The Ex Libris Knowledge Center and Orangewashing

Two days after ProQuest completed their acquisition of Ex Libris in December 2015, Ex Libris announced the launch of their new online Customer Knowledge Center. In the press release for the Knowledge Center, the company describes it as “a single gateway to all Ex Libris knowledge resources,” including training materials, release notes, and product manuals. A defining feature is that there has never been any paywall or log-on requirement, so that all Knowledge Center materials remain freely accessible to any site visitor. Historically, access to documentation for automated library systems has been restricted to subscribing institutions, so the Knowledge Center represents a unique change in approach.

Within the press release, it is also readily apparent how Ex Libris aims to frame the openness of the Knowledge Center as a form of support for open access. As the company states in the second paragraph, “Demonstrating the Company’s belief in the importance of open access, the site is open to all, without requiring any logon procedure.” Former Ex Libris CEO Matti Shem Tov goes a step further in the following paragraph: “We want our resources and documentation to be as accessible and as open as our library management, discovery, and higher-education technology solutions are.”

The problem with how Ex Libris frames their press release is that it elides the difference between mere openness and actual open access. They are a for-profit company, and their currently burgeoning market share is dependent upon a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model. Therefore, one way to describe their approach in this case is orangewashing. During a recent conversation with me, Margaret Heller came up with the term, based on the color of the PLOS open access symbol. Similar in concept to greenwashing, we can define orangewashing as a misappropriation of open access rhetoric for business purposes.

What perhaps makes orangewashing more initially difficult to diagnose in Ex Libris’s (and more broadly, ProQuest’s) case is that they attempt to tie support for open access to other product offerings. Even before purchasing Ex Libris, ProQuest had been including an author-side paid open-access publishing option to its Electronic Thesis and Dissertation platform, though we can question whether this is actually a good option for authors. For its part, Ex Libris has listened to customer feedback about open access discovery. As an example, there are now open access filters for both the Primo and Summon discovery layers.

Ex Libris has also, generally speaking, remained open to customer participation regarding systems development, particularly with initiatives like the Developer Network and Idea Exchange. Perhaps the most credible example is in a June 24, 2015 press release, where the company declares “support of the Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) and conformance with ODI’s recommended practice for pre-indexed ‘web-scale’ discovery services.” A key implication is that “conforming to ODI regulations about ranking of search results, linking to content, inclusion of materials in Primo Central, and discovery of open access content all uphold the principles of content neutrality.”

Given the above information, in the case of the Knowledge Center, it is tempting to give Ex Libris the benefit of the doubt. As an access services librarian, I understand how much of a hassle it can be to find and obtain systems documentation in order to properly do my job. I currently work for an Ex Libris institution, and can affirm that the Knowledge Center is of tangible benefit. Besides providing easier availability for their materials, Ex Libris has done fairly well in keeping information and pathing up to date. Notably, as of last month, customers can also contribute their own documentation to product-specific Community Knowledge sections within the Knowledge Center.

Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that while the Knowledge Center is unique in its format, it represents a low bar to clear for a company of Ex Libris’s size. Their systems documentation should be openly accessible in any case. Moreover, the Knowledge Center represents openness—in the form of company transparency and customer participation—for systems and products that are not open. This is why when we go back to the Knowledge Center press release, we can identify it as orangewashing. Open access is not the point of a profit-driven company offering freely accessible documentation, and any claims to this effect ultimately ring hollow.

So what is the likely point of the Knowledge Center, then? We should consider that Alma has become the predominant service platform within academic libraries, with Primo and Summon being the only supported discovery layers for it. While OCLC and EBSCO offer or support competing products, Ex Libris already held an advantageous position even before the ProQuest purchase. Therefore, besides the Knowledge Center serving as supportive measure for current customers, we can view it as a sales pitch to future ones. This may be a smart business strategy, but again, it has little to do with open access.

Two other recent developments provide further evidence of Ex Libris’s orangewashing. The first is MLA’s announcement that EBSCO will become the exclusive vendor for the MLA International Bibliography. On the PRIMO-L listserv, Ex Libris posted a statement [listserv subscription required] noting that the agreement “goes against the goals of NISO’s Open Discovery Initiative…to promote collaboration and transparency among content and discovery providers.” Nevertheless, despite not being involved in the agreement, Ex Libris shares some blame given the long-standing difficulty over EBSCO not providing content to the Primo Central Index. As a result, what may occur is the “siloing” of an indispensable research database, while Ex Libris customers remain dependent on the company to help determine an eventual route to access.

Secondly, in addition to offering research publications through ProQuest and discovery service through Primo/Summon, Ex Libris now provides end-to-end content management through Esploro. Monetizing more aspects of the research process is certainly far from unusual among academic publishers and service providers. Elsevier arguably provides the most egregious example, and as Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe notes, their pattern of recent acquisitions belies an apparent goal of creating a vertical stack service model for publication services.

In considering what Elsevier is doing, it is unsurprising—from a business standpoint—for Ex Libris and ProQuest to pursue profits in a similar manner. That said, we should bear in mind that libraries are already losing control over open access as a consequence of the general strategy that Elsevier is employing. Esploro will likely benefit from having strong library development partners and “open” customer feedback, but the potential end result could place its customers in a more financially disadvantageous and less autonomous position. This is simply antithetical to open access.

Over the past few years, Ex Libris has done well not just in their product development, but also their customer support. Making the Knowledge Center “open to all” in late 2015 was a very positive step forward. Yet the company’s decision to orangewash through claiming support for open access as part of a product unveiling still warrants critique. Peter Suber reminds us that open access is a “revolutionary kind of access”—one that is “unencumbered by a motive of financial gain.” While Ex Libris can perhaps talk about openness with a little more credibility than their competitors, their bottom line is still what really matters.

