Tuesday, December 09, 2014

From DIY to Working Together: Using a Hackerspace to Build Community : keynote from Scholars Portal Day 2014

On December 3rd, I gave a keynote for Scholars Portal Day.  The slide deck was made using BIG and is available online.  Thank you to Scholars Portal for inviting me to be with one of my favourite communities.

You can’t tell how many apples are in a seed.

In May of 2010, I, Art Rhyno, Nicole Noel and late and sorely missed Jean Foster hosted an unconference at the central branch of the Windsor Public Library. 

Unconferences are seemingly no longer in vogue, so just in case you don’t know, an unconference is a conference where the topics of discussion are determined by those in the room who gather and disperse in conversation as their interests dictate. 

The unconference was called WEChangeCamp and it was one several ChangeCamp unconferences that occurred across the country at that time.

At this particular unconference, 40 people from the community came together to answer this question: “How can we re-imagine Windsor-Essex as a stronger and more vibrant community?”

And on that day the topic of a Windsor Hackerspace was suggested by a young man who I later learned was working on his doctorate in electrical engineering.  What I remember of that conversation four years ago was Aaron explaining the problem at hand: he and his friends needed regular infusions of money to rent a place to build a hackerspace so they needed a group of people who would pay monthly membership fees. But they couldn’t get paying members until they could attract them with a space.

Shortly thereafter, Aaron - like so many other young people in Windsor- left the city for work elsewhere. It’s a bit of an epidemic here. We have the second highest unemployment rate in Canada and it’s been said that youth unemployment rate in Windsor is at a staggering 20%.

In Aaron’s case, he moved to Palo Alto, California to do robotics work in an automotive R&D lab.

In the meantime back in Windsor, in May 2012, I helped host code4lib North at the University of Windsor.  We had the pleasure to host librarians from many OCUL libraries over those two days as well as staff from the Windsor Public Library. Also in the audience was Doug Sartori. Doug had helped in the development of the WPL’s CanGuru mobile library application. He came to code4lib north because he was was curious about the first generation Raspberry pi that John Fink of McMaster had brought with him.  You have to remember that in 2012 that the Raspberry Pi - the $40 computer card - was still never very new in the world.

A year later, in May 2013, Windsor got its first Hackerspace when Hackforge was officially opened. The Windsor Public Library graciously lent Hackforge the empty space in the front of their Central Branch that was previously a Woodcarver’s Museum.

When Hackforge launches, Doug Sartori is president and I’m on the board of directors.

In our 20 months of our existence, I’m proud to say that Hackforge has accomplished quite a lot for itself and for our community.

We’ve co-hosted three hackathons along with the local technology accelerator WETech Alliance.


The first hackathon was called HackWE - and it lasted a weekend, was hosted at the University of Windsor and was based on the City of Windsor’s Open Data Catalogue.

HackWE 2.0 was a 24-hour hackathon based on residential energy data collected by Smart Meters and was part of a larger Ontario Apps for Energy Challenge.

And the third HackWE 3.0 - which happened just this past October -  had events stretched over a week and based on open scientific data in celebration of Science and Technology week.

We’ve hosted our own independent hackathons as well. Last year Hackforge held a two week Summer Games event for people who wanted to try their hand at video game design. Everyone who completed a game won a trophy.  My own video game won the prize for being the Most endearing.

But in general, our members are more engaged in the regular activities of Hackforge.

They include our bi-weekly Tech Talks that our members give to each other and the wider public, on such topics as Amazon Web Services, slide rules, writing Interactive fiction with JavaScript, and using technology in BioArt.

We have monthly Maptime events in the space. Maptime is an open learning environment for all levels related to digital map making but there is a definite an emphasis on support for the beginner.

This photo is from our first Windsor Maptime event which was dedicated to OpenStreetMap. There are Maptime chapters all around the world, and the next Maptime Toronto meeting is December 11th, if you are curious and if you near or in the GTA.

The Hackforge Software Guild meets weekly to work on personal projects as well as practicing pair programming on coding challenges called katas.  For example, one of the first kata challenges was to write a program that would correctly write out the lyrics of 99 bottles of beer on the wall and one of more recent is how to code bowling scores.

We also have an Open Data Interest group and we are going to launch our own Open Data portal for Windsor’s non-profit community in 2015.  We’re able to do this because this year we have received Trillium funding to hire a part-time coordinator and to small pay stipends to people to help with this work.

Our first dataset is likely going to be a community asset map that was compiled by the Ford City Renewal group.  Ford City is one of several neighbourhoods in Windsor in which more than 30% of the population is have income levels that at poverty level. Average incomes of those from the the City of Windsor as a whole isn’t actually that much less than average for all of Canada - its just that we’re just the most economically polarized urban area in the country.  That’s one of the reasons why, in January Hackforge is going to be working with Ford City Renewal to host a build your computer event for young people in the neighborhood.

As well, our 3 year Trillium grant also funds another part-time coordinator who matches individuals seeking technology experience with non-profits such as the Windsor Homeless Coalition who need technology work and support. 

Hackforge has also collaborated with the Windsor Public Library to put on co-hosted events such as the Robot Sumo contest.

 And we’ve worked with the City of Windsor to produce persistence of vision bicycle wheels for the their WAVES light and sound art festival.  I know it’s difficult to see but in the photo on the screen is a bicycle wheel with a narrow set of lights that are strapped to three spokes on the wheel. When the wheel spins, the lights animate and give the impression that there’s an image in the wheel - it only works with the human eye - because of our persistence of vision - and it’s something that really come across in a photo very well.

[here's a video!]

Also, the City of Windsor commissioned us to build a Librarybox for their event which I thought was really cool!

And like most other Hackerspaces, we have 3D printers. We have robotic kits. We have soldering irons, and we have lots and lots of spare electronic and computer parts. But unlike most other hackerspaces who charge their members $30 to $50 a month to join and make use their space, our hackerspace is currently free to members who pay for their membership with volunteer work.

This brings us to today in the last days of 2014.

2014 is also the year that Aaron came back to us from California. He’s now my fellow board member at Hackforge.  And, incidentally, so is Art Rhyno, who  - if you don’t know - is a fellow librarian from the University of Windsor.

I was asked by Scholars Portal if I could share some of my experiences with Hackforge in light of today’s theme of building community.  And that is what my talk will be about today: how to use a hackerspace to build community. And I will do so by expanding on five themes. 

But as you know know - we are only 2 years old, and so - this talk is really about just the beginning steps we’ve been taking and those steps that we are still trying to take.  We admittedly have a long way to go.

Helping out with Hackforge has been a very rich and rewarding experience and I’ve learned much from it. And it’s also been hard work and sometimes it has been very time consuming.

All those decisions we made as we started our hackerspace were the first ones we’ve ever had to make for our new organization. This process was exhilarating but it also was occasionally exhausting.  Which brings us to our first theme:

Institutions reduce the choices available to their members

The reason why starting up an organization is so exhausting can be found in Ronald Coase’s work. Coase is famous for introducing the concept of transaction costs to explain the nature and limits of firms and that earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991. Now I haven’t read his Nobel prize winning work, myself. I was first introduced to Coase when I read a book last year called The org: the underlying logic of the office by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan.

I also read Coase being referenced in a blog post by media critic Clay Shirky that was about about the differences between new media and  old media. It’s Shirky’s words on the screen right now:

These frozen choices are what gives institutions their vitality — they are in fact what make them institutions. Freed of the twin dangers of navel-gazing and random walks, an institution can concentrate its efforts on some persistent, medium-sized, and tractable problem, working at a scale and longevity unavailable to its individual participants.

