Discussions of neutrality have been coming up a lot in libraryland recently. I would argue that people have been talking about this for years1234, 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 society678. 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 disasters1314, 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?
A few members of Tech Connect attended the recent Code4Lib 2018 conference in Washington, DC. If you missed it, the full livestream of the conference is on the Code4Lib YouTube channel. We wanted to highlight some of our favorite talks and tie them into the work we’re doing.
Also, it’s worth pointing to the Code4Lib community’s Statement in Support of opening keynote speaker Chris Bourg. Chris offered some hard truths in her speech that angry men on the internet, predictably, were unhappy about, but it’s a great model that the conference organizers and attendees promptly stood in support.
One of my favorite talks at Code4lib this year was Amy Wickner’s talk, “Web Archiving and You / Web Archiving and Us.” (Video, slides) I felt this talk really captured some of the essence of what I love most about Code4lib, this being my 4th conference in the past 5 years. (And I believe this was Amy’s first!). This talk was about a technical topic relevant to collecting libraries and handled in a way that acknowledges and prioritizes the essential personal component of any technical endeavor. This is what I found so wonderful about Amy’s talk and this is what I find so refreshing about Code4lib as an inherently technical conference with intentionality behind the human aspects of it.
Web archiving seems to be something of interest but seemingly overwhelming to begin to tackle. I mean, the internet is just so big. Amy brought forth a sort of proposal for ways in which a person or institution can begin thinking about how to start a web archiving project, focusing first on the significance of appraisal. Wickner, citing Terry Cook, spoke of the “care and feeding of archives” and thinking about appraisal as storytelling. I think this is a great way to make a big internet seem smaller, understanding the importance of care in appraisal while acknowledging that for web archiving, it is an essential practice. Representation in web archives is more likely to be chosen in the appraisal of web materials than in other formats historically.
This statement resonated with me: “Much of the power that archivists wield are in how we describe or create metadata that tells a story of a collection and its subjects.”
And also: For web archives, “the narrative of how they are built is closely tied to the stories they tell and how they represent the world.”
Wickner went on to discuss how web archives are and will be used, and who they will be used by, giving some examples but emphasizing there are many more, noting that we must learn to “critically read as much as learn to critically build” web archives, while acknowledging web archives exist both within and outside of institutions. And that for personal archiving, it can be as simple as replacing links in documents with 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.
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.
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.
I recently moderated a panel discussion program titled “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.”1 Participating in organizing this program was interesting experience. During the whole time, I experienced my perspective constantly shifting back and forth as (i) someone who is a woman of color in the US who experiences and deals with small and large daily acts of discrimination, (ii) an organizer/moderator trying to get as many people as possible to attend and participate, and (iii) a mid-career librarian who is trying to contribute to the group efforts to find a way to move the diversity agenda forward in a positive and inclusive way in my own institution.
In the past, I have participated in multiple diversity-themed programs either as a member of the organizing committee or as an attendee and have been excited to see colleagues organize and run such programs. But when asked to write or speak about diversity myself, I always hesitated and declined. This puzzled me for a long time because I couldn’t quite pinpoint where my own resistance was coming from. I am writing about this now because I think it may shed some light on why it is often difficult to get minorities on board with diversity-related efforts.
A common issue that many organizers experience is that often these diversity programs draw many allies who are already interested in working on the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion but not necessarily a lot of those who the organizers consider to be the target audience, namely, minorities. What may be the reason? Perhaps I can find a clue for the answer to this question from my own resistance regarding speaking or writing about diversity, preferring rather to be in the audience with a certain distance or as an organizer helping with logistics behind the scene.
To be honest, I always harbored a level of suspicion about how much of the sudden interests in diversity is real and how much of it is simply about being on the next hot trend. Trends come and go, but issues lived through many lives of those who belong to various systematically disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not trends. Although I have been always enthusiastic about participating in diversity-focused programs as attendees and was happy to see diversity, equity, and inclusion discussed in articles and talks, I wasn’t ready to sell out my lived experience as part of a hot trend, a potential fad.
To be clear, I am not saying that any of the diversity-related programs or events were asking speakers or authors to be a sell-out. I am only describing how things felt to me and where my own resistance was originating. I have been and am happy to see diversity discussed even as a one-time fad. Better a fad than no discussion at all.
One may argue that that diversity has been actively discussed for quite some time now. A few years, maybe several, or even more. Some of the prominent efforts to increase diversity in librarianship I know, for example, go as far back as 2007 when Oregon State University Libraries sponsored two scholarships to the Code4Lib conference, one for women and the other for minorities, which have continued from then on as the Code4Lib Diversity Scholarship.2 But if one has lived the entire life as a member of a systematically disadvantaged group either as a woman, a person of color, a person of certain sexual orientation, a person of a certain faith, a person with a certain disability, etc., one knows better than expecting some sudden interests in diversity to change the world we live in and most of the people overnight.
I admit I have been watching the diversity discussion gaining more and more traction in librarianship with growing excitement and concern at the same time. For I felt that all of what is being achieved through so many people’s efforts may get wiped out at any moment. The more momentum it accrues, I worried, the more serious backlash it may come to face. For example, it was openly stated that seeking racial/ethnic diversity is superficial and for appearance’s sake and that those who appear to belong to “Team Diversity” do not work as hard as those in “Team Mainstream.” People make this type of statements in order to create and strengthen a negative association between multiple dimensions of diversity that are all non-normative (such as race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability) and unfavorable value judgements (such as inferior intellectual capacity or poor work ethic).3 According to this kind of flawed reasoning, a tech company whose entire staff consists of twenty-something white male programmers with a college degree, may well have achieved a high level of diversity because the staff might have potentially (no matter how unlikely) substantial intellectual and personal differences in their thinking, background, and experience, and therefore their clear homogeneity is no real problem. That’s just a matter of trivial “appearance.” The motivation behind this kind of intentional misdirection is to derail current efforts towards expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion by taking people’s attention away from the real issue of systematic marginalization in our society. Of course, the ultimate goal of all diversity efforts should be not the mere inclusion of minorities but enabling them to have agency as equal as the agency those privileged already possess. But objections are being raised against mere inclusion. Anti-diversity sentiment is real, and people will try to rationalize it in any way they can.
Then of course, the other source of my inner resistance to speaking or writing about diversity has been the simple fact that thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion does not take me to a happy place. It reminds me of many bad experiences accumulated over time that I would rather not revisit. This is why I admire those who have spoken and written about their lived experience as a member of a systematically discriminated and marginalized group. Their contribution is a remarkably selfless one.
I don’t have a clear answer to how this reflection on my own resistance against actively speaking or writing about diversity will help future organizers. But clearly, being asked to join many times had an effect since I finally did accept the invitation to moderate a panel and wrote this article. So, if you are serious about getting more minorities – whether in different religions, genders, disabilities, races, etc. – to speak or write on the issue, then invite them and be ready to do it over and over again even if they decline. Don’t expect that they will trust you at the first invitation. Understand that by accepting such an invitation, minorities do risk far more than non-minorities will ever do. The survey I ran for the registrants of the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums” panel discussion program showed several respondents expressing their concern about the backlash at their workplaces that did or may result from participating in diversity efforts as a serious deterrent.4 If we would like to see more minorities participate in diversity efforts, we must create a safe space for everyone and take steps to deal with potential backlash that may ensue afterwards.5
A Gentle Intro or a Deep Dive?
