Python Preconference at ALA Annual: Attendee Perspective

*** This post has been originally published on ACRL TechConnect Blog on July 29, 2013. ***

I attended the Library Code Year Interest Group‘s preconference on Python, sponsored by LITA (Library Information Technology Association) and ALCTS (Association for Library Collections and Technical Services), at the American Library Association’s conference in Chicago this year. The workshop was taught and staffed by IG members Andromeda Yelton, Becky Yoose, Bohyun Kim, Carli Spina, Eric Phetteplace, Jen Young, and Shana McDanold. It was based on work done by the Boston Python Workshop group, and with tools developed there and by Coding Bat. The preconference was designed to provide a basic introduction to the Python programming language, and succeeded admirably.

Here’s why I think it’s important for librarians to learn to code: it provides options in lots of conversations where librarians have traditionally not had many. One of the lightning talks (by Heidi Frank at NYU) concerned using Python to manipulate MARC records. The tools to do that kind of thing have tended to be either a) the property of vendors who provide the features the majority of their customers want or b) the province of overworked library systems staff. Both scenarios tend to lead to tools which are limiting or aggravating for the individual needs of almost every individual user. Ever try to change a graphic in your OPAC? Export a report in the file format *you* need? Learning to code is one way to solve those kinds of problems. Code empowers.

The preconference was very self-directed. There were a set of introductory tutorials before a late-morning lecture, then a lovely lunch (provided by the Python Foundation), then the option of spending more time on the morning’s activities or using the morning’s skills to work on one of two projects. The first project, ColorWall, used Python to create a bunch of very pretty cascading displays of color. The second, Wordplay, used it to answer crossword puzzle questions–“How many words fit the pattern E*G****R?” “How many words have all five vowels in order?”. My table opted to stick with the morning exercises, and learned an important lesson about what kinds of things Python can infer and what kinds it can’t. Python and your computer are very fast and systematic, but also very literal-minded. I suspect that they’d much rather be doing math than whatever you’re asking them to do for you.

My own background is moderately technical. I remember writing BASIC programs for my Commodore 128. I’ve done web design and systems work for a couple of libraries, and I have a lot of experience working with software of various kinds. I used this set of directions to install Linux on the Chromebook I brought to the preconference. I have installed new Linux operating systems on computers dozens of times. This doesn’t scare me:

And I still had the feeling of 8th-grade-math-class dread when I got stuck, as I frequently did, during the second part of the guided introduction. Did I miss something? Am I just not smart enough to do this? The whole litany of self-doubt. I got completely stuck on when to use loops and when not to use them. Loops are one of the most basic Python functions, a way of telling Python to systematically go down a list of things and do something to them. Utterly baffling, because it requires you to ask the question like a computer would, rather than like a human. Totally normal for me and anyone else starting out. Or, in fact, for anyone who programs. Programming is failure. The trick is learning to treat failure as part of the process, rather than as a calamity.

What’s powerful about the approach the IG used is that there were lots of people available to help, about seven teaching assistants to forty attendees. The accompanying documentation was cheerful and clear, and the attitude was “let’s figure this out together”. This is the polar opposite of a common approach to teaching programming, of which the polite paraphrase is “Read The Fine Manual”. My experience with music lessons as an adult and with the programming instruction I’ve looked at is that the (usually) well-meaning people doing the teaching tend to be people who learn best by trying things until they work. Lots of people learn best that way; lots of people do not. And librarians tend more often to be in the second category: wanting a bit of a sense of the forest before dealing with all of the trees individually. There is also a genderedness to the traditional approach. The Boston Python group’s approach (self-directed, with vast amounts of personal help available) was specifically designed to be welcoming to women and newcomers. Used here, it definitely worked. Attendees were 60% female, which is striking for a programming event, even at a library conference.

For me, learning Python is an investment in supporting the digital humanities work I will be increasingly involved in. I’m looking forward to learning how to use it to manipulate and analyze text. As I look more closely, I see that Python has modules for manipulating CSV files. One of my ongoing projects involves mapping indexes like MLA Bibliography to our full-text coverage so my students and faculty know what to expect when they use them. I’ve been using complicated Excel spreadsheets to do this, with only marginally satisfying results. I think that Python will give me better results, and hopefully results I can share with others.

