Wisdom is Learned: An Interview with Application Developer Ashley Blewer

 

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This post originally appeared on The Signal on December 1st, 2016.

Ashley Blewer is an archivist, moving image specialist and developer who works at the New York Public Library. In her spare time she helps develop open source AV file conformance and QC software as well as standards such as Matroska and FFV1. Shes a three time Association of American Moving Image Archivists’ AV Hack Day hackathon winner and a prolific blogger and presenter who is committed to demystifying tech and empowering her peers in the library profession.

Describe what you do as an applications developer at the New York Public Library.

We have a lot of different applications here but I work specifically on the repository team and our priority right now is digital preservation and automated media ingest. So my day to day involves working on several different applications. We run different applications that run into each other — sets of microservice suites. I’m the monitor of these pipelines, getting images that have been digitized or video that has been digitized through to long-term digital preservation as well as enabling access on our various endpoints such as digitalcollections.nypl.org and archives.nypl.org. This involves communicating with other stakeholders, communicating with developers on my team and writing code for each of those applications, doing code review and pushing that live to the different applications… It’s very much a full stack position.

The job is more unique on my team because we work on such a broad array of applications. What I find exciting about this job is that I get to touch a lot of different types of code in my day job and I’m not just working on one application. Right now I’m working on dealing with a couple bugs related to associating URIs to subject headings in our metadata management system. Sometimes the application doesn’t work as it should so I do bug fixes in that regard. Some things that I will be working on this week are integrating a connection between our archives portal displaying video live within it rather than linking out to a different website, automating audio transcoding from preservation assets, and contributing some core functionality upgrades to our Digital Collections site. Recently something that I did that was more access-based was we migrated our display of video assets from a proprietary closed-source system to an open-source rendering system.

We follow loosely an agile planning system. Right now we meet weekly because our priorities are very vast and they’re changing pretty quickly, so every Monday we meet with stakeholders and we talk about all the things we need to tackle over the week and what needs to be done and then we get to work. There’s around 16 total developers at NYPL but my team has three.

I was playing with some of the apps youve made, and Im fascinated with the Barthes Tarot and the Portable Auroratone. Could you walk me through your creative process for these?

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These are good examples because they’re different in the sense that with the Barthes Tarot I was reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse and thinking about how I could potentially use that in a randomized way to do fortune telling for myself. This is almost embarrassing, right, but maybe someone [would want to use it] to try to solve a romance-based problem, like getting their fortune told. I originally wanted to map it to I Ching, which was something that Barthes and other philosophers were interested in, but it ended up being too technically difficult, so I got lazy and downgraded it to tarot. And then I knew I could put this together by doing a random draw of the data and just pull that out. Technically it ended up not being too difficult of a problem to solve because I made it easier.

The Portable Auroratone is the opposite in that I found a [software] library that automatically generated really interesting colors and I wondered how I could use it in some sort of way. I thought about the Auroratone I had seen at some symposium [ Orphan Film Symposium 8, 2013 ] six years ago and I thought “Oh, ok, it kind of looked like that,” and I turned it into that. So one of these apps was me having a philosophical dilemma and the other one was me having a technical library that I wanted to integrate into something and I had to mesh an idea with that.

I get a lot of compliments on Twitter bots like @nypl_cats and @nypl_dogs which I also just made very quickly as a one off. I did that while I was finalizing my paperwork to work here, actually. I thought if I’m going to get this job I might as well learn how to use their API. The API is something else that I work on now so I was familiarizing myself with this tool that I will eventually push code to support.

You constantly share what youre learning and advocate for continued learning in our profession through your blog, presentations, etc.  How do you find the time to share so prolifically and why do you think its important to do so?

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Yeah, I just came back from AMIA and I do really remember when at conferences why I do these things. As far as the first part of where I find the time, I don’t know, but I have been reflecting on how I’m maybe naturally introverted and this is something that I do to ramp up my own energy again, by working on something productive. Where other people might need to be out drinking with friends in order to chill, I need to be alone to chill, so it gives me more time to spend building different applications.

