Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks


October 5th, 2015 · Uncategorized

Last night I made myself a whiskey sour and curled up to start watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition.

The early activists, as I’d known, as you likely knew, were women. They were the ones who had to bear the costs of alcohol-fueled domestic violence, of children with no other caregivers, of families without economic support (and in a world where both childcare expectations and restrictions on women’s labor force participation reduced their capacity to provide that support). And they needed the costs to stop, but they didn’t have a rhetorical or legal space to advocate for themselves, so they advocated for the children, for God, and against the conduct of men.

They had some early and dramatic successes — how could it be anything short of terrifying to have two hundred women kneeling in prayer and singing hymns outside the door to your saloon? — but ultimately the movement was unsuccessful before the founding of the Anti-Saloon League, where the pictures all flip from women to men, and the solutions are political, using suffrage (a tool women didn’t have) and targeting specific politicians (who are best targeted through conversations women couldn’t have, in places women couldn’t go). After prayer and hatchets failed — after women constrained to situate themselves within or dramatically against a tiny range of acceptable conduct failed — the political machine, and the men eligible to be part of it, succeeded.

Things have changed less than I might have hoped.

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My #IMLSFocus remarks

May 1st, 2015 · Uncategorized

I had the honor of being on an IMLS Focus panel this Thursday in Washington, DC. The theme of the day was needs of a national digital platform, one of the core IMLS funding priorities; my panel (chaired by the inimitable John Palfrey, and also featuring Bethany Nowviskie, Kim Schroeder, and Margo Padilla) was on professional development.

I had an outline about the nuts and bolts of ongoing coding skills training for librarians, based on my experience teaching workshops and what I learned interviewing librarians who code for my latest Library Technology Report. And then I found I couldn’t deliver it because, well, I had to say this instead.

There’s more I was trying to say, but I couldn’t quite find the words. Maybe you can help.

I was going to talk about why ongoing tech training is hard, the nuts and bolts of pedagogy, and what you can do to help. Maybe I still will in Q&A. But right now, 40 miles north of us, Baltimore is burning. Or it isn’t: it is ten thousand people protesting peacefully against many years of secret violence, violence kept secret by habitual gag orders, with national media drawn like moths to the mere handful of flames. The stories I hear on Twitter are not the same as the stories on CNN. And we, as cultural heritage institutions, are about our communities and their stories, and about which stories are told, which are made canon, and how and why.

So I want to talk about how technology training and digital platforms can either support, or threaten, our communities and their ability to tell their stories, and to have their stories reflected in the canonical story that we build when we build a national platform. I want to make it explicit what we are doing in this room, today, is about deciding whose stories get told, by whom, and how. Whose are widely recognized as valid, and whose are samizdat, whose get to reach our corridors of power only through protest and fire.

I was reminded this morning of an article co-authored by Myrna Morales, who was researching the Young Lords Party, which is a political organization in her native Puerto Rico, and she couldn’t find any literature about it, and she had a sinking feeling, she thought maybe she should check the header for gangs, and that was where she found information on this.

And I was reminded of a thing I did at a Harvard LibraryCloud
hackathon earlier, intersectional librarycloud, where I looked at the most popular elements circulated at Harvard, using the StackScore and their API, and I looked at whether they also had subject headers that reflected women’s studies or LGBT studies or African American studies, using code and meta data as a way to surface what people learn matters when they’re doing scholarship and learning at one of the most famous institutions on earth. TL;DR, it didn’t really turn out to matter. They’re not reading about stuff like that when they’re reading the things that they mostly read at Harvard.

So, the way that we structure our meta data, the content we seek, the tools we give people for interrogating the platform, whom we empower to use these tools and add this content and teach about these tools and construct them, how many they are, how diverse they are have these profound effects on which stories that we advance and we say matter as cultural heritage institutions, which in turn, shapes the present and the future.

I’ve said before that libraries are about transforming people through access to information and each other, and that’s true, but today I’m thinking more about what we can do to let more people transform libraries, and how libraries and our content and APIs and platforms can be tools for more people to transform each other. How the metadata that courses through digital platforms is the frame we have to tell, and interpret, stories, and how therefore as metadata creators we must be consciously inclusive. And how, when we train librarians to use and create national digital platforms, we can train them to use those skills in a contextually aware way, to not just understand technology but to interrogate it from a critical perspective. To see how technology interacts with our communities and their stories and where those gaps are, and how they can be part of bridging them. Because here we are, comfortable and safe and supplied with coffee, mostly white, talking about how millions of dollars should be spent, and Baltimore is convulsed by its history, and by the blind eyes so many of us have turned to it.

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about that poster: what I think

April 13th, 2015 · Uncategorized

What’s happening

So the design for this year’s Banned Books Week poster has come out, and a number of people on the interwebs have found it … “problematic” if we’re being delicate, “gross and Islamophobic” if we’re not. There are lots of conversations going on, including among ALA Council and within the Office of Intellectual Freedom (which runs Banned Books Week), as well as a petition for the poster to be removed.

I’ve read the Council discussion and communicated directly with OIF (in my opinion, these conversations are generally moving in the right direction) and had lots of conversations around the internet with lots of people who have lots of different opinions. Here are mine. (Totally as bullet points because my brain hasn’t had time to paragraph yet.)

What should happen next

  • I do not support calls for the poster to be removed from the ALA Store. Banning materials for Banned Books Week is just a bridge too far for me. I’d rather let people buy it or not, as they prefer; stop promoting it; and don’t reorder when the stock runs out.
  • I do want to see the association choose something else to represent my profession to the world. Pick a new design and promote that.
  • Going forward, I want to see the association increase its commitment to involving a diverse array of stakeholders in public communications and major decisions — and take specific, concrete, public steps in this direction. This should have been caught before it was released. Future things should be, too.

As a divisional Board member, although LITA is not involved with Banned Books Week, I still bear some responsibility for enacting this commitment: consulting diverse stakeholders and noticing when decisions might need additional perspectives. I will be working harder to remember this. In fact, I’ve just set a recurring task in my todo system to remind myself. You should tell me if I’m doing a bad job of it.

