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Cybersecurity, Usability, Online Privacy, and Digital Surveillance

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on May. 9, 2016.***

Cybersecurity is an interesting and important topic, one closely connected to those of online privacy and digital surveillance. Many of us know that it is difficult to keep things private on the Internet. The Internet was invented to share things with others quickly, and it excels at that job. Businesses that process transactions with customers and store the information online are responsible for keeping that information private. No one wants social security numbers, credit card information, medical history, or personal e-mails shared with the world. We expect and trust banks, online stores, and our doctor’s offices to keep our information safe and secure.

However, keeping private information safe and secure is a challenging task. We have all heard of security breaches at J.P MorganTarget, SonyAnthem Blue Cross and Blue Shieldthe Office of Personnel Management of the U.S. federal governmentUniversity of Maryland at College Park, and Indiana University. Sometimes, a data breach takes place when an institution fails to patch a hole in its network systems. Sometimes, people fall for a phishing scam, or a virus in a user’s computer infects the target system. Other times, online companies compile customer data into personal profiles. The profiles are then sold to data brokers and on into the hands of malicious hackers and criminals.

Image from Flickr –

Cybersecurity vs. Usability

To prevent such a data breach, institutional IT staff are trained to protect their systems against vulnerabilities and intrusion attempts. Employees and end users are educated to be careful about dealing with institutional or customers’ data. There are systematic measures that organizations can implement such as two-factor authentication, stringent password requirements, and locking accounts after a certain number of failed login attempts.

While these measures strengthen an institution’s defense against cyberattacks, they may negatively affect the usability of the system, lowering users’ productivity. As a simple example, security measures like a CAPTCHA can cause an accessibility issue for people with disabilities.

Or imagine that a university IT office concerned about the data security of cloud services starts requiring all faculty, students, and staff to only use cloud services that are SOC 2 Type II certified as an another example. SOC stands for “Service Organization Controls.” It consists of a series of standards that measure how well a given service organization keeps its information secure. For a business to be SOC 2 certified, it must demonstrate that it has sufficient policies and strategies that will satisfactorily protect its clients’ data in five areas known as “Trust Services Principles.” Those include the security of the service provider’s system, the processing integrity of this system, the availability of the system, the privacy of personal information that the service provider collects, retains, uses, discloses, and disposes of for its clients, and the confidentiality of the information that the service provider’s system processes or maintains for the clients. The SOC 2 Type II certification means that the business had maintained relevant security policies and procedures over a period of at least six months, and therefore it is a good indicator that the business will keep the clients’ sensitive data secure. The Dropbox for Business is SOC 2 certified, but it costs money. The free version is not as secure, but many faculty, students, and staff in academia use it frequently for collaboration. If a university IT office simply bans people from using the free version of Dropbox without offering an alternative that is as easy to use as Dropbox, people will undoubtedly suffer.

Some of you may know that the USPS website does not provide a way to reset the password for users who forgot their usernames. They are instead asked to create a new account. If they remember the account username but enter the wrong answers to the two security questions more than twice, the system also automatically locks their accounts for a certain period of time. Again, users have to create a new account. Clearly, the system that does not allow the password reset for those forgetful users is more secure than the one that does. However, in reality, this security measure creates a huge usability issue because average users do forget their passwords and the answers to the security questions that they set up themselves. It’s not hard to guess how frustrated people will be when they realize that they entered a wrong mailing address for mail forwarding and are now unable to get back into the system to correct because they cannot remember their passwords nor the answers to their security questions.

To give an example related to libraries, a library may decide to block all international traffic to their licensed e-resources to prevent foreign hackers who have gotten hold of the username and password of a legitimate user from accessing those e-resources. This would certainly help libraries to avoid a potential breach of licensing terms in advance and spare them from having to shut down compromised user accounts one by one whenever those are found. However, this would make it impossible for legitimate users traveling outside of the country to access those e-resources as well, which many users would find it unacceptable. Furthermore, malicious hackers would probably just use a proxy to make their IP address appear to be located in the U.S. anyway.

What would users do if their organization requires them to reset passwords on a weekly basis for their work computers and several or more systems that they also use constantly for work? While this may strengthen the security of those systems, it’s easy to see that it will be a nightmare having to reset all those passwords every week and keeping track of them not to forget or mix them up. Most likely, they will start using less complicated passwords or even begin to adopt just one password for all different services. Some may even stick to the same password every time the system requires them to reset it unless the system automatically detects the previous password and prevents the users from continuing to use the same one. Ill-thought-out cybersecurity measures can easily backfire.

Security is important, but users also want to be able to do their job without being bogged down by unwieldy cybersecurity measures. The more user-friendly and the simpler the cybersecurity guidelines are to follow, the more users will observe them, thereby making a network more secure. Users who face cumbersome and complicated security measures may ignore or try to bypass them, increasing security risks.

Image from Flickr -

Image from Flickr –

Cybersecurity vs. Privacy

Usability and productivity may be a small issue, however, compared to the risk of mass surveillance resulting from aggressive security measures. In 2013, the Guardian reported that the communication records of millions of people were being collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) in bulk, regardless of suspicion of wrongdoing. A secret court order prohibited Verizon from disclosing the NSA’s information request. After a cyberattack against the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California system installed a device that is capable of capturing, analyzing, and storing all network traffic to and from the campus for over 30 days. This security monitoring was implemented secretly without consulting or notifying the faculty and those who would be subject to the monitoring. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the IT staff who installed the system were given strict instructions not to reveal it was taking place. Selected committee members on the campus were told to keep this information to themselves.

The invasion of privacy and the lack of transparency in these network monitoring programs has caused great controversy. Such wide and indiscriminate monitoring programs must have a very good justification and offer clear answers to vital questions such as what exactly will be collected, who will have access to the collected information, when and how the information will be used, what controls will be put in place to prevent the information from being used for unrelated purposes, and how the information will be disposed of.

We have recently seen another case in which security concerns conflicted with people’s right to privacy. In February 2016, the FBI requested Apple to create a backdoor application that will bypass the current security measure in place in its iOS. This was because the FBI wanted to unlock an iPhone 5C recovered from one of the shooters in San Bernadino shooting incident. Apple iOS secures users’ devices by permanently erasing all data when a wrong password is entered more than ten times if people choose to activate this option in the iOS setting. The FBI’s request was met with strong opposition from Apple and others. Such a backdoor application can easily be exploited for illegal purposes by black hat hackers, for unjustified privacy infringement by other capable parties, and even for dictatorship by governments. Apple refused to comply with the request, and the court hearing was to take place in March 22. The FBI, however, withdrew the request saying that it found a way to hack into the phone in question without Apple’s help. Now, Apple has to figure out what the vulnerability in their iOS if it wants its encryption mechanism to be foolproof. In the meanwhile, iOS users know that their data is no longer as secure as they once thought.

Around the same time, the Senate’s draft bill titled as “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016,” proposed that people should be required to comply with any authorized court order for data and that if that data is “unintelligible” – meaning encrypted – then it must be decrypted for the court. This bill is problematic because it practically nullifies the efficacy of any end-to-end encryption, which we use everyday from our iPhones to messaging services like Whatsapp and Signal.

Because security is essential to privacy, it is ironic that certain cybersecurity measures are used to greatly invade privacy rather than protect it. Because we do not always fully understand how the technology actually works or how it can be exploited for both good and bad purposes, we need to be careful about giving blank permission to any party to access, collect, and use our private data without clear understanding, oversight, and consent. As we share more and more information online, cyberattacks will only increase, and organizations and the government will struggle even more to balance privacy concerns with security issues.

Why Libraries Should Advocate for Online Privacy?

The fact that people may no longer have privacy on the Web should concern libraries. Historically, libraries have been strong advocates of intellectual freedom striving to keep patron’s data safe and protected from the unwanted eyes of the authorities. As librarians, we believe in people’s right to read, think, and speak freely and privately as long as such an act itself does not pose harm to others. The Library Freedom Project is an example that reflects this belief held strongly within the library community. It educates librarians and their local communities about surveillance threats, privacy rights and law, and privacy-protecting technology tools to help safeguard digital freedom, and helped the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to become the first library to operate a Tor exit relay, to provide anonymity for patrons while they browse the Internet at the library.