Further on in his post Shirky explains what he means by this through an example of what happens at a daily newspaper:

The editors meet every afternoon to discuss the front page. They have to decide whether to put the Mayor’s gaffe there or in Metro, whether to run the picture of the accused murderer or the kids running in the fountain, whether to put the Biker Grandma story above or below the fold. Here are some choices they don’t have to make at that meeting: Whether to have headlines. Whether to be a tabloid or a broadsheet. Whether to replace the entire front page with a single ad. Whether to drop the whole news-coverage thing and start selling ice cream. Every such meeting, in other words, involves a thousand choices, but not a billion, because most of the big choices have already been made.

When you are starting a new organization or any new venture, really, every small decision can sometime seem to bog you down.  There is navel-gazing and random walks.

We got bogged down at the beginning of Hackforge. We actually received the keys to the space in the Windsor Public Library in October of 2012.  Why the delay? We had decided that we would launch the opening of our space with a homemade keypass locking system for the doors because we thought it wouldn’t take much time at all. 

And if we were considering how long it would take one talented person to build such a system by themselves, then maybe we would been right. But instead, we were very wrong. And looking back at it, now it seems obvious why this was the case:

We had a set of people who have never worked together before, who don’t necessarily even speak the same programming languages, working without an authority structure, in a scarcely born organization with no promise that we will succeed or survive, nor sure promise of reward.

Now it’s very important for me say that this so I'm absolutely clear - I am not complaining about our volunteers!!!

Hackforge would not have succeeded if it weren’t for those very first volunteers who made Hackforge happen in those early days when we were starting with nothing.

And the same holds to this day. When we say that Hackforge is made of volunteers, what we are really saying is that Hackforge = volunteers. 

Our volunteers are especially remarkable because -- like all  volunteers - they give up their own time that’s left over after their pre-existing commitments to work, school, family and friends. In volunteer work, every interaction is a gift. But, that being said, not every promise in a volunteer organization is one that is fulfilled. Sometimes you learn the hard way that first thing on Tuesday means 3pm.

But the delay wasn’t just from the building of the system. Once it was built, we then we had to make sure that the keypass system was okay with the library and that it was okay with the fire marshall. And we had to figure out how who was going to make the key cards, how they were going to be distributed and how we would use to decide who would get a keycard to the space and who would not.  Ultimately, it took us 8 months to figure this all of this out.

I wanted to explicitly mention this observation because I’ve noticed that within our own institution of libraries that sometimes when a new group or committee is started up, there is the occasional individual who interprets the slow goings and long initial discussions of the first meetings as, at best, extreme inefficiency, and at worst, a sign of imminent failure.

When in fact, we should recognize that slow starts are normal.

Culture is to a organization as community is to a city

New organizations and new ventures happen slowly and furthermore, they should happen slowly because each decision made is one that further that defines the “how” of “what an organization is”.  Are we, as an organization, formal or informal?  Who takes the minutes at meetings?  Do we need to give a notice of motion? Do we do our own books or do we hire an accountant? Do we provide food at our events?  Do we sell swag or do we give it away? How should we fundraise?  How do we deal with bad actors?  Every decision further defines the work that we do.

It’s very important to take the time to take these steps slowly in order to make sure that the way you do things match up with the why you do things.  As I think we can appreciate in libraryland, once institutions reduce choices of their members it is very difficult - although not impossible to open them up again for rethinking and refactoring.

One of reasons why Hackforge has been very successful in its brief existence - is that it was formed with clearly articulated reasons and clear guiding principles that continue to help us shape the form of our work. And I know this, because the vision of what Hackforge should be was told to be me when I was invited to serve of the board when Hackforge began and, I can attest to the fact, that it is the same the as the one we have now.

Now, there are many different types of hacker and makerspaces: some are dedicated to artists, others to entrepreneurs, while others are dedicated to the hobbyist.   Hackforge - in less than 140 characters has been described as this: Hackforge supports capacity building in the community and supporting a culture of mentorship and inclusivity.

More specifically, we exist to help with youth retention in Windsor. We aim to be a place where individuals who work or want to work in technology can find support from each other.

I know it might sound strange to you that we believe that our local IT industry needs support, especially when we read about the excesses of Silicon Valley on a regular basis.

But in Windsor, there are not many options for those with a technology background to find work and so, despite of the impression we give to those pursuing a career in STEM, tech jobs in Windsor can be poorly paid and the working conditions can be very problematic.

Many of the provisions in the labour law - the ones that entitle employees to set working hours, to breaks between and within shifts, to overtime and even time to eat - have exemptions for those who work in IT.  I’ve been told that the only way to get a raise while working in IT in this town is to find a better paying job.

The IT industry sometimes treats people as if they were machines themselves.

Hackforge was built as a response to this environment. It was build in hopes that it could help  grow something better.  At Hackforge we know our strength does not come from the machines that we have in our space, but our amazing members and the time and work that they give to others.   

I mean, we love 3D printers because they are a honeypot that brings curious folks into our space, but the secret is we are not really about 3D printers.

And yet if you look at all of what our media coverage we receive, you would think we’re just another makerspace that loves 3D printers and robots.

This is why it is SO important to be visible with your values, which is our second theme.

Show your work

One of the challenges that we have at Hackforge is that we don’t have very many women in our ranks.  Women make up half of our board of directors but our larger membership is not representative of the Windsor community and it’s likely not representative in the other aspects of identity, for that matter, either.

We know that if we wanted to change this situation, it would require sustained work on our part. And so when we had our official launch of Hackforge last year, we, as part of the event, hosted a Women in Technology Panel that featured four women who work in IT, including the very successful Girl Develop IT from Detroit, all of whom both shared their experiences and offer strategies to make the field of technology a more inclusive environment and better place for everyone.

In the audience for that panel discussion was a representative of WEST. WEST is a local non-profit group who works and stands for Women’s Enterprise Skills Training. Starting next year, with the support of another Ontario Trillium grant, Hackforge and WEST are going to be launching a project that will offer free computer skills training workshops for women as well as trying to create a community of support, and continue to advocate for women in the IT field.

So I can’t stress this enough. You have to do your work in public if you want your future collaborators to find you.

I have also another Women in Technology story to start our third theme.

So remember I told you about unconferences? Well, the Hackforge members who run the Software Guild do something similar.  Sometimes instead of coding, the folks do something like this.  They write down all thing the things they want to talk about, vote for the topics and then talk the most voted topics within strict time limits. But they don’t call it an unconference:

They call it LEAN COFFEE.

I love it. It’s so adorable.

Anyway, at one of these Lean Coffee sessions, our staff coordinator suggested the topic Women in Technology.  And the response she received was this: We know there’s a problem because Hackforge doesn’t have enough women. But we are not sure how to fix this. 

To me, I found this statement very encouraging. 

Its sad, but in these these times, when people can admit that there’s a problem without any deflection or allocation of blame is actually very refreshing.

I mean, within librarianship - we have some organizations who consistently organize speaking events made up of mostly men. Whenever I raise this matter I usually told that if the speaking topic is not about gender, then it’s not about gender. In other words, they tell me that there is no problem.

But sometimes there is a problem.

Look at this photo:  from this you would never guess that it was taken in a city that is over 80% African American.  This photo from the first meeting of Maptime Detroit that I attended last month.  One of the first things that was said during the evening’s introduction was a simple statement by the organizer.  “I want to acknowledge who isn’t this in room”  And what followed was a plan to hold the next Maptime meetings, not in the mid-town Tech Incubator, but within the various neighbourhoods in the city and alongside partner organizations already working with Detroiters where they live.

