Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Code4Lib 2013 from Jonathan Rochkind

I again attended the Code4Lib conference this year; it is typically the only conference I attend in a year, and I do attend it most years. It's a great opportunity to network and share information with other software engineers in libraries.

On the first day, I attended and presented at a pre-conference on libraries that have innovated in their web services around "delivery" -- that is, what happens after 'discovery'.  I presented on the Umlaut software that powers our Find It service; Umlaut is open source software for which I'm the chief developer.  The pre-conference demonstrated that there's a lot of interest in Umlaut at the moment -- several other libraries, including Princeton, are exploring using the Umlaut software themselves. And other libraries are developing their own alternative software inspired by Umlaut.  As we've been using Umlaut for 4 or 5 years now, I think we can take pride in being ahead of the curve in paying attention to improving the access/delivery experience in ways Umlaut/Find It are intended to.  As I've been trying to raise interest from other libraries in Umalut for several years, it's gratifying to see it starting to happen -- and will result in more sustainability for Umlaut as a software package, to get more involvement.

Once the conference itself began, one trend I noticed was many presentations about projects based on Blacklight. Blacklight is the open source project that our own Catalyst is based on.  Blacklight seems to be only gaining in popularity, which again is encouraging for the sustainable future of the Blacklight project.

Many of these Blacklight projects were 'digital repository' type projects.  Penn State and other institutions are developing a product called "ScholarSphere", which is based on Blacklight, Fedora, and Hydra (another open source project in the Blacklight eco system). ScholarSphere was impressive for having one of the best User Interfaces in an IR or 'digital repository' product I've seen.

In the past, I always liked Code4Lib for being just about the only conference on library technology that focused on innovation in what I'll call "research services" as opposed to "digital repository" services and products. Accross libraries, I think "digital repository" innovation receives a lot more attention, funding, and resources.  It was hard to find the people working on innovation in research services too, which I think is also very important but doesn't get sufficient attention.  However, this year, even at Code4Lib fewer presentations than usual were on tech innovations in traditional research services, and more on digital repository services. Lately I have started to wonder if it's simply too late for libraries to succesfully innovate in research services, maybe the future of libraries really is solely in digital repository services.

Also, when I first started going to Code4lib, almost all of my peers there were from similar situations to me, in terms of being one of only one or two developers in the library, sort of eeking out development of innovative web projects in their 'spare' time, amongst support of existing systems.  This year, it hit me that quite a few libraries have extensive development staff these days. I couldn't help but be envious of libraries that have 10 or more developers working on developing new software, along with a handful of additional User Expereience staff, and additional completely seperarate staff supporting legacy products like the ILS.  Here at JHU we manage to do an extraordinary amount of innovation with our relatively paltry development staff (1-4 developers depending on how you count, who are generally also responsible for extensive user support and legacy system support too) -- but it definitely makes me envious of how much we could accomplish and innovate if we had the resources of those peer institutions who have prioritized extensive software engineering staff resources (examples include U of Michigan, Stanford, and North Carolina State University).

All in all, the Code4Lib conference remains crucial to my professional skill and awareness of trends and possibilities in library technological innovation and relevant technologies.