How to Get Newcomers Involved In Your Open Source Project

Listen, I won’t bore you by telling you that you have to learn to code. If developing this skill makes sense for the kind of work you need to do (or would like to move into), then by all means, spend the time and money on learning. But there are other ways to contribute to software development projects, and one of those ways is by helping write documentation.

I’ve spent a few months looking around for a software project I could contribute to, but for the most part I’ve felt stymied. Either I didn’t know enough about the project to know where to jump in or the kinds of help the project needed were far beyond my meagre skills. If these DuckDuckGo search results are any indication, other folks have wondered how to get involved as well.

Even projects that are hugely welcoming (hi, hood.ie) have left me unsure about where my talents were best suited because the descriptions were written in such a way that you had to have some advance experience with or knowledge about the project to know where to jump in.

If you want to make sure that your project is welcoming to people of all skillets, makes sure your requests for help are written as clearly as possible.

I’ve spent the better part of this weekend contributing to the Exercism project. It’s a library of exercises that supports students learning to code by giving them practice problems and helpful, constructive feedback.

I don’t remember how I came across the project, but Katrina Owen wrote her request for help so clearly and succinctly that I immediately jumped in.

Many column inches and bytes of data have been spent telling us how software development/open source projects need to diversify. This point isn’t up for discussion. What still needs to be addressed is how companies can build their communities so that anyone with access to a computer and basic literacy skills can feel confident enough to contribute to their project.

It seems that many companies err on the side of difficulty/obfuscation when soliciting help. Maybe this is a way to weed out people who they think lack dedication, or maybe they’re afraid of talking down to people. Those are valid concerns. Computer use has become so ubiquitous that not everyone who sits in front of a computer is a computer scientist, yet nearly all users could make valid contributions to your open source projects if given the chance. Creating tasks at all levels is one way of giving newcomers the chance to participate.

Here are a few things you can do to remove some of the barriers to participation:

  • Make your descriptions clear and unambiguous. If you need grammatical help, say “We need help with grammar in this paragraph” and highlight the paragraph in question.
  • Be receptive and open to questions. Really mean it when you say “ask us anything,” and make sure your responses are friendly but helpful.
  • Avoid using words like “basically”, “just”, or “simply” when writing instructions. These words are shorthand for “You’re too stupid/inexperienced/dumb to work with us.”
  • Invite users to offer feedback on an interface, whether it’s labelling for form fields or other interface elements or inviting them to comment on typography or colour schemes.
  • Lastly, thank your contributors and let them know they’ve done a great job. Even the smallest contributions improve your overall product. Remember that people respond well to thanks and praise, and instilling goodwill about your product is a key component of your project’s success.

First Generation Library Professionals Tweet Chat

“Survey says…!” (I’ve just dated myself with that reference, haven’t I?

It looks like most of you thought a weekly tweet chat was the best way to stay in touch, so let’s get one started! First, we’ll need to settle on a day of the week. Because #libchat and #critlib both take place on Tuesday and I don’t want to compete for attention, I think we should hold this chat on a different day of the week. Also, if you have an idea for the hashtag we should use, leave it in the comments below.

All Moved In

I must say that moving back to WordPress from Jekyll was far easier than moving to Jekyll from WordPress. Because I made sure to structure URLs the same way on both platforms, all links should still work. If you happen across any hiccups, do let me know.

For Want of a Title

The WNBA’s Glory Johnson and Brittney Griner were arrested on charges of assault and disorderly conduct. Both Johnson and Griner have since been released. A few media outlets were quick to paint this as an intimate partner violence situation, which feels inexact for a number of reasons. First: BG and GloJo are physical equals. sure, BG is taller, but on the surface, it’s hard to imagine the unequal power relations that are a frequent indicator of spousal/partner abuse being at play in this relationship.

