hope to counter that by setting appropriate expectations and building a small but fairly robust prototype.

We’re also building our site in an entirely new piece of software, Wagtail. Wagtail is exciting for a number of reasons, and will probably have to be the subject of future posts, but it does help address some of the existing issues I noted earlier. We’re excited by the innovative Streamfield approach to content—a replacement for large, rich text fields which are unstructured and often let users override a site’s base styles. We’ve also heard whispers of new workflow features which let us send reminders to owners of different content pages to revisit them periodically. While I could do something like this myself with an ad hoc mess of calendar events and spreadsheets, having it build right into the CMS bodes well for our future maintenace plans. Obviously, the concepts underlying Wagtail and the tools it offers will influence how we implement our information architecture. But we also started gathering data long before we knew what software we’d use, so exactly how it will work remains to be figured out.

Has your library done a website redesign or information architecture test recently? What tools or approaches did you find useful? Let us know in the comments!


  1. I described Google Analytics events before in a previous Tech Connect post

Representing Online Journal Holdings in the Library Catalog

The Problem

It isn’t easy to communicate to patrons what serials they have access to and in what form (print, online). They can find these details, sure, but it’s scattered across our library’s web presence. What’s most frustrating is that we clearly have all the necessary information but the systems offer no built-in way to produce a clear display of it. My fellow librarians noted that “it’d be nice if the catalog showed our exact online holdings” and my initial response was to sigh and say “yes, that would be nice”.

To illustrate the scope of the problem, a user can search for journals in a few of our disparate systems:

  • we use a knowledgebase to track database subscriptions and which journals are included in each subscription package
  • the public catalog for our Koha ILS has records for our print journals, sometimes with a MARC 856$u 1 link to our online holdings in the knowledgebase
  • our discovery layer has both article-level results for the journals in our knowledgebase and journal-level search results for the ones in our catalog

While these systems overlap, they also serve distinct purposes, so it’s not so awful. However, there are a few downsides to our triad of serials information systems. First of all, if a patron searches the knowledgebase looking for a journal which we only have in print, our database holdings wouldn’t show that they have access to print issues. To work around this, we track our print issues both in our ILS and the knowledgebase, which duplicates work and introduces possible inconsistencies.

Secondly, someone might start their research in the discovery layer, finding a journal-level record that links out to our catalog. But it’s too much to ask a user to search the discovery layer, click into the catalog, click a link out to the knowledgebase, and only then discover our online holdings don’t include the particular volume they’re looking for. Possessing three interconnected systems creates labyrinthine search patterns and confusion amongst patrons. Simply describing the systems and their nuanced areas of overlap in this post feels like challenge, and the audience is librarians. I can imagine how our users must feel when we try to outline the differences.

The 360 XML API

Our knowledgebase is Serials Solutions 360KB. I went looking in the vendor’s help documentation for answers, which refers to an API for the product but apparently provides no information on using said API. Luckily, a quick search through GitHub projects yielded several using the API and I was able to determine its URL structure: http://{{your Serials Solution ID}}{{the journal’s ISSN}}

It’s probably possible to search by other parameters as well, but for my purposes ISSN was ideal so I didn’t bother investigating further. If you send a request to the address above, you receive XML in response:

<ssopenurl:openURLResponse xmlns:dc="" xmlns:ssdiag="" xmlns:ssopenurl="" xmlns:xsi="" xsi:schemaLocation="">
    <ssopenurl:results dbDate="2017-02-15">
        <ssopenurl:result format="journal">
                <ssopenurl:issn type="print">0212-5633</ssopenurl:issn>
                <ssopenurl:linkGroup type="holding">
                        <ssopenurl:providerName>Library Specific Holdings</ssopenurl:providerName>
                        <ssopenurl:databaseName>CCA Print Holdings</ssopenurl:databaseName>
                    <ssopenurl:url type="source"></ssopenurl:url>
                    <ssopenurl:url type="journal">
    <ssopenurl:echoedQuery timeStamp="2017-02-15T16:14:12">
        <ssopenurl:library id="EY7MR5FU9X">
            <ssopenurl:name>California College of the Arts</ssopenurl:name>

If you’ve read XML before, then it’s apparent how useful the above data is. It contains a list of our “holdings” for the periodical with information about the start and end (absent here, which implies the holdings run to the present date) dates of the subscription, which database they’re in, and what URL they can be accessed at. Perfect! The XML contains precisely the information we want to display in our catalog.

