Friday, June 29, 2012

Not a hero's journey

Years ago, I read this blog post decrying how painful it is to sit through conference presentations about library websites because - like Joseph Campbell's archetypal hero's journey - they are all the same. 
A library team, faced with recalcitrant adminstrators and skeptical colleagues, sets off, after producing the requisite usability studies that always seem to correspond magically to the team’s vision, to bring back the boon for the library.  In this genre of presentation, the boon can be found in Open Sourceville, on the other side of Scylla and Charybdis, and just to the right of Careeristan.

So yeah, after reading that, I've always found it difficult writing about my work on library web development without visions of Monty Python going through my head.

And yet.

After about a year of development, the Leddy Library's website launched on June 29, 2012. I'm the chair of the Leddy Library Web Team and I built much of the site's architecture using Drupal 7. Uh-oh, flashback! A quote from that post again...
The question remains: Do we need to hear the Drupal story again, or the one about a library redesign team’s victories over the forces of evil and technophobia?

Um, mebby?

These are the parts of my story that I think you might be useful to you, the reader. I will try not to write myself as the hero of this story, but I warn you that the archetype is strong and flattering and I am human and I need to be loved validated. You, dear reader, can judge me.

Building in stages

Our website is being built in stages. The first stage was just the A to Z list of our online resources. Months later, most of the rest the site was built upon that original list.

Building in stages was very good from a web development standpoint because it gave us the opportunity to build up our skills as we built our site. For example,  my colleague had the time to work on server responsiveness issues that cropped up with our A to Z list. Because she had the time to properly investigate our options and find an optimal solution,  we are now better prepared for the larger migration of stage two (our site is still slow now, but it will be hooked up to Varnish next week and so I'm confident that the pokeyness will be resolved).

Our third stage will involve increased complexity to our project and those planned features just wouldn't have been possible had we built everything as quickly as possible in one swell floop simply because they wouldn't have been in our skill set.

Oh, but there is a downside to this approach. Our second stage of our site doesn't current offer librarian subject guides because we haven't gotten our server permissions and workflow issues fully established yet for various technical reasons. If we could have had them ready by the deadline we were given, we would have done so. We hope to have them become available as soon as possible.

To say that my some of my librarian colleagues are concerned by their temporary absence would be an understatement. That's just of one problems behind the 'minimal viable product' mindset: there are different opinions of what makes up a 'minimal viable product'.

Autonomy v. Reliability

There is another archetype of librarian website presentations. Those are the "library websites suck and it's because librarians want to our users to be librarians" talks. I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I do think it's more complicated than that.

Establishing and enforcing usability guidelines means restricting the autonomy of the author (I prefer this term over 'content provider') to a certain extent. Workplace autonomy is incredibly important and so I think it's wrong to simply dismiss concerns about the terms of creation of work.


Our previous website (b. 2005. d. 2012), was a collection of WYSIWYG pages running on Lotus Notes Domino. Whenever a library database's address changed, it was a member of the library web team (and many times that person was me), who had to manually change every instance of that url on the site to make it work again. Once, we had to change every link by hand because the address of our ez proxy resolver changed. Pages grew out of date. We had link rot.

Our new web site has one page for each online resource with a shortened url associated with a location that be changed once, off-site, using a YOURLs link server which captures traffic to each link as well.  The cost of this reliability is that pages need to constructed from lists of these pages in a formal way. Furthermore, the Web Team has decreed that such lists shall not exceed seven items.

In this case, I think that in this case usability concerns trump autonomy concerns. There is not a single study that suggests that long, undifferentiated lists of unfamiliar tradenames is good for our users.

But maybe that's because I am the hero of this story.

Good luck for your own quest for the Holy Grail. I'm still looking for ours.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

A book for every librarian

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a 20 minute talk at code4lib north.

It began with this slide:

And then I started saying some things.

Here's some of what I said. It's what I can remember along with some things I had meant to have said in the moment.

This hasn't happened to me recently but it has happened to me: you tell someone that you are a librarian and they respond with "a librarian? It must be fun to read books all day".

I used to think this response was batty to say the least, but over time I've come to realise that these words were not meant to be unkind. It's just that most people think that the way to understand a library is through the reading of its books.

That's not the case, of course. So how do librarians understand their collections? Well - and this is going to sound quaint and old-fashioned - but there was a time when you could develop a sense of a library's collection from working at a reference desk. When I worked at the Metro Toronto Reference Library on the Periodicals floor, I had shifts at the Reference Desk that always had a line-up several deep and never afforded a break between inquiries.

But that time has passed.

So now how will we interact with the library to know it better than anyone else?

I consider one response to this question has been librarians embracing some of the "Learn to program" initiatives that have developed recently, such as code year.

Of course, when folks talk about 'learning to program' they don't mean 'learn how to code for coding sake.'

"Learn to program" means 'learn how to use and remix datasets' or 'create useful tools for understanding.'  I think Bill Denton's visualization work resides in this space, as does much critical tool building and tool-using in the Digital Humanities, such as Ben Schmidt's Women in the Libraries.

The trouble, as I see it, is that the present is probably no better time to learn how to code with so many free online initiatives and generous people who are willing to help interested folks -- and yet those who will act on these opportunities will remain a very small percentage of those who work in libraries due to the nature of coding and computing.

So, what are we to do now?  Well, I suggest that we take a step back and go to first principles.  Let's get to the both the core of the Maker and the Digital Humanities movements: Let's get excited and make things!!!

What better way to better understand how our users can find, interpret, re-interpret, and remix works found in libraries, by creating our own works from our own libraries?

I think Maker Culture and Crafter Culture are more alike than different.