Why I think this (diversity arguments)

It is extremely important to point out that:

  • veiling practices vary significantly throughout the Muslim world (and there are also non-Muslim cultures with veiling or head-covering practices);
  • women’s decisions about whether, and how, to veil exist at every point along the spectrum from coercion to choice — in particular, lots of women who wouldn’t face blowback for uncovering their heads or faces prefer to cover them;
  • there are all sorts of lively arguments among Muslim women, including Muslim feminist women, about veiling;
  • the West has a habit of assuming that any woman in a veil is ipso facto oppressed and that unveiling her is an important step in her liberation, and this assumption is totally patronizing, threatening, and incorrect.

I knew this before seeing the poster, so it’s been really important to me to seek out perspectives from people who are Muslim, brown, and/or from the Middle East; I don’t want to assume they find it offensive, because that would just be projecting my own (white, western, non-religious) experience. And what I’ve found is that nearly all of the people I’ve talked to who do, in some way, see themselves in this poster have found it deeply troubling. (The notable exception to this is the designer herself; I haven’t spoken with her, but I am reliably informed that she is a Muslim woman who did not interpret the poster negatively.)

In light of all this, my feelings are:

  • Many (not all!) Muslim and/or brown women are very unhappy with this poster.
  • I’ve heard several librarians who serve Muslim populations say that they cannot use this poster in their libraries.
  • My impression of the poster is that it tends to reinforce the destructive trope that veiled women are oppressed; the visual equation of “re(ad)striction” with a key elements of a niqab reads to me like these are both forms of oppression. I think a lot of likely viewers of the poster will bring to it the assumption that Muslim women are oppressed, and they will have that assumption reinforced by the poster.
  • The people I’ve talked with who don’t approach it with that assumption have varying impressions, but mostly (not all!) they’re reading it as an equation of Islam with oppression, too.
  • Plus which it reads to me as brown bodies being used as a site of white gaze to serve the viewer’s – not the woman’s – values in a way I’m having trouble articulating but that totally squicks me out.
  • So do I think that the woman in the poster must be oppressed by her implied religion? Nope, definitely not! (As opposed to the limitation on her reading choices, which is clearly repressive.) But I think the poster spreads and reinforces the message that Islam is repressive and that Muslim women in particular are oppressed, particularly if they cover their heads in some way, and I think that’s a gross message and I don’t want my professional association spreading or reinforcing it.

Why I think this (free speech arguments)

  • I totally, 100% endorse the right of private parties to make whatever sort of art they want, including posters like this, and sell them. I similarly 100% endorse everyone’s right to buy or not buy them, and to support or condemn them. (Insofar as people are condemning this poster, that’s not an attack on free speech: it is, in fact, an exercise of it.)
  • This is not a poster created by a private party. This is created by an association that represents me, as a dues-paying member. It represents people whom I also represent: LITA members. And it de facto represents the profession at large — including nonmembers, whether they like it or not — in the public eye. The association has a responsibility to consider its actions in light of its representational role. (Again, I’m pleased to see Council and OIF having these discussions.)
  • People have drawn analogies between challenging the poster and challenging books. I think these analogies don’t hold:
    • Challenged books are parts of collections. Librarians can quite reasonably say “if this book is not to your liking, check out another”; they can (and generally should) put together collections which encompass a wide range of viewpoints, some of which may offend some patrons. There is not a collection of motifs for Banned Books Week 2015 swag; there’s one motif. You can buy it or not buy it, but you can’t buy something else.
    • Challenged books can be discussed in light of collection development policies, and their inclusion in the collection defended (or not) on those grounds; there is, to my knowledge, no similar policy here.
    • The Banned Books Week swag is much more analogous to a One City/One Book selection. People might, quite defensibly, select a controversial book for that sort of event — but they ought to do so on purpose, having talked with people who have stakes in that controversy, fully prepared to have and to contextualize the ensuing conversation.
  • Some people have said that we’re having all these conversations about the meaty issues of intellectual freedom, so the poster has done its job and we should support it. Which is great, aside from the uncomfortable ends-justify-the-means-iness, and the fact that OIF did not actually intend for this poster to be controversial. Its job wasn’t to get us talking by sparking controversy. They got blindsided by this. If ALA wants to deliberately stir up controversy — and I’m not saying that’d be bad, necessarily — they should know they’re doing it. They should have enough diversity baked into the process to be purposeful about it.

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The future of libraries (and how to stop it)

March 11th, 2015 · Uncategorized

I’m on a panel tomorrow about the future of libraries. This is atypical for me because, as I have said many a time, I am Not A Futurist. I’m a technologist, yes, but my interest in technology has always been primarily in its impact on society, which means all the predictive questions that interest me are second-order — not merely “what will the technology be” (a hard enough question!) but who will we be when it has become technologically boring enough to be social interesting. But hey, Griffey and Dan needed a panelist on short notice, and they’re pretty good at suckering me into doing them favors, and it sounded fun, so what the heck.

And then Erin Leach and Courtney Young opened a really good conversation about the panel on Twitter and it’s making me all thinky. So here you go: two possible futures of libraries.

Future one: I am afraid that the future of libraries looks like this panel: the one where we don’t make the time to cast a net widely, to discipline ourselves to consider the wide range of perspectives that might be relevant, to do the outreach. 1 The one where we answer our top-of-mind problems with top-of-mind people – people who may, mind you, be perfectly good, may even be extraordinary, but who don’t represent the full range of excellence in the profession. I am afraid that the range of answers we find to our problems will be too narrow, and that the range of things treated as problems worth solving, by people and institutions with large-scale resources, will be too small as well. I am afraid that people with power and platforms won’t decenter themselves – not just let more people visit the space but let the space itself be changed by its constant inclusion of more people. I am afraid that public conversations only count as “public” when privileged people are having them, no matter how long and loud and intellectual and pragmatic and, yes, public these conversations have been among other discourse communities. What rich and extant conversations about library futures will we not be having tomorrow?

And I’m even more afraid because — as a white technologist, I know I’m unlikely to bring novel ideas to a future-of-libraries table, and as an Ada Initiative advisor I think a lot about diversity and inclusion and intersectionality and decentering — and I didn’t even think to ask, who else is on the panel. Because there was a short timeline, and I’ve got a million other things taking up headspace, and it’s easy for Griffey or Dan to sucker me into doing them a favor. And if I didn’t ask…how many will?

Future two: I hope that the future is otherwise.

