Five things I learned from #VALATechCamp

VALA Tech Camp logo

A few days ago I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural VALA Tech Camp, a two-day symposium for librarians in tech and technologists in libraries. I learnt a lot and had an excellent time, thanks in large part to the Herculean efforts of the organising committee. Below are a few scattered and not entirely comprehensive thoughts on the event:

Coding is easy! Coding is hard! When the committee asked for suggestions on what to include in the camp, I asked for fairly basic stuff—an intro to Python, for example, for those of us at the n00b end of the spectrum. A 2-hour crash course in Python wound up being the first event on day 1, so I felt more or less obliged to attend. I had previously tried several times to teach myself Python (out of books, on Codecademy, from YouTube videos) but had realised I needed an actual person to teach me the basics.
By the end of the session I had achieved the following:

I was not expecting 56 people to be so supportive of my own personal Wow! signal, so that was super nice. The workshop really did feel like the booster I needed to get me started in Python.
Later in the day (and continuing on day 2) was ‘Hacky Hour’, essentially free time to work on coding projects. I started out doing some web scraping with ParseHub and Beautiful Soup, then got bored and wound up with a Trove API key trying to rewrite Libraries Australia SOLR queries as Trove API queries (with mixed results), then got bored again and started writing a Bash script to extract metadata from a PDF into a CSV or TXT file.
The latter occupied my time and imagination even after I returned to the hotel, culminating in me figuring out how to export metadata from a PDF to a CSV, then to OpenRefine, then to MARC! I was thrilled to have actually achieved something concrete that I could take back to work and actually use. If that was all I got out of VALA tech camp, it would have been worth it.

There’s a huge gap between what tech can do and what people think tech can do. Ingrid Mason spoke at length about the gap in not just digital literacy, but digital infrastructure literacy. You might know how to use wifi, but would you know how to fix your wifi if it broke? (I know I wouldn’t, and I’m more tech literate than the average person.)
There’s also the problem of extremely clever people constantly creating new ways to do things and new ways to solve problems, including library problems, but how much of that knowledge trickles down to us at the coalface? It’s something I’m keen to explore and maybe, hopefully, change.

I was surprised by how much I already knew. One of my problems in tech is that I know I have a very uneven skillset. I am a total Python n00b, yet I can cobble together a Bash script. I’m totally across LOD and RDF triples, but didn’t know how SPARQL worked (until I attended the SPARQL talk!) I understood the mechanics of web scraping, but not how to properly harness web scraping tools. Even the talks where I came armed with a little background knowledge (like UX, APIs, the importance of good documentation) I left feeling twice as knowledgeable, which is an excellent outcome.
I particularly enjoyed the SPARQL talk because it explained linked data concepts in a way ordinary people could understand. Their use of Wikidata as an example SPARQL interface was an inspired choice—I felt it helped make an otherwise arcane and distant concept really concrete and accessible to a lay user.

Tech people are less intimidating than I thought. The attendee profile of VALA Tech Camp certainly skewed older, maler and more experienced than NLS8, which at first was a bit scary for this young, female n00b, but this is precisely why I went in the first place: to learn, and to find out what others are doing. I struck up some great convos with attendees of all genders doing excellent things. I wound up on an all-ladies table for the first Hacky Hour, the ‘Number 1 Ladies Solving Each Other’s Data Collection Problems’ table (moniker by me). In each situation people were only too happy to help and to chat.
Interestingly, I realised that in order for me to do better in tech, I would probably feel more comfortable in a women-only environment, like PyLadies or RubyGirls or something. I’ll look into local chapters and see if I could contribute. Seeing other women do super well in library tech was really empowering and wonderful, and I’d love to see more of it.

You can do the thing! 👍 Several short talks focussed on getting out there and just making stuff happen, including Justine on podcasting in libraries and Athina on running a cryptoparty in a public library. It was really inspiring to hear of people taking initiative and making excellent things happen.
On a much smaller scale, I found myself much more able to get out there and do things I find really difficult. Yes, I can go and make small talk to people! Yes, I can summon the courage to thank people for writing things that have meant a lot to me! Yes, I can do the thing! Yes I can.

Yes I can.

Five things I learned from #NLS8

It’s the Wednesday after the weekend before, and I’m exhausted just thinking about NLS8 (the ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium in Canberra, which I attended last weekend). To be honest, I’m exhausted just thinking about a lot of things. I wasn’t clever enough to get the following Monday off work, so I’ve been showing up all week with a head full of ideas and a to-do list as long as your arm. I usually drink tea at our weekly morning meeting, but this week I drank Berocca instead.

