Reflecting on Open Access and Code4Lib 2017

In considering how to consolidate my thoughts from Code4Lib 2017, I spent some time reviewing the pre-conference workshops and the interesting and directly relevant talks from last week. Ultimately, as I am sure many other attendees discovered, I found that the framework of the conference and a lot of our work as library technologists was best examined by Christina Harlow in her keynote “Resistance is Fertile.”1 There were many (many) other presentations and discussions throughout the conference that were inspiring, enlightening, and compelling, but Harlow synthesized the meaning behind what we all do and applied to it a language and a methodology for doing it better.

And it was remarkable. I think people even cried a bit. We all stood up at the end and clapped a lot.

applause

And over the next few hours and days I thought about how BHL and my position as an NDSR resident fit into this framework and how I can be an agent who advocates for not just Open Access to content but also its ethical and operational background. Harlow keenly argues for investigating the transparency of library policies if not to resolve inherent biases in programming, systems architecture, and design then to encourage further democratizing the “means of production” (of datasets, of metadata, of documentation) in pursuit of accessibility and true openness.2

Many librarians, stewards of cultural heritage, and library technologists are enthusiastic supporters of Open Access and Open Source initiatives. In addition to hosting panels and posters about implementing Open Source software and collaborating across institutions and organizations, Code4Lib featured presentations about opening up government data, enhancing accessibility to library utilities, and collaborating on living documentation. It is not such a difficult leap from understanding the benefits of open information and tools to opening up the processes behind creating access to our resources. Open Source development allowed users to be part of the development of software, and the same model can be extended to the development of documentation driven by open debate and dialogue.3

I spent a lot of time at Code4Lib proud of BHL’s mission and methodologies, but never more so than the end of Day 3 when I realized the success of our communication strategies and its implications for providing open access to biodiversity heritage literature, illustrations, data sets, and special collections. As a distributed staff we need to communicate clearly and openly, work flexibly, and develop iteratively.

If you recall a blog post the other week that discussed the Residents’ experience at our BHL Bootcamp, several of the presentations directly addressed the requirement for open and collaborative communication strategies for a distributed network of institutions and staff. In that post I identified the framework that all BHL staff are committed to supporting in their professional communication, namely, the philosophy of promoting open idea exchange and respecting individual contributions to the larger organization. Each of the identified tools (listservs, Gemini issue tracker, public and staff wikis, established schedule of conference calls, collaborative documentation, and outreach campaigns) are all opportunities for staff members to work inclusively and openly.

The BHL Documentation Center provides information on nearly every function of the library and a contact email to direct questions. Some items are pdfs or link out to third party hosts, but the current template for creating documentation is an open and editable Google Doc that welcomes collaboration. In addition to the Documentation Center, the Staff Wiki includes more documentation than one could ever review. As a temporary Resident, this open documentation allowed me to dive right into working through the underlying metadata structures and figuring out how the systems work together. BHL’s outreach goes farther than any program I can think of and as a matter of practice invites users to improve our metadata, enrich our collections, and identify opportunities for improvement. This depth of collaboration has created an environment of discovery and curiosity where researchers and librarians find fascinating new ways to use and provide access to biodiversity data.

Transparency is one step (but not the end goal) to work that says, not only am I open to collaboration, I expect collaboration. Then others can participate, but also, we can all learn. Critique. Analyze. See what we couldn’t see on our own. And expand.4

BHL’s community driven approach to documentation and development also influenced the creation of this blog. In addition to reporting on events and workshops, as a cohort we are using this blog to codify our thoughts and research into what will eventually be a set of guidelines for improving BHL and its future development. We aim to do this openly and to solicit advice and expertise from interested parties, whether they’re veteran BHL super-users or just discovering the community.

Open communication and collaborative documentation is invaluable in maintaining a successful digital environment of diverse and open access. Why is this important? Because our professional relationships and power hierarchies affect the success of implementing data technologies in a “wholesale, meaningful, and ecosystem-aware fashion.”5


1. Christina Harlow, “Resistance is Fertile,” (Keynote Address, Code4Lib 2017, University of California, Los Angeles, March 6-9, 2017). bit.ly/c4l17harlow

2. If this is at all interesting to you I highly suggest watching her Keynote (begins around the 42 minute mark) at Code4Lib and/or reviewing her slides and speaking notes. I am just now realizing how successful the flow of her talk really was after looking back over her notes.

3. Berglund, Erik, and Michael Priestley. “Open-Source Documentation: In Search of User-Driven, Just-in-Time Writing.” In Proceedings of the 19th Annual International Conference on Computer Documentation, 132–141. SIGDOC ’01. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2001. doi:10.1145/501516.501543.

4. Christina Harlow, “Resistance is Fertile.”

5. Christina Harlow, “Resistance is Fertile.”

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