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A View from Code4Lib 2014

Raleigh, NC  Most hotels do not have large groups of high energy, motivated technologists all together at the same time to pound on a wi-fi network—coding, tweeting, wiki editing and chatting on IRC channels with multiple devices. As Code4Lib 2014 got underway on March 25, 2014 many attendees were on hand for a series of excellent day one workshops as conference organizers worked to improve wi-fi service for this 4-day perfect storm of “over access”. In typical collaborative code4lib style attendees at one workshop session agreed to turn off their wi-fi connections so that the presenter could access the Internet to give a live demonstration—it worked!

With 350+ participants from several countries and nine scholarship awardees on hand conference chair Tim McGeary opened the ninth annual conference with the report, “We are at capacity.” Code4Lib 2014 was jointly hosted by Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.

Two Workshops

Jenny Gubernick opened the Gender and Technology Workshop by asking the group to consider “Types of Privilege” as related to gender issues and technology development in libraries. Some attendees had experience or understanding about why gender equity in technology is at its heart a social justice issue.

Coral Sheldon-Hess led a section focused on why “Codes of Conduct” for Code4Lib and other events were useful tools for creating inclusive communities. The wikimania international conference, for example, has established a “friendly space policy” which is a code of conduct that includes an anti-harassment statement and a statement of appropriate conduct. Most code of conduct statements include similar types of language.

The "conference content" issue was raised with regard to how it relates to “intellectual freedom”. It is not possible to pre-screen all content that will be presented by individuals prior to any event. Suggestions for how to voice comments or objections were discussed.

The afternoon session of the GeoHydra Workshop, “Bringing GIS to the Digital Library” was led by Darren Hardy, Jack Reed, Bess Sadler from Stanford University for 20+ attendees. Slides:

Goals were to talk about methods for managing spatial data for non-GIS specialists, and look at some examples of how to use it with GeoBlacklight and Backlight-Maps.

GIS (Geographic Information System) is a durable digital library asset that can be delivered in vector and raster format. Library users can discover GIS assets via a variety of applications. The workshop featured examples of curated geo data leveraging the Hydra ecosystem.

Examples of types of GIS data include historic or digitized maps (georectified), GIS datasets (layers of vecotr/raster, “geometry data”) and other digital assets that have been geotagged with place indicators (example: a letter that was from and to a place)

GIS data is complex, shows up in many formats at varying scales, and can be distributed everywhere. Placenames are acceptable as GIS data. “We want a mapping software that does everything” BUT then it doesn’t do anything well,” said Reed.

GeoBlacklight and Backlight-Maps:

—Blacklight + OpenGeoportal communities
—Design document and community feedback in process
—For all GIS content that is geospatially enabled by default

—Plugin for backlight applications, provides a map view for backlight results; V1.0.1
—Can help curate a collection around a topic like “climate change”
—“Community stakeholders” is a broad group
—GIS data is a Fedora backend; has the copy of record and then a derivative is delivered online for improved performance

Opening keynote

Sumana Harihareswara, Engineering Community Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation, was the first keynote speaker. She challenged the audience to consider design and emotion as a key factor in software development by asking us to remember those times when a personal user experience was not what we wanted it to be and how turned-off we felt when something did not "work" as expected. Slides:

She referred to “the last mile problem” in engineering when it gets picky and expensive to complete. Usability is part of the last mile problem.

—Usefully connecting with users is a hard problem.
—Data points of views are sometimes considered to be more important than human view.

She suggested that other people, their opinions, their abilities, their concerns and their priorities “are not just a bad version of you.”

As an example of why usability is critical she pointed out that the NYPL is not lending out that many ebooks in spite of having a large collection and a high volume of paper book loans–13/1 ratio of paper versus ebooks. Why? Harihareswara pointed out that there are 18 steps for an NYPL user to borrow an ebook. They are in the process of trying to take it down to 3 steps.

She said, “If we want a world in which all humans can share in the totality of human knowledge then we need to focus on design and usability.”

Conference Dinner: Pizza and Beer at the University of North Carolina State’s Hunt Library

We used to get all of our information from paper. At the new Hunt Library library you are greeted with rows of tall metal "stacks” holding 2 million books in back of a glass wall–the place where we used to browse paper book titles on shelves in the old days. Visitors see a "bookbot" pulling books out of metal containers based on what was requested on a big, interactive, screen. There are no shelves in this library like the ones we can understand. 

Books aside, there were so many compelling things to do in the Hunt Library that Code4Lib people could barely tear themselves away. The stunning architecture of the Hunt Library is the first thing you see, but then you get into the "toys".

A personal favorite is the sound and visual, giant, curved, real-time screen view of wikipedia in action. You "listen" to stuff being added/editied in about 12 languages (that you can turn on or off) in many countries with a visual representation of who they are and what they are doing in real time. It sounds like light chimes or deep booms and you see bubbles with topics in them pop up either small or large depending on how much they are doing. It’s like a giant brain at work.

There is a game room with double room-sized screens and a programming console that you can either program on and play computationally simulated reality games on. A 3-D lab allows students to design objects and print them on the spot with a 3D printer. 


Everything in the building is designed to take what you do or say or photograph or think and feed it back to you in a dynamic context. The way the new Hunt Library space operates is a perfect metaphor for what happened at the conference. The non-stop, dynamic and useful exchange of code, ideas and fellowship among friends and colleagues came together over 4 days made Code4Lib 2014 a very successful conference.