Friday, June 19, 2015

Libraries And Civic Hacking

If you read much about civic hacking, you’ll often see libraries mentioned. After all, what civic organization is more likely to be interested in information, data and knowledge than a library?

I know the librarian (library person?) who founded one of the first participant-driven tech events in NE Wisconsin, a tech unconference called BarCampFDL. Many of the participants in the first BarCampFDL were also library people. Birds of a feather and all that… Anyway, because of the natural connection between libraries and civic hacking, it seemed like he or one of his library compatriots might be interested in helping organize a civic hackathon with a major focus on libraries. He was open to the concept, and we’ll discuss it more over the next month or two.

With that thought in mind, I decided to write a blog post to explore this topic and get a few ideas on how we could incorporate a library theme into a civic hackathon. Below are ten items showing various aspects of the connection between civic hackers and libraries.

(1)  Trusted Institutions

Libraries are trusted institution in our communities, often well-connected with a civic leaders, city officials and people likely to be engaged with improving their city. That's one reason the library is a natural fit to participate in the civic hacking movement, helping bring legitimacy and credibility to the topic and minimizing concerns about ‘hacking’ being something to avoid or prevent. A potentially-concerned Joe Public or Cathy Councilperson is less likely to object to a local civic hackathon if the library is a sponsor or partner for the event.

(2)  A Natural Fit

One of the missions for libraries is to be an information resource for community. This means that most community activities related to knowledge, information and data are a good fit for being led by a library, being hosted at the library or involving the library in some way. Civic hacking is also a natural fit for many librarians who enjoy working with information and are often champions for open data. They also tend to be good at figuring out ways to store, manage and find information, all of which are useful skills for civic hackers.

(3)  Hackathon Hosts

Libraries in numerous cities have hosted civic hackathons. There’s even a guide for helping organize a GLAM hackathon (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums). Here’s a sampling of those events and cities:

(4)  Idea Repository & Funding Source Guide

One potential library-related civic hack is to develop a 'library projects guide.' This item has a dual focus. First, there are innumerable smart library people who are passionate about improving libraries and making them more valuable to citizens who use the facilities and resources. Those smart library people regularly come up with interesting and impactful ideas. It seems like an awesome civic hack would be creating an easily searchable central repository of those ideas. The second focus of this item is that it would be helpful to create a guide to potential funding sources for library civic hacks. These three Knight Foundation grant proposals serve as inspiration for both the idea repository and funding source guide; “From open data to open knowledge: Using libraries to turn civic data into a valuable resource for citizens, researchers, and City Hall alike,” “Books & Bytes: Libraries as Learning Hubs for Coding, Web Literacy, and Civic Hacking,” and “Library as Civic Storefront for New Businesses.”

(5)  Collaborate With National Organizations

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) participated in the NDoCH in 2013 and 2014. If there are other national organizations with data relevant to libraries, they’d likely be interested in some type of collaboration with civic hackers.

(6)  Inform The Community

Univ of Pennsylvania hosted a panel discussion about civic hacking. This type of event can be used to raise community awareness about civic hacking, to inform area residents about what other people are doing to engage with their governments and take personal responsibility for solving local problems. Widespread knowledge of how other cities are being improved by civic hackers can lead to residents of your community wanting to do the same thing!

(7)  Supplement Current Classes

Many library ‘learning opportunities’ are complementary to civic hacking, i.e. computer classes or other community tech classes or workshops. If the library doesn’t already offer learning activities relevant to civic hacking, they could easily incorporate that type of community education into their existing programs.

(8)  Leveraging Emerging Technology

Libraries sometimes have limited budgets and limited number of employees whose responsibility and skills are taking advantage of  emerging technology. Tech-savvy people can offer help to fill this gap. Non-tech people can work on aspects of civic hacks that don't require ninja coder skills (see "What Are Some Non-coder Activities In Civic Hacking?"). Volunteer civic hackers may be able to provide much-appreciated assistance which would not otherwise be available to the library.

(9)  Makerspace & DIY Connections

Having libraries involved with civic hacking is totally congruent with the movement to incorporate makerspaces into libraries. The Fond du Lac library is developing a makerspace; many other libraries have or are considering one. Civic hacking can be thought of as DIY government improvement and assistance. Makerspaces are DIY product design and personal manufacturing centers. Learn more about the library--makerspace connection, check out this University of Michigan-inspired website or this guide from the Open Education Database.

(10)  Participant-Driven History

Libraries have long been connected with participant-driven activities, from the Junto to LibraryCamps. Civic hacking is, to a large extent, most successful when it's a participant-driven activity. The basic concept is not that cities or other governments are organizing events and projects which will generate free labor for their needs. Rather than being managed and passively follow top-down directives, civic hackers want to take action on stuff they think needs improving. People participating in these activities feel empowered and responsible for creating change and improvement, just like Benjamin Franklin and his friends did.
  • In 1727, Benjamin Franklin, then 21, created the Junto, a group of "like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community."...Reading was a great pastime of the Junto, but books were rare and expensive. The members created a library, initially assembled from their own books. This did not suffice, however. Franklin conceived the idea of a subscription library, which would pool the funds of the members to buy books for all to read. 
  • LibraryCamp is an unconference for people who want to improve libraries.
  • The first Library Camp was held at the Ann Arbor District Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan in April 2006 as an "unconference" to talk about opportunities and challenges regarding Library 2.0. It was organized by John Blyberg, and went over so well a Library Camp East was held in September 2006 at the Darien Public Library (CT) with about 50 attendees (organized by Alan Gray). Australia had its first library unconference on March 2, 2007, in Melbourne. Library Camp NYC was held on August 14, 2007.
  • There’s even a book for LibraryCamps, “Library Camps and Unconferences,”: click here for a review of the book.

If you want to know more about libraries and civic hacking, ‘check out’ the links sprinkled above throughout the post, ask your favorite librarian for help finding information on the topic, or participate in the probably-upcoming NE Wisconsin civic hackathon for which libraries are a major theme.

If you want to help organize this type of a civic hacking activity, formal or informal, email me at bwaldron [at] gmail (dott) com.


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