Offical blog of the Ontario Library and Information Technology Association

Library of Cards


On Thursday, September 10th, I had the honor and the pleasure to present at Access 2015. I’ve been to many Access Conferences over the years and each one has been a joyful experience. Thank you so much to those organizing Access YYZ for all of us.

Have you ever listened to the podcast 99% Invisible?

99% Invisible is a weekly podcast dedicated to design and architecture and the 99% percent of the invisible activity that shapes our experiences in the world.

They’ve done episodes on the design of city flags, barbed wire, lawn enforcement, baseball mascot costumes, and it’s already influenced my life in pretty odd ways.

If I was able to pitch a library-related design to host, Roman Mars for an episode, I would suggest the history of the humble 3 x 5 index card.

That being said, for this presentation, I am not going to present to you the history of the humble 3 x 5 index card.

That’s what this book is for, Markus Krajewski’s 2011 Paper Machines published by MIT Press.

Now, before I had read his book, I had believed that the index card was invented by Melvil Dewey and commercialized by his company, The Library Bureau. But Krajewski makes the case that the origin of the index card should be considered to go as far back as 1548 with Konrad Gessner who described a new method of processing data: to cut up a sheet of handwritten notes into slips of paper, with one fact or topic per slip, and arrange as desired.

According to Krajewski, when this technique goes from provisional to permanent – when the slips that describe the contents of a library are fixed in a book, an unintended and yet consequential turn takes place: it gives rise to the first card catalog in library history in Vienna around 1780.

Most histories of the card catalog begin just slightly later in time — in 1789 to be precise — during the French Revolution. The situation at hand was that the French revolutionary government had just claimed ownership of all Church property, including its substantial library holdings. It order to better understand what it now owned, the French revolutionaries started to inventory all of these newly acquired books. The instructions for how this inventory would conducted is known as the French Cataloging Code of 1791.

The code instructed that first, all the books were to be numbered. Next, the number of each book as well as the bibliographic information of each work were to be written on the back of two playing cards – and this was possible because at that time the backs of playing cards were blank. The two sets of cards are then put into alphabetical order and fastened together. One set of cards were to be sent to Paris, while a copy remains in each library.

On the screen behind me, you can see two records for the same book.

Again, my talk isn’t about bibliographic history, but I want to return back to the 16th century to Gessner for some important context. The reason why Gessner was making all those slips in the first place was to construct this, the Bibliotheca Universalis which consists of a bibliography of around 3,000 authors in alphabetical order, describing over 10,000 texts in terms of content and form, and offering textual excerpts. As such, Gessner is considered the first modern bibliographer.

And you can find his work on the Internet Archive.

Gessner’s Biblioteca Universalis wasn’t just a bibliography. According to Krajewski, the book provides instructions to scholars how to properly organize their studies through the keeping excerpted material in useful order. Gessner was describing an already established practice. Scholars kept slips or cards in boxes, and when they had the need to write or give a lecture or sermon, they would take the cards that fit their theme, and would arrange those thoughts and would temporarily fix them in order using devices such as the one pictured. This hybrid book has guiding threads that stretch over the page so that two rows of paper slips can be inserted and supported by paper rails.

Until the Romantics came around and made everyone feel embarrassed about taking inspiration from other people, it was common for scholars to use Scholar’s Boxes. Gottfried Leibniz actively used what was known as an excerpt cabinet to store and organize quotations and references.

Leibniz’s method of the scholar’s box combines a classification system with a permanent storage facility, the cabinet. So in a way this is similar to the use of Zotero or other citation management systems, but instead uses loose sheets of paper on hooks. The strips are hung on poles or placed into hybrid books

And that’s the reason why I wanted to start my talk with a brief history lesson. To remind us that there is a common ancestor to the library catalog and the scholar’s bibliography, and that is the index card.

So as we’ve learned, from as far back as Gessner’s 16th Century, writers have been using cards and slips of paper to rearrange ideas and quotations into texts, citations into bibliographies, and bibliographic descriptions into card catalogues.

You can still buy index cards and card boxes at my local campus bookstore. That’s because there are still authors today, who still use index cards to piece together and re-sort parts of their paper or novel, or they use and rearrange digital cards inside of such writing software tools such as Scrviner to generate new works.

Now, I don’t write this way myself. But I do use Zotero as one of the tools that I use to keep track of citations, book marks,  saved quotations, and excerpts of text that I have used or might use in my own work as a writer and academic librarian.

Zotero acts as an extension of your web reading experience and it operates best as an add-on to the Firefox browser. If you use Zotero, you can usually easily capture citations that one finds on a page either because someone who supports Zotero has already developed a custom text scraper (called a translator) for the database or website that you are looking at or that citation has been marked up with text that’s invisible to the human eye but can be found in the span HTML tags that surround the citation using a microformat called COinS.

Zotero also allows scholars to backup their citations to their server and in doing so, share their citations by making one’s library public on  Alternatively, scholars can share  bibliographies on theirown website using the Zotero API which is so simple and powerful you can embed a bibliography styled with APA with a single line of code. 

One of my favourite features of Zotero is not widely known. Zotero out of the box allows the scholar to generate ‘cards’ which are called ‘reports’ from your bibliography.  When I have a stack of books that I need to locate in my library, I sometimes find it’s easier for me to select and generate a report of cards from my Zotero collection rather than to search, select and print the items using my library’s expensive ILS system.

There is a terrible irony to this situation. As I learned from the Library Journal column of Dorothea Salo, the design problem given to Henriette Avram’s, the inventor of the MARC records was to have “computers print catalog cards.”

As Salo says in her piece, “Avram was not asked to design a computer-optimized data structure for information about library materials, so, naturally enough, that is not what MARC is at heart. Avram was asked solely to make computers print a record intended purely for human consumption according to the best card-construction practices of the 1960s.”

Let’s recall that one of the reasons why Zotero is able to import citations easily is because of the invisible text of COinS and translators. 

The metadata that comes into Zotero is captured as strings of text. Which is great – a name is now tagged with the code AU to designate that the text should go in the Author field. But this functionality is not enough if you want to produce linked data.

Dan Scott has kindly shared the code to RIS2WEB that allows you to run it on an export of a bibliography from Zotero in doing so create and serve a citation database that also generates of linked data using Schema. Afterwards, you can add available URIs.

You can see the results of this work at

When I showed this to a co-worker of mine, she couldn’t understand why I was so impressed by this. I had to hit Control-U on a citation to show her that this citation database contained identifiers such as from VIAF: The Virtual International Authority File. I explained to her that by using these numeric identifiers computers will be able not only find matching text in the author field, they will be better able to find that one particular author.

So can we call Zotero a Scholar’s Box or Paper Machine for the digital age?

I think we can, but that being said, I think we need to recognize that the citations that we have are still stuck in a box, in still so many ways.

We can’t grab citations from library database and drop them into a word processor without using bibliographic manager like Zotero as an intermediary to the capture structured data that might be useful to my computer when I need format a bibliography. Likewise, I can’t easy grab linked data from sites like the Labour Studies bibliography page.

And we still really don’t share citations in emails or social media.

