Save That Data! Unexpected Adventures in Academic Library Programming

Library programming: just what is it that librarians do all day? - Girl with glasses looking over an open book in her hands
PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

Library Programs a.k.a. Events For You and Me

What exactly is library programming? Well, to answer that question, you might first ask yourself, just what is it that librarians do all day? There’s a myth that librarians just sit around and read books all day, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Librarians tend to be people who love books,  but that doesn’t mean they get paid to read them!

One thing that librarians have to do is organize events. In information science parlance this is called “library programming.” It’s one thing to expect there to be programs of some sort at your local public library branch, e.g. craft events, story time for babies and toddlers, or special speaker events, but what about at academic libraries?

Library Programming at UC Davis: What is #DataRescueDavis?

I recently had the privilege of participating in one such library program at the UC Davis Peter J. Shields Library. The event, #DataRescueDavis, took place on February 2nd. It is part of the national Data Refuge project that the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) Lab organized and is part of the End of Term Web Archiving project.

You can read more about the #DataRescueDavis event in this Sacramento Bee article.  I want to talk about what led up to the event, and how the skills used at the event could translate later on down the line, during other programs at an academic library or similar institution.

Lessons in Library Programming

Know Your Audience

Before you engage in any library programming, you have to determine your event’s target audience. What tools or skills they can bring to the table? Are they going to be passive recipients of information, or will they be teaching others along with you?

We knew that we had a possible audience of university students, many of whom would already be familiar with Chrome and extensions. We also knew that people had already heard about #DataRescue or #DataRefuge, as there was a Facebook group started by someone unaffiliated with the library encouraging people to attend.

Library programming - Knowing your target audience for a university-organized event means understanding that students will play a big role in your success - Female student with glasses looking at a Laptop at the end of a long wooden table
StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay

For the #DataRescueDavis event, we asked everyone to bring a laptop computer, but that was it. We didn’t expect anyone to have the Chrome extension installed. We also didn’t assume anyone would be familiar with the End of Term Web Archiving project, the PPEH Lab and Data Refuge, or any of the government sites the organizers asked us to crawl. Some people already had Chrome and knew how to install extensions; others had never used Chrome and not only needed to download the browser, but the extension as well. Because of the unique nature of the extension, everyone who downloaded it needed a quick walkthrough on how to use it.

Library programming - The Chrome End of Term Nomination Tool used for the #DataRescueDavis event at the UC Davis Peter J. Shields Library on February 2nd, 2017
The NominationTool from Civic Tech Extensions, used for the End of Term Web Archiving project has many fields that need to be filled in.

Knowing how to use a Chrome extension is one thing, but having the judgment to determine what sites are “uncrawlable” is something different. Library programming similarly requires you to judge things accurately, so that problems don’t take you by surprise (or at least, you have a margin of error to account for them).

Expect the Unexpected

Many events follow a rough outline, with flexibility built-in to account for unexpected problems. In our case, the “unexpected” came in the form of more participants than we anticipated. The larger crowd created additional conundrums: who would use the larger space? What tools would they have available to them? How many Guides would we need for each group? How much food would we need for the crowd, and when would we serve it? Who would get additional supplies, if necessary, and where would they get them? These are questions we had to try and answer as we went, even if we couldn’t be sure of whether they were the “best,” most practical solutions.

Library programming - Programming taken literally. Scrapers participating in the #DataRescueDavis event needed to program on-the-fly to scrape websites that the Internet Archive's automatic tool could not save - Mac laptop computer with programming language displaying in multiple colors on the black screen
StockSnap / Pixabay

Scrapers vs. Nominators

Ahead of #DataRescueDavis, I attended a few webinars put together by the folks from the PPEH Lab. During these webinars, the organizers emphasized the importance of two separate groups: the nominators and the scrapers (exact terms may vary, but those are the ones we used for the Davis event).

The two teams participate in two entirely different activities. One group “nominates” web pages using a particular Chrome extension. The another team “scrapes” pages that the Internet Archive’s automatic crawling tool, Heritrix can’t automatically crawl by coding special programs on an as-needed basis. What works to scrape one web page may not work for another. This latter task is a great deal more involved, so they’re considered a more technically-advanced group. Typically the “nominators” outnumber the “scrapers,” but at our event, the reverse came as a pleasant surprise:  the scrapers far outnumbered the nominators.

We may not have known that we would get a large crowd, or that a greater percentage of that group would want to scrape rather than nominate. Nonetheless, we were prepared with an ample meeting space that could accommodate us for an extended period. We had to organize some flexibility into every component of the event, from the space to the tools at our disposal.

Ultimately, the scrapers filled every seat (and some of the floor!) in the next door classroom. They also had to use a whiteboard for writing out their instructions, instead of the wheeled television monitor we used (although we did have some technical difficulties with all the wires it had coming out of it!). We had to adapt to these situations as they came up, rather than seeing them as disabling stumbling blocks.

Library programming - Many events will see increased participation if you offer free food - Pepperoni pizza in a box, on top of another pizza box
jamesoladujoye / Pixabay

Crowds = People Who Like to Eat

Additionally, due to the large crowd of scrapers, we ran out of “free” food for both breakfast and lunch faster than we expected. This necessitated library staff leaving the event and getting more food when needed. These staffers would be acting as Guides for the nominator group, instructing participants on what to do for the event. When they left, it resulted in some periods where the nominator groups fluctuated in size. Some members actively nominated pages, while others needed to get a tutorial on how the tool worked.

Additional Supplies as Needed

Before #DataRescueDavis formally began, we printed and posted signs with arrows indicating how people could get to the event. We determined this was necessary because the event took place in a newly-renovated corner of the library, away from the main stairway and elevator bank.

Because the nominators were a smaller group,  we didn’t end up needing the Guide name tags for library staff members. People always recognized who to turn to for help– no special name tags needed. With the larger crowd of the scrapers, this sort of recognition wasn’t as easy. The lack of name tags ended up being a good thing, as we didn’t have access to badge-making supplies without pulling a someone away from another task.

We can probably use those lanyards and badges at another event. But if we left the lanyards and badges in their packaging until we knew we would need them, we could return them to the store and gotten that money back into the library budget for future use.

Library programming - The finish line: now what? - Finish line written on concrete in front of grass (B&W)
MemoryCatcher / Pixabay

Post-Mortem

Before participating in the #DataRescueDavis event, I had never thought of what programming would look like at an academic library. Now that I’ve participated in such a program, I can say that it was a learning experience. I was able to both participate in a crucial web archiving project and see it from behind the scenes. This helped me get an idea of what goes into organizing an academic library event. There’s more to library programming than just knowing what you’re going to do. You also have to know who your target audience is. You should also ask yourself why the event is necessary –not just to your target audience, but others as well. Then you can determine how to market the event beforehand and handle unexpected hiccups that day.

Library programming involves many of the same skills, including organizing people, places, and supplies ahead of time; making judgment calls in the face of surprises, and adapting willingly to participants who come in at any time. Even if the #DataRescueDavis event is the only library programming I do during my internship, I’ve learned a great deal from it. I believe I can apply that knowledge to many other events in different environments.

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