Free Primary Sources:,, and the Magic of Metadata Harvesters

This post is a summary of a presentation given at the 2015 ILAGO Summit in Hood River, Oregon.

DP.LA and have become my go-to tools for primary source materials. Metadata harvesters (this is the fancy name for the kind of tool that and are) are amazingly useful, fun to explore, and rely on open content and sharing in a way that warms my cold librarian heart. I gave a presentation on these tools at the ILAGO (Information Literacy Group of Oregon) Summit and I wanted to share it with you all. Here is my slide deck, followed by a brief synopsis for my fellow preferrers of text.

I have three goals for this talk. First, I want all of you to be able to go back to your libraries and share how rich, deep, and amazing the content available through metadata harvesters is. That’s the key point: metadata harvesters are really freaking cool. Once we’ve established that, I want you all to be able to explain to your coworkers what underlying technologies and standards are behind the magic of metadata harvesters. Finally, I want to close on the question of how to integrate metadata harvesters into our existing suites of tools for discovery and reference.

Metadata harvesters are really freaking cool.

Showing off the and is easy. It’s pretty easy to manipulate the interfaces and both tools do an adequate job of helping novice searchers. Let’s use an example to see how searching metadata harvesters work. Here’s the scenario: a student comes to the library with an assignment to find primary source materials on a historical figure represented in current popular culture. This student is interested in the Cercei Lannister character on HBO’s Game of Thrones series, so we are looking for primary sources about her historical inspiration Margaret of Anjou. Searching for Margaret of Anjou, including alternate spellings, returns quite a few interesting primary and secondary sources in My favorite is a letter she wrote using veiled language to threaten people who were molesting tenants under her protection. The ease of finding materials really shows off the power and usefulness of metadata harversters like and

Standards and technologies behind the magic

Turning to the underlying technology & standards that enable metadata harvesters to work, we’ll see that Dublin Core, XML, and RDF are foundational technologies. Metadata harvesters like and rely on dublin core and rdf to build standards. The key concept is that the metadata harvesters publish a standard that digital archives can use. Digital archives that wish to share their metadata must publish their metadata using these standards. Then this metadata will harvested and become discoverable. It is important to note that the digital objects themselves are not harvested and remain on the hosting archives’ servers.

Integrating metadata harvesters into our discovery tools

How we can make the amazing sources and resources that are discoverable through metadata harvesters available to our library users? At WSU Vancouver, we make them available through a Libguide. Reflecting on this, I’m starting to be concerned how free sources are largely segregated (made available to students in a different place) from the sources we pay to get access to. Are there strategies we can use to close this gap? It may also be useful to discuss the similarities between library discovery layers and metadata harvesters. Both can make use of the same underlying technology, OAI-PMH, but in my limited experience, the tool built on open standards and sharing is much more successful at providing discovery than the proprietary solutions.

Reflections on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Holiday

Recently I’ve been thinking about why I became a librarian. A generous reading of my motivations is that being a librarian allows my idealism to run free. I want to believe that in devoting my labors to the library I’m actively working to build a better world. A less generous reading of my motivations is that librarianing1)Dr. Chris Bourg is to be thanked / blamed for my use of librarian as a verb. is one of the few ways someone with an excellent education in the humanities but few practical skills can keep a roof over their head. Most of the time I assume librarianing is a good thing and most of the time I don’t feel the need to question this assumption. However, as I write this, it is the Doctor Martin Luther King Jr holiday. As the United States spends the day celebrating the life and work of Dr. King I’m questioning how well my avocation is serving the work of Dr. King. The standard narrative is that libraries provide the public with free access to information;  libraries are a necessary element of an open society. Openness and freedom are the natural enemies of bias and institutionalized privilege and thus libraries are creating a free and open future.

I like this narrative. It’s nice. It’s comfortable. It’s the kind of thing that can help one believe in one’s work when the tasks in front of us are tedious and unpleasant. It’s also the kind of narrative that enables me to remain blind to the contradiction in claiming love for humanity as a whole while loathing the particular examples of humanity that I interact with. It’s the kind of narrative that needs to taken out and examined on occasion. Today’s holiday is one such occasion.