Second: there’s a spectre of “butch-as-aggressor” framing going on in the media. Many articles only mention BG in the headline, a construction that elides Johnson’s involvement. You see BG’s mugshot more than you see Glory Johnson’s. While it’s true that Griner has the higher profile, it seems to me that BG is being given the perpetrator edit.

Autostraddle is one of the few media outlets to refrain from using mugshots in their coverage, and as far as I know, they’re the only publication that included Johnson’s name in the headline. Their reporting has been fair and nuanced, which I’m ashamed to say, wasn’t something I expected to see on Autostraddle. Kaelyn, the author of the Autostraddle piece, sounded off in the comments about assumptions people were making about the nature of the Griner/Johnson relationship, and her comment showed the kind of sensitivity and thoughtfulness you wish all media would display1.

This is a difficult issue, and my status as the ultimate Griner stan may make you take this opinion with a grain of salt, which is only fitting, considering I wasn’t there when the incident happened. I had such high hopes for this couple, and I hope they’re able to get whatever help they need to make it through this situation.


Thanks to everyone who has signed up for The Librarian Cabal. I started the channel so library folk would have a safe, open place to talk about All Things Library without fear of recrimination. The Cabal has a Code of Conduct in place, and I hope everyone will honor the spirit and the letter of the CoC. It’ll probably be a little tough to enforce. I’m committed to try, because like Anil Dash said, “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault.”

Additional thanks to everyone who shared or commented on my Bridging the Experience Gap article. I think some great things will come out of the conversations that sprang up, including a tweet chat, and possibly a mailing list (if I can find an alternative to Google groups, that is). I’m not sure how to move on as an interest group/sub-group of a national library association when many of the people who replied are outside of the United States, so if you have any ideas about how to make that work, I’m happy to listen.


I’m contemplating moving away from Jekyll and back to WordPress to power this site. Jekyll is powerful, and learning to work with it has increased my comfort and familiarity with Ruby programming. But to tell the truth, there are times that I really miss a web-based CMS, or one that comes equipped with a robust mobile app that supports blogging from anywhere. I’ve been slowly moving some posts over to a WordPress site I’ve kept around for just such an occasion, but I probably won’t flip the switch for a few weeks yet. I’d like the switch to be as seamless as possible, so I’m taking some time to reformat entries and ensure that URLs stay the same between the two platforms.


  1. It was also the first time I’d heard the term “common couple violence”, so additional kudos to AS for teaching me something new today. 

Bridging the Experience Gap

Before you read any further, take five minutes to watch Ivy League Trailblazers at the New York Times. It’ll offer a bit of background for what I’ll be discussing in this post.

How do you learn to learn, to know what you don’t know? As a first generation college student, the first in my family to attend integrated schools, and the first in my family to earn a graduate degree, I’ve had experiences that my parents and many of my siblings couldn’t conceive of. Thanks to my background and lack of preparation, I’ve dealt with sometimes crippling amounts of self-doubt and shame in these environments, especially when faced with academic or professional challenges.

My parents weren’t professionals. They always worked, but if you had to call them anything, “working poor” would be the closest fit. The stress of raising nine children in reduced circumstances took its toll on my parents, so they weren’t always responsive when I had questions they couldn’t answer. To this day, I find it hard to approach superiors — or anyone, really — when I need help. They taught me so many other skills — resilience, resourcefulness, and optimism — so the lessons I learned from them is a source of pride. It wasn’t until I started moving in more educated circles that I realized what I was missing.

"First Generation" by Chong Fah Cheong

When you don’t have a trusted peer network to depend on for advice, where do you turn? First generation ivy league students banded together to create a support network and conference that provides services, camaraderie, and strategies for successfully navigating the challenges that arise when you’re out of your element. I’m inspired by this sort of grass-roots problem solving, particularly when it happens in a judgment-free environment where everyone commits to helping you succeed.