Instead, we share the URL web addresses that point to the publisher or third party server that host said paper.  Or we share PDFs that should contain all the elements needed to construct a citation and yet somehow still requires the manual re-keying and control c-ing and v-ing of data into fields when we want to do such necessary things as add an article to an Institutional Repository.

Common Web tools and techniques cannot easily manipulate library resources. While photo sharing, link logging, and Web logging sites make it easy to use and reuse content, barriers still exist that limit the reuse of library resources within new Web services. To support the reuse of library information in Web 2.0-style services, we need to allow many types of applications to connect with our information resources more easily. One such connection is a universal method to copy any resource of interest. Because the copy-and-paste paradigm resonates with both users and Web developers, it makes sense that users should be able to copy items they see online and paste them into desktop applications or other Web applications. Recent developments proposed in weblogs and discussed at technical conferences suggest exactly this: extending the ‘clipboard’ copy-and-paste paradigm onto the Web. To fit this new, extended paradigm, we need to provide a uniform, simple method for copying rich digital objects out of any Web application.

Now, those aren’t my words. That’s from this paper Introducing unAPI written by Daniel Chudnov, Peter Binkley, Jeremy Frumkin, Michael J. Giarlo, Mike Rylander, Ross Singer and Ed Summers.

This paper, I should stress, was written in 2006.

Within the paper, the authors outline the many reasons why cutting and pasting data is so infuriatingly difficult in our sphere of tools and data.

But what if there was another paradigm we could try?

In order to see how we might be possibly break out of the scholar’s box, I’m going to talk about a very speculative possibility. And in order to set us up for this possibility, I first need to talk about how cards are already used on the web and on our tablets and smart phones.

If you look around the most popular websites and pay particular attention to the design patterns used, you will quickly notice that many of the sites that we visit every day (Twitter, Facebook, Trello, Instagram, Pinterest) they all use cards as a user interface design pattern.

The use of cards as a design pattern rose up along with the use of mobile devices largely because a single card fits nicely on a mobile screen…

…while on larger surfaces, such as tablets and desktops, cards can be arranged in a vertical feed, like in Facebook or Twitter, or arranged as a board like Pinterest, or like a like a stack, such as Google Now or Trello.

This slide is from a slidedeck of designer and technologist, Chris Tse. The rest of this section is largely an exploration of Chris’ work and ideas about cards.

Case in point, Chris Tse states, the most important quality of ‘cards’ is that of movement. But by movement, he isn’t referring to the design’s apparent affordances that makes swiping or scrolling intuitive.

The movement of cards that’s really important is how they feed into content creation and content sharing and how cards feed into discussions and workflow.

(How cards fit into kaban boards and shared workflow software like Trello, is a whooooole other presentation)

Social media is collectively made up of individuals sharing objects – objects of text, of photos, of video, of slideshows – and they share these objects with friends and to a larger public. Each of these objects are framed – by and large – within cards.

It’s important to realize that the cards on the web are fundamentally more than just a just a design hack.  If you are familiar with Twitter, you may have started to see cards that don’t just feature 140 characters – you see playable music (such as from Soundcloud), Google Slideshows that you can read through without leaving Twitter, and you can even download 3rd party apps from Twitter advertising cards. When the business press say that Twitter is a platform, it’s not just marketing hype.

As Chris Tse says, cards are more than just glorified widgets.  “When done right”, he says, “a card looks like responsive web content, works like a focused mobile app, and feels like a saved file that you can share and reuse”. As “cards” become more interactive, he believe they will go from being just concentrated bits of content and turn into mini-apps that can be embedded, can capture and manipulate data, or even process transactions.
But why isn’t this more obvious to people? I think the reason why is that cards don’t really feel this way is that most cards can only move within their own self-contained apps or websites.

For example, Google Now cards work with your Google applications – such as your calendar – but don’t interact with anything about your life in Facebook.

That being said, Google and Apple are working on ways into integrate more services into their services. In Google Now, I’m regularly offered news story based on my recent searches as well as stories that are popular to other readers who read similar stories using the Feedly RSS reader.

And this is a problem because it’s Google who is deciding whose services I can choose from for such card notifications.

The apps on your smart phone live in a walled garden where things are more beautiful and more cultivated, but it is a place that is cut off from the open web.

The fall of the open web and the rise of the walled garden is not a trivial problem. We should not forget that if you want your app to be available on an iPhone it must be in the Apple Store and the content of your app will be subject to the Apple Review process and Apple will take a 30% cut of what your app sells for.  Content within apps curtail various forms of free and freedoms.

To bridge this split of the open web and the walled app garden, Chris Tse founded The mission of Cardstack is to “To build a card ecosystem based on open web technologies and open source ethos that fights back against lock-in.”

CardStack wraps single-page JavaScript applications as a reusable ‘card’ that can be embedded in native apps and other web apps. According to Chris, HTML5 cards will be able to move between apps, between devices, between users and between services.

CardStack itself is comprised of other JavaScript libraries, most notably Conductor.js and Oasis.js and I cannot speak anything more to this other than to repeat the claim that these combined libraries create a solution that is more secure than the embeded content than the iFrames of widgets past.

But notice the ‘Coming Soon’ statement in the top left hand corner? CardStack is still in beta with SDKs still being developed for iOS and Android systems.

Despite this, when I first stumbled upon Chris Tse’s presentations about Cardstack, I was really excited by his vision. But the crushing reality of the situation settled mere moments later.

Yes, a new system of cards to allow movement between siloed systems that could work in mobile or desktop environments, that would be wonderful – but wasn’t it all too late?

And what does it mean if we all collectively decide, that it is all just too late?

One of the challenges of promoting a new sort of container is that you can really show it off until you have some content to contain. You need a proof of concept.

When I checked in later to see what Chris was doing as I was drafting this presentation, I learned that he was now the CTO of a new platform – that he confirmed for me is built using Cardstack as a component.

This new platform has its origin from the art world’s Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference. The Seven on Seven conference pairs seven visual artists with seven technologists for a 24 hour hackjam and in 2014, artist Kevin McCoy was paired up with technologist Anil Dash.

McCoy and Dash were both interested in improving the situation of digital artists whose work can be easily be copied. With copying, the provenance of a digital work can be lost and as well as the understanding of what was original and what has been modified.

They talked and worked on a proof of concept of a new service that would allow visual artists to register ownership of their digital work and transfer that ownership using blockchain technology.

Over a year later, this idea has grown into a real platform that is private beta and is set to be released to the public this month.

I think two things are particularly awesome about this project. First the platform also allows for artists to decide for themselves whether the license for their work in the creative commons or requires a royalty and whether derivatives of their work is allowed.

The other thing I love about this project is its name. If you look at the top left hand of this screen you will find that the name of the platform is spelled m-o n-e-g-r-a-p-h. The platform is called MONOGRAPH.

And as we now know, you build a monegraph with cards

We need to remember that the library and the bibliography are connected by the card. There is the text and then there is the record of the text. The texts that we make available in our libraries are themselves, frequently pieced together by ideas and quotations, captured, sorted, and from smaller pieces, sometimes on cards.