How do I summarize why I think this is important? I think about the positions I’ve been at and how I’ve thought about how I get to where I want to be and if those resources don’t exist then someone needs to build them. It’s so crucial to have a mentor figure in place to help you get to where you want to be and allowing people to discover that, especially related to technical issues. People just assume that the work I do in my day job now is much harder than it actually is, so if I can lower that barrier we can have more people learning to do it and more people can be more efficient in their jobs. Overall I think educating and empowering people helps the field much more substantially than if people are doing it alone in silos.

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Can you talk about your career path to becoming a web applications developer?

I went to undergrad not really knowing what I wanted to do. I went to a state school because it was almost free and graphic design was the most practical of the art degrees you could get, and in a lot of ways librarianship is a practical advanced degree that people get as well. Coming to the point that I am now which is in a very technical role at a library I sort of see what I was doing as a response to the gendered feedback that I’d grown up with. I wrote an article about this before – where I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable studying something like computer science but then graphic design was still very computer- focused, technically-focused that was maybe more “appropriate” for me to do. I was encouraged to do that as opposed to being discouraged from doing something that I was already good at, which would have been something like computer science.

What skills do digital librarians and archivists need? Is learning to code necessary?

A lot of people are getting on board with learning to code and how everybody has to do that and I don’t necessarily feel that’s true, that’s not everyone’s interest and skill set, but I do think having an understanding of how systems work and what is possible is one hundred percent required. Light skills in that regard help people go a long way. I think that – and this is echoed by people similar to me – once you realize how powerful writing a script can be and automating dull aspects of your job, the more that you’re inclined to want to do it. And like what I said earlier – the more efficient we can be the better we are as archivists.

You do so much to contribute to the profession outside of your work at NYPL as well- contributing to open source formats and workflows, sharing resources, building apps. How do you find time for it all and what else do you want to do?

I feel like I waste a lot of time in my down time. I feel that I’m not doing enough and people are like “How do you do so much?” But there’s so much work to be done! As far as what I want to do,  I don’t know, everything I’m doing right now. Maybe I’m like a child that’s still feasting on an endless amount of candy. Now I have these opportunities that I’ve wanted to have and I’m taking them all and saying yes to everything.

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A lot of what I do may be considered homework. As a developer, the way to get better at developing is purely just to solve more development problems. Making small applications is the only way to boost your own skills. It’s not necessarily like reading OAIS and understanding it in the same way you might if you were an archivist doing archivist homework. [Referencing graphic design background] The first design you do is not going to be good so you just do it again and you do it again and it’s the same thing with programming. One of the things I try to articulate to archivists is that programming kind of hurts all the time. It takes a really long time to overcome, because yeah, in school, you read a book or you write a paper and you’re expected to produce this result that has to be an A. With programming you try something and that doesn’t work and you try it again and you try it again and you think “Oh I’m so stupid I don’t know what I’m doing,” and that’s normal. I know this about myself and I think that’s the hardest thing to overcome when you are trying to learn these skills. It’s refreshing that even the smartest senior developers that I work with who are just incredible at their jobs all the time, still will pound the desk and be like “I’m so stupid, I don’t get this!” Knowing that’s a normal part of how things get done is the hardest thing to learn.

I’m happy to constantly be failing because I feel like I’m always fumbling towards something. I do think librarians and archivists tend to be people that had very good grades without too much effort, moving forward in life and so as soon as they hit a wall in which they aren’t necessarily inherently good at something that’s when the learning cuts off and that’s when I try to scoop people up and say “Here’s a resource where it’s ok to be dumb.” Because you’re not dumb, you just don’t have as much knowledge as someone else.

What do you want to do next?

Closed captioning is one of the big problems I’m excited about solving next within NYPL or outside of NYPL, whichever. If you don’t have it and you have 200,000 video items and they all need closed captioning to be accessible how do you deal with that problem?


What are five sources of inspiration for you right now? 

Recompiler: Especially the podcast since I listen to it on my commute, it’s such a warm introduction to technical topics.

Halt & Catch Fire: Trying to find another thing to watch when I am sleepy but I really just only want to watch this show. The emphasis on women’s complex narratives and struggles/growth within this show is unlike any other show I’ve ever watched.

Shishito Peppers: Dude, one in every ten are hot! I thought this was a menu trying to trick me but turns out its true! I like the surprise element of snacking on these.