So before we can be more inclusive, we need to recognize when we are not.

We can start by acknowledging who isn’t in the room. It isn’t hard to do.

Quinn Norton wrote a lovely essay about this called Count. Speaking of counting, we are now at theme four.

A mailing list is not a community

What you might find surprising is that - for Hackforge being a gathering of people who generally love love love the Internet, is that we really don’t even have a strong online space for folks to hang out in, with the exception of our IRC channel.  We used to have forum software, but is was so overwhelmed with spam on a daily basis it was almost immediately rendered unusable. 

Also, Hackforge doesn’t even have a listserv mailing list. 

And I would go as far to say that one of the reasons why Hackforge has been as successful as we have been is in part, because that we *don’t* have a mailing list.

There’s a website that’s called Running a Hackerspace that is a collection of animated gifs that metaphorically capture the essence of Running a hackerspace. I think it’s particularly telling that there are many recurrent topics that arise this Tumblr: like the complaints that folks don’t clean up after themselves.

(And this is when I confess that when I drop by Hackforge, I am also sometimes made sad).

But the most prevalent theme in the blog is mailing list rage.

You would think this would have been a solved problem by now: how do you support project work that is done asynchronously and dispersed over geography. Many open source communities are finding that the traditional tools of mailing lists, forum software, and IRC channels are not doing enough in helping their communities do good work together. More often than not, these technologies seem to be better than boosting the noise rather than the signal.

Distributed companies like Wordpress are moving from IRC to software platforms such as Slack. As I’ve mentioned before,  I’m involved with a largely self-organized group called Maptime and we also make use of Slack, which is essentially user friendly IRC, chat, and messaging along with images, file sharing, archiving and social media capture.

At Hackforge, we’ve recently decided to use the Jira issue tracker to manage the hacking work that we need to do in the space and we will be switching to Nation Builder software to manage our members and member communications. When activists, non-profits, and political parties are using software like Nation Builder to manage the contact info, the interests, and the fundraising of tens of thousands of people, it makes me wonder when libraries are going to start using similar software to manage the relationships it has with its community.

And at a time when my neighbours who rent the skating rink for collective use, use volunteer management software to figure out who’s turn it is to bring the hot chocolate, I would like to suggest that libraries perhaps could start using similar software to - at least - manage our internal work and communications as well.  Good tools make great communication possible within organizations and our communities. They are are worth the investment.

Invest in but do not outsource community management

Before I end my presentation with this last theme, I do want to offer a caveat to everything I’ve said.  If you asked all of the people who have been involved in Hackforge - those who have come by our events, spent time in the space, or even volunteered some mentoring at an event - if you asked them if they felt they were part of a community, I think most people asked would probably say, no.  I think we have a wonderful group of people who have contributed to Hackforge and  I think we have a group of people who have even found friends at Hackforge, but I think we still can’t call the whole of what we do "a community" - at least not yet. 

Hackforge is approaching its 2nd birthday and this talk has been a wonderful excuse to reflect on what we do well and what we still need to work on.

What works for us are regular events, contests and Hackathons. We are well aware of the limitations of hackathons and how they produce imperfect work but, for us, it seems to be that  that pre-defined limits and deadlines produce more work and generate more interest and excitement than unstructured free time seems to.

Unlike many hackerspaces, we don’t tend to have many group projects. The door project - as you have learned - was one of few group projects, and that one took longer than expected. In our early months, we also had a LED sign project that was never completed and actually resulted in some people leaving Hackforge in frustration.

We are a volunteer organization and as such, by the process of evolution, we are a place for the patient and the forgiving. Sometimes we have gotten our first impressions wrong.

One of the largest challenges I think we have as an organization is to be more accessible to beginners.  In fact, that the feedback that we’ve been getting.

Aaron recently had a tech talk about tech talks and the message he received was that Hackforge should provide more sessions for beginners.  And this is a particular challenge that we haven’t really addressed yet. We’re luckily that Hackforge has people who are both generous with their time and not afraid of public speaking and give tech talks. But many of our speakers don’t preface their talks with an introduction that a newbie could understand. They are so excited to have fellow experts in the crowd and they jump right into the code or electrical specs or what have you.

Likewise, it’s amazing and wonderful that we have regular supportive events like our member’s coding katas in which those who work with software can practice and share their coding practice with others. But at the moment, we don’t really have anything for those who want to learn how to code.  And you might not be shocked to hear this, but Hackforge’s machines like our 3D printers - lack even the most basic documentation on how to use the machines.

Without expanding the work of communicating, documenting, explaining, and teaching, Hackforge won’t be able to attract new members. 

Hackforge started as a top down organization.  Our job as board has been to the build the systems that will allow more of the day to day work of the Hackforge to move from the board to our community and program managers.  We were able to hire our managers in the middle of this year and already, they have made wonderful contributions to Hackforge.  Our next challenge will be how to move more of the operational work of the managers to the members themselves.

In other words, the challenge for Hackforge is to ensure that the work that needs to be done - all of that communicating, documenting, explaining, teaching - needs to be embraced by all of its members as a community of practice.  And through this practice, it’s hoped we can  build a community.

So, those are my five themes for building community with a hackerspace:

Institutions reduce the choices available to their members (so choose carefully)
Show your work (so future collaborators can find you).
Acknowledge who isn’t in the room (Count is only the start).
A mailing list is not a community (Invest in tools that do better).
Invest but do not outsource community management.

The work of figuring how to get a bunch of people to come together and face a shared challenge isn’t just the way the build a community.  This is also how political movements begin.  It’s also how a game begins. I would like to thanks to Scholars Portal for giving me the opportunity to begin Scholars Portal Day with you all.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Knight Foundation News Challenge Entries That I Have Applauded

The Knight News Challenge has been issued and it's about libraries:
How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities? 

I'm reviewing these entries because I think some of them might prove useful in a paper I'm currently writing. There are some reoccurring themes to the entries that I think are quite telling.

Of the 680 entries, there's some wonderful ideas that need to be shared. Here are some of the proposals that I've applauded:

For the purposes of my paper, I'm interested in the intersections of Open Data and Libraries. Here are the entries that touch on these two topics:

And I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that I am also collaborating on this entry:

OVER UNDER AROUND THROUGH: a national library-library game to build civic engagement skills: OVER UNDER AROUND THROUGH is kinda like a dance-off challenge: libraries challenge each other – but instead of “show us your moves” the challenge is “show us how you would take on” actual community challenges such as economic disparity and racial tensions

In many ways, this Knight News Challenge is just such a dance-off.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The story of our future : This changes everything

In the middle of her column that is ostensibly about the television series Red Band Society, New Yorker critic Emily Nausbaum summarized John Green's YA bestseller The Fault in Our Stars with insight:

Among the many appealing qualities of Green's novel is how much it's about storytelling itself, and the way in which books function as a badge of identity, a marker of taste and values... For all it's romantic contours, "The Fault in Our Stars" is centrally a dialectic about why people seek out stories, one that never quite takes a stand on the question of whether we're right to wish for greater clarity in our art, characters we can "relate" to, or, for that matter, a happy ending.

If you had to encapsulate the future of libraries as a story, what story would that be?

Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn?