Today I’m re-reading Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I’m asking myself if the comfort I take in the goodness of libraries is the comfort of the white moderate. Am I preferring a “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice?” To help me answer these questions, I’m considering the story of Paul Coates, founder of Black Classics press. Paul’s story both make me wonder why I am comfortable in my nice library profession and he was not.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiography The Beautiful Struggle he tells the stories of a son and his father. The father, W. Paul Coates, is a veteran and a Black Panther. Paul earned a BA and then a Master’s degree in library science.  He found work at the Howard University library, but did not remain a librarian for long. As his son tells the story, Paul became fascinated by hidden or lost classics of black America, classics that were frequently not found in library collections. These books contained narratives that counter or even contradict the stories Americans tell ourselves about racial reconciliation and healing. Libraries, even the library at Howard University, have a bias towards the published record. Unpublished knowledge or out of print works aren’t always protected by libraries and archives. Coates and de jesus both remind us that the structural bias against this kind of knowledge is neither accidental nor unforseen.

See, brother, those books are out of print. You know what that means? The white man ain’t gonna let you see those. He don’t want those books in print. (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle, 90)

Paul Coates left librarianship to become a publisher. He founded and ran Black Classics Press and returned some of “those books” to print and provided an publication venue to a perspective that too frequently been excluded from the American record. I think he’s done more good as a publisher than he would have as a librarian. He has certainly done more good as a publisher than I have done as a librarian. He’s also not the only example of a trained librarian realizing that our profession can hinder justice as well as enable it. nina de jesus has also written persuasively on the complicities of libraries in institutional oppression.

So today, as our nation reflects on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I’m thinking about how my work intersects with The Good Work of Dr. King. Am I librarianing for social justice or am I living comfortably in denial of tension and injustice? I think (hope) that the answer is mostly the former. I’m satisfied with my values and with my goals. I’m satisfied with the course I’ve set to reach them. I am not satisfied with the position I’m currently occupying. There is work yet to be done. To look into this more fully, I’m writing a series of three further reflections. The first tells the story of the values and ideology that led to me choosing librarianship as a profession. The second tells the story of the ugly realities and compromises that clash with those values and ideologies. The third reflections wraps things up by explaining how I can be committed to working for these values through a system even when I recognize that this system is often flawed and complicit in the injustice I’m trying to undo.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Dr. Chris Bourg is to be thanked / blamed for my use of librarian as a verb.

How I Work

How I Work

After reading Michael Perry’s post on how he works at I decided to give this format a go and share how I work. Caveat: I mostly work experimentally. I change operating systems, app environments, and the media or modes I work in frequently. I work through exploring  new methods and being distracted by shiny new tools or workflows. While this suits my temperament, it also means I spend a lot of time learning and adopting new systems and a lot less time enjoying the efficiencies of one evolved and perfected routine.

Location: Portland, OR (ish) Live in Tualatin, OR work in Vancouver, WA

Current gig: Systems and Instruction Librarian; Affiliate faculty with Creative Media & Digital Culture

Current mobile device:

Phone: Moto X (1st gen) developer edition running Android 4.4.4

Tablet: iPad 2 (iPad Air 2 on order-thanks Dene!)

Current computer:

Work: Macbook Pro 13” mid 2010 (Replacement 15” MBPro on order-thanks IT department!)

Work: Elderly Acer desktop running Windows 7, primarily used for Outlook/Exchange.

Home: My home/gaming machine has been upgraded piece by piece continually since 2004. It’s currently running Windows 7 and if you’re really curious, ask me in the comments about its specs.

Home: I also have a number of Raspberry Pi, older linux boxes, and early-model tablets laying about just waiting for that perfect project to become useful again. (What I don’t have is time enough to tinker with them.)

One word that best describes how you work: Experimental

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

(These tools work on multiple operating systems and platforms, unless indicated.)