I wonder whether a similar network might be needed for first-generation professionals or first-generation graduate students? As a mostly middle-class profession, librarianship fails to address the cultural expectations that go along with membership in this community, such as cultural literacy, notions of professionalism that are rooted in the dominant culture, or access to wealth.1 Maybe the conversation could start as a special interest group of a professional library association. Then, provided the interest still exists, the group could propose a conference panel to discuss these issues at the organizational and personal level.


The other day, a librarian I “internet know” asked why books that focused on teaching librarians to code or about marketing were needed when great books by marketers already exist. I wish I could understand the perspective that leads someone to ask like this, but my position on the margins makes that difficult.

Coding groups for librarians, or trans people, or black women and girls exist because affinity groups are a key part of success. Anything that validates the experience of marginalized people, that makes us feel not only welcome, but fundamental to a community’s success is a good thing. Diversifying our voices and practices are good things, are necessary things if we want to do more than present diversity as a problem to solve.


  1. Such as access to education, the ability to take on and repay student loan debt, or the social currency that comes from being a member of the class that sets the standard. 

Scenes From A Bike Lane

I felt my lungs expanding, the tension leave my body. I’ve been away from my bike for much too long, and although last week’s aborted turn left me in poor spirits, today’s abundant sunshine and early-spring warmth lured me back to the saddle. The sun was both blinding and restorative, and I felt the sap begin to flow through my creaky joints. I pointed my bike north and east with no particular destination in mind, but was very happy to find myself headed toward one of my favourite watering holes. I didn’t dally; I stayed only long enough to enjoy one small beer and to make a sadly necessary phone call to my cellular provider.

West Hotel on the Carrall Street Bike Route

I pedaled south toward home along the Carrall street bike route, and stopped at the red light. A man sat just to the right of the lane in a camp chair, a large duffel bag at his feet, and a baseball cap perched insouciantly on his head. He called out: “Nice bike, mama!”, and since the compliment was about my bike and not about me, I thanked him. We talked about how lovely the day was, how it was great to see so many people out and about again after a long (yet unseasonably warm) winter, and how the little pleasures, like riding a gorgeous bike on a beautiful day, or finding a thoughtful spot where you could read a book meant so much, and were overlooked by so many. I asked him what he was reading; I’m a librarian whose interested in people, so I almost always ask. Sadly I can’t remember the title, Yakuza…something. About an Iranian in Japan.

He told me a little about the time he spent 7 weeks in Japan working as a bartender, hanging out with people who were strippers & iand gangsters from Japan’s criminal underworld. In the middle of telling this story, he paused, looked me in the eye and said “It’s nice to have a conversation. We’re bringing it back.”

Freedom Libraries

After seeing this tweet from Dolly Moehrle and after reading Jason Griffey’s Poverty, Libraries, Jobs, Me , I started thinking about organizing a grassroots movement that would support perpetually underfunded, understaffed small and/or rural libraries. For whatever reason — maybe it’s the residual effect of the Oscars — I thought that a sustained movement that was based around a Freedom Summer concept might work.

(This is a very rough, stream of consciousness blog post, but I want to capture the basic ideas before they all slip away.)

Freedom Summer

Over the course of 10 weeks in 1964, more than 1,000 community activists, civil rights organizations, students, clergy and laypeople organized a voter registration drive in Mississippi. Teams of volunteers descended on Mississippi in an attempt to dismantle one of the more pernicious manifestations of white supremacy – suppressing the right to vote. Though only 1200 people were ultimately registered, Freedom Summer remains a watershed moment in American history.

What if librarians, library associations, and other library workers organized a similar effort? MLIS students could be our community organizers, large library associations could provide financial and operational support (mailing, communications, logistical support), and librarians from around North America could volunteer their time to help struggling libraries with whatever these libraries needed.

It’s important that this effort is sustainable, which is why I’ve backed off my original idea of some sort of crowd-sourced funding. It’s also important that this not come off as a group of do-gooder outsiders who think they know what’s best for local communities. Our first order of business would be to listen to the workers in these libraries to see what sort of help they need, and to make sure that those of us who have the time and resources could not only supply the help in crisis moments, but could be counted on to develop ongoing relationships with these library workers and their communities. We don’t want to put a bow on something and disappear. That isn’t helpful, and doesn’t do much beyond making us feel better about ourselves.