Dear readers, I teach code because I don’t know the future, but I am certain it will be better if more people, and more kinds of people, have more tools for building it, and because I am so excited to see what you make. So you tell me: what pockets of unevenly-distibuted future am I missing? What rich conversations would I already been paying lots of attention to I were better at disciplining myself to listen for what’s best, not only what’s closest?

You know, Dan, I’m pretty sure our last email exchange ended with you owing me a favor. So how about it? Let’s do another future of libraries panel, and take the time to think this one through. To put people on it we’ve never seen on a library futurism panel – people who are having rich and extant conversations somewhere you and I might not have even been paying attention to. People who represent library roles and demographics we maybe haven’t seen in our last two or three or ten library futurism sessions. To hand them the mic and get out of the way.

How about it?


  1. And for the purpose of this paragraph, “we” means people with power or influence or resources, big levers for affecting what questions and priorities get large-scale support in the profession. There are many other “we”s, many of whom are already having fantastic conversations and doing wonderful work on a wide range of questions. Pronouns are hard.

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#c4l15 keynote transcript

February 16th, 2015 · Uncategorized

Following up on my last post, I made a transcript of my keynote at code4lib; here you go! In case you missed it:

  • video (I start around 7 minutes in);
  • my last post, which has links for various sites and ideas I mention throughout the talk.

There are numerous small audio glitches which I’ve filled in with my best guesses of what I was saying, where possible.

Title slide: "Architect for Wanderlust: the web and open things"

Architect for wanderlust: the web and open things

Lasells student center, Oregon State University; slide text: "nine years"

Nine years. Nine years ago we were in a much smaller building. Who was there? [pause for raised hands] Who wasn’t? [pause for many more raised hands] Who saw this coming? I knew there’d be one wiseass in the crowd. Hey, Mark. Nine years ago, except maybe for a token wiseass, no one knew we’d still be here for a tenth conference all this time later. That we’d have an IRC channel, a mailing list with three-thousand-some people, a journal — all these things we do. No one knew that it would evolve to be all this, but you built an open thing. You built a thing where lots of people can get write access and can build it all together.

Screenshot of; slide text: "twenty-four years"

Twenty-four years ago, someone else built another open thing. This may not be the first web page, but it is the oldest known one, and you can still see it today at The top post in my blog right now has all the links I’m going to be referencing during this talk, and I tweeted that out so you can find all this stuff for your clicky clicky pleasure. And this is the oldest web page we’ve got.

And why did Tim Berners-Lee make this? Well, physicists needed to share data. They had a bunch of different research stuff, but they didn’t have shared servers, they didn’t have shared presentation software, so they needed a thing. And he made this thing, and it seems to have gone well. So…why did it work?

Fortune cookie which says "meh"; slide text: "a determined agnosticism"

Well. One big reason it worked was a determined agnosticism about formats. He didn’t care what format your data was in, what software you’d used to create it. The internet at the time had a collection of protocols. I remember gopher — I sort of have a soft spot for gopher. But it had a whole bunch of different protocols and formats and he built his protocol so you didn’t have to care. So that it was a generalized idea of information connection that could hold all the things, without being prescriptive as to their content or nature. And in fact he considered — I was reading the wikipedia page on the history of the world wide web, which is a great way to lose, like, three hours — he considered what should he name this thing, and went through ideas like “The Information Mine”. Go ahead and think about if he had named that “The Information Mine”, and we still had to call that today. “The Mine of Information”. But he settled on “the World Wide Web”, and what that says to me is that the important thing about what he was building out of all the experiments and hypertext he’d been doing in the past, the important thing wasn’t the information, it was the interconnection. The important thing wasn’t the information you put in it; it was the way it enabled people to connect to information and each other. So he didn’t tell them what to do with this architecture he’d created. But —

Ikea instructions: puzzled Ikea man makes phone call for help; slide text: "the tools of hospitality"

— he told them how to do it. If you read his original proposal to CERN for the money to support this thing, building the prototype and so forth, it says in there one of the conditions of the work is that he wants “to provide the software for the above free of charge to anyone”. If he hadn’t said that, we wouldn’t be here today. We would literally not be here today. But he wrote into this proposal — he used the tools of bureaumancy — to make sure this was a thing that anyone — who admittedly met a pretty high barrier for technical connectivity and knowledge — could use. And he wrote a ton of documentation. He told you exactly what you needed to do to download this and set up your own web server. And documentation is a brand of hospitality. And that made it possible for this thing he’d built to spread, and become a thing that everyone, and no one, owned, and everyone could build together, and as a result of that we today, twenty-four years later, have –

http status cat (408: request timeout; kitten facedown in food bowl)


Sign with "Facebook" and Arabic text

the Arab spring

Screenshot of Oregon Trail, saying "edsu has dysentery"

our childhoods [delayed-reaction laughter as the audience reads the slide]

Screenshot of Radiotopia campaign summary from Kickstarter

art and culture

Montage of code4libbers

and each other.

A stuffed duck with a houndstooth hat; slide text: "what evolves isn't what we predict"

Let me tell you a bit about my origin story, and how the things that evolve don’t necessarily have anything to do with what we predict. This, also, is twenty-four years ago. I was at nerd camp, and a bunch of friends wanted to put on a scene for the talent show. They wanted to put on the scene from Monty Python where one is debating whether someone is a witch, and it becomes important to compare her to — a duck. And my then-boyfriend, now-husband, speaking of things you can’t predict twenty-four years ago, went to the mall and found this remarkably charismatic little duck. Which cost an outrageous amount, but it’s got this really cute houndstooth hat, and he bought it to be a prop in the talent show. And this talent show skit never happened. Because they weren’t just performing the scene from Monty Python; they were also performing the logician’s analysis of the scene which shows up in a BBC radio play, and which is so profane that no one is ever letting a bunch of fourteen-year-old boys do it on a stage. So the talent show act never happened, but we still had this duck. And I will get back to it.

Screencap of Google Maps with numerous placemarkers; slide text: "where we come from"

But first, I want to say some stories about the rest of you. This is where we come from. This is where the organizing committees for this code4lib come from. And it’s kind of a lot of places. And this is just the committees — this isn’t counting all the people I’ve met here. If I counted them there’d be a whole lot more Canada on that map; there’d be a bunch more states; I’d have to zoom this out to include Japan and New Zealand. We come from all over.