New technologies brought us the unprecedented convenience of collecting, storing, and sharing massive amount of sensitive data online. But the fact that such sensitive data can be easily exploited by falling into the wrong hands created also the unparalleled level of potential invasion of privacy. While the majority of librarians take a very strong stance in favor of intellectual freedom and against censorship, it is often hard to discern a correct stance on online privacy particularly when it is pitted against cybersecurity. Some even argue that those who have nothing to hide do not need their privacy at all.

However, privacy is not equivalent to hiding a wrongdoing. Nor do people keep certain things secrets because those things are necessarily illegal or unethical. Being watched 24/7 will drive any person crazy whether s/he is guilty of any wrongdoing or not. Privacy allows us safe space to form our thoughts and consider our actions on our own without being subject to others’ eyes and judgments. Even in the absence of actual massive surveillance, just the belief that one can be placed under surveillance at any moment is sufficient to trigger self-censorship and negatively affects one’s thoughts, ideas, creativity, imagination, choices, and actions, making people more conformist and compliant. This is further corroborated by the recent study from Oxford University, which provides empirical evidence that the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression. Privacy is an essential part of being human, not some trivial condition that we can do without in the face of a greater concern. That’s why many people under political dictatorship continue to choose death over life under mass surveillance and censorship in their fight for freedom and privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation states that privacy means respect for individuals’ autonomy, anonymous speech, and the right to free association. We want to live as autonomous human beings free to speak our minds and think on our own. If part of a library’s mission is to contribute to helping people to become such autonomous human beings through learning and sharing knowledge with one another without having to worry about being observed and/or censored, libraries should advocate for people’s privacy both online and offline as well as in all forms of communication technologies and devices.

Three Recent Talks of Mine on UX, Data Visualization, and IT Management

I have been swamped at work and pretty quiet here in my blog. But I gave a few talks recently. So I wanted to share those at least.

I presented about how to turn the traditional library IT department and its operation that is usually behind the scene into a more patron-facing unit at the recent American Library Association Midwinter Meeting back in January. This program was organized by the LITA Heads of IT Interest Group. In March, I gave a short lightning talk at the 2016 Code4Lib Conference about the data visualization project of library data at my library. I was also invited to speak at the USMAI (University System of Maryland and Affiliated Institutions) UX Unconference and gave a talk about user experience, personas, and the idea of applying library personas to library strategic planning.

Here are those three presentation slides for those interested!

Strategically UX Oriented with Personas from Bohyun Kim

Near Us and Libraries, Robots Have Arrived

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Oct. 12, 2015.***

The movie, Robot and Frank, describes the future in which the elderly have a robot as their companion and also as a helper. The robot monitors various activities that relate to both mental and physical health and helps Frank with various house chores. But Frank also enjoys the robot’s company and goes on to enlist the robot into his adventure of breaking into a local library to steal a book and a greater heist later on. People’s lives in the movie are not particularly futuristic other than a robot in them. And even a robot may not be so futuristic to us much longer either. As a matter of fact, as of June 2015, there is now a commercially available humanoid robot that is close to performing some of the functions that the robot in the movie ‘Frank and Robot’ does.


Pepper Robot, Image from Aldebaran,

A Japanese company, SoftBank Robotics Corp. released a humanoid robot named ‘Pepper’ to the market back in June. The Pepper robot is 4 feet tall, 61 pounds, speaks 17 languages and is equipped with an array of cameras, touch sensors, accelerometer, and other sensors in his “endocrine-type multi-layer neural network,” according to the CNN report.  The Pepper robot was priced at ¥198,000 ($1,600). The Pepper owners are also responsible for an additional ¥24,600 ($200) monthly data and insurance fee. While the Pepper robot is not exactly cheap, it is surprisingly affordable for a robot. This means that the robot industry has now matured to the point where it can introduce a robot that the mass can afford.

Robots come in varying capabilities and forms. Some robots are as simple as a programmable cube block that can be combined with one another to be built into a working unit. For example, Cubelets from Modular Robotics are modular robots that are used for educational purposes. Each cube performs one specific function, such as flash, battery, temperature, brightness, rotation, etc. And one can combine these blocks together to build a robot that performs a certain function. For example, you can build a lighthouse robot by combining a battery block, a light-sensor block, a rotator block, and a flash block.


A variety of cubelets available from the Modular Robotics website.

A variety of cubelets available from the Modular Robotics website.


By contrast, there are advanced robots such as those in the form of an animal developed by a robotics company, Boston Dynamics. Some robots look like a human although much smaller than the Pepper robot. NAO is a 58-cm tall humanoid robot that moves, recognizes, hears and talks to people that was launched in 2006. Nao robots are an interactive educational toy that helps students to learn programming in a fun and practical way.

Noticing their relevance to STEM education, some libraries are making robots available to library patrons. Westport Public Library provides robot training classes for its two Nao robots. Chicago Public Library lends a number of Finch robots that patrons can program to see how they work. In celebration of the National Robotics Week back in April, San Diego Public Library hosted their first Robot Day educating the public about how robots have impacted the society. San Diego Public Library also started a weekly Robotics Club inviting anyone to join in to help build or learn how to build a robot for the library. Haslet Public Library offers the Robotics Camp program for 6th to 8th graders who want to learn how to build with LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits. School librarians are also starting robotics clubs. The Robotics Club at New Rochelle High School in New York is run by the school’s librarian, Ryan Paulsen. Paulsen’s robotics club started with faculty, parent, and other schools’ help along with a grant from NASA and participated in a FIRST Robotics Competition. Organizations such as the Robotics Academy at Carnegie Mellon University provides educational outreach and resources.

Image from Aldebaran website at

There are also libraries that offer coding workshops often with Arduino or Raspberry Pi, which are inexpensive computer hardware. Ames Free Library offers Raspberry Pi workshops. San Diego Public Library runs a monthly Arduino Enthusiast Meetup.  Arduinos and Raspberry Pis can be used to build digital devices and objects that can sense and interact the physical world, which are close to a simple robot. We may see  more robotics programs at those libraries in the near future.

Robots can fulfill many other functions than being educational interactive toys, however. For example, robots can be very useful in healthcare. A robot can be a patient’s emotional companion just like the Pepper. Or it can provide an easy way to communicate for a patient and her/his caregiver with physicians and others. A robot can be used at a hospital to move and deliver medication and other items and function as a telemedicine assistant. It can also provide physical assistance for a patient or a nurse and even be use for children’s therapy.

Humanoid robots like Pepper may also serve at a reception desk at companies. And it is not difficult to imagine them as sales clerks at stores. Robots can be useful at schools and other educational settings as well. At a workplace, teleworkers can use robots to achieve more active presence. For example, universities and colleges can offer a similar telepresence robot to online students who want to virtually experience and utilize the campus facilities or to faculty who wish to offer the office hours or collaborate with colleagues while they are away from the office. As a matter of fact, the University of Texas, Arlington, Libraries recently acquired several Telepresence Robots to lend to their faculty and students.

Not all robots do or will have the humanoid form as the Pepper robot does. But as robots become more and more capable, we will surely get to see more robots in our daily lives.


Alpeyev, Pavel, and Takashi Amano. “Robots at Work: SoftBank Aims to Bring Pepper to Stores.” Bloomberg Business, June 30, 2015.

“Boston Dynamics.” Accessed September 8, 2015.

Boyer, Katie. “Robotics Clubs At the Library.” Public Libraries Online, June 16, 2014.

“Finch Robots Land at CPL Altgeld.” Chicago Public Library, May 12, 2014.

McNickle, Michelle. “10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare – InformationWeek.” InformationWeek, December 6, 2012.

Singh, Angad. “‘Pepper’ the Emotional Robot, Sells out within a Minute.”, June 23, 2015.

Tran, Uyen. “SDPL Labs: Arduino Aplenty.” The Library Incubator Project, April 17, 2015.

“UT Arlington Library to Begin Offering Programming Robots for Checkout.” University of Texas Arlington, March 11, 2015.

Waldman, Loretta. “Coming Soon to the Library: Humanoid Robots.” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2014, sec. New York.

From Programmable Biology to Robots and Bitcoin – New Technology Frontier

A while ago, I gave a webinar on the topic of the new technology frontier for libraries. This webinar was given for the South Central Regional Library Council Webinar Series.  I don’t get asked to pick technologies that I think are exciting for libraries and library patrons too often. So I went wild! These are the six technology trends that I picked.