Managing ILS Updates

We’ve done a few screencasts in the past here at TechConnect and I wanted to make a new one to cover a topic that’s come up this summer: managing ILS updates. Integrated Library Systems are huge, unwieldy pieces of software and it can be difficult to track what changes with each update: new settings are introduced, behaviors change, bugs are (hopefully) fixed. The video belows shows my approach to managing this process and keeping track of ongoing issues with our Koha ILS.

Blockchain: Merits, Issues, and Suggestions for Compelling Use Cases

Blockchain holds a great potential for both innovation and disruption. The adoption of blockchain also poses certain risks, and those risks will need to be addressed and mitigated before blockchain becomes mainstream. A lot of people have heard of blockchain at this point. But many are unfamiliar with how this new technology exactly works and unsure about under which circumstances or on what conditions it may be useful to libraries.

In this post, I will provide a brief overview of the merits and the issues of blockchain. I will also make some suggestions for compelling use cases of blockchain at the end of this post.

What Blockchain Accomplishes

Blockchain is the technology that underpins a well-known decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. To simply put, blockchain is a kind of distributed digital ledger on a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, in which records are confirmed and encrypted. Blockchain records and keeps data in the original state in a secure and tamper-proof manner[1] by its technical implementation alone, thereby obviating the need for a third-party authority to guarantee the authenticity of the data. Records in blockchain are stored in multiple ledgers in a distributed network instead of one central location. This prevents a single point of failure and secures records by protecting them from potential damage or loss. Blocks in each blockchain ledger are chained to one another by the mechanism called ‘proof of work.’ (For those familiar with a version control system such as Git, a blockchain ledger can be thought of as something similar to a P2P hosted git repository that allows sequential commits only.[2]) This makes records in a block immutable and irreversible, that is, tamper-proof.

In areas where the authenticity and security of records is of paramount importance, such as electronic health records, digital identity authentication/authorization, digital rights management, historic records that may be contested or challenged due to the vested interests of certain groups, and digital provenance to name a few, blockchain can lead to efficiency, convenience, and cost savings.

For example, with blockchain implemented in banking, one will be able to transfer funds across different countries without going through banks.[3] This can drastically lower the fees involved, and the transaction will take effect much more quickly, if not immediately. Similarly, adopted in real estate transactions, blockchain can make the process of buying and selling a property more straightforward and efficient, saving time and money.[4]

Disruptive Potential of Blockchain

The disruptive potential of blockchain lies in its aforementioned ability to render the role of a third-party authority obsolete, which records and validates transactions and guarantees their authenticity, should a dispute arise. In this respect, blockchain can serve as an alternative trust protocol that decentralizes traditional authorities. Since blockchain achieves this by public key cryptography, however, if one loses one’s own personal key to the blockchain ledger holding one’s financial or real estate asset, for example, then that will result in the permanent loss of such asset. With the third-party authority gone, there will be no institution to step in and remedy the situation.

Issues

This is only some of the issues with blockchain. Other issues include (a) interoperability between different blockchain systems, (b) scalability of blockchain at a global scale with large amount of data, (c) potential security issues such as the 51% attack [5], and (d) huge energy consumption [6] that a blockchain requires to add a block to a ledger. Note that the last issue of energy consumption has both environmental and economic ramifications because it can cancel out the cost savings gained from eliminating a third-party authority and related processes and fees.

Challenges for Wider Adoption

There are growing interests in blockchain among information professionals, but there are also some obstacles to those interests gaining momentum and moving further towards wider trial and adoption. One obstacle is the lack of general understanding about blockchain in a larger audience of information professionals. Due to its original association with bitcoin, many mistake blockchain for cryptocurrency. Another obstacle is technical. The use of blockchain requires setting up and running a node in a blockchain network, such as Ethereum[7], which may be daunting to those who are not tech-savvy. This makes a barrier to entry high to those who are not familiar with command line scripting and yet still want to try out and test how a blockchain functions.

The last and most important obstacle is the lack of compelling use cases for libraries, archives, and museums. To many, blockchain is an interesting new technology. But even many blockchain enthusiasts are skeptical of its practical benefits at this point when all associated costs are considered. Of course, this is not an insurmountable obstacle. The more people get familiar with blockchain, the more ways people will discover to use blockchain in the information profession that are uniquely beneficial for specific purposes.

Suggestions for Compelling Use Cases of Blockchain

In order to determine what may make a compelling use case of blockchain, the information profession would benefit from considering the following.

(a) What kind of data/records (or the series thereof) must be stored and preserved exactly the way they were created.

(b) What kind of information is at great risk to be altered and compromised by changing circumstances.

(c) What type of interactions may need to take place between such data/records and their users.[8]

(d) How much would be a reasonable cost for implementation.

These will help connecting the potential benefits of blockchain with real-world use cases and take the information profession one step closer to its wider testing and adoption. To those further interested in blockchain and libraries, I recommend the recordings from the Library 2.018 online mini-conference, “Blockchain Applied: Impact on the Information Profession,” held back in June. The Blockchain National Forum, which is funded by IMLS and is to take place in San Jose, CA on August 6th, will also be livestreamed.

Notes

[1] For an excellent introduction to blockchain, see “The Great Chain of Being Sure about Things,” The Economist, October 31, 2015, https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21677228-technology-behind-bitcoin-lets-people-who-do-not-know-or-trust-each-other-build-dependable.

[2] Justin Ramos, “Blockchain: Under the Hood,” ThoughtWorks (blog), August 12, 2016, https://www.thoughtworks.com/insights/blog/blockchain-under-hood.