Godel, Escher, Bach: I feel like this is the programmer’s equivalent of Infinite Jest. Everyone says they’ll read it one day but never get around to it. It’s such a sprawling, complex book that ties together patterns in the humanities and technology. Anyway, I am trudging through it.

AA NDSR Blog: So inspiring to read about the work of emerging professionals in the field of a/v digital preservation!

User Experience (UX) Design in Libraries: An Interview with Natalie Buda Smith

This interview originally appeared on the Library of Congress’ The Signal on October 27, 2016. 

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Natalie Buda Smith is the User Experience (UX) Team supervisor at the Library of Congress, and most recently worked with NDI to design the beautiful graphic for ourCollections as Data conference. Her team has been busy redesigning Loc.gov, and the new homepage is set to debut Tuesday, Nov.1st.

We caught up over coffee to discuss user experience (UX), storytelling, the importance of design thinking in libraries, and Black Sabbath.

Can you tell me a little about your background and what you do on the User Experience Team?

User Experience is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It is making things easier for people to use and understand. In our case, loc.gov, congress.gov and a handful of other digital products. It wasn’t called User Experience 20 years ago or even ten years ago, it has been called Graphic Design, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Web Design and now also Customer Experience.

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The profession has changed dramatically just like Library Science has changed dramatically. I actually have an undergraduate degree in film from UNC Chapel-Hill, so I was very interested in not only design but storytelling and interactivity. You wouldn’t necessarily think of film as a good background for interactive work, but timing is just as important as color, content, and composition. Back when I started out, the most popular type of IT job was in computer networking, and my first job out of film school was designing system diagrams where I described LANs, WANs. I had to learn the difference between a router and a brouter, and started to understand computers and networks. This gave me a good foundation for the technology that is used today.

So then I went to design school at North Carolina State University and got my Master’s in Design, and then I decided I wanted to teach. For six years I taught around the world. The last teaching job I had was in Beirut, which was amazing, because their sense of aesthetics is so different from the Western one taught in school. In Arabic, you read from right to left and the letters are so dramatically differently, it makes you look at the world differently.

What were you teaching people to do?

I was very lucky to be able to teach design thinking, the design process, how to solve a problems through creative approaches. In some schools, User Experience or Graphic Design is treated as a vocation, but there are many schools out there that understand how effective design thinking can be. I was able to put together and teach a curriculum that would break down students’ assumptions about design, aesthetics, problem-solving, and then build it back up to a more creative, systematic way to approach problem solving. And often it could take many forms — print, photography, film, multimedia, the beginnings of the web — but I focused on fundamentals of thinking.

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Beirut was fascinating because my students, between 18 and 23, spent most of their life in civil war, so this was an opportunity for them to be creative, and bring their own storytelling into it, so it was not just about pushing Western aesthetics. Some of these kids spent many years in bomb shelters, a large part of their time underground in basements, so it was an interesting perspective of the world.

Storytelling is so important. It’s one of the reasons I got into this job and I think many archivists and librarians feel the same. Where does design and storytelling come together in the UX field?

To me User Experience is about structuring things so they are more accessible and consumable, but it also about breaking down problems and understanding what are the many ways to approach it. It’s like having a new set of tools. Take any sort of raw material — be it data, be it photographs — and then think ‘how do I assemble this in a way that tells that story? How do I structure it? Maybe I can transform it in some way?’ And then to understand when you do transform, there’s other layers of meaning that’s added on.

When you take a set of photographs and put them in an order, the order tells as much of a story as the individual photographs. That’s fundamental to design thinking. I would not say that only designers do design thinking, not only artists do creative thinking, librarians, engineers and others do a lot of creative thinking too. Design tends to use framework of systems that art doesn’t have to. Art can be a little bit more free from systems, where design typically has to function in some way, whereas art can be aesthetically pleasing just for its own self.

Librarians are systems thinkers, but there’s a need for design thinking skills that you don’t find in a traditional library education. How would it help us?

