Wikipedia, Libraries, & Neutrality

This piece is substantially based off of a column I wrote for RUSQ that will appear early next year.

Broadly construed, there are two camps of opinions surrounding Wikipedia in librarianship. The first is that Wikipedia is not an academic quality source. It is something students need to be warned away from. The community authorship of wikipedia is typically the source of this criticism; since “anyone can edit” the online encyclopedia, there’s no way to tell whether you’re receiving high quality information written by experts or the ill-informed opinions of internet trolls.

The other camp is far more positive regarding Wikipedia. After all, the values of the Wikipedian community clearly align with our own. The ultimate goal of the project is not to give a venue for poor research or fringe theories, but to enable free and open access to information. While Wikipedia isn’t flawless, many of its articles compete with more established reference sources. Famously, Nature performed a comparison of scientific articles and found Wikipedia to be comparable to Encyclopedia Britannica. But following the study, a community project to correct the identified errors in Wikipedia sprung up, fixing them all in a little over a month.1 With this common ground, it’s no wonder that libraries have found Wikipedia to be a valuable partner in publicizing our content. Articles like Using Wikipedia to Extend Digital Collections, Putting the Library in Wikipedia, and Wikipedia Lover, Not a Hater: Harnessing Wikipedia to Increase the Discoverability of Library Resources all discuss the value of working with Wikipedia to highlight library digital collections and metadata, not against.

A good example of Wikipedia driving traffic to library special collections was brought to my attention by fellow Tech Connect author Margaret Heller, who pointed me towards the Google Analytics Usage Reports for CARLI Digital Collections. CARLI regularly sees Wikipedia as one of the top external traffic sources, with Wikipedia being noted in last few quarterly reports as a traffic source leading “to home pages or images from multiple CARLI Collections”.

The Problem with Neutral

I must admit that I side with the pro-Wikipedia folks. I love using Wikipedia as a resource—as a procrastination-enabler I have open several articles on roguelikes that I’m reading while I right this—and I love contributing to it in whatever small ways I can, from fixing broken markup to citation hunting. But Wikipedia is imperfect in ways more insidious that its anonymous authorship or occasionally inaccurate details. Rather, one problem lies within one of the five pillars that define the philosophy of Wikipedia; “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view”.

Neutrality has been under fire from #critlib lately, a group of librarians emphasizing critical theory especially with respect to information literacy instruction. ALA Annual featured a well-attended presentation entitled “But We’re Neutral!” And Other Librarian Fictions Confronted by #critlib. A seminal article appearing earlier this year in Code4Lib by Bess Sadler and Chris Bourg begins with a rousing section labelled Libraries are not Neutral:

In spite of the pride many libraries take in their neutrality, libraries have never been neutral repositories of knowledge. Research libraries in particular have always reflected the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout the academic enterprise through collection policies and hiring practices that reflect the biases of those in power at a given institution. In addition, theoretically neutral library activities like cataloging have often re-created societal patterns of exclusion and inequality.

Wikipedia shares this problem; while it appears neutral on the surface, its topical coverage and treatment of subjects reflect the skewed power relations of our society. A 2011 study found that 91% of editors were men. The same study shows that few editors come from the Global South and that the English Wikipedia receives far more focus than other languages. Another research paper from 2011 goes a bit further in demonstrating that “male articles are significantly longer than female articles”.2 The editorial gender gap has real effects on the encyclopedia’s content; it’s not just that having editors of all genders is good in its own right, it’s that Wikipedia’s claims to objectivity and neutrality are jeopardized by the disbalance.


So what’s a concerned librarian to do? I think the wrong thing would be to denounce Wikipedia. For one, the alternative sources we or our patrons would turn to are no less problematic. Encyclopaedia Britannica has a well-documented history of supposedly scientific articles written from the dominant viewpoint (c.f. the racist description of black people in the 1911 edition). What’s more, Wikipedia is going to be used. It’s massively popular. Sticking our heads in the sand because it doesn’t live up to its own standards of neutrality improves nothing.

Luckily, there are several Wikipedia projects focused on recruiting editors from underrepresented groups and addressing lackluster coverage of particular topics which we can support. One such project is Art + Feminism. In its own words:

Art+Feminism is a rhizomatic campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia, and to encourage female editorship…Content is skewed by the lack of female participation. Many articles on notable women in history and art are absent on Wikipedia. This represents an alarming aporia in an increasingly important repository of shared knowledge.

Art+Feminism started out by hosting an edit-a-thon out of the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City in 2014, with more than 30 other locations worldwide joining in. An edit-a-thon is an event where people gather to perform Wikipedia edits, often centered around a particular theme or project. Higher education institutions and libraries make perfect partners for such occasions. We typically have useful materials to be cited and our students form a large body of potential participates who can be easily incentivized to join in, whether with extra credit or simply some food. So when my library heard of the upcoming 2nd annual edit-a-thon, we immediately began planning to host it. Below, I’ll briefly outline what we did in the hopes it’ll encourage other institutions to join us during this year’s edit-a-thon on March 5th.

Hosting an Edit-a-thon

First, we set up a meetup page on Wikipedia. If you’re unfamiliar with Wikipedia, creating a page like this isn’t a struggle. For one, you can simply copy the entire source markup of someone else’s meetup, then edit your specific details into that skeleton. For two, you can enable the experimental Visual Editor to make Wikipedia even easier to edit without learning wiki markup. The meetup page is an important place for putting up information like timing and directions, but is also a place for us to talk about the impact we made by showing how many editors attended and what articles we improved or created.

While we were putting initial details on our meetup page, we set about securing a location on the date of the edit-a-thon. We discovered that a gallery associated with our school had hosted the edit-a-thon the prior year, but they were unable to repeat it. Our school has campuses in both San Francisco and Oakland, but since Oakland had no other edit-a-thon locations we decided to host it there with the idea that SF locals already had an event nearby.

Our next steps aimed to make the event as easy for newcomers as possible. A staff member pulled relevant materials from our collection, so that researching would be simple and our rarer, more valuable resources might lend some of their information to Wikipedia. We also wanted experienced editors to be on hand during the event. I looked at a local Wikiproject, asking for help on the Talk page and then corresponding directly with a couple editors who had expressed interest. Finally, we managed to secure a visit from someone who actually works for the Wikimedia Foundation that runs the encyclopedia.

During the day, we set out snacks and name badges for everyone. Similar to the color-coded name badges at Ada Camp and other tech conferences, Art+Feminism recommended giving out name badges which signify one’s willingness to be photographed: green meant feel free to take a photo, orange meant please ask permission first, and red meant absolutely not. These steps ensure that everyone is comfortable at the event and not being exposed on the internet against their will. At the start of the day, we explained the coloring system and the Wikimedia staff person gave a short talk on how to write articles that endure, standing up to scrutiny over time. The results of the global event are listed on Wikipedia.

While I feel we accomplished much at our local event, there was one negative experience. An image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for use on a page was flagged for deletion. The editor flagging it said something along the lines of “this isn’t your personal photo album” as the image was a headshot of a female artist. In the ensuing discussion around the proposed deletion, I noted that the image was about to be used on an article. It was never removed from Commons. Still, the incident underscores cultural problems in Wikipedia. The confrontational style of the discussion lacked good faith. Further, I heard a gendered undertone in the editor’s response; how many pictures of white men are derided as personal photos? While our library staff person was undeterred, moments of hostility like these drive away newcomers.

In Which I Admit I’m Missing the Point

To be fair, Wikipedia itself acknowledges that it fails to live up to neutral status. That the encyclopedia strives towards neutrality is the more vital point. But it’s not as if reaching a supposedly perfect neutrality resolves the issues that folks like #critlib are highlighting. Neutral as a positive value is precisely the problem, because there is no neutral stance that can be taken from outside of society’s power relations and history of inequity. So should we instead be agitating for Wikipedia to become less neutral and take more active stances on social issues? Or are edit-a-thons like Art+Feminism the most viable route towards ensuring topics are covered in a way that surfaces marginalized peoples and their experiences? I have no answers, just food for thought.

  1. See External peer review/Nature December 2005 for Wikipedia’s internal take on the correction process. The original Nature article is paywalled here and is doi:10.1038/438900a. A similar but open access study is doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106930, Accuracy and Completeness of Drug Information in Wikipedia: A Comparison with Standard Textbooks of Pharmacology.
  2. WP:Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance. I’m skeptical of how “male” and “female” articles were defined, but the paper itself is thorough in its argumentation and statistical analysis. It’s also worth noting that this paper, and much of the other literature around the gender gap, ignores genders outside the female-male binary. It’s most useful to conceive of the gap as a disproportionate majority of males than a minority of females, while leaving all other genders out of the picture.