Next Steps

  • Strategizing
  • Building a team of organizers
  • Contacting rural libraries and/or state library associations to identify libraries in need
  • Raising awareness witih library assocations, library schools, etc.
  • Putting together a plan of action — I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do this…

Your thoughts and ideas are what will help make this idea a reality, so feel free to comment below, or contact me on Twitter.

Vancouver – Why I Stay

(Inspired by The Bold Italic’s “What Keeps You In SF?”)

It’s so expensive I can’t afford to move anywhere else.

My union job. If you’ve ever had a union job, you know how hard it is to give up that security.

When the fall fog banks roll in and envelop the city in cotton wool. The mournful melancholy of a distant foghorn momentarily makes my hair stand on end, but settles into a comforting bass note as the hours pass.

The damp chill suits my overall mood far more than blisteringly hot sunny days ever could.

The long late-spring evenings where it doesn’t get dark until almost 11:00pm

Really, really good pho.

Incredible craft breweries around just about every corner. Vancouver turned me into a beer lover.

The way the 9 O’Clock gun echoes off the mountains on a clear winter night.

Ethnic diversity that goes beyond a black/white axis.

Living in a place where feeling like a minority isn’t (widely) considered to be a limitation.

The Pineapple Express is perfect for hunkering down inside your comfortable, warm, postage-stamp sized apartment while the wind and rain hammer your windows.

Living so far away from the place I grew up in allows me to truly be the person I’ve always wanted to be. It also gives me the freedom to reinvent that person whenever the mood strikes.

Always knowing which way is North, thanks to the mountains.

Playing “spot the landmark” while watching Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Adventure shows becomes a lot more fun when you get to know a city intimately.

My family.

The heady mix of Englishness, colonialism, Pacific Rim polish, deeply steeped First Nations history and outsize wilderness can’t be found anywhere else on the continent.

Seeing coyotes in the city.

Anonymity.

The Celebration of Light.

Being a short train ride away from Portland, OR.

My cat loves rain, which seems to be a very Vancouver-cattish way to be.

78° summers.

Being able to wear boots and layers for most of the year, except in July and August when you trade them in for Birkenstocks and floaty dresses.

Bicycles belong here.

I don’t need highways to get from one end of the city to the next.

Burrard Inlet.

Seal and dolphin sightings in Burrard Inlet.

Orcas.

Weird public art, like the laughing statues, the strange animal statues outside the Kensington library branch, the wedding rings at English Bay, and the 8-bit orca at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Nobody cares if you smoke pot. Or if you don’t.

Because if I leave, the city’s black population drops by a fraction of a percentage point. That may not seem like much, but when the black population hovers around 1%, every one of us counts.

Being able to say “I’m Canadian” when I look and sound like I do is always a source of great joy.

Down deep I was always meant to be a West Coast girl. Vancouver allowed me to make that geography mean something more than mountains, ocean, rain, and sushi. The West Coast is (and hopefully always will be) home.

Through the Lens

I’ve let depression and illness keep me from one of my favourite hobbies for too long. Instead of lamenting what I can’t do anymore (walk for hours while carrying heavy kit), I’m going to celebrate what I can (take photos of my surroundings with a much lighter camera).

What's New Pussycat

After much deliberation, I settled on an Olympus OM-D E-M10 micro 4/3 camera. It is so small and cute it reminds me of a puppy who is just learning to walk. Yet despite its small stature, it produces incredible photos with an amazing amount of detail, sharpness, and beautiful tones straight out of the camera (although I’ll still do most of my editing in VSCO Film or VSCO Cam).

Texture Play

This is one instance when saying “More to come” isn’t just a stalling tactic. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as prolific a photographer as I once was, but I hope that being forced to slow down will make me a better one.