Another issue that many organizers of diversity-focused events, programs, and initiatives struggle with is two conflicting expectations from their audience. On one hand, there are those who are familiar with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and want to see how institutions and individuals are going to take their initial efforts to the next level. These people often come from organizations that already implemented certain pro-diversity measures such as search advocates for the hiring process.6 and educational programs that familiarize the staff with the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion.7 On the other hand, there are still many who are not quite sure what diversity, equity, and inclusion exactly mean in a workplace or in their lives. Those people would continue to benefit from a gentle introduction to things such as privilege, microaggression, and unconscious biases.
The feedback surveys collected after the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums” panel discussion program showed these two different expectations. Some people responded that they deeply appreciated the personal stories shared by the panelists, noting that they did not realize how often minorities are marginalized even in one day’s time. Others, however, said they would be like to hear more about actionable items and strategies that can be implemented to further advance the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that go beyond personal stories. Balancing these two different demands is a hard act for organizers. However, this is a testament to our collective achievement that more and more people are aware of the importance of continuing efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in libraries, archives, and museums.
I do think that we need to continue to provide a general introduction to diversity-related issues, exposing people to everyday experience of marginalized groups such as micro-invalidation, impostor syndrome, and basic concepts like white privilege, systematic oppression, colonialism, and intersectionality. One of the comments we received via the feedback survey after our diversity panel discussion program was that the program was most relevant in that it made “having colleagues attend with me to hear what I myself have never told them” possible. General programs and events can be an excellent gateway to more open and less guarded discussion.
At the same time, it seems to be high time for us in libraries, museums, and archives to take a deep dive into different realms of diversity, equity, and inclusion as well. Diversity comes in many dimensions such as age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Many of us feel more strongly about one issue than others. We should create opportunities for ourselves to advocate for specific diversity issues that we care most.
The only thing I would emphasize is that one specific dimension of diversity should not be used as an excuse to neglect others. Exploring socioeconomic inequality issues without addressing how they work combined with the systematic oppression of marginalized groups such as Native Americans, women, or immigrants at the same time can be an example of such a case. All dimensions of diversity are closely knitted with one another, and they do not exist independently. For this reason, a deep dive into different realms of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be accompanied by the strong awareness of their intersectionality.8
Recommendations and Resources for Future Organizers
Organizing a diversity-focused program takes a lot of effort. While planning the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums” panel discussion program at the University of Rhode Island Libraries, I worked closely with my library dean, Karim Boughida, who originally came up with the idea of having a panel discussion program at the University of Rhode Island Libraries, and Renee Neely in the libraries’ diversity initiatives for approximately two months. For panelists, we decided to recruit as many minorities from diverse institutions and backgrounds. We were fortunate to find panelists from a museum, an archive, both a public and an academic library with varying degrees of experience in the field from only a few years to over twenty-five years, ranging from a relatively new archivist to an experienced museum and a library director. Our panel consisted of one-hundred percent people of color. The thoughts and perspectives that those panelists shared were, as a result, remarkably diverse and insightful. For this reason, I recommend spending some time to get the right speakers for your program if your program will have speakers.
Another thing I would like to share is the questions that I created for the panel discussion. Even though we had a whole hour, I was able to cover only several of them. But since I discussed all these questions in advance with the panelists and they helped me put a final touch on some of those, I think these questions can be useful to future organizers who may want to run a similar program. They can be utilized for a panel discussion, an unconference, or other types of programs. I hope this is helpful and save time for other organizers.
Sample Questions for the Diversity Panel Discussion
Why should libraries, archives, museums pay attention to the issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
In what ways do you think the lack of diversity in our profession affects the perception of libraries, museums, and archives in the communities we serve?
Do you have any personal or work-related stories that you would like to share that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion issues?
How did you get interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues?
Suppose you discovered that your library’s, archive’s or museum’s collection includes prejudiced information, controversial objects/ documents, or hate-inducing material. What would you do?
Suppose a group of your library / archive / museum patrons want to use your space to hold a local gathering that involves hate speech. What would you do? What would you be mostly concerned about, and what would the things that you would consider to make a decision on how you will respond?
Do you think libraries, archives, and museums are a neutral place? What do you think neutrality means to a library, an archive, a museum in practice in a divisive climate such as now?
What are some of the areas in libraries, museums, and archives where you see privileges and marginalization function as a barrier to achieving our professional values – equal access and critical thinking? What can we do to remove those barriers?
Could you tell us how colonialist thinking and practice are affecting libraries, museums, and archives either consciously or unconsciously? Since not everyone is familiar with what colonialism is, please begin with first your brief interpretation of what colonialist thinking or practice look like in libraries, museums, and archives first?
What do you think libraries, archives, and museums can do more to improve critical thinking in the community that we serve?
Although libraries, archives, museums have been making efforts to recruit, hire, and retain diverse personnel in recent years, the success rate has been relatively low. For example, in librarianship, it has been reported that often those hired through these efforts experienced backlash at their own institutions, were subject to unrealistic expectations, and met with unsupportive environment, which led to burnout and a low retention rate of talented people. From your perspective – either as a manager hiring people or a relatively new librarian who looked for jobs – what do you think can be done to improve this type of unfortunate situation?
Many in our profession express their hesitation to actively participate in diversity, equity, and inclusion-related discussion and initiatives at their institutions because of the backlash from their own coworkers. What do you think we can do to minimize such backlash?
Some people in our profession express strong negative feelings regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion-related initiatives. How much of this type of anti-diversity sentiment do you think exist in your field? Some worry that this is even growing faster in the current divisive and intolerant climate. What do you think we can do to counter such anti-diversity sentiment?
There are many who are resistant to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Have you taken any action to promote and advance these values facing such resistance? If so, what was your experience like, and what would be some of the strategies you may recommend to others working with those people?
Many people in our profession want to take our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to the next level, beyond offering mere lip service or simply playing a numbers game for statistics purpose. What do you think that next level may be?
Lastly, I felt strongly about ensuring that the terms and concepts often thrown out in diversity/equity/inclusion-related programs and events – such as intersectionality, white privilege, microaggression, patriarchy, colonialism, and so on – are not used to unintentionally alienate those who are unfamiliar with them. These concepts are useful and convenient shortcuts that allow us to communicate a large set of ideas previously discussed and digested, so that we can move our discussion forward more efficiently. They should not make people feel uncomfortable nor generate any hint of superiority or inferiority.
I am sharing the survey questions, the video links, and the glossary in the hope that they may be helpful as a useful tool for future organizers. For example, one may decide to provide a glossary like this before the program or run an unconference that aims at unpacking the meanings of these terms and discussing how they relate to people’s daily lives.10
In Closing: Diversity, Libraries, Technology, and Our Own Biases
Disagreements on social issues are natural. But the divisiveness that we are currently experiencing seems to be particularly intense. This deeply concerns us, educators and professionals working in libraries, archives, and museums. Libraries, archives, and museums are public institutions dedicated to promoting and advancing civic values. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of those core civic values that move our society forward. This task, however, has become increasingly challenging as our society moves in a more and more divisive direction.
To make matters even more complicated, libraries, archives, museums in general lack diversity in their staff composition. This homogeneity can impede achieving our own mission. According to the recent report from Ithaka S+R released this August, we do not appear to have gotten very far. Their report “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity: Members of the Association of Research (ARL) Libraries – Employee Demographics and Director Perspectives,” shows that libraries and library leadership/administration are both markedly white-dominant (71% and 89% white non-Hispanic respectively).11 Also, while librarianship in general are female dominant (61%), the technology field in libraries is starkly male (70%) along with Makerspace (65%), facilities (64%), and security (73%) positions.12 The survey results in the report show that while the majority of library directors say there are barriers to achieving more diversity in their library, they attribute those barriers to external rather than internal factors such as the library’s geographic location and the insufficiently diverse application pool resulting from the library’s location. What is fascinating, however, is that this directly conflicts with the fact that libraries do show little variation in the ratio of white staff based on degree of urbanization. Equally interesting is that the staff in more homogeneous and less diverse (over 71% White Non-Hispanic) libraries think that their libraries are much more equitable than the library community (57% vs 14%) and that library directors (and staff) consider their own library to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive than the library community with respect to almost every category such as race/ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ, disabilities, veterans, and religion.