But we come from all over metaphorically, too, and that’s one of my favorite things about librarianship, is we are people of wanderlust who found a home, here. You talk to people and you ask, “what did you major in in college?”, and you hear English, and history, and math, and religion, and philosophy, and musical theater. You ask people what they did before librarianship, because just about everyone had a “before librarianship”, and there’s teachers and publishers and marketers and designers and computer scientists and there’s all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds and perspectives and toolkits that we bring to librarianship, and that we can use to inform our work. The wanderlust that brought us here is a thing that lets us all enrich one another with our different perspectives.

People climbing through a giant book sculpture; slide text (in quotes): "a disciplined empathy"

And that is important for everyone’s stories. This quote, “a disciplined empathy”, is from Sumana Harihareswara’s keynote last year, which I loved, which you should read or watch if you were not here. And one of the things that she said is that user experience needs to be a first-class responsibility. And how do you get there, in software, is you have that empathy that comes from being able to see things from a variety of perpectives, and also the discipline to make yourself actually do it. To observe people, to do the user studies, to talk to people, to do the ethnography or the reading or what-have-you. Everyone has so many stories, and part of what we do with library technology is try to find ways for them to interact with their own and others’ stories, for them to make their stories legible and to find stories that are legible to them.

happy teenage girls hugging; slide text: "architect for wanderlust"

So let’s get back to mine. This is my friend Allegra, the one transformed by joy, and my friend Sam. Allegra just graduated from the University of Chicago last year, Sam is a senior at MIT, and that piece of paper that Allegra is holding, I wrote in 1991, twenty-four years ago. And it had the Legend of the Duck, in the most bombastic way that teenagers can find to write a thing. I had the best handwriting, so that’s why it was me. And I told the story that I told you earlier, except with fancier language. But at the end I said that every year the Holder of the Duck would pass it on to a new Holder of the Duck, from now into forever. And I wrote a bunch of lines for people to sign their names. Not because I thought that would ever work — just because that’s how much paper I had. So Grant signed the first one, and he gave it to Meggin, and Meggin gave it to me, and I gave it to Frank, and so on and so forth, and Max gave it to Allegra, and Allegra gave it to Sam, and it came to be the most important thing at this nerd camp even today. And there’s a Wednesday in August when a hundred and fifty incredibly excited teenagers will gather in a room to see who gets this next. Because being the Holder of the Duck is the most important thing they can imagine. We had no idea it would do this, but we built an open thing that people could be part of, that people could inscribe their names upon, and make into their story, and facilitate their wanderlust.

Icelandic pony; slide text: "the dark places"

Of course open things don’t always go so well. This Icelandic pony is not by Kathy Sierra, who takes these unbelievably ethereal photos of her ponies, and it’s not one of hers because even though they’re the best ones out there I’ve ever seen, she doesn’t have clear license terms on them, and I didn’t want to be just another random person from the internet in her inbox, because she’s had way too many of those. If you’re not familiar with Kathy Sierra’s story, she basically got chased off the internet years ago by someone who’s widely held to be a nerd hero in some circles. She was threatened and her children were threatened and it became altogether not worthwhile. She came back recently, pretty much got chased off again. This is not Kathy Sierra’s work. This is not Randi Harper’s work, or Zoe Quinn’s, or Brianna Wu’s, or Anita Sarkeesian’s. There are many people who are severely threatened by open and ungardened things. Because the things that grow in open places can be vicious indeed.

Person taking selfie in a mirror made of fragments

And even for the people who don’t face that kind of peril, there’s a million quieter ways that open things — the openness of neglect — can be threatening or scary or overwhelming. If you have ever tried to teach yourself to code or take on the mantle of technologist, and you’re not a nineteen-year-old white man in a hoodie, you may have looked into technology and had a lot of trouble seeing yourself there. And that’s one of the things that comes up over and over when I teach people to code. It’s not just about, how do variables work or functions, although that’s challenging, but the more challenging questions are the questions of identity. When people look in the mirror, do they see someone who looks like themselves? When people look in the mirror and try to figure out how to piece together the disparate fragments of their identity and one of them is ‘technologist’, can they fit it together into a coherent whole with all the other things that they also are, and aren’t going to give up? The openness of neglect is a way of not noticing the barriers that don’t affect you personally, but that’s not the same as the barriers not being there.

Screenshot of Github commit history; slide text (not in quotes): "a disciplined empathy"

That’s why this mattered to me so much. This is the commit history, part of it, from the CodeOfConduct4Lib. This is how you operationalize a disciplined empathy. I angsted for like a year about joining code4lib. I spent a solid year wondering if I was, like, cool enough, or smart enough, or technologically skilled enough to be part of code4lib. And I finally got over myself, and I joined the mailing list, and I started hanging out in the IRC channel, and it was fun, actually, and I liked the people I met, and I was having a good time. But I didn’t realize that I had been spending that entire time waiting for the other shoe to drop until Bess Sadler displayed the remarkable political courage to ask us to do this thing. And in the ensuing discussion — which, of course, had a variety of perspectives, which you would expect — but the thing that stood out to me is so many people in this community who have political capital, who have influence, who matter, were willing to put that status and capital on the line to be part of this thing, to draft it and to sign their names to it. And that was when I knew that it’s not just some weird freaky coincidence that nobody has yet been, like, a horrible misogynist to me. That that’s actually who you are. You’re nice to me because you’re nice. And I, I didn’t know that until people took this explicit step.

And it’s not just me, of course, right? There’s a lot of first-timers in this room, and I was a first-timer in this room two years ago, and now I’m on this stage, and none of us knew that would happen. And there are first-timers in this room who a year or two from now will be on this stage, or who will be writing the software that is the new hotness that all of you want to use, and you don’t know who they are. Hospitality matters.

People climbing through a giant book sculpture, same pic as earlier slide; slide text (in quotes): "architect for whose wanderlust?"