Unfortunately, our catalog’s JavaScript doesn’t have permission to access the 360 XML API. Due to a browser security policy resources must explicitly say that other domains or pages are allowed to request their data. A page needs to include the Access-Control-Allow-Origin HTTP header to abide by this policy, called Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS), and the 360 API does not.

We can work around this limitation but it requires extra code on our part. While JavaScript from a web page cannot request data directly from 360, we can write a server-side script to pull data. That server-side script can then add its own CORS header which lets our catalog use it. So, in essence, we set up a proxy service that acts as a go-between for our catalog and the API that the catalog cannot use. Typically, this takes little code; the server-side script takes a parameter passed to it in the URL, sends it in a HTTP request to another server, and serves back up whatever response it receives.

Of course, it didn’t turn out to be that simple in practice. As I experimented with my scripts, I could tell that the 360 data was being received, but I couldn’t parse meaningful pieces of information out of it. It’s clearly there; I could see the full XML structure with holdings details. But neither my server-side PHP nor my client-side JavaScript could “find” XML elements like <ssopenurl:linkGroup> and <ssopenurl:normalizedData>. The text before the colon in the tag names is the namespace. Simple jQuery code like $('ssopenurl:linkGroup', xml), which can typically parse XML data, wasn’t working with these namespaced elements.

Finally, I discovered the solution by reading the PHP manual’s entry for the simplexml_load_string function: I can tell PHP how to parse namespaced XML by passing a namespace parameter to the parser function. So my function call turned into:

// parameters: 1) serials solution data since $url is the API we want to pull from
// 2) the type of object that the function should return (this is the default)
// 3) Libxml options (also the default, no special options)
// 4) (finally!) ns, the XML namespace
// 5) "True" here means ns is a prefix and not a URI
$xml= simplexml_load_string( file_get_contents($url), 'SimpleXMLElement', 0, 'ssopenurl', True );

As you can see, two of those parameters don’t even differ from the function’s defaults, but I still need to provide them to get to the “ssopenurl” namespace later. As an aside, technical digressions like these are some of the best and worst parts of my job. It’s rewarding to encounter a problem, perform research, test different approaches, and eventually solve it. But it’d also be nice, and a lot quicker, if code would just work as expected the first time around.

The Catalog

We’re lucky that Koha’s catalog both allows for JavaScript customization and has a well-structured, easy-to-modify record display. Now that I’m able to grab online holdings data from our knowledgebase, inserting into the catalog is trivial. If you wanted to do the same with a different library catalog, the only changes come in the JavaScript that finds ISSN information in a record and then inserts the retrieved holdings information into the display. The complete outline of the data flow from catalog to KB and back looks like:

  • my JavaScript looks for an ISSN on the record’s display page
  • if there’s an ISSN, it sends the ISSN to my proxy script
  • the proxy script adds a few parameters & asks for information from the 360 XML API
  • the 360 XML API returns XML, which my proxy script parses into JSON and sends to the catalog
  • the catalog JavaScript receives the JSON and parses holdings information into formatted HTML like “Online resources: 1992 to present in DOAJ
  • the JS inserts the formatted text into the record’s “online resources” section, creating that section if it doesn’t already exist

Is there a better way to do this? Almost certainly. The six steps above should give you a sense of how convoluted the process is, hacking around a few limitations. Still, the outcome is positive: we stopped updating our print holdings in our knowledgebase and our users have more information at their fingertips. It obviates the final step in the protracted “discovery layer to catalog” search described in the opening of this post.

Our next steps are obvious, too: we should aim to get this information into the discovery layer’s search results for our journals. The general frame of this project would be the same; we already know how to get the data from the API. Much like working with a different library catalog, the only edits are in parsing ISSNs from discovery layer search results and finding a spot in the HTML to insert the holdings data. Finally, we can also remove the redundant and less useful 856$u links from our periodical MARC records now.

The Scripts

These are highly specific to our catalog, but may be of general use to others who want to see how the pieces work together:


  1. For those unfamiliar, 856 is the MARC field for URLs, whether they URL represents the actual resource being described or something supplementary. It’s pretty common for print journals to also have 856 fields for their online counterparts.

