code4Lib and Designing for Digital 2020 Conference Report Backs with Corona on the Side

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend portions of the code4Lib 2020 Conference in Pittsburgh, PA and the Designing for Digital (D4D) 2020 in Austin, TX conferences in the same week. During this time, while traveling the COVID-19 (which I have began singing to the tune of Come On, Eileen) epidemic transitioned into a pandemic. This has certainly made a difference in my previous conference experience.

code4Lib 2020

code4Lib is a group of code practitioners who work in galleries, libraries, and museums (GLAM) and related institutions. This is the third code4Lib conference I have attended. It is one of my favorite conferences! The presentations are usually top notch, pratical, and applicable to my daily duties as a web librarian. It is also very inspiring in adopting new and emerging technologies.

Bryan Jones, a public librarian at Nashville Public Library, and myself gave a pre-conference workshop called “Pi-hole Privacy: Tampering is a Good Thing.” Bryan and I are Library Freedom Institute(LFI) veterans, which allowed us to connect and work on this workshop together. Bryan gave an insightful look at privacy issues that concerned libraries today and led great discussions with attendees on why libraries should be better advocates for patron privacy. The second half of the presentation, we had a live install of Pi-Hole, a DNS sink hole that blocks ad traffic and ad trackers. It can be installed on a Raspberry Pi where it’s IP can then be used as a DNS server on a router. There were a few hiccups with the live install, but it seemed like that portion of the workshop was well received. This can easily be done within a library if they have control over their network, but as participants discussed, may be problematic in negotiating with an IT department outside of the library.

The next day, I attended the first day of code4Lib. Alison Macrina of the LFI delivered the keynote that critiqued the problems with Amazon Ring. She examined how it can be used by law enforcement to monitor people, how Amazon can monitor deliveries, and how it can be use to disproportionately identify people of color. The information gathered by Ring is also used by Amazon for purposes we’re not entirely sure of, but can contribute to the company’s logistics empire.

Other talks I attended include:

  • Matt Lincoln from CMU gave a discussion on using a supercomputer and a static site to document and identify typefaces of historical texts.
  • A group of museum, archivists, and librarians discussing how cross-institutional projects require synchronization in language and workflows. They also had a great NSYNC/90s pop theme with their presentation.
  • A project that looked at historical occupation data. Did you know there were biscuit drivers and spring garden shrimp fiends as jobs in Philadelphia?
  • The use of agile principles used at the UCLA library.
  • Cohorts support in software preservation.
  • Handling migration projects
  • Using ADRs (architectural design records) to keep track of projects.
  • Examining how tech can be used to reinforce cultural norms and the importance to include ethics in computer science/LIS programs.
  • A discussion on accessible file formats.
  • Designing radical library systems.

I really enjoy code4Lib. The single track format is a great way to spark discussion among attendees. At the same time, I left soon after this round of presentations because it was a lot to take in. I also had to prepare for my presentation in Austin for Designing for Digital.

Designing for Digital 2020

Designing for Digital is a library user experience/usability conference that overlaps with ER&L. I’ve only been to D4D once before for an invited presentation on mobile usability. This conference encompasses my work and my research interests and again, I learn quite a bit. However, in between my time flying from Pittsburgh to Austin, concerns about the corona virus started to grow.

I didn’t think much of the remote presentations at code4Lib and thought it was a necessary precaution that a lot of bigger institutions were enacting. However, it didn’t strike me until I arrived at D4D and the attendees were much smaller than I was expecting.

Regardless, I attended another round of great presentations. One of which was how Temple University conducted a usability test of it’s robotic librarian in their new library. I was also impressed that they built a discovery tool using the Alma/Primo API.

I also attended a presentation on paper prototypes with my former CUNY colleague Robin Davis. The end keynote by Indi Young was also useful, as she discussed using practical empathy to consider users when it comes to usability and system design. My colleague Kim Abrams and myself discussed our project where we had ESOL students navigate the library’s digital and physical spaces.

I was able to catch up with Robin and met more UX librarian colleagues on the last day of D4D. Some of us even visited the new Austin Public Library which is just inspiring and jaw dropping. They even have a board game collection and a running exhibit on Daniel Johnston!

At this point though, I noticed more conversations and discussions about the corona virus. I don’t normally use Twitter, but after recently discontinuing my use of Instagram and Facebook, I started to use Twitter more. Especially at conference, as Twitter is a great backchannel way to discuss a presentation during the presentation. Yet, there was more talk about the virus and how schools were shutting down.

This was extremely worrisome. People I would meet at D4D refused to shake my hand. There were rules about how the conference was going to be hug and handshake free. At code4Lib, I talked and shook hands with numerous colleagues and we jokingly talked about how that wasn’t allowed with recent events. The next day it was a serious consideration.

Then I started to become terrified. Flurries of emails from work discussed how many universities and colleges were extending spring break. Some colleges even began to switch to online instruction for the month. That month turned into months, which turned into the semester. Then students were asked to leave their dorms.

I have to admit, none of this was on my mind. I thought the virus would just be in New York and I would deal with it when I came home. However, as I spent an extra day in Austin, I noticed more people in face masks. More people were using hand sanitizer. I witnessed obsessive hand washing in public restrooms. What began as a humorous what if scenario on Twitter turned into a feeling of dread of how people were going to get food or worrying about loved ones.

I felt like that extra day was a vacation, but it was just a pause in the new normal of this viral outbreak. My future conference travel plans have been cancelled. Universities and colleges still have libraries open. Public libraries are still open, as are the NY public schools. It really hit me when I found out that the morning I was leaving Austin there were two new confirmed cases. One of which was the wife of the president of UT Austin after coming back from NYC. I left as they closed the university there and the public schools.

The flight back to NYC was nerve wracking. It was the most empty flight back I’ve ever been on. Most everyone was wearing masks and a few were wearing surgical gloves. This morning, I went to the grocery store to stock up on supplies, and all the bread was gone. Shelves of beans and rice disappeared. Frozen and canned vegetables were scarce. On one hand, I feel like I can get a lot of work done with this current pandemic. On the other hand, what’s going to happen in the months to come? Will I be able to complete this work?

I am grateful to be able to share and receive knowledge on my conference travels this past week. However, I wasn’t expecting for the world to be turned upside down. I hope they find a vaccine for COVID-19 (which is more fun to sing to the tune of Come On, Eileen), so I can continue to attend more conferences and shake peoples’ hands again.

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