It also matters because we don’t always do it as well as we did right here. This picture that I included on an earlier slide, I wanted something that was a story sculpture. I wanted something that showed people interacting in a really tangible way with a book that was larger than life. And this is what I found, and that was great, and I didn’t realize until much later that everyone in this picture is white. Everyone in this picture is young. Probably everyone in this picture is able-bodied. And I looked at the exif data that Flickr so graciously exposes and realized this is the Grounds for Sculpture in Trenton, New Jersey, which I know because my in-laws live just up the road and they always keep saying we should go there and we never get around to it. But because of that I know that everyone here had at least $10 and the free time to spend on this afternoon. Probably everyone here speaks English, probably natively. There’s a good chance they’re all really highly educated. My in-laws live up the road in Princeton. There’s a lot of really highly educated people who live in this area. Part of architecting for wanderlust is thinking about whose wanderlust you are architecting for. Whose stories are actually tellable in the systems that you create? Whose stories are recognized? Whose stories are writeable in the systems we write? It’s not just about not consciously erecting barriers. It’s about going out of your way to notice what barriers might have been erected and doing something to take them away.

Kid and grownup in front of shelves containing bins; slide text, "what is a library?"

Switch gears for a bit and ask, what is a library? This is a library. They don’t know it. My hometown, Somerville, has Artisan’s Asylum, which is one of the best-known makerspaces in the country, and that’s great, and honestly I pretty much never go there. I go here. This is Parts and Crafts. It is the kiddie, unschooling version of a makerspace about a mile down the street. That’s my kid. And pretty much every Saturday they have an open shop, and people come in and you can just kind of do whatever you want in a really self-directed way. There’s not really rules; the grownups don’t tell you what to do. But every so often, one of the Parts and Crafts staff will kind of wander over and say something like, “[dramatic voice] You know what? That thing you’re doing, you could do it better with a hot glue gun. Do you know how hot glue guns work? Do you want to?” And then they go find the hot glue gun, and suddenly it’s part of your eight-year-old’s repertoire, and next time she shows up she just goes over to the hot glue gun and starts gluing stuff to other stuff.

closeup of bins on shelves; slide text: "what is a library?"

They’ve got a lot of stuff besides hot glue guns as well. Here’s a close-up of one of the shelves, which have this wonderful mishmash of this, and yarn, and tongue depressors, and motors, and this-that-and-the-other. All kinds of stuff. And what makes this a library to me is that it is about self-directed exploration. It’s about transforming yourself through access to information in ways that matter to you. And it’s supported by this remarkable collection, and a staff who don’t tell you what to do with it, but who are intensely knowledgeable in what they have, and able to recognize when their collection is relevant to your interests. So to me, this is a library, and it’s one of the best libraries I know.

Screencap of 'no results found' page in library catalog; slide text: "this is not library software"

What is library software? This is not library software. [applause] This is a screenshot from my local public library’s OPAC, and this is what happens when you do a keyword search that returns no hits. It dumps you on this gigantic page of search delimiters that probably not even a librarian could love, and let me tell you, if I didn’t get any original hits from my search, limiting it to large print Albanian will not help. [laughter] And this page outright angers me, because there are so many options it could have that would allow you to continue wandering. This could have an Ask-a-Librarian feature. This could have something that told me that ILL existed, which I didn’t know until library school, and as you recall I already had another master’s degree. This could be something that did a WorldCat search of other libraries for this thing. This could be any number of things that let me take another step that had a chance of success, but instead, it gives me a baffling array of ways to get large print Albanian hits for a book that doesn’t exist.

Other things that are not library software include API keys you can’t get, documentation and examples behind paywalls, twelve-billion-step ebook checkout processes. These are not library software. These do not facilitate wanderlust. These do not let people transform themselves through access to information and one another.

Screencap of, same pic as earlier; slide text: "this is library software"

This is library software. This lets you — not just wander among hyperlinks — but write your own things. Write your own things in text, write your own things in code. This lets you build and generate.

Screencap of; slide text: "this is library software"

This is library software. Partly maintained by Misty De Meo, who’s sitting right there. [applause] For those of you who are not familiar with Homebrew, it’s a package manager, and if you’ve ever tried to install things by, like, going to the web site, and trying to find the thing, and then realizing you don’t have the dependency, and finding another thing, and then, like, your whole house is full of yak hair, this does that for you. You type ‘brew install the thing’, and it goes and finds the thing, and all the things that the thing needs, and it just does it for you. And this is library software because it lets use make the things and learn the things we wanted to make and learn with fewer impediments, and totally nonjudgmentally.

Screencap of intersectional librarycloud; slide text: "this is library software"

This is library software. This is something I wrote during a Harvard Libraries hackathon a little while back, intersectional librarycloud. The Harvard Libraries has an API that returns the kind of collection data you would expect, but it also returns this thing Stackscore, which is a weighted 0-100 average of various popularity measures. So what intersectional librarycloud does — it’s one of the things you can link to, you can try it out — it lets you search for subject terms, and it brings back the most popular things in the Harvard collection that match that subject term. And it also examines their subject metadata to see if they have any terms consistent with women’s studies, or African-American studies, or LGBT studies. And I wrote this because I wanted to see, when students and scholars are forming their mental models, their understanding of how the world works, at one of the most eminent universities on earth, are these perspectives included by default? Because the consequences of them not being there is you get out into the world and you have to have all these stupid arguments about misogyny or what-have-you because people think it’s not a thing because hey, they didn’t study it in school, right? It’s not a part of the mental model they built when learning about history. This is a search for ‘history’, and as you note, looking at those grey and grey and grey blocks in the columns, when Harvard thinks ‘history’ it doesn’t think women’s history, or African-American history, or LGBT history.

And I also wanted to see, you know, if I search for something that really is, like, ‘women’s studies’, do I get hits in any of these other columns, too? Are the perspectives we see intersectional or is it all just kind of separated? Is it like, oh, well, if you’re studying women, you’re clearly not studying gay people, or whatever. That’s bunk. Unfortunately, that’s how it works, as far as the Harvard library usage data are concerned. Chris Bourg talked about this in a great keynote she gave at the Ontario Library Assocation just a couple weeks ago, mentioning — She was talking about how our cataloging systems can reinscribe prejudices and hide things from us. And she mentioned the book ‘Conduct Unbecoming’, which is really the foremost history of gays in the military. And, if you were looking for it at her library, you would find it shelved between gay porn. Not that any of us have a problem with gay porn, but you don’t find it shelved in the military history section. So if you were looking, if you were browsing the shelves, if you’re looking at a subject search, right there, for the history of the military, the history of gay people in the military is not a thing. So I wanted to interrogate whose wanderlust we’re supporting.

