Code4Lib2016 Conference Review

This post was written for, and first appeared on, SAA’s SNAP roundtable blog.

Code4Lib 2016 was held in Philadelphia, PA from March 7 to 10 along with a day of pre-conference workshops. The core Code4Lib community consists of “developers and technologists for libraries, museums, and archives who have a strong commitment to open technologies,” but they are quite open and welcoming to any tangentially related person or institution. As a processing archivist whose main experience has been with paper documents, I thought I would feel confused and out of place for the length of this conference, but, while I had my moments, I left feeling more knowledgeable about efforts and innovations within the coding community, giddy with ideas of projects to bring to my own workplace, and incredibly glad that I stepped outside of my archival comfort zone to attend (and present at!) this conference. (And I have to thank our university’s Metadata Librarian, Allison Jai O’Dell, for asking me to present with her. Without her reaching out to me, I likely wouldn’t have gotten involved in the conference to begin with.)

So, before Code4Lib, there was Code4Arc – at least, as a preconference workshop. Code4Arc focused on the specific coding and technology needs of the archivist community and on the need to make Code4Arc an actual thing, rather than just an attachment to Code4Lib. While both communities would have quite a bit of overlap, archivists obviously have their own niche problems, and coders can often help sort those problems out. Also, having a direct line between consumer-with-a-problem and developer-with-a-solution would prove quite beneficial to all parties involved. The day was divided up into a series of informal discussions and more focused breakout groups, along with some updates from developers. The end result mainly boiled down to continuing the discussion about our needs as a community, communicating and sharing knowledge and data more openly, and focusing efforts on specific problems that affect many archives. We’ve formed some ad hoc groups and will likely have more to say in the not-too-distant future.

code-loveAs to the conference proper, I’ll start by noting that a ton of information is available online. The conference site lists presentations, presenter bios, and links to twitter handles and slides where available. Three series of Lightning Talks emerged during the conference; information on those talks can be found on the wiki, which is full of useful information and links. And everything was recorded, so you can watch the presentations from the Code4Lib YouTube channel. The conference presentations were almost a series of lightning talks themselves. Each presentation was allotted 10-20 minutes of time, with 6 groups of presentations given over the course of the conference, along with 2 plenary talks. So, while it was a nice change from the general conference configuration, it did make for a rather exhausting (but engaging) experience. Having said that, I will only specifically mention a few of the presentations that resounded more with me or relate more specifically to archival work (because seriously, I saw over 50 in the course of 2.5 days). But again, I stress, totally worth it! And they feed you. A lot!

So on day one (inserts shameless plug), Allison Jai O’Dell and I presented The Fancy Finding Aid (video | slides). We talked about some front-end design solutions for making finding aids more interactive and attractive. Allison is wicked smart and also offered up a quick lightning talk on day three about the importance of communicating, often informally, with your co-workers (video). Other presentations of note from day one include Shira Peltzman, Alice Sara Prael, and Julie Swierzek speaking about digital preservation in the real world in two separate presentations, “Good Enough” preservation (video | slides) and Preservation 101 (video | slides). Eka Grguric broke down some simple steps anyone can take towards Usability Testing (video | slides) and Katherine Lynch shared great ideas regarding Web Accessibility issues (video | slides). Check out the slides for lots of great links and starting points, like testing out navigability by displacing your mouse or using a screen reader with your monitor off.

Matienzo: Ever to Excel

Later on, Mark Matienzo discussed the ubiquity of the spreadsheet in Ever to Excel (video | slides). The popularity of spreadsheets may come from the hidden framework that shields users from low-level programming, making users feel more empowered. Lightning talks included the programming committee asking for help with diversity in #ProgramSoWhite (video | slides), a focus repeated the following day in a diversity breakout session. Ideas generated from the diversity talks were focused on further outreach with schools and professional organizations, scholarship initiatives for underrepresented populations and newer professionals, and stressing the need for those in the coding community to reach out for collaborators in other areas to bring new voices into the community.

Angela Galvan, in her talk titled “So you’re going to die” (video | related notes), spoke about digital estate management and the need to plan for what happens to digital assets after someone dies. Though humans now post so much of their lives online, we are still relatively silent about death. Yuka Egusa’s talk about how non-coders can contribute to open source software projects was particularly popular (video | slides). She notes that engineers love coding, but generally don’t like writing documentation. Librarians and archivists can write those documents and training manuals, and we can aid with reporting bugs and usability testing. Don’t let lack of coding knowledge keep you from being part of innovative programs that interest you.

Yoose: libtech burnoutDay two: Becky Yoose gave an exhilarating talk about protecting yourself from #libtech burnout (video | slides). In the lightning talks, Greg Wiedeman spoke about his Archives Network Transfer System (video | more info), which is an interesting solution to a problem Code4Arc focused on, but also highlights the need for a simpler way to structure the process of transferring digital materials to the archives.