As we continue to invest in crucial new endeavors in the digital realm, I think it’s essential that librarians,  find new ways to surface our resources and allow them to be shared socially, and to find the means by which scholars can save and sorting and re-use these resources that they find from our collections.

We are part of a generative process. Cards of single ideas that are arranged and stacked build theses, which in turn, build papers, books which, in turn, form bibliographies which fill libraries.

I would like libraries to find a way to back to Gessner’s Bibliotheca Universalis, a place where the library and the scholar were both connected.

After all…

Advice from a Badass: How to make users awesome

Previously, whenever I have spoken or written about user experience and the web, I have recommended only one book: Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

Whenever I did so, I did so with a caveat: one of the largest drawbacks of Don’t Make Me Think is captured in the title itself : it is an endorsement of web design that strives to remove all cognitive friction from the process of navigating information. This philosophy serves business who are trying to sell products with a website but doesn’t sit well with who are trying to support teaching and learning.

Today I would like to announce that I hereby retire this UX book recommendation because I have found something better. Something several orders of magnitude better.

I would like to push into your hands instead a copy of Kathy Sierra’s Badass: Making users awesome. In this work, Kathy has distilled the research on learning, expertise and the human behaviors that make both of these things possible.

You can use the lessons in Badass towards web design. Like Don’t Make Me Think, Badass also recognizes there are times when cognitive resources need to be preserved, but unlike the Don’t Make Me Think, Badass Kathy Sierra advises when and where these moments in specific points should be placed in the larger context of the learner’s journey towards expertise.

You see, Badass: Making Users Awesome isn’t about making websites. It’s about making an expert Badass.

In her book, Sierra establishes why helping users become awesome can directly lead to the success of a product or service and and then builds a model with the reader to achieve this. I think it’s an exceptional book that wisely advises how to address the emotional and behavioural setbacks to learning new things without having to resort to bribery or gamification, neither of which work after the novelty wears off. The language of the book is informal but the research behind the words is formidable.

One topic that Badass covers that personally resonated was the section on the Performance Progress Path Map as a key to motivation and progress. I know that there is resistance in some quarters to the articulation of of learning outcomes by those who suspect that the exercise is a gateway to the implementation of institutional standards that will eliminate teacher autonomy, or eliminate teachers altogether. But these fears shouldn’t come into play as it doesn’t apply in this context and should not inhibit individuals from sharing their personal learning paths.

The reason why this topic hit so close to home was because I found learning to program particularly perilous because of the various ‘missing chapters’ of learning computing (a phrase I picked up from Selena Marie’s not unrelated Code4Lib 2015 Keynote, What Beginners Teach Us – you can find part of the script here from a related talk).

I think it’s particularly telling that some months ago, friends were circulating this picture with the caption: This is what learning to program feels like.

There’s a real need with the FOSS moment to invest into more projects like the Drupal Ladder project, which seeks to specifically articulate how a person can start from being a beginner to become a core contributor.

Furthermore, I think there’s a real opportunity for libraries to be involved in sharing learning strategies, especially public libraries. I think the Hamilton Public Library is really on to something with their upcoming ‘Learn Something’ Festival.

Check out @HamiltonLibrary‘s “How-to Festival”, a series of workshops on how to do stuff!
— Ad/Lib (@adlib_info) April 23, 2015

Let’s not forget,

The real value of libraries is not the hardware. It has never been the hardware. Your members don’t come to the library to find books, or magazines, journals, films or musical recordings. They come to be informed, inspired, horrified, enchanted or amused. They come to hide from reality or understand its true nature. They come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude. They come for the software.

While the umbrella concept of User Experience has somewhat permeated into librarianship, I would argue that it has not traveled deep enough and have not made the inroads into the profession that it could. I’ve been thinking why and I’ve come up with a couple of theories why this is the case.

One theory is that many academic librarians who are involved in teaching have a strong aversion to ‘teaching the tool’. In fact, I’ve heard that the difference between ‘bibliographic instruction’ and ‘information literacy’ is that the former deals with the mechanics of searching, while ‘information literacy’ addresses higher-level concepts. While I am sympathetic to this stance (librarians are not product trainers), I also resist the ‘don’t teach the technology’ mindset. The library is a technology. We can, and we have, taught higher level concepts through our tools.

As Sierra states, “Tools matter”.

But she wisely goes on to state:

“But being a master of the tool is rarely our user’s ultimate goal. Most tools (products, services) enable and support the user’s true — and more motivating – goal.

Nobody wants to be a tripod master. We went to use tripods to make amazing videos.”

The largest challenge to the adoption of the lessons of Badass into the vernacular of librarianship is that Badass is focused squarely on practice.

“Experts are not what they know but what they do. Repeatedly.”

A statement like the above may be quickly dismissed by those in academia as the idea of practice sounds too much like the idea of tool use. (If it makes you feel better, dear colleagues, consider this restatement in the book: “Experts make superior choices (And they do it more reliably than experienced non-experts).” Each discipline has a practice associated with it.

I have previously made the case that the librarians regular activity of searching for information of others at the reference desk was the practice where our expertise was once made (the technical services equivalent would be the cataloguing of materials). 

But as our reference desk stats have plummeted (and our catalogue records copied from elsewhere), I still think the profession need to ask ourselves, where does the our expertise come from? Many of us don’t have a good answer for this, which is why I think so many librarians – academic librarians in particular – are frequently and viciously attacking the current state of library school and its curriculum, demanding rigor. To that I say, take your professional anxieties out on something else. A good educational foundation is ideal, but professional expertise is built through practice.

What the new practice of librarianship is beyond the reference desk is still evolving. It appears that digital publishing and digitization is becoming part of this new practice. Guidance with data management and data visualizations appears to be part of our profession now too. For myself, I’m currently trying to level up my skills in citation management and its integration with the research and writing process.

That’s because there has been more fundamental shift in my thinking about academic librarianship as of late that Kathy’s book has only encouraged. I would like to make the case that the most important library to our users isn’t the one that they are sitting in, but the one on their laptop. Their collection of notes, papers, images and research materials is really the only library that really matters to them. The institutional library (that they are likely only temporarily affiliated with) may feed into this library, but its contents cannot be trusted to be there for them always.

For an example, consider this: two weeks ago, I helped a faculty member with an Endnote formatting question. As I looked over her shoulder, I saw that her Endnote library on her laptop contained hundreds and hundreds of citations that had been collected and organized over the years and how this collection was completely integrated with her writing process. This was her library.

And despite not having worked in Endnote for years, I was able to help her with formatting question so she could submit her paper to a journal with its particularly creative and personal citation style. It seems that I have developed some expertise by working with a variety of citation managers over the years.

I wouldn’t call myself a Badass. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

And I’m working on helping others finding and becoming their own Badass self.

It’s been many years now, and so it bears repeating.