While these findings in the Ithaka S+R report are based upon the survey results from ARL libraries, similar staff composition and attitudes can be assumed to apply to libraries in general. There is a great need for both the library administration and the staff to understand their own unconscious and implicit biases, workplace norms, and organizational culture that may well be thwarting their own diversity efforts.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have certainly been a topic of active discussion in the recent years. Many libraries have established a committee or a task force dedicated to improving diversity. But how are those efforts paying out? Are they going beyond simply paying a lip service? Is it making a real difference to everyday experience of minority library workers?13 Can we improve, and if so where and how? Where do we go from here? Those would be the questions that we will need to examine in order to take our diversity efforts in libraries, archives, and museums to the next level.
Note that this kind of biased assertions often masquerades itself as an objective intellectual pursuit in academia when in reality, it is a direct manifestation of an existing prejudice reflecting the limited and shallow experience of the person posting the question him/herself. A good example of this is found in the remark in 2005 made by Larry Summers, the former Harvard President. He suggested that one reason for relatively few women in top positions in science may be “issues of intrinsic aptitude” rather than widespread indisputable everyday discrimination against women. He resigned after the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences cast a vote of no confidence. See Scott Jaschik, “What Larry Summers Said,” Inside Higher Ed, February 18, 2005, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/02/18/summers2_18. ↩
For this purpose, asking all participants to respect one another’s privacy in advance can be a good policy. In addition to this, we specifically decided not to stream or record our panel discussion program, so that both panelists and attendees can freely share their experience and thoughts. ↩
For the limitations of the mainstream diversity discussion in LIS (library and information science) with the focus on inclusion and cultural competency, see David James Hudson, “On ‘Diversity’ as Anti-Racism in Library and Information Studies: A Critique,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 1 (January 31, 2017), https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.24242/jclis.v1i1.6. ↩
It’s a problem as old as library websites themselves: how to represent the times when a library building is open in a way that’s easy for patrons to understand and easy for staff to update?
Every website or content management system has its own solution that can’t quite suit our needs. In a previous position, I remember using a Drupal module which looked slick and had a nice menu for entering data on the administrative side…but it was made by a European developer and displayed dates in the (inarguably more logical) DD/MM/YYYY format. I didn’t know enough PHP at the time to fix it, and it would’ve confused our users, so I scrapped it.
Then there’s the practice of simply manually updating an HTML fragment that has the hours written out. This approach has advantages that aren’t easily dismissed: you can write out detailed explanations, highlight one-off closures, adjust to whatever oddity comes up. But it’s tedious for staff to edit a web page and easy to forget. This is especially true if hours information is displayed in several places; keeping everything in sync is an additional burden, with a greater possibility for human error. So when we went to redesign our library website, developing an hours application that made entering data and then reusing it in multiple places easy was at the forefront of my mind.
Why is this so hard?
One might think displaying hours is easy. The end products often look innocuous. But there are a bevy of reasons why it’s complicated for many libraries:
open hours differ across different branches
hours of particular services within a branch may not fully overlap with the library building’s open hours
a branch might close and re-open during the day
a branch might be open later than midnight, so technically “closing” on a date different than when it opened
holidays, campus closures, unexpected emergencies, and other exceptions disrupt regular schedules
in academia, schedules differ whether class is in session, it’s a break during a term, or it’s a break in between terms
the staff who know or determine a branch’s open hours aren’t necessarily technically skilled and may be spread across disparate library departments
dates and times are unique forms of data with their own unique displays, storage types, and operations (e.g. chronological comparisons)
Looking at other libraries, the struggle to represent their business hours is evident. For instance, the University of Illinois has an immense list of library branches and their open hours on its home page. There’s a lot to like about the display; it’s on the home page so patrons don’t have to go digging for the info, there’s a filter by name feature, the distinct open/closed colors help one to identify at a glance which places are open, the library branch rows expand with extra information. But it’s also an overwhelming amount of information longer than a typical laptop screen.
Many libraries use SpringShare’s LibCal as a way of managing and display their open hours. See Loyola’s Hours page with its embedded table from LibCal. As a disclaimer, I’ve not used LibCal, but it comes with some obvious caveats: it’s a paid service that not all libraries can afford and it’s Yet Another App outside the website CMS. I’ve also been told that the hours entry has a learning curve and that it’s necessary to use the API for most customization. So, much as I appreciate the clarity of the LibCal schedule, I wanted to build an hours app that would work well for us, providing flexibility in terms of data format and display.
Our website CMS Wagtail uses a concept called “snippets” to store pieces of content which aren’t full web pages. If you’re familiar with Drupal, Snippets are like a more abstract version of Blocks. We have a snippet for each staff member, for instance, so that we can connect particular pages to different staff members but also have a page where all staff are displayed in a configurable list. When I built our hours app, snippets were clearly the appropriate way to handle the data. Ideally, hours would appear in multiple places, not be tied to a single page. Snippets also have their own section in the CMS admin side which makes entering them straightforward.
Our definition of an “open hours” snippet has but a few components:
the library branch the hours are for
the date range being described, e.g. “September 5th through December 15th” for our Fall semester
a list of open hours for each weekday, e.g. Monday = “8am – 10pm”, Tuesday = “8am – 8pm”, etc.
There are some nuances here. First, for a given academic term, staff have to enter hours once for each branch, so there is quite a bit of data entry. Secondly, the weekday hours are actually stored as text, not a numeric data type. This lets us add parentheticals such as “8am – 5pm (no checkouts)”. While I can see some theoretical scenarios where having numeric data is handy, such as determining if a particular branch is open on a given hour on a given date, using text simplified building the app’s data model for me and data entry for staff.
But what about when the library closes for a holiday? Each holiday effectively triples the data entry for a term: we need a data set for the time period leading up to the holiday, one for the holiday itself, and one for the time following it. For example, when we closed for Thanksgiving, our Fall term would’ve been split into a pre-Thanksgiving, during Thanksgiving, and post-Thanksgiving triad. And more so for each other holiday.
To alleviate the holiday problem, I made a second snippet type called “closures”. Closures let us punch holes in a set of open hours; rather than require pre- and post- data sets, we have one open hours snippet for the whole term and then any number of closures within it. A closure is composed of only a library branch and a date range. Whenever data about open hours is passed around inside our CMS, the app first consults the list of closures and then adjusts appropriately.
The open hours for the current day are displayed prominently on our home page. When we rebuilt our website, surfacing hours information was a primary design goal. Our old site’s hours page wasn’t exactly easy to find…yet it was the second most-visited page behind the home page.1 In our new site, the hours app allows us to show the same information in a few places, for instance as a larger table that shows our open times for a full week. The page showing the full table will also accept a date parameter in its URL, showing our schedule for future times. This lets us put up a notice about changes for periods like Thanksgiving week or Spring break.
What really excited me about building an hours application from the ground up was the chance to include an API (inside the app’s views.py file, which in turn uses a couple functions from models.py). The app’s public API endpoint is at https://libraries.cca.edu/hours?format=json and by default it returns the open hours for the current day for all our library branches. The branch parameter allows API consumers to get the weekly schedule for a single branch while the date parameter lets them discover the hours for a specific date.