In this world, technology creates a fast, globalised world where digital services and virtual presence are commonplace. Overall, the mood is fairly optimistic, but digitalisation and connectivity soon create too much information and format instability, so there is a slight feeling of unease amongst the general population. Physical books are in slight decline in this world although library services are expanding. The reason for this is that public libraries now take on a wide range of e-government services and are important as drop-in centres for information and advice relating to everything from education and childcare to immigration. In this scenario, libraries have also mutated into urban hubs and hangouts; vibrant meeting places for people and information that house cafés, shops, gyms, crèches, theatres, galleries and various cultural activities and events.

William Gibson's Neuromancer?

This is a world gone mad. Everything is accelerating and everything is in short supply and is priced accordingly. Electricity prices are sky-high and the internet is plagued by a series of serious issues due to overwhelming global demand. In this scenario, public libraries are initially written-off as digital dinosaurs, but eventually there is a swing in their favour as people either seek out reliable internet connections or because there is a real need for places that allow people to unplug, slow down and reflect. In this world, information also tends to be created and owned by large corporations and many small and medium sized firms cannot afford access. Therefore, public libraries also become providers of business information and intelligence. This creates a series of new revenue streams but funding is still tight and libraries are continually expected to do more with less and less funding and full-time staff.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451?

This world is a screenager’s paradise. It is fast-paced, global and screen-based. Digitalisation has fundamentally changed the way that people consume information and entertainment, but it has also changed the way that people think. this is a post-literate world where physical books are almost dead and public libraries focus on digital collections and virtual services. In this scenario, books take up very little physical space so more space is given over to internet access, digital books and various other forms of digital entertainment. Public libraries blur the boundaries with other retailers of information and entertainment and also house mental health gyms, technology advice desks, download centres and screening rooms. Despite all this, public libraries struggle to survive due to a combination of ongoing funding cuts, low public usage and global competition. 

Or Rachel Carson's Silent Spring?

In this scenario, climate change turns out to be much worse than expected. Resource shortages and the high cost of energy in particular mean that the physical movement of products and people is greatly reduced and individuals are therefore drawn back to their local communities. It is a world where globalisation slows down, digital technology is restrained and where all activities are related to community impact. Public libraries do well in this world. People become voracious consumers of physical books (especially old books) and libraries are rediscovered and revered by the majority of the population due to their safety and neutrality. they are also highly valued because they are free public spaces that promote a wide variety of community-related events. Nevertheless, there are still pressures caused by the high cost of energy and the need to maintain facilities. The phrase ‘dark euphoria’ (Bruce Sterling) sums up the mood in this scenario, because on one level the world is falling apart but on another level people are quite content. 

These scenarios come from a remarkable document produced five years ago in 2009 for The Library Council of New South Wales called The Bookends Scenarios [pdf].

It's the only document in the library literature that I've seen that seriously addresses our global warming future.  It's the only one that I've come across that confronts us and forces us to consider how we may shape our institution and our services now so we can be there for our community when its in greatest need.

If you had to encapsulate the future as a story, what story would that be?

I suffer from dark euphoria.  I worry about global warming.

That's why I'm going to take part in the People's Climate March in New York City on September 21th, 2014.

I'm going because our leaders are not even talking about taking the necessary action to reduce atmospheric carbon and to mitigate the effects of climate change.  This is a movement that requires all of us to become the leaders that we so desperately need.

There's a book that goes with this march: This changes everything.

I'm not normally one for marches. I share the suspicion that gatherings and marches themselves don't change anything.

But events change people. There are events that define movements.

You couldn't have an Occupy Movement without Occupy Wall Street.  And without Occupy Wall Street, we wouldn't have had Occupy Sandy.

I understand the feelings of helplessness and darkness when reading or hearing about another terrifying warning about the threat of global warming. I struggle with these feelings more than I care to admit.

I find solace from these feelings from a variety of different sources beyond my family, friends and community.  Of these, the study of history oddly enough, gives me great comfort.  It has helped me find stories to help me understand the present.

There are those who call the Climate Change Movement, the second Abolition Movement, and I think this description is fitting for several reasons. For one, it gets across that we need to draw upon our shared moral fortitude to make it politically necessary to force those in power to forfeit profit from oil and coal, which unchecked, will continue to cost us grievous human suffering.

It also describes the sheer enormity of the work that must be done. The analogy makes clear how it will be necessary to change every aspect of society to mitigate climate change at this point.

And yet, it has happened before.  Ordinary people came together to stop slavery.

On that note, and I hope I'm not spoiling it for you, I took great comfort in the last passage of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a book of several pasts and a future.

Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

I hear my father-in-law’s response:  “Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam.  But don’t tell me about justice!  Ride to Tennessee on an ass and convince the rednecks they are merely white-washed negroes and their negroes are black-washed whites!  Sail to the Old World, tell ‘em their imperial slaves’ rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium’s!  Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor and gray in caucuses!  You’ll be spat upon, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!  Naïve, dreaming Adam.  He who would do battle with the many headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain and his family must pay it along with him! And only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My Top Tech Trend: One Click Server Installs: New Realms

On Sunday I was part of the ALA Annual Conference's Top Tech Trends Panel, which I shared with good company:

You can watch the 90 minute discussion on YouTube if you'd like (my five minutes of fame begin at 11:35). Some of us are writing up notes and links from the event. Here are the words that I meant to say:

You may not know this but already thousands of families around the world are already taking advantage of my top tech trend for this year, which is One-Click Server Installs. Since March, thousands in the US are using this particular technology from the company Mojang through its new service called Minecraft Realms. Minecraft Realms allows users to have private Minecraft servers hosted by Mojang for $13 a month for up to 20 people. As such, Minecraft Realms allow for a safe, private place for kids to build collaboratively with their their friends across the neighbourhood and even with their cousins across the country.

Now, for a long time, Mojang made Minecraft available to be installed on servers but this ability was restricted to those who had the ability and the means to install software on a server.  And that's why I'm so excited about this particular technology: it promises to lower the barrier of access to a whole set of powerful software to the end user and to the end library.

For example, the CUNY Graduate Center is currently developing DH Box. Their mission is to make well established Digital Humanities software including Omeka, NLTK, IPython, R Studio, and Mallet readily available on a pre-configured DH server so scholars and future scholars can get to the business of using software for investigations instead of spending their time doing the labor intensive work of installing it all.

I'm not sure what software that they are going to use to run this project but it's likely that it's going to be one of the big three in this space: Chef, Puppet or Docker. What this type of software does is that it automates the process of setting up a server. You see, if you've never set a server up before, you might not know that there are a number of processes that have to happen in step in order to get a machine ready for production. First the server software has to be installed on the server, and the programming languages for the software that you then install install next. And then there are the program dependencies and modules that have to be to be in place and then everything has to be configured so it can all work together. Once all the hard work of setting up the steps is in place, this type of software remembers the process not unlike a recipe, so the next time you need a similar server, it will run all these steps for you. In fact, I've already seen people on twitter swap recipes for servers - such as one for a Data Science Box that's hosted on github.

And if you don't have a computer under your desk to install server software, there are services such as Amazon EC2 that give you cloud computers which you can use to load software on and Amazon Web Services Marketplace that provides one-click pre-configured server instances so you can try out software such as ThinkUp or try your hand at languages and frameworks such as Ruby on Rails.

If you are not interested in using Amazon there are other companies that provide this type of service, such as Heroku. And, in what I think it is an interesting development, last month or so Google announced that its own cloud computing services would be making much more use of Docker. What that actually means I'm not sure, so we'll have to see about that.