[3] The World Food Programme, the food-assistance branch of the United Nations, is using blockchain to increase their humanitarian aid to refugees. Blockchain may possibly be used for not only financial transactions but also the identity verification for refugees. Russ Juskalian, “Inside the Jordan Refugee Camp That Runs on Blockchain,” MIT Technology Review, April 12, 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610806/inside-the-jordan-refugee-camp-that-runs-on-blockchain/.

[4] Joanne Cleaver, “Could Blockchain Technology Transform Homebuying in Cook County — and Beyond?,” Chicago Tribune, July 9, 2018, http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/ct-re-0715-blockchain-homebuying-20180628-story.html.

[5] “51% Attack,” Investopedia, September 7, 2016, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/1/51-attack.asp.

[6] Sherman Lee, “Bitcoin’s Energy Consumption Can Power An Entire Country — But EOS Is Trying To Fix That,” Forbes, April 19, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/shermanlee/2018/04/19/bitcoins-energy-consumption-can-power-an-entire-country-but-eos-is-trying-to-fix-that/#49ff3aa41bc8.

[7] Osita Chibuike, “How to Setup an Ethereum Node,” The Practical Dev, May 23, 2018, https://dev.to/legobox/how-to-setup-an-ethereum-node-41a7.

[8] The interaction can also be a self-executing program when certain conditions are met in a blockchain ledger. This is called a “smart contract.” See Mike Orcutt, “States That Are Passing Laws to Govern ‘Smart Contracts’ Have No Idea What They’re Doing,” MIT Technology Review, March 29, 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610718/states-that-are-passing-laws-to-govern-smart-contracts-have-no-idea-what-theyre-doing/.

Introducing Our New Best Friend, GDPR

You’ve seen the letters GDPR in every single email you’ve gotten from a vendor or a mailing list lately, but you might not be exactly sure what it is. With GDPR enforcement starting on May 25, it’s time for a crash course in what GDPR is, and why it could be your new best friend whether you are in the EU or not.

First, you can check out the EU GDPR information site (though it probably will be under heavy load for a few days!) for lots of information on this. It’s important to recognize, however, that for universities like mine with a campus located in the EU, it has created additional oversight to ensure that our own data collection practices are GDPR compliant, or that we restrict people residing in the EU from accessing those services. You should definitely work with legal counsel on your own campus in making any decisions about GDPR compliance.

So what does the GDPR actually mean in practice? The requirements break down this way: any company which holds the data of any EU citizen must provide data controls, no matter where the company or the data is located. This means that every large web platform and pretty much every library vendor must comply or face heavy fines. The GDPR offers the following protections for personally identifiable information, which includes things like IP address: privacy terms and conditions must be written in easy to understand language, data breaches require quick notifications, the right to know what data is being collected and to receive a copy of it, the “right to be forgotten” or data erasure (unless it’s in the public interest for the data to be retained), ability to transfer data between providers, systems to be private by design and only collect necessary data, and for companies to appoint data privacy officers without conflicts of interest. How this all works in practice is not consistent, and there will be a lot to be worked out in the courts in the coming years. Note that Google recently lost several right to be forgotten cases, and were required to remove information that they had originally stated was in the public interest to retain.

The GDPR has actually been around for a few years, but May 25, 2018 was set as the enforcement date, so many people have been scrambling to meet that deadline. If you’re reading this today, there’s probably not a lot of time to do anything about your own practices, but if you haven’t yet reviewed what your vendors are doing, this would be a good time. Note too that there are no rights guaranteed for any Americans, and several companies, including Facebook, have moved data governance out of their Irish office to California to be out of reach of suits brought in Irish courts.

Where possible, however, we should be using all the features at our disposal. As librarians, we already tend to the “privacy by design” philosophy, even though we aren’t always perfect at it. As I wrote in my last post, my library worked on auditing our practices and creating a new privacy policy, and one of the last issues was trying to figure out how we would approach some of our third-party services which we need to provide services to our patrons but that did not allow deleting data. Now some of those features are being made available. For example, Google Analytics now has a data retention feature, which allows you to set data to expire and be deleted after a certain amount of time. Google provides some more detailed instructions to ensure that you are not accidentally collecting personally-identifiable information in your analytics data.

Lots of our library vendors provide personal account features, and those too are subject to these new GDPR features. This means that there are new levels of transparency about what kinds of tracking they are doing, and greater ability for patrons to control data, and for you to control data on the behalf of patrons. Here are a few example vendor GDPR compliance statements or FAQs:

Note that some vendors, like EBSCO, are moving to HTTPS for all sites that weren’t before, and so this may require changes to proxy servers or other links.

I am excited about GDPR because no matter where we are located, it gives us new tools to defend the privacy of our patrons. Even better than that, it is providing lots of opportunities on our campuses to talk about privacy with all stakeholders. At my institution, the library has been able to showcase our privacy expertise and have some good conversations about data governance and future goals for privacy. It doesn’t mean that all our problems will be solved, but we are moving in a more positive direction.

Names are Hard

A while ago I stumbled onto the post “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names” and was stunned. Personal names are one of the most deceptively difficult forms of data to work with and this article touched on so many common but unaddressed problems. Assumptions like “people have exactly one canonical name” and “My system will never have to deal with names from China/Japan/Korea” were apparent everywhere. I consider myself a fairly critical and studious person, I devote time to thinking about the consequences of design decisions and carefully attempt to avoid poor assumptions. But I’ve repeatedly run into trouble when handling personal names as data. There is a cognitive dissonance surrounding names; we treat them as rigid identifiers when they’re anything but. We acknowledge their importance but struggle to take them as seriously.