I’m using the API in two places, our library catalog home page and as an HTML snippet when users search our discovery layer for “hours” or “library hours”. I have hopes that other college websites will also want to reuse this information, for instance on our student portal or on a campus map. One can see the limitation of using text strings as the data format for temporal intervals; an application trying to use this API to determine “is a given library open at this instant” would have to do a bit of parsing to determine if the current time falls within the range. In the end, the benefits for data entry and straightforward display make text the best choice for us.
To summarize, the hours app fulfills our goals for the new website in a few ways. It allows us to surface our schedule not only on our home page but also in other places, sets us up to be able to reuse the information in even more places, and minimizes the burden of data entry on our staff. There are still improvements to be made—as I was writing this post I discovered a problem with cached API responses being outdated—but on the whole I’m very happy with how everything worked out.
Libraries, I beg you, make your open hours obvious! People want to know. ↩
The 2017 Digital Library Federation (DLF) Forum will take place October 23-25 in Pittsburgh, and throughout the program there are multiple opportunities to interact with several of the DLF Groups. For those who are new to DLF, or have never been to a Forum before, it may be hard to know what to expect or how these Groups are different from other associations’ interest groups or committees.
It can be helpful to remember that DLF is an institutional member organization. You don’t need a personal membership to belong to a working group of DLF. Actually, you don’t even need to belong to an institution to sign up to work with a group. DLF practices a very welcoming and inclusive approach to community. Membership does grant discounts on the Forum or other programs, like the eResearch Network, but more importantly, it signals an institution’s commitment to the work that DLF supports and coordinates – such as these groups.
DLF’s groups are not just interest groups or working groups. They are essentially communities that drive a conversation around a topic, or have a particular focus, and usually have some kind of an output. Here is the current list of active groups, with a brief description from their website – those that have programming at this year’s Forum are noted with anasterisk:
The DLF Assessment Interest Group (DLF AIG) was formed in 2014 as an informal interest group within the larger DLF community. The group meets during the DLF Forum to share problems, ideas, and solutions [related to digital library assessment]. The group also has a dedicated Google Group, DLF-supported wiki, and project documentation available in the Open Science Framework.
The DLF Digital Library Pedagogy group is an informal community within the larger DLF community that was formed thanks to practitioner interest following the 2015 DLF Forum. The group, which has a dedicated Google Group, is open to anyone interested in learning about or collaborating on digital library pedagogy.
The DLF eResearch Network brings together teams from research-supporting libraries to strengthen and advance their data services and digital scholarship roles within their organizations. The core of the 2017 network is a working curriculum that guides participants through 6 monthly webinars that address current topics and strategic methods for supporting and facilitating data services and digital scholarship locally.
DLF has created a new framework for establishing mentoring relationships among our community members, centered around face-to-face interaction at our annual Forum. The program is meant to be lightweight, collegial, and mostly focused around the annual DLF Forum.
In 2015, a volunteer planning committee from within our Liberal Arts College community organized a first, one-day Liberal Arts Colleges Pre-conference, specifically created for those who work with digital libraries and/or digital scholarship at teaching-focused institutions, held before the DLF Forum in Vancouver. Both this event and the one that followed in Milwaukee (2016) were huge successes, including concurrent sessions of presentations and panels on pedagogical, organizational, and technological approaches to the digital humanities and digital scholarship, data curation, digital collections, and digital preservation.
All DLF practitioners with museum interests or who engage in college and university museum-based projects are welcome to join. Likewise, current DLF member institutions with museums, galleries, and museum libraries are invited to participate in Museums Cohort conversations.
The DLF Project Managers group is an informal community within the larger DLF community. They meet at the annual DLF Forum and also have a dedicated listserv. The DLF PM Group was formed in 2008 to acknowledge the intersection of the discipline of project management and library technology. The group provides a forum for sharing project management methodologies and tools, alongside broader discussions that consider issues such as portfolio management and cross-organizational communication. The group also maintains an eye towards keeping pace with the dynamic digital library landscape, by bringing new and evolving project management practices to the attention and mutual benefit of our colleagues.
A new DLF group, looking for all levels of commitment, from willingness to be a co-leader of the Working Group to dropping in to point out a good article/blog post/someone-doing-this-already we may not have seen. A Google Group is used for coordination of meetings and work.
Metadata is hard. The Metadata Support Group aims to help. This is a place to share resources, strategies for working through some common metadata conundrums, and reassurances that you’re not the only one that has no idea how that happened. If you’re coming here with a problem we hope you’ll find a solution or a strategy to move you towards a solution!
These groups are excellent ways to learn more about a topic, contribute to problem-solving strategies, and to network with others who share your interests. As you can see, some of these groups have been around for nearly a decade, while others just started this year. There have also been several groups that have sunsetted, reflecting DLF groups’ strength as responsive and current communities, based on need and interest.
If you are at the 2017 Forum, consider learning more by joining a group’s working lunch or presentation. And remember, these groups are based off need and interest. Consider proposing something that stirs your passion, if you don’t see it reflected in the current DLF community!
As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, my library is undergoing a major website redesign. As part of that process, we contracted with an outside web design and development firm to help build the theme layer. I’ve done a couple major website overhauls in the course of my career, but never with an outside developer participating so much. In fact, I’ve always handled the coding part of redesigns entirely by myself as I’ve worked at smaller institutions. This post discusses what the process has been like in case other libraries are considering working with a web designer.
To start with, our librarians had already been working to identify components of other library websites that we liked. We used Airtable, a more dynamic sort of spreadsheet, to collect our ideas and articulate why we liked certain peer websites, some of which were libraries and some not (mostly museums and design companies). From prior work, we already knew we wanted a few different page templates types. We organized our ideas around how they fit into these templates, such as a special collections showcase, a home page with a central search box, or a text-heavy policy page.
Once we knew we were going to work with the web development firm, we had a conference call with them to discuss the goals of our website redesign and show the contents of our Airtable. As we’re a small art and design library, our library director was actually the one to create an initial set of mockups to demonstrate our vision. Shortly afterwards, the designer had his own visual mockups for a few of our templates. The mockups included inline comments explaining stylistic choices. One aspect I liked about their mockups was that they were divided into desktop and mobile; there wasn’t just a “blog post” example, but a “blog post on mobile” and “blog post on desktop”. This division showed that the designer was already thinking ahead towards how the site’s theme would function on a variety of devices.
With some templates in hand, we could provide feedback. There was some push and pull—some of our initial ideas the designer thought were unimportant or against best practices, while we also had strong opinions. The discussion was interesting for me, as someone who is a librarian foremost but empathetic to usability concerns and following web conventions. It was good to have a designer who didn’t mindlessly follow our every request; when he felt like a stylistic choice was counterproductive, he could articulate why and that changed a few of our ideas. However, on some principles we were insistent. For instance, we wanted to avoid multiple search boxes on a single page; not a central catalog search and a site search in the header. I find that users are easily confused when confronted with two search engines and struggle to distinguish the different purposes and domains of both. The designer thought that it was a common enough pattern to be familiar to users, but our experiences lead us to insist otherwise.
The final code took a few months to deliver, mostly due to a single user interface bug we pointed out that the developer struggled to recreate and then fix. I was ready to start working with the frontend code almost exactly a month after our first conversation with the firm’s designer. The total time from that conversation to signing off on the final templates was a little under two months. Given our hurried timeline for rebuilding our entire site over the summer, that quick delivery was a serious boon.
I’ve a lot of opinions about how code should look and be structured, even if I don’t always follow them myself. So I was a bit apprehensive working with an outside firm; would they deliver something highly functional but structured in an alien way? Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised with how the CSS was delivered.