But what I do know is that there are other related projects that libraries should keep an eye on. In particular, the Digital Library of America recently put in a proposal for e-rate funding - which is funding from the FCC that is used by libraries and schools to provide internet access to the people in their communities - and the DPLA's proposal is that they provide digitization software - presumably using the server automation tools that we're talking about - to public libraries so everyone can get involved in making community collections more readily available.

So those the reasons why I'm very excited about this technology trend. And I'm also excited to now hear from my fellow panelists about their choices. Thank you.

As this was a panel discussion, there were opportunities to ask and answer questions from both the audience and those on stage.  I got my nose in there a several times.

In response to an audience question about what type of hardware to buy for the library in a mobile-first world, I suggested that we consider what sort of work our users would like to engage in when they are at the library.  While we use mobile phones and tablets to access information during the day, especially during commutes and when we crash on the sofa at the end of a hard day, there is still a need for machines for those who do things, when we are engaged in 'long-form' work such as editing video.

In response to Bohyun Kim's introduction to Bio-hackerspaces, I mentioned that O'Reilly publishing has books supporting biology and chemistry projects in the home.

In response to two similar questions, one from a colleague from Columbia and another colleague from a place I don't know, both bout how to expand services when resources are scarce, I suggested partnering with organizations such as Hackerspaces where there are frequently civic-minded technology enthusiasts who would love to use their skills in meaningful work and that gives back to the community.

In response to Roger Schonfeld's trend of antidisciplatory discovery:

One place in the conversation where I missed my opportunity to speak up was after David's response to our moderator's question of whether always available mobile connection would affect our  work-life balance.  David's response was there was little he could do if his employees wanted to work outside of established working hours because they loved their job.

Chris Bourg rightly followed up on this response

And I am grateful that she brought this up.  Because I respectfully disagree with David's response:  I believe that the ever-constant of contact with work means and will increasing mean that more employees will be responding to work emails at home because of increasing expectations from their place of work.

When childcare, housework, and eldercare fall predominantly on women's shoulders, the constant threat of having to provide labour that is involved along with always being on call to respond to technical emergencies - much less keeping up with technology and dealing with the expectation to contribute to open source projects in one's "spare time"  - can feel heavier when you are a woman.

Adding salt to the wound, where I live, IT professionals fall outside of normal employment standards. They are not even entitled to time to eat. For real. 


But it doesn't have to be this way:

Our panel discussion was designed to generate a wider discussion (see #alattt ) and I would like to thank LITA for letting me be a part of it and what I hope will be a longer conversation about technology and the world we want.

And on that note, I'm going to sign off so I can install Minecraft on our family's new-to-us laptop so we can collectively build together in our own local LAN server.  After that perhaps, we will explore new Realms.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Origin of the Future is in the Present

This is the text and slides from my keynote address at the 2014 Library Technology Conference on March 19, 2014. Thank you very much for the organizers for inviting me.

I would like to begin at the beginning. I would like to begin with an origin story.

Origin stories can be found in comic books. Even those of us don’t regularly read comics  already seem to know the backstory of how Batman, Spiderman, and Superman came to be. Origin stories, of course, also hold an important place in our mythologies: Here is Athena, goddess of wisdom and of warfare, springing, fully formed and armored, from the head of Zeus.

Origin stories are still popular today. Almost every tech start up seems to have a one. HP’s  humble beginnings in a small garage. Twitter’s cultural tipping point during South by Southwest in 2007.  Facebook’s turbulent origins that were worthy of a movie.


Women in technology have a practice of sharing their origin stories. Sumana Harihareswara shared hers at the OSBridge Conference some years ago where she described how she became involved in community organizing around open source software.

Sharing an origin story, such as the moment you found wanting to know more about computer programming, is useful for several reasons. First, it reminds us that there are many origin stories out there and that there is not one set path that we must follow to a destination. And origin stories remind us - that it is often moments of enchantment or illumination that first capture our imagination and then our attention and *that* is what sets us on a path to a profession or lifetime pursuit.

I would like you to take a moment to think about your own origin story when it comes to libraries. And I give you permission to ask other people about their origin story over the course of the 2014 Library Technology Conference, perhaps use as an icebreaker if you find yourself beside someone you don’t know.

I’m not going to start this talk by telling you my library origin story, I’m going to share with you another woman’s .  See if you can recognize it.  And no googling as this text is pretty much taken directly  from the biography that I found on her official website.

This woman...

...was born in McMinnville, Oregon, and, until she was old enough to attend school, lived on a farm in a town so small it had no library. Her mother arranged with the State Library to have books sent to her town and acted as librarian in a lodge room upstairs over a bank. She loved to read books but when the family moved to Portland, she found herself in the school's low reading circle, an experience that has gave her sympathy with struggling readers.

By third grade she had conquered reading and spent much of her childhood either with books or on her way to and from the public library. The school librarian once suggested that she should write for boys and girls when she grew up. The idea appealed to her, and she decided that someday she would write the books that she longed to read but was unable to find on the library shelves: funny stories about her neighborhood and the sort of children she knew. 

And so Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, Ellen Tebbits, and her other beloved characters were born.

If you haven’t guessed it already, that was the official biography of children’s author Beverly Cleary, --  a life that was formed and defined by libraries.

I have friends who grew up with not much. They’ve told me that, like for Beverly Clearly, the library was an oasis in their childhood. It was an abundance of riches that could be drawn from time and time again.

Libraries were and remain a place of generosity.  For libraries are not just a place for those who have an appetite for reading that outpaces what they can afford but remain a refuge for students, for the elderly, for the disenfranchised, *for anyone* who needs to come in from the rain and find a place to sit down.

I’ve been asked to open today’s conference with a look forward to the future of libraries.  I’ve told stories about the Future of Libraries before and it’s always been my best received work.  But as we know from the small print of so many investment commercials, past performance cannot be considered an indicator of future performance.

And that is the challenge of what we have, collectively, together before us:  How can we make a future of libraries that is as important and as generous as our past?

What will be the future of the library if the Internet continues to make text no longer scarce and makes our abundance, no longer impressive?  And what will be the future of our world at large? Will our children live in a world of scarcity or abundance?  Endless austerity or the dawn of post-scarcity?

Will the academic library of the future look like this: a study hall with wifi?


Will the public library look like this?

This is how the residents of Præstø Denmark get into their library. They have to swipe their social security card for entrance. And they have to do so because there is no library staff in their completely “open service” library. As the essay that this image links to suggests, this library is the surveillance state brought to its logical conclusion.

If these two scenarios are our future, what will form the library origin stories of our future readers, our future advocates, and our future colleagues?

In my previous talks, I have framed the Future of Libraries through the telling of five different stories.  The premise is that these investigations are not unlike the story of the five blind men and the elephant: each describe the shape of something emerging in the present, but the whole remains elusive.  And I have two disclaimers: I am not a futurist, nor do I suggest that these possible futures are inevitable.


In my 2013 The Future of the Library (And How to Stop It) Talk: I told these five stories.  They are stories that describe the strange ways libraries have been turned inside out.  About how our collections have gone online and our buildings are now designed to collect people. I told stories of how libraries are now created by activists and artists as community building exercises. And I told how we, as librarians, can help in these efforts by providing linked open data as well as the doing the work of digitizing and capturing the digital human record.

It is 2014 and I now have five new stories to tell you. 

Let’s begin with 1000 True Fans

I began this talk with a story of an author so shaped by libraries that it defined her life and work.