The immediate takeaways for me are more about relationships and affiliation than code, though I do have a structure, in the form of the documentation for the workshop, which I will use to follow-up (you can use it, too!). I am lucky enough to be in the Boston area, so I will take advantage of the active Boston Python Meetup group, which has frequent workshops and events for programmers at all levels. Most importantly, I am clear from the workshop that Python is not inherently more complicated to learn than MARC formatting or old-style DIALOG searching. I wouldn’t say the workshop demystified Python for me–there’s still a lot of work for me to do–, but I will say that learning a useful amount of Python now seems entirely doable and worthwhile.

Computer code is crucial to the present and future of librarianship. Librarians have a unique facility with explaining the technical to non-technical people. Librarians learning to code together is an investment in ourselves and our profession.

About our guest author:

Chris Strauber is Humanities Research and Instruction Librarian and Coordinator of Instructional Design at Tufts University’s Tisch Library.

Sunday Afternoon with LITA at 2013 ALA Annual!

Please mark your calendars and join us at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference on Sunday, June 30th, beginning at 1pm, for Sunday Afternoon with LITA!  We will start off the day with the LITA awards and scholarships presentation followed by our Top Tech Trends program, moderated by Lorcan Dempsey. Then join us for the LITA President’s Program with Cory Doctorow, and finally, wrap up the day with the LITA Happy Hour at 5:30 at Fado Irish Pub!


1:00 pm – 2:30 pm McCormick Place Convention Center S105a-c
Panelists: Char Booth, Aimee Fifarek, Sarah Houghton, Brewster Kahle, Clifford Lynch, Gary Price Moderator: Lorcan Dempsey

Presentation of LITA Awards and Scholarships will take place at 1pm, then join the Top Tech Trends panel from 1:30-2:30, for a conversation about trends and opportunities in libraries. Lorcan Dempsey will moderate the following trendsters from across library communities and areas: Char Booth, Sarah Houghton, Gary Price, Aimee Fifarek, and Clifford Lynch.

  • Follow us on twitter @toptechtrends #ala2013ttt


3:00 pm – 4:00 pm McCormick Place Convention Center S105a-c
Speaker: Cory Doctorow

LITA President Zoe Stewart-Marshall welcomes digital rights activist, science fiction writer and Boing Boing co-editor, Cory Doctorow. This lively, thought-provoking talk will look at how libraries can and do stand on the front lines of the debate over the role of free information, and free information technology in ensuring the healthy maintenance of a free society. And yes, he will talk about DRM.


5:30 pm – 8:00 pm
Location: Fado Irish Pub, 100 West Grand Avenue (312) 836-0066

Please join the LITA Membership Development Committee and members from around the country for networking, good cheer, and great fun! Expect lively conversation and excellent drinks; cash bar.

LITA Lightning Rounds at ALA Annual

We are pleased to present our Lightning Presentation talks for ALA Annual in Chicago. Please join us at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday in room S102a at the Convention Center!

Andrew Youngkin from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine will talk about “Exploring mHealth devices for health technology instruction.” Andrew will share observations & assessment of several mHealth devices such as the FitBit One, Jawbone Up bracelet, and iHealth Blood Pressure cuff and discuss how these devices will be incorporated into future technology outreach and instruction.

Peter Murray from LYRASIS will talk about “Host Your Own Virtual Lightning Talks using Google Hangout.” It’s a lightning talk about hosting lightning talks. He will discuss how the coordinator of the Code4Lib Virtual Lightning Talks uses Google Hangouts-On-Air to enable presenters and viewers from around the world to share their experience and knowledge and share tips and tricks.

Mike Robinson from the University of Alaska Anchorage will discuss how to do “DIY digital signage.”He will share how to use a $60-80 minicomputer, a TV, and blogging software to create inexpensive digital signage.

Amy Neeser from the University of Minnesota Libraries will discuss “Personal Archiving: Helping Users Manage Digital Materials for Long-term Access.” She will talk about how teaching students how to manage their digital photos today will translate into skills that will help them manage their class notes and research data tomorrow.