I’m overjoyed to report that I had an absolute ball at NLS8. It was a great use of a weekend that I would otherwise have spent doing very little. I also definitely got out of the conference what I had hoped to: I networked with like-minded and similarly-aged people, I attended all bar one of the events I wanted (and that one was due to a clash), and I had an unseemly amount of fun. I also learnt a lot, too. Here is a selection of those things:

My reputation precedes me! Despite having a kaleidoscopic swirlygig for a face and not specifying my surname, my hometown or my place of employment anywhere on the internet, I was astonished by how many people recognised who I was, and who seemed pleased to meet me. My prodigious use of Twitter accounted for most of this. In fact, I had at least three conversations broadly modelled on the following:

Me: Hi, I’m Alissa! 😄
Them: Oh, hi! … *double-take* Do you tweet? 🤔
Me: … yes 😔

I also had several people tell me how much they enjoyed my blog, which was just such a huge thrill. I heard that people like that I generally say what I think, which is not usually what the library industry wants to hear. In all honesty, though, I don’t have the good sense to know when to shut up. I have always been quite a blunt person, though I’m trying to learn how to be more polite while still being direct and to the point. Let me know if I’m failing miserably!

NLS8 really focussed on teaching useful skills. I had chosen talks and workshops with a practical bent, as I was very keen to come out of NLS8 with an expanded toolbox of concrete, applicable skills that I could use at work. Accordingly, the Library Carpentry workshop by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones, which taught the basics of OpenRefine, fit this bill perfectly. By the end of the session I felt like I could not only use OpenRefine confidently and to great effect, but that I knew exactly how I would do so at work the following Monday! (My notes for this session included ‘Dead useful!’, ‘The data cleaning tool I knew existed but didn’t know how to use!’ and ‘Such great teaching too!’) I also enjoyed Jade Koekoe‘s session on DIY Marketing for Libraries, a topic I know absolutely nothing about. Despite not having a creative bone in my body I managed to make a infographic in Canva, a tool I shall certainly use again.

I met some wonderful people whom I really admire. I had the pleasure of meeting ILN co-founder, keynote speaker and all-around gem Clare McKenzie (who was inexplicably keen to meet me too!). We had a great chat about the awesomeness that is New Zealand’s National Digital Forum and the GLAM Digitisation Google+ group that we co-moderate. I also followed Clare’s keynote advice and told a few people that I love their work, including Matthew, who does some great digitisation and digipres stuff; Nathan, who runs an absolutely fantastic blog on archival decolonialism (seriously, read it); and Katie, who is one of the nicest and coolest people I’ve ever met, and who also creates some bangin’ #critlib zines.

It’s okay to say no. Several speakers, most notably keynote Mylee Joseph, followed a running theme of exhorting delegates to get out there and say ‘yes!’ to things. Go for that job for which you satisfy almost all the criteria, put your hand up for a volunteer role, collaborate with people across teams, workplaces and professions, that kind of thing. Yet we were also encouraged to recognise our limits and say ‘no’ to things that weren’t right for us or that we didn’t have time for. I wound up saying no on two occasions to things I might otherwise, in a different time and a different place, have said yes to. The first was an invitation to be more involved in an ALIA Students and New Graduates group, whose events I attend semi-regularly. I was in fact asked several times but said no to each, reasoning that I have more than enough on my plate right now, and social organising has never been my forte anyway. The second was an invite from aforementioned idol Clare McKenzie for a selfie for our Google+ group. Despite admiring Clare a great deal and not wanting to disappoint, the group is public-facing and our (meaning my) photo would have been visible to the entire internet. I have very strict rules for myself (and have done for several years) about not putting my face online, which meant I had to say no to her offer. I felt really bad afterwards, but I know I would have felt worse had I done something that was so contrary to my values, and which I couldn’t undo.

NLS8 helped affirm a lot of my values, about librarianship and also about other things. For many attendees, the keynote speech from library evangelist R. David Lankes was undoubtedly a revelatory experience in their library careers. Lankes says a lot of things that chafe a little against the library establishment, including (paraphrasing) ‘Information literacy makes people feel better about their lousy skills’ and ‘Data often says far more about who it’s collected by than who it’s about’. His talk was all the confirmation I needed of the virtue of maintaining personal privacy online and limiting my exposure on social media. It was gratifying and reassuring that very little of the content of his keynote was news to me. I’m very aware of the risks posed by the internet: to librarianship, to information literacy and to us as human beings, and I’ve spent years ranting about them to anyone who will listen. (One of the umpteen books on my to-read list, incidentally, is called The Internet Is Not The Answer.) I’m so glad my fellow delegates had the opportunity to hear Lankes’ speech.