Outlook/Exchange: Work requires me to use the Exchange environment for calendaring and mail. My calendar is the most important tool of my work environment, so despite personal preferences to the contrary I’ve built my workflow in Microsoft’s platforms. Sadly, this means moving from a linux environment back to Windows. Happily, Apple’s mail and calendar apps play nicely w/ Exchange servers so I’m not forced into a complete computing monoculture.

Synology Cloud Station: I work on a number of devices, so all of my files have to be accessible remotely. The most valuable tool I have for this is my home Synology NAS and their Cloudstation app. This allows me to access and edit all of my files from any machine, tablet, or phone, which enables me to work in many places. Thank you Synology!

LastPass: Hands-down, my most frequently used and least-complained-about service. This allows me secure access to passwords, account information, notes, and bookmarks (using their XMarks product) on all my devices.

Notability (iOS): Being able to hand-annotate articles, student essays, and meeting notes on a tablet is the KILLER APP for tablets in higher ed. So the Notability app is paired with a TruGlide fiber-tipped stylus, although I’m eager to try one of the active styli that will work with the new iPad.

Zotero: I can’t imagine doing research without it.

reveal.js: In class, I need visuals in the form of a slide deck. reveal.js allows me to do class lecture slides in a way that doesn’t piss me off like PPT does and is web accessible without a slideshare-like service acting as an intermediary. I don’t mind Keynote, but reveals.js is fun and more useful.           

What’s your workspace like?

I LOVE my standing desk. It makes a ton of difference in my physical comfort and health in the office. Besides that, I need a lot of desk space that I can clear off and use for projects. I also have a big dry-erase board for planning and process-mapping.

My space is messy and paper still gets stuck and collects in messy piles, but most of my workspace is digital now and thanks to Cloud Station, that is clean, orderly and accessible. The physical space, however, is crowded with accumulated cruft that semi-annually is either recycled or jammed into file cabinets.

What’s your best time-saving trick?

Evernote is about cataloging as much as it’s about note taking. I can throw lots of stuff into it, and as long as I tag it promiscuously, I can find it again later. You may notice that I work in a number of partially overlapping tools on a number of computers and devices. Evernote is a way for me to grab or create content where I am and know that I can find it when I need it, whenever and wherever that is. The tipping point for me was realizing that Evernote is a cataloging tool, not a note-taking tool.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I’ve worked with Remember the Milk for a long time. I appreciate how it is accessible from many platforms and it just seems to work with the way my brain organizes tasks and priorities. That said, I’m currently struggling with some productivity and workflow efficiency issues, so I’m going to follow the lead of a couple of sage colleagues and try HabitRPG for a while. I won’t be cancelling my premium subscription to RTM just yet, though.

 Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

My Motorola Motoactv watch. I’ve little interest in the current generation of Android Wear devices, but this first generation smart watch does exactly what I need it to. The MotoActv is a GPS tracker and heart rate monitor for exercising. It has just enough battery life to work as a step-counter (Fitbit) and as a good-old-fashioned wrist watch. It pairs with both ANT+ and BLE heart rate sensors and with bluetooth or wired headphones. I don’t need it to extend my phone, but it does what’s it’s designed to do better than any phone app or dedicated GPS watch I’ve tried.

 What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?

My superpower is making useful thematic connections between seemingly unconnected things. I’m able to see how items are related and how systems work on similar principles more quickly than other around me.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, a YA coming-of-age-in-a-dystopia novel. I was not immediately engaged by the world-building, but the arc of the novel and character development completely won me over. Now I’m working on two books for two different book clubs. Peter Morefield’s Intertwingled seems to be about the experience of searching the complex swirl of semantic data. Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger is a Dickensian tale set in a Cholera epidemic that manages to merge incisive social commentary with a warm, beating (visible) heart.

What do you listen to while you work?

I listen to audiobooks A LOT. They make up the bulk of my listening, usually three hours at day. However, when I’m working I need something without recognizable words so I like chillout electronica like Supreme Beings of Leisure, Thievery Corporation, and Air or also Icelandic music like Mum, Sigur Ros, or Jonsi. I recently switched to Spotify, so I’m also exploring as many new directions as I can find. Send me your suggestions! (Please and thank you.)