  • Maker Programs
  • Programmable Biology (or Synthetic Biology)
  • Robots
  • Drones
  • Bitcoin (Virtual currency)
  • Gamification (or Digital engagement)

OK, actually the maker programs, drones, and gamification are not too wild, I admit. But programmable biology, robots, and bitcoin were really fun to talk about.

I did not necessarily pick the technologies that I thought would be widely adopted by libraries, as you can guess pretty well from bitcoin. Instead, I tried to pick the technologies that are tackling interesting problems, solutions of which are likely to have a great impact on our future and our library patrons’ lives. It is important to note not only what a new technology is and how it works but also how it can influence our lives, and therefore library patrons and libraries ultimately.

Below are my slides. And if you must, you can watch the webinar recording on Youtube as well. Would you pick one of these technologies if you get to pick your own? If not, what else would that be?

Back to the Future Part III: Libraries and the New Technology Frontier

What It Takes to Implement a Makerspace

I haven’t been able to blog much recently. But at the recent ALA Annual Conference at San Francisco, I presented on the topic of what it takes to implement a makerspace at an academic library. This was to share the work of my library’s Makerspace Task Force that I chaired and the lessons that we learned from the implementation process as well as after we opened the Innovation Space at University of Maryland, Baltimore, Health Sciences and Human Services Library back in April.

If you are planning on creating a makerspace, this may be useful to you. And here is a detailed guide on 3D printing and 3D scanning that I have created before the launch of our makerspace.

I had many great questions and interesting discussion with the audience. If you have any comments and things to share, please write in the comments section below! If you are curious about the makerspace implementation timeline, please see the poster “Preparing for the Makerspace Implemnetation at UMB HS/HSL”  below, which my coworker Everly and I presented at the MLA (Medical Library Association) Meeting this spring.

(1) Slides for the program at ALA 2015 Conference, “Making a Makerspace Happen: A discussion of the current practices in library makerspaces and experimentation at University of Maryland, Baltimore.”

(2) Poster from the MLA 2015 Meeting: Preparing for the Makerspace Implemnetation at UMB HS/HSL


Libraries Meet the Second Machine Age

Below is my closing keynote, “Libraries Meet the Second Machine Age” given for the 2015 Library Technology Conference on March 19, 2015 at St. Paul, MN.  I want to send big thanks to the conference steering committee who invited me and those who watched and shared my keynote either on-site or online and their thoughts and ideas with me. The topic was a bit unusual for a library conference. So I am particularly grateful for the opportunity I had to talk about this kind of topic with many others. (And imagine the surprise when it was actually well received.) For those interested, the video recording of the keynote is at The slides are available at

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Hi everyone, thank you for having me today. I am very excited to be here at LTC with all of you, library technologists. We are passionate about applying technology, so that our library patrons can succeed in their education, their jobs, and their lives.

1. What is Technology to Us?

If you would indulge me for a minute, I would like to play this short video. This video shows Tomatan, a wearable robot that sits on your shoulder and feeds you nutritious tomatoes while you are running so that you can defeat fatigue. As you can see from this Japanese invention, technology is evolving in a way that we have not fully anticipated before. What is technology to us today? This article in Harvard Business Review talks about a study of how self-service kiosks at chain restaurants such as Taco Bell or McDonald’s change customer behavior. This study found that when people are ordering their food with these self-service kiosks or in-house apps, they tend to spend about 30% more on food than when they order with a human server.

2. Today’s Libraries as Technology Hubs

Libraries are really shaking off the traditional image as a quiet reading room with stacks of books. More and more media coverage of libraries today focuses on the innovative technology being introduced at libraries for library patrons to utilize and try it out.

Take Google Glass for example. I know it has been phased out by Google for a while now for various reasons. But when it was a coveted cutting-edge technology item, it was libraries that acquired these items and started lending them to library patrons, so that the public can try it out, feel what it is like to wear a pair of Google Glasses, and experience what is like to live in the future. MacPhaidin Library at Stonehill College is one of those libraries that lends Google Glass. Similarly, University of Michigan Library’s 3D Lab offers equipment and services for 3d printing, advanced visualization, rapid prototyping, 3d scanning, and motion capture. Chicago public library has the Maker Lab, where library patrons can learn how to design a 3D model and 3D-print the digital models they made at the library. Stacie Library at York University held a Hackfest.

People no longer come to libraries just to borrow books. They come to libraries to rent tools, try and learn new technologies, participate in a hackathon, practice and record a video presentation, hold online conference meetings, and group study in libraries’ many technology-enabled spaces such as these equipped with a large LCD screen that can mirror the small computer screen.

And we have taken up all of these new things while continuing the traditional library services, such as bibliographic instruction, reference, cataloging, circulation, serials management, and systems. Many of us also revamped our library websites, OPACs, and other patron-facing online systems, so that our patrons can have excellent user experience. Many of us try to provide uniform and consistent user experience between the library’s online and physical space. Due to our strong interests in improving library patrons’ user experience, UX has become a common term widely used among librarians nowadays. Considering these, it seems that libraries emerged as a sure winner of the digital revolution. We offer what the public wants the way they want as much as we can.

The mass media sure seem to have noticed it. This article in the Huffington Post, for example, calls libraries ‘hubs of technology.’ But is there something we are missing in this picture or something we can do better? Libraries advocate technology and innovation. But so do many other institutions. How are libraries different?

Today, I would like to talk about information and libraries in the second machine age. Two things may strike you odd. First, what is the second machine age? Second, why does it matter to information and libraries? I will explain what the second machine age is in a moment. But I want to also tell you that I bring up this concept of the second machine age because I think it provides an important context for the role that information and technology play in our library patrons’ daily lives.

3. The Second Machine Age and Innovation

What made the second machine age possible was the digital revolution. The digital revolution refers to the shift from analog, mechanical, and electronic technology to digital technology. This began in the late 1950s with the adoption of digital computers and digital records. The World Wide Web started in 1991 and it has been thriving with the exponential growth of computing power as you can see from this graph.

This graph shows how drastically one dollar’s worth of computer power grew from 1980 to 2010. In 1980, with one dollar you could get the computing power for doing a billion computations 7-8 times per second. Only after 30 years in 2010, we reached the point where one dollar’s worth of computing gets us a billion computations over 100 million times over, during one second. From 7-8 times to one hundred million times, that is indeed an exponential growth.

One of the defining characteristics of the second machine age is smart machines and innovation. So let’s take a look at how innovation have changed our lives.

Some innovations are awesome. As many of you would recognize, this is the book bot at NCSU Libraries. No longer do patrons need to browse the stacks to locate the book they want. All they need is to put a request on a computer, and this book bot will retrieve the title for you.

Some innovations are liberating. In 2013, Michael Ebeling set up the first 3D printing lab in South Sudan to manufacture 3d printed prosthetic arms for local children who lost their arms and cannot afford commercial prosthetics. This area had a lot of people who lost their limbs due to the war and the mines left from the war. A 3D printed prosthetic arm costs only about $100 to make. But the cost of a commercial one ranges from $3000 to $30000. The locals learned how to 3d print the parts and assemble them into a prosthetic arm. So this will continue to benefit the people in that area.

Some innovations can change the research practice at an academic field. Since its founding in 2005, Mechanical Turk, a crowd-sourcing task system from Amazon, has become an increasingly popular way for university researchers to recruit subjects for online experiments and surveys. It’s cheap, easy to use, has about 500,000 workers. But as these Turkers complete and participate in a dozen or more surveys and experiments everyday for years, they have become professional surveyees and experimentees. Consequently, the responses to research surveys and experiments conducted at the Mechanical Turk have begun to show skewed results.

Some innovations can be simply harmful. As most of you know, Lenovo, the world’s largest PC maker was caught having the spyware that is a a huge security risk for users installed on its OS to increase a little bit of their revenue from selling out users’ web-browsing patterns.

Some innovations can harbinger a huge change from what we currently consider natural. An example of this is self-driving cars to be programmed and manufactured by technology companies such as Apple and Google, probably in the near future. What would happen to the taxi-industry or the car insurance industry if these self-driving cars become reality?

Some innovations can make us uncomfortable. More and more stores now have self-checkout machines. You have to ring up your own purchases, pay, and bag them yourself. These businesses cut their costs and maximize their profit by transferring the service labor that they used to provide, now to customers. The same has been happening with banks. There are far fewer bank branches now than several years ago and even those that stay open have a drastically smaller number of tellers because banks replaced them with ATMs.