Accessibility Testing LibGuides 2.0

Over the summer my library began investigating potentially migrating to the LibGuides content management system from our current, Drupal-based subject guide system.  As part of our investigation, and with resources from our campus’ Universal Design Center 1, I began an initial review to determine the extent to which LibGuides 2.0 was accessible to all users, including users with disabilities or those using assistive technologies.  Our campus, like other California State University campuses, has a strong commitment to ensuring technology is accessible to all users.  The campus has a fairly extensive process for acquiring new technologies that require all departments to review the accessibility of any technology or web-based product purchased, and the Universal Design Center assists all departments on campus with these evaluations.  While evaluating technology for accessibility is not typically my area of responsibility (in fact, I rarely have involvement in end-user facing technology, let alone testing for usability and accessibility), in this case I was interested in using LibGuides as an opportunity to learn more about accessibility for my own knowledge.  Ensuring that web content is accessible requires a blend of skills related to using web markup, understanding user behavior, and knowledge of assistive technologies, and as a librarian I know I can benefit from a solid understanding of all of these areas.

While I am by no means an expert on accessibility, I am familiar with basic guidelines of accessibility for content creation and markup. 2  Of course, accessibility and usability in a content management system depend, in large part, on the practices followed by content creators.  LibGuides authors have a significant amount of control over the accessibility of the content they create.  For example, using the HTML source code editing features of LibGuides, any guide author can ensure their own markup is compliant with accessibility guidelines, and manually add elements such as alternative text, titled iFrames, or ARIA attributes.  However, I was especially interested in identifying any issues that LibGuides guide authors could not easily modify themselves.  While many features can be overridden via the extensive CSS customization available in LibGuides 2.0’s Bootstrap Framework3, I wanted to identify those ‘out-of-the-box’ elements that posed accessibility problems.

The following issues identified below have been reported to SpringShare, and I was told by SpringShare support that all of these issues are being investigated and already ‘on the list’ for future development.  As this is my first attempt to really deep-dive into web accessibility, I’m really interested in feedback about the issues identified below.  I am hoping that I’ve interpreted the standards correctly, but I definitely welcome any feedback or corrections!


A sample guide was created in a LibGuides demo instance to evaluate all built-in LibGuides box types, content types, and various multimedia elements to determine Section 508 compliance.  The following features were included on the guide that was used for testing:

LibGuides Box Types:

  • Tabbed
  • Gallery
  • Profile

LibGuides Content Types:

  • Rich Text/HTML
  • Database
  • Link
  • Media/Widget
  • Book from the Catalog
  • Document/File
  • RSS Feed
  • Guide List
  • Poll
  • Google Search

Free tools used to evaluate LibGuides accessibility include:

  • W3C Markup Validator :  Valid markup is usually much more accessible markup.  Unclosed tags or nesting problems can often cause problems with screen readers, keyboard navigation, or other assistive technologies.
  • WebAIM WAVE Accessibility Tool – Enter the URL of your page, and the WAVE Tool will examine the page and automatically identify accessibility errors (elements, such as form labels, that are required for accessibility that are absent or problematically implemented), alerts (potential issues that could be improved) and features (good accessibility practices).
  • CynthiaSays – Similar to the WAVE tool, CynthiaSays automatically reads through the markup of a URL you provide and generates a comprehensive report of problems and potential issues.
  • Mozilla Firefox with the following extensions (there are likely Chrome alternatives to these):
    • Fangs – A screen reader emulator that enables you to view a text-only version of a page the way a screen-reader would read it.  Ensuring that your page is read by a screen reader the way you intend is essential for accessibility, and Fangs enables you to review the screen-readability of your page without downloading a full screen-reading desktop client such as JAWS.
    • WCAG Color Contrast Checker – A handy tool to quickly view the color contrast of your page in the browser.  Low contrast elements, such as yellow text on a white background, can be very different to see for a variety of users.   
  • Colour Contrast Analyser – A helpful desktop client that enables automated checking to ensure that web page elements or images contain high enough contrast to be viewed and read easily by a wide variety of users.
  • JAWS – JAWS is a very popular screen reading application that enables web pages to be navigated and read aloud to users.  While this software has a cost, a free trial can be downloaded temporarily to preview the software’s functionality.

Guidelines from the US Federal Government’s Section 508 Accessibility Program, W3C’s WCAG 2.0, and CSU Northridge’s Web Accessibility Criteria were used in this evaluation.


These features do not conform to Section 508 and/or WCAG 2.0 compliance, and their implementation in LibGuides does not enable guide authors to easily override code to improve accessibility manually.  

Polls: Lack clear labeling of form elements (Section 508 1194.22(n))

In our testing, Poll elements lack “FOR” attributes in tag labels and “ID” attributes in associated form elements.  Poll forms also make use of ‘implicit labels’, where the form element and its associated label are contained within opening and closing label tags.  For example, radio button code from a  poll element is generated by LibGuides as:

<div class="radio">
<input type="radio" class="pad-left-med" name="s-lg-poll-option-13342416" 
id="s-lg-poll-option-13342416_1" value="83823" >Never

More accessible code might instead look like:

<div class="radio">
<label FOR=”never”>Never
<input type="radio" class="pad-left-med" name="s-lg-poll-option-13342416" 
id="s-lg-poll-option-13342416_1" value="83823" ID=”never”>
Cover images from ‘Books from the Catalog’:  Lack textual description (Section 508 1194.22(a))

In testing, whether covers were retrieved from Syndetics, Amazon, or whether default (blue or white) covers were used, all resultant “Books from the Catalog” elements lacked ALT attributes.  Images do, however, have title elements.  It could be interpreted that these elements are decorative and therefore do not require alternative text elements.  However, the default title elements (derived from the title of the book) is not especially descriptive to help the user understand the role of the image on the page.

For example:

<img alt="" src=";
title="Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds" 
class="pull-left s-lg-book-cover-img-0">

This code could be made more accessible with the following:

<img alt="Getting it Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds 
Cover Image" 
title="Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds" 
class="pull-left s-lg-book-cover-img-0">
Gallery Keyboard Accessibility and Tab Navigation Section 508 1194.21 (a)

In testing, it was not possible to navigate through gallery images using keyboard tab navigation alone.  While it was possible with tab navigation to bypass the gallery (tab into and out of it into the next page element) the user would not be able to control the movement of the gallery or tab through the gallery images to access the descriptions or captions of the gallery.

Gallery Default Label and Caption Color: Insufficient contrast and readability

FireFox’s WCAG Color Contrast Checker identified the white label and caption color of the “Gallery” box type as having insufficient contrast with many images that could be used in the gallery.  Because the label and captions appear directly overlaid upon gallery images, with no outline or background color to enhance the contrast of the text, these labels and captions can be difficult to read.  There does not appear to be a way in LibGuides administrative settings to adjust the default caption, though custom scripting might be used to override the style.

A screenshot of an example "Gallery" image in LibGuides. The example screenshot is of a cityscape in Israel.

Figure 1:  LibGuides gallery feature showing white label and caption that can be difficult to read against the gallery image.

Accessible Practices for Guide Authors:  A few tips

The issues identified above cannot easily be resolved through LibGuides administrative options or author controls, but there are several other important practices for guide authors to be aware of.  The tips below are by no means a comprehensive guide to accessibility; there are many more aspects to ensuring content is accessible (especially concerning the use of media, tables, and other types of content), but this list provides a few examples of things content creators can be aware of when creating guides.

Media/Widget Embed Codes:  Manually add title attributes to iframe elements

When embedding iframe media (such as a YouTube video, SoundCloud file, or Google Form) it is essential that Guide authors manually add a TITLE attribute to media embed codes.

Here is an example of a YouTube video’s embed code:

<iframe width="548" height="315" 
frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

When adding code like this to a LibGuides Media/Widget feature, guide authors should manually add in a descriptive title element to briefly describe the contents of the embedded media:

<iframe title=”Video tutorial on finding a book at the Oviatt Library” 
width="548" height="315" 
frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Embedded media should also always include captions for visual media and transcripts for audio and visual media.

Rich Text/HTML Content: Add alternative text to all images

When manually adding images to RichText/HTML content, guide authors should be sure to add descriptive Alternative Text in the image dialogue box:

The LibGuides image upload dialogue menu, with a black box highlighting the input field for alternative text.

Figure 2:  LibGuides Image Properties Dialogue Box used to add images.  The Alternative Text field is highlighted.

Links:  Add title and aria-label attributes

When manually adding links to resources in LibGuides, ensure the purpose of the link is clear, either with title attributes or aria-label attributes.  Avoid, where possible, vague link text such as ‘Read More’ or ‘Click Here’. If link text is vague or there is no descriptive information about the link visible on the page, use a title attribute or aria-label attribute:

Link with title attribute:

<a href="" 
  title="Read about evaluating sources with the CRAP Test">
  The Crap Test

Link with aria-label attribute:

<a href="" 
  aria-label="Read more about evaluating sources">
  The Crap Test
Look and Feel:  Ensure text is visually distinct from background colors

When designing the look and feel of LibGuides, where possible, ensure a high level of contrast between text and background colors for readability.  For example, consider enhancing the text contrast on box labels, which by default have somewhat low contrast (dark grey text on light grey background).  