Now let me tell you the story of another author. He wrote his last novel here, in the Central Library of Amsterdam.  I don’t know what effect libraries had on him when he was younger, but I do know that is a strong advocate of libraries today.

We know many other authors who champion libraries and defend them when necessary. Some that come to mind include Cory Doctorow, Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, and Lemony Snicket.

Many authors - especially those who write for children and young adults - recognize how valuable the work of connecting books with readers that is done by librarians. They value the school and public librarians who create the space - both physical and intellectual - where the reading choices of young people are taken seriously.

But while many authors may love libraries, the organizations that represent their interests like the Authors Guild and their respective publishers have a much more adversarial relationship with us, as institutions.

There are several reasons for this, but I think it’s safe to say that the situation has escalated largely because creative work remains time-consuming and emotionally expensive to produce while advances in technology has made such work very easy and almost free to reproduce.

When librarians ask how can we preserve ebooks and make them available in our collections for future generations, the answer we frequently receive in return is, How can do you expect a creative person to make a living these days?  

Keeping in mind that this doesn’t answer the question we asked nor is it the question that we were established as an institution to answer,  let’s try to answer this question. If just for our friends, our authors.


Remember the Long Tail?  This was the conceptual model that came out in 2004 that helped us understand the brave new world of online shopping. It wasn’t that long ago - yet it’s hard to remember - when our choices of what our next book, album or movie to spend time with was restricted to what was physically available in your town, stocked in a local store or library.

The theory of the long tail is that physical retailers can only stock a limited amount of products so they sell only the ‘popular hits’ to make the most money, while online retailers of digital products have no such limitations and so they can aggregate the sales of the ‘long tail’ of less popular niche products.

Over the last ten years, the long tail has proven to be good for two groups of people; the first are the people who run these aggregators of culture : Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix. The second group of people are consumers, who have never as much access to different entertainment choices as they do today.


But the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators... The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices.

Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?

One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans

That passage is from author Kevin Kelly who suggests that a True Fan is one who is willing to support an artist’s work for the tune of $100 a year.

In 2008, Kelly’s suggestion was considered audacious. But I think the future will show how on target he really was.

Now, I’m not saying that this model is fair but I will say that for some types of content and for some artists, this model is working.  For example, there are podcasts and web comics that are freely available online and where the artist compensation is largely derived from sales of tshirts and other promotional items. And, in the example of NPR, funding for free content and news service comes through pledge drives.

Whether we call it crowd-funding or public patronage, it is one of the few models that exist as an alternative to advertising.  We are starting to see crowd-funding is starting to supplement other creative activities as well.

We’re starting to see crowd-funded journalists…

...crowd-funded programmers…

crowd-funded criticism ….

and even crowd-funded activists.

And I think we are starting to see a new kind of author who writes for children and who understands the importance of having True Fans.

The children’s author of the future, I believe is going to be more like John Green.

If you haven’t heard of John Green yet, you will probably will soon as his latest book, The Fault in Our Stars is going be released shortly as a major motion picture. John Green wrote a large part of that work while in a writer in residence in Amsterdam.

John and his brother Hank have a video channel called the vlogbrothers that they started seven years ago. If the number of fans can be thought of as equivalent to the number of YouTube subscribers, they have 1.8 million of them.  And there are many more than 1000 True Fans among them.  Indeed, their non-profit organization, Project For Awesome has raised over $2.1 million dollars over the last 5 years for charitable projects that are both nominated and picked by their fans.

I bring attention to their work because I can find no better example of artists who understand how to use the internet as platform for engagement for their fans to connect to each other. They have seem to have taken the lessons of the long tail to heart and through their various side-projects such as their record label, tshirt store, fan conventions, and Subbable, their subscription service for already free videos, they have become aggregators of the work many other artists.

Of course, not every author can or will be as successful as John Green, but his story suggests that finding 1000 true fans for each author  - which remains still a very difficult and challenging achievement -   isn’t as outrageous as it sounded in 2008. 

We can extend the work that libraries already do - connecting readers with works - by helping and supporting local authors find and connect to readers.  We can do this by starting or continuing hosting writers in residence programs and writing circles.  And we can look to the niche publishing models that seem to be surviving despite the Internet. In particular, I’m thinking about how we might borrow from the various science-fiction and fan conventions which creates an International circuit that brings authors and artists to their readers every year.

Maybe it’s not enough for us to just provide access to books. Perhaps libraries should work together and create or our own circuit of events to help maintain and grow a reading and writing culture and connect it to the already thriving participatory culture on the internet. We organize wonderful conferences for each other in the profession. Perhaps we should host conferences for our own communities.

We can learn from John Green. Perhaps the best way to save print is to teach authors how to record and edit sound and video at the library.

Story Two: Making a Mesh of Things

Now suppose you wanted to create an audio and video studio in your library. Because we work in institutions, this usually requires having to make a case for it and to ask for permission. Understandably, we need an ok from our administration. But not so understandingly we frequently also need permission from our IT department. 

I recognize that many libraries are beholden to the IT Departments of their parent institutions and I know first hand how this can limit one’s technology options. For example, at my own place of work, it’s necessary to engage in certain amount of subterfuge in order to get root access to a campus server.  That being said, I know it’s a privilege to even have such a complaint, as I know of  libraries whose IT departments lock-down work computers completely to prevent staff from downloading unsanctioned software. 

I would like to talk more about running a server because running an application for use by people other than yourself frequently requires one.  If you have access to a server, you have access to the public. With a server, you can be on the web and you can be of the web.

That’s how it used to be - when the web was young. If you worked at the university you could have access to your very own folder on the campus server. That the web we lost. Now, most of our online work is limited to form filling, or confined to Learning Management System or the underworld of an Intranet. Academia hid its work away. And then it had nothing to show for when the world suddenly became enamoured with MOOCS. 

We knash our teeth when we receive another wave of LinkedIn requests and shake our heads when a young person we know posts something less than professional on Facebook. And yet we don’t provide our students with the tools or guidance to build a place of their own on the web. These are just some of the reasons I’m personally very interested in University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own project. All incoming students are given their own domain names and Web space and the freedom to create subdomains, install any LAMP-compatible software, setup databases and email addresses, and carve out their own space on the web that they own and control.  

LAMP by the way, stands for  Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl.  I make mention of this because it’s not enough to have access to a server to run software.  You need to have a server with a particular combination of pre-installed programming languages and utility programs, as well as their dependencies.

For example, let’s say that you are looking for an alternative to listservs and you would like to try out Discourse - the open source forum software that’s supposed to be a million times better than the bulletin board type systems that are still remarkably common on the web today. Discourse doesn’t run as a paid, hosted service yet but it is available if you know how to clone the publicly available code from GitHub. All you need is to have access to a server that has Postgres 9.1, Redis 2.6, Ruby 1.9.3 and 1 GB of RAM already installed. 

That sounds complicated because it is complicated. And for most of us curious about trying this software, this point would probably be the end of the experiment.

But that barrier has greatly come down, because someone else has already set up a script that will create the exact server I would need for Discourse and as well as Discourse already installed for use. It’s a one-click server install that runs on Amazon Web Services.

And this is possible because of virtual machines.

It’s not really the place of keynote to explain the mechanics of virtual servers. So let me say that a virtual machine is when a larger more powerful computer is able to imagine into being (that being, to simulate) one or more less powerful computers.

You know why I think people use the term ‘Cloud’ as a jargon?  I think its because describing virtual machines or VMs are so damn Matrixy it’s almost hard to take seriously.

