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.

Preparation Peril

On Tuesday I delivered a webinar1 for LITA on creating web maps with the Leaflet JavaScript library. I’m afraid the session didn’t go exactly as I planned. The problem wasn’t the content, it was in my execution and delivery. In working so hard at making sure the session was content-rich, I forgot about the importance of performance2.

When I’m in front of an audience I can see, I adapt my presentation style based on visual and verbal cues the audience gives me. An online seminar removes all of that useful feedback, and if I can’t tell how I’m doing, I lose the plot, and when that happens, it’s hard for me to pick it up again.

I felt like I was talking to myself in an empty room, which of course I was3. I wasn’t prepared for how this format would change my delivery. I was nervous, I didn’t feel engaged with the topic, and I certainly didn’t feel engaged with the audience, through no fault of their own. It just didn’t work, and being the perfectionist I am, I haven’t been able to let this go.

If I ever do another seminar in this format, I’ll do several things differently:

  • Write a shorter script (my script was approximately 8 printed pages long, not including screenshots)
  • Deliver the seminar to a live audience, solicit feedback, and leave enough time to incorporate any changes.
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Stick to subjects I’m (very) familiar with
  • Use fewer examples with greater detail

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the real lesson in all of this is I work better with a live audience, and I should just stick to what works…


  1. I hate this word with a white-hot intensity. I’ll use it only once in this entry. My apologies. 
  2. My dearly departed mentor Jeffrey Woodyard was instrumental in helping me develop an understanding of performative pedagogy when I was an undegraduate student. I call on his memory whenever I step behind a podium. 
  3. Unless you count my cat, and she wasn’t interested at all

Best Practices

I don’t often go on a tear about UX or library UX, but it’s a new year, and I feel like maybe it’s time to break with conventions. And speaking of breaking with conventions…

Kill your best practices.

See what I did there?

Someone who is much smarter than I am once said “Best practices are for people who can’t think for themselves.” These conventions become standards because people grow used to them. It does not mean that the interaction is the most efficient, elegant, or even the best designed. What had happened was1 somewhere along the way an interaction designer had an idea for a system response. Another IxD saw this design, thought “Hey, that looks pretty good, why don’t I just use that?” and in no time at all, every single website had its logo in the upper left hand corner2.

Best practices and conventions are good guidelines. They’re a starting point for a design conversation, not the entire dialogue. At the risk of doing the very thing I dislike3, I’m going to step out on a limb and say that if you’re simply accepting best practices without testing them with your own user groups, you’re part of the problem and you should just stop. Stop. Right now. Walk away from OmniGraffle, move away from Visio, and just..I don’t know, go for a hike or something. And while you’re on a hike, take a mobile-friendly version of your wireframe with you so you can test your design with someone on the hiking trail.


  1. This is intentionally poor grammar. 
  2. Not all conventions are bad, they’re just unexamined. 
  3. Ponderously pontificating about design when I’m not a designer, but w’ev. 

Diversity Training for Majority Female Workplaces

While listening to Episode 7 of The Broad Experience, a podcast about women and workplace issues, the seed of an idea implanted itself in my brain.

I am thinking about creating a diversity workshop for employees who work in majority-female environments.

I frequently find it difficult to express myself properly at work. I’m told I speak out of turn, am “too confrontational,” and my emails are read as terse. I’m generally thought of as unfriendly, which causes no end of stress and anxiety. And while I will cop to my shortcomings, I believe that a large part of this comes down to cultural misunderstanding.

My white colleagues can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a non-white person in this environment. They can’t possibly understand how hard I work at being sufficiently deferential, at not speaking up about things that seem unjust, or that the heat of an ever-present klieg light of scrutiny becomes suffocating.

The workshop would cover some of these cultural differences, of course, but what else could/should it cover? Should there be one workshop for whites, and one that serves as a support system for non-white library workers?

When women come together in a majority, we sometimes think that power relations aren’t at play. I’d like workshop participants to come away with an understanding of how power relations manifest themselves between women. The learning outcome should be that women acknowledge the negative impact of this unequal balance between WoC and white women in the workplace. They should be able to recognize the signs, and those women who are in positions of power would walk away with enough tools to work toward dismantling the imbalance.

At the same time, I’m wary of this becoming a session all about fee-fees, and I’m reluctant to be a part of anything that comes across as “Sassy WoC tell white women off and make them feel bad about themselves.”

This feels very rudimentary and scattered, but it feels like there’s something there. A very small something, but still something.

More to come.