For my part, I spent the following session in the breakout room, trying to reconcile these progressive values of new librarianship with the unbridled capitalism that underlies so much of our profession, particularly in areas such as vendor negotiation. I had attended a workshop the previous day on the work of special libraries, hosted by GRAIL, who are part of the State Library of Queensland. The workshop was well run and I found it very informative and highly illuminating. I left the workshop with a far greater appreciation of the realities of special libraries—but I also thought that some of those realities kinda suck, especially the bits about paying extravagant amounts of money for resources the library doesn’t even own. I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear of the necessity of justifying the library’s services in purely dollar terms. These are our realities right now, but it doesn’t always have to be this way.

NLS8 really was all about the future, which I’m excited to be a part of. I left the NLA feeling re-invigorated and re-energised about my chosen career. I hope we can all take the positive energy from NLS8 and sustain it in our regular LIS practice. The future of our profession depends on it.

What I’m looking forward to at #NLS8

To a chorus of shrugs, I have managed to resurrect this blog and make a few cosmetic changes. I literally have a pile of papers on my desk with ideas for future blog posts, harried Opinions scribbled thereon. I do wonder what I was thinking when I wrote some of them down. “The dangers of personal branding” “Representing draft–final relationships in LRM and Bibframe” “But why do we hate serials???”

In case you thought this made me a dull person, some of you may soon have the chance to let me know in person. The ALIA New Librarians’ Symposium is coming up this Friday to Sunday, and I’ll be in attendance. Now in its eighth iteration, NLS8 has been spoken of quite warmly by previous attendees, and it looks to be a fun and informative conference. Loads of people I know are going. (By ‘know’, I mean ‘follow on Twitter’.)

As expected, many of the attendees will be LIS students, many others new graduates / new professionals, and a few others serial attendees who can’t get enough of NLS. I’m in the slightly odd situation of being both a student and a new professional; I was astonishingly fortunate enough to score a professional-level library job despite not yet having that bit of paper. Some days I can’t believe my luck. Other days I can believe it, because I know the refreshing perspectives that new professionals bring to LIS, and I’d like to think I’m good at what I do.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to networking and socialising with people my own age. I’m the youngest professional-level librarian at MPOW by over a decade, and sometimes the generation gap is painfully obvious. It’ll be really nice to meet library-inclined people at similar stages in their career and see how they’re faring, and maybe snag a few tips.

I had a hard time deciding which talks and workshops I would attend, because so many of the speakers are so good! I’m particularly keen for (in chronological order)

  • Getting down and dirty: modern realities of special libraries (Angela Vilkins, Cassie Pummell, Anna Landy & Amy Walduck)
  • Increasing digital preservation skills in libraries (Kimberley Dye)
  • DIY marketing for libraries (the indefatigable Jade Koekoe)
  • #auslibchat and social librarians (Elizabeth Alvey, James McGoran & Katie Miles-Barnes)
  • and whichever workshop on Sunday session 3 is not full, because I desperately want to attend all five! (Sam Searle, Irma Birchall, Sharee Cordes, Madelin Meddlycott & Michael Hawks, Andrew Kelly)

Finally, I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to getting out of my little office and doing something fun. I’ve found myself with a lot on my plate this week (some good, some bad, some planned, some unexpected) and it’ll be nice to leave that all behind for a couple of days, listening to impassioned speakers and chatting with fellow new professionals. Honestly I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my weekend doing.

(Except maybe sleeping. I love sleeping.)

A wordless speech

microphone pointing straight at camera

I have a cold.

It’s a bizarre sort of cold, all in my head and only half my nose. Thinking is harder with a cold. Moving, walking, making tea, doing housework on my day off, all requiring more energy than I can spare. It’s not helped by the fact I have poor circulation and a freezing house. Winter has come early this year.

I managed to read a book today. I really haven’t read enough books recently. Prose adds colour to my monochrome thoughts, shaped as they are by work emails, reports, grey literature and online news articles. My current literary diet is mostly (auto)biographies. Tales of real people straddle the divide between fiction and non-fiction–each person’s truth is their own.

Mr Rundle has reminded all of us that VALA2018 abstracts are closing soon. Yikes. I’ve had a reminder in my work calendar for months. This week has a big banner shouting ‘VALA ABSTRACTS CLOSE NEXT WEEK’. I was excited to learn that e-posters are a thing at this conference–it seems more manageable than a full paper and presentation.

I’m keen to write. The problem is that I’m not doing anything remotely interesting.

Conferences are for learning about all the cool things other people are doing. New developments in the field. Shiny toys from upstart companies. Vendors looking to sell you shit you don’t need at prices you can’t resist. Plus networking, which I expect will be easier at NLS8 than it was at NDF. Thanks to Twitter I feel like I know half the attendees already.