Screencap of NYPL menus project; slide text: "this is library software"

This is library software. The New York Public Library does these amazing things with the vast pile of cultural heritage data they’re sitting on top of, and their remarkable software resources. And they use that place as a cultural institution to create software that connects people to the world around them and to their own cultural heritage in a way that is creative and inspiring and moving. And so this, for instance, there’s so many things you could look at. They just got a Knight grant to do this Space/Time thing, which is basically like Google Maps mashed up with a historical slider, so you can look at stuff at different points in history [] address change, and you can look up addresses that no longer exist, and it’s not really built yet, but they got money to do it, so it’ll be awesome. But this is their menus page, which you can look at right now. Adn they digitized a whole bunch of menus from different times in the city’s history, and so you can see what were people eating, what sort of things did people aspire to eat, what counted as high-class or low-class in people’s brains at the time during all of these different decades. This is the 1920s and it’s mostly things you wouldn’t see in restaurants today. But it’s fun! It’s neat. And it also — one of the great things that they do is they have APIs. So Chad Nelson, who may be somewhere in this room unless he had an early flight, he wrote this adorable little Twitter bot called @_badtaste_ that mashes up dishes from this with truly distressing words to create…vomitous menus, actually. It’s pretty funny. Don’t browse it right before lunchtime. But it’s funny. And so the fact that they had an API makes it even more library software, right, because it made it possible for Chad to have fun with this, and to build his own thing that let him explore this cultural heritage data in his own way, and connect to it in his own way.

Montage of congressedits-style bot screencaps; slide text: "this is library software"

This is library software. Probably a lot of you have seen Ed Summers’ @congressedits bot. It checks out anonymous wikipedia entries that are edited from Congress and posts them to Twitter, and has gotten actually kind of a lot of media coverage. But the thing about that that really took it to the next level was he put the code on github and he documented it, and that made it possible for people to fork it and made their own bots that checked up on South Africa, or Israel, or Switzerland, or whatever parliament or what-have-you they wanted to look at, so this became a worldwide phenomenon. And this is library software not just because it’s creative and playful that way, but because it’s something that lets us be more engaged with the world around us, more connected civically. It’s code that lets us find and tell stories that matter to people. And it’s a platform. It lets people tell more and more.

Computer font with "@praise zoia" and zoia's response "itself is an original maverick"; slide text: "this is library software"

This is library software. This is something we created all together. It’s got little bits of many, many, many of us, and it’s changing every day, and it’s our little thing. Zoia was kind of transformative for me, also, in becoming part of code4lib, because the first time I wrote a plugin for zoia, which was a thing that totally intimidated the heck out of me — but then I did! And people helped me deploy it, and then I saw people using it. And within, like, thirty seconds, I saw people mashing it up with the outputs of other zoia plugins, and making it their own thing. And then I wrote documentation of how I did it, and subsequently I saw people use that documentation and make even more of their own things. Again, documentation is a form of hospitality. It’s a way that we bring more people into the community and let them write code that matters to them in their own ways. So this is library software.

Google maps screencap showing Corvallis to Portland route; slide text: "year ten"

Year ten. We’ve come an hour and a half up the road, and nine years. We’ve spent the last nine years inventing code4lib. I totally had a fencepost error in the first version of this talk, by the way, but this is the tenth conference, ten minus nine is one — anyway. We’ve spent the last nine years inventing code4lib. And I want to think about what we spend the next nine years inventing, and how we spend the next nine years inventing code that is deeply informed by library values. That is library code.

Computer font with "@praise zoia" and zoia's response "itself is an original maverick", same as earlier slide; slide text: "build library software"

I want us to spend the next nine years inventing, building, library software. Building systems that question our own assumptions. That intentionally remove barriers and make space for all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, to tell their own stories, to build their own technology, to use in their own ways, that transform themselves in ways that matter to them. I want us to decenter ourselves so the systems we build aren’t things we own but things we give, and can then evolve in ways that we can’t predict. I want us to build library software. Architect for wanderlust.

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#c4l15 talk extras

February 12th, 2015 · Uncategorized

These are links, background reading, and photo credits for my code4lib 2015 closing keynote “Architect for wanderlust: the web and open things”. Also, slides [PDF].

ETA: Here’s the talk video.

Links and ideas!!!

I mention a bunch of links in the talk and here they are so you can click on them. There’s also a bunch of ideas I mention, or allude to, or had in the back of my head, or wanted to put in this talk but couldn’t. Here you go. They fit into the talk in roughly this order.

This talk is under a CC BY-NC-SA license, except for third-party copyrighted content used here by permission.

Photo credits!!!

LaSells Stewart Center at OSU
Public domain
M.O. Stevens

meh cookie
Rick Harris / rickharris

sean hobson / seanhobson

408 status cat
Tomomi / girliemac

Arab spring
CC BY-SA 3.0
Essam Sharaf

code4lib montage
all rights reserved, used by permission
Ray Schwartz / schwartzray
all rights reserved, used by permission
Ray Schwartz / schwartzray
all rights reserved, used by permission
Declan Fleming / bigdpix
all rights reserved, used by permission
Declan Fleming / bigdpix
CC BY-NC-SA, by permission
Ranti Junus / ranti
CC BY-NC-ND, by permission
Cynthia Ng / ladyartemis

the Duck
all rights reserved, used by permission
Max Wang

story sculpture
schizoform / schizoform

passing of the duck
all rights reserved, used by permission
beelockwood / beelockwood

icelandic pony
Thomas Quine / quinet

selfie in a fractured mirror
David Goehring / CarbonNYC

Parts and Crafts
all rights reserved, used by permission
partsandcrafts / partsandcrafts

Parts & Crafts shelves
publiclaboratory / publiclaboratory

Thanks for listening.

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LibraryCloud hackathon report: or, code as intersectional feminist critique

December 5th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Monday I was at a hackathon for the Harvard LibraryCloud API. So this was great, not only because it’s good for us work-from-home types to leave the house and talk to humans instead of just our cats, but also because I got there and there were a whole lot of other women in the room! This hackathon shared at least one organizer with the prior one where I was the only woman at the table, so I really appreciate that he took my vehement criticism in the best possible way and conducted obvious outreach.

