American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter 2016 & Mashcat

Guest author: Alice Sara Prael
National Digital Stewardship Resident at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

The American Library Association’s MidWinter meeting was held on January 8-12 in Boston.  This was my first time at an ALA meeting and I was slightly overwhelmed by the sheer size of this conference, to which everyone told me ‘you should see the annual meeting’.  I spent some time at the exhibit hall but I really could have spent an entire day talking with other librarians and grabbing as many free books as I could hold.  It was great to see all the projects going on in a field as wide as librarianship.  I was especially excited to visit the Library Freedom Project, where people could take pictures with Edward Snowden’s tweet congratulating the project on fighting for the use of privacy technology in libraries and confirming everyone’s long held suspicion that “Librarians are badass”.

With so much going on, I tried to focus on my main three interests; digital projects, archives, and diversity.  Starting with digital projects and archives, I attended the Preservation Administrators Interest Group meeting where myself and other National Digital Stewardship Residents presented on their work to preserve digital collections at institutions across Boston.  I also attended the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) Meeting which started with some informal discussions over breakfast and coffee and transitioned into group meetings about a variety of discussions around library technologies and LITA’s aims and how LITA fits within ALA.  Given that ALA is such a large organization that covers so many types of librarians across the country, there was significant thought given to how to include LITA members who may not be able to attend in-person meetings like this one.

I attended a series of five minute talks titled “Ignite Sessions” that ranged from wearable tech and digital humanities to the challenges facing library directors.  I love the introduction of lightning talk sessions throughout the field because it gives the opportunity for more presenters to discuss their work and allows attendees to see a lot of exciting projects at once.  And I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this opinion since the room was packed!  One especially interesting topic that was discussed in two session was website usability.  One discussed the accessibility concerns with library websites and the failures of software and browsers alike in making websites accessible to all.  Another project described their findings after conducting A/B testing of their library website.  They presented users with two versions of various pages from the site and assessed which version lead their users to the right information and what layout their users preferred.

I spent Sunday at a workshop called “If I hadn’t Believed It, I Wouldn’t Have Seen It: Exploring Systemic Racism and Its Implications for Our Lives and Work.”  This title is so revealing about how systemic racism works.  If it isn’t happening to you, or you don’t already believe it’s happening, it can be difficult to directly pin down especially when it’s so deeply ingrained in the systems.  I really appreciated the opportunity to discuss how systemic racism and racial privilege affect our work as information professionals.

After the massive conference center experience of ALA Midwinter it was a big change to attending the one room event, Mashcat, hosted on January 13th at Simmons College.  Mashcat is a library event focused on cataloguing data and the activities and developments around its creation, use, and reuse. Originated in the UK, this was the first Mashcat event held in the United States and there were a series of great talks about workflows, migration, linked data and more.  I was really excited that the organizers planned this event to directly follow ALA Midwinter.  Planning these kinds of events together really helps people stretch their funding for professional development and participate in these conversations more often.

A particularly interesting lightning talk was titled “Library Workflow Exchange Because we’re all tired of asking ‘Who has already done this?’”  Part of what I love about library work is how open workflows and documentation can be.  This project provides a location on their website for sharing workflows on about metadata, digital preservation, exhibit creation and anything library workflow related.  As a new archivist, shared workflows and policies have been incredibly useful for my own continued education.

Another really useful session was about the advantages and challenges that arise in Implementing Linked Data in a Finding Aid Environment, presented by Jacob Shelby.  Linked data is really exciting because it uses semantics to allow a user to create more meaningful queries and creates a stronger framework for linking resources to each other.  However there are significant challenges especially when the data needs to be migrated from finding aids in Encoded Archival Description.  This also requires stable and persistent unique resource identifiers.  

As expected at a library event with ‘cat’ in the title, there were a fair number of cat pictures – both in the presentations and all over Twitter #mashcat.  If mashcat sounds like something you’d be interested in, I highly recommend checking out their website and participating in their next Twitter chat.


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