Guest author: Steve Duckworth
Processing Archivist, University of Florida
Code4Lib 2016 was held in Philadelphia, PA from March 7 to 10 along with a day of pre-conference workshops. The core Code4Lib community consists of “developers and technologists for libraries, museums, and archives who have a strong commitment to open technologies,”1 but they are quite open and welcoming to any tangentially related person or institution. As a processing archivist whose main experience has been with paper documents, I thought I would feel confused and out of place for the length of this conference, but, while I had my moments, I left feeling more knowledgeable about efforts and innovations within the coding community, giddy with ideas of projects to bring to my own workplace, and incredibly glad that I stepped outside of my archival comfort zone to attend (and present at!) this conference. (And I have to thank our university’s Metadata Librarian, Allison Jai O’Dell, for asking me to present with her. Without her reaching out to me, I likely wouldn’t have gotten involved in the conference to begin with.)
So, before Code4Lib, there was Code4Arc – at least, as a preconference workshop. Code4Arc focused on the specific coding and technology needs of the archivist community and on the need to make Code4Arc an actual thing, rather than just an attachment to Code4Lib. While both communities would have quite a bit of overlap, archivists obviously have their own niche problems, and coders can often help sort those problems out. Also, having a direct line between consumer-with-a-problem and developer-with-a-solution would prove quite beneficial to all parties involved. The day was divided up into a series of informal discussions and more focused breakout groups, along with some updates from developers. The end result mainly boiled down to continuing the discussion about our needs as a community, communicating and sharing knowledge and data more openly, and focusing efforts on specific problems that affect many archives. We’ve formed some ad hoc groups and will likely have more to say in the not-too-distant future.
As to the conference proper, I’ll start by noting that a ton of information is available online. The conference site lists presentations, presenter bios, and links to twitter handles and slides where available. Three series of Lightning Talks emerged during the conference; information on those talks can be found on the wiki, which is full of useful information and links. And everything was recorded, so you can watch the presentations from the Code4Lib YouTube channel. The conference presentations were almost a series of lightning talks themselves. Each presentation was allotted 10-20 minutes of time, with 6 groups of presentations given over the course of the conference, along with 2 plenary talks. So, while it was a nice change from the general conference configuration, it did make for a rather exhausting (but engaging) experience. Having said that, I will only specifically mention a few of the presentations that resounded more with me or relate more specifically to archival work (because seriously, I saw over 50 in the course of 2.5 days). But again, I stress, totally worth it! And they feed you. A lot!
So on day one (inserts shameless plug), Allison Jai O’Dell and I presented The Fancy Finding Aid (video | slides). We talked about some front-end design solutions for making finding aids more interactive and attractive. Allison is wicked smart and also offered up a quick lightning talk on day three about the importance of communicating, often informally, with your co-workers (video). Other presentations of note from day one include Shira Peltzman, Alice Sara Prael, and Julie Swierzek speaking about digital preservation in the real world in two separate presentations, “Good Enough” preservation (video | slides) and Preservation 101 (video | slides). Eka Grguric broke down some simple steps anyone can take towards Usability Testing (video | slides) and Katherine Lynch shared great ideas regarding Web Accessibility issues (video | slides). Check out the slides for lots of great links and starting points, like testing out navigability by displacing your mouse or using a screen reader with your monitor off.
Later on, Mark Matienzo discussed the ubiquity of the spreadsheet in Ever to Excel (video | slides). The popularity of spreadsheets may come from the hidden framework that shields users from low-level programming, making users feel more empowered. Lightning talks included the programming committee asking for help with diversity in #ProgramSoWhite (video | slides), a focus repeated the following day in a diversity breakout session. Ideas generated from the diversity talks were focused on further outreach with schools and professional organizations, scholarship initiatives for underrepresented populations and newer professionals, and stressing the need for those in the coding community to reach out for collaborators in other areas to bring new voices into the community.
Angela Galvan, in her talk titled “So you’re going to die” (video | related notes), spoke about digital estate management and the need to plan for what happens to digital assets after someone dies. Though humans now post so much of their lives online, we are still relatively silent about death. Yuka Egusa’s talk about how non-coders can contribute to open source software projects was particularly popular (video | slides). She notes that engineers love coding, but generally don’t like writing documentation. Librarians and archivists can write those documents and training manuals, and we can aid with reporting bugs and usability testing. Don’t let lack of coding knowledge keep you from being part of innovative programs that interest you.
Day two: Becky Yoose gave an exhilarating talk about protecting yourself from #libtech burnout (video | slides). In the lightning talks, Greg Wiedeman spoke about his Archives Network Transfer System (video | more info), which is an interesting solution to a problem Code4Arc focused on, but also highlights the need for a simpler way to structure the process of transferring digital materials to the archives.
Andreas Orphanides gave a great talk about the power of design. Architecture is Politics (video | slides) highlighted how, intentionally or not, your web and systems designs are political; likewise politics influence your design. The choices you make in design can control your user, both explicitly and subtly, and politics can influence the choices you make in the same way. Thus, design is a social justice issue and you need to be active in knowing your users, recognizing your own biases, and diversifying your practices. Matt Carruthers talked about Utilizing digital scholarship to foster new research in Special Collections (video | slides). This project at the University of Michigan provides visualization-on-demand customized to a patron’s research question. Though still in the early stages of development, they are extracting data from EAD files they already have to create EAC-CPF connections. This data is then used to visualize the networks, and online access to the visualizations is offered for users. This is the start of a fascinating new way to provide further discovery and access in archives and special collections.
Day three’s lightning talks included Sean Aery from Duke speaking about integration of digital collections and findings aids and some great ways to maintain context while doing so (video | slides); Heidi Tebbe recommended the use of GitHub as a knowledge base, not just a place for code (video | slides); and Steelsen Smith pointed out the various issues that can arise with assorted sign-ons and using single sign-ons to actually open up systems for more users (video | slides).
And lastly, Mike Shallcross discussed a University of Michigan project that I’ve been following closely, the ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration (video | slides). They are working to overhaul archival management to bring ArchivesSpace and Archivematica together with a DSpace repository to standardize description and create a “curation ecosystem.” We’re closing in on a similar project where I work and Mike has been making regular (and rather entertaining) blogposts about the Michigan project, so it was good to hear him in person. (If interested in more, check out their blog.)
Oh, the plenary talks. I almost forgot. They were great. The opening talk by Kate Krauss of the Tor project focused on social justice movements in the age of online surveillance (video | slides) and the closing talk by DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg (video) similarly focused on privacy and related concerns in online searching.
So, it was a great conference. There were definite themes emerging about creating better access and more privacy for users; trying to get out of your normal routine and envision projects from another perspective; communicating better and more openly within and around our own community; and using all of this to better document and support underrepresented communities around the world. I’ve now said too much. I hate reading long blog posts. But I definitely recommend this conference to anyone in the library and archives fields with any inkling of interest in digital projects. It’s a great way to get new ideas, see that you aren’t alone with your out-of-date systems, and meet some great people who you may not normally get to interact with on a regular basis.