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

Almost all of the time, I’m an introvert. However, in certain classroom or conference settings I magically transform into someone who loves being the center of attention. At a party or a social event I’m a wallflower, but I’m happily gregarious when asked to moderate a panel or teach a class.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Sleep may be the one things I’m best at. I use a CPAP machine, but I’m asleep by 11 PM most nights and up before six AM most days. I generally get enough sleep, but I really wish I was able to sleep later on weekends and catch up.

 Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions.

Becky Yoose and Bohyun Kim

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was a college athlete, I was struggling with burnout. I had sacrificed a lot to my training and repeated injuries were making it hard to keep putting in the hours and the miles with very little to show for my work except another injury. Anyway, I was angry and rebellious. I started smoking cigarettes. My coach gave me a talking to that I’ve never forgotten. A rough paraphrase of that conversation:

“Of all the vices you can try: drugs, drinking, sex, or smoking; cigarettes have the biggest penalty for the smallest reward. I’m not saying you have to be a saint, but don’t be stupid about how you rebel.” {imagine a Mark Harmon style headslap here.}

I was a fairly straight-edged kid, but I took those words to heart. Even today I’m easily swayed by my passions and my emotions, but when I remember that advice I’m much more likely to make a considered choice instead of impulsively lashing out at the universe or myself.

 Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The process of articulating how I do my work is a useful tool for refining and evaluating how I do things. I recommend trying this yourself as an interesting and useful mindful-about-work-practices exercise.

On allying myself with #TeamHarpy and others

I Am #TeamHarpy

I ally myself with Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus. Lisa and nina are friends of mine and colleagues who are facing a SLAPP suit to silence their frank and open discussion of another colleague’s behavior.  While there is a lot to be said about the case and the deep-rooted conditions in our professional culture that are behind it, this post is a personal meditation on what it means to ally with others.

The Ally Label

I don’t like to describe myself as an ally. It feels more like a marketing campaign than a positive action. Still, I don’t have a better term to describe collaborating with the oppressed to work towards justice. With the way the world is organized, I’m much more likely to benefit from injustice than to be a target of it. So, when I read @evilangela’s words about this on Twitter, they resonated.

@evilangela:  “Ally” only has any meaning when used as a verb. As a noun, it’s meaningless, self-congratulatory bullshit.

I’ve also been thinking about nina de jesus’ clear and sharp words about finding herself on the front lines of a fight for justice. She framed her involvement in a way that helps me frame my support.

#TeamHarpy has my support, but I’m not their ideal supporter. I’m biased and I my internal censor is unreliable in its advice on when to speak and when to be silent. I also am more interested in where we disagree than were we safely agree and so I focus on divisive issues. I have to wrestle my stubborn independence in order to be a team player and I’m more concerned with avoiding fundamentalism than I am with enforcing what’s good. I’m also complicit in the problem. I’m trying to be the best colleague I can, but I’m a flawed human and the product of an oppressive culture. I’m trying to be part of a solution but my intentions go astray and I’m not always guided by the better angels of my nature.

Researching the Topic

In the past after I had asked for help sorting through a different situation , I was guided to Community Change Incorporated and their excellent resources on social justice, including insights into how to support justice efforts in productive ways. These, plus voices for social justice on Twitter have guided my thinking. I have been guided by wiser minds and I’m curating what I’ve learned from them in this post. I don’t claim credit for any wisdom, but all of the faults are mine.

 Grounding Thoughts

These are points I’m using to keep me from getting swept away in a movement. While there are other thoughts out there for how to do good work, these are mostly about avoiding common mistakes.