Online Privacy in Post-Election America

A commitment to protecting the privacy of our patrons is enshrined in the ALA Code of Ethics. While that has always been an important aspect of librarianship, it’s become even more pivotal in an information age where privacy is far more nuanced and difficult to achieve. Given the rhetoric of the election season, and statements made by our President-Elect as well as his Cabinet nominees 1, the American surveillance state has become even more disconcerting. As librarians, we have an obligation to empower our communities with the knowledge they need to secure their own personal information. This post will cover, at a high level, a few areas where librarians of various types can assist patrons.

The Tools

Given that so much information is exchanged online these days, librarians are in a unique position to educate patrons about the Internet. We spend so much time either building web services or utilizing them, it’s highly likely that a librarian knows more about the web than your average citizen. As such, we can relate some of the powerful pieces of software and services that aid in protecting one’s online presence. To name just a handful that almost everyone could benefit from knowing:

DuckDuckGo is a privacy-aware search engine which explicitly does not track individual users. While it is a for-profit endeavor earning money through ad revenue, its policies set it apart from major competitors such as Google and Bing.

TorBrowser is a web browser utilizing The Onion Router protocol which obfuscates the user’s IP address, essentially masking their online activities behind a web of redirects. The Tor network is run by volunteers and TorBrowser is open source software developed by a non-profit organization.

HTTPS is the encrypted version of HTTP, the data transfer protocol that powers the internet. HTTPS sites are less likely to have their traffic intercepted or surveilled. Tools like HTTPS Everywhere help one to find HTTPS versions of sites without too much trouble.

Two-factor authentication is available for many apps and web services. It decreases the possibility that a third-party can access your account by providing an additional layer of protection beyond your password, e.g. through a code sent to your phone.

Signal is an open source private messaging app which uses end-to-end encryption, think of it as HTTPS for your text messages. Signal is made by Open Whisper Systems which, like the Tor Foundation, is a non-profit.

These are just a few major tools in different areas, all of which are worth knowing about. Many have usability trade-offs but switching to just one or two is enough to substantially improve an individual’s privacy.

Privacy Workshops

Merely knowing about particular pieces of software is not enough to secure one’s communications. Tor perhaps says it best in their “Tips on Staying Anonymous“:

Tor is NOT all you need to browse anonymously! You may need to change some of your browsing habits to ensure your identity stays safe.

A laundry list of web browsers, extensions, and apps doesn’t do much by itself. A person’s behavior is still the largest factor in how private their information is. One can visit a secure HTTPS site but still use a password that’s trivial to crack; one can use the “incognito” or “privacy” mode of a browser but still be tracked by their IP address. Online privacy is an immensely complicated and difficult subject which requires knowledge of practices as well tools. As such, libraries can offer workshops that teach both at once. Most libraries teach skills-based workshops, whether they’re on using a citation manager or how to evaluate information sources for credibility. Adding privacy skills is a natural extension of work we already do. Workshops can fit into particular classes—whether they’re history, computer science, or ethics—or be extra-curricular. Look for sympathetic partners on campus, such as student groups or concerned faculty, to see if you can collaborate or at least find an avenue for advertising your events.

Does your library not have anyone qualified or willing to teach a privacy workshop? Consider contacting an outside expert. The Library Freedom Project immediately comes to mind as a wonderful resource offering: a privacy toolkit for librarians, an online class, “train the trainers” type events, and community-focused workshops.2 Academic librarians may also have access to local computer security experts, whether they’re computer science instructors or particularly savvy students, who would be willing to lend their expertise. My one caution would be that just because someone is a subject expert doesn’t mean they’re equipped to effectively lead a workshop, and that working with an expert to ensure an event is tailored to your community will be more successful than simply outsourcing the entire task.

Patron Data

Depending on your position at your library, this final section might either be the most or least obvious thing to be done: control access to data about your patrons. If you’re an instruction or reference librarian, I imagine workshops were the first thing on your mind. If you’re a systems librarian such as myself, you may have thought of technologies like HTTPS or considered data security measures. This section will be longer not because it’s more important, but because these are topics I think about often as they directly relate to my job responsibilities.

Patron data is tricky. I’ll be the first to admit that my library collects quite a bit of data about patrons, a rather small amount of which contains personally identifying information. Data is extremely useful both in fine-tuning our services to meet community needs as well as in demonstrating our value to stakeholders like the college administration. Still, there is good reason to review data practices and web services to see if anything can be improved. Here’s a brief list of heuristics to use:

Are your websites using HTTPS? Secure sites, especially for one’s with patron accounts that hold sensitive information, help prevent data from being intercepted by third parties. I fully realize this is actually more difficult than it appears; our previous ILS offered HTTPS but only as a paid add-on which we couldn’t afford. If a vendor is the holdup here, pester them relentlessly until progress is made. I’ve found that most vendors understand that HTTPS is important, it’s just further down in their development priorities. Making a fuss can change that.