Needless to say, this kind of technology innovation that results in the mass-scale automation has a huge impact on the economy. And we have been living with that impact for quite a while now.

4. What Is the Second Machine Age?

Economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at MIT observed the seemingly contradictory phenomenon in the current economy that productivity increases while employment stagnates or decreases. Traditionally, the growing productivity have meant more jobs. For that reason, we often equate economic growth with more employment opportunities. For example, in the first machine age, productivity, employment, and median income all rose in tandem. But in the second machine age, the growth in productivity has been decoupled from jobs and income. As this graph shows, productivity continues to go up as machines replace the human labor, bringing in more efficiency. But this now happens with less employment and wage stagnation instead of more employment opportunities and higher wages.

This is what economists call “the second machine age”. And what is driving this new unwelcome trend is the rise of smart machines and their substitution for human labor.

Another economist Tyler Cowen at George Mason University also observed this phenomenon. He predicts that in the future, we will be living in the world where there are only two groups exist, highly-skilled and well-paid elites and the rest. He sees employment and wage polarization in the future due to the displacement effect of computerization. His book title “Average is over” summarizes this view. In this view, store clerks and bank tellers who lost their jobs due to the automated self-check out machines and ATMs were the first signs of this displacement effect of computerization.

So the simple and repetitive manual labor that can be easily automated by machines and even perform better than humans are going away. But the jobs that complement or improve the performance of machines are in high demand. Data scientist is one of such jobs. The digital revolution has enabled us to amass an astronomical amount of data. But in order to make sense of it and find usable patterns there, humans are still needed. Forbes called data scientist ‘the hottest jobs in IT.’ Harvard Business Review calls data scientist ‘the sexiest job of the 21st century.’

If you are familiar with chess, you will know that today’s world champions of chess  are not chess geniuses but teams of computers and individuals who are good at utilizing these computers to determine the best move at a given point in a chess match. These are called Centaur teams and they are better chess players than humans alone or or machines alone.

The  optimal interplay between humans and machines has become the new drive of today’s economic growth. Business and industry call for more highly skilled workforce who can work well with smart machines, while eliminating jobs that can be fully automated by machines. This thins out the middle class, diminishes the upward mobility, and increases the overall economic inequality.

A French economist, Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital, showed, the return on capital is higher than the return on labor. This trend will continue as technology advances. Income from capital, not earnings, predominates now at the top of the income distribution. So if you don’t have extra money to invest and can’t afford to live on the return of that investment, you have to work and your wage will be less than what you can make out of financial investment.

This is why Paul Krugman says we are entering a new gilded age.

So ok, this is what is happening in our world right now economically. What does that mean to libraries? We can see: (1) There will be a greater room for libraries to grow and contribute towards job-related continuing education and lifelong learning. (2) Libraries will have to play even a greater role in bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of making information and technology resources available as widely and evenly as possible.

5. Education: Preparing the Future Workforce

It is entirely possible that the current trend of decreasing job opportunities and wages paired with increasing economic growth and productivity may reverse rather than continue. Some think that advances in artificial intelligence and broad technological development may create employment possibilities that we cannot yet begin to imagine.

But whichever way the future goes, one thing is clear. Education will be a key to the growth of employment opportunities and economic growth in the age of smart machines. Humans need to be able to work more efficiently operating or working alongside with machines. And this requires more education.

As we can see from this graph, the years of schooling at age 30 has been increasing steadily since 1875 until now, although the rate of increase slowed quite a bit since the 1950s.

One of the mundane but undeniable goal of education is preparing the future workforce. Higher education in particular is being more and more closely aligned with the needs of today’s businesses and industry than ever before.Even just a few decades ago, higher education used to be deemed as a rare opportunity and time to pursue learning for the sake of learning, explore the truth in knowledge. I doubt many college students of today hold this view, however.

Some even goes as far as placing the value of higher education solely in meeting the needs of the labor market. Just about a month ago, the Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for a change in the university of Wisconsin’s mission statement in his state budget proposal with a $300 million cut . He suggested removing century-old language in the university mission statement such as “search for truth,” and “improve the human condition.” Instead, he suggested replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Today’s businesses and industry prefer employees who come with the necessary skills that can be immediately put to use at work to those who need to be trained on the job. This is clearly seen in the practice of internships and an increasing number of certificate programs.

This has pushed higher education in the direction of vocationalism, and led some universities to experiment further with competency-based education. The basic idea of competency-based education is to graduate students equipped with proven skills that can be immediately applied at workplaces. This contrasts with the traditional credit-based education where students complete a certain number of credit hours before they graduate. Competency-based education is still new, but three big-ten universities – Michigan, Purdue and the Wisconsin— are already experimenting with this model.

Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University said: With its transdisciplinary, competency-based bachelor’s degree, “Businesses will not have to guess whether these students really are ready for the market, ready for their business, ready for the world” because the degree will be given for only those with proven competencies.

University of Michigan offers a new master’s of health professions education, which is both competency-based and distance-education. The Univ. of Wisconsin System’s “Flexible Option” offers five competency-based online credentials, which range from a certificate to bachelor’s degrees.

These competency-based education meets the changing needs of today’s businesses and industry and can potentially reduce the time and the cost of educational programs by utilizing learning analytics and other educational technology tools to track and measure students’ progress and skills obtained. Without these technology tools, competency-based education is not possible. In this new climate of the labor market, learning never really ends because workers are expected to constantly renew their skills. They have no choice but to become self-directed lifelong learners to stay employed.

The closer alignment between education and the labor market even influences the K-12 education. The influence of digital revolution and the idealization of the start-up culture is an important background of the ongoing discussion about whether children should learn how to code (meaning computer program) at school. STEM is being highlighted more than any other subjects these days. Makerspaces and 3d printing are being introduced as early as at the level of elementary schools.

6. The Maker Movement as a Game Changer for Creativity and Innovation

We have seen how the changing economic conditions are influencing today’s education. As librarians, we all are in the business of education. And the direction of today’s education deserves some serious reflection. (A) Where does a library stand when the greatest value of education is primarily found in obtaining successful employment? (B) What is the role of a library when education is reduced to merely equipping students with the skills that will make them hirable?

Of course, I fully expect that many of you would argue that this may be an exaggeration. After all, don’t we champion more creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship than ever before in education and libraries? Don’t the maker movement and makerspaces, for example, demonstrate such things as creativity and innovation a great deal?

How about university-industry partnership and even libraries as start-up incubators? After all, many of us read articles and opinion pieces like this that argue for more industry-university partnership in higher ed and libraries as start-up incubators for budding entrepreneurs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every library has a lively makerspace, where all library patrons make things, form a learning community, tap on their imagination and creativity, and plan and start their businesses, which further generate more jobs and bring us out of the economic stagnation?

Probably, it was this idea that the maker movement can revive economy and create more jobs that led the White House to host the first-ever Maker Faire last year. There, President Obama called the US ‘the nation of makers.’

I do not deny that there are great benefits in the industry-university partnership. There is also an undeniable positive value in the maker movement and 3d printing. 3D printing democratized manufacturing by allowing individuals without access to huge machines and a factory to design and make things that they want, often at a much lower costs than commercial products.

3D printing can make an ingenious idea into reality such as this 3d printed book for the blind. As we all know, makerspaces and 3d printers can be useful tools in hands-on learning, which can drastically improve students’ learning process and outcome.

It is also driving cutting-edge innovation in life sciences. Surgeons can now improve the success rate of a complicated surgery drastically by having a 3d printed parts of a patient’s body in advance and plan for individual differences. 3D printing can also be utilized to produce personalized medications for individuals without incurring huge costs as a result. We are also looking at tissue and organ 3d-printing, which will result in revolutionary advances in regenerative medicine.

This is Dr. Hack at University of Maryland,  Baltimore, School of Dentistry. He teaches dental students digital dentistry. Digital dentistry means dentistry that uses new digital tools to improve the traditional dental treatment process. As you can see here, digital dentistry makes it possible to scan a patient’s tooth, create a digital scan of a crown, and then make the crown on the spot with a milling machine – similar to a 3d printer. Patients don’t have to hold the clay-like material in their mouth to create a mold and have a temporary filling done while waiting for the permanent crown is made. Digital dentistry drastically cuts down the time that a patient has to wait until the artificial tooth is made. In the past, this took 2-3 weeks. Digital dentistry enables dentists to complete the same process in only an hour or two.