Andreas Orphanides gave a great talk about the power of design. Architecture is Politics (video | slides) highlighted how, intentionally or not, your web and systems designs are political; likewise politics influence your design. The choices you make in design can control your user, both explicitly and subtly, and politics can influence the choices you make in the same way. Thus, design is a social justice issue and you need to be active in knowing your users, recognizing your own biases, and diversifying your practices. Matt Carruthers talked about Utilizing digital scholarship to foster new research in Special Collections (video | slides). This project at the University of Michigan provides visualization-on-demand customized to a patron’s research question. Though still in the early stages of development, they are extracting data from EAD files they already have to create EAC-CPF connections. This data is then used to visualize the networks, and online access to the visualizations is offered for users. This is the start of a fascinating new way to provide further discovery and access in archives and special collections.

Day three’s lightning talks included Sean Aery from Duke speaking about integration of digital collections and findings aids and some great ways to maintain context while doing so (video | slides); Heidi Tebbe recommended the use of GitHub as a knowledge base, not just a place for code (video | slides); and Steelsen Smith pointed out the various issues that can arise with assorted sign-ons and using single sign-ons to actually open up systems for more users (video | slides).

And lastly, Mike Shallcross discussed a University of Michigan project that I’ve been following closely, the ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration (video | slides). They are working to overhaul archival management to bring ArchivesSpace and Archivematica together with a DSpace repository to standardize description and create a “curation ecosystem.” We’re closing in on a similar project where I work and Mike has been making regular (and rather entertaining) blogposts about the Michigan project, so it was good to hear him in person. (If interested in more, check out their blog.)

Orphanides: Architecture is PoliticsOh, the plenary talks. I almost forgot. They were great. The opening talk by Kate Krauss of the Tor project focused on social justice movements in the age of online surveillance (video | slides) and the closing talk by DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg (video) similarly focused on privacy and related concerns in online searching.

So, it was a great conference. There were definite themes emerging about creating better access and more privacy for users; trying to get out of your normal routine and envision projects from another perspective; communicating better and more openly within and around our own community; and using all of this to better document and support underrepresented communities around the world. I’ve now said too much. I hate reading long blog posts. But I definitely recommend this conference to anyone in the library and archives fields with any inkling of interest in digital projects. It’s a great way to get new ideas, see that you aren’t alone with your out-of-date systems, and meet some great people who you may not normally get to interact with on a regular basis.

From Student to Professional

This post originally appeared on the SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable Blog in their “Transitions” series, “which highlights the experiences of recent graduates and early career archivists.”

I graduated from the MSLIS program at Drexel University, with a concentration in Archives, in December of 2013. About 6 months later, I found myself gainfully employed (although temporarily) as a Project Archivist with the National Park Service in Anchorage, Alaska. My move from student to new professional, while rife with the standard issues we all face, was also compounded with issues of moving roughly 4,000 miles away from almost everyone I know and all the support structures I had built for myself over the years. Luckily, the education and preparatory experience I had in Philadelphia gave me a solid foundation to succeed in this new adventure.

I came to the archives field late in life. In my “youth,” I earned degrees in music performance and spent much of my 20s and early 30s working as a freelance cellist in various locales. As I begin to question the future and what I could see myself happily doing for the rest of my life, but in a more stable environment, I began to look at Library Science as a perfect option.

Fast forwarding to about three months before graduation, I had just begun work as an Archives Processor with the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) Hidden Collections project. This was the perfect environment to learn real-world processing skills and put all the theoretical knowledge I had learned at school to work. In this collaborative environment, working with other students near graduation and under the direction of a remarkable supervisor and mentor, we all gained skills that will serve us well throughout our professional careers. Taking that position was a leap for me. I left a full-time job with great benefits for a part-time job with none in the hopes that it would help pave the road for a career in my new profession. It turned out to be one of the best choices in my life. If you are a student currently, I urge you to seek out situations where you can work with people that will teach and challenge you wherever possible. Attaining the degree alone is not enough.

Thanks in large part to the work with PACSCL, I was hired for my position in Alaska. This was another huge leap that I felt I had to take. It was a great position that would give me further experience in the field and it was a bit of an adventure. As a musician and a rather independent person, I’d become somewhat of a gypsy – moving from place to place and never really feeling like staying put, so I thought, “What the [heck],” and said yes.

My position in Anchorage is basically a processing archivist. I’m working through all the records (close to 200 linear feet) of the largest national park in America. I’m using the principles of minimal[i] and maximal[ii] processing to streamline the way the park service here has traditionally cared for its paper records. Thanks to these more efficient processing ideals, I’ve been able to process all of the park’s records rather than roughly half of them, as was originally proposed. Additionally, I’ve also gotten to do some accessioning, budgeting, forecasting, and reference work while here. Working as somewhat of a “lone arranger” has also allowed me to take more responsibility for arrangement and description decisions, given me more project management experience, and increased the trust I have in my own instincts. So, all-in-all, the experience I’ve gained has been wonderful.