Is personal information being unnecessarily collected? What’s “necessary” is subjective, certainly. A good measure is looking at when the last time personal information was actually used in any substantive manner. If you’re tracking the names of students who ask reference questions, have you ever actually needed them for follow-ups? Could an anonymized ID be used instead? Could names be deleted after a certain amount of time has passed? Which brings us to…

Where personal information is collected, do retention policies exist? E.g. if you’re doing website user studies that record someone’s name, likeness, or voice, do you eventually delete the files? This goes for paper files as well, which can be reviewed and then shredded if deemed unnecessary. Retention policies are beneficial in a few ways. They not only prevent old data from leaking into the wrong hands, they often help with organization and “spring cleaning” tasks. I try to review my hard drive periodically for random files I’ve been sent by faculty or students which can be cleaned out.

Can patrons be empowered with options regarding their own data? Opt-in policies regarding data retention are desirable because they allow a library to collect information that might prove valuable while also giving people the ability to limit their vulnerabilities. Catalog reading lists are the quintessential example: some patrons find these helpful as a tool to review what they’ve read, while others would prefer to obscure their checkout history. It should go without saying that these options existing without any surrounding education is rather useless. Patrons need to know what’s at stake and how to use the systems at their disposal; the setting does nothing by itself. While optional workshops typically only touch a fragment of the overall student population, perhaps in-browser tips and suggestions can be presented to prompt our users to consider about the ramifications of their account’s configuration.

Relevance Ranking

Every so often, an event will happen which foregrounds the continued relevance of our profession. The most recent American election was an unmitigated disaster in terms of information literacy 3, but it also presents an opportunity for us to redouble our efforts where they are needed. Like the terrifying revelations of Edward Snowden, we are reminded that we serve communities that are constantly at risk of oppression, surveillance, and strife. As information professionals, we should strive to take on the challenge of protecting our patrons, and much of that protection occurs online. We can choose to be paralyzed by distress when faced with the state of affairs in our country, or to be challenged to rise to the occasion.


  1. To name a few examples, incoming CIA chief Mike Pompeo supports NSA bulk data collection and President-Elect Trump has been ambiguous as to whether he supports the idea of a registry or database for Muslim Americans.
  2. Library Freedom Director Alison Macrina has an excellent running Twitter thread on privacy topics which is worth consulting whether you’re an expert or novice.
  3. To note but two examples, the President-Elect persistently made false statements during his campaign and “fake news” appeared as a distinct phenomenon shortly after the election.

A High-Level Look at an ILS Migration

My library recently performed that most miraculous of feats—a full transition from one integrated library system to another, specifically Innovative’s Millennium to the open source Koha (supported by ByWater Solutions). We were prompted to migrate by Millennium’s approaching end-of-life and a desire to move to a more open system where we feel in greater control of our data. I’m sure many librarians have been through ILS migrations, and plenty has been written about them, but as this was my first I wanted to reflect upon the process. If you’re considering changing your ILS, or if you work in another area of librarianship & wonder how a migration looks from the systems end, I hope this post holds some value for you.


No migration is without its problems. For starters, certain pieces of data in our old ILS weren’t accessible in any meaningful format. While Millennium has a robust “Create Lists” feature for querying & exporting different types of records (patron, bibliographic, vendor, etc.), it does not expose certain types of information. We couldn’t find a way to export detailed fines information, only a lump sum for each patron. To help with this post-migration, we saved an email listing of all itemized fines that we can refer to later. The email is saved as a shared Google Doc which allows circulation staff to comment on it as fines are resolved.

We also discovered that patron checkout history couldn’t be exported in bulk. While each patron can opt-in to a reading history & view it in the catalog, there’s no way for an administrator to download everyone’s history at once. As a solution, we kept our self-hosted Millennium instance running & can login to patrons’ accounts to retrieve their reading history upon request. Luckily, this feature wasn’t heavily used, so access to it hasn’t come up many times. We plan to keep our old, self-hosted ILS running for a year and then re-evaluate whether it’s prudent to shut it down, losing the data.