And yet, some of you may recall that when O'Reilly launched it's influential Make Magazine in 2005, it had a sister publication called Craft, which ceased publication in 2009.  Hackerspaces get more play than crafting spaces.

Yes, there's probably something gender-related here. No, I'm not going to talk about it today.

Of course, there is a slight problem with my plan: most of us who work in libraries don't consider ourselves Artists or Writers or Musicians or Craftsmen (err, Craftspersons).

But I know how we can get around this particular roadblock, because I've been able to make it past this point myself: you just have to pretend to someone who is allowed to create to their heart's content.

I found this out quite accidentally. In 2007 I heard about an Alternative Reality Game called World Without Oil.  In this particular game, you play a character, but the character is you in the near future, dealing with a strange new world that you read about online.

alternative reality game: World Without Oil
And it was, for me, an introduction to this world of collaborative fiction (or unfiction) in which, to play, you write yourself into the story and communicate with the characters themselves.

And when I played this game, I started seeing places where my ARG world and real world intersected. Here's a picture I took while on a walk and then imagined it as illustrating a traffic standstill that was happening in my World Without Oil...

"This hospital used to be a casino"
And as I played more of these games, I provided richer evidence of my play. I started touching up photos. I started making videos and make-believe radio broadcasts. There was no pressure to do so. I didn't take it seriously. It was just a game. And while I was playing, I was learning to collaborate and problem solve with other gamers around the world.

I'm not suggesting that we should all go out and start playing ARGs as only some folks will enjoy these kind of games. Evidently, not everyone thinks it's fun how to figure out how to deal with a future world that's more dystopian than our present.  And yet, I find it fun to play a character of myself who is somehow coping with these strange futures. Because my future self is awesome.*
* most tweeted line from my talk

What would Jane (McGonigal) do?

Many of the games that I have been playing over the last 5 years have been those designed by Jane McGonigal. And I think it's worth paying attention to the work of game designers because they are very good at connecting people with rich, meaningful experiences. No game designer, for example, would do what libraries do with QR codes and send our poor readers to just more information. A game designer would send them to a new adventure in a new world.

So what would Jane McGonigal do if she had to design a game that involved the library?  Well, it's not difficult to imagine because last year she did just that for the New York Public Library with a game called Find the Future.

(Find the Future slides are from this slidedeck from Jane McGonigal)

To launch the game, 500 people spent the night in the Main Branch of the New York Public Library and were presented a set of 100 challenges that they had to finish by the end of the night.

The challenges required players to visit literary and historical artifacts from the New York Public Library's collection and to respond to them in various ways.

For example, at a station featuring a draft of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, players were challenged to come up with their own declaration or manifesto and have 56 people sign it, just as Jefferson had.

By the end of evening, the 500 authors wrote over 1100 stories that were hand-bound into a book titled 100 Ways to Make History that remains at the New York Public Library and will remain as long as it stands.

[As an aside, I recall reading that some players were very disappointed that the catalogue record for this book did not list all of their names as authors.] 

So what happened here? As I see it, Jane's game tapped into people's dreams and aspirations to write a book, to make history, to make a difference.

Libraries need to be places where people can see where they can make a difference. We should not be indifferent to the hopes and aspirations of our readers.

If they asked me, I would write a book...

And because I aspire to do less yacking and more making. I made one.

I pretended to be an artist.

And I pretended to think of what an artist would do with a QR code.  And I thought that the code should give you to some sort an sensory experience not just more information, more information, moar information. Like a song. You click on a QR code and suddenly, your mobile device would sing a song to you. That could be a pleasant experience. But what song?

Well, some weeks earlier I had a TIL moment and my TIL was that "in 1840, Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, and it is music from this cantata, adapted by the English musician William H. Cummings to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, that propels the carol we know today [wikipedia]" Perfect. But whoa! Finding a free, linkable, and legal audio file on this song is hard. Wait, I think I found one on YouTube. That will work.

Hmm. You know, wouldn't it be great a to have a book printed with that QR code on it, so that a book would take the reader to the Internet to listen to a song about book printing?  That would be kinda funny. And, hey, the University Bookstore has a new Espresso Printer so I could print the book with that. But a book of just the same QR code repeating on every page wouldn't be very interesting. And a book of lots of QR codes would be more work than I'm willing to do, so...

Why not I use the same QR code but copy it repeatedly? What if I photocopied it repeatedly? I wonder how many times I could take a photocopy of a photocopy of a QR code before it degrades into being useless as a code and just a blob of ink? Ha! That would be some sort of artistic statement wouldn't it? A statement on the nature of printing, of digital work, of obscurity of degregation of information, and of copying.

Ok, so I need to make a book. Let's check the guidelines on the Espresso book printer. I need two pdf files: one of the text and one of the cover. Check. Now, how exactly do I figure out how wide the spine of the book needs to be? Ah, that's one reason why book printing on the Espresso is harder than it seems. Luckily, my library has a copy of Adobe InDesign so I can make the my cover using that. Wait. What the what? Why isn't there a "cut" and "paste" in InDesign?  I swear, it's like this program uses a whole different language to design books. Luckily Martin Deck from the Bookstore has been generous with his time and kind enough to walk me through this process. Man, do I ever have a new appreciation for folks who do this work.

I think I may have accidentally learned some more new things.

What if every person who worked at a library was obligated to create and leave one book that remained in the library as long as it remained. Imagine the sense of legacy and the sense of connection that could be established by the shelves of these books. Imagine the ways that those who made these books would choose to express themselves. Would they write a history? a biography? poetry? How could these books connect the people to the place to the time of the library?

What book would you write if they asked you to write a book? 

If I asked you to write a book?

Please write a book.