Then he asked who was there for the tutorial, not the hackathon, and literally every other woman in the room raised her hand. *sigh* 1

What recourse does one have, really, but code as feminist critique? Hence: Intersectional LibraryCloud.

What you’re seeing on that web page are the most commonly used Harvard Library resources that match a given subject search. (The page is randomly seeded when you load with a popular topic, but do try your own!) The results are sorted by stackscore and highlighted with whether their subjects include terms commonly associated with women’s studies; African-American studies; or LGBT studies. (Thank you to Harvard librarian Vernica Downey for the cataloging help.)

With this page, I want to examine the question: when Harvard students and faculty develop their understandings of various topics, are those understandings informed by intersectional perspectives? (Answers are left as an exercise for the reader.)

This was the work of a day (…plus way too long shaving yaks to get it onto Heroku), so there are some issues with the code I’d love to see fixed. For one thing, I don’t handle substrings, so some subjects that should definitely be coded as matches, aren’t. For another, in my initial plan I wanted to look at disability studies too, but my first-pass layout doesn’t accommodate it and I don’t have a suitable set of subjects. This is an exercise for the reader too, though! Because I’ve got code, and you can hack on it: woo yeah intersectional librarycloud repo.

This is the sort of code that invites human-language commentary as well; would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Subsequently a few more women showed up, so I ended up being one of 2 or 3. Yay? Also not exactly escaping my attention that all but about two people in the room were white, so if I were a woman of color looking to not feel isolated, game over.

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ebooks choices and the missing soul of librarianship

October 8th, 2014 · Uncategorized

We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
American Library Association Code of Ethics

Yesterday I watched as Adobe Digital Editions told Adobe what book I was reading — title, author, publisher, year of publication, subject, description — and every page I’d read, and the time at which I read them. Adobe’s EULA states that it also collects my user ID and my general location.

I was able to watch this information be collected because it was all sent unencrypted, readable to any English-speaking human with access to any of the servers it passes through, in whatsoever jurisdiction, and also (if your wifi is unencrypted) the open air between my laptop and my router.

The Council of the American Library Association strongly recommends that… [circulation and other personally identifying] records shall not be made available to any agency of state, federal, or local government except pursuant to such process, order or subpoena as may be authorized under the authority of, and pursuant to, federal, state, or local law relating to civil, criminal, or administrative discovery procedures or legislative investigative power [and that librarians] resist the issuance of enforcement of any such process, order, or subpoena until such time as a proper showing of good cause has been made in a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Policy on confidentiality of library records

Your patrons’ reading information is already part of a warrantless dragnet. Because it has been transmitted in cleartext, the government needs no further assistance from you, your patrons, or your vendors to read it. Even were they to present you with a valid subpoena, you would be powerless to resist it, because you have, in effect, already written the information on your walls; you have no technical ability to protect it.

The American Library Association urges all libraries to…

  • Limit the degree to which personally identifiable information is collected, monitored, disclosed, and distributed; and avoid creating unnecessary records; and
  • Limit access to personally identifiable information to staff performing authorized functions; and…
  • Ensure that the library work with its organization’s information technology unit to ensure that library usage records processed or held by the IT unit are treated in accordance with library records policies; and
  • Ensure that those records that must be retained are secure; and
  • Avoid library practices and procedures that place personally identifiable information on public view.”

Resolution on the Retention of Library Usage Records

If Adobe Digital Editions is part of your technical stack — if your library offers Overdrive or 3M Cloud Library or EBL or ebrary or Baker & Taylor Axis 360 or EBSCO or MyiLibrary or quite possibly other vendors I haven’t googled yet — you are not doing this. You cannot do this.

…ebook models make us choose. And I don’t mean choosing which catalog, or interface, or set of contract terms we want — though we do make those choices, and they matter. I mean that we choose which values to advance, and which to sacrifice. We’re making those values choices every time we sign a contract, whether we talk about it or not.
me, Library Journal, 2012

In 2012 I wrote and spoke about how the technical affordances, and legal restrictions, of ebooks make us choose among fundamental library values in a way that paper books have not. About how we were making those choices about values whether we made them explicitly or not. About how we default to choosing access over privacy.

We have chosen access over privacy, and privacy is not an option left for us to choose.

Because: don’t underestimate this. This is not merely a question of a technical slip-up in one version of an Adobe product.

This is about the fact that we do not have the technical skills to verify whether our products are in line with the values we espouse, the policies we hold, or even the contracts we sign, and we do not delegate this verification to others who do. Our failure to verify affects all the software we run.

This is about the fact that best practice in software is generally to log promiscuously; you’re trained, as a developer, to keep all the information, just in case it comes in handy. It takes a conscious choice (or a slipshod incompetence) not to do so. Libraries must demand that our vendors make that choice, or else we are in the awkward position of trusting to their incompetence. This affects all the software we run.

This is about the fact that encryption products are often hard to use, the fact that secure https is not yet the default everywhere, the fact that anyone can easily see traffic on the unencrypted wireless networks found at so many libraries, the fact that anyone with the password (which, if you’re a library, is everyone) can see all the traffic on encrypted networks too. This affects all the software we run.

This is about Adobe. It is not just about Adobe. These are questions we should ask of everything. These are audits we should be performing on everything. This affects all the software we run.

I am usually a middle-ground person. I see multiple sides to every argument, I entertain arguments that have shades of the abhorrent to find their shades of truth. This is not an issue where I can do that.

If you have chosen, whether actively or by default, to trust that the technical affordances of your software match both your contracts and your values, you have chosen to let privacy burn. If you’re content with that choice, have the decency to stand up and say it: to say that playing nice with your vendors matters more to you than this part or professional ethics, that protecting patron privacy is not on your list of priorities.

If you’re not content with that choice, it is time to set something else on fire.

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how the next meeting went

October 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

In June, I said that I wouldn’t be voting to approve the LITA budget, due to a variety of unaddressed concerns. At Annual, Cindi Blyberg ran an awesome meeting where we put off the vote, to give our Financial Advisory Committee time to update things before the fiscal year close. And then I forgot to update the blog about the subsequent meeting!

Well, the FAC did outstanding work, pulling together a budget that I solidly believe in, on very little notice. (I owe you all beers. A lot of beers. Zoe Stewart-Marshall, Andrew Pace, Susan Sharpless Smith: please be thinking what kind of beverages you like.) We approved it in August with very little fuss. I was pleased to vote for it.

