:: Digital Libraries Columns


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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

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 [126]link list, available with the online version of this
   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

   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

                                                               Burning Man

                      Hackfest 2002 and 2003: photo albums, video, reports