A screenshot of a default LibGuides tab heading reading "Profile Box", with dark grey text over light grey text.

Figure 3:  LibGuides default box header, showing low contrast between text in box and background.

A LibGuides box header with text reading "Profile Box" where the text contrast has been enhanced by making it black against a light grey background.

Figure 4:  LibGuides box header with font color set to #000000 in administrative Look and Feel settings.

For any element on the page, avoid using colors that do not have high contrast with background color features.

More Resources

Many LibGuides authors have created excellent guides to accessibility for guide authors at their institution, and SpringShare also provides an useful  guide for best practices for LibGuides content creators that covers some accessibility practices.  Here are a few resources from the LibGuides community that helped me enormously when doing this evaluation:

The ACRL Universal Accessibility Interest Group (UAIG) is currently exploring the formation of a subcommittee to review LibGuides accessibility and potentially create a more comprehensive guide to best practices for LibGuides accessibility.  You can join the UAIG through your ALA / ACRL membership to learn more about this initiative.

I would also love to hear from other who have done this kind of testing and found other issues.  Do you have a guide to best practices that covers accessibility?  Are you aware of other features in LibGuides that are not accessible to all users?  Comment here or tweet me @lpmagnuson.


  1. The mission of the Universal Design Center is “to assist the campus community in creating pathways for individuals to learn, communicate, and share via information technology.  Part of the mission is to help the campus community design-in interoperability, usability, and accessibility into information technology so that individual learning and processing styles, or physical characteristics are not barriers to accessing information.”
  2. For an excellent overview of web accessibility compliance, see Cynthia Ng’s articles on ACRL Tech Connect at,, and
  3. For a great example of the extensive customization that can be done in LibGuides 2.0’s Bootstrap framework, see

Collaborative UX Testing: Cardigans Included

Usability Testing

Understanding and responding to user needs has always been at the heart of librarianship, although in recent years this has taken a more intentional approach through the development of library user experience positions and departments.  Such positions are a mere fantasy though for many smaller libraries, where librarian teams of three or four run the entire show.  For the twenty-three member libraries of the Private Academic Library Network of Indiana (PALNI) consortium this is regularly the case, with each school on staff having an average of four librarians.  However, by leveraging existing collaborative relationships, utilizing recent changes in library systems and consortium staffing, and (of course) picking up a few new cardigans, PALNI has begun studying library user experience at scale with a collaborative usability testing model.

With four library testing locations spread over 200 miles in Indiana, multiple facilitators were used to conduct testing for the consortial discovery product, OCLC’s WorldCat Discovery. Using WebEx to screen record and project the testing into a library staff observation room, 30 participants completed three general tasks with multiple parts helping us to assess user needs and participant behavior.

There were clear advantages of collaborative testing over the traditional, siloed approach which were most obviously shown in the amount and type of data we received. The most important opportunity was the ability to test different setups of the same product. This type of comparative data led to conclusive setup recommendations, and showed problems unique to the institutions versus general user problems. The chance to test multiple schools also provided a lot more data, which reduced the likelihood of testing only outliers.

The second major advantage of collaborative testing was the ability to work as a team. From a physical standpoint, working as a team allowed us to spread the testing out, keeping it fresh in our minds and giving enough time in-between to fix scripts and materials. This also allowed us to test before and after technical upgrades. From a relational perspective, the shouldering of the work and continual support reduced burn out during the testing. Upon analyzing the data, different people brought different skill sets. Our particular team consisted of a graphic/interface designer, a sympathetic ear, and a master editor, all of whom played important roles when it came to analyzing and writing the report. Simply put, it was an enjoyable experience which resulted in valuable, comparative data – one that could not have happened if the libraries had taken a siloed approach.

When we were designing our test, we met with Arnold Arcolio, a User Researcher in OCLC’s User Experience and Information Architecture Group. He gave us many great pieces of advice. Some of them we found to work well in our testing, while others we rejected. The most valuable piece of advice he gave us was to start with the end in mind. Make sure you have clear objectives for what data you are trying to obtain. If you leave your objectives open ended, you will spend the rest of your life reviewing the data and learning interesting things about your users every time.

He recommended: We decided:
Test at least two users of the same type. This helps avoid outliers. For us, that meant testing at least two first year students and two seniors.
Test users on their own devices. We found this to be impractical for our purposes, as all devices used for testing had to have web conferencing software which allowed us to record users’ screen.
Have the participants read the tasks out loud. A technique that we used and recommend as well.
Use low-tech solutions for our testing, rather than expensive software and eye tracking software. This was a huge relief to PALNI’s executive director who manages our budget.
Test participants where they would normally do their research, in dorm rooms, faculty offices, etc. We did not take this recommendation due to time and privacy concerns.
He was very concerned about our use of multiple facilitators. We standardized our testing as much as possible.  First, we choose uniforms for our facilitators. Being librarians, the obvious choice was cardigans. We ordered matching, logoed cardigans from Lands’ End and wore those to conduct our testing. This allowed us to look as similar as possible and avoid skewing participants’ impressions.  We chose cardigans in blue because color theory suggests that blue persuades the participants to trust the facilitator while feeling calm and confident. We also worked together to create a very detailed script that was used by each facilitator for each test.

Our next round of usability testing will incorporate many of the same recommendations provided by our usability expert, discussed above, with a few additions and changes. This Fall, we will be including a mobile device portion using a camera mount (Mr. Tappy see to screen record, testing different tasks, and working with different libraries. Our libraries’ staff also recommended making the report more action-oriented with best setup practices and highlighting instructional needs.  We are also developing a list of common solutions for participant problems, such as when to redirect or correct misspellings. Finally, as much as we love the cardigans, we will be wearing matching logoed polos underneath for those test rooms that mirror the climate of the Sahara Desert.

We have enjoyed our usability experiences immensely–it is a great chance to visit with both library staff, faculty, and students from other institutions in our consortium. Working collaboratively proved to be a success in our consortia where smaller libraries, short staff, and minimal resources made it otherwise impossible to conduct large scale usability testing.   Plus, we welcome having another cardigan in our wardrobe.

More detailed information about our Spring 2015 study can be found in our report, “PALNI WorldCat Discovery Usability Report.”

About our guest authors:

Eric Bradley is Head of Instruction and Reference at Goshen College and an Information Fluency Coordinator for PALNI.  He has been at Goshen since 2013.  He does not moonlight as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter or Los Angeles studio singer.

Ruth Szpunar is an Instruction and Reference Librarian at DePauw University and an Information Fluency Coordinator for PALNI. She has been at DePauw since 2005. In her spare time she can be found munching on chocolate or raiding the aisles at the Container Store.

Megan West has been the Digital Communications Manager at PALNI since 2011. She specializes in graphic design, user experience, project management and has a strange addiction to colored pencils.

Data, data everywhere…but do we want to drink?

The role of data, digital curation, and scholarly communication in academic libraries.

Ask around and you’ll hear that data is the new bacon (or turkey bacon, in my case. Sorry, vegetarians). It’s the hot thing that everyone wants a piece of. It is another medium with which we interact and derive meaning from. It is information[1]; potentially valuable and abundant. But much like [turkey] bacon, un-moderated gorging, without balance or diversity of content, can raise blood pressure and give you a heart attack. To understand how best to interact with the data landscape, it is important to look beyond it.

What do academic libraries need to know about data? A lot, but in order to separate the signal from the noise, it is imperative to look at the entire environment. To do this, one can look to job postings as a measure of engagement. The data curation positions, research data services departments, and data management specializations focus almost exclusively on digital data. However, these positions, which are often catch-alls for many other things do not place the data management and curation activities within the larger frame of digital curation, let alone scholarly communication. Missing from job descriptions is an awareness of digital preservation or archival theory as it relates to data management or curation. In some cases, this omission could be because a fully staffed digital collections department has purview over these areas. Nonetheless, it is important to articulate the need to communicate with those stakeholders in the job description. It may be said that if the job ad discusses data curation, digital preservation should be an assumed skill, yet given the tendencies to have these positions “do-all-the-things” it is negligent not to explicitly mention it.

Digital curation is an area that has wide appeal for those working in academic and research libraries. The ACRL Digital Curation Interest Group (DCIG) has one of the largest memberships within ACRL, with 1075 members as of March 2015. The interest group was intentionally named “digital curation” rather than “data curation” because the founders (Patricia Hswe and Marisa Ramirez) understood the interconnectivity of the domains and that the work in one area, like archives, could influence the work in another, like data management. For example, the work from Digital POWRR can help inform digital collection platform decisions or workflows, including data repository concerns. This Big Tent philosophy can help frame the data conversations within libraries in a holistic, unified manner, where the various library stakeholders work collaboratively to meet the needs of the community.