While some types of data simply couldn’t be exported, many more couldn’t emigrate in their exact same form. An ILS is a complicated piece of software, with many interdependent parts, and no two are going to represent concepts in the exact same way. To provide a concrete example: Millennium’s loan rules are based upon patron type & the item’s location, so a rule definition might resemble

  • a FACULTY patron can keep items from the MAIN SHELVES for four weeks & renew them once
  • a STUDENT patron can keep items from the MAIN SHELVES for two weeks & renew them two times

Koha, however, uses patron category & item type to determine loan rules, eschewing location as the pivotal attribute of an item. Neither implementation is wrong in any way; they both make sense, but are suited to slightly different situations. This difference necessitated completely reevaluating our item types, which didn’t previously affect loan rules. We had many, many item types because they were meant to represent the different media in our collection, not act as a hook for particular ILS functionality. Under the new system, our Associate Director of Libraries put copious work into reconfiguring & simplifying our types such that they would be compatible with our loan rules. This was a time-consuming process & it’s just one example of how a straightforward migration from one system to the next was impossible.

While some data couldn’t be exported, and others needed extensive rethinking in the new ILS, there was also information that could only be migrated after much massaging. Our patron records were a good example: under Millennium, users logged in on an insecure HTTP page with their barcode & last name. Yikes. I know, I felt terrible about it, but integration with our campus authentication & upgrading to HTTPS were both additional costs that we couldn’t afford. Now, under Koha, we can use the campus CAS (a central authentication system) & HTTPS (yay!), but wait…we don’t have the usernames for any of our patrons. So I spent a while writing Python scripts to parse our patron data, attempting to extract usernames from institutional email addresses. A system administrator also helped use unique identifying information (like phone number) to find potential patron matches in another campus database.

A more amusing example of weird Millennium data was active holds, which are stored in a single field on item records & looks like this:


Can you tell what’s going on here? With a little poking around in the system, it became apparent that letters like “NNB” stood for “date not needed by” & that other fields were identifiers connecting to patron & item records. So, once again, I wrote scripts to extract meaningful details from this silly format.

I won’t lie, the data munging was some of the most enjoyable work of the migration. Maybe I’m weird, but it was both challenging & interesting as we were suddenly forced to dive deeper into our old system and understand more of its hideous internal organs, just as we were leaving it behind. The problem-solving & sleuthing were fun & distracted me from some of the more frustrating challenges detailed above.

Finally, while we had a migration server where we tested our data & staff played around for almost a month’s time, when it came to the final leap things didn’t quite work as expected. The CAS integration, which I had so anticipated, didn’t work immediately. We started bumping into errors we hadn’t seen on the migration server. Much of this is inevitable; it’s simply unrealistic to create a perfect replica of our live catalog. We cannot, for instance, host the migration server on the exact same domain, and while that seems like a trivial difference it does affect a few things. Luckily, we had few summer classes so there was time to suffer a few setbacks & now that our fall semester is about to begin, we’re in great shape.

Difference & Repetition

Koha is primarily used by public libraries, and as such we’ve run into a few areas where common academic library functions aren’t implemented in a familiar way or are unavailable. Often, it’s that our perspective is so heavily rooted in Millennium that we need to think differently to achieve the same effect in Koha. But sometimes it’s clear that what’s a concern to us isn’t to other libraries.

For instance, bib records for serials with large numbers of issues is an ongoing struggle for us. We have many print periodicals where we have extensive holdings, including bound editions of past issues. The holdings display in the catalog is more oriented towards recent periodicals & displaying whether the latest few issues have arrived yet. That’s fine for materials like newspapers or popular magazines with few back issues, and I’ve seen a few public libraries using Koha that have minimalistic periodical records intended only to point the patron to a certain shelf. However, we have complex holdings like “issues 1 through 10 are bound together, issue 11 is missing, issues 12 through 18 are held in a separate location…” Parsing the catalog record to determine if we have a certain issue, and where it might be, is quite challenging.

Another example of the public versus academic functions: there’s no “recall” feature per se in Koha, wherein a faculty member could retrieve an item they want to place on course reserve from a student. Instead, we have tried to simulate this feature with a mixture of adjustments to our loan rules & internal reports which show the status of contested items. Recall isn’t a huge feature & isn’t used all the time, it’s not something we thought to research when selecting our new ILS, but it’s a great example of a minute difference that ended up creating a headache as we adapted to a new piece of software.