  1. I’m complicit in the problem.
    It’s tempting to hide my guilt behind enthusiasm for the cause, but changing teams doesn’t change who I am.
  2. I don’t just benefit from the problem, I participate in it.
    This is not a confessional (see point 3) but I have behaved badly and will again despite my best efforts to the contrary. So any self-righteousness I feel is going to be a kind of hypocrisy.
  3. The problem is bigger than my feeling bad about something, so its resolution can’t be the first thing that stops me from feeling bad.
    If I stop allying with others at the point I stop feeling bad about the injustice, I’m less useful as an ally than if I simply ignored the injustice in the first place.
  4.  I need to own my risks.
    Sometimes the best action is for me to speak up. Sometimes the best action is for me to shut up and listen. It may be up to others to decide which choice was best, but the choice and the risk are always mine. It takes courage to stand for one’s values, in front of friends as much as in front of foes, but I’m not bringing anything useful to the table if I’m not willing to own my risks.
  5. It’s not about me.
    I’m not responsible for finding the solution, (even though I should participate.) I’m not responsible for the problem, (even though I’m complicit.) If I’m allying myself with others, it’s not about me. If it is about me, I’m not really allying myself with others, am I?

These are the best thoughts I can gather on allying with #TeamHarpy and other movements. I didn’t invent them and I don’t embody them particularly well, but they sum up what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to avoid doing.

Library Instruction West 2014 Recap #liwest2014

tl;dr Library Instruction West is a Marvelous Conference.

My brain is still buzzing and feels pleasantly tingly from all of the good thoughts, emotions, and interactions I had at the Library Instruction West 2014 conference. I walked away energized by the people I met and by the content they shared. Portland State University was a fantastic host and the organizing committee, led by Joan Petit, did a lovely job bringing brilliant people with excellent content together in a well-run event. <tips cap>

Three things that made #liwest14 a special conference:

Beyond my general glowing endorsement, I want to highlight specific aspects that made Library Instruction West 2014 stand out from other library conferences. To start, this conference draws from a specific and well defined community of practice and these are my people. The conference also stands out because instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters; spending our careers speaking with groups of students pays off with impressive presentation skills. The rewards of attending are both practical and intellectual; I left with two ideas I’m already using in my instructional design and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

These are my people.

Library Instruction West is about library instruction and not really anything else. This means that sessions are targeted and participants have a lot of shared passions and interests. If you are an instruction librarian, this niche marketing makes Library Instruction West much more valuable in terms of content than larger national or regional conferences. I was taken aback by the emotional impact I experienced listening to lovely colleagues talk about inquiry-based-learning, nurturing curiosity in our students, using narrative methods in our instruction, teaching format-as-practice [1], teaching with digital badges, assessing game-based pedagogy, and clever teaching hacks for survey software.I’m a bit of a utility infielder in library work. I do systems stuff; I do some web stuff; I do some instruction stuff; I’m trying to learn how to do more metadata stuff. That said, I came into the field as an instruction librarian and no matter how far my curiosity takes me, my core values come from instruction. Of course, as with most good conferences, the best information is transferred informally between sessions, at meals, or socially. I got to meet a lot of folks in person I’ve come to respect and admire through Twitter. I was able to put faces to Twitter names and spend a couple of days with some truly lovely people. It’s nice to be surrounded by one’s people, to feel part of a tight-knit community of practice.

Instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters.

It is a real treat to watch experienced presenters who have a good body of practice work with an audience. In my two days at Library Instruction West I learned as much from watching how presenters interacted with their audiences as I did from the information being transferred. This is a rare treat. At other conferences, I’ve learned AMAZING THINGS from people whose job descriptions don’t include being interesting at the front of a room and I’ve also realized after a talk that the charming and engaging speaker really didn’t say anything profound or useful, but attending a conference full of engaging speakers who are intentional about their presentation style is WONDERFUL. It is also nice to have sessions where attention is paid to active learning, various learning preferences or styles, and non-traditional visual presentation techniques. I had the opportunity to observe small break-out sessions with group work, activities based on physical objects, self assessment exercises, and excellent question and answer sessions. I also got to learn from people giving very traditional talks using slide decks that were well designed and rich with information. Being able to see, hear, and interact with really talented colleagues practicing excellent pedagogy is a learning experience that I really can’t duplicate by reading about it. So if my effusive praise above hasn’t already convinced you to attend Library Instruction West 2016 in Salt Lake City, this may be the most appealing aspect: you’ll have the opportunity to experience experienced and skilled library instructors demonstrating what they do best first hand.