Good design programs spend a year or two breaking down your perceptions, and that’s really important. Design thinking is not just about empathy- you hear a lot about empathy for your users or customers – but it’s also a skill, and it’s a journey to get there, if you can break something down and remove yourself from it — get to the real problem and not feel that the solution has to conform to what you initially expected. Really good design thinking is when you’re able to remove yourself from the problem and put yourself into the user’s shoes. It’s a bit like acting; a really good actor can transform into someone completely different.

Let’s say you’re on a group project and you have a really interesting problem to solve and you’re working on a solution. People get emotionally invested — ‘this is an expression of myself, this is what I think, this is what I believe!’ — and the good thing about UX is we have tools to bring the user in to confirm or deny how they understand the problem. A really good designer can recognize ‘I’m emotionally invested in this, why? Let me try to remove myself.’ We learn this through constant peer feedback, and in design school, the critique.

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It’s one of the most stressful things for design students, when you take your work and put it on the wall and you have thirty people staring at it and telling you if it’s good or not good and you have to stand up there and defend it. In design school, this happens weekly, if not daily. By the time you end school, if a project team gives you negative feedback, you don’t feel defeated, you say, ok, let me try again because I didn’t hit all the things I needed to get done. It’s less about my personal expression and more about the solution. I haven’t seen this practice of critique used a lot in other fields.

Yes, there’s a movement in our field to expose our work to critique, to show our failures as well as our successes. It seems that designers have understood this for a while, that that’s how you improve. The Library of Congress is special because they have you and your staff of UX professionals in-house. What kinds of UX designers work best in a library environment?

In the Library, because our projects tend to range in size and type of content, I find that you need UX designers that are really well-rounded. You need someone who has a strong visual aesthetic, who knows how to code, someone who knows user research. The people we have at the Library are more experienced because we need that well rounded skill set. I’ve been doing it for over twenty years, and on average the people on the User Experience team at the Library have been doing it also for fifteen, twenty years. You’re exposed to all of these different facets of UX when you have more years of experience. So if someone said to me, who would I hire internally at a library, I would go with someone who was more well-rounded and knows when something is needed versus being really, really good at one particular flavor of UX.

This is my first internal federal job. I spent the majority of my career in IT consulting. In consulting, we would get really large website redesigns, where for example, defining the user experience could take eight months, two years with a dedicated team of eight user experience professionals dedicated to the one project. Here we juggle a lot of projects at once. We’re going through a major UI update to loc.gov, with a homepage redesign, then we have congress.gov which is has several sophisticated searches, then we have all these other, smaller things like iBooks and the heritage websites which takes a lot of interaction with other government agencies. It’s all these projects, small to large at the same time. It’s amazing how many UX positions are being advertised right now in the federal space, people are starting to understand the value of making products easy and enjoyable to use.

Is there anyone that has made a career out of UX design in libraries that you know of?

There isn’t a guru we could point to, no. There are several people who are solving interesting problems also, like at New York Public Library and other universities, but no one who has built a User Experience career out of it. People at my experience tend to have a lot of e-commerce experience since that was the driver for so many digital products, so as libraries continue to transform, the expertise will grow. Someone who’s coming out of school right now may be that person, but the opportunities haven’t really been there yet, in the way that it’s been there for e-commerce.

How would a librarian make an argument to their administration about hiring a UX designer?

I’m going to start with the technologies. The mobile device. Over 30 percent of our traffic on loc.gov comes through mobile devices. More and more people want to view library content on their mobile devices. One thing that UX can assist with is that you can’t put the entire website on the mobile experience — the former desktop experience does not transfer one to one — the technology needs to be updated, it needs to be made more accessible, and also the experience is very different. The context of how you’re using online content can be just as important as going to the site itself.

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I think of accessibility. A lot of technologies that we use to make content or collections more accessible online also make it more accessible for other technologies. When you make it more accessible you also make it more flexible, more scaleable, so as new technologies come online and people adapt to them, you are able to migrate it.

Then search. Search is more than just a framework, it’s also about knowing how people search, and the context of searches, what do people expect from search. So User Experience professionals can help define how users expect search to work, not just how to make search function.

We have a web metrics team with two people, and they provide a lot of great user behavior data for us, so we know that people want this item or that item, we can see the paths that they’re taking through these websites. Why not take what they want and move it up higher in their path? From a pure Library Science point of view, catalog prioritization may not match what users tend to want, so there’s some reconciliation there that needs to happen sometimes.