First of all, the designer didn’t use CSS, he used SASS, which Margaret wrote about previously on Tech Connect. SASS adds several nice tools to CSS, from variables to darken and lighten functions for adjusting colors. But perhaps most importantly, it gives you much more control when structuring your stylesheets, using imports, nested selectors, and mixins. Basically, SASS is the antithesis of having one gigantic CSS file with thousands of lines. Instead, the frontend code we were given was about fifty files neatly divided by our different templates and some reusable components. Here’s the directory tree of the SASS files:
Other than the uninformative “misc”, these folders all have meaningful names (“about-us” and “collections” refer to styles specific to particular templates we’d asked for) and it never takes me more than a moment to locate the styles I want.
Within the SASS itself, almost all styles (excepting the “reset” portion) hinge on class names. This is a best practice for CSS since it doesn’t couple your styles tightly to markup; whether a particular element is a <div>, <section>, or <article>, it will appear correctly if it bears the right class name. When our new CMS output some HTML in an unexpected manner, I was still able to utilize the designer’s theme by applying the appropriate class names. Even better, the class names are written in BEM “Block-Element-Modifier” form. BEM is a methodology I’d heard of before and read about, but never used. It uses underscores and dashes to show which high-level “block” is being styled, which element inside that block, and what variation or state the element takes on. The introduction to BEM nicely defines what it means by Block-Element-Modifier. Its usage is evident if you look at the styles related to the “see next/previous blog post” pagination at the bottom of our blog template:
Here, blog-post-pagination is the block, __title and __item are elements within it, and the --prev modifier effects just the “previous blog post” item element. Even in this small excerpt, other advantages of SASS are evident: the respond mixin and $break-medium variables for writing responsive styles that adapt to differing device screen sizes, the clearfix include, and these related styles all being nested inside the brackets of the parent blog-post-pagination block.
Trouble in Paradise
However, as much as I admire the BEM class names and structure of the styles given to us, of course I can’t be perfectly happy. As I’ve started building out our site I’ve run into a few obvious problems. First of all, while all the components and templates we’d asked for are well-designed with clearly written code, there’s no generic framework for adding on anything new. I’d hoped, and to be honest simply assumed, that a framework like Bootstrap or Foundation would be used as the basis of our styles, with more specific CSS for our components and templates. Instead, apart from a handful of minor utilities like the clearfix include referenced above, everything that we received is intended only for our existing templates. That’s fine up to a point, but as soon as I went to write a page with a HTML table in it I noticed there was no styling whatsoever.
Relatedly, since the class names are so focused on distinct blocks, when I want to write something similar but slightly different I end up with a bunch of misleading class names. So, for instance, some of our non-blog pages have templates which are littered with class names including a .blog- prefix. The easiest way for me to build them was to co-opt the blog styles, but now the HTML looks misleading. I suppose if I had greater time I could write new styles which simply copy the blog ones under new names, but that also seems unideal in that it’s a) a lot more work and b) leads to a lot of redundant code.
Lastly, the way our CMS handles “rich text” fields (think: HTML edited in a WYSIWYG editor, not coded by hand) has caused numerous problems for our theme. The rich text output is always wrapped in a <div class="rich-text">, which made translating some of the HTML templates from the frontend code a bit tricky. The frontend styles also included a “reset” stylesheet which erased all default styles for most HTML tags. That’s fine, and a common approach for most sites, but many of the styles for elements available in the rich text editor ended up being reset. As content authors went about creating lower-level headings and unordered lists, they discovered that they appeared just as plain text.
Reflecting on these issues, they boil primarily down to insufficient communication on our part. When we first asked for design work, it was very much centered around the specific templates we wanted to use for a few different sections of our site. I never specifically outlined a need for a generic framework which could encompass new, unanticipated types of content. While there was an offhand mention of Bootstrap early on in our discussions, I didn’t make it explicit that I’d like it or something similar to form the backbone of the styles we wanted. I should have also made it clearer that styles should specifically anticipate working within our CMS and alongside rich text content. Instead, by the time I realized some of these issues, we had already approved much of the frontend work as complete.
For me, as someone who has worked at smaller libraries for the duration of their professional career, working with a web design company was a unique experience. I’m curious, has your library contracted for design or web development work? Was it successful or not? As tech savvy librarians, we’re often asked to do everything even if some of the tasks are beyond our skills. Working with professionals was a nice break from that and a learning experience. If I could do anything differently, I’d be more assertive about requirements in our initial talks. Outlining expectations about that the styles include a generic framework and anticipate working with our particular CMS would have saved me some time and headaches later on.
I’ve always gravitated toward library jobs in library systems and technology, but I recently took on a new position as head of a tech services department in a smaller academic library. Some of my colleagues expressed surprised that I’m moving out of a traditional library IT or systems role, but my former position was as a systems librarian within a technical services department, and for the past few years, a significant amount of my time recently has involved developing collection and metadata-related system integrations for acquisitions and cataloging. A few trends have made me think that I’m not alone in branching out and applying systems skills to diverse functional areas of the library. It has become relatively commonplace for the work of technology innovation to occur, at least in part, outside of traditional library IT departments; for example, reference and instruction librarians playing a tightly integrated role in the optimization of discovery interfaces, tech services staff using Python and linked data technologies to clean up and enhance metadata, and instruction librarians and access services staff creating and managing high-tech MakerSpaces.
More personnel across the library are embracing and developing high tech skills traditionally housed in library systems or IT departments. The following are six general trends I’ve observed that are influencing the spread of technology development outside of traditional library IT.
Increasingly high technical skills are required for most library areas
Job advertisements for almost every functional area of the library emphasize advanced technical knowledge (beyond typical office application knowledge), especially with regard to ILS systems management. In a 2016 study of library job advertisements, the authors found a wide range of job titles that require knowledge and skills in information technology, including Metadata Librarian, Digital Archivist, Information Literacy Librarian, and Research Data Librarian (Shahbazi, Fahimnia, & Khoshemehr, 2016). Scholarly communications, data services, e-resource management, reference, and other library staff positions may all be positioned outside of traditional library IT, but are all deeply involved in the utilization and development of library technologies.
Optimization of cloud-based systems can be distributed
With cloud-based application hosting, managing physical servers and backups may become less burdensome, but the need for knowledgeable personnel to configure and optimize often complex cloud-based systems is as essential as it has always been. Scholarly communications, e-resource, and access services library staff may play highly integrated roles in the development and optimizing of library systems. Beyond acting as consultants for the management of these systems, knowledge in scripting and interoperability mechanisms enables staff outside of library IT to holistically contribute to the development of cloud-based library applications.
More opportunities to build integrations
New library services platforms often enable a number of integrations with third party systems via APIs and other web services.1 Many of these integrations require a deep knowledge of workflows and data structures between multiple systems, so including involvement from multiple functional areas is usually required. The combination of knowledge of a functional area with knowledge of how the library system works can result in some seriously powerful and useful applications.
The increasing importance of data wrangling
Sources of metadata are increasingly varied, requiring data wrangling, work that is often made more efficient by developing coding or scripting methods to automate routine tasks. Metadata specialists are often experts in developing macros in OCLC Connexion (for example), and increasingly require access to a computing environment that enables writing, testing, and using code to further automate metadata cross-walking and cleanup, including use of Python, OpenRefine, and other tools for dealing with enormous amounts of messy data.
Customization of discovery and library e-content
Discovery platforms are complex and often highly customizable. Many reference and instruction librarians have a robust understanding of user behavior and information literacy goals that are essential for development of usable interfaces, as well as skills in user experience (UX) testing and interface design. Reference and instruction librarians are often experts in course management systems and LibGuides, and know good tricks and hacks for optimizing digital learning content. Library collection development, scholarly communications and technical services librarians deeply understand content and how to make it findable, and increasingly play pivotal roles in configuring harvesting and transformation of metadata into discovery systems.
