Five things I taught at #VALATechCamp

A couple of weeks ago (only a couple of weeks?!) I was a part of the 2019 VALA Tech Camp, a two-day event in Melbourne for tech-inclined librarians and library-inclined techies. Usually these posts are a variation on ‘Five things I learned at [event]’, but this time I actually did some of the teaching, so here are five things I taught. It was a very different experience to the 2017 Tech Camp—I definitely learned some things as well…

OpenRefine is magic! Been there, done that, wore the t-shirt. I presented a three-hour workshop on OpenRefine, the world’s greatest free and open-source data cleaning and editing program, to upwards of 37 keen participants. Assisted by the unbelievably calm Alexis Tindall, who had generously agreed a few weeks earlier to help a total stranger, I took our intrepid data wranglers through the main features of OpenRefine: importing and exporting data; faceting, filtering, clustering and editing data; transforming data using inbuilt scripting language GREL; and reconciling data against an external source. I demonstrated on both a CSV file and a gently-massaged MARC file, thinking participants could possibly use OpenRefine for both file formats.

I learned a heck of a lot about OpenRefine in the course of writing the workshop slides and teaching materials. (You can view them on this GitHub repository.) It was a privilege to be able to share this knowledge with others, even if I spoke too quickly and seemed a touch nervous. Everyone was keen to learn, asked lots of questions, and looked like they got something out of the session, which is exactly what I had been hoping for.

‘I don’t know. But I will find out, and get back to you.’ The first step towards learning is to know that you don’t know something, right? It’s okay to not know things. I stated at the outset that neither Alexis nor I were experts, and that I was here in the spirit of peer-based learning. If you know the thing, you can teach the thing, etc. Though this was not a formal Library Carpentry workshop, I was inspired by the Library Carpentry ethos of peer-based learning, as introduced to me by Carmi Cronje and Fiona Jones at the LC workshop at NLS8. To think that was my first experience of OpenRefine, less than two years ago, and here I am teaching a workshop of my own… it’s been a wild ride.

As it happened, a couple of people asked questions I didn’t immediately have the answers to. I managed to answer one during the workshop, to the delight of the asker, while the other two are still awaiting my email. (Sorry! I am bad with email! I will get back to you, I promise!)

We can do the thing! (But we probably shouldn’t have.) Hugh and I both presented workshops while also being on the organising committee. I think we separately realised that trying to do both was a very bad idea, and that future committee members should not be allowed to do this. At the time, offering to run the workshop myself seemed easier than asking someone else to do it. I know better now!

Tech Camp was my first experience on an organising committee of this kind. It was also my first experience presenting a formal workshop or talk to a paying audience. I had never done either of these stressful things before, and here I was doing both of them at once. Did I mention I have an anxiety disorder? Fellow committee member Matthias remarked ‘You were playing on hard mode!’ and while I hadn’t thought of it that way, I definitely made it harder for myself than I needed to. I referred in 2017 to ‘the Herculean efforts of the organising committee’—I no longer consider this hyperbole. Running the 2019 camp has been a tremendous learning experience, and it’s opened a few doors for me professionally, but my stress levels were absolutely unreal. I think I could have managed solely being a committee member, or solely presenting a workshop (just). I barely managed to do both.

But I did everything I could. I lunched in the breakout room, I took my meds beforehand, people recognised when I needed company and also when I needed space, and overall it wasn’t a total disaster. To the extent I could control my symptoms I recognised that freaking out would accomplish nothing, so instead I tried to approach the workshop like a wave. It was gonna come anyway, and it would engulf me, and I would feel like drowning for a brief second, and then it would be over, and the sun would still be shining. Just let it crash over me. Just let it happen.

This is for the benefit of those who saw me present and perhaps thought I was handling things just fine. I’m told I looked a lot less stressed than I felt, which is… handy, I guess, but I’m not in the habit of airbrushing.

Our speaker / committee gifts were little cartoon avatars of ourselves. I love mine because thanks to the rosy cheeks it looks really stressed, and therefore quite lifelike.

Just say no to mornings. You may have noticed I was meant to emcee the morning session on day 2 but mysteriously failed to appear. I was late and missed the start, meaning someone else had to fill in, and was so embarrassed I hovered in the foyer until the session was over. This was a fail on my part, but also hopefully it’ll teach event organisers not to expect anything of me until after 9am. (To my relief, my next speaking commitment at NLS9 is scheduled for after 11am. I am so not a morning person.)

I did an SQL thing! This is me cheating and using an ‘I taught myself’ literary device, haha. Having finally dispensed with my teaching responsibilities on day 1, I resolved to learn more things on day 2. The other workshop I attended was on SQL, by Arjen Lentz and Donna Benjamin. I had a feeling I would like SQL if only I had an idea of how to use it, and this workshop was a great introduction. Being a native English speaker, the syntax of SQL just makes sense, as it’s designed to.

I was particularly tickled by Arjen setting the scene with a very quick introduction to set theory. I inexplicably spent a term in year 7 learning set theory, ostensibly because my school had run out of space for all the fun electives and threw two classes’ worth of smart kids in extension maths instead. Until this session it had never once been useful. Now, suddenly, sixteen years later, it was exactly what I needed to know! And it was useful because SQL requires you to envision a particular data structure in order to query it, to hold a table in your head even if it’s not graphically represented. Including or excluding aspects of that dataset entails using terms like LEFT JOIN, which make more sense if you think of data as being inside or outside a set. Or a venn diagram.

I thought it worth looking back at my experiences of the 2017 Tech Camp and comparing them with this year’s. Obviously I was a lot greener around the edges two years ago, and a close reading suggests I gained just as much in worldview expansions as I did in practical tech skills. Some of our short talks this year, such as Katrina Grant on digital mapping and Adam Bell on digital preservation, were aimed at showing attendees what is or might be possible. I did learn less this year, simply because I taught more (and stressed more), but even though I’ve had a library degree for less than six months I already feel less like a ‘n00b’ (as I described myself) and more like a newly-established technical librarian. After all, new professionals tend to be the ones attending workshops, not teaching them.

I love how past me wrote, in closing:

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.

I’m still no good at small talk, but I did succeed at far bigger things, and I am proud of myself. This was really difficult and a steep learning curve, and yet I still managed to do the thing. I could not have done it without the help and support of the Tech Camp committee, the VALA Secretariat, my helper Alexis, my poor colleagues who sat through an in-progress version of the workshop and didn’t say it was dreadful, and the workshop attendees who took the materials and ran with them. Yes, I can do the thing. Yes I can.

Yes I can.

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.