One tool set we also have is user research, and that can include older methods such as surveys or ethnographic studies, moderated testing, live site testing, but then it’s also applying metrics. A lot of times the best understanding of users is not just through one method — you have to use multiple tools and build a holistic understanding about users and what their motivations are, what they really want, and then constantly check back because it constantly changes. What people wanted last year is not going to be the same as what they want this year.

Can you talk about Project One, the Library’s effort to redesign its website?

The challenge for the Library is that it was such an early adopter of the web.The Library started early creating websites for people to have access to this wonderful content, but in a way that is now a burden. That’s similar to something I learned in Beirut.

My students were showing up to class and they had beautiful cell phones, I’d never seen state of the art cell phones like the ones they had, but I couldn’t make a landline phone call. What had happened is they had just jumped over several communication technologies. Why would they install landlines in Beirut, just go mobile. It’s sort of the same burden we have at the Library. So much work, so much content was put online early with older technologies, and now we have a lot of re-work to do. We have to pull up those old landlines in order to make them cellular friendly.

Project One is very iterative. It started off as a concept, how do you build a framework that’s optimized for search, breaking down content to the object level. Everything was flattened with metadata to assist search. It sounds simple but it’s not and it wasn’t. The most basic element is the item, but that in itself is complex because what is an item? Is it a book? Is it the page of a book? You need someone to decide that it’s worthy to apply metadata to it. We’re continuously learning and changing. No longer are you browsing web page by web page, and that was the basis of Project One.

Now we’re trying to build other structures on top of that foundation of search because people are wanting to create and consume context for the collection items. They’ll find an item and want the meaning around it, or we want to take this amazing content and package it in different ways for specific audiences.

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So that’s where we are right now. We’re moving to the stage of — how do we do more storytelling? How do we take all of these wonderful elements and start to tell stories in a more engaging way? And the home page is really a great step in that direction, because what we’re trying to tell is that the Library is more than just a collection of things in specific subjects. Let’s start to tell stories about what’s there because that’s the most engaging way to get people interested and understand that this amazing content is a part of the American story. Even if you try your hardest to build the most perfect and graceful system, it’s not going to be simple, because the items we have are not all the same. We’re not making widgets.

For example, take our wax cylinders, books, and then periodicals, photographs, audio, how do you jam those very different forms of content in the same structure? Just in order to make search work you have to have a framework, but it is challenging since there is also so much context around it that if you start to treat everything as the same, you lose a lot of information, so it is very challenging.

What was a takeaway for you from the Collections as Data conference?

I was excited to see the creativity that was being promoted. It’s one thing to talk about data and the best structures for data, but the majority of the conference was about creativity, and what people were doing with data. There was a variety of people doing different things. At the Library, we promote our collections, but having these outsiders present, you start to see oh, there are other ways that you can use the collections and that was exciting. There may be some people who see the Library more as a literal preserver of things, but the new approach is to see that preservation is in making it more accessible. If you want to preserve something, make it available, and when others make more things out of it, it is preserved in a richer way than if it’s just locked away for no one to see.

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What was the inspiration behind the Collections as Data conference graphics?

When thinking about the essence of the conference — laying down a influential foundation for the discussion of collection data and the creativity of its potential, I was reminded of a Black Sabbath’s album cover for one of the most influential albums in heavy metal music. I distilled the artwork to its most basic elements then created a visualization of its most elemental forms and colors. It thought it only fitting as the National Digital Initiatives team are in their own ways the rock stars of data.

That’s amazing! Thank you! If a library is updating its online presence, what are the top three things they should consider as a part of their design process?

The first thing is authenticity. One of the things we’re continuously working on at the Library is how we make our content accessible for education. We did some user research with that audience, conducted a focus group with elementary students, which was so much fun. It was a three hours long, but we learned a lot. We did a lot of different activities, but the main activity was to have them conduct research online.