Systems beyond the ILS
Libraries are engaging with a much wider variety of technologies than just an ILS – libraries support institutional repository and digital library software, data management software, authority systems such as VIAF, open publishing, etc. While working with these systems does not necessarily require a background or emphasis on systems administration, it is definitely helpful to have an understanding of the architecture of such applications and how applications might interact with each other.
Systems knowledge is applicable to more than just technology. Thinking like a programmer can often be useful when performing workflow analysis and optimization, as well as problem-solving even in non-technical areas.
Are “true” library systems administrators still needed? (Yes, obviously)
When researching for this post, I came across an amusing article by Roy Tennant from back in 2011 titled “If You are a Library SysAdmin, you are TOAST”. The article presents a (seemingly not satirical?) argument that movement to cloud-based systems in libraries will make library system administrators obsolete:
When I, as just a moderately savvy librarian, can learn maybe five to ten very specific steps and be able to deploy any application I would likely want to deploy, why do I need to talk to my system administrator ever again?
Obviously, six years after this article was written, with many libraries firmly embedded in the cloud with a variety of library applications, the role of the system administrator in library is not at all diminished. While work involving physical servers and backups may be less common for many applications, system administrators and those with IT skills in libraries are still in huge demand to be on hand to evaluate, optimize, and provide integrations for cloud-based library systems.
I think it’s safe to say that the more people in any organization with technical knowledge, the better. Managing decentralized technology projects, however, does require leadership and coordination. When learning to develop applications, coding is often much more fun than worrying about server administration and security – but of course, someone has to be concerned about security and help those who may just be learning about technology adopt secure development practices. Library technology projects don’t have to come out of library IT departments, but leadership from library IT departments should be open and supportive of library technology initiatives coming out of non-library IT areas, while facilitating secure practices. Coordination on the part of library IT is also essential to avoid duplication of effort and ensure that projects being developed are sustainable and supported by the technology environment of the larger organization. Encouraging the open exchange of technology-related ideas across the library prevents tech savvy staff feeling they need to hide their pet projects lest they get ‘in trouble’ with a restrictive library IT department.
In my view, there’s simply too much technology change happening in library to keep all technology development centralized in a single unit within the library. Adding tech-savvy positions within non-technology departments is not a bad strategy – it can help support innovation out of library departments that haven’t traditionally been expected to drive technological change. However, continually raising expectations with regard to technical knowledge can be stressful, so ensuring that strong support for professional development is in place is also important. In my own new position, I’m excited to channel my knowledge of APIs and interest in data visualization technologies into creating some cool collection management and assessment tools, and I’m not at all concerned that I won’t have an opportunity to apply my technical knowledge in the rapidly changing landscape of library technical services and collection development. Working outside of library IT means that I need to communicate closely with the head of library IT about the projects I’m working on, and also be sure to closely follow other technology-related projects across the library and be proactive about offering my skills where they might be helpful. It also means that I need to work to support the technical expertise of staff in my department, particularly as related to library system management in acquisitions and cataloging. No matter your role in the library, there’s plenty of technology-related work to go around.
See, for example, the Ex Libris and OCLC Developer Networks, both of which provide great documentation and example applications to novice developers. ↩
Many libraries today provide 3D printing service. But not all of them can afford to do so for free. While free 3D printing may be ideal, it can jeopardize the sustainability of the service over time. Nevertheless, many libraries tend to worry about charging service fees.
In this post, I will outline how I determined the pricing schema for our library’s new 3D Printing service in the hope that more libraries will consider offering 3D printing service if having to charge the fee is a factor stopping them. But let me begin with libraries’ general aversion to fees.
Service Fees Are Not Your Enemy
Charging fees for the library’s service is not something librarians should regard as a taboo. We live in the times in which a library is being asked to create and provide more and more new and innovative services to help users successfully navigate the fast-changing information landscape. A makerspace and 3D printing are certainly one of those new and innovative services. But at many libraries, the operating budget is shrinking rather than increasing. So, the most obvious choice in this situation is to aim for cost-recovery.
It is to be remembered that even when a library aims for cost-recovery, it will be only partial cost-recovery because there is a lot of staff time and expertise that is spent on planning and operating such new services. Libraries should not be afraid to introduce new services requiring service fees because users will still benefit from those services often much more greatly than a commercial equivalent (if any). Think of service fees as your friend. Without them, you won’t be able to introduce and continue to provide a service that your users need. It is a business cost to be expected, and libraries will not make profit out of it (even if they try).
Still bothered? Almost every library charges for regular (paper) printing. Should a library rather not provide printing service because it cannot be offered for free? Library users certainly wouldn’t want that.
Determining Your Service Fees
What do you need in order to create a pricing scheme for your library’s 3D printing service?
(a) First, you need to list all cost-incurring factors. Those include (i) the equipment cost and wear and tear, (ii) electricity, (iii) staff time & expertise for support and maintenance, and (iv) any consumables such as 3d print filament, painter’s tape. Remember that your new 3D printer will not last forever and will need to be replaced by a new one in 3-5 years.
Also, some of these cost-incurring factors such as staff time and expertise for support is fixed per 3D print job. On the other hand, another cost-incurring factor, 3D print filament, for example, is a cost factor that increases in proportion to the size/density of a 3d model that is printed. That is, the larger and denser a 3d print model is, the more filament will be used incurring more cost.
(b) Second, make sure that your pricing scheme is readily understood by users. Does it quickly give users a rough idea of the cost before their 3D print job begins? An obscure pricing scheme can confuse users and may deter them from trying out a new service. That would be bad user experience.
Also in 3D printing, consider if you will also charge for a failed print. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you don’t. Maybe you want to charge a fee that is lower than a successful print. Whichever one you decide on, have that covered since failed prints will certainly happen.
(c) Lastly, the pricing scheme should be easily handled by the library staff. The more library staff will be involved in the entire process of a library patron using the 3D printing service from the beginning to the end, the more important this becomes. If the pricing scheme is difficult for the staff to work with when they need charge for and process each 3D print job, the new 3D printing service will increase their workload significantly.
Which staff will be responsible for which step of the new service? What would be the exact tasks that the staff will need to do? For example, it may be that several staff at the circulation desk need to learn and handle new tasks involving the 3D printing service, such as labeling and putting away completed 3D models, processing the payment transaction, delivering the model, and marking the job status for the paid 3D print job as ‘completed’ in the 3D Printing Staff Admin Portal if there is such a system in place. Below is the screenshot of the HS/HSL 3D Printing Staff Admin Portal developed in-house by the library IT team.
Examples – 3D Printing Service Fees
It’s always helpful to see how other libraries are doing when you need to determine your own pricing scheme. Here are some examples that shows ten libraries’ 3D printing pricing scheme changed over the recent three years.
2014 – $0.20 per gram of the finished print; 2017 – ?
UCLA Library, Dalhousie University Library (2014)
Types of 3D Printing Service Fees
From the examples above, you will notice that many 3d printing service fee schemes are based upon the weight of a 3D-print model. This is because these libraries are trying recover the cost of the 3d filament, and the amount of filament used is most accurately reflected in the weight of the resulting 3D-printed model.
However, there are a few problems with the weight-based 3D printing pricing scheme. First, it is not readily calculable by a user before the print job, because to do so, the user will have to weigh a model that s/he won’t have until it is 3D-printed. Also, once 3D-printed, the staff will have to weigh each model and calculate the cost. This is time-consuming and not very efficient.
For this reason, my library considered an alternative pricing scheme based on the size of a 3D model. The idea was that we will have roughly three different sizes of an empty box – small, medium, and large – with three different prices assigned. Whichever box into which a user’s 3d printed object fits will determine how much the user will pay for her/his 3D-printed model. This seemed like a great idea because it is easy to determine how much a model will cost to 3d-print to both users and the library staff in comparison to the weight-based pricing scheme.