But we should take this seriously.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the knowledge of how to install software on servers and interact with the underlying stack is obsolete. By no means! But I will suggest that this shift to virtual machines takes server software from being in the domain of an institution to something more readily available to the end user.  Indeed, families around the world are setting up servers just to get their kids out of their hair.

What I think is particularly important about virtual machines is that they can reduce the barrier of learning use software on servers because a virtual server instance can be easily shut down and started up again if you really screw something up.

Want to try to make something using the programming language Ruby? You can run a server with Ruby installed along with a whole set of other integrated server tools already installed for 2 cents an hour. When you’re done, you can close the server and only pay for the time you used.

It’s too soon to see whether VMs will destable the centralizing force of IT in our institutions, or, in another cruel twist of fate, contribute to the to trend of increased centralized control through technology.

But I do think that this present of virtual servers allow for a particular future of libraries that, if I could call on the power of magical thinking, I would try to bring about.

If it’s too much to ask for the library to provide domain space for our students, I would like to see a future in which the library becomes the public cloud server for smaller cultural organizations in their community.  If the library already has to the expertise to maintain the servers for the work that it needs to do already, why not share this expertise with other organizations who don’t have as many professional and skilled staff as we do.

I know that sounds crazy, but at least one library that is already doing this now.

The Ann Arbor Public Library’s hosts the Ann Arbor’s ArborWiki Project. Created in 2005 and now running on open source LocalWiki software, this site has over 11,000 pages, 1,000 images and 300 maps all a result of  community driven efforts to share local knowledge.

I love this project for many reasons. In many ways I see the LocalWiki project as an extension of the newspaper clipping service reference librarians used to maintain.  I see a need for the localwiki project, because I think it complements and does not compete with Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a great gift to us all but it does have “Notability guidelines.”  And as anyone who has ever tried to add an entry to Wikipedia knows that if your subject is not considered ‘noteable’ by an editor you will feel the wrath of the Deletionists.

Now the Ann Arbor District Library has the technical know how to run servers because as an organization, they have decided to a support a local infrastructure. This allows them to pursue a variety of inspiring projects such as the streaming of local music to their community and the scanning and hosting of digitized historical newspapers for access to all.

Again, I recognize that not all libraries have a commitment to such an infrastructure. But even if your library does not invest in local servers, there is still a chance that a cloud-served library platform is your future. Indeed, it may already be on it’s way. The Digital Library of America has applied to the FCC for e-rate funding to build a yet undetermined structure to host content from public libraries.

But as promising as may sound to some to have another organization - whether that be DPLA or Amazon - manage the library’s technical infrastructure “in the cloud”- I don’t want to over-sell virtual servers. For one, while they make data processing cheaper, moving your terabytes of digitized newspapers over the wires to such a server can make costs add up quickly.  If the economics of data transfer doesn’t change, then it suggests that large data sets should be kept locally while processing and indexing should be done virtually.

The library used to be the central place for information for our community and about our community. Now, we are just a node in a larger network. This shift has been very challenging to us.

But if we - as a profession - can accept this change in the dynamic then we can take the next step.  We can try to connect our work directly with other organizations in our community and try to directly support them. Maybe hosting their website might not be the most appropriate way to help, but perhaps there are other services we can provide for them. Perhaps like the Chattanooga Public Library we can host their data, as they intend to in their new Open Data Portal. And maybe, just maybe, in the future we can serve up library-management software for them.

If libraries are just another another node in the network, then the next best thing we can do is strive to become a central node and provide strength to our communities.

You know the joke about the person who describes themselves as an expert at quitting smoking, because they’ve done a hundred times?  That’s how I feel about myself and computing.  I’m an expert at learning to code because it feels like I’ve tried to do it at least dozen times in at least a dozen different ways.

One thing I’ve learned about learning to code is that you can do pretty amazing things even if you just learn to “read” code.  I've come to understand that it’s actually fairly rare for advanced computer users to write entire programs from scratch by themselves.  It’s more accurate to say that these users instead tend to have developed a favourite set of programming tools that they use or script together when they need to apply themselves to a project.

Whereas consumer computer users tend use software applications like Excel to turn tables of numbers into graphs or charts, advanced computer users may be more inclined to use a library.

Or a module. The words modules and libraries are usually used interchangeably when talking about computer languages.  A programming library can be described as is an add-on that you can run within a particular computing language that gives you new commands that are usually specific for a particular type of functions or a specific use in a discipline.  For example, there is a module called the NLTK or Natural Language Toolkit which provides specialized commands that perform tasks such as breaking down a piece of text into individual sentences.

This difference between how consumer computer users and their more skilled computer colleagues admittedly isn’t so much new as “new to me”.  You see, for the last two years I’ve been working alongside software developers outside of academia as part of my involvement with a local hackerspace.  Sharing favourite Python libraries is favourite conversation topic at Hackforge.

Why I believe this kind of computing practice should be on the radar of librarians, is because  a growing number of our faculty - or perhaps more accurately - our graduate students also do their computing this way.  You can see this kind of approach in the Digital Humanities, for example.

You also see it such practice in scientific, engineering and mathematical computing.

The evidence is only anecdotal at this point, but there is a feeling that programming modules are increasingly being adopted by statisticians, over more traditional software suites such as Excel, SPSS, SAS, and Matlab.   And as more non-data scientists get involved with data, it been suggested that they will opt for an add on of a programming language that they already know how to use rather pay for and then learn the peculiarities of specialized software.

Many programs that offer graphical interfaces such as Excel are simply not strong enough to do the work on large data sets.  Or perhaps its more accurate to say that consumer computers aren’t powerful enough for bigger data.

Remember I told you how virtual servers are changing things?  Here’s a data scientist sharing his recipe how to create a powerful but temporary virtual computer using Amazon Web Services that will install the statistical package called ‘R’, the computer language python and the science-related python libraries that he uses in his work.

This Data Science Box also installs a particular python library that I’d like to showcase, because it suggests a whole new possible future for scientific computing and science education. It’s called iPython Notebooks.

I need to warn you that we are getting to strange Matrix-y territory, again.

To briefly explain, iPython Notebooks allow code and documentation to be shared online. When the pages are viewed online in your browser, they are static. But when you copy that same notebook onto your personal computer that has iPython Notebook already installed, you can run and edit the code in the page the itself - as it sits in your web browser.  

Change the code here - hit run - and it will change the the graph here.

What this means is that every single chart, graph, and data visualization in an iPython notebook  can become an opportunity for interaction.  This means you could download a chapter of a book and then adjust the variables in the graph of the page to see how they might fit in a different scenario. 

It’s as if Bret Victor’s concept of Explorable Explanations is becoming a little closer to reality.  Bret Victor is an interface designer and no less than Edward Tufte said will be one of the most important in the future of graphic design.  Bret Victor uses the umbrella term Explorable Explanations to describe where text is used not as something to consume but as an environment to think in.

When we make learning visible, we make learning possible. Many of know this this the same way that I know this : I learned how to make websites by ample use of Control-U, which reveals the HTML code behind the screen. iPython Notebooks does something similar.

Such visibility is essential for communication and education in science and social science. Because it’s not enough just to let others know what methods and operations you use. If you want science that is replicable, you need to share the order of these operations too.

Already journal articles have been supplemented with iPython Notebooks and there are already courses in computing and statistics that use such notebooks as class texts.