2014 Year in Review

I’ve been busy, folks…

Professional

Courses I’ve Taken

  • Web Developer Track at Skillcrush, which included HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Ruby, Git, and Sinatra
  • HTML, CSS, Javascript and Ruby at Treehouse
  • Managing Small Projects at Lynda.com
  • Customer Service workshop at MPOW
  • Creating a Respectful Workplace workshop at MPOW
  • Problem Solving workshop at MPOW

Work Projects

  • Intranet redesign: guided the organization through implementing a new intranet (based on Thoughtfarmer)
  • Skilled Immigrant Info Centre redesign: this was quite the experience. In many ways, I think the project was a failure, but it was also an incredible learning opportunity for future projects.
  • West End Stories: minimal role; consulted on some UX, coached members of the Web Team on a few web development items, added some adminstrative work
  • Readers’ Advisory Social Media Pilot: worked with our Information Services division on a project to offer readers’ advisory via Facebook. Provided some coaching/information around social media best practices.
  • Reference Manual rewrite: worked as part of a team to simplify, modernize, and re-write the library’s reference manual (it was overdue)
  • Literary Landmarks: a work in progress. Coordinated the development of a website that will accompany the placement of commemorative plaques around the city of Vancouver that feature landmarks that have significant local and historical relevance. Site will launch in late January, 2015.

Personal

  • Met with the orthopaedic surgeon to discuss surgery options. He recommended a total knee replacement. I’m still waiting on a surgery date.
  • Started taking biologics for rheumatoid arthritis, and have felt most of my energy come back. Some of the stiffness and pain is still there, but it is drastically reduced.
  • Weight: the less said about this, the better
  • Was featured in Day One’s “The Way I Journal” series.
  • The Library Loon wrote a lovely piece about me for Ada Lovelace Day
  • Paid off my Canadian student loans
  • Paid off an outstanding tax bill to Revenue Canada
  • Was reported to the library board twice for things I said over Twitter. One was about “Nice White Librarians“(h/t to nina de jesus), the other was about public consultation in Vancouver’s most recent civic election, which someone interpreted as opposition to public consultation in library planning. I’ve intentionally kept quiet about this, but The Library Loon pretty much captures everything I haven’t been able to articulate. I’m scared to say anything to anyone at work these days, and a few personal friendships have suffered as a result. I don’t feel safe, and I don’t feel supported. These feelings of insecurity have really done a number on my mental and physical health.

This list doesn’t include any of the greater issues that caught my attention this year, like police brutality, marriage equality, the rise of civil disobedience (and how millennials and LGBT folks are leading the way in some very high profile cases), the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl, ad infinitum.

This is the part of the blog post where I should express gratitude for living through another year, and while it’s a miracle that this year didn’t kill me, I don’t know that I’m eager to see 2015, especially if it’s going to be anything like 2014. Still, the book is closing on this year, the world keeps turning, and despite society’s and my best attempts at the contrary, I plan to keep on keeping on for as long as I can.

Happy Solstice, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and a bountiful New Year to you all.

Library Mental Help Week

The week of October 27, is Geek Mental Help Week, an event that raises awareness about mental health in the web industry through conversations, magazines, blogs, and podcasts. As a public librarian, I’ve seen first hand the impact of poor support for mental health can have on a city’s population and its library patrons, but I don’t think we talk enough about how mental health affects library workers, either directly or indirectly. I’d like to change that.

I propose that we start a Librar*1 Mental Help Week. Sometime in November (or December?) library-related publications, blogs, podcasts would devote time to discuss mental health in the profession. Here’s how you can help:

  • Help plan the event
  • Write about mental health issues on your own blog
  • Create a website that will collect related posts (I’m willing to do this via Github Pages, but I could use a designer)
  • Devote an episode of your podcast to mental health in the profession
  • Organize a local event to talk about mental health issues
  • Publish articles about mental health in professional journals or on their websites

I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life, and try as I might, I can’t always leave those emotions outside the library when I report to work. I’ve tried to be stoic, to power through the bad days by keeping my head down and not interacting, but that only adds to the workplace tension I create by being in the office. Stoicism and evasion aren’t healthy coping strategies. They aren’t sustainable, and I fail, often.

Over time I’ve learned that I’m not the only one with a problem, society has a problem with mental illness, and wishing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist only makes the problem worse. Like Paul Boag writes in Smashing Magazine we are not machines, and we are not alone. Together we can work to change the stigma of mental health in the library profession.


  1. I intentionally use the wildcard because the event won’t only focus on the health of credentialed librarians. All library workers are impacted by mental health in the workplace. 

On Rockstars, Foxes and Family Legacies

A Foxy Librarian

A very nice thing happened to me today. The Library Loon wrote a profile about me in honor of Ada Lovelace Day:

The Loon has not uncommonly pointed students to Ms. Walker’s writing and social-media presences. Any students who come to resemble Ms. Walker are impressive students indeed, and all the Loon’s students are fortunate that she is their example.

I’m not one to toot my own horn. I don’t (think) I chase notoriety, though I do take a certain amount of pleasure in being a sparklepony. I don’t think it would be wrong to say that my typical modus operandi is keeping my head down and avoiding (professional) detection. This is why not only was I surprised to hear about this profile, but it may explain why I felt it so deeply. Without going into detail, I will simply say that this profile came exactly when I needed to be reminded that the work I do outside of my library has a great deal of value; perhaps even more value than the work I do within the library’s walls.