The absence of a holistic approach to data can result in the propensity to separate data from the corpus of information for which librarians already provide stewardship. Academic libraries may recognize the need to provide leadership in the area of data management, but balk when asked to consider data a special collection or to ingest data into the institutional repository. While librarians should be working to help the campus community become critical users and responsible producers of data, the library institution must empower that work by recognizing this as an extension of the scholarly communication guidance currently in place. This means that academic libraries must incorporate the work of data information literacy into their existing information literacy and scholarly communication missions, else risk excluding these data librarian positions from the natural cohort of colleagues doing that work, or risk overextending the work of the library.

This overextension is most obvious in the positions that seek a librarian to do instruction in data management, reference, and outreach, and also provide expertise in all areas of data analysis, statistics, visualization, and other data manipulation. There are some academic libraries where this level of support is reasonable, given the mission, focus, and resourcing of the specific institution. However, considering the diversity of scope across academic libraries, I am skeptical that the prevalence of job ads that describe this suite of services is justified. Most “general” science librarians would scoff if a job ad asked for experience with interpreting spectra. The science librarian should know where to direct the person who needs help with reading the spectra, or finding comparative spectra, but it should not be a core competency to have expertise in that domain. Yet experience with SPSS, R, Python, statistics and statistical literacy, and/or data visualization software find their way into librarian position descriptions, some more specialized than others.

For some institutions this is not an overextension, but just an extension of the suite of specialized services offered, and that is well and good. My concern is that academic libraries, feeling the rush of an approved line for all things data, begin to think this is a normal role for a librarian. Do not mistake me, I do not write from the perspective that libraries should not evolve services or that librarians should not develop specialized areas of expertise. Rather, I raise a concern that too often these extensions are made without the strategic planning and commitment from the institution to fully support the work that this would entail.

Framing data management and curation within the construct of scholarly communication, and its intersections with information literacy, allows for the opportunity to build more of this content delivery across the organization, enfranchising all librarians in the conversation. A team approach can help with sustainability and message penetration, and moves the organization away from the single-position skill and knowledge-sink trap. Subject expertise is critical in the fast-moving realm of data management and curation, but it is an expertise that can be shared and that must be strategically supported. For example, with sufficient cross-training liaison librarians can work with their constituents to advise on meeting federal data sharing requirements, without requiring an immediate punt to the “data person” in the library (if such a person exists). In cases where there is no data point person, creating a data working group is a good approach to distribute across the organization both the knowledge and the responsibility for seeking out additional information.

Data specialization cuts across disciplinary bounds and concerns both public services and technical services. It is no easy task, but I posit that institutions must take a simultaneously expansive yet well-scoped approach to data engagement – mindful of the larger context of digital curation and scholarly communication, while limiting responsibilities to those most appropriate for a particular institution.

[1] Lest the “data-information-knowledge-wisdom” hierarchy (DIKW) torpedo the rest of this post, let me encourage readers to allow for an expansive definition of data. One that allows for the discrete bits of data that have no meaning without context, such as a series of numbers in a .csv file, and the data that is described and organized, such as those exact same numbers in a .csv file, but with column and row descriptors and perhaps an associated data dictionary file. Undoubtedly, the second .csv file is more useful and could be classified as information, but most people will continue to call it data.

Yasmeen Shorish is assistant professor and Physical & Life Sciences librarian at James Madison University. She is a past-convener for the ACRL Digital Curation Interest Group and her research focus is in the areas of data information literacy and scholarly communication.

How is programming work supported (or not…) by administrators in libraries?

[Editor’s Note:  This post is part of a series of posts related to ACRL TechConnect’s 2015 survey on Programming Languages, Frameworks, and Web Content Management Systems in Libraries.  The survey was distributed between January and March 2015 and received 265 responses.  The first post in this series is available here.]

In our last post in this series, we discussed how library programmers learn about and develop new skills in programming in libraries.  We also wanted to find out how library administrators or library culture in general does or does not support learning skills in programming.

From anecdotal accounts, we hypothesized that learning new programming skills might be impeded by factors including lack of access to necessary technologies or server environments, lack of support for training, travel or professional development opportunities, or overloaded job descriptions that make it difficult to find the time to learn and develop new skills.  While respondents to our survey did in some cases indicate these barriers, we actually found that most respondents felt supported by their administration or library to develop new programming skills.

Most respondents feel supported, but lack of time is a problem

The question we asked respondents was:

Please describe how your employing institution either does or does not support your efforts to learn or improve programming or development skills. “Support” can refer to funding, training, mentoring, work time allocation, or other means of support.

The question was open-ended, enabling respondents to provide details about their experiences.  We received 193 responses to this question and categorized responses by whether they overall indicated support or lack of support.  74% of respondents indicated at least some support for learning programming by their library administration, while 26% report a lack of support for learning programming.

Of those who mentioned that their administration or supervisors provide a supportive environment for learning about programming, the top kind of support mentioned was training, closely followed by funding for professional development opportunities.  Flexibility in work time was also frequently mentioned by respondents.  Mentoring and encouragement were mentioned less frequently.


However, even among those who feel supported in terms of funding and training opportunities, respondents indicated that time to actually complete training or professional development, is, in practice, scarce:

Work time allocation is a definite issue – I’m the only systems librarian and have responsibilities governing web site, intranet, discovery layer, link resover, ereserve system, meeting room booking system and library management system. No time for deep learning.

Low staffing often contributes to the lack of time to develop skills, even in supportive environments:

They definitely support developing new skills, but we have a very small technology staff so it’s difficult to find time to learn something new and implement it.

Respondents indicated the importance to their employers of aligning training and funding requests with current work projects and priorities:

I would be able to get support in terms of work time allocation, limited funding for training. I’m limited by external control of library technology platforms (centrally administrated), need to identify utility of learning language to justify training, use, &c.

26% of respondents indicate a lack of support for learning programming

Of those respondents who indicated that their workplace is not supportive of programming professional development or learning opportunities, lack of funding and training was the most commonly cited type of support that respondents found lacking.

Lack of  Funding and Training

The main lack of support comes in the form of funding and training. There are few opportunities to network and attend training events (other than virtually online) to learn how to do my job better. I basically have to read and research (either with a book or on the web) to learn about programming for libraries.

Respondents mentioned that though they could do training during their work hours, they are not necessarily funded to do so:

I am given time for self-education, but no formal training or provision for formal education classes.

Lack of Mentoring / Peer Support

Peer support was important to many respondents, both in supportive and unsupportive environments.  Many respondents who felt supported mentioned how important it was to have colleagues in their workplace to whom they can turn to get advice and help with troubleshooting.  Comments such as this one illustrate the difficulty of being the only systems or technology support person in one’s workplace:

They are very open to supporting me financially and giving me work time to learn (we have an institutional license to and they have funded off site training), but there is not a lot of peer support for learning. I am a solo systems department and most of our campus IT staff are contractors, so there is not the opportunity for a community of colleagues to share ideas and to learn from each other.

Understaffing / Low Pay for Programming Skills

Closely related to the lack of peer support, respondents specifically mentioned that being the only technical staff person at their institution can make it difficult to find time for learning, and that understaffing contributes to the high workload:

There’s no money for training and we are understaffed so there’s no time for self-taught skills. I am the only non-Windows programmer so there’s no one I can confer with on programming challenges. I learn whatever I need to know on the fly and only to the degree it’s necessary to get the job done.

I’m the only “tech” on site, so I don’t have time to learn anything new.

One respondent mentioned that pay for those with programming skills is not competitive at his or her institution:

We have zero means for support, partially due to a complex web of financial reasons. No training, little encouragement, and a refusal to hire/pay at market rates programming staff.

Future Research and Other Questions

As with the first post in this series, the analysis of the data yields more questions than clear conclusions.  Some respondents indicated they have very supportive workplaces, where they feel like their administration and supervisors provide every opportunity to develop new skills and learn about the technologies they want to learn about.  Others express frustration with the lack of funding or ability to collaborate with colleagues on projects that require programming skills.

One question that requires a more thorough examination of the data is whether those whose jobs do not specifically require programming skills feel as supported in learning about programming as those who were hired to be programmers.  30% of survey respondents indicated that programming is *not* part of their official job duties, but that they do programming or similar activities to perform job functions.  Initial analysis indicates there is no significant difference between these respondents and respondents as a whole.  However, there may be differences in support based on the type of position one has in a library (e.g., staff, faculty, or administration), and we did not gather that information from respondents in this survey.  At least two respondents, however, indicates that this may be the case at least at some libraries:

Training & funding is available; can have release time to attend; all is easier for librarians to obtain than for staff to obtain which is sad since staff tend to do more of the programming

Some staff have a lot of support, some have nill, it depends on where/what project you are working on.

In the next (and final) post in this series, we’ll explore some preliminary data on popular programming languages in libraries, and examine how often library programmers get to use their preferred programming languages in their work.