Books such as this one on Bayesian Methods for Hackers, that are built on iPython Notebooks can allow themselves to have multiple remixed editions by multiple authors and as such it challenges our idea of the book itself, which we generally understand as a discrete object.

iPython Notebooks blur the line between code and codex -- just like apps. But unlike apps, which are designed so they do not allow themselves to shared or copied, notebooks are open and copyable and they are essentially made of text.  One of my greatest fears as a librarian, is that publishers will decide to put essential works such as the DSM for individual sale in app stores and cut libraries out completely. 

I’m not suggesting that writing books in python and published on GitHub is going to that future of publishing but it shows us a form that it could be if we choose to move in this direction.  In fact, there was a startup called Editorially that launched last year that tried to bring similar functionality but with an interface that was friendly to  non-programmers, but sadly the venture failed to gain traction and it has already folded.

And yet iPython Notebooks remain and show us how these sorts of systems could bring entirely new functionality to what we think of as pages.

Ed Summers in his delightful talk The Web As Preservation Medium, tells a story that illustrates this nicely. He tells us what happened after two authors, Mark Pilgrim and Jonathan Gillette (otherwise known as _why), independent of each other, make the decision to delete all of their own online code and written work and to leave the web without explanation. In both cases, the works of these two men were reassembled by fans from copies on the Internet Archive and from github fragments that their readers had saved for themselves.  It was just as if an ancient work had been reassembled from pieces found from commonplace books.

Not counting the books that have been written on a type-writer or handwritten and then typeset and published using a manual letterpress, every book published now either is an ebook or at one time was an ebook today.

In the future we will still have books, its just that some of these books will bring us more uses than ever before.

Even in the future, I think we can agree that a book is still for use. 

And it goes without saying that libraries are for use.  But the question that is worth raising is, if so, then for what uses?

If we look at our mission statements, we will that answer expressed in the most passive of verbs. What does a library do? We are provide access to knowledge with reference services.

But all we know that there’s a lot more that goes on in a library than that. And I'd like to think that in the future of library, those activities are going to brought closer to mind and reflected in the space and the organization of the library itself.

Because the library has to be much more than just access. The library has to be about use.

I was at a THATCamp workshop led by Jon Voss when he casually mentioned that he had found a particular map from 'crate-digging' in a library.  ‘Crate-digging’ is a phrase that describes how DJs comb boxes of records in search of the perfect sample.

I really love this phrase because it expresses the feeling of browsing in a library that captures both the work involved and the hope of treasure that will make it worthwhile.

Jon Voss works for History Pin. The History Pin website allows people to upload their photos and videos relating to history and to pin those works on a map with a timeline.  But the goal of  this not-for-profit company is not just to fill their map with pins. Their mission is bring people together by sharing small pieces of personal history and to connect them into a larger shared history. Jon Voss is wonderful ambassador for Open Linked Data and as such champions the ways that others can like be HistoryPin build on collections made open and available by libraries, archives, museums and other cultural organizations.

Now unfortunately, by and large, libraries don't go out of their way to tell our their users what they have that is in the public domain or placed in the creative commons and available to artists and entrepreneurs looking for inspiration or plunder.   The good news that many of our more recent digital collections make this license information readily available, But our library catalogues and discovery layers decidedly do not.

When I think about how libraries could re-organize themselves to better support the re-use of their materials, a number of artist libraries come to mind. as well as one particular library blog.

One example of an artist's library that I’m particularly fond of is the Reanimation Library in Brooklyn that is the work of librarian Andrew Beconne. It’s a small, independent “Presence Library”that is open to public . It holds a collection of books that been previously discarded and culled and have been acquired for their visual content by Andrew.

It’s called the Reanimation Library because the goal of the collection is not to be comprehensive (which is the ideal that so many of our own collection development policies still strive for). 

Instead, the hope is the public visits of the library will Reanimate the works within. The library is designed to inspire art. 

You can read more about the Reanimation Library at the Library as Incubator Project

Library as Incubator Project is a blog, and soon to be a book, and is an invigorating way to re-look at the library and to re-imagine it’s advocacy and outreach work.

The Incubator regularly publish stories about the works made by artists and makers of all levels made within libraries and they pay special attention to those who work from material drawn from   library collections.  They also share activities that allow other libraries to start similar art projects.

With the Makerspace movement that’s currently pushing through libraries at the moment, many libraries are considering what tools they can make available to their communities.  That's wonderful but let’s not forget that we also hold the raw materials for inspiration and appropriation that artists and inventors can work with.

We can organize our space and design activities that highlight this connection between insight and creation, between hand and heart, and we are lucky to have the Library as Incubator Project as an inspiration to us.

Speaking of makerspaces, what is the Information Literacy of the Library Makerspace?

Or if the concept of information literacy is too contentious and thorny, let me ask some simpler questions instead.

What do we hope our community will make in our makespaces?  What do we hope our community will learn? 

While there are exceptional examples of maker spaces being brought into the library, I’m afraid that many libraries are treating 3D printers the same way as we treat 2D printers. We see them as expensive institutional equipment that we provide to the public and the expectation is that as long as our community covers the cost of the raw materials, we’ll deal with any of the jams, paper or plastic.

And as such we are missing a huge opportunity to make something really big.

Two years ago, R. David Lankes wrote about a visit to his local public library’s Fablab and how, during the course of that visit, his then 11 year old son was recruited to teach a class on how to make things with duct tape.

Lankes noticed that what really hooked his son to the space was not the 3D printer, but the moment when his son came back two weeks later and saw that the librarians had hung his duct tape Fab Lab sign on the Lab door.

David Lankes wrote the Atlas of New Librarianship and has coined this mission of librarians, which I have taken to heart.


How can we facilitate knowledge creation in our makerspaces?  I think its it’s actually easier than we may first think.

We can do it the same way we facilitate knowledge creation in our communities in our libraries.

We can do it by saving the stuff that gets written down!

Documentation. It separates screwing around from science.

The practice of writing down what you’ve learned and putting it in place so that you and others can find it again when you or someone else needs it, is as important than ever. The internet has not made this less important. If anything, it has made documentation more important as every act of shared learning now can become a gift to person who might need it halfway around the world over ten years later.

Having maker spaces in the library can be a wonderful thing. We just need “more library” in makers spaces.  In fact, such work has already been recognized as needed for Maker culture.

In 2006, Make Magazine published a 16 point Bill of Rights which includes this proclamation

Docs and drivers shall have permalinks and shall reside for all perpetuity at archive.org.

This sounds like library work to me.

If every library a maker space, then every maker space, a library.

And I’m sure we will get there as we tinker with these spaces, as we drop what’s not working and expand and iterate and grow towards what our communities respond to.

As David Lankes reminds us : “The Maker Space concept does not work unless all are involved – librarians, members, experts, children, parents – understand that they are all learning at the same time.”

Lankes also suggests that libraries should move From a culture of lending to a culture of sharing and I couldn’t agree more.   All five stories that I’ve told you this morning are essentially just iterations of this theme.

Sharing is an act of generosity and the library is a place of generosity. Our future is will continue as long as we can continue to inspire new origin stories.

I like to think that the path of how to achieve this is already on the sitting on shelves of our libraries at this very moment.  In fact, I believe that the answer to the question of how we should go forward can already be found within ourselves.

Every one of us in this room has figured a part of our shared future already. All of us have found a little a way forward that works.  All we need to do is to write these ideas down and share these stories and experiences of what we have learned and to listen and to learn from others who do the same.

That’s why we are here at the 2014 Library Technology Conference. I can’t wait to hear your experiences and your stories. 

Thank you very much to the organizers who have done so much good work to allow for so much learning to happen in these next two days. And thank you all kindly for listening.