On Rockstars

The concept of rockstar librarians seems to be on the radar (again). If you’re going to read anything about it, read Coral’s piece, because she makes the point that it’s irresponsible to wield power unwisely. Not only that, it’s disingenuous to deny that your status conveys power, but that’s another topic for another time.

The idea of rockstar librarians got me thinking. What qualities come to mind when you think of a rockstar?

  • Talent
  • Notoriety
  • Hard work
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Awards and accolades

You know what else comes to mind when I think of rockstars?

  • Sycophants
  • Distance
  • Bodyguards that are hired to keep rockstars away from the fans
  • Groupies
  • Excess
  • Debauchery (hi, library conferences)
  • Hubris

Also, if you aren’t selling out arenas, I don’t think you can legitimately call yourself a rockstar, no matter how many keynotes you’re invited to give at library conferences each year.

This isn’t envy or jealousy talking. I think people — especially women — should market themselves and be proud of their accomplishments. It’s just that the term comes with so much baggage, and it’s baggage that seems at odds with the stated mission and goals of the profession.

Family Legacy

Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots airs on PBS Tuesday nights at 8pm. Every time I see an episode, I become more and more convinced that I should quit my job to become a genealogical researcher. I need the steady paycheques so I won’t be quitting anytime soon. Instead I spent a few hours researching my family’s history. I’ve hit a brick wall with information from my mother’s side of the family, but I made a major discovery on my father’s side.

Screenshot of Census Record from 1900

This screen capture is from the 1900 US Census. The names you see here — Amous and Florence Walker — were my paternal great-grandparents. Amous and Florence were born in Georgia in 1864. This means that Amous and Florence were the first free people in my family. I don’t have the words to adequately describe how this made me feel, but I will say that it affirmed my place in history in a way that a thousand documentaries about slavery or the civil rights movement never have.

On Managing WordPress Development

I’ve used WordPress to run personal sites for almost ten years1. WordPress runs some of the library’s microsites2, but the development tasks were split between our graphic designers (HTML and CSS for child themes) and our web application developers (PHP, writing custom functions). In short: I never got to touch the code.

All of this changed with a couple recent projects. This time the application developers created WordPress instances, but all of the PHP, HTML and CSS development happened within my department. Design and implementation were handed off to our graphic designer with some pinch-hitting from me as needed. One site functions beautifully, while the other has been the bane of my existence for the last three months.

It isn’t anyone’s fault that things went dramatically sideways with one of the projects — these things happen. It’s a corporate cliché to suggest that this was a “learning experience”, but I did learn some things about managing website development among distributed teams, and how the process differs from working as a solo developer.

The Rules

  • Implement a content strategy for the website. Before writing a single line of code, take the time to gather and organize the content that will appear on the site. Create a sitemap and overview of all of the pages the site will contain.

  • Create a functional requirements document. This includes any plugins needed. For example, if your website requires a gallery, your requirements should state whether the site will use WordPress’ native gallery feature, or if you’ll require a third-party plugin. If you’ve never written a requirements document, here is a useful template.

  • Choose a simple yet robust theme or theme framework. Don’t choose a theme based on looks alone. Using your requirements document as a guide, research themes or theme frameworks, note whether required features are missing, and outline how you plan to incorporate any missing features (will you write custom functions, or is a plugin available?)

  • Develop locally, not on a live server. This should go without saying, but I mention because it emerged as an issue during implementation. Having a sandbox server environment that mirrors the live sever configuration is essential, and it reduces the amount of time you’ll spend moving the site from the staging server to a live site. I prefer MAMP for local WordPress development3, but the Bitnami WordPress Stack is also a good choice (and somewhat easier to set up than MAMP).

  • Use WP_DEBUG to test your code. Debugging code is an important part of any project. Use WP_DEBUG on your staging server to trigger the debug mode in WordPress and to ensure compatibility.

  • Outline your functions before writing the code. One of the best rules I learned as a novice developer was “Code tells you how, but comments tell you why.” Ideally code should be clean enough to be human-readable. Some developers think that commenting makes for cluttered code, but when you’re working with distributed teams, comments (and meaningful function names) ensure that everyone understands a function’s intended purpose. The image below shows how I map out functions using comments before writing code:

an image that shows how I map out functions with comments

As a manager, my job is to support my team as much as possible. I believe in empowering people to make their own decisions, and having structured yet flexible processes in place is an essential part of the process, and is one of the most important tasks for a manager. I’m still learning; hopefully you’ll benefit from some of my more painful lessons.


  1. Not this version. This site is generated by Jekyll
  2. Small scale websites that exist as subdirectories or subdomains of the library’s primary domain. 
  3. This is a case of do as I say, not as I do. The setup at work is different (and outside of my control), but if the choice were up to me, this is how we would approach local site development.