Where do Library Staff Learn About Programming? Some Preliminary Survey Results

[Editor’s Note:  This post is part of a series of posts related to ACRL TechConnect’s 2015 survey on Programming Languages, Frameworks, and Web Content Management Systems in Libraries.  The survey was distributed between January and March 2015 and received 265 responses.  A longer journal article with additional analysis is also forthcoming.  For a quick summary of the article below, check out this infographic.]

Our survey on programming languages in libraries has resulted in a mountain of fascinating data.  One of the goals of our survey was to better understand how staff in libraries learn about programming and develop their coding skills.  Based upon anecdotal evidence, we hypothesized that library staff members are often self-taught, learning through a combination of on-the-job learning and online tutorials.  Our findings indicate that respondents use a wide variety of sources to learn about programming, including MOOCs, online tutorials, Google searches, and colleagues.

Are programming skills gained by formal coursework, or in Library Science Master’s Programs?

We were interested in identifying sources of programming learning, whether that involved course work (either formal coursework as part of a degree or continuing education program, or through Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOCs)).  Nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated they had an MLS or were working on one:

When asked about coursework taken in programming, application, or software development, results were mixed, with the most popular choice being 1-2 classes:

However, of those respondents who have taken a course in programming (about 80% of all respondents) AND indicated that they either had an MLS or were attending an MLS program, only about a third had taken any of those courses as part of a Master’s in Library Science program:

Resources for learning about programming

The final question of the survey asked respondents, in an open-ended way, to describe resources they use to learn about programming.  It was a pretty complex question:

Please list or describe any learning resources, discussion boards or forums, or other methods you use to learn about or develop your skills in programming, application development, or scripting. Please includes links to online resources if available. Examples of resources include, but are not limited to:, MOOC courses, local community/college/university course on programming, Books, Code4Lib listserv, Stack Overflow, etc.).

Respondents gave, in many cases, incredibly detailed responses – and most respondents indicated a list of resources used.  After coding the responses into 10 categories, some trends emerged.  The most popular resources for learning about programming, by far, were courses (whether those courses were taken formally in a classroom environment, or online in a MOOC environment):

To better illustrate what each category entails, here are the top five resources in each category:

By far, the most commonly cited learning resource was Stack Overflow, followed by the Code4Lib Listserv, Books/ebooks (unspecified) and  Results may skew a little toward these resources because they were mentioned as examples in the question, priming respondents to include them in their responses.  Since links to the survey were distributed, among other places, on the Code4Lib listserv, its prominence may also be influenced by response bias. One area that was a little surprising was the number of respondents that included social networks (including in-person networks like co-workers) as resources – indeed, respondents who mentioned colleagues as learning resources were particularly enthusiastic, as one respondent put it:

…co-workers are always very important learning resources, perhaps the most important!

Preliminary Analysis

While the data isn’t conclusive enough to draw any strong conclusions yet, a few thoughts come to mind:

  • About 3/4 of respondents indicated that programming was either part of their job description, or that they use programming or scripting as part of their work, even if it’s not expressly part of their job.  And yet, only about a third of respondents with an MLS (or in the process of getting one) took a programming class as part of their MLS program.  Programming is increasingly an essential skill for library work, and this survey seems to support the view that there should be more programming courses in library school curriculum.
  • Obviously programming work is not monolithic – there’s lots of variation among those who do programming work that isn’t reflected in our survey, and this survey may have unintentionally excluded those who are hobby coders.  Most questions focused on programming used when performing work-related tasks, so additional research would be needed to identify learning strategies of enthusiast programmers who don’t have the opportunity to program as part of their job.
  • Respondents indicated that learning on the job is an important aspect of their work; they may not have time or institutional support for formal training or courses, and figure things out as they go along using forums like Stack Overflow and Code4Lib’s listserv.  As one respondent put it:

Codecademy got me started. Stack Overflow saves me hours of time and effort, on a regular basis, as it helps me with answers to specific, time-of-need questions, helping me do problem-based learning.

TL;DR?  Here’s an infographic:

In the next post, I’ll discuss some of the findings related to ways administration and supervisors support (or don’t support) programming work in libraries.

GIS and Geospatial Data Tools

I was recently appointed the geography subject librarian for my library, which was mildly terrifying considering that I do not have a background in geography. But I was assigned the subject because of my interest in data visualization, and since my appointment I’ve learned a few things about the awesome potential opportunities to integrate Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and geospatial visualization tools into information literacy instruction and library services generally.  A little bit of knowledge about GIS and geospatial visualization goes a long way, and is useful across a variety of disciplines, including social sciences, business, humanities and environmental studies and sciences.   If you are into open data (who isn’t?) and you like maps and / or data visualization (who doesn’t?!) then it’s definitely worth it to learn about some tools and resources to work with geospatial information.

About GIS and Geospatial Data

Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, are software tools that enable visualizing and interpreting data (social, demographic, economic, political, topographic, spatial, natural resources, etc.) using maps and geospatial data. Often data is visualized using layers, where a base map (containing, for example, a political map of a city) or tiles are overlaid with shapes, data points, or choropleth shading. For example, in the map below, a map of districts in Tokyo is overlaid with data points representing the number of seniors living in the area: 1

You may be familiar with Google Earth, which has a lot of features similar to a GIS (but is arguably not really a GIS, due to its lack of data analysis and query tools typically found in a fully-featured GIS). You can download a free Pro version of Google Earth that enables you to import GIS data. GIS data can appear in a variety of formats, and while there isn’t space here to go into each of them, a few common formats you might come across include Shapefiles, KML, and GeoJSON2  Shapefiles, as the name suggests, represent shapes (e.g., polygons) as layers of vector data that can be visualized in GIS programs and Google Earth Pro.  You may also come across KML files (Keyhole Markup Language), which is an XML-style standard  for representing geographic data, and is commonly used with Google Earth and Google Maps.  GeoJSON is another format for representing geospatial information that is ideal for use with web services.  The various formats of GIS and geospatial data deserve a full post on their own, and I plan to write a follow-up post exploring some of these formats and how they are used in greater detail.

GIS/Geospatial Visualization Tools


ArcGIS is arguably the industry standard for GIS software, and the maker of ArcGIS (ESRI) publishes manuals and guides for GIS students and practitioners.  There are a few different ArcGIS products:  ArcGIS for Desktop, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS server.  Personally I am only familiar with ArcGIS online, but you can do some pretty cool things with a totally free account, like create this map of where drones can and cannot fly in the United States: 3

ArcGIS can be very powerful and is particularly useful for complex geospatial datasets and visualizations (particularly visualizations that might require multiple layers of data or topographic / geologic data). A note about signing up with ArcGIS online:  You don’t actually need to sign up for a ‘free trial’ to explore the software – you can just create a free account that, as I understand it, is not limited to a trial period.  Not all features may be available in the completely free account.


CartoDB is both an open source application and a freemium cloud service that can be used to make some pretty amazing geospatial visualizations that can be embedded in web pages, like this choropleth that visualizes the amount of various kinds of pollution across Los Angeles.4

CartoDB’s aesthetics are really strong, and default map settings tend to be pretty gorgeous.  It also leverages Torque to enable animations (which is what’s behind the heatmap animation of this map showing Twitter activity related to Ferguson, MO over time).5  CartoDB can import Shapefiles, GeoJSON, and .csv files, and has a robust SQL API (built on PostGreSQL) that can be used to import and export data. CartoDB also has its own JavaScript library (CartoDB.js) that can be leveraged for building attractive custom apps.

More JavaScript Libraries

In addition to CartoDB.js mentioned above, there are lots of other flexible JavaScript libraries for mapping and geospatial visualization on the scene that can be leveraged for visualizing geospatial data:

  • OpenLayers – OpenLayers enables pulling in ’tile’ layers as base maps from a variety of sources, as well as enabling parsing of vector data in a wide range of formats, such as GeoJSON and KML.
  • Leaflet.js – A fairly user-friendly and lightweight library used for creating basic interactive, mobile-friendly maps.  In my opinion, Leaflet is a good library to get started with if you’re just jumping in to geospatial visualization.
  • D3.js – Everyone’s favorite JavaScript charting library also has some geospatial visualization features for certain kinds of maps, such as this choropleth example.
  • Mapbox Mapbox.js is a JavaScript API library built on top of Leaflet.js, but Mapbox also offers a suite of tools for more extensive mapping and geospatial visualization needs

Open Geospatial Data

Librarians wanting to integrate geospatial data visualization and GIS into interdisciplinary instruction can take advantage of open data sets that are increasingly available online. Sui (2014) notes that increasingly large data sets are being released freely and openly on the web, which is an exciting trend for GIS and open data enthusiasts. However, Sui also notes that the mere fact that data is legally released and made accessible “does not necessarily mean that data is usable (unless one has the technical expertise); thus they are not actually used at all.”6  Libraries could play a crucial role in helping users understand and interpret public data by integrating data visualization into information literacy instruction.

