Code4Lib: a public service impression

It was with much trepidation that I signed up for the Code4Lib Unconference event in the Irving K. Barber Centre at UBC this past November. While I do a fair amount of webpage editing, my job is primarily in public service. My primary job duties include staffing the Research Help desk, answering questions in the chat reference service AskAway, and delivering general instruction. When I heard about Code4Lib I initially thought it would not be of any interest to me and that the content would be over my head. I categorized it as an interesting event, but something obviously not for me.

As I saw the email reminders being sent out via the BCLA listservs, and the event being promoted on Twitter, I started to wonder if maybe it was something I could (or should) attend. I read the Code4Lib BC wiki page for information on past events, and my interest grew. The topics presented sounded exciting, despite my lack of any technical knowledge. The theme of this year’s Code4LibBC was Digital Libraries and Archives, which highlighted the intersection of public service and systems by looking at the creation of digital libraries, access, and collaboration among institutions.

When the schedule for the Unconference came out I was not disappointed – though a little nervous at how ‘techy’ everything sounded! The format for the two days was lightning talks in the morning, and break out discussions in the afternoon on a wide range of topics. People presented on their projects, such as using APIs (which I frantically Googled, not knowing exactly what an API is), conducting oral histories, and the dreaded yearly statistics gathering. Finally, there was a demonstration on migrating information into the Islandora platform, followed by a presentation on how Islandora looked on the user end.

My understanding of the behind the library website scenes increased when colleagues from the systems divisions talked about their projects. Listening to how the Open Collections at UBC gathers metadata from various digital collections from the library was astonishing. I didn’t realize how much work goes into compiling results (when asked by a patron once, I think I gave them a blank stare before saying “I don’t know actually. Magic?”). Even after hearing how a team wrote the API, I still think it’s magical.

I don’t code. I don’t consider myself tech savvy. There is so much to learn, and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. One thing I did learn at Code4Lib though is that the best place to start is to ask. Approach someone at your work, and ask what this all means and how it looks for users. The lightning talks can help your understanding of what goes on behind the scenes when you are doing keyword searching at the desk with your patrons. You get to learn about projects library staff are doing at other institutions, or about an initiative such as the Provincial Digital Library.

Attending an event like Code4Lib may push you out of a comfort zone, inspire you to pick up a new skills, or reaffirm that coding is not for you. In any of these scenarios, you will meet great people who are passionate about their work at the event.

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