*** This post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Dec. 10, 2012. ***
Librarians’ strong interest in programming is not surprising considering that programming skills are crucial and often essential to making today’s library systems and services more user-friendly and efficient for use. Not only for system-customization, computer-programming skills can also make it possible to create and provide a completely new type of service that didn’t exist before. However, programming skills are not part of most LIS curricula, and librarians often experience difficulty in picking up programming skills.
In this post, I would like to share some effective strategies to obtain coding skills and cover common mistakes and obstacles that librarians make and encounter while trying to learn how to code in the library environment based upon the presentation that I gave at Charleston Conference last month, “Geek out: Adding Coding Skills to Your Professional Repertoire.” (slides: http://www.slideshare.net/bohyunkim/geek-out-adding-coding-skills-to-your-professional-repertoire). At the end of this post, you will also find a selection of learning and community resources.
How To Obtain Coding Skills, Effectively
1. Pick a language and concentrate on it.
2. Write and run the code.
Once you choose a language to learn, there are many paths that you can follow. Taking classes at a local community college or through an online school may speed up the initial process of learning, but it could be time-consuming and costly. Following online tutorials and trying each example is a good alternative that many people take. You may also pick up a few books along the way to supplement the tutorials and use them for reference purposes.
If you decide on self-study, make sure that you actually write and run the code in the examples as you follow along the books and the tutorials. Most of the examples will appear simple and straightforward. But there is a big difference between reading through a code example and being actually able to write the code on your own and to run it successfully. If you read through programming tutorials and books without actually doing the hands-on examples on your own, you won’t get much benefit out of your investment. Programming is a hands-on skill as much as an intellectual understanding.
3. Continue to think about how coding can be applied to your library.
Also important is to continue to think about how your knowledge can be applied to your library systems and environment, which is often the source of the initial motivation for many librarians who decide to learn how to program. The best way to learn how to program is to program, and the more you program the better you will become at programming. So at every chance of building something with the new programming language that you are learning, no matter how small it is, build it and test out the code to see if it works the way you intended.
4. Get used to debugging.
While many who struggle with learning how to code cite lack of time as a reason, the real cause is likely to be failing to keep up the initial interest and persist in what you decided to learn. Learning how to code can be exciting, but it can also be a huge time-sink and the biggest source of frustration from time to time. Since the computer code is written for a machine to read, not for a human being, one typo or a missing semicolon can make the program non-functional. Finding out and correcting this type of error can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But learning how to debug is half of programming. So don’t be discouraged.
5. Find a community for social learning and support.
Having someone to talk to about coding problems while you are learning can be a great help. Sign up for listservs where coding librarians or library coders frequent, such as code4lib and web4lib to get feedback when you need. Research the cause of the problem that you encounter as much as possible on your own. When you still are unsure about how to go about tackling it, post your question to the sites such as Stack Overflow for suggestions and answers from more experienced programmers. It is also a good idea to organize a study group with like-minded people and get support for both coding-related and learning-related problems. You may also find local meet-ups available in your area using sites like MeetUp.com.
Don’t be intimidated by those who seem to know much more than you in those groups (as you know much more about libraries than they do and you have things to contribute as well), but be aware of the cultural differences between the developer community and the librarian community. Unlike the librarian community that is highly accommodating for new librarians and sometimes not-well-thought-out questions, the developer community that you get to interact with may appear much less accommodating, less friendly, and less patient. However, remember that reading many lines of code, understanding what they are supposed to do, and helping someone to solve a problem occurring in those lines can be time-consuming and difficult even to a professional programmer. So it is polite to do a thorough research on the Web and with some reference resources first before asking for others’ help. Also, always post back a working solution when your problem is solved and make sure to say thank you to people who helped you. This way, you are contributing back to the community.
6. Start working on a real-life problem ‘now.’ Don’t wait!
Librarians are often motivated to learn how to code in order to solve real-life problems they encounter at their workplace. Solving a real-life problem with programming is therefore the most effective way to learn and to keep up the interest in programming. One of the greatest mistake in learning programming is putting off writing one’s own code and waiting to work on a real-life problem for the reason that one doesn’t know yet enough to do so. While it is easy to think that once you learn a bit more, it would be easier to approach a problem, this is actually a counter-productive learning strategy as far as programming is concerned because often the only way to find out what to learn is by trying to solve a problem.
7. Build on what you learned.
Another mistake to avoid in learning how to program is failing to build on what one has learned. Having solved one set of problem doesn’t mean that you will remember that programming solution you created next time when you have to solve a similar problem. Repeating what one has succeeded at and expanding on that knowledge will lead to a stronger foundation for more advanced programming knowledge. Also instead of trying to learn more than one programming language (e.g. Python, PHP, Ruby, etc.) and/or a web framework (e.g. Django, cakePHP, Ruby On Rails, etc.) at the same time, first try to become reasonably good at one. This will make it much easier to pick up another language later in the future.
8. Code regularly and be persistent.
It is important to understand that learning how to program and becoming good at it will take time. Regular coding practice is the only way to get there. Solving a problem is a good way to learn, but doing so on a regular basis as often as possible is the best way to make what you learned stick and stay in your head.
While is it easy to say practice coding regularly and try to apply it as much as possible to the library environment, actually doing so is quite difficult. There are not many well-established communities for fledgling coders in libraries that provide needed guidance and support. And while you may want to work with library systems at your workplace right away, your lack of experience may prove problematic in gaining a necessary permission to tinker with them. Also as a full-time librarian, programming is likely to be thrown to the bottom of your to-do list.
Be aware of these obstacles and try to find a way to overcome them as you go. Set small goals and use them as milestones. Be persistent and don’t be discouraged by poor documentation, syntax errors, and failures. With consistent practice and continuous learning, programming can surely be learned.
A. Resources for learning