Names change. They change due to marriage, divorce, child custody, adoption, gender identity, religious devotion, performance art, witness protection, or none of these at all. Sometimes people just want a new name. And none of these reasons for change are more or less valid than others, though our legal system doesn’t always treat them equally. We have students who change their legal name, which is often something systems expect, but then they have the audacity to want to change their username, too! And that works less often because all sorts of system integrations expect usernames to be persistent.

Names do not have a universal structure. There is no set quantity of components in a name nor an established order to those components. At my college, we have students without surnames. In almost all our systems, surname is a required field, so we put a period “.” there to satisfy that requirement. Then, on displays in our digital repository where surnames are assumed, we end up with bolded section headers like “., Johnathan” which look awkward.

Many Western names might follow a [Given name] – [Middle name] – [Surname] structure and an unfortunate number of the systems I have to deal with assume all names share this structure. It’s easy to see how this yields problematic results. For instance, if you want to a see a sorted list of users, you probably want to sort by family name, but many systems sort by the name in the last position causing, for instance, Chinese names 1 to be handled differently from Western ones. 2 But it’s not only that someone might not have a middle name, or might have two middle names, or might have a family name in the first position—no, even that would be too simple! Some name components defy simple classifications. I once met a person named “Bus Stop”. “Stop” is clearly not a family affiliation, despite coming in the final position of the name. Sometimes the second component of a tripartite Western name isn’t a middle name at all, but a maiden name or the second word of a two-word first name (e.g. “Mary Anne” or “Lady Bird”)! One cannot even determine by looking at a familiar structure the roles of all of a name’s pieces!

Names are also contextual. One’s name with family, with legal institutions, and with classmates can all differ. Many of our international students have alternative Westernized first names. Their family may call them Qiáng but they introduce themselves as Brian in class. We ask for a “preferred name” in a lot of systems, which is a nice step forward, but don’t ask when it’s preferred. Names might be meant for different situations. We have no system remotely ready for this, despite the personalization that’s been seeping into web platforms for decades.

So if names are such a trouble, why not do our best and move on? Aren’t these fringe cases that don’t affect the vast majority of our users? These issues simply cannot be ignored because names are vital. What one is called, even if it’s not a stable identifier, has great effects on one’s life. It’s dispiriting to witness one’s name misspelled, mispronounced, treated as an inconvenience, botched at every turn. A system that won’t adapt to suit a name delegitimizes the name. It says, “oh that’s not your real name” as if names had differing degrees of reality. But a person may have multiple names—or many overlapping names over time—and while one may be more institutionally recognized at a given time, none are less real than the others. If even a single student a year is affected, it’s the absolute least amount of respect we can show to affirm their name(s).

So what do we to do? Endless enumerations of the difficulties of working with names does little but paralyze us. Honestly, when I consider about the best implementation of personal names, the MODS metadata schema comes to mind. Having a <name> element with any number of <namePart> children is the best model available. The <namePart>s can be ordered in particular ways, a “@type” attribute can define a part’s function 3, a record can include multiple names referencing the same person, multiple names with distinct parts can be linked to the same authority record, etc. MODS has a flexible and comprehensive treatment of name data. Unfortunately, returning to “Falsehoods Programmers Believe”, none of the library systems I administer do anywhere near as good a job as this metadata schema. Nor is it necessarily a problem with Western bias—even the Chinese government can’t develop computer systems to accurately represent the names of people in the country, or even agree on what the legal character set should be! 4 It seems that programmers start their apps by creating a “users” database table with columns for unique identifier, username, “firstname”/”lastname” [sic], and work from there. On the bright side, the name isn’t used as the identifier at least! We all learned that in databases class but we didn’t learn to make “names” a separate table linked to “users” in our relational databases.

In my day-to-day work, the best I’ve done is to be sensitive to the importance of names changes specifically and how our systems handle them. After a few meetings with a cross-departmental team, we developed a name change process at our college. System administrators from across the institution are on a shared listserv where name changes are announced. In the libraries, I spoke with our frontline service staff about assisting with name changes. Our people at the circulation desk know to notice name discrepancies—sometimes a name badge has been updated but not our catalog records, we can offer to make them match—but also to guide students who may need to contact the registrar or other departments on campus to initiate the top-down name change process. While most of our the library’s systems don’t easily accommodate username changes, I can write administrative scripts for our institutional repository that alter the ownership of a set of items from an old username to a new one. I think it’s important to remember that we’re inconveniencing the user with the work of implementing their name change and not the other way around. So taking whatever extra steps we can do on our own, without pushing labor onto our students and staff, is the best way we can mitigate how poorly our tools are able to support the protean nature of personal names.

Notes

  1. Chinese names typically have the surname first, followed by the given name.
  2. Another poor implementation can be seen in The Chicago Manual of Style‘s indexing instructions, which has an extensive list of exceptions to the Western norm and how to handle them. But CMoS provides no guidance on how one would go about identifying a name’s cultural background or, for instance, identifying a compound surname.
  3. Although the MODS user guidelines sadly limit the use of the type attribute to a fixed list of values which includes “family” and “given”, rendering it subject to most of the critiques in this post. Substantially expanding this list with “maiden”, “patronymic/matronymic” (names based on a parental given name, e.g. Mikhailovich), and more, as well as some sort of open-ended “other” option, would be a great improvement.
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/world/asia/21china.html

Our Assumptions: of Neutrality, of People, & of Systems

Discussions of neutrality have been coming up a lot in libraryland recently. I would argue that people have been talking about this for years1 2 3 4,  but this year we saw a confluence of events drive the “neutrality of libraries” topic to the fore. To be clear, I have a position on this on this topic5 and it is that libraries cannot be neutral players and still claim to be a part of the society they serve. But this post is about what we assume to be neutral, what we bring forward with those assumptions, and how to we react when those assumptions are challenged. When we challenge ideas that have been built into systems, either as “benevolent, neutral” librarians or “pure logic, neutral” algorithms, what part of ourselves are we challenging? How do reactions change based on who is doing the challenging? Be forewarned, this is a convoluted landscape.