Unfortunately, this size-based pricing scheme has a few significant flaws. A smaller model may use more filament than a larger model if it is denser (meaning the higher infill ratio). Second, depending on the shape of a model, a model that fits in a large box may use much less filament than the one that fits in a small box. Think about a large tree model with think branches. Then compare that with a 100% filled compact baseball model that fits into a smaller box than the tree model does. Thirdly, the resolution that determines a layer height may change the amount of filament used even if what is 3D-printed is a same model.
Charging Based upon the 3D Printing Time
So we couldn’t go with the size-based pricing scheme. But we did not like the problems of the weight-based pricing scheme, either. As an alternative, we decided to go with the time-based pricing scheme because printing time is proportionate to how much filament is used, but it does not require that the staff weigh the model each time. A 3D-printing software gives an estimate of the printing time, and most 3D printers also display actual printing time for each model printed.
First, we wanted to confirm the hypothesis that 3D printing time and the weight of the resulting model are proportionate to each other. I tested this by translating the weight-based cost to the time-based cost based upon the estimated printing time and the estimated weight of several cube models. Here is the result I got using the Makerbot Replicator 2X.
9.10 gm/36 min= 0.25 gm per min.
17.48 gm/67 min= 0.26 gm per min.
30.80 gm/117 min= 0.26 gm per min.
50.75 gm/186 min=0.27 gm per min.
87.53 gm/316 min= 0.28 gm per min.
194.18 gm/674 min= 0.29 gm per min.
There is some variance, but the hypothesis holds up. Based upon this, now let’s calculate the 3d printing cost by time.
3D plastic filament is $48 for ABS/PLA and $65 for the dissolvable per 0.90 kg (=2.00 lb) from Makerbot. That means that filament cost is $0.05 per gram for ABS/PLA and $0.07 per gram for the dissolvable. So, 3D filament cost is 6 cents per gram on average.
Finalizing the Service Fee for 3D Printing
For an hour of 3D printing time, the amount of filament used would be 15.6 gm (=0.26 x 60 min). This gives us the filament cost of 94 cents per hour of 3D printing (=15.6 gm x 6 cents). So, for the cost-recovery of filament only, I get roughly $1 per hour of 3D printing time.
Earlier, I mentioned that filament is only one of the cost-incurring factors for the 3D printing service. It’s time to bring in those other factors, such as hardware wear/tear, staff time, electricity, maintenance, etc., plus “no-charge-for-failed-print-policy,” which was adopted at our library. Those other factors will add an additional amount per 3D print job. And at my library, this came out to be about $2. (I will not go into details about how these have been determined because those will differ at each library.) So, the final service fee for our new 3D printing service was set to be $3 up to 1 hour of 3D printing + $1 per additional hour of 3D printing. The $3 is broken down to $1 per hour of 3D printing that accounts for the filament cost and $2 fixed cost for every 3D print job.
To help our users to quickly get an idea of how much their 3D print job will cost, we have added a feature to the HS/HSL 3D Print Job Submission Form online. This feature automatically calculates and displays the final cost based upon the printing time estimate that a user enters.
Don’t Be Afraid of Service Fees
I would like to emphasize that libraries should not be afraid to set service fees for new services. As long as they are easy to understand and the staff can explain the reasons behind those service fees, they should not be a deterrent to a library trying to introduce and provide a new innovative service.
There is a clear benefit in running through all cost-incurring factors and communicating how the final pricing scheme was determined (including the verification of the hypothesis that 3D printing time and the weight of the resulting model are proportionate to each other) to all library staff who will be involved in the new 3D printing service. If any library user inquire about or challenges the service fee, the staff will be able to provide a reasonable explanation on the spot.
I implemented this pricing scheme at the same time as the launch of my library’s makerspace (the HS/HSL Innovation Space at the University of Maryland, Baltimore – http://www.hshsl.umaryland.edu/services/ispace/) back in April 2015. We have been providing 3D printing service and charging for it for more than two years. I am happy to report that during that entire duration, we have not received any complaint about the service fee. No library user expected our new 3D printing service to be free, and all comments that we received regarding the service fee were positive. Many expressed a surprise at how cheap our 3D printing service is and thanked us for it.
To summarize, libraries should be willing to explore and offer new innovating services even when they require charging service fees. And if you do so, make sure that the resulting pricing scheme for the new service is (a) sustainable and accountable, (b) readily graspable by users, and (c) easily handled by the library staff who will handle the payment transaction. Good luck and happy 3D printing at your library!
In Fall of 2016, the city of Los Angeles held a 2-week “Innovate LA” event intended to celebrate innovation and creativity within the LA region. Dozens of organizations around Los Angeles held events during Innovate LA to showcase and provide resources for making, invention, and application development. As part of this event, the library at California State University, Northridge developed and hosted two weeks of coding challenges, designed to introduce novice coders to basic development using existing tutorials. Coders were rewarded with digital badges distributed by the application Credly.
The primary organization of the events came out of the library’s Creative Media Studio, a space designed to facilitate audio and video production as well as experimentation with emerging technologies such as 3D printing and virtual reality. Users can use computers and recording equipment in the space, and can check out media production devices, such as camcorders, green screens, GoPros, and more. Our aim was to provide a fun, very low-stress way to learn about coding, provide time for new coders to get hands-on help with coding tutorials, and generally celebrate how coding can be fun. While anyone was welcome to join, our marketing efforts specifically focused on students, with coding challenges distributed daily throughout the Innovate LA period through Facebook.
Here’s a list of the challenges and their corresponding badges earned:
Note the final three challenges – editing a Wikipedia page, creating a 3D model, and experimenting with Google Cardboard or other virtual reality (VR) goggles are not coding challenges, but we wanted to use the opportunity to promote some of the other services the Creative Media Studio provides. Conveniently, the library was hosting a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon during the same period as the coding challenges, so it made sense to leverage both of those events as part of our Innovate LA programming.
The coding challenges and instructions were distributed via Facebook, and we also held “office hours” (complete with snacks) in one of the library’s computer labs to provide assistance with completing the challenges. The office hours were mostly informal, with two library staff members available to walk users through completing and submitting the challenges. One special office hours was planned, bringing in a guest professor from our Cinema and Television Arts program to help users with a web-based game making tutorial he had designed. This partnership was very successful, and that particular office hour session had the most attendance of any we offered. In future iterations of this event, more advance planning would enable us to partner with additional faculty members and feature tutorials they already use effectively with students in their curriculum.
We needed a way to both accept submissions documenting completion of coding challenges and a way to award digital badges. Originally we had investigated potentially distributing digital badges through our campus learning management system, as some learning management systems like Moodle are capable of awarding digital badges. There were a couple of problems with this – 1) we wanted the event to be open to anyone, including members of the community who wouldn’t have access to the learning management system, and 2), the digital badge capability hadn’t been activated in our campus’ instance of Moodle. Another route we considered taking was accepting submissions for completed challenges was through the university’s Portfolium application, which has a fairly robust ability to accept submissions for completed work, but again, wouldn’t facilitate anyone from outside of the university participating. Credly seemed like an easy, efficient way to both accept submissions and award badges that could also be embedded in 3rd party applications, such as LinkedIN. Since we hosted the competition in 2016, the capability to integrate Credly badges in Portfolium has been made available.
Credly enables you to either design your badges using Credly’s Badge Builder or upload your own badge designs. Luckily, we had access to amazing student designers Katie Pappace, Rose Rieux, and Eva Cohen, who custom-created our badges using Adobe Illustrator. A Credly account for the library’s Creative Media Studio was created to issue the badges, and Credly “Credits” were defined using the custom-created badge designs for each of the coding skills for which we wanted to award badges.