Moving from Millennium to Koha also meant we were shifting from a closed source system where we had to pay additional fees for limited API access to an open source system which boasts full read access to the database via its reporting feature. Koha’s open source nature has been perhaps the biggest boon for me during our migration. It’s very simple to look at the actual server-side code generating particular pages, or pull up specific rows in database tables, to see exactly what’s happening. In a black box ILS, everything we do is based on a vague adumbration of how we think the system operates. We can provide an input & record the output, but we’re never sure about edge cases or whether strange behavior is a bug or somehow intentional.

Koha has its share of bugs, I’ve discovered, but thankfully I’m able to jump right into the source code itself to determine what’s occurring. I’ve been able to diagnose problems by looking at open bug reports on Koha’s bugzilla tracker, pondering over perl code, and applying snippets of code from the Koha wiki or git repository. I’ve already submitted two bug patches, one of which has been pulled into the project. It’s empowering to be able to trace exactly what’s happening when troubleshooting & submit one’s own solution, or just a detailed bug report, for it. Whether or not a patch is the best way to fix an issue, being able to see precisely how the system works is deeply satisfying. It also makes it much easier to me to design JavaScript hacks that smooth over issues on the client side, be it in the staff-facing administrative functions or the public catalog.

What I Would Do Differently

Set clearer expectations.

We had Millennium for more than a decade. We invested substantial resources, both monetary & temporal, in customizing it to suit our tastes & unique collections. As we began testing the new ILS, the most common feedback from staff fell along the lines “this isn’t like it was in Millennium”. I think that would have been a less common observation, or perhaps phrased more productively, if I’d made it clear that a) it’ll take time to customize our new ILS to the degree of the old one, and b) not everything will be or needs to be the same.

Most of the customization decisions were made years ago & were never revisited. We need to return to the reason why things were set up a certain way, then determine if that reason is still legitimate, and finally find a way to achieve the best possible result in the new system. Instead, it’s felt like the process was framed more as “how do we simulate our old ILS in the new one” which sets us up for disappointment & failure from the start. I think there’s a feeling that a new system should automatically be better, and it’s true that we’re gaining several new & useful features, but we’re also losing substantial Millennium-specific customization. It’s important to realize that just because everything is not optimal out of the box doesn’t mean we cannot discover even better solutions if we approach our problems in a new light.

Encourage experimentation, deny expertise.

Because I’m the Systems Librarian, staff naturally turn to me with their systems questions. Here’s a secret: I know very little about the ILS. Like them, I’m still learning, and what’s more I’m often unfamiliar with the particular quarters of the system where they spend large amounts of time. I don’t know what it’s like to check in books & process holds all day, but our circulation staff do. It’s been tough at times when staff seek my guidance & I’m far from able to help them. Instead, we all need to approach the ongoing migration as an exploration. If we’re not sure how something works, the best way is to research & test, then test again. While Koha’s manual is long & quite detailed, it cannot (& arguably should not, lest it grow to unreasonable lengths) specify every edge case that can possibly occur. The only way to know is to test & document, which we should have emphasized & encouraged more towards the start of the process.

To be fair, many staff had reasonable expectations & performed a lot of experiments. Still, I did not do a great job of facilitating either of those as a leader. That’s truly my job as Systems Librarian during this process; I’m not here merely to mold our data so it fits perfectly in the new system, I’m here to oversee the entire transition as a process that involves data, workflows, staff, and technology.

Take more time.

Initially, the ILS migration was such an enormous amount of work that it was not clear where to start. It felt as if, for a few months before our on-site training, we did little but sit around & await a whirlwind of busyness. I wish we had a better sense of the work we could have front-loaded such that we could focus efforts on other tasks later on. For example, we ended up deleting thousands of patron, item, and bibliographic records in an effort to “clean house” & not spend effort migrating data that was unneeded in the first place. We should have attacked that much earlier, and it might have obviated the need for some work. For instance, if in the course of cleaning up Millennium we delete invalid MARC records or eliminate obscure item types, those represent fewer problems encountered later in the migration process.


As we start our fall semester, I feel accomplished. We raced through this migration, beginning the initial stages only in April for a go-live date that would occur in June. I learned a lot & appreciated the challenge but also had one horrible epiphany: I’m still relatively young, and I hope to be in librarianship for a long time, so this is likely not the last ILS migration I’ll participate in. While that very thought gives me chills, I hope the lessons I’ve taken from this one will serve me well in the future.

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.


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