Tao Zhang & Ilana Barnes from Purdue University Libraries will discuss “Building Better Help Before We Build It: User Characteristics and Preferences’ Effect on Library Help Website Design.” They still discuss how the conducted a questionnaire survey to measure user characteristics including perceived competence, work avoidance, and task orientation based on psychological scales and user experience research. Based on the survey data, they are constructing a statistical model to examine the relationship between user characteristics and user rankings of help design guidelines as well as help website features. The ranked design guidelines will be used as a basis to evaluate several existing library help systems and identify any gap of user needs based on their help seeking behavior pattern.

Caitlin Shanley of University of Pennsylvania Libraries will discuss “iPads in the Classroom: 5 Lessons Learned in 5 Minutes.” The Weigle Information Commons at Penn Libraries loans iPads for use in the classroom or for class projects. Hear about five lessons learned about mobile device management, deploying apps and settings, advising faculty on iPad assignments, and more.

Frederick Zarndt, Chair of the IFLA Newspapers Section, Joanna DiPasquale, Digital Projects Librarian at Vassar College Libraries and Alyssa Pacy, Archivist at Cambridge Public Library will discuss “SEO for digital librarians: Improving search engine visibility of library digital newspaper collections.” They will briefly view current search engine rankings and results of library digital newspaper collections. They describe simple methods to increase the visibility of these collections by leveraging their primary marketing tool, the collection itself, and show the before and after results of applying these methods to 2 digital newspaper collections.

LITA author at the ALA Store

Kenning Arlitsch, co-author of the new book Improving the Visibility and Use of Digital Repositories through SEO: A LITA Guide is hosting a book signing at the ALA Store at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in ChicagoSunday, June 30, 3:00 p.m.

His book, along with all LITA guides, will be available for purchase at 20% off at the ALA Store.

Creating Scalable Laptop Services in Support of Learning & Research: Join Us in Chicago for a LITA Preconference

Since its inception a decade ago, the laptop lending service at the UCLA Library has become a cornerstone of the UCLA experience for students and instructors. With a campus of nearly 40,000 students, laptop lending operates on a large scale: Last year alone, our fleet of 275 laptops were checked out over 100,000 times across 7 lending locations, with an average checkout time of 2.7 hours. Another 100 laptops were used in classrooms for a combined 20 weeks of instruction.

Our current system of managing laptops has evolved with hardware choices, staffing changes, patron requests, lending methods and the forward march of technology. We expect to continue this evolution as we address physical and virtual security, increasingly collaborative environments, software virtualization, and the growing momentum behind mobile devices.

  •  Are you looking to institute a laptop or other mobile device lending program?
  • Do you have an existing program that you’d like to expand?
  • Want to gather ideas about what software to offer patrons while keeping the laptops secure?
  • Want to see how we clone 350 laptops on a quarterly basis?

Please join us for a hands-on workshop that will help you strategize key technical, administrative and instructional considerations at the LITA Pre-Conference Workshop Creating Scalable Laptop Services in Support of Learning & Research Friday, June 28, 2013, 8:30 am – 4:00 pm Event Code: LIT1

The UCLA Library currently provides close to 500 dual-boot laptops for instruction and short-term loans to all UCLA students, faculty and staff. Each laptop offers the OS X and Windows operating systems with software packages in support of instruction and research. Library staff share the workflow and logistical details for preparing software, imaging the machines, tracking software licensing, processing lending through an ILS (Voyager) and maintaining the hardware and software.

Cory Doctorow to present LITA President’s Program

Cory Doctorow will present “More than a book-lined Internet Cafe: LITA President’s Program” from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 30th in Chicago. 

Zoe Stewart-Marshall, LITA President, welcomes Cory Doctorow to present the LITA President’s program.  Doctorow is a digital rights activist, science fiction writer, and, Boing Boing co-editor.    Stewart-Marshall said “More than a book-lined Internet Café” promises to be a lively, thought-provoking talk on how libraries can and do stand on the front lines of the debate over the role of free information, and free information technology in ensuring the healthy maintenance of a free society.  And yes, he will talk about DRM.”

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger — the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of young adult novels like PIRATE CINEMA and LITTLE BROTHER and novels for adults like RAPTURE OF THE NERDS and MAKERS. He is the former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in London.

The LITA President’s program is part of “Sunday Afternoon with LITA” at the ALA Annual Conference.   “Sunday Afternoon with LITA” begins with the LITA awards presentations, followed by the popular Top Technology Trends panel discussion, and, culminates with the LITA President’s Program.  

Details on all LITA Annual Conference programs and events are available at