There are, of course, some downsides. Though I work with others in the Cultural Resources department, I am the only archivist on staff here. My supervisor is very knowledgeable and helpful, but for certain issues of processing and preservation, I generally find myself turning to colleagues from Philadelphia and beyond. By maintaining those relationships, which are now a comfortable blend of professional and personal, I can reach out for advice and also to share interesting and humorous finds.

Another downside I’ve noticed stems from the temporary nature of my position. Knowing that my time here is limited has created certain social restraints. It’s difficult to invest too much in a place when you know from the start that you won’t be around all that long. This has lead to some isolation, both socially and professionally. I’ve also come to see that these project positions aren’t just hard on the archivist; they’re hard on the institution too. After working through 200 feet of documents, I feel I’m just getting a somewhat-solid grasp on the inner workings of the National Park Service. And with each state or region and each park having its own unique issues, moving on to the next collection would only add to my understanding. However, I’m not going to be adding on; I’m going to be moving on. I’ll move on to a new position with new issues and, when funding becomes available, the park service will have to find another archivist for their next project who will have to go through all of this learning and adjustment again. This story could go similarly for any institution. I understand the financial reasons behind the system we’ve created here – project funding, grants, etc. – however, I think the drawbacks from that system may be pricier than it seems at first glance. But I digress.

A poster[iii] I saw at the 2014 SAA meeting showed that it generally takes 6 to 12 months for people to assimilate into a new location and I can attest that it has taken me about 6 months to start feeling like I have a small support base of friends here, and soon I’ll be moving on. While the work I’ve done here has been fulfilling, and I’ve seen some amazing things in Alaska, I am now of the mindset that my next position needs to be permanent, or at least in a place where I plan on spending a significant portion of the rest of my life. Everyone handles these changes differently, and Alaska is obviously more remote than most temporary positions will take you, but keep this idea in mind as you look for your first professional position and be honest about how you’ll deal with feeling isolated for an extended period of time. For me, I think my gypsy days are numbered.

Be that as it may, the training I received from Drexel has served me well. I have a strong foundation of theories and principles on which to grow, I know where to look for further information on topics that arise, and I have a broad base of knowledge concerning general library and information system topics that support further growth in the field. However, and not to discount anything taught in library science programs (even with the issues we know they all have), the training I received through internships and entry-level positions during and just after graduate school, have given me the most help for transitioning into a professional role. That training and experience, coupled with the professional contacts and connections I’ve made, is more far-reaching than anything I learned in a classroom. My advice to all students and new professionals is to make and cultivate professional connections in your own life and to take calculated risks when they arise.


[i] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 68, no. 2 (2005): 208-263.

[ii] Robert Cox, “Maximal Processing, or, Archivist on a Pale Horse,” Journal of Archival Organization 8, no. 2 (2010): 134-148.

[iii] Wendy Cole, Steven Wade, Karen Dafoe, and Victoria Hess (Louisiana State University SAA Student Chapter), “Leaving Home: Taking a Job Outside Your Comfort Zone” (poster at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Washington, DC, August 10-16, 2014).


Saint Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church records

This post originally appeared on the PACSCL project blog.

The records of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church of Philadelphia, one of the collections held at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, sheds light on a unique aspect of Philadelphia history. The church was started in 1886 when African American Catholics in the region grew tired of the discrimination they faced at Catholic Churches of the day (if they were allowed in at all). Members of three parishes united together to form the Peter Claver Union with the goal of creating a “Church for Colored Catholics” in Philadelphia.

In 1889, they were officially recognized by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and in 1892, they moved into their new home at 12th and Lombard Streets (a former Presbyterian church). The church continued to function for almost a century until the Archdiocese suppressed the church in 1985, stating that due to the changing racial climate, a dedicated church for African Americans was no longer needed, thus removing their parish status, as well as all of their records. At this point, the church continued to function as a community, but could not offer most religious sacraments and services.

In processing the records of this collection, one obvious drawback is the lack of most records from before 1985 (outside of the school records). Rather than finding records focused mainly on the administration and rituals of a church, this collection’s focus is found in the community outcry over the suppression of the parish, clippings and other subject files covering the African American community at the time, the church community’s struggle to remain vibrant in a neighborhood that had lost its African American majority, and many issues of racism (real or perceived) within the Catholic Church as a whole.

From a processing perspective, this was my favorite collection from our time at Temple and that comes from it not having been previously processed. It was quite rewarding to take a box full of papers and create a logical order to the contents, rather than just relabeling folders or trying to figure out why someone had deemed certain records appropriate to folder together.  This collection, though smaller than our previous ones, offered a chance to do some actual MPLP processing (a goal of this project), as well as learn more about Philadelphia history. And while I’ll not comment on my personal views of the acts of the Catholic Church regarding St. Peter Claver’s, it is quite eye opening to read about this time in Catholic history.