7. What We Often Fail to See in the Mainstream Maker Movement

But there is another aspect to the maker movement and 3D printing that are rarely discussed and talked about. The maker movement was able to go mainstream in such a short time because it promises to deliver exactly what today’s businesses and industry need, the adaptable workforce. As a matter of fact, I think that the current maker culture represents the combination of neo-liberalism, techno-utopianism, the demand of the labor market for the adaptable workforce as the main background. Let me explain.

Thank about it. The kind of people who can spend hours and hours of their free time learning and doing 3d modeling and printing have certain advantages that a lot of people don’t. First, they have access to such technology. Second, they can afford investing their free time and money in learning such stuff. Third, they are already knowledgeable and tech-savvy enough to navigate this new technology scene and use it to their advantage.

But the current maker culture conveniently ignores all these differences that pre-exist between those makers and the rest. Instead, it simply depicts makers as the heroes of the ultimate freedom. Makers make things with their own hands, unlike the majority of those who simply consume things that are made by others. Makers are tech-savvy. And with their creativity and technical knowledge, they will not only innovate businesses, create more jobs, but also usher in more open and transparent society and culture for all of us to benefit. This is the promise of the idealized maker movement.

How wonderful would that be? Now we can all 3D-print our way to prosperity freedom. Only if it were so simple.

What is often overlooked, however, is that the current idealization of the maker culture unduly emphasizes individuals over systems & misplaces freedom where regulations are needed. It unfairly treats work as a hobby without pay, and spreads the unsustainable and unfair expectation that people should develop their skills constantly at their leisure outside of work.

This is neo-liberalism that ignores the issues of systematic inequality and reduces it to the matter of individual effort. The belief that technology can build a culture that is more transparent and open is techno-utopianism that tries to solve sociopolitical problems with technology alone. Instead, all we hear about the maker culture is how productive and innovative makers are. They are the future of the new “infinitely adaptable and flexible” workforce that the labor market is looking for.

8. Productivity Culture & Freedom to Self-Exploit

The most defining characteristics of our era are productivity and efficiency. These two have become a mantra in every realm of our life – corporate, public, labor, administrative, and education.And what accompanies productivity and efficiency is positivity and affirmation. We not only work harder to produce more and to be more efficient. We also do so with the can-do attitude, constantly ‘choosing’ to put more efforts towards work ‘with our own will.’ The current maker culture embodies all of these. We are all familiar with the statement that we are the managers of ourselves. Here, if we fail, all the faults lie with us, us alone.

Even those who write books are now expected to be more like entrepreneurs than writers. This Economist article describes how authors must be more businesslike than ever to succeed these days. Just writing well is not good enough any more.

But in the midst of all these frenzied pursuits for productivity and efficiency  in new capitalism and its hyper-competition environment, people experience burnout and depression. Even though we long for the work-life balance, many of us take work to home and tie ourselves to our smartphones. We end up answering work e-mails around the clock no matter what our salaried work hours are. We and our society together even made business and exhaustion a kind of status symbol, an evidence of self-importance. Take a look at this presentation title in this year’s Code4Lib Conference “How to Hack it as a Working Parent: or, Should Your Face be Bathed in the Blue Glow of a Phone at 2 AM?.” This testifies to this struggle that all of us experiences.

What is interesting about our society is that we have such a strong belief that we are all ‘free’ agents in all aspects of our lives, that in order to make a better life, we exploit ourselves to an unprecedented degree. The harder it is to find traditional employment, the more tech-savvy, the more creative, the more productive, and the more innovative we have to become. And while doing so, we forget that we are also shaped and limited by something much bigger than us and that we do not always have control over.

Short of income? Why don’t we share our rides in Uber and share our guest bedroom through Airbnb while starting a new business at a garage? Here is our opportunity to participate in the global community of sharers and to contribute to the budding alternative sharing economy.

But the truth is that these new start-up businesses like Uber and Airbnb are operating in the realm where appropriate regulations and taxes are absent while unfairly competing with the existing taxi and hotel businesses. This is how a 26-year-old got the Uber bill of $362.57 for a 20 min. ride on the Halloween night after celebrating her birthday with friends. She couldn’t pay her rent after this bill. In Barcelona, Airbnb and Uber are in the middle of a controversy.

As German Philosopher Byyngchul Han wrote in his essay published in Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Anyone without money doesn’t have access to sharing. Even in the age of access, people without money remain shut out. Airbnb, the community marketplace that turns homes into hotels, even saves on hospitality. The ideology of community or collaborative commons leads to total capitalization of the community. Aimless friendship is no longer possible. In a society of reciprocal evaluation, friendliness is also commercialized. One is friendly to get a better ranking online. The harsh logic of capitalism prevails in the so-called sharing economy, where, paradoxically, nobody is actually giving anything away voluntarily.” (English translation from German)

And on the other hand, if you are a Uber driver, you don’t have any protection and labor rights that drivers from usual taxi companies may have. Because you are now an entrepreneur responsible for everything except paying the premium for using the Uber service to get your customers. You are free to boost your productivity and your efficiency. But you are all alone when the social safety net is needed.

9. The Limits of Personal Donations

I do not deny that technology achieves wonderful things. I sound like a cynic but I am not.
When the news of a Detroit man who walks 21 miles everyday to work was reported, donations poured in reaching at almost $350,000. The Humans of New York photographer who posts people’s photographs with their stories on Facebook raised over $1 million dollars for inner-city students.These would not have been possible without technological advances such as crowd-sourcing online platforms such as GoFundMe.

But these are non-systematic solutions to systematic and structural problems. What bothers me most is that there are more than one person who needs the mass transportation to get to work because they cannot afford a car,  maintenance, and required insurance. There are more than one school that needs funding to provide better opportunities for children to experience the world outside of their small neighborhood. It’s not possible for us to organize fund-raising for each and every one of them. We need to build a system in which everyone can live a better life instead of rescuing a few selected individuals in a desperate need appealing to individuals’ good will and personal donations.

While crowd-sourced fund-raising such as these were well-meant by all means, it is an unsustainable solution to a systematic problem whose solutions should not be found in individual donations. Such solution can lead to avoiding more fundamental questions, such as why the established political, economic and legal systems resulted in the lack of mass transportation that people need to get to their workplaces in the first place, and how we can address those issues systematically.

10. The Role of Libraries is Never Apolitical.

Just like those crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns, as an educational institution, the role of libraries is never apolitical. The more prevalent and powerful an ideology is, the harder it is to discern and critique its influence on us. Whether we like it or not, schools, colleges, and libraries will continue to operate as an an agency to make students and patrons more hirable by improving their skills and providing more information, more resources, and more exposure to technology. The relationship of economic exchange in education – that is, students as clients and knowledge/skills as commodities – will continue and accelerate.

Cathy Eisenhower and Dolce Smith wrote in their book chapter “The Library as Stuck Place: Critical Pedagogy in the Corporate University,” the following: “In the current climate of accountability and austerity, libraries have become veritably “obsess[ed] with quantitative assessment, student satisfaction, outcomes, and consumerist attitudes towards learning.””

We can understand how we got there. But that does not mean that we need to stay there. We do not want knowledge to be treated as mere commodities. We do not want learning to be reduced to mere transactions that will build up to just enough competencies to make our patrons hirable. For that, we need to first and foremost understand that the role of libraries is never apolitical.

11. Libraries as a Socially Meaningful and Responsible Public Institution

Libraries need to find ways to establish their stance as a socially meaningful and responsible public institution and reflect that in the ways they operate. We should be able to serve library patrons with the full understanding of the current socioeconomic and political conditions that shape libraries and their fiscal realities. After all, ideologies are human constructs. They can be changed, but only when we understand them. This is why libraries value knowledge and understanding.

One of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy, Henri Giroux said “… one of the fundamental tasks of educators is to make sure that the future points the way to a more socially just world, a world in which critique and possibility —in conjunction with the values of reason, freedom, and equality— function to alter the grounds upon which life is lived.”

We celebrate and advocate creativity and innovation not just for more productivity and economic growth. The goal of productivity and growth cannot be more productivity and growth. Productivity and growth do not have an inherent value. The fact that we find this hard to accept testifies how steeped we are in the productivity culture.