My professional mission as a librarian is this: Help people build their own libraries. Because this is the business we’ve chosen

The update to the setup

In my last post, I described my current computer set up. I did so to encourage a mindfulness in my own practice (I am not ashamed of writing the previous sentence – I really do mean it). Forcing myself to inventory the systems that I use, made two things readily apparent to me. First, it is abundantly clear that not only am I profoundly dependent on Google products such as Google Drive, almost all of the access to my online world is tied together by my Gmail account. I aspire to, one day, be one among the proud and the few who are willing to use alternatives such as Owncloud and Fastmail just to establish a little more independence.

But before even considering this move, I first needed to address the second glaring problem that emerged from this self-reflection of my setup: I desperately needed a backup strategy. Massive loss was just a hard drive failure or malicious hack away.

As I write this, my old Windows XP computer is sending years worth of mp3s, documents and digital photos to my new WD Book which I bought on recommendation from Wirecutter. When that’s done, I’m going to copy over my back ups of my Google Drive contents, Gmail, Calendar, Blogger, and Photos that I generated earlier this week using Google Takeout.

I know myself well enough that I cannot rely on making regular manual updates to an external hard drive. So I have also invested in a family membership to CrashPlan. It took a loooong time for the documents of our family computers to be uploaded to the CrashPlan central server but now the service works unobtrusively in the background as new material accumulates. If you go this route of cloud-service backups, be aware that its likely that you are going to exceed your monthly data transfer limit for your ISP. Hopefully your ISP is as understanding as mine who waved the additional costs as this was a ‘first offense’ (Thank you Cogeco!)

My next step? I’m going to re-join the Archiveteam.

Because history is our future.

The Setup

For this post, I’m going to pretend that the editors of the blog, The Setup (“a collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done”) asked me for a contribution. But in reality, I’m just following Bill Denton’s lead.

It feels a little self-indulgent to write about one’s technology purchases so before I describe my set up, let me explain why I’m sharing this information.

Some time back, in preparation for a session I was giving on Zotero for my university’s annual  technology conference, I realized that before going into the reasons how to use Zotero, I had to address the reasons why. I recognized that I was asking students and faculty who were likely already time-strapped and overburdened, to abandon long-standing practices that were already successfully working for them if they were going to switch to Zotero for their research work.

Before my presentation, I asked on Twitter when and why faculty would change their research practices.  Most of the answers were on the cynical side but there were some that gave me some room to maneuver, namely this one: “when I start a new project.”  And there’s a certain logic to this approach. If you were starting graduate school and know that you have to prepare for comps and generate a thesis at the end of the process, wouldn’t you want to conscientiously design your workflow at the start to capture what you learn in such a way that it’s searchable and reusable?

My own sabbatical is over and oddly enough, it is now at the end of my sabbatical in which I feel the most like I’m starting all over again in my professional work. So I’m using that New Project feeling to fuel some self-reflection in my own research process, bring some mindfulness to my online habits, and deliberate design into My Setup.

There’s another reason why I’m thinking about the deliberate design of research practice. As libraries start venturing into the space of research service consultation, I believe that librarians need to follow best practices for ourselves if we hope to develop expertise in this area.

As well, I think we need to more conscious of how and when our practices are not in line with our values. It’s simply not possible to live completely without hypocrisy in this complicated world but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for praxis. It’s difficult for me to take seriously accusations that hackerspaces are neoliberal when it’s being stated by a person cradling a  Macbook or iPhone. That being said, I greatly rely on products from Microsoft, Amazon, and Google so I’m in no position to cast stones.

I just want to care about the infrastructures we’re building….

And with that, here’s my setup!


There are three computers that I spend my time on: the family computer in the kitchen (a Dell desktop running Windows 7), my work computer (another Dell desktop running Windows 7), and my Thinkpad X1 Carbon laptop which I got earlier this year.  Grub turned my laptop into a dual boot machine that I can switch between Ubuntu and Windows 7. I feel I need a Windows environment so my kids can play Minecraft and so I can run any ESRI products, if need be.

I have a Nexus 4 Android phone made by LG and a Kindle DX as my ebook reader. I don’t own a tablet or an mp3 player.

Worldbackup Day is March 31st. I need to get myself an external drive for backups (Todo1).


After getting my laptop, the first thing I did was investigated password managers to find which one would work best for me. I ended up choosing LastPass and I felt the benefits immediately. Using a password manager has saved me so much pain and aggravation and now my passwords are now (almost) all unique. Next, I need to set up two factor authentication for the services that I haven’t gotten around to yet (Todo2).  

With work being done on three computers, it’s not surprising that I have a tendency to work online. My browser of choice is Mozilla but I will flip to Chrome from time to time. I use the sync functionality on both so my bookmarks are the automatically updated and the same across devices. I use SublimeText for my text editor for code, GIMP as my graphics editor, and QGIS for my geospatial needs.

This draft, along with much of my other writing and presentations are on Google Drive. I spend much of my time in Gmail and Google Calendar. While years ago, I downloaded all my email using Mozilla Thunderbird, I have not set up a regular backup strategy for these documents (Todo3). I’ve toyed with using Dropbox to back up Drive but think I’m better with an external drive. I have a Dropbox account because people occasionally share documents with me through it but at the moment, I only use it to backup my kids Minecraft games.

From 2007 to 2013, I used delicious to capture and share the things I read online. Then delicious tried to be the new Pinterest and made itself unusable (although it has since reverted back to close to its original form) and so I switched to Evernote (somewhat reluctantly because I missed the public aspect of sharing bookmarks).   I’ve grown to be quite dependent on Evernote to save my outboard brain. I use IFTTT to post the links from my Twitter faves to delicious which are then imported automatically into Evernote.  I also use IFTTT to automatically backup my Tumblr posts to Evernote, my Foursquare check-ins saved to Evernote (and Google Calendar) and my Feedly saved posts to Evernote. Have I established a system to back up my Evernote notes on a regular basis? No, no I have not (Todo4).

The overarching idea that I have come up with is that the things I write are backed up on my Google Drive account and the library of things that I have read or saved to future reading (ha!) are saved on Evernote.  To this end, I use IFTTT to save my Tweets to a Google Spreadsheet and my Blogger and WordPress posts are automatically saved to Google Drive (still in a work in progress. Todo 5). My ISP is Dreamhost but I am tempted to jump ship to Digital Ocean.

My goal is to have at least one backup for the things I’ve created. So I use IFTTT to save my Instagram posts to Flickr. My Flickr posts are just a small subset of all the photos that are automatically captured and saved on Google Photos.  No, I have not backed up these photos  (Todo 6) but I have, since 2005, printed the best of my photos on an annual basis into beautiful softcover books using QOOP and then later, through Blurb.  My Facebook photos and status updates from 2006 to 2013 have been printed in a lovely hardcover book using MySocialBook.  One day I would like to print a book of the best of my blogged writings using Blurb, if just as a personal artifact.

Speaking of books, because I’m one of the proud and the few to own a KindleDX, I use it to read PDFs and most of my non-fiction reading. When I stumble upon a longread on the web, I use Readability’s Send to Kindle function so I can read it later without eyestrain. I’m inclined to buy the books that I used in my writing and research as Kindle ebooks because I can easily attach highlighted passages from these books to my Zotero account. My ebooks are backed up in my calibre library. I also use Goodreads to keep track of my reading because I love knowing what my friends are into.