When a credit is designed in Credly and you enable the credit to allow others to claim the credit, you have several options. You can require a claim code, which requires users to submit a code in order to claim the credit. Claim codes are useful if you want to award badges not based on evidence (like file submission) but are awarding badges based on participation or attendance at an event at which you distribute the claim code to attendees. When claim codes are required, you can also set approval of submissions to be automatic, so that anyone with a claim code automatically receives their badge. We didn’t require a claim code, and instead required evidence to be submitted.
When requiring evidence, you can configure which what types of evidence are appropriate to receive the badge. Choices for evidence submission include a URL, a document (Word, text, or PDF), image, audio file, video file, or just an open text submission. As users were completing code challenges, we asked for screenshots (images) as evidence of completion for most challenges. We reviewed all submissions to ensure the submission was correct, but by requiring screenshots, we could easily see whether or not the tutorial itself had “passed” the code submission.
Credly gives the ability of easily counting the number of badges earned by each of the participants. From those numbers, we were able to determine the top badge earners and award them prizes. All participants, even the ones with a single badge, were awarded buttons of each of their earned badges. In addition to the virtual and physical badges, participants with the greatest number of earned badges were rewarded with prizes. The top five prizes were awarded with gift cards and the grand prize winner also got a 3D printed trophy designed with Tinkercad and their photo as a Lithopane incorporated into the trophy. A low stakes award ceremony was held for all contestants and winners. Top awards were high commodity and it was a good opportunity for students to meet others interested in coding and STEM.
Our first attempt at hosting coding challenges in the library taught us a few things. First, taking a screenshot is definitely not a skill most participants started out with – the majority of initial questions we received from participants were not related to coding, but rather involved how to take a screenshot of their completed code to submit to Credly. For future events, we’ll definitely make sure to include step-by-step instructions for taking screenshots on both PC and Mac with each challenge, or consider an alternative method of collecting submissions (e.g., copying and pasting code as a text submission into Credly). It’s still important to not assume that copying and pasting text from a screen is a skill that all participants will have.
As noted above, planning ahead would enable us to more effectively reach out and partner with faculty, and possibly coordinate coding challenges with curriculum. A few months before the coding challenges, we did reach out to computer science faculty, cinema and television arts faculty, and other faculty who teach curriculum involving code, but if we had reached out much earlier (e.g., the semester before) we likely would have been able to garner more faculty involvement. Faculty schedules are so jam-packed and often set that way so far in advance, at least six months of advance notice is definitely appreciated.
One small bit of feedback that was personally rewarding for the authors: at one of our office hours, a young woman came up to us and asked us if we were the planners of the coding challenges. When we said yes, she told how excited she was (and a bit surprised) to see women involved with coding and development. She asked us several questions about our jobs and how we got involved with careers relating to technology. That interaction indicated to us that future outreach could potentially focus on promoting coding to women specifically, or hosting coding office hours to enable mentoring for women coders on campus, modeling (or joining up with) Women Who Code networks.
If you’re interested in hosting support for coding activities or challenges in your library, a great resource to get started with is Hour of Code, which promotes holding one-hour introductions to coding and computer science particularly during Computer Science Education Week. Hour of Code provides tutorials, resources for hosts, promotional materials and more. This year, Hour of Code week / Computer Science Education Week will be December 4-10 2017, so start planning now!
Society is always changing. For some, the change can seem slow and frustrating, while others may feel as though the change occurred in a blink of an eye. What is this change that I speak of? It can be anything…civil rights, autonomous cars, or national leaders. One change that no one ever seems particularly prepared for, however, is when a website link becomes broken. One day, you could click a link and get to a site and the next day you get a 404 error. Sometimes this occurs because a site was migrated to a new server and the link was not redirected. Sometimes this occurs because the owner ceased to maintain the site. And sometimes, this occurs for less benign reasons.
Information access via the Internet is an activity that many (but not all) of us do everyday, in sometimes unconscious fashion: checking the weather, reading email, receiving news alerts. We also use the Internet to make datasets and other sources of information widely available. Individuals, universities, corporations, and governments share data and information in this way. In the Obama administration, the Open Government Initiative led to the development of Project Open Data and data.gov. Federal agencies started looking at ways to make information sharing easier, especially in areas where the data are unique.
One area of unique data is in climate science. Since climate data is captured on a specific day, time, and under certain conditions, it can never be truly reproduced. It will never be January XX, 2017 again. With these constraints, climate data can be thought of as fragile. The copies that we have are the only records that we have. Much of our nation’s climate data has been captured by research groups at institutes, universities, and government labs and agencies. During the election, much of the rhetoric from Donald Trump was rooted in the belief that climate change is a hoax. Upon his election, Trump tapped Scott Pruitt, who has fought much of the EPA’s attempts to regulate pollution, to lead the EPA. This, along with other messages from the new administration, has raised alarms within the scientific community that the United States may repeat the actions of the Harper administration in Canada, which literally threw away thousands of items from federal libraries that were deemed outside scope, through a process that was criticized as not transparent.
In an effort to safeguard and preserve this data, the Penn Program of Environmental Humanities (PPEH) helped organize a collaborative project called Data Refuge. This project requires the expertise of scientists, librarians, archivists, and programmers to organize, document, and back-up data that is distributed across federal agencies’ websites. Maintaining the integrity of the data, while ensuring the re-usability of it, are paramount concerns and areas where librarians and archivists must work hand in glove with the programmers (sometimes one and the same) who are writing the code to pull, duplicate, and push content. Wired magazine recently covered one of the Data Refuge events and detailed the way that the group worked together, while much of the process is driven by individual actions.
In order to capture as much of this data as possible, the Data Refuge project relies on groups of people organizing around this topic across the country. The PPEH site details the requirements to host a successful DataRescue event and has a Toolkit to help promote and document the event. There is also a survey that you can use to nominate climate or environmental data to be part of the Data Refuge. Not in a position to organize an event? Don’t like people? You can also work on your own! An interesting observation from the work on your own page is the option to nominate any “downloadable data that is vulnerable and valuable.” This means that Internet Archive and the End of Term Harvest Team (a project to preserve government websites from the Obama administration) is interested in any data that you have reason to believe may be in jeopardy under the current administration.
A quick note about politics. Politics are messy and it can seem odd that people are organizing in this way, when administrations change every four or eight years and, when there is a party change in the presidency, it is almost a certainty that there will be major departures in policy and prioritizations from administration to administration. What is important to recognize is that our data holdings are increasingly solely digital, and therefore fragile. The positions on issues like climate, environment, civil rights, and many, many others are so diametrically opposite from the Obama to Trump offices, that we – the public – have no assurances that the data will be retained or made widely available for sharing. This administration speaks of “alternative facts” and “disagree[ing] with the facts” and this makes people charged with preserving facts wary.
Many questions about the sustainability and longevity of the project remain. Will End of Term or Data Refuge be able to/need to expand the scope of these DataRescue efforts? How much resourcing can people donate to these events? What is the role of institutions in these efforts? This is a fantastic way for libraries to build partnerships with entities across campus and across a community, but some may view the political nature of these actions as incongruous with the library mission.
I would argue that policies and political actions are not inert abstractions. There is a difference between promoting a political party and calling attention to policies that are in conflict with human rights and freedom to information. Loathe as I am to make this comparison, would anyone truly claim that burning books is protected political speech, and that opposing such burning is “playing politics?” Yet, these were the actions of a political party – in living memory – hosted at university towns across Germany. Considering the initial attempt to silence the USDA and the temporary freeze on the EPA, libraries should strongly support the efforts of PPEH, Data Refuge, End of Term, and concerned citizens across the country.