At the 2018 ALA Midwinter conference, the ALA President’s program was a debate about neutrality. I will not summarize that event (see here), but I do want to call attention to something that became very clear in the course of the program: everyone was using a different definition of neutrality. People spoke with assumptions of what neutrality means and why they do, or do not, believe that it is important for libraries to maintain. But what are we assuming when we make these assumptions? Without an agreed upon definition, some referred to legal rulings to define neutrality, some used a dictionary definition (“not aligned with a political or ideological grouping” – Merriam Webster) without probing how political or ideological perspectives play out in real life. But why do we assume libraries should be neutral? What safety or security does that assumption carry? What else are we assuming should be neutral? Software? Analytics? What value judgements are we bringing forward with those assumptions?

An assumption of neutrality often comes with a transference of trust. A speaker at ALA even said that the three professions thought of as the most trustworthy (via a national poll) are firefighting, nursing, and librarianship, and so, by his logic, we must be neutral. Perhaps some do not conflate trust and neutrality, but when we do assume neutrality equates with trust in these situations, we remove the human aspect from the equation. Nurses and librarians, as people, are not neutral. People hold biases and a variety of lived experiences that shape perspectives and approaches. If you engage this line of thought and interrogate your assumptions and beliefs, it can become apparent that it takes effort to recognize and mitigate our human biases throughout the various interactions in our lives.

What of our technology? Systems and software are often put forward as logic-driven, neutral devices, considered apart from their human creators. The position of some people is that machines lack emotions and are, therefore, immune to our human biases and prejudices. This position is inaccurate and dangerous and requires our attention. Algorithms and analytics are not neutral. They are designed by people, who carry forward their own notions of what is true and what is neutral. These ideas are built into the structure of the systems and have the potential to influence our perception of reality. As we rely on “data-driven decision-making” across all aspects of our society — education, healthcare, entertainment, policy — we transfer trust and power to that data. All too often, we do that without scrutinizing the sources of the data, or the algorithms acting upon them. Moreover, as we push further into machine learning systems – systems that are trained on data to look for patterns and optimize processes – we open the door for those systems to amplify biases. To “learn” our systemic prejudices and inequities.

People far more expert in this domain than me have raised these questions and researched the effects that biased systems can have on our society6 7 8. I often bring these issues up when I want to emphasize how problematic it is to let the assumption of data-driven outcomes as “truth” persist and how critical it is to apply information literacy practices to data. But as I thought about this issue and read more from these experts, I have been struck by the variety of responses that these experts illicit. How do reactions change based on who is doing the challenging?

Angela Galvan questioned assumptions related to hiring, performance, and belonging in librarianship, based on the foundation of the profession’s “whiteness,” and was met with hostile comments on the post9. Nicole A. Cooke wrote about implicit assumptions when we write about tolerance and diversity and has been met with hostile comments10 while her micro-aggression research has been highlighted by Campus Reform11, which led to a series of hostile communications to her. Chris Bourg’s keynote about diversity and technology at Code4Lib was met with hostility12. Safiya Noble wrote a book about bias in algorithms and technology, which resulted in one of the more spectacular Twitter disasters13 14, wherein someone found it acceptable to dismiss her research without even reading the book.

Assumptions of neutrality, whether it be related to library services, space, collections, or the people doing the work, allow oppressive systems to persist and contribute to a climate where the perspectives and expertise of marginalized people in particular can be dismissed. Insisting that we promulgate the library and technology – and the people working in it and with it – as neutral actors, erases the realities that these women (and countless others) have experienced. Moreover, it allows the those operating with harmful and discriminatory assumptions to believe that they *are* neutral, by virtue of working in those spaces, and that their truth is an objective truth. It limits the desire for dialog, discourse, and growth – because who is really motivated to listen when you think you are operating from a place of “Truth”…when you feel that the strength of your assumptions can invalidate a person’s life?

Introducing Omeka S

My library has used Omeka as part of our suite of platforms for creating digital collections and exhibits for many years now. It’s easy to administer and use, and many of our students, particularly in history or digital humanities, learn how to create exhibits with it in class or have experience with it from other institutions, which makes it a good solution for student projects. This creates challenges, however, since it’s been difficult to have multiple sites or distributed administration. A common scenario is that we have a volunteer student, often in history, working on a digital exhibit as part of a practicum, and we want the donor to review the exhibit before it goes live. We had to create administrative accounts for both the student and the donor, which required a lot of explanations about how to get in to just the one part of the system they were supposed to be in (it’s possible to create a special account to view collections that aren’t public, but not exhibits). Even though the admin accounts can’t do everything (there’s a super admin level for that), it’s a bit alarming to hand out administrative accounts to people I barely know.

This problem goes away with Omeka S, which is the new and completely rebuilt Omeka. It supports having multiple sites (which is the new name for exhibits) and distributed administration by site. Along with this, there are sophisticated metadata templates that you can assign to sites or users, which takes away the need for lots of documentation on what metadata to use for which item type. When I showed a member of my library’s technical services department the metadata templates in Omeka S, she gasped with excitement. This should indicate that, at least for those of us working on the back end, this is a fun system to use.