I subscribe to Rdio and for those times that I actually spend money on owning music, I try to use Bandcamp. I’m an avid listener of podcasts and for this purpose use BeyondPod. Our Sonos system allows us to play music from all these services, as well as TuneIn, in the living room.  The music that I used to listen to on CD is now sitting on an unused computer running Windows XP and I know if I don’t get my act together and transfer those files to an external drive soon those files will be gone for good.. if they haven’t already become inaccessible (*gulp*) (Todo 8).

For my “Todo list” I use Google Keep, which also captures my stray thoughts when I’m away from paper or my computer. Google Keep has an awesome feature that will trigger reminders based on your location.

So that’s My Setup. Let me know if you have any suggestions or can see some weaknesses in my workflow. Also, I’d love to learn from your Setup.

And please please please call me out if I don’t have a sequel to this post called The Backup by the time of next year’s World Backup Day.

Teach for America. Code for America. Librarianing for America

On Friday the 13th, I gave the morning keynote at the Online Northwest Conference in Corvallis, OR. Thanks so much to the organization for inviting me.

Last October, I was driving home from a hackathon when I heard something extraordinary on the radio. Now, as human beings, we tend to get over-excited by coincidence – it’s a particular cognitive bias called the frequency illusion – you buy a gold station wagon and suddenly you see gold station wagons everywhere (yes, that’s my gold station wagon behind me). But that being said, I  still contend that there was something special about what I heard and when I heard it. Because you don’t hear people talking about Open Data on the radio very often.

So here’s the brief backstory.  The local technology incubator in partnership with the local hackerspace that I’m involved with was co-hosting a week long hackathon to celebrate Science and Technology Week.  I was just returning from its kick-off event where I had just given a presentation on the role of licensing in Open Data.  This particular hackathon was a judged event, with the three top prizes being a smart watch, admission to an app commercialization seminar, and an exclusive dinner with an expert in the commercialization of apps — which was kind of odd since the data sets that were provided for the event were sets like pollution monitoring data from the Detroit River, but hey – that’s the part of the challenge of making commercial apps out of open data.

While it has been said that we are now living in the age of Big Data, only the smallest subset of that data is explicitly licensed in such a way that we the citizen can have access and can make use of it without having to ask permission or buy a license.  I’m the lead of Open Data Windsor Essex and much of my role involves explaining what Open Data is because it’s not largely understood. Because I’m talking to my fellow librarians, I’m going to give you a very abbreviated version of my standard Open Data explainer:

One of the most common definitions of Open Data comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation: Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.

So, using this definition, a creative commons license of CC-BY : which means that the work has been designated in the creative commons as free to use without requiring permission as long as there is attribution is given is considered Open Data.  But CC-NC which stands for Creative Commons Non-Commercial is not considered Open Data because the domain of use has been restricted.

We in librarianship talk a lot about open source, and open access, but even we don’t talk about open data very much. So that’s why I was so surprised when there was a conversation coming from my car radio on the importance of Open Data.  Granted, I was listening to campus Radio – but still, I think I reserve the right to be impressed by how the stars seemed to have aligned just for me.

The show I was listening to was Paul Chislett’s The Shake Up on CJAM and he was interviewing Paula Z. Segal, the lead executive of a Brooklyn-based organization called 596 Acres. Her organization builds online tools that makes use of Open Data to allow neighbours to find the vacant public land hidden in plain sight in the city as the first step in the process of turning them into shared resources, such as community gardens.  Perhaps not surprising to you now, but in 2011 there was 596 acres of such empty lots in Brooklyn alone.

Segal was telling the radio host and the listening audience that many communities make data – such as data that describes what land is designated for what purpose – open and accessible to its residents. However, most citizens don’t know that the data exists because the data is contained in obscure portals, and if even if they did find the data, they generally do not understand how to handle the data, how to make sense of it and how to make it meaningful to their experiences.

Now when I heard that and whenever I hear similar complaints that the promise of Open Data has failed because it tends to add power to already powerful, I keep thinking the same thing – this is a job for librarians.

It reminds me of this quote from open government advocate, David Eaves:

We didn’t build libraries for a literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have public policy literate citizens, we build them so that citizens may become literate in public policy.

This brings us to the theme of this morning’s talk- which is not Open Data – although I will express today’s theme through it largely because I’m back from a year’s sabbatical immersed in the topic and it’s still difficult for me to not talk about it. No, today I would like to make a case for a creating a nationwide program to put more librarians into more communities and into more community organizations. I have to warn you that I’m not going to give you any particulars about what shape or scope of what such a program could be; I’m just going to try to make a case for such an endeavor. I haven’t even thought of a good name for it. The best I can come up with is Librarianing for America. On that note, I would like to give a shout-out to Chris Bourg for – if not coining the word librarianing – for at least, bringing to my attention.

And I very much hope that perchance the stars will align again and this theme will complement the work that I am very much looking forward to hearing today at Online Northwest : about digitally inclusive communities, about designing and publishing, about being embedded, about sensemaking through visualization, about enhancing access and being committed to outreach.

Before I continue I feel I should disclose that I’m not actually American.  I grew up across the river from Port Huron, Michigan and I now live across the river from Detroit, Michigan.  I literally can see Detroit from my house.

And Detroit is the setting for my next story.

A quick aside first – my research interest in open data has been largely focused on geospatial data as well as the new software options and platforms that are making web mapping much more accessible and viable for individuals and community groups  when compared to the complex geographic information systems commonly known as GIS –  that institutions such as city governments and academic libraries tend to exclusively support.

I mention this as a means to explain why I decided to crash the inaugural meeting of Maptime Detroit that happened in early November last year.

Maptime is time designated to making maps. It is the result of kind volunteers who find a space, designate a time, and extend an open invitation to anyone who is interested to drop in and learn about making maps. It started in San Francisco a couple of years ago and now there are over 40 Maptime Chapters around the world.

Now, when I went to the first Maptime Detroit event, there wasn’t actually any time given to make maps. For this inaugural meeting, instead there was a set of speakers who were already using mapping in their work.

Not very many people know that Detroit has an amazing history of citizen mapping initiatives  – the map behind me is from The Detroit Geographical Expedition from their work Field Notes Three from 1970.  I think you could make a case that another kind of community mapping outreach work is starting to emerge again through the many community initiatives that are supported by mapping that is happening in Detroit today. 

Many of the organizations who are doing community mapping work were presenting at Maptime Detroit including Justin Wedes, an organizer from the Detroit Water Brigade.

As you might already know, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 with debts somewhere between $18 to $20 billion dollars.  The city is collapsing upon itself at a scale that’s very difficult to wrap one’s mind around. 

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is currently conducting mass water shut offs in the city which will affect over 120,000 account holders over an 18 month period at a rate of 3,000 per week. This will account for over 40% of customers who are using the Detroit Water system. As 70,000 of those accounts are residential accounts, it is thought that 200,000-300,000 people could be directly affected.

The Detroit Water Brigade coordinates volunteers efforts in the distribution of bottled water to affected neighbours as well as acts an advocate for the UN recognized human right to water on behalf of Detroiters.