You can have a look yourself if you like: FY2015 budget [.xlsx].

You’ll notice the bottom line here is a deficit. I’m bummed about that, because I’m concerned about LITA’s health, but mostly I’m happy about it, because it’s honest. I think the lines above it are credible estimates of what we’ll end up doing in FY ’15, and I would a million times rather be honest about the challenges of that, so we can plan for them, than sweep them under the rug.

And now the FAC is off and running on the FY ’16 budget, with a timeline that should allow for much more deliberation at leisure than FY ’15 allowed. (Note to self: you owe them even more beers.) And Board is pondering how to fill the holes. Your ideas, as always, are welcome.

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what I’m looking for in Emerging Leader candidates

September 26th, 2014 · Uncategorized

One of my happier duties as a LITA Board member is reviewing Emerging Leader applications to decide whom the division should sponsor. I just finished this year’s round of review this morning, and now that my choices are safely submitted (but fresh on my mind) I can share what I’m looking for, in hopes that it’s useful to future Emerging Leader candidates as you develop your applications.

But first, a caveat: last year and this, I would have been happy with LITA sponsoring at least half of the candidates I saw, if only we could. Really the only unpleasant part of reviewing applications is that we can’t sponsor everyone we’d like to; I see so many extraordinarily talented, driven people in the application pile, and it’s actually painful not to be able to put all of them at the top of my list.

Okay! That said…

Things I want to see

  • People who have gotten things done.
  • People who haven’t just done an excellent job with duties as assigned, but who have perceived a need and initiated something to solve it.
  • People who have marshaled resources and buy-in, even though they are (as is the case for most EL candidates) in a junior position, or outside a formal hierarchy.
  • Letters of recommendation that speak to the things you can’t credibly address about yourself (communication, leadership skills), using specific examples.
  • Since these are specifically LITA Emerging Leader candidates, I want to see some kind of facility with technology. I’m very open-minded about what this is, but it must go beyond standard office-worker technology proficiency. I want to see that you can use technologies to create things, or that you can create technology. Tell me about that time you set up an institutional repository, or crafted a social media strategy, or did a pile of digitization, or used your video editing skills to launch your library’s marketing campaign, or automated some kind of metadata workflow, or taught yourself Javascript — seriously, I don’t care what technologies you’re using or whether you’re using them in a technology-librarian context, but you have to have some sort of technological proficiency and creativity.

Diversity is a specific (and large) part of the rubric I’m asked to use, and I’m going to give it extended treatment here. First, not gonna lie: most people in the pool are white women, and you have an uphill battle to prove your understanding of diversity if you’re one of them. (I am also a white woman, and the same goes for me.) Second, I’m not looking for evidence that you care about diversity or think it’s a good thing (of course you do. what are you, some kind of a jerk? no). I’m looking for concrete evidence that you actually get it. Tell me that you wrote a thesis on some topic that required you to grapple with primary sources and major thinkers on some diversity-related topic. Tell me about the numerous conference presentations you’ve done that required this kind of thinking. Tell me about the work, whether paid or volunteer, that you’ve done with diverse populations. Tell me about how you’ve gone out of your way, and maybe out of your comfort zone, to actually do something that deepens your awareness, develops your skills, and diversifies your network.

If you belong to a population that gives you special insight about some axis of diversity (and many white women do!), tell me about that, too. I don’t give full credit for that – I’d still like to see that you’ve theorized or worked on some sort of diversity issue – but it does give me faith that you have some sort of relevant insight and experience.

There are many kinds of diversity that have shown up in EL apps and there’s no one that matters most to me, nor do I expect any candidate to have experience with all of them. But you need to have done something. And if you really haven’t, at least acknowledge and problematize that fact; if you do this and the rest of your application is exemplary you may still be in the running for me.

Things I do not want to see

I had 20 applications to review this year. I am reviewing them as a volunteer, amidst the multiple proposals I am writing this month and the manuscript due in November and the course and webinar I’ll be teaching soon and my regular duties on two boards and helping lead a major fundraising campaign and writing code for a couple of clients and the usual housework and childcare things and occasionally even having a life and, this week, some pretty killer insomnia. Seriously, if you give me any excuse to stop reading your application, I will take it.

Do not give me the excuse to stop reading.

Some things that will make me stop reading:

  • If your application is in any way incomplete (didn’t answer all the questions, missing one or more references, no resume).
  • Significant or frequent errors of grammar, spelling, or usage.
  • Shallow treatment of the diversity question (see above).

I also might stop reading overly academic prose, particularly if it reads like you’re not 100% comfortable with that (admittedly pretty weird) genre. I do want to see that you’re smart and have a good command of English, but communication within associations is a different genre than journal articles. Talk to me in your voice (but get someone to proofread). Particularly if you’re a current student or a recent graduate: I give you permission to not write an academic paper. (I implore you not to write an academic paper.) My favorite EL applications sparkle with personality. They speak with humility or confidence or questioning or insight or elegance. A few even make me laugh.

I would prefer it if you spell out acronyms, at least on their first occurrence. You can assume that I recognize ALA and its divisions, but there are a lot of acronyms in the library world, and they’re not all clear outside their context. If you’re active in CLA, is that California or Colorado or Connecticut? Or Canada?

Some information about mechanics

Pulling back the curtain for a moment here: the web site where I access your application materials does not have super-awesome design or usability, and this impacts (sometimes unfairly) how I rate your answers.

Your answers to the questions are displayed in all bold letters. This makes it hard to read long paragraphs. Please use paragraph breaks thoughtfully.

Your recommenders’ text appears to be displayed without any paragraph breaks at all, if they’ve typed it directly into the site. Ow. Please ask them to upload letters as files instead.

Speaking of which: I use Pages. On a Mac. Your .docx file will probably look wrong to me. If you’ve invested time and graphic design skills in lovingly crafting a resume, I want to see! Please upload your resume as .pdf, and ask your recommenders to upload their letters as .pdf too. (On reflection I feel bad about this because it’s a famously poor format for accessibility. But seriously, your .docx looks bad.)

Whew! Glad I got to say all that :) Hope this helps future EL candidates. I look forward to reading your applications next year!

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