Trying it Out For Yourself

I have included some screenshots below, but you might want to use the Omeka S Sandbox to follow along. You can experiment with anything, and the data is reset every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. This includes a variety of sample exhibits, one is “A Battered Tin Dispatch Box” from which I include some screenshots below.

A Quick Tour Through Omeka S

This is what the Omeka Classic administrative dashboard looks like for a super administrator.Omeka Classic Administrative internfaceAnd this is the dashboard for Omeka S. It’s not all that different functionally, but definitely a different aesthetic experience.

Omeka S administrative interface

Most things in Omeka S work analogously to classic Omeka, but some things have been renamed or moved around. The documentation walks through everything in order, so it’s a great place to start learning. Overall, my feeling about Omeka S is that it’s much easier to tap into the  powerful features with less of a learning curve. I first learned Omeka S at the DLF Forum conference in fall 2017 directly from Patrick Murray-John, the Omeka Development Team Manager, and some of what is below is from his description.

Sites

Sites insetOmeka S has the very useful concept of Sites, which again function like exhibits in classic Omeka. Each site has its own set of administrative functions and user permissions, which allow for viewer, editor, or admin by site. I really appreciate this, since it allowed me to give student volunteers access to just the site they needed, and when we need to give other people access to view the site before it’s published we can do that. It’s easier to add outside or supplementary materials to the exhibit navigation. On the individual pages there are a variety of blocks available, and the layout is easier for people without a lot of HTML skills to set up.

Resource Templates

These existed in Omeka Classic, but were less straightforward. Now you can set a resource template with properties from multiple vocabularies and build the documentation right into the template. The data type can be text or URI, or draw from vocabularies with autosuggest. For example, you can set the Rights field to draw from Rights Statement options.

Items

Items work in a similar fashion to Omeka Classic. Items exist at the installation level, so can be reused across multiple sites. What’s great is that the nature of an item can be much more flexible. They can include URIs, maps, and multiple types of media such as a URL, HTML, IIIF image, oEmbed, or YouTube. This reflects the actual way that we were using Omeka Classic, but without the technical overhead to make it all work. This will make it easier for more people to create much more interactive and web-integrated exhibits.

Item Sets

Item Sets are the new name given to Collections and, like Items, they can have metadata from multiple vocabularies. Item Sets are analogous to Collections, but items can be in multiple Item Sets to be associated with sites to limit what people see. The tools for batch adding and editing are similar, but more powerful because you can actually remove or edit metadata in bulk.

Themes

Themes in Omeka S have changed quite a bit, and as Murray-John explained, it is more complicated to do theming than in the past. Rather than call to local functions, Omeka S uses patterns from Zend Framework 3, and so the process of theming will require more careful thought and planning. That said, the base themes provided are a great base, and thanks to the multiple options for layouts in sites, it’s less critical to be able to create custom themes for certain exhibits. I wrote about how to create themes in Omeka in 2013, and while some of that still holds true, you would want to consult the updated documentation to see how to do this in Omeka S.

Mapping

One of my favorite things in Omeka S is the Mapping module, which allows you to add geolocation metadata to items, and create a map on site pages. Here’s an example from the Omeka S Sandbox with locations related to Scotland Yard mapped for an item in the Battered Tin Dispatch Box exhibit.

Map interface for itemsThis can then turn into an interactive map on the front end.

Map interface for exhibits

For the vast majority of mapping projects that our students want to do, this works in a very straightforward manner. Neatline is a plugin for Omeka Classic that allows much more sophisticated mapping and timelines–while it should be ported over to Omeka S, it currently is not listed as a module. In my experience, however, Neatline is more powerful than what many people are trying to do, and that added complexity can be a challenge. So I think the Mapping module looks like a great compromise.

Possible Approaches to Migration

Migration between Omeka Classic and Omeka S works well for items. For that, there’s the Omeka2 Importer module. Because exhibits work differently, they would have to be recreated. Omeka.net, the hosted version of Omeka, will stay on Omeka Classic for the foreseeable future, so there’s no concern that it will stop being supported any time soon, according to Patrick Murray-John.

Conclusion

We are still working on setting up Omeka S. My personal approach is that as new ideas for exhibits come up we will start them first in Omeka S. As we have time and interest, we may start to migrate older exhibits if they need continual management. Because some of our older exhibits rely on Omeka Classic pla but are planning to mostly create new exhibits in there that don’t rely on Omeka Classic plugins. I am excited to pair this with our other digital collection platforms to build exhibits that use content across our platforms and extend into the wider web.

 

Reflections on Code4Lib 2018

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

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


Ashley:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bohyun:

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

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

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

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

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


Eric:

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Privacy Policy from the Ground Up

Privacy policies are easy to ignore, but when done right, creating one can be a positive experience. In early 2017, several of the staff members at my library started having informal conversations about privacy in our digital platforms, largely a result of the release of ALA Library Privacy Checklists. After several months of talking, it became clear that we needed to get a formal group together to create a privacy policy. This would ensure that we were having conversations with everyone in the library, including our patrons, about privacy. This led to the creation of a Patron Privacy Task Force, which just wrapped up about six months of work. I co-chaired the group with the Head of Reference Services at one the libraries, and we had representatives from all library departments. The final result was just as we had hoped: a thorough and open process producing a clear and accurate policy we have provided to our patrons.

Because many libraries are working on similar projects, I wanted to describe our process and the lessons learned. While ultimately I am pleased with what we produced, I had to restrict the scope due to time and interest from the group, and there are some important takeaways from that.

Planning

When we started the project, construction in the library and changes in staffing were disrupting normal functions. We knew it was important to restrict the project to the time necessary to complete finite deliverables. Rather than creating a new committee, we felt it would be helpful focus effort on learning about privacy, and bringing that knowledge back to departments and standing committees as an embedded value. We had a member from every department across the libraries (which ended up being ten people) and intentionally included a mix of department heads, librarians, and paraprofessional staff. Varying perspectives across departments and functions helped create good discussions and ensured that we would be less likely to miss something important.