Some popular places to find open data that could be used in geospatial visualiation include:

  •  Since 2009, has published thousands of public open datasets, including datasets containing geographic and geospatial information.  As of this month, you can now open geospatial data files directly in CartoDB (requires a CartoDB account) to start making visualizations.  There isn’t a huge amount of geospatial data available currently, but will hopefully benefit from initiatives like Project Open Data, which was launched in 2013 by the White House and designed to accelerate the publishing of open data sets by government agencies.
  • Google Public Data Explorer – This is a somewhat small set of public data that Google has gathered from other open data repositories (such as Eurostat) that can be directly visualized using Google charting tools.  For example, you could create a visualization of European population change by country using data available through the Public Data Explorer.  While the currently available data is pretty limited, Google has prepared a kind of open data metadata standard (Data Set Publishing Language, or DSPL) that might increase the availability of data through the explorer if the standard takes off.
  • – The destination for Europe’s public open data, a nice feature of is the ability to filter down to datasets that contain Shapefiles (.shp files) that can be directly imported into GIS software or Google Earth Pro.
  • OpenStreetMap (OSM) –  Open, crowdsourced street map data that can be downloaded or referenced to create basemaps or other geospatial visualizations that rely on transportation networks (roads, railways, walking paths, etc.).  OpenStreetMap data are open, so for those who would prefer to make applications that are based entirely on open data (rather than commercial solutions), OSM can be combined with JavaScript libraries like Leaflet.js for fully open geospatial applications.

GIS and Geospatial Visualization In the Library

I feel like I’ve only really scratched the surface with the possibilities for libraries to get involved with GIS and geospatial data.  Libraries are doing really exciting things with these technologies, whether it’s creating new ways of interacting with historical maps, lending GPS units, curating and preserving geospatial data, exploring geospatial linked data possibilities with GeoSPARQL or integrating GIS or geospatial visualization into information literacy / instruction programs.  For more ideas about integrating GIS and geospatial visualization into library instruction and services, check out these guides:

(EDIT 4/13) Also be sure to check out ALA’s Map and Geospatial Information Round Table (MAGIRT).  Thanks to Paige Andrew and Kathy Weimer for pointing out this awesome resource in the comments.

If you’re working on something awesome related to geospatial data in your library and would be interested in writing about it for ACRL TechConnect, contact me on Twitter @lpmagnuson or drop me a line in the comments!


  1. AtlasPublisher. Tokyo Senior Population.  (Note:  Apologies if you have trouble seeing or zooming in on embedded visualizations in this post; the interaction behavior of these embedded iframes can be a little unpredictable if your cursor gets near them.  It’s definitely a drawback of embedding these interactive visualizations as iframes.)
  2. The Open Geospatial Consortium is an organization that gathers and shares information about geographic and geospatial data formats, and details about a variety of geospatial file formats and standards can be found on its website:
  3. ESRI. A Nation of Drones.
  4. Lauder, Thomas Suh (2014).  Pollution Burdens
  5. YMMV, but the performance of map animations that use Torque seems to be a little tricky, especially when embedded in an iFrame.  I tried to embed the Ferguson Twitter map into this post (because it is really cool looking), and it really slowed down page loading, and the script seemed to get stuck at times.
  6. Sui, Daniel. “Opportunities and Impediments for Open GIS.” Transactions in GIS, 18.1 (2014): 1-24.

Biohackerspace, DIYbio, and Libraries

“Demonstrating DNA extraction” on Flickr

What Is a Biohackerspace?

A biohackerspace is a community laboratory that is open to the public where people are encouraged to learn about and experiment with biotechnology. Like a makerspace, a biohackerspace provides people with tools that are usually not available at home. A makerspace offers making and machining tools such as a 3D printer, a CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling machine, a vinyl cutter, and a laser cutter. A biohackerspace, however, contains tools such as microscopes, Petri dishes, freezers, and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) machines, which are often found in a wet lab setting. Some of these tools are unfamiliar to many. For example, a PCR machine amplifies a segment of DNA and creates many copies of a particular DNA sequence. A CNC milling machine carves, cuts, and drills materials such as wood, hard plastic, and metal according to the design entered into a computer. Both a makerspace and a biohackerspace provide access to these tools to individuals, which are usually cost-prohibitive to own.

Genspace in Brooklyn ( is the first biohackerspace in the United States founded in 2010 by molecular biologist Ellen Jorgenson. Since then, more biohackerspaces have opened, such as BUGSS (Baltimore Underground Science Space, in Baltimore, MD, BioLogik Labs ( in Norfolk, VA, BioCurious in Sunnyvale, CA, Berkeley BioLabs ( in Berkeley, CA, Biotech and Beyond ( in San Diego, CA, and BioHive ( in Seattle, WA.

What Do people Do in a Biohackerpsace?

Just as people in a makerspace work with computer code, electronics, plastic, and other materials for DYI-manufacturing, people in a biohackerspace tinker with bacteria, cells, and DNA. A biohackersapce allows people to tinker with and make biological things outside of the institutional biology lab setting. They can try activities such as splicing DNA or reprogramming bacteria.1 The projects that people pursue in a biohackerspace vary ranging from making bacteria that glow in the dark to identifying the neighbor who fails to pick up after his or her dog. Surprisingly enough, these are not as difficult or complicate as we imagine.2 Injecting a luminescent gene into bacteria can yield the bacteria that glow in the dark. Comparing DNA collected from various samples of dog excrement and finding a match can lead to identifying the guilty neighbor’s dog.3 Other possible projects at a biohackerspace include finding out if an organic food item from a supermarket is indeed organic, creating bacteria that will decompose plastic, checking if a certain risky gene is present in your body. An investigational journalist may use her or his biohacking skills to verify certain evidence. An environmentalist can measure the pollution level of her neighborhood and find out if a particular pollutant exceeds the legal limit.

Why Is a Biohackerpsace Important?

A biohackerspace democratizes access to biotechnology equipment and space and enables users to share their findings. In this regard, a biohakerspace is comparable to the open-source movement in computer programming. Both allow people to solve the problems that matter to them. Instead of pursing a scientific breakthrough, biohackers look for solutions to the problems that are small but important. By contrast, large institutions, such as big pharmaceutical companies, may not necessarily pursue solutions to such problems if those solutions are not sufficiently profitable. For example, China experienced a major food safety incident in 2008 involving melamine-contaminated milk and infant formula. It costs thousands of dollars to test milk for the presence of melamine in a lab. After reading about the incident, Meredith Patterson, a notable biohacker who advocates citizen science, started working on an alternative test, which will cost only a dollar and can be done in a home kitchen.4 To solve the problem, she planned to splice a glow-in-the-dark jellyfish gene into the bacteria that turns milk into yogurt and then add a biochemical sensor that detects melamine, all in her dining room. If the milk turns green when combined with this mixture, that milk contains melamine.

The DIYbio movement refers to the new trend of individuals and communities studying molecular and synthetic biology and biotechnology without being formally affiliated with an academic or corporate institution.5 DIYbio enthusiasts pursue most of their projects as a hobby. Some of those projects, however, hold the potential to solve serious global problems. One example is the inexpensive melamine test in a milk that we have seen above. Biopunk, a book by Marcus Wohlsen, also describes another DIYbio approach to develop an affordable handheld thermal cycler that rapidly replicates DNA as an inexpensive diagnostics for the developing world.6 Used in conjunction with a DNA-reading chip and a few vials containing primers for a variety of disease, this device called ‘LavaAmp’ can quickly identify diseases that break out in remote rural areas.

The DIYbio movement and a biohackerspace pioneer a new realm of science literacy, i.e. doing science. According to Meredith Patterson, scientific literacy is not understanding science but doing science. In her 2010 talk at the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics’ symposium, “Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio,” Patterson argued, “scientific literacy empowers everyone who possesses it to be active contributors to their own health care; the quality of their food, water, and air; their very interactions with their own bodies and the complex world around them.”7

How Can Libraries Be Involved?

While not all librarians agree that a makerspace is an endeavor suitable for a library, more libraries have been creating a makerspace and offering makerspace-related programs for their patrons in recent years. Maker programs support hands-on learning in the STEAM education and foster creative and innovative thinking through tinkering and prototyping activities. They also introduce new skills to students and the public for whom the opportunities to learn about those things are still rare. Those new skills – 3D modeling, 3D printing, and computer programming – enrich students’ learning experience, provide new teaching tools for instructors, and help adults to find employment or start their own businesses. Those skills can also be used to solve everyday problem such as an creating inexpensive prosthetic limb or custom parts that are need to repair household items.

However, creating a makerspace or running a maker program in a library setting is not an easy task. Libraries often lack sufficient funding to purchase various equipment for a makerspace as well as the staff who are capable of developing appropriate maker programs. This means that in order to create and operate a successful makerspace, a library must make a significant upfront investment in equipment and staff education and training. For this reason, the importance of the accurate needs-assessment and the development of programs appropriate and useful to library patrons cannot be over-empahsized.