But at Maptime Detroit, Justin Wedes didn’t begin his talk with his work in Detroit. Instead he began his presentation by speaking about of his experiences with Occupy Sandy.  In October of 2012, while New York’s FEMA offices were closed due to bad weather, veterans from the Occupy Wall Street community came forward and used their organization skills to mobilize ground support for those who needed it most. At first, Occupy Sandy was using free online services such Google Spreadsheets and Amazon’s Web Registry to collect and redistribute donations but by the end of their work, they had started using the exact same software that the city of New York uses for dispatching resources during disasters.

Wedes described the work of the Detroit Water Brigade and as he did so, he also told us how very different his experiences were in Detroit as compared to his ones in New York after Superstorm Sandy. After Sandy hit, he told us, those New Yorkers who could help their more badly damaged neighbours did so with great enthusiasm and that help was well received.  With the water shutoffs in Detroit, however, Justin feels there is an underlying sense of shame in accepting help and the response from the community at large is more restrained.  When he said this, the first thing that came to my mind was an article I had read years ago by Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s Magazine. In that article, which was later expanded into a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Solnit makes an observation humanity opens itself to great compassion and community when a disaster is brought on by weather but this capacity is strikingly less so when that disaster is man-made.

There are many reasons why this water shut-off situation in Detroit came about and I’m not going to go into them, largely because I don’t fully understand how things got to become so dire. I just want to draw attention to the tragic dynamic at hand: as the problems of Detroit grow – due to less people being about to pay for an increasingly costly and crumbling infrastructure, the capacity of the city government to deal with the worsening situation in turn, is also reduced.

What I believe should be of particular interest to us, as librarians, is that there has been a collective response from the philanthropic, non-profit community organizations along with businesses and start-ups to help Detroit through the collection and sharing of city data for the benefit of the city as a whole. Data Driven Detroit does collect and host open data, but it also hosts datasets that are collected from public and private sources as a means to create “clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government, and city service providers.”

One of the more striking datasets that’s both explorable through a map as well as available for download as open data, is Detroit Property Information through the Motor City Mapping project.  In In the fall of 2013, a team of 150 surveyed the entire city and took photos and captured condition information for every property in the city of Detroit. According to their information at this given moment, of Detroit’s 374,706 properties surveyed, 25,317 are publicly owned structures. Of those, 18,410 are unoccupied, 13,570 require boarding up, and the condition of 2511 of these buildings are so poor that demolition is suggested.
Now, I can only speak for myself, but when I see these kind of projects it makes me want to learn the computer based wizardry that would allow me to do similar things.  Because while I do enjoy the intellectual work that’s involved with computer technology, what really inspires me is this idea that through learning to program, I can gain superpowers that take masses amount of data and do some good with them at the scales of a city.
In short, I want to have to the powers of Tiffani Ashley Bell.  Tiffani heard about the plight of water-deprived Detroiters last July and after being urged on by a friend, she sat down and came up with the core of The Detroit Water Project in about four hours.  The Detroit Water Project pairs donors with someone in Detroit with an outstanding water bill and makes it possible for these donors to directly contribute to their water bill. Since the project started in July, over 8000 donors have paid $300,000 directly towards water bills.
Now, while I think this project is incredibly valuable and very touching as allows donors to directly improve the situation of one household in Detroit, the project admittedly does not change the dynamics involved that gave the grievous situation at hand. 
So what is to be done? How can we combine the power of open data, computer code, and the intention to do good to make more systematic changes?  How can we support and help the residents and the City of Detroit doing the good work that they already do?
This where I think another organization comes in: Code for America.

Code for America believes it can help government be more responsive to its residents by embedding those who can read and write code into the city government itself.  It formed in 2009 and it works by enlisting technology and design professionals to work with city governments in the United States in year long fellowships in order to build open-source applications that promote openness, participation, and efficiency in government.

In other words, it’s a combination of service and app building that is paid for by the city, usually with the help of corporate sponsors. Each year Code for America selects 8-10 local government partners from across the US and 24-30 fellows for the program through a competitive application process.

In 2012, the Knight Foundation and Kellogg Foundation funded three Code for America fellows for a residency in Detroit.  These Code for America fellows worked with the Detroit Department of Transportation to release a real-time transit API and build the TextMyBus bus notification system which launched in September of that year.

In addition to TextMyBus, the fellows also built an app called Localdata to standardize location-based data collected by data analysts and community groups. “Localdata offers a mobile collection tool with a map interface as well as a paper collection option that can be scanned and uploaded for data syncing.” This particular project joined the Code for America Incubator and has since expanded into a civic tech startup company.

In my mind, Code for America can be thought of as a scaled up version of a civic hackathon. If you aren’t familiar with hackathons, they are a generally weekend affair in which participants work solo or in groups to code a website or app that ostensibly solves a problem. Sometimes there are prizes and sometimes the event is designed as a means to generate the first concept of a potential start-up. Hackathons can be a good thing – you might remember from the beginning of my talk that I sometimes help out with them which I means that I endorse them – but I do admit that that have their limits (many of which are described in this blog post behind me).  For one, it’s simply not reasonable to expect that a weekend of hacking is going to result in a wonderful app that will meet the needs of users that the programmers have likely not even met.  But, with good event design that strives incorporates mentorship, workshops, and opportunities to meet with potential users of said apps, hackathons can be a great start towards a future collaborations.

Code for America also incorporates mentorship and training into its process. Those selected for a fellowship begin at an institute in San Francisco where fellows receive training about how local government and agencies work, how to negotiate and communicate as well as how to plan, and focus their future code work.  That being said, Code for America has its own limitations as well. This particular article gently suggests that Code for America may – in some instances – seem to benefit the fellows involved more than the cities themselves.  For one, it costs a city a lot of money – $440,000 – just to support a set of Code for America fellows for a year and then, after they leave, the city needs to be able to have the capacity to support the care and feeding of the open source apps that have been left behind.

Which makes me think.

If only… if only….

If only there were people who could also help cities help their communities who didn’t have to be flown in and disappear after a year. If there was only some group of people who could partner with cities and their residents who already had some experience and expertise in open data licensing, and who understood the importance of standardizing descriptors in datasets, who were driven to improve better user experience, and who understood that data use requires data literacy which demands both  teaching and community outreach.

Friends, this is work that we – librarians can be doing.  And our communities need us. Our cities need us.

Furthermore, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but every year emerges another an amazing class of passionate and talented freshly minted librarians and we are simply not building enough libraries to put them in.

So I think it’s time to work towards making our own Librarianing for America.

I don’t think it’s possible to model ourselves directly on Code for America. It’s not likely we are going to find cities willing to pay $440,000 for the privilege to host 3 librarians for a year.  At least, not initially. Let’s call that our stretch goal.