I left the conference with two ideas I’m already using in my instruction and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

Idea the first:

In Zoe Fisher’s session Live the Question, Love the Question: Inquiry-based learning in the one-shot she described a method of helping students craft rough topics into functional research questions. This is exactly what I need for a very large multi-section class I work with. Each semester the largest barrier I see to student success is the inability to see a topic, research question, and thesis as three separate things. Zoe used inquiry-based learning theory to design an exercise where the students explain what they know and then using that foundation to tease out interesting questions. My History faculty have already signed off on using the “what I know / what I want to know” table she described in their Fall classes. Hopefully, this will help us move from the first spark of student curiosity to potential research questions more smoothly and naturally.

sample table for what I know | what I want to know excercise
Sample “what I know | what I want to know” table. Click for larger view.

Idea the second:

In Kevin Seeber’s session Teaching “Format as Process” in an Era of Web-Scale Discovery he delivered a well-founded argument for a turn towards teaching process and away from teaching formats. Process being the critical thinking steps that make up scholarship and formats being the packages information is delivered in. He sums up his reasoning as: “the way we search is changing, we need to teach things that are constant” and “don’t teach the interface, teach the results.” His entire line of reasoning is a treat, so please don’t miss reading the whole presentation. Using what I learned from Kevin’s talk, I’m going to embrace the statement “Information literacy is not about knowing “how.” It’s about knowing “why.”” and do as much as I can to re-write the instructions for an assignment in the course mentioned above to explicitly refer to process instead of to formats. For example, there won’t be a “Finding Newspapers” section, but there will be a section that uses newspapers to “Find current information on your topic.” The reason for this shift is to reinforce the scaffolding in a semester-long assignment. Students are too often jumping through hoops to complete the assignment, I want to reinforce that the hoops are part of a method and not just arbitrary busy-work.

Big picture thoughts:

As I listened and interacted with the presenters and brilliant librarians around the event, I found my mind returning to a couple of big-picture concepts that I’m going to need some time to chew on. The first was the subject of Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel’s talk, methods to engage student curiosity in research. Allie Flanary also had good things to say about curiosity in conversation between the sessions. She’s working on a sabbatical project on student curiosity, which I’m anticipating with great interest. Engaging curiosity is a big reason I’m a teacher and it’s the most rewarding aspect of the work. Seeing librarians identify curiosity as the keystone of our instruction work is inspiring and I want to explore where this line of thinking leads people.

A second big-picture thought that I came back to at several points during the conference is the impact of web-scale discovery tools on library instruction. This is a topic that I’ve been fixated on for a few years now. Search interfaces for web-scale discovery tools closely resemble search interfaces for single databases or catalogs even though the underlying architectures are very different. At what point should we teach students that this is a different kind of search? It’s not obvious, but it’s significant. The search we do now is increasingly different from searching a single index and the gap widens every day. For a great reading on this, see Aaron Tay’s excellent post Why Nested Boolean Search Statements May Not Work As Well As They Did. Even though search interfaces look the same, the underlying math is very different. Web search and discovery layers look more simple than a database search, but underneath they are MUCH more complicated. I realize not every student needs to be an expert in big data, but “How much does a competent searcher need to know about how these new tools work?” is a live and relevant question that we don’t have an answer to.

Wrapping up

Library Instruction West is a small, intimate conference focused on issues of library instruction, the librarians who do this work, and the students we work with. It is full of excellent content and is attended by fascinating librarians who are there to share the best work being done in the field today. If this sounds like your cup of tea, the 2016 edition will be hosted in Salt Lake City. I hope to see you all there.


[*] For what it’s worth, I thought the shiniest spark in a brilliant couple of days was Kevin’s presentation. (back)