A Passion for Coding

July 11, 2014

Technology is eating the world. Like a hungry dragon seeking out new villages to pillage, the tech world continues to find new markets to disrupt. And, like some mythical beast of apocalyptic proportions, technology is just as unstoppable. Good? Evil? Technology is code and that is all that matters. Some use it for good, and some for not so good. The point is that many others are out there using it. Where are libraries?

Code runs the world today, and it isn’t always a good idea. Just look at the havoc code has wrought on our privacy, or consider the chaos of trading bots that run amuck and sometimes crash Wall Street. Some recent startup companies have even spawned a new Silicon Valley term, jerktech, to explain bad ideas that never should have made it past the end of a brainstorming session. Parking Monkey tried to monetize public parking spaces and ReservationHop is placing reservations at restaurants for the sole purpose of then selling them at a later date. Yes, the ever-connected technology and cloud computing available today make these tools possible, but any type of moral review would come up short. Fake restaurant reservations are more likely to bring about fees, deposits, or some other negative response from restaurants that ends up being a pain for the rest of us because some people thought of a way to monetize the trust and goodwill of the verbal contract a diner makes with a restaurant.

The disruption won’t stop, though. Uber and Lfyt are crushing the traditional taxi services and I seriously missed the ease of use they bring (at a cost) during the recent ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas. When the extra cost justifies the ease of use, these services are amazing. What makes them work so well is the code. My Uber app shows me where the driver is, and the driver can see where I want to be picked up. Everything is tracked by map and the payment is handled automatically using a card on file with Uber. At the end of the service, both the rider and the driver rate each other. Rude or unethical drivers or riders will find themselves banned from using Uber. Here the technology adds great value, but also includes a layer of accountability. Uber has stumbled at times—massive price gouging during weather emergencies didn’t sit well with users—but at least the basic premise of the technology isn’t jerky.

How are libraries going to use technology to disrupt the world? What types of code can we write, what kinds of new hardware can we leverage to do to the library experience what Uber has done to taxis? How can we leverage indoor proximity systems like Apple’s iBeacon to create highly localized—like on a shelf range basis—interactions with patrons to enhance the browsing experience? How can we create new ways to find and access resources that makes more use of user-generated quality and/or ease of use ratings? In other words, how can we become technology companies that think about problems and then invent solutions?

All of these questions came to a head for me over the past weeks as I followed a series of posts on Dave Winer’s blog about new projects he was working on. Winer, widely considered the father of blogs, podcasts, and RSS, has long been known for his passion about outlining software. A few months ago, he launched Fargo as a free outliner (or notebook, or to-do list, or any other form of text input that wants some structure) with simple Dropbox integration. In the last month he launched four new products to solve problems he encountered in his workflow, mostly dealing with Twitter limitations.

Little Pork Chop lets you Tweet long thoughts. The service then automatically splits them into a series of Tweets—smartly, with respect for word breaks, not just character counts—and automatically posts them in order with numbering. Simple, but it had never been automated until Winer sat down and figured out a way to make it work.

Happy Friends also works with Twitter, displaying selected Twitter handles as might be seen in an RSS reader. Your friends show up in an outline, and you double-click a handle to see Tweets from that person.

Little Card Editor takes a different approach to the limitations of Twitter by letting users easily select a photo and then simply add text over top of the photo. When you are ready, just click to Tweet. A few more tweaks added a selection of fonts and the ability to change the color of the text.

Thesaurus.Land was the most recent release. Initially called Happy Word Friend, Winer changed the name after receiving feedback that this was a much more serious tool. Built on Fargo, Thesaurus.Land turns the outline into a thesaurus. Type in a word as a heading, and then simply double-click the arrow to expand the item. Instant thesaurus listing. Expand one of the new words for new synonyms; a never-ending thesaurus.

Dave Winer is certainly no stranger to code and technology, but he also isn’t working on these projects as part of a multibillion-dollar tech giant. Nor even as part of a cash-strapped startup hoping for some funding. Winer is developing these under the same sort of drive that we librarians understand so well. In a July 8 post that eloquently explained his point, Winer put it very simply: “I never felt that software was a job. For me, strange as it may seem, it was a calling. I had great stuff to do. And I’m not finished. So that’s the point.” As he notes, unlike the people that see software development as a job, for him it is a passion. He is happy that the work he can do solves problems and helps enrich other people’s lives and their work. I dare think that many librarians would feel the same way.

So how do we find ways to work together? How do we find passionate software developers and work with them to solve library problems? In my library system, the answer was that we grew our own. Over the past 10 years we have focused on learning the Drupal framework for application development. There are other amazing libraries with larger budgets that have been able to hire developers to help get things started. John Blyberg, Eli Neiburger, David Lee King, James Griffey, Jamie LaRue’s team when he was director of  Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries—these are librarians and staff members that rolled up their sleeves and tackled problems. How can we work to make this more systemic across libraries?

If technology is a dragon eating the world, do we really want to stand in front of our bookshelves—highly flammable material I would point out, and not a good place to make a last stand against a dragon—or are we going to jump on board and try to guide the beast? 

Guest blogger CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (N.Y..) Educational Partnership and editorial director of Play Play Learn.