Despite being a mouthy LIS n00b I feel like I have nothing to say. I can’t talk about the interesting things going on at work and the non-interesting things are… just that. I can’t shake the feeling that I truly know nothing about linked data or digipres, and in any case I’m currently making no practical contribution to the field. I have nothing at all to contribute to VALA2018. It saddens me a little.

I’d have to get permission from my employer to submit anything, which I suspect would be difficult. I make no secret of my frustration with the political machinations of library work and it’s cost me opportunities in the past. My workplace needs all the promotion it can get, but who would trust me to deliver the message?

If, by some miracle, I come up with an idea before next Wednesday, then maybe I can pull something out of a hat. But I’m not optimistic. Oh well. There’s always next year.

Five things I learned from #NDFNZ

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Digital Forum 2016 conference in Wellington, New Zealand. It was my first ever conference and I had an absolute ball. Despite being a self-funded participant I thought it was an excellent use of my time, funds and annual leave. I got a lot out of the conference and would love to go again next year! Here are my five take-home thoughts, brought to you by a late-night flight home:

People are keen for practical ways to implement the Next Big Thing. The ‘Digitisation 101’ pre-conference workshop was heavily waitlisted; I was only able to attend after a last-minute venue change to a bigger room (cheers #eqnz). Similarly, a breakout session on practical implementations of linked open data (LOD) was standing-room only. By this point, most GLAM tech people have at least heard of things like ‘linked open data’ and ‘digital preservation’ but remain baffled as to how to actually implement these in their workplaces. It was great to see some practical solutions being demonstrated, using freely available online tools that people can tinker with in their own time. (I plan to go into more detail on those LOD solutions in a later post.)

Contextualising visual objects in museums and galleries has incredible potential. I know I wasn’t the only person in Te Papa’s lecture theatre furiously scribbling notes with one hand and furiously tweeting with the other (I’m @lissertations, for those playing along at home). The ‘second screen’ phenomenon, whereby people will watch a TV show, sporting event or lecture while simultaneously on their phones tweeting / snapchatting / etc., has given cultural institutions pause as to how they can best capture their visitors’ attention on both fronts. Auckland and Christchurch Art Galleries gave separate but closely related talks on contextualising their visual collections with digital text, audio and virtual reality. People no longer view an artwork or a museum object solely in the context afforded it by the curators. They’re reacting to it in the digital backchannels of social media, reading what others have to say and adding their own interpretations. 

#NDFAU needs to happen. Seriously. As a first-time attendee and one of very few delegates not from New Zealand, I was awestruck by how collaborative and congenial the atmosphere was at Te Papa (no doubt helped by the fact half of NZ knows each other on a first-name basis). Indeed, I chose to go to NDF in the first place because I loved the idea of technologists from different GLAM sectors collaborating and learning from each other. The potential to export NDF across the ditch is obvious, and I’m determined to make it happen. Yes, I’ve had a few comments about NDF being ‘hard to export’ but I’m not someone from NSLA or GLAM Peak trying to implement a digital forum by fiat. I’m a techy student librarian at the bottom of the totem pole who still has some of that New Professional Enthusiasm™. I’m also not someone who reacts well to being told ‘no’. It’s well past time to bring Australian GLAM tech people together and start some real conversations. (If you’re interested in helping me make this a reality, hit me up!)

The GLAM sector is crying out for digitally skilled students and new grads, but too many are graduating without these skills. I am proof positive of this. I am a 100% self-taught GLAM technologist. My MIS course does not place a high priority on tech skills, despite the huge need for them in the sector; I get the distinct impression that the administrators are comfortable teaching a horrendously dated curriculum and have no real wish to innovate. We can no longer assume that LIS grads who need tech skills will be motivated enough to teach themselves (although I am), nor that not every grad will need to know how to code. It needs to be baked into every LIS curriculum in Australia. If that makes the courses too challenging for some students, well, too bad. It’s not like they can opt-out of technology at work.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to sit in Te Papa’s theatre and meeting rooms, listening to talk after talk from people who love the intersection of GLAM and technology as much as I do. People who have great ideas and manage to make them happen. People who want to change the world. People who stand up and empower us all. Matthew Oliver’s closing speech was deeply inspiring: a tale of hope in a time of trouble. It gave me the confidence to acknowledge that no, all is not right with the world at the moment. We as librarians and archivists and museum curators and gallery hosts—as custodians of national memory—have a crucial role to play in researching, recording and retaining the events of our present, so that they do not become the events of our future.

I got home at around midnight Wednesday and was at work the following morning, so my conference hot takes were decidedly lukewarm by this point. The above are by no means everything that NDF had to say, just those I listened to the most. I hope to one day have something worth saying at a conference like NDF.