As library technologists, we should ensure that our application of technology works towards altering the grounds upon which life is lived ‘for the better,’ not worse. As library technologists, we need to pay particularly close attention to the way technologies are meshed with ideology and what effect it has on the library’s mission and our patron’s lives. Technology is a powerful tool for boosting productivity and enabling innovation. But it loses its value when such productivity and innovation is pursued blindly.

12. Challenges for Libraries

There are challenges in re-establishing libraries as a more socially responsible and meaningful institution, however. In her blog post in Inside Higher Ed, Barbara Fister wrote “Surveys that Ithaka conducts periodically of faculty and of library directors show a growing gap in our beliefs about what libraries are for. Increasingly, library directors (with the exception of those at research libraries) assign more importance to the learning that happens in libraries and less to maintaining collections. (On the other hand) Faculty surveyed think the most important role of the library is the provision of the information they want for their research and teaching.”

Fister perceptibly notes that the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy articulates how ambitious librarians are about the kind of learning that academic librarians want to promote. This framework indeed intends to teach students how to think about information and help them understand that information and knowledge are socially constructed. Here what librarians set out to achieve in educating our library patrons, so that they can effectively and consciously navigate today’s complex information landscape, goes beyond the traditional expectation of our library stakeholders.

(As a side note, it would be worthwhile to think about how this ACRL framework for information literacy translates to the realm of technology. Just as with information, understanding the social context and effects of the technology adoption and use becomes more and more critical as technology pervades our daily lives.)

I believe that the changing focus of libraries from collections to learning, particularly ‘critical learning,’ is the right one. I also believe that librarians have been successfully developing more innovative ways to make that learning happen in a more relevant and exciting manner to patrons.

Here, for example, librarians at Mount Holyoke College Library in MA  and Whittier College Library in CA  organized Exciting Food workshop. This workshop was designed to familiarize students with various citation styles. Librarians showcased the citations of the recipes for each snack and the recipes came from a range of sources from books, websites, magazines to archival materials.

The Toronto Public Library now let library patrons to check out other humans at its “Human Library” event. The idea of the Human Library first emerged about a decade ago. It was designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding by informally talking to “people on loan” who come from various backgrounds. The Toronto Public Library held its first Human Library event at five branches on Nov. 6, attracting more than 200 users who checked out the likes of a police officer, a comedian, a sex-worker-turned-club-owner, a model and a survivor of cancer, homelessness, and poverty.

The Human Library project suggests a way in which libraries that primarily deal with knowledge and information can at the same time operate as a more socially responsible and meaningful institution in the community, not just providing the best value for money for borrowed books, other resources, and library services. In this climate of the commodification of education and the constant demand on libraries to prove its ROI value, it will be a long way to hash out the details of the library operation that will achieve such a goal – going beyond equipping patrons with desired job skills and providing just necessary information resources.

But here are some pointers that libraries can take from other fields.

13. Ideas from Fields Outside of Libraries

Design and Violence is a project by the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. It curates and presents selected design objects and invite experts from fields as diverse as science, philosophy, literature, music, film, journalism, and politics to respond to those design objects and spark a conversation with all readers.

Here is an example post by Steve Pinker, Harvard College professor and a well known psychologist. He writes about a million dollar block. A million dollar block refers to a single city block, residents from which are incarcerated and states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to keep them in jail. 1 million dollars just for the residents of a single city block because the concentration of the incarcerated in those blocks are that high. These maps of those “million dollar blocks” show the city-prison-city-prison migration flow in five of the nation’s cities.

In a different post, Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College professor, discusses a civil disobedience suit designed to be worn by street protesters equipped with a wireless camera on the head and a speaker on the chest to protect them from police batons. Not necessarily practical but quite symbolic.

Here, the National Aquarium and Climate Central in Baltimore invite Maryland middle and high school students to participate in a contest that examines the impacts of climate change.

Biohackers are developing low-cost and non-toxic ink from bacteria as an alternative to toxic and costly commercial ink. Boihackers are known for seeking solutions to significant problems, which are not addressed by big pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies because they are not sufficiently profitable.

“Be My Eyes” App invites sighted people to sign up to help the blind to be their eyes in the time of need. You can help the blind through this mobile app with things such as if a blind person turned off the bathroom light indeed or if she or he is safe to cross the busy intersection when the traffic lights are broken.

When libraries consider in which direction they will pursue their next exciting project, remembering that libraries can act as a more socially responsible and meaningful institution than now as well as an information & knowledge sharing institution – while pursuing that project- can make a big difference.

We live in an increasingly racially segregated residential communities. This article in VOX shows that residential segregation rose dramatically throughout the US over the first half of the 20th century. This graph demonstrates this dramatic rise of county-level segregation in 1880 and 1940 for the Eastern US. All areas of the US experienced rising residential segregation levels, both North and South as well as urban and rural.

We also increasingly live a filter bubble which makes us blind to the perspectives and opinions different from ours. This is the result of personalized relevance rankings by search engine companies like Google and Yahoo. This is shown when we search for BP, for example, one of us gets the news results about BP’s oil spills while the other only gets the BP’s stock prices and the company information.

We also live in the times in which more and more micro-power structures are being openly questioned. Many of you would have seen this Rumblr titled “Men taking up too much space on the train” and thought “wow finally people are speaking up.” Similarly “mansplanation” has become a legitimate word that refers to the phenomenon in which men assume they know more when they are talking to women when they actually don’t. These are not new phenomena. These have been happening for decades. But we have been silent about them for many many years. Same-sex marriage is legal now in 37 states. Sexists remarks are no longer tolerated in professional conferences. A racist tweet can literally cost someone a job just in a flight’s time. As shown in the Ferguson story, current news reach us days earlier through the social media than through the mass media. As you can see here, the Ferguson story started appearing in Twitter on Saturday Aug 9, 2014 while the cable news networks didn’t get the first report out until Monday Aug 11,2014.

Libraries can play a pivotal role in educating people in areas that are neglected by other institutions such as filter bubble, residential segregation, assistive technologies, the awareness of environmental issues, and socioeconomic/ political problems in communities.

I believe that libraries can be a little bit like the Left Shark that did its own thing and was widely appreciated and adored.

In the beginning of this keynote I asked “many institutions advocate technology and innovation; how are libraries different?” This is our time to answer that question.

14. Librarianship Is All about Money and Power.

Lastly, I want to read you this anecdote from a wonderful article I recently read. This anecdote is about a librarian.

“One of my colleges is a quiet, diminutive lady, who might call up the notion of Marion the Librarian. When she meets people at parties and identifies herself, they sometimes say condescendingly, “A librarian, how nice. Tell me, what is it like to be a librarian?” She replies, “Essentially it is all about money and power.”

Where else other than at libraries, shall we find the critical distance for reflecting on today’s constant push for productivity and efficiency?

(This was written to be more as my notes, and so it is not the exact script of my talk. But hopefully, it would be still useful to some folks. All the references in my slides were given as URLs in each slide, and you can grab them all easily in the “Transcripts” section on my slides in


Using the Stripe API to Collect Library Fines by Accepting Online Payments

*** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Sep. 10, 2014.***

Recently, my library has been considering accepting library fines via online. Currently, many library fines of a small amount that many people owe are hard to collect. As a sum, the amount is significant enough. But each individual fines often do not warrant even the cost for the postage and the staff work that goes into creating and sending out the fine notice letter. Libraries that are able to collect fines through the bursar’s office of their parent institutions may have a better chance at collecting those fines. However, others can only expect patrons to show up with or to mail a check to clear their fines. Offering an online payment option for library fines is one way to make the library service more user-friendly to those patrons who are too busy to visit the library in person or to mail a check but are willing to pay online with their credit cards.