We can start out small. Perhaps librarians could participate in one of the 137 Code for America Brigades that bring together civic-minded volunteers to work together via meetups.  There are a variety of other organizations that also draw on civic minded volunteers to work together towards other goals including the Open Knowledge Foundation, hack4good, CrisisMappers, and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

Or perhaps we can follow the lead of libraries such as the Edmonton Public Library, York University Libraries, The Chattanooga Public Library, and  the University of Ottawa, who have all hosted hackathons for their communities.
This is a slide that’s admittedly out of context. I took it from a Code for America presentation and I’m not sure how precise this statistic of 75% is to their project and even whether it can be widely applied to all projects. But, I do think it is safe to say that programming code is only as good as its data is clean and meaningful.

And I say this because I don’t believe that librarians have to know how to program in order to participate in Librarianing for America. I believe our existing skillset lends itself to the cause. Our values and our talents are greatly under appreciated by many, many people including librarians themselves.  

But it appears that that the talent of librarians is starting to be recognized. The City of Boston  recently was awarded a Knight Foundation grant for the specific purpose of hiring a librarian as part of a larger team to turn the City of Boston’s many Open Datasets into something findable, usable, and meaningful by its residents.
And perhaps we can learn and expand on the work of ILEAD USA.
ILEAD stands for Innovative Librarians Explore, Apply and Discover, and it is a continuing education program that is supported by grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and has librarians from ten states who are involved in this program
ILEAD USA gathers librarians together with the goal to develop a team projects over a nine month period through a combination of intermittent face-to-face meetings and online technology training sessions. At the end of nine months, each team presents their project to the entire ILEAD USA audience, with the goal of either sustaining these projects as ongoing library programs or directly applying the knowledge gained from ILEAD USA to future collaborative projects.  
Now when I first proposed this talk, I was unaware of the work of the ILEAD program. And since then I’ve had the pleasure to speak with the its project director on the phone. I asked her if she was familiar with Code for America and she told me no, although she did know about Teach for America. 
I don’t know about you, but to me, ILEAD sounds a little bit like Librarianing for America to me. Or at least it sounds like what one possible form that it could take.

Or it could be that Librarianing for America could be a placement service that matched and embedded librarians with non-profits. The non-profits could gain from the technical and material experiences of the librarian and the librarian would be able learn more about the needs of the community and form partnerships that can only occur when we step outside of our buildings.

I don’t think it’s so far-fetched. Last year, my local hackerspace received three years of  provincial funding to hire a staff coordinator to run a number of Open Data hackathons, host community roundtables and pay small stipends to community members who help in our efforts to making open data from the non-profit community more readily available to the community they serve.

Now it just might be the Frequency Illusion, but I prefer to think it is as if the stars are aligning for libraries and their communities..  At least they appear so when I look up towards our shared horizon. 

Thank you all for kind attention this morning and I very much look forward to spending this day librarianing with everyone here at OnlineNorthwest..  

Be future compatiable

Hmmm, I thought kindly published my last post but did not update the RSS feed, so I made this re-post:On February 1st, I gave a presentation the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Chicago, Illinois as part of the ALA Mast…

Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, Fab Labs, TechShops, Incubators, Accelerators… Where do libraries fit in?

[ On February 1st, I gave this presentation the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Chicago, Illinois as part of the ALA Masters Series. Thank you, good people of ALA.]

Today’s session is going to start out as a field guide but it’s going to end with a history lesson.

We’re going to start here – with a space station called c-base that found/ed in Berlin in 1995.

And then we are going travel through time and space to the present day where business start-up incubator innovation labs are everywhere including CBASE  which is the College of Business and Economics from the University of Guelph.
But before we figure out where libraries makerspaces fit in, we’re going to use the c-base space station to go back in time, just before the very first public libraries were established around the world, so we can figure out how to go back to the future we want. It is 2015, after all.  

But before we can talk about library makerspaces, we need to talk about hackerspaces.

This is the inside of c-base.

c-base is considered one of – or perhaps even – the very first hackerspace. It was established in 1995 by self-proclaimed nerds, sci-fi fans, and digital activists who tell us that c-base was built from a reconstructed space station that fell to earth, then somehow became buried, and when it was uncovered it was found to be borne with the inscription : be future compatible.

The c-base is described as a system of seven concentric rings that can move in relation to each other. These rings are called core, com, culture, creative, cience, carbon and clamp.

Beyond its own many activities, c-base has become the meeting place for German Wikipedians and it’s where the German Pirate Party was first established.

Members of c-base have been known to present at events hosted by the Chaos Computer Club, which is Europe’s largest association of hackers that’s been around for 30 years now.

So c-base is a hackerspace that is actually inhabited by what we commonly think of as hackers.  

Some of the earliest hackerspaces were directly inspired by c-base. There is story that goes that in August of 2007, a group of North American hackers visited Germany for Chaos Communication Camp and was so impressed that when came back, they formed the first hackerspaces in the United States including NYC Resistor (2007), HacDC (2007), and Noisebridge (San Francisco, 2008).

Since then, many, many more hackerspaces have been developed – there are at least a thousand –  but behind these new spaces are organizations that have are much less counter-culture in their orientation than the mothership of c-base. In fact, at this moment, you could say there isn’t a clear delineation between hackerspaces and makerspaces at all.

But before we can start talking about makerspaces, I think it’s necessary to pay a visit two branches of the hackerspace evolutionary tree: TechShops and Fab Labs.

TechShop is a business that started in 2006 which provides – in return for a monthly membership – access to space that contains over a half a million dollars of equipment, generally including an electronics lab, a machine shop, a wood shop, a metal working shop, etc. There are only 8 of these TechShops across the US despite earlier predictions that would be about 20 of them by now.  They have been slow to open because the owner has stated that the business requires at least 800 people willing to pay over $100 a month in order for a TechShop to be viable.

The motto of TechShop is Build Your Dreams here. But TechShops have been largely understood as places where members dream of prototypes for their future Kickstarter projects. And such dreams have already come true: the prototype of the Square credit card processing reader, for example, was built in a Techshop. I think it’s telling that the Detroit Techshop has a bright red phone in the space that connects you directly to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in case of a patent emergency.

Three of out of the 8 TechShops have backing from other organizations. TechShop’s Detroit center opened in 2012 in partnership with Ford, which gives its employees free membership for three months. Ford employees can claim patents for themselves or they can give them to Ford in exchange for a share in revenue generated. Ford claims that this partnership with TechShop has led to a 50% rise in the number of patentable ideas put forward by the carmaker’s employees,  in one year.

TechShop’s offices in Washington DC and Pittsburgh are being sponsored by DARPA, an agency of the Defense Department. DARPA is reported to have invested $3.5 million dollars into TechShop as part of its “broad mission to see if regular citizens can outinvent military contractors on some of its weirder projects.”  But DARPA is not just helping pay for the space, they supposedly use the space themselves. According to the Bloomberg Business Week story I read, DARPA employees arrive at midnight to work when the TechShop is closed to its regular members.

You might be surprised, but we’re going to be talking about DARPA again during this talk. But before that, we need to visit another franchise-like type of makerspace called the Fab Lab.

