Code4lib 2019: Thoughts and appreciation post

I just got back from my fourth Code4lib (in five years), and it continues to be a really wonderful conference where I get to see some of my favorite people (and I was shocked that some of my fav people who were there this year were there for the first time!). I liked the initial MC and longstanding volunteer Dre’s description of Code4lib, which was that it isn’t an organized body, more of a collective. Code4lib continues to be one of the kindest and supportive and welcoming communities I’ve ever been involved in. Like any type of collective, not everything is perfect, but I am truly amazed at how much managed to get done by a handful of partially rotating unpaid volunteers. There are still a very small handful of people who are difficult to deal with, and a slightly larger handful of people that I find to have a lot of unproductive criticism, but overall I am glad that this is a space that works hard at creating as welcoming a space as possible (and there are way more difficult and rude people out in the general world, for sure).

Big themes I felt this year were:

It was really nice to see people talk about something that they tried, and how it may or may not work for them, and what did and didn’t work, rather than showing up to the conference talking about their solution (as if there is only one). I gave a lightning talk on Ursula Franklin’s Real World of Technology and I felt this really embodied the sentiment of holistic technologies that she speaks about. People are thinking, iterating, and trying. To tie in the first strong theme I felt this year, it was nice to see people test out new tech like machine learning or AI, and express the pros/cons of programmatic solutions. It takes a lot of thought and care and confidence to get up on stage and talk about the process of things, and I felt that everywhere at this conference. (So thank you, programming committee!)

It was nice to hear from people coming from adjacent but different communities, like a talk on ethics from people in the information architecture field, or the WebRecorder talk.

A few notes about some of the talks in specific:

Our first keynote came from Sarah Roberts. Roberts is an EFF Pioneer Award winner, an awarding system I previously wasn’t aware of. I look forward to looking into the work of some of the previous recepiants of which whose work I am unfamiliar.

Programmatic approaches to bias in descriptive metadata I thought these were some cool experiments with thinking about ways to use programmatic tools to support and change and reconcile data in a University’s collections, with a clear ethical consideration for how tools were being used, and how they mediated the bias found in simple tooling.

Here are two of the projects: indigenous-lc-wikidata: mrs:

These tools did some gathering for interal purposes only, with human mediation before and after, so I think this is a really appropriate look into how tools can assist cataloging without assuming that it can all be done by eliminating the human element. And many more talks followed this theme of of thoughtfulness.

Here’s another project tackling classification and Indigineous peoples: Indigenous Knowledge Organization

Machine Learning and Metadata with the Charles Teenie Harris Archive This was such an impressive talk, and it was also hilarious, in a “laughing instead of crying” kind of way (I assume that was the sentiment there). I appreciated how open Dominique was on the struggles of her work, from having to deal with overwhelmingly detailed item-level titles and descriptions, to microaggressions that come from users erasing people by avoiding who they are (the “I don’t see color!” equivalent of cataloging) and the Library of Congress returning racially insensitive subject headings and having to work around that and deal with that. A big crux of the talk, too, was trying out machine learning and facial recognition and having it work terribly on Black faces, as a strong example of the level of the myopia in the tech field (something I want to acknowledge is reflected also in the Code4lib community).

Building REST API-backed Single Page Applications (SPAs) with Vue.js Honestly just want to highlight this talk as being like the gold standard of what an introductory technical talk should be. Totally accessible, easy to follow, and left viewers feeling like they are empowered to try it themselves.

“Blockchain for Libraries” is Snake Oil Best talk title I’ve heard. And this was a really good talk – explaining how many great features already exist and are being used by library systems (or should be) and are much easier and cheaper to integrate, and are also trusted.

Webrecorder: Developing an Open-Source High-Fidelity Web Archiving Toolset

This was a very good talk, and I feel like it was a perfect opportunity to bring something that is maybe more well-known in the museums space into the library space, for special collections and archives and university libraries that might not know about this initiative. I heard a whole lot of gasps in the audience before and during the demo. Ilya was also very diplomatic with a question that was basically like “Tell me why Archive-It sucks” and another question about what is contained in a WARC file. We had had a conversation the day before about how the dichotomy of options is pretty frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be binary, but so it goes. I want to take a look at ArchiveBox as a potential solution for smaller libraries/archives/museums that don’t have the budget for Archive-It nor the time for Webrecorder, but I was also really impressed by how much Webrecorder can do to set up automated webcrawls and personal servers.

I know this write-up seems like I was only paying attention for the first half of the day, but I think the archives-heavy talks were mostly focused on Day 1, and so they caught my attention. I did end up lingering after a breakout session and missing Dre’s talk, Shear forces: a conceptual model for understanding (and coping with) risk, change, and technical debt, and I can’t wait to watch it later. I also had to leave the morning of day 3, and I am looking forward to catching up with what seems to have been a really wonderful keynote and some compelling lightning talks (and I hear one includes speaker dancing)?