If you are new to the world of online payment, there are several terms you need to become familiar with. The following information from the article in SixRevisions is very useful to understand those terms.1

  • ACH (Automated Clearing House) payments: Electronic credit and debit transfers. Most payment solutions use ACH to send money (minus fees) to their customers.
  • Merchant Account: A bank account that allows a customer to receive payments through credit or debit cards. Merchant providers are required to obey regulations established by card associations. Many processors act as both the merchant account as well as the payment gateway.
  • Payment Gateway: The middleman between the merchant and their sponsoring bank. It allows merchants to securely pass credit card information between the customer and the merchant and also between merchant and the payment processor.
  • Payment Processor: A company that a merchant uses to handle credit card transactions. Payment processors implement anti-fraud measures to ensure that both the front-facing customer and the merchant are protected.
  • PCI (the Payment Card Industry) Compliance: A merchant or payment gateway must set up their payment environment in a way that meets the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Often, the same company functions as both payment gateway and payment processor, thereby processing the credit card payment securely. Such a product is called ‘Online payment system.’ Meyer’s article I have cited above also lists 10 popular online payment systems: Stripe, Authorize.Net, PayPal, Google Checkout, Amazon Payments, Dwolla, Braintree, Samurai by FeeFighters, WePay, and 2Checkout. Bear in mind that different payment gateways, merchant accounts, and bank accounts may or may not work together, your bank may or may not work as a merchant account, and your library may or may not have a merchant account. 2

Also note that there are fees in using online payment systems like these and that different systems have different pay structures. For example, has the $99 setup fee and then charges $20 per month plus a $0.10 per-transaction fee. Stripe charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction with no setup or monthly fees. Fees for mobile payment solutions with a physical card reader such as Square may go up much higher.

Among various online payment systems, I picked Stripe because it was recommended on the Code4Lib listserv. One of the advantages for using Stripe is that it acts as both the payment gateway and the merchant account. What this means is that your library does not have to have a merchant account to accept payment online. Another big advantage of using Stripe is that you do not have to worry about the PCI compliance part of your website because the Stripe API uses a clever way to send the sensitive credit card information over to the Stripe server while keeping your local server, on which your payment form sits, completely blind to such sensitive data. I will explain this in more detail later in this post.

Below I will share some of the code that I have used to set up Stripe as my library’s online payment option for testing. This may be of interest to you if you are thinking about offering online payment as an option for your patrons or if you are simply interested in how an online payment API works. Even if your library doesn’t need to collect library fines via online, an online payment option can be a handy tool for a small-scale fund-raising drive or donation.

The first step to take to make Stripe work is getting an API keys. You do not have to create an account to get API keys for testing. But if you are going to work on your code more than one day, it’s probably worth getting an account. Stripe API has excellent documentation. I have read ‘Getting Started’ section and then jumped over to the ‘Examples’ section, which can quickly get you off the ground. ( I found an example by Daniel Schröter in GitHub from the list of examples in the Stripe’s Examples section and decided to test out. ( Most of the time, getting an example code requires some probing and tweaking such as getting all the required library downloaded and sorting out the paths in the code and adding API keys. This one required relatively little work.

Now, let’s take a look at the form that this code creates.


In order to create a form of my own for testing, I decided to change a few things in the code.

  1. Add Patron & Payment Details.
  2. Allow custom amount for payment.
  3. Change the currency from Euro to US dollars.
  4. Configure the validation for new fields.
  5. Hide the payment form once the charge goes through instead of showing the payment form below the payment success message.


4. can be done as follows. The client-side validation is performed by Bootstrapvalidator jQuery Plugin. So you need to get the syntax correct to get the code, which now has new fields, to work properly.

This is the Javascript that allows you to send the data submitted to your payment form to the Stripe server. First, include the Stripe JS library (line 24). Include JQuery, Bootstrap, Bootstrap Form Helpers plugin, and Bootstrap Validator plugin (line 25-28). The next block of code includes an event handler for the form, which send the payment information to the Stripe via AJAX when the form is submitted. Stripe will validate the payment information and then return a token that identifies this particular transaction.


When the token is received, this code calls for the function, stripeResponseHandler(). This function, stripeResponseHandler() checks if the Stripe server did not return any error upon receiving the payment information and, if no error has been returned, attaches the token information to the form and submits the form.


The server-side PHP script then checks if the Stripe token has been received and, if so, creates a charge to send it to Stripe as shown below. I am using PHP here, but Stripe API supports many other languages than PHP such as Ruby and Python. So you have many options. The real payment amount appears here as part of the charge array in line 326. If the charge succeeds, the payment success message is stored in a div to be displayed.


The reason why you do not have to worry about the PCI compliance with Stripe is that Stripe API asks to receive the payment information via AJAX and the input fields of sensitive information does not have the name attribute and value. (See below for the Card Holder Name and Card Number information as an example; Click to bring up the clear version of the image.)  By omitting the name attribute and value, the local server where the online form sits is deprived of any means to retrieve the information in those input fields submitted through the form. Since sensitive information does not touch the local server at all, PCI compliance for the local server becomes no concern. To clarify, not all fields in the payment form need to be deprived of the name attribute. Only the sensitive fields that you do not want your web server to have access to need to be protected this way. Here, for example, I am assigning the name attribute and value to fields such as name and e-mail in order to use them later to send a e-mail receipt.

(NB. Please click images to see the enlarged version.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 8.01.08 PM

Now, the modified form has ‘Fee Category’, custom ‘Payment Amount,’ and some other information relevant to the billing purpose of my library.


When the payment succeeds, the page changes to display the following message.


Stripe provides a number of fake card numbers for testing. So you can test various cases of failures. The Stripe website also displays all payments and related tokens and charges that are associated with those payments. This greatly helps troubleshooting. One thing that I noticed while troubleshooting is that Stripe logs sometimes do lag behind. That is, when a payment would succeed, associated token and charge may not appear under the “Logs” section immediately. But you will see the payment shows up in the log. So you will know that associated token and charge will eventually appear in the log later.


Once you are ready to test real payment transactions, you need to flip the switch from TEST to LIVE located on the top left corner. You will also need to replace your API keys for ‘TESTING’ (both secret and public) with those for ‘LIVE’ transaction. One more thing that is needed before making your library getting paid with real money online is setting up SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) for your live online payment page. This is not required for testing but necessary for processing live payment transactions. It is not a very complicated work. So don’t be discouraged at this point. You just have to buy a security certificate and put it in your Web server. Speak to your system administrator for how to get the SSL set up for your payment page. More information about setting up SSL can be found in the Stripe documentation I just linked above.

My library has not yet gone live with this online payment option. Before we do, I may make some more modifications to the code to fit the staff workflow better, which is still being mapped out. I am also planning to place the online payment page behind the university’s Shibboleth authentication in order to cut down spam and save some tedious data entry by library patrons by getting their information such as name, university email, student/faculty/staff ID number directly from the campus directory exposed through Shibboleth and automatically inserting it into the payment form fields.

In this post, I have described my experience of testing out the Stripe API as an online payment solution. As I have mentioned above, however, there are many other online payment systems out there. Depending your library’s environment and financial setup, different solutions may work better than others. To me, not having to worry about the PCI compliance by using Stripe was a big plus. If your library accepts online payment, please share what solution you chose and what factors led you to the particular online payment system in the comments.

* This post has been based upon my recent presentation, “Accepting Online Payment for Your Library and ‘Stripe’ as an Example”, given at the Code4Lib DC Unconference. See the slides  below..

  1. Meyer, Rosston. “10 Excellent Online Payment Systems.” Six Revisions, May 15, 2012.
  2. Ullman, Larry. “Introduction to Stripe.” Larry Ullman, October 10, 2012.

Why I Don’t Talk Much about Gender or Race & Why I Support the Ada Initiative

I rarely talk about gender or race issues.  Not because I am not interested but because I am afraid that I may say things that are viewed negatively by a socially acceptable norm.  As a person who grew up in one country with one culture (the Confusian culture that is notoriously preferential to men to boot) and then moved to, live, and now work in another country with a completely different culture (just as discriminatory to women and minorities I am afraid) and who often has opinions that are different from those held by the majorities in both societies, I am acutely aware of various disadvantages, backlashes, and penalties that can result as a consequence of a minor slip and the pervasive social norm of inequality applied to women and racial/ethnic/gender minorities reinforced in everyday life.

I hate telling stories about how things went all wrong because it can reinforce negative sentiments such as frustration, anger, and the general sentiment of feeling pathetic about oneself. But I will make an exception and tell you this one story in the hope that you will join me in supporting the Ada Initiative.

A few years ago, in one of the library mailing listservs, the idea of creating a sub-group of women among the members was floated up. I do not recall all the context now but in relation to that idea, which I supported, I posed a question to the listserv specifically directed at only women.  To my dismay, this did not stop any men on the mailing list to liberally exercise their freedom to object to the idea in the name of the good of the listserv.  The idea was attacked as something akin to a separatist movement and was vehemently objected by a man who is regarded as very influential in that venue. My response to this was simply “how dare you,” not personally to me but to the entire group of women in the listerv. The question was submitted to women. No opinion was solicited from men.

