Libraries, Information and Development

If you’re interested in the role of data, ICT and libraries, take a look at my blog post for, which is running a fantastic series of posts from different perspectives on how to realise the data revolution called for in the High Level Panel’s report to the UN on the post-2015 development agenda. As librarians, our perspective is that access is not enough: making available open budgets, development data, and information about public services is needed and important, but without skills and access, and places like libraries, people won’t be able to make use of it.

Data has enormous potential to help governments plan and provide better services, support participation, and help hold governments to account. Yet data alone, without access and support won’t be able to achieve a revolution.

We’re doing a lot of work on raising the profile of access to information at the UN as member states work towards setting the goals that will follow the MDGs. If you think libraries can and should have a seat at the table, please take a look at the blog post and supporting materials.

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She’s lost ctrl again (and the post-CMS future)

The post-CMS landscape

This week, I installed Drupal, then module after module after module to get it content-ready for a new project. Drupal is excellent, but it is big. Over the years, CMSs have made it easy to create content, but they have increasingly hidden the technology behind them. CMSs were certainly not giving me much motivation to get up to date with HTML5, CSS3, or jQuery.

Development Seed is an organisation whose work I’ve admired for years – their open data and government projects are exceptional. In the midst of all the module installing I caught up on their transition away from Drupal, to static HTML.

What? Static HTML? In 2013?

It actually makes a lot of sense. Complex systems have a lot of potential failure points. They require scale. I work with people in developing countries who are on slow connections. Site speed and efficiency matters. For years I’ve hosted my personal portfolio, a total of 7 pages, with WordPress – overkill.

As more content is accessed via mobile devices including phones and tablets, it’s also essential to be designing responsive sites that work cross-platform and cross-device.

You are the controller

CMSs certainly still have a place, but feeling the need to build something, and not just install it, is exciting. I really missed the days of making a website from scratch. What I really missed was understanding how my sites really functioned, and having control over them. I had also grown frustrated with spam and injected spam in my WordPress sites.

Static generator

So, what to use instead? Cue Jekyll, a Ruby-based, blog aware site generator. Dave Cole at Development Seed sets out the rationale:

From straight up blog and page content sites like this one to advanced map and data portals, we can use Jekyll to generate sites that rival the layout flexibility of our most complex Drupal sites with none of the development and maintenance challenges a dynamic CMS introduces.

Jekyll works with Markdown, which is where things get really interesting. I’ve been generating all my HTML pages for years with Markdown in TextMate (MarkdownPad in Windows) and then pasting it into the WYSIWYG. Due to connectivity issues and code vagaries, I have never been a WYSIWYG fan. If you do feel the need for something more visual you can work with sites using, also from Development Seed.

The next part is reminiscent of how creating websites used to be. Instead of FTP to upload content, you can use the version control system Git to manage content, and host pages on GitHub. You can see a prototype of my portfolio on GitHub.

More than version control

GitHub is not just a place to post code, but a place to collaborate and learn:

As people who were once just users become producers, they’re re-shaping the culture of open source. GitHub, I believe, is doing to open source what the internet did to the publishing industry: It’s creating a culture gap between the previous, big-project generation of open source and a newer, more amateurized generation of open source today.

GitHub is also free. Ben Balter calls this the post-CMS world and points out the costs:

Putting aside the value of time for a moment, shared hosting’s going to run you in the ballpark of $7 a month; AWS starts at $14, plus the cost of bandwidth and storage; and Jekyll, if hosted by GitHub? Free.

Yes, at this point, you need more technical skills to build a site using Jekyll than you do with Drupal or WordPress, but this will change. Already there are frameworks like Octopress which build on Jekyll. TechHubs, user groups provide space and people to learn from and work with. MOOCs, open source project documentation and tutorials are improving all the time. For web entrepreneurs everywhere, being able to collaborate through TechHubs + GitHub (and other places) is a one-two punch giving the ability to learn from and build on others work.

The future?

I’m excited about working with Jekyll, and learning Twitter Bootstrap (a CSS framework) and jQuery. It’s not the future for every site, but it will be the future for (some of) mine.

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VIP Librarian

So Madonna was downgraded from VIP treatment in Malawi.  The first time I went to Cameroon I was very surprised to get the VIP treatment, and was incredibly humbled by the effort my colleagues must have gone to in organizing it. It was a surprising end to an intriguing few days that had begun in surreal fashion with watching myself on the prime time evening news talking about libraries. We set off on a 4 hour drive to the airport with the Director of Protocol, along the Yaounde/Douala trunk road which I heard is thankfully being upgraded. To the VIP lounge where my passport (and departure fee) were taken away and stamped. I spent the evening in the lounge talking to a senior member of the Finance Ministry traveling to an African Union summit, who was interested in hearing about libraries but suggested I still had time to have 7 kids. He was smiling though, so not entirely a serious suggestion. When it was time to get on the plane we were  picked up from the lounge and driven to the plane (in a small car, not a limo) where there was a cursory security check.

Who says being a librarian doesn’t have its benefits?

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Ik leer / I learn

I’ve been reading some of the posts on work-life balance elsewhere with interest. I recently started a new job and moved countries, so my sense of balance is always changing. Being able to understand (and ideally work in) languages other than English is important in my job, and so at various periods I’ve spent time working on Spanish and French (and Japanese, and brushing up my Italian…) but I haven’t been able to attend classes as my work has had me traveling around the world 100+ days a year for the past few years. Trying to fit in language learning on top of everything else is a challenge, and no different from trying to learn a programming language, technical skill or other types of professional development – it takes time and effort.

Bad habits

Now that I’m in the Netherlands, I’m focusing on Dutch for a while. I think I’ve finally accepted that I’m not a textbook learner (stack of shame at left) and a once a week class isn’t realistic since I am still traveling. Instead, I’m embracing opportunities for immersion and randomness. I discovered via the Guardian’s Chinese menu challenge  - the concept of gamification of language learning (or at least rapid vocabulary building) is very appealing. Michel Thomas Method tapes have been around for a long time, but are very good at shortcuts for sentence construction. Whenever I watch TV, I try to understand the commercials, and I read children’s books. There’s any number of discussion groups for help, chat groups, and grammar courses to keep going.

It’s a very random, non-linear way to learn, but by fitting in some learning here and there I hope it works.

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A cut too far?

Libraries are taking on all sorts of new services – makerspaces, crafts, services for the unemployed, small business meeting zones, expanded training, gaming, you name it – some library somewhere has probably done it.

But I can’t quite understand how we got to the point of butchery. Literally. A library in the US organised a session on Butchery and Books, featuring a live demonstration. I’m not sure what the books part consisted of. Am I old-fashioned in thinking that this is way-off mission? Or that I could never imagine such an event in the multicultural cities in which I’ve lived, or that it couldn’t possibly be hygienic (what happened to the meat afterwards?) Or wonder if their local community centre or night school doesn’t already serve this purpose?

On 3D printing (the other craze seemingly sweeping libraries at the moment) David Lankes makes a point in the comments with which I wholeheartedly agree: “The common mission for me across librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation within their communities.” It’s important to be able to experiment. There’s an argument for a library somewhere trying out something new, and maybe it will serve their community, or maybe it will fail and we can hear all about in a #failfaire. But we also need to focus on what only we can do, and do it well. Every library does that in their own way, even if it isn’t quite headline catching enough for the Wall Street Journal.

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