In 1998, Neil Gershenfeld started a class at MIT called “How to make (almost) anything”. Gershenfeld wanted to introduce industrial-size machines normally inaccessible to technical students. However, he found his class also attracted a lot of students from various backgrounds including artists, architects, and designers. This led to a larger collaboration which eventually resulted in the Fab Lab Project which began in 2001. Fab Lab began as an educational outreach program from MIT but the idea has since developed into an ambitious network of labs located around the world.

The idea behind Fab Lab is that the space should provide a core set of tools powered by open source software that allow novice makers to make almost anything given a brief introduction to engineering and design education. Anyone can create a recognized Fab Lab as long as it makes a strong effort uphold the criteria of a Fab Lab, with the most important being that Fab Labs are required to be regularly open to the public for little or no cost. While it’s not required, a Fab Lab is also strongly encouraged to communicate and collaborate with the other 350 or so other Fab Labs around the world. The idea is that, for example, if you design and make something using Fab Lab equipment in Boston, you could send the files and documents to someone in the Cape Town Fab Lab who could the same using their equipment.

The first library makerspace was a Fab Lab. It was established in 2011 in the Fayetteville Free Library in the state of New York. That’s Lauren Britton pictured on screen who was a driving force that helped make that happen.

Now we don’t tend to talk about Fab Labs in libraries. We talk about makerspaces. I think this is for several reasons with one of the main ones being – as admirable as I personally find the goals of international collaboration through open source and standardization – the established minimum baseline for such a Fab Lab generally costs between $25,000 and $65,000 in capital costs alone. This  means that a proper Fab Lab is out of reach for many communities and smaller organizations.

I think there’s another reason why we think of makerspaces before we think of Fab Labs, TechShops or hackerspaces. And that’s because of Make Magazine.

Started in 2005 from the influential source of so many essential computer books, O’Reilly Publishing, Make Magazine was going to be called Hack. But then the daughter of founder Dale Dougherty told him that hacking didn’t sound good, and she didn’t like it. Instead, she suggested he call the magazine MAKE instead, because ‘everyone likes making things’.

And there is something to be said for having a more inclusive name, and something less threatening than hackerspace. But I think there’s more to it as well. There is a freedom that comes with the name of makerspace.


One my favourite things about makerspaces is that most of them are open to everyone – artists, scientists, educators, hobbyists, hackers and entrepreneurs and it is possibility for cross-pollination of ideas that is one of the espoused benefits of their spaces for their members. In a world where there’s so much specialization, makerspaces are a force that are trying to bring different groups of people together.

Here’s such an example. This is i3Detroit which calls itself a DIY co-working space that is a “a collision of art, technology and collaboration”.

There are also makerspaces that are more heavily arts-based.  Miss Despoinas is a salon for experimental research and radical aesthetics that hosts workshops using code in contemporary art practice. It is physically located in Hobart, Tasmania.

There are presumably makerspaces that are designed primarily for the launching of new companies, although the only one I could find was Haxlr8r .  Haxkl8r is a hardware business accelerator that combines workshop space with mentorship and venture capital opportunities and official bases in San Francisco and Shenzhen, China.

That being said, I can’t help but note that most of these maker spaces that I’ve found that are designed specifically to support start ups has been in universities.  Pictured here is the “Industrial Courtyard” where students and recent graduates of the university where I work can have access for prototype or product development.

In some ways, this brings up us full circle because it’s been said the originators of the first hackerspaces set them up deliberately outside of universities, governments, and businesses because they wanted a form of political independence and even to be a place for resistance to the bad actors of these organizations.

As Willow Brugh describes this transition from the earliest hackerspaces and hacklabs :

The commercialization of the space means more people have access to the ideals of these spaces – but just as when “Open Source” opened up the door to more participants, the blatant political statement of “Free Software” was lost – hacklabs have turned from a political statement on use of space and voice into a place for production and participation in mainstream culture.

For as neutral and benign makerspaces seemingly are (“everyone likes to make things”), there are reasons to be mindful of the organizations behind them. For one, in 2012 Make Magazine received a grant from DARPA to establish makerspaces in 1000 U.S. high schools over the next four years.

Now it’s one thing if makerspaces simply exist as a place where friends and hobbyists can meet, work and learn from each other. It’s quite another if the makerspace becomes the basis of a model to address STEM anxieties in education.

As much as I appreciate how the Maker Movement is trying to bring a playful approach to learning through building, it’s important to recognize that makerspaces tend to collect successful makers rather than produce them. The community who participates in hackerspaces and makerspaces is pronouncedly skewed white and male.  In 2012, Make Magazine reported that of its 300,000 in total readership, 81% are male, median age is 44, and the median household income is $106,000.

Lauren Britton, the librarian who was responsible for the very first Library Fab Lab/Makerspace is now studying as a doctoral student at Syracuse University in Information Science and Technology and a researcher for their Information Institute. She’s been doing discourse analysis on the maker movement and last year she informally published some of her findings so far.  She’s already tackled STEM anxiety and I’m particularly looking forward to what has has to say about gender and the makerspace movement.

But there’s no time to get into all of that now, because it is now time to hop into c-base and travel through and time and space to the time before public libraries. We are going to travel up the makerspace evolutionary tree to what I like to consider the proto-species of the makerspace : The Mechanics Institute.

The world’s first Mechanics’ Institute was established in Edinburgh, Scotland in October 1821. Mechanics Institutes were formed to provide libraries and forms of adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. Mechanics Institutes as an institution did not last very long – the movement lasted only fifty years or so – although at their peak there were 700 of them worldwide.

What I think is so particularly poetic is that many of the buildings and core books collections of these Mechanics Institutes- especially where I’m from which is the province of Ontario in Canada – became the foundation for the very first public libraries.

Although there are still some Mechanics Institutes still among us, like coelacanths evolutionary speaking- most notably Montreal’s Atwater Library and San Francisco’s beautiful Mechanics Institute and Chess Room.

Now, I have to admit, when I see some makerspaces, they remind me of mechanics institutes: subsidized spaces that exist to provide access to technologies to be used for potential start-ups. And if that remains their primary focus, I think their moment will pass, just like mechanics institutes. The forces that made industrial technology accessible to small groups will presumably continue to develop into consumer technology.  To live by disruption is to die by disruption.

This is one reason why I’m so happy and proud of the way so many libraries have embraced makerspaces and have made them their own.  Because by and large, libraries keep people at the centre of the space- not technology.

Librarians – by and large – have opted for accessible materials and activities in their spaces and have host activities that emphasize creativity, personal expression and learning through play. 

This is The Bubbler which is a visually arts based makerspace from the Madison Public Library. I have never been but from what I can see, they are doing many wonderful things. They hosts events that involve bike hacking, audio engineering, board game making, and media creation projects. I was particular impressed how they are working with juvenile justice programs to bring these activities and workshops to justice involved youth.

As long as libraries can continue to focus on building a better future for all of us, then we can continue to be a space where that future can be built.

This concludes our tour through time and space. Thank you kindly for your attention.

May your libraries and your makerspaces be future compatible.

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 Satori. 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 Satori 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. 

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.

    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.

    Fight to #EndRacism…for #ClimateJustice. #peoplesclimate BOOM
    — REEP (@reep_ace) September 14, 2014

    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?