Nevertheless, such a large group can be unwieldy, and adding yet another set of meetings can be a challenge for already overburdened schedules. For that reason, my co-chair and I spent a lot of time preplanning all the meetings and creating a   specific project plan that would be flexible to adapt to our needs, which we needed to do in the end. Our plan had our work starting in early August and ending in December with the goal to have: 1) a complete policy, 2) internal best practices documentation, and 3) an outreach plan. As it turned out, we did not complete all the internal documentation, but the policy and outreach plan were complete on time, and the policy went out to the public at the same time as when we reported on the work of the committee to all library staff in mid-January 2018.

One of the most useful aspects of our project was treating it as a professional development opportunity with a number of reading assignments to complete before the kickoff meeting and throughout the work period (I have included some of the resources we used below). We also ensured from time to time we returned to theoretical, or guiding, principles of our work when it felt like we were feeling too bogged down with minutia. The plan ended up starting with research, followed by reading, writing, and practical research, more theory, and a final push with completing the draft of the policy and working on documentation.

Conducting the Privacy Audit

After spending some time talking through the project and figuring out some mechanics, we moved into the privacy audit stage. This requires examining every system and practice the library uses in a systematic manner and determining whether this falls in line with best practices. The ALA Privacy Checklists help with the latter part, but we also relied on Karen Coyle’s Library Privacy Audit spreadsheets. The first step was to brainstorm all the systems we used in our daily work and how we used them, and then divide those up by department. We mapped the systems we used into the spreadsheets, with some additional systems added. For that reason, multiple departments who use the same system in different ways reviewed some systems, and other systems that were unique to a department were reviewed just by that one. We then used the checklists to verify that we had covered the essentials in our audits and to raise additional issues that the spreadsheets did not cover.

This was not always the most straightforward process for people unused to looking carefully at systems, but for that reason it was a useful process. By dividing the work up between departments, it meant that everyone in the library had a better chance to learn about how their work affected patron privacy and ask questions about the processes of other departments as patron information moves across the library. For example, when a patron requests that the library purchase a book, this is recorded in one system and leaves a trail through email as it goes between systems. After the request is placed, that information stays in various systems to ensure the patron gets the book after it arrives. As public and technical services talked through that process, it was easier to identify which pieces of it were important to good service and which created informational residue.

Compiling the audit results into a useful format was a challenge, and this is an area of this project that did not meet my initial hopes. My original plan was to create a flexible best practices manual that would record all the results of the audit and how closely they met the standards set by the checklists. In practice, that was way too complicated, and we ended up just focusing on the “Priority 1” actions, which are those that any library can meet no matter their technical abilities. In fact, many of our practices are much better than that, but breaking the work down into smaller steps was a much more feasible approach. Ultimately, the co-chairs took the research done by all the task force members and created a list of practices for each checklist that indicated where we met best practices and where we needed to do more work. We asked all departments to complete the project identified for each checklist by one year out, and to consider including “Priority 2” level projects in departmental goals for the following fiscal year.

Writing the Policy

The process for writing the policy itself was different from the audit, in that the first draft came entirely from the co-chairs and then went out the group for editing. This was to create a unified tone and help identify all the gaps in knowledge that the task force members could complete with their research. Writing the policy started with the ALA Privacy Policy Creation Toolkit, and in particular the “Sections to Include in a Privacy Policy.” I literally copied those sections into a blank document to start the writing process, though some of them were renamed or reorganized in the final version.

After writing the rough draft, I listed all the sections where I was missing important information, and relied on the task force to fill in those sections. This was a fascinating process as we tried to explain technical processes that each of us understood in a way the whole group could understand and explain to a patron. Explaining the way the scanners could accidentally store a patron’s email address was an example of something that took multiple attempts to get right in the policy. The difficulty I had in writing was useful in itself, however. Each time I felt embarrassed or confused about describing one of our practices told me that this practice needed to change. I hope when we go back to revise the policy, the difficult sections will be easier to write because the practices will be better.

Outreach and Next Steps

One of the important privacy tasks in the checklists is the need for education and outreach to staff and patrons. The process of writing the policy in the task force took care of a lot of staff education, but this will need to be an ongoing process. For that reason, we recommended that the task force reconvene to check on the progress of privacy improvements in 9-10 months after the adoption of the policy, but not necessarily with the exact same members. As we work through fixing our practices this will be a great opportunity to have additional conversations with library staff and include more detail.

No matter how many checklists or guidelines we consult, we will not be able to cover all scenarios. For that reason, we asked people to keep the following guiding principles in mind when making decisions about data collection that could affect patron privacy.

  • Is it necessary to collect this information?
  • Could I tell who an individual was even if there was no name attached?
  • If I need to collect this information, what is the data I can remove to obscure personal information?

To tell patrons about the policy we wrote a blog post and posted it on the library website. Obviously, this will not reach everyone, but at least will catch our most active users–we know from usability testing that people do look at our blog post headlines! Meanwhile, a set of recommended outreach practices included creating guides for how to turn on privacy features in browsers especially for specific vendor platforms with potentially problematic practices, partnering with our campus IT department on information security awareness, and presenting on privacy issues in research and teaching at a faculty professional development event.

