Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Where Librarians Go To Hack
There is a subculture of librarians that could make a significant impact on the profession. They are women and men, youthful and experienced alike, who all share one thing: a passion for solving problems by creating software. They are hacker librarians. Hacker librarians are not afraid to configure and install software. They do not shrink from writing a program in whatever flavor of 'P' language they favor, from Perl to Python, with the hardiest even tackling Java and C++. Beyond enjoying the hunt for the right solution, they like to create solutions with colleagues and appreciate those who can provide knowledge about user needs and experiences. Hackfest 2002 To provide hacker librarians with an opportunity to tackle collectively library problems with software, the organizers of the Access 2002 Conference in Windsor, ON, put on a 'Hackfest.' The first Hackfest occurred at the end of each conference day, when attendees worked on a project that had been suggested as a worthy problem. This structure caused the hacker librarians to rack up such a sleep deficit that they vowed to do it differently the following year. But despite the challenges, the first Access Hackfest resulted in a number of specific contributions. For more information, see the Access 2002 site in the link list, available with the online version of this column. Hackfest 2003 The second Hackfest, at Access 2003 in Vancouver, BC, attracted over 30 librarians for a full-day preconference. Ideas for projects were solicited prior to the conference but not unveiled until that morning. Participants signed up for any projects that caught their fancy, teams began to coalesce, and eventually we took up positions in front of keyboards and/or whiteboards. Over six projects were tackled; see the 2003 Hackfest Report for details. For two of the projects, the result was a diagram on the whiteboard, which is certainly a significant accomplishment. Other teams were able to use existing components (such as the Poop Scoop reference desk binder replacement) and achieve a usable product within a day. But as co-organizer John Durno said, 'The most important outcome was never the software (although it's great if something useful comes out of it); [it was] rather to encourage a diverse group to share ideas and approaches; a chance to learn from each other through working together.' A subtext of the Hackfest was to demonstrate that solving problems often requires not much more than some concentrated attention. As Durno put it, 'Maybe there was a not-too-hidden agendathat it's possible for people of varying levels of technical skill to build useful tools and applications in a spirit of informal collaboration and fun; that software development doesn't have to involve a lot of top-down planning, RFPs, and whatnot.' Indeed, a great deal was accomplished with almost no overhead. Public service librarians rubbed elbows with systems geeks, and magic happened, all within the span of about eight hours. To get a better sense of the day, see the Hackfest movie, in QuickTime format. A unique venue I think we're on to something here. A conference provides the opportunity to distance oneself from the day-to-day hassles of the job, to tackle a 'point of pain' that may not need a huge effort to solve but in the daily grind is overwhelming. Or getting a grip on a 'big picture' idea may require some intensive brainpower and knowledge of software systems. Both kinds of projects, as well as some in between, are perfect for Hackfests. But in the end, the attraction of Hackfests may be much more prosaic than achieving a specific goal. As co-organizer Mark Jordan wrote in an email that went out to participants before they arrived, a Hackfest offers 'the satisfaction of spending a day tackling interesting problems with like-minded people in a low-pressure environment.' Burning Librarian? The enthusiasm coming out of this second Hackfest was palpable. Hackfest moderator Dan Chudnov couldn't help but make a connection between this gathering of librarians and another famous gathering: Burning Man. Burning Man brings together thousands of people to the Nevada desert for an annual art festival and temporary community. Chudnov went so far as to imagine a 'Burning Librarian' gathering where librarians could come together to tackle the problems of the day in an environment that encourages collaboration and imagination. What would this be like? Well, to quote the Burning Man web site, 'Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.' As Chudnov said in his summary of Hackfest 2003, he can almost see it. If you can, too, then get ready for Hackfest 2004 at Access 2004 in Halifax, NS, October 1316. Link List Access 2003 access2003.lib.sfu.ca Burning Man burningman.com Hackfest 2002 and 2003: photo albums, video, reports curtis.med.yale.edu/hackfest