A biohackerspace requires a wet laboratory setting, where chemicals, drugs, and a variety of biological matter are tested and analyzed in liquid solutions or volatile phases. Such a laboratory requires access to water, proper plumbing and ventilation, waste disposal, and biosafety protocols. Considering these issues, it will probably take a while for any library to set up a biohackerspace.

This should not dissuade libraries from being involved with biohackerspace-related activities, however. Instead of setting up a biohackerspace, libraries can invite speakers to talk about DIYbio and biohacking to raise awareness about this new area of making to library patrons. Libraries can also form a partnership with a local biohackerspace in a variety of ways. Libraries can co-host or cross-promote relevant programs at biohackerspaces and libraries to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas. A libraries’ reading collection focused on biohacking could be greatly useful. Libraries can contribute their expertise in grant writing or donate old computing equipment to biohackerspaces. Libraries can offer their expertise in digital publishing and archiving to help biohackerspaces publish and archive their project outcome and research findings.

Is a Biohackerpsace Safe?

The DIYbio movement recognized the potential risk in biohacking early on and created codes of conduct in 2011. The Ask a Biosafety Expert (ABE) service at provides free biosafety advice from a panel of volunteer experts, along with many biosafety resources. Some biohackerspaces have an advisory board of professional scientists who review the projects that will take place at their spaces. Most biohackerspaces meet the Biosafety Level 1 criteria set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Democratization of Biotechnology

While the DIYbio movement and biohackerspaces are still in the early stage of development, they hold great potential to drive future innovation in biotechnology and life sciences. The DIYbio movement and biohackerspaces try to transform ordinary people into citizen scientists, empower them to come up with solutions to everyday problems, and encourage them to share those solutions with one another. Not long ago, we had mainframe computers that were only accessible to a small number of professional computer scientists locked up at academic or corporate labs. Now personal computers are ubiquitous, and many professional and amateur programmers know how to write code to make a personal computer do the things they would like it to do. Until recently, manufacturing was only possible on a large scale through factories. Many makerspaces that started in recent years, however, have made it possible for the public to create a model on a computer and 3D print a physical object based on that model at a much lower cost and on a much smaller scale. It remains to be seen if the DIYbio movement and biohackerspaces will bring similar change to biotechnology.


  1. Boustead, Greg. “The Biohacking Hobbyist.” Seed, December 11, 2008.
  2. Bloom, James. “The Geneticist in the Garage.” The Guardian, March 18, 2009.
  3. Landrain, Thomas, Morgan Meyer, Ariel Martin Perez, and Remi Sussan. “Do-It-Yourself Biology: Challenges and Promises for an Open Science and Technology Movement.” Systems and Synthetic Biology 7, no. 3 (September 2013): 115–26. doi:10.1007/s11693-013-9116-4.
  4. Wohlsen, Marcus. Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages. Penguin, 2011., p.38-39.
  5. Jorgensen, Ellen D., and Daniel Grushkin. “Engage With, Don’t Fear, Community Labs.” Nature Medicine 17, no. 4 (2011): 411–411. doi:10.1038/nm0411-411.
  6. Wohlsen, Marcus. Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages. Penguin, 2011. p. 56.
  7. A Biopunk Manifesto by Meredith Patterson, 2010.

Themes from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge Grant Competition

This year’s Knight Foundation’s News Challenge project grant competition focused on the premise that libraries are “key for improving Americans’ ability to know about and to be involved with what takes place around them.”  While the Knight Foundation’s mission traditionally focuses on journalism and media, the Foundation has funded several projects related to libraries in the past, such as projects enabling Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library to lend Wi-Fi hot-spots to patrons, Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox Project, and a DPLA project to clarify intellectual property rights for libraries sharing digital materials.  Winners receive a portion of around $5 million in funding, and typical awards range between $200,000 and $400,000, with some additional funding available for smaller (~$35,000) start-up projects.

The News Challenge this year called for ideas that “leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities”.  There were over 600 proposals in this years’ News Challenge (all of which you can find here), and 42 proposals made it into the semi-finals, with winners to be announced January 30th, 2015.  While not all of the proposed ideas specifically involve digital technologies, most propose the creation of some kind of application or space where library users can access and learn about new technologies and digital skills.

Notably, while the competition was open to anyone (not just libraries or librarians), around 30 of the 42 finalist projects have at least one librarian or library organization sponsor on the team.1  Nearly all the projects involve the intersection of multiple disciplines, including history, journalism, engineering, education/instructional design, music, and computer science.  Three general themes seem to have emerged from this year’s News Challenge finalists:  1) maker spaces tailored to specific community needs; 2) libraries innovating new ways to publish, curate, and lend DRM-free ebooks and other content; and 3) facilitating the preservation of born-digital user-generated histories.

MakerSpaces Made for Communities

Given how popular makerspaces have become in libraries2 over the past several years, it’s not surprising to see that many News Challenge proposals  seek funding for the space and/or equipment to create library makerspaces.  What is interesting about many of these makerspace proposals is that many of them highlight the need to develop makerspaces that are specifically relevant to to the interests and needs of the local communities a library serves.

For example, one proposal out of Philadelphia – Libraries as Hip-Hop Techspace – proposes equipping a library space with tools for learning about and creating digital music via hip-hop.  Another proposal out of Vermont focuses on teaching digital literacies and skillsets via makerspace technologies in rural communities.  Of course, many proposals include 3D printers, but what stands out about proposals that have made it through to the finals (like this one that proposes 3D printed books for blind children, for example, or this one that proposes a tiny makerspace for a small community) are those that emphasize how the project would use 3D printing and associated technologies in an innovative way that is still meaningful to specific community learning needs and interests.

One theme that runs through these maker-related proposals, whether they come from cities or rural locations, is the relevance of these spaces to the business and economic needs of the communities in which they are proposed.  Several entries point out the potential for library maker-spaces to be entrepreneurial incubators designed to enable users to develop, prototype, and market their own software or other products.  Many of these proposals specifically mention how the current “digital divide” is, at its heart, an economic divide – such as this maker space proposal from San Jose, which argues that “In order for the next generation of Silicon Valley’s leaders to rise from its neighborhoods, access to industry knowledge and tools should begin early to inspire participation, experimentation, and collaboration – essential skills of the thriving economy in the area.”  Creativity and experimentation are increasingly essential skills in the labor force, and these proposals highlight how a library’s role in fostering creative expression ultimately provides an economic benefit.

Publishing and Promoting DRM-Free Content

Like maker spaces, libraries serving as publishers is not a new trend.3  What is interesting about Knight Foundation proposals that that center on this topic are the projects that position libraries as publishers of content that otherwise would struggle to get published in the current marketplace, while recognizing the desire for libraries to more easily lend digital content to their users.

A great example of this is a proposal by the developers of JukePop to leverage “libraries’ ebook catalogs so they become THE publishing platform for indie authors looking to be discovered by the most avid readers”  JukePop is a publishing platform for indie authors that enables distribution of ebooks – often in serial form – to readers who can provide feedback to authors.  Downloads from library websites are DRM-free.4 Other proposals – like this proposal for improving the licensing models of indie games – also have a core value of figuring out new ways to streamline user access to content while providing benefits and compensation to creators.

A somewhat different – and super interesting – manifestation of this theme is the Gitenberg project, which proposes utilizing Github as a platform for version control to enable libraries to contribute to improving digital manuscripts and metadata for Project Gutenberg.  The project already has a repository that you can start forking from and making pull requests to improve Project Gutenberg data.

Telling Community Stories through Born-Digital Media Preservation

Libraries and archives have always held the role of preserving the cultural heritage of the communities they serve, but face challenges in easily  gathering, preserving, and curating born-digital media.  While individual users capture huge amounts of media on mobile devices, as the Open Archive proposal puts it, “the most common destination for this media is on social media platforms that can chill free speech and are not committed to privacy, authentication, or long-term preservation.”  StoryCorps, for example, proposes the creation of better tools and distributed education for libraries and archives to record and preserve diverse community stories through interviews.  CurateScape “seeks to remake public life through a distributed and participatory network of digital storytelling,” emphasizing the need for technology that can be adopted by libraries to document local community histories.  The Internet Archive proposes more streamlined tools and frameworks to enable users to more easily submit content for preservation to  The Open Archive project, also associated with the Internet Archive, emphasizes empowering users through their local libraries and archives to capture and submit their media to community collections.  Recognizing that there is still an enormous amount of pre-digital content waiting to be preserved New York Public Library seeks to “democratize the digitization process” through mobile and distributed digitization tools.

The element that seems to motivate many of these proposals is an emphasis on unique, community-centric collections that tell a story.  They focus on the importance of local institutions as connection points for users to share their content, and their experiences, with the world, while also documenting the context surrounding those experiences.  Libraries and archives are uniquely positioned as the logical place to document local histories in the interest of long-term preservation, but need better solutions.  It’s definitely exciting to see the energy behind these proposals and the innovative solutions that are on the horizon.