Conclusion

As someone who enjoys writing policies and looking for ways to improve processes, this kind of project will always appeal to me. However, many members of the task force told me that it was a useful exercise to improve their own knowledge and keep up to date with how the privacy conversation has changed even in the last few years. Because this is such a constantly shifting topic, this will require active management to keep our policy accurate and our practices in line with changes in technology. The good news is that this was a grassroots effort that can be started up again with relatively little effort as long as someone cares to do so, which I suspect will now always be the case at my library.

Selected Resources the Task Force Used

Other library policies

 

Net Neutrality Roundup: Alternate Internets

Now that we are facing net neutrality regulation rollbacks here in the United States, what new roles could librarians play in the continued struggle to provide people with unrestricted access to information?  ALA has long been dedicated to equal access to information, as clearly outlined in both the Core Values and Code of Ethics. You can read ALA’s Joint Letter to the FCC here. It emphasizes that “a non-neutral net, in which commercial providers can pay for enhanced transmission that libraries and higher education cannot afford, endangers our institutions’ ability to meet our educational mission.”

Net neutrality was discussed back in 2014 on this blog, with Margaret Heller’s post entitled “What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality?” We recommend you start there for some background on the legal issues around net neutrality. It includes a fun trip into the physical spaces our content traverses through to get onto our screens. One of the conclusions of that post was that libraries need to work on ensuring that everyone has access to broadband networks to begin with, and that more varied access ensures that no company has a monopoly over internet service in a location. There have been a number of projects along these lines over the past decade and more, and we encourage you to find one in your area and get involved.

Library-based initiatives

Equal access to information starts with having access at all. Several libraries have kicked off initiatives in activities like loaning out wi-fi hotspots for several-month periods in New York City, Brooklyn, and Chicago.

Ideally everyone will have secure and private internet access.The Library Freedom Project has been working for years to protect the privacy of patrons, including educating librarians about the threat of surveillance in modern digital technology, working with Tor Project to configure Tor exit relays in library systems, and creating educational resources for teaching patrons about privacy.

These are some excellent steps towards a more democratic and equal access to information, but what happens if the internet as we know it fundamentally changes? Let’s explore some “alternative internets” that rely on municipal and/or grassroots solutions.

Mesh networks

You might be familiar with wireless mesh networks for home use. You can set up a wireless mesh network in your own house to ensure even coverage across the house. Since each node can cover a certain part of your house, you don’t have to rely on how close you are to the wireless router to connect. You can also change the network around easily as your needs change.

Mesh networks are dynamically routed networks that exchange routes, internet, local networks, and neighbors. They can be wireless or wired. Mesh networks may not be purely a “mesh” but rather a combination of “mesh network” technology as well as “point to point” linking, with connections directly linking to each other, and each of these connections expanding out to their local mesh networks. BMX6/BMX7, BATMAN, and Babel are some of the most popular network protocols (with highly memorable names!) for achieving a broad mesh network, but there are many more. Just as you can install devices in your home, you can cooperate with others in your community or region to create your own network. The LibreMesh project is an example of a way in which DIY wireless networks are being created in several European countries.

Municipal networks

Nineteen towns in Colorado are exploring alternate internet solutions, like a public alternative. Chattanooga offers public gigabit internet speeds. This has some major advantages for the city, including the ability to offer free internet access to low-income residents and ensure that anyone who pays for access gets the same level of access, which is not the case in most cities where some areas pay a high cost for a low signal. Even just the presence and availability of municipal broadband, “has radically altered the way local politicians and many ordinary Chattanoogans conceive of the Internet. They have come to think of it as a right rather than a luxury.”1 A similar initiative in Roanoke is the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which in an interesting twist lobbied the Virginia legislature to reduce oversight of its activities in a bill that originally specifically stated that broadband services should focus on underserved areas–so a reminder that in many ways municipalities view this as an investment in business rather than a social justice issue. 2 In Detroit, the Detroit Community Technology Project is working to set up and bring community wireless to neighborhoods in Detroit. New York City‘s Red Hook neighborhood relied on their mesh network during Hurricane Sandy to stay connected to outside of New York. New York City also has the rapidly-growing NYC Mesh community with two supernodes and another coming later this year, uniting lower Manhattan with Northern and Central Brooklyn. Toronto also has an emerging mesh community with a handful of connected nodes. The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center developed CUWiN, which provided open wireless networks in “Champaign-Urbana, Homer, Illinois, tribal lands of the Mesa Grande Reservation, and the townships of South Africa”. 3

Outside of North America, Berlin has its own mesh networked, called Freifunk. Austria has Funkfeuer. Greece has the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. Italy has Ninux and Argentina has AlterMundi. Villages in rural northern England are joining together to get connected via a cooperative model called B4RN, where they dig their own trenches for cables using their farm tractors.

Thinking big

Guifi.net is a wi-fi network that covers a large part of Spain and defines itself as “the biggest free, open and neutral network.” It was developed in 2004 as a response to the lack of broadband Internet, where commercial Internet providers weren’t providing a connection or a very poor one in rural areas of the Catalonia region. Guifi has established a Wireless Commons License as guidelines that can be adopted by other networks. At time of posting, 34,306 nodes were active, with over 17,000 planned.

Finally, Brooklyn Public Library was granted $50,000 from IMLS to develop a mesh network and called BKLYN Link, along with a technology fellowship program for 18-24 year olds. Looking forward to what emerges from this initiative!

Conclusion

The internet was started when college campuses connected to each other across first short geographic areas and eventually much longer distances. Could we see academic and public libraries working together and leading the return to old ways of accessing the internet for a new era?

Meanwhile, it’s important to ensure that the FCC has appropriate regulatory powers over ISPs, otherwise we have no recourse if companies choose to prioritize packets. You should contact your legislators and make sure that the people at your campus who work with the government are sharing their perspectives as well. You can get some help with a letter to Congress from ALA.