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I asked them to pick someone famous like Rosa Parks, and show me how they researched. And the majority of the kids, guess where they went first? Where was their starting point? YouTube. Part of user research is that you step back and you don’t influence, and these kids, they were on laptops, iPads, one was on a desktop, and the majority went to YouTube to research. So one of the most valuable things the Library of Congress can do is say here’s the original, this is authentic, you do what you want to with public domain content, you could draw mustaches on everyone if you want, but you know this is the primary source and you’re seeing it as it originated.

That’s something Libraries can do from a user experience perspective, is make sure that content is presented in a way where users recognize that it is authentic.

Another thing to consider is a robust search, making sure search is easy to use and people understand what they’re getting back in their results. What’s available, what’s not available, and helping them with refining searches. The collections we offer are so complex, but people want things to work like Google.

And the last thing is joy. Helping people enjoy using libraries. I think sometimes we get too focused on the technical aspects, that this has to provide x, y and z. But if you can instill a love of learning and a love of research — to me they’re the same, then you are making the world a better place. So joy is a big part of it, and I don’t hear that goal often enough.

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Sometimes we tend to think of joy in terms of eating ice cream or other types of entertainment, but joy can also be in search results, you might find something and go ‘Wow!’

That sense of accomplishment is joy.

Designing a DIY Lab: Lessons from MakerCon 2015

The following post was written for The Future of Information Alliance. It was published on October 8th, 2015 in their News section

As a National Digital Stewardship Resident for DC Public Libraries (DCPL), my project is to help the public with personal archiving, especially when it comes to digital materials. One strategy is to open a DIY lab where patrons can transfer their home movies off of obsolete media and/or digitize photographs and papers. The “Memory Lab” (as I’m calling it) is the fifth DIY space to open at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library under the umbrella of The Labs at DC Public Libraries.

The FabLab at MLK Library.

DCPL’s Fabrication Lab includes a 3D scanner, 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines.

The DIY trend has been referred to in the past decade as the “Maker Movement,” catalyzed by declining costs of professional equipment like 3D scanners and printers, the increasing amount of open source software available, and a recovering economy that encourages people to build out their skill set and stop paying others to fix things for them. This all comes at an opportunistic moment for information professionals as we redefine our public services and how our spaces are used, and DCPL is not alone in capitalizing on the Movement’s popularity. The Urban Libraries Council lists 43 other public libraries that have labs or “makerspaces,” and higher learning institutions such as the University of Maryland have also gotten on board.

To start thinking like a “maker” and find some inspiration for my lab design, I attended MakerCon 2015, a conference of entrepreneurs, product developers, and community leaders interested in the Maker Movement.

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Makers= 300? Archivists= 1

Here’s what I learned from this community about designing a lab for the public:

Have a sense of play. Emilie Baltz, an experiential artist and educator, said during a panel that she included the phrase “and have fun” in the written mission of one of her projects. Users find play engaging, of course, but they also learn through it. What can I do to make my lab more playful?

Don’t make users dependent. Dave Rauchwerk, founder and CEO of Next Thing Co., premiered a $9 computer that he hopes will encourage people to innovate and stop seeing computing as some kind of inaccessible “dark art.”

I’ve thought a lot about making my process building the lab transparent for other librarians, but never considered patrons wanting this information. Maybe some will be interested in building a lab at home? How can I help them?

Try try again. I was inspired by the tenacious work ethic of the many designers at the conference, who go through hundreds of versions of a prototype before it’s ready for the market. One great example is Allan Chochinov’s work, Chair of the MFA in Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, whose website 52,000 Knots documents his progress with the incredibly difficult and arcane knotting art of tatting that he taught himself through a series of YouTube videos.

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Spring Doily, Round 6. (22,332 knots), from Chochinov’s site 52,000 Knots.

I have also had to teach myself a lot about A/V transfer, and get frustrated when things don’t work. In tatting, one mistake means going back and untying knot after tiny knot in the pursuit of perfection. Whether it’s zen or grit, Chochinov has mastered a state of mind that produces results. I also want to be as patient and deliberate when testing and improving my workflows. In the end, I’ll be making more than a doily (his words!), I’ll be helping people save their memories.

If you’re interested in learning more from this incredible group of people, you can watch the MakerCon 2015 sessions here. And watch for the Memory Lab’s opening in February 2016!