Start Thinking about Next Year!

Full disclosure:  I was part of a team that submitted a proposal to the News Challenge, and while we’ve been notified it won’t be funded, it was a fantastic learning experience.  I definitely made some great connections with other Challenge participants (many tweets have been exchanged!) – and it’s not surprising to me that even in a competition, library people find ways to work together and collaborate.  While winners for this years’ competition won’t be announced until January 30th, and the specific “challenge” prompt for the next competition won’t be identified until late next year (and may not be specifically library-related), I would definitely encourage anyone with a good, relevant idea to think about applying to next years’ News Challenge.

There’s also some interesting stuff to be found in the “Inspiration” section of the News Challenge, where people could submit articles, discussions, and ideas relevant to this year’s Challenge.  One of the articles linked to in that section is the transcript of a 2013 speech by author Neil Gaiman, which features a lot of lovely bits of motivation for every library enthusiast – like this one, which I think captures a central thread running through almost every News Challenge proposal:  “A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it… It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.”


  1. The projects that do not have direct library/librarian involvement listed on the project team – including “Cowbird” ( and “Libraries as Hip-Hop TechSpace” ( are definitely interesting to read.  I do think they provide a unique perspective on how the ethos and mission of libraries is perceived by those not necessarily embedded in the profession – and I’m encouraged that these proposals do show a fairly clear understanding of the directions libraries are moving in.
  3. See and
  4. Santa Clara County Library district is a development partner with JukePop – you can check out their selection of JukePop-sourced DRM-free titles available here:

This is How I Work (Bryan J. Brown)

Editor’s Note: This post is part of ACRL TechConnect’s series by our regular and guest authors about The Setup of our work.


After being tagged by Eric Phetteplace, I was pleased to discover that I had been invited to take part in the “This is How I Work” series. I love seeing how other people view work and office life, so I’m happy to see this trend make it to the library world.

Name: Bryan J. Brown (@bryjbrown)

Location: Tallahassee, Florida, United States

Current Gig: Web Developer, Technology and Digital Scholarship, Florida State University Libraries

Current Mobile Device: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 w/ OtterBox Defender cover (just like Becky Yoose!). It’s too big to fit into my pants pocket comfortably, but I love it so much. I don’t really like tablets, so having a gigantic phone is a nice middle ground.

Current Computer: 15 inch MacBook Pro w/ 8GB of RAM. I’m a Linux person at heart, but when work offers you a free MBP you don’t turn it down. I also use a thunderbolt monitor in my office for dual-screen action.

Current Tablet: 3rd gen. iPad, but I don’t use it much these days. I bought it for reading books, but I strongly prefer to read them on my phone or laptop instead. The iPad just feels huge and awkward to hold.

One word that best describes how you work: Structured. I do my best when I stay within the confines of a strict system and/or routine that I’ve created for myself, it helps me keep the chaos of the universe at bay.

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

Unixy stuff:

  • Bash: I’ve tried a few other shells (tcsh, zsh, fish), but none have inspired me to switch.
  • Vim: I use this for everything, even journal entries and grocery lists. I have *some* customizations, but it’s pretty much stock (except I love my snippets plugin).
  • tmux: Like GNU Screen, but better.
  • Vagrant: The idea of throwaway virtual machines has changed the way I approach development. I do all my work inside Vagrant machines now. When I eventually fudge things, I can just run ‘vagrant destroy’ and pretend it never happened!
  • Git: Another game changer. I shouldn’t have waited so long to learn about version control. Git has saved my bacon countless times.
  • Anaconda: I’m a Python fan, but I like Python 3 and the scientific packages. Most systems only have Python 2, and a lot of the scientific packages fail to build for obscure reasons. Anaconda takes care of all that nonsense and allows you to have the best, most current Python goodness on any platform. I find it very comforting to know that I can use my favorite language and packages everywhere no matter what.
  • Todo.txt-CLI: A command line interface to the Todo.txt system, which I am madly in love with. If you set it to save your list to Dropbox, you can manage it from other devices, too. My work life revolves around my to-do list which I mostly manage at my laptop with Todo.txt-CLI.


  • Dropbox: Keeping my stuff in order across machines is a godsend. All my most important files are kept in Dropbox so I can always get to them, and being able to put things in a public folder and share the URL is just awesome.
  • Google Drive: I prefer Dropbox better for plain storage, but the ability to write documents/spreadsheets/drawings/surveys at will, store them in the cloud, share them with coworkers and have them write along with you is too cool. I can’t imagine working in a pre-Drive world.
  • Trello: I only recently discovered Trello, but now I use it for everything at work. It’s the best thing for keeping a group of people on track with a large project, and moving cards around is strangely satisfying. Also you can put rocket stickers on cards.
  • Quicksilver for Mac: I love keyboard shortcuts. A lot. Quicksilver is a Mac app for setting up keyboard shortcuts for everything. All my favorite apps have hotkeys now.
  • Todo.txt for Android: A nice mobile interface for the Todo.txt system. One of the few apps I’ve paid money for, but I don’t regret it.
  • Plain.txt for Android: This one is kind of hard to explain until you use it. It’s a mobile text editor for taking notes that get saved in Dropbox, which is useful in more ways than you can imagine. Plain.txt is my mobile interface to the treasure trove of notes I usually write in Vim on my laptop. I keep everything from meeting notes to recipes (as well as the previously mentioned grocery lists and journal entries) in it. Second only to Todo.txt in helping me stay sane.

What’s your workspace like?

My office is one of my favorite places. A door I can shut, a big whiteboard and lots of books and snacks. Who could ask for more? I’m trying out the whole “standing desk” thing, and slowly getting used to it (but it *does* take some getting used to). My desk is multi-level (it came from a media lab that no longer exists where it held all kinds of video editing equipment), so I have my laptop on a stand and my second monitor on the level above it so that I can comfortably look slightly down to see the laptop or slightly up to see the big display.


What’s your best time-saving trick?

Break big, scary, complicated tasks into smaller ones that are easy to do. It makes it easier to get started and stay on track, which almost always results in getting the big scary thing done way faster than you thought you would.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I am religious about my use of Todo.txt, whether from the command line or with my phone. It’s my mental anchor, and I am obsessive about keeping it clean and not letting things linger for too long. I prioritize things as A (get done today), B (get done this week), C (get done soon), and D (no deadline).

I’m getting into Scrum lately, so my current workflow is to make a list of everything I want to finish this week (my sprint) and mark them as B priority (my sprint backlog, either moving C tasks to B or adding new ones in manually). Then, each morning I pick out the things from the B list that I want to get done today and I move them to A. If some of the A things are complicated I break them into smaller chunks. I then race myself to see if I can get them all done before the end of the day. It turns boring day-to-day stuff into a game, and if I win I let myself have a big bowl of ice cream.

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

Probably a nice, comfy pair of over-the-ear headphones. I hate earbuds, they sound thin and let in all the noise around you. I need something that totally covers my ears to block the outside world and put me in a sonic vacuum.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?

I guess I’m pretty good at the whole “Inbox Zero” thing. I check my email once in the morning and delete/reply/move everything accordingly until there’s nothing left, which usually takes around 15 minutes. Once you get into the habit it’s easy to stay on top.

What are you currently reading?

  • The Information by James Gleick. I’m reading if for Club Bibli/o, a library technology bookclub. We just started, so you can still join if you like!
  • Pro Drupal 7 Development by Todd Tomlinson and John K. VanDyk. FSU Libraries is a Drupal shop, so this is my bread and butter. Or at least it will be once I get over the insane learning curve.
  • Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen. The name says it all, Steve Hagen is great at presenting the core parts of Buddhism that actually help you deal with things without all the one hand clapping nonsense.

What do you listen to while you work?

Classic ambient artists like Brian Eno and Harold Budd are great when I’m in a peaceful, relaxed place, and I’ll listen to classical/jazz if I’m feeling creative. Most of the time though it’s metal, which is great for decimating to-do lists. If I really need to focus on something, any kind of music can be distracting so I just play static from This blocks all the sound outside my office and puts me in the zone.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

Introvert for sure. I can be sociable when I need to, but my office is my sanctuary. I really value having a place where I can shut the door and recharge my social batteries.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I’ve been an early bird by necessity since grad school, the morning is the best time to get things done. I usually wake up around 4:30am so I can hit the gym when it opens at 5am (I love having the whole place to myself). I start getting tired around 8pm, so I’m usually fast asleep by 10pm.

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

Richard Stallman. I bet he’d have some fun answers.

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

Do your best. As simple as it sounds, it’s a surprisingly powerful statement. Obviously you can’t do *better* than your best, and if you try your best and fail then there’s nothing to regret. If you just do the best job you can at any given moment you’ll have the best life you can. There’s lots of philosophical loopholes buried that perspective, but it’s worked for me so far.