But this is not why I brought up this story. The reason why I brought up this story is that I wanted to tell you what I did after this incident.  I didn’t respond back and communicate my indignation, frustration, and anger.  I simply disengaged myself from the conversation and abandoned the whole thread.  I didn’t want to have a conversation with this famous person who was so blatantly unaware of his faux pas. (Although his describing that idea as a separatist movement was not at all fair, I now see the point that it is actually a valid worry as women are not a minority but 50 percent of the population. And we all know well that the majority in the library is indeed women, not men. Potentially, the current listserv may have to compete with this new one -if the new one succeeds- and may lose its precious prestige and some other social privileges that go with the membership for some people.)

I justified my behavior by telling myself that I don’t have enough energy to deal with this right now. Fortunately, women who are much wiser, more articulate, and more courageous than me stood up and wrote great replies to this person.  Because I decided to not attach myself to the thread any longer, I also sent a personal email to these women who were my heroes.  At that time, I thought that was a good thing to do because I was so relieved by and hugely appreciated the fact that someone was taking the stance and was articulating the reasons in such a cool manner that I could not maintain. But looking back I can’t but think that it was so cowardly of me not openly supporting them. I have to add that this realization only dawned on me when the same thing happened to me only in the reverse role this time around. Another librarian sent me a private Twitter message personally thanking me about what I said openly. This taught me the lesson that what I meant as kudos to someone could have felt to that person like a punch in the gut instead. I thought about this incident a lot always as one of my (many) failings, although I only once dared to vent about it to one of my male colleagues because I knew he wouldn’t mind listening to me. (Our internalization of the social norm is indeed very deep even when we are critical of the very norm.)

It wasn’t until at last year’s Code4Lib pre-conference, “Technology, Librarianship, and Gender: Moving the conversation forward,” organized by Lisa Rabey and attended by many awesome people including Valerie Aurora from the Ada Initiative — She also gave the keynote at the Code4Lib Conference — that I was told for the first time that those who belong to minority groups do NOT have the obligation to always speak up, defend their positions, etc., etc. That was a refreshing thought that respects the additional burden that many minorities carry, the feeling of having to be a vocal champion of a cause at a personal level whether you are exhausted and sick or all or not. I also loved hearing that one thing that those with existing privileges can and should do is to listen to those without such privileges and their experience, not shouting out their own thoughts and dominating the conversation. It recognizes the important fact that the voice of sympathetic advocates should never overpower that of women and racial/ethnic/gender minorities. To be sustainable, a social change must be implemented by those who need and want the change by themselves.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that being a woman in technology can complicate things. (And I only told you just one story, and I am not even touching the issue of belonging to a racial/ethnic minority group here.) How many more awesome and productive things would women be able to achieve if they do not have to deal with this kind of crap that turns up all the time when they are simply trying to get things done?

I support the Ada Initiative because it acknowledges and articulates common issues often unacknowledged, opens and legitimizes a conversation about those issues, and helps organizations institute and establish more just and more equitable norms with useful and tangible tools and resources, thereby leveling the playing field for everyone. This results in benefiting all, not just women and minorities in race and gender.


Consider donating to the Ada Initiative below or at Share your reasons in Twitter with the hashtag, #libs4ada, and check out many thoughtful and amazing posts people wrote about their reasons for supporting the Ada Initiative. (If you think that this is all irrelevant because you have never been physically harmed or threatened in librarianship, check out this terrific post by the Library Loon.) I invite you to become an ally to those who are with less privileges than you. Thanks for reading this post!

Donation button

Donate to the Ada Initiative

If you are not familiar with the Ada initiative, here is some information from its website.

The Ada Initiative helps women get and stay involved in open source, open data, open education, and other areas of free and open technology and culture. These communities are changing the future of global society. If we want that society to be socially just and to serve the interests of all people, women must be involved in its creation and organization.
The Ada Initiative is a feminist organization. We strive to serve the interests and needs of women in open technology and culture who are at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, including disabled women, women of color, LBTQ women, and women from around the world.

We are making a difference in open technology and culture by:

  • Supporting and connecting women in these communities
  • Changing the culture to better fit women, instead of changing women to fit the culture
  • Helping women overcome internalized sexism that is the result of living within the existing culture
  • Asking men and influential community members to take responsibility for culture change
  • Giving people the tools they need to change their communities (e.g., policies and ally skills)
  • Creating sustainable systems to support feminist activists in these communities
  • Being the change we want to see by making our own events and communities safer and more inclusive


Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on March 23, 2014. ***

The 2014 Horizon Report is mostly a report on emerging technologies. Many academic librarians carefully read its Higher Ed edition issued every year to learn about the upcoming technology trends. But this year’s Horizon Report Higher Ed edition was interesting to me more in terms of how the current state of higher education is being reflected on the report than in terms of the technologies on the near-term (one-to-five year) horizon of adoption. Let’s take a look.

A. Higher Ed or Higher Professional Ed?

To me, the most useful section of this year’s Horizon Report was ‘Wicked Challenges.’ The significant backdrop behind the first challenge “Expanding Access” is the fact that the knowledge economy is making higher education more and more closely and directly serve the needs of the labor market. The report says, “a postsecondary education is becoming less of an option and more of an economic imperative. Universities that were once bastions for the elite need to re-examine their trajectories in light of these issues of access, and the concept of a credit-based degree is currently in question.” (p.30)

Many of today’s students enter colleges and universities with a clear goal, i.e. obtaining a competitive edge and a better earning potential in the labor market. The result that is already familiar to many of us is the grade and the degree inflation and the emergence of higher ed institutions that pursue profit over even education itself. When the acquisition of skills takes precedence to the intellectual inquiry for its own sake, higher education comes to resemble higher professional education or intensive vocational training. As the economy almost forces people to take up the practice of lifelong learning to simply stay employed, the friction between the traditional goal of higher education – intellectual pursuit for its own sake – and the changing expectation of higher education — creative, adaptable, and flexible workforce – will only become more prominent.

Naturally, this socioeconomic background behind the expansion of postsecondary education raises the question of where its value lies. This is the second wicked challenge listed in the report, i.e. “Keeping Education Relevant.” The report says, “As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.” (p.32)

B. Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed

Today’s economy and labor market strongly prefer employees who can be hired, retooled, or let go at the same pace with the changes in technology as technology becomes one of the greatest driving force of economy. Workers are expected to enter the job market with more complex skills than in the past, to be able to adjust themselves quickly as important skills at workplaces change, and increasingly to take the role of a creator/producer/entrepreneur in their thinking and work practices. Credit-based degree programs fall short in this regard. It is no surprise that the report selected “Agile Approaches to Change” and “Shift from Students as Consumers to Students as Creators” as two of the long-range and the mid-range key trends in the report.

A strong focus on creativity, productivity, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, however, puts a heavier burden on both sides of education, i.e. instructors and students (full-time, part-time, and professional). While positive in emphasizing students’ active learning, the Flipped Classroom model selected as one of the key trends in the Horizon report often means additional work for instructors. In this model, instructors not only have to prepare the study materials for students to go over before the class, such as lecture videos, but also need to plan active learning activities for students during the class time. The Flipped Classroom model also assumes that students should be able to invest enough time outside the classroom to study.

The unfortunate side effect or consequence of this is that those who cannot afford to do so – for example, those who have to work on multiple jobs or have many family obligations, etc. – will suffer and fall behind. Today’s students and workers are now being asked to demonstrate their competencies with what they can produce beyond simply presenting the credit hours that they spent in the classroom. Probably as a result of this, a clear demarcation between work, learning, and personal life seems to be disappearing. “The E-Learning Predictions for 2014 Report” from EdTech Europe predicts that ‘Learning Record Stores’, which track, record, and quantify an individual’s experiences and progress in both formal and informal learning, will be emerging in step with the need for continuous learning required for today’s job market. EdTech Europe also points out that learning is now being embedded in daily tasks and that we will see a significant increase in the availability and use of casual and informal learning apps both in education but also in the workplace.

C. Quantified Self and Learning Analytics

Among the six emerging technologies in the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education edition, ‘Quantified Self’ is by far the most interesting new trend. (Other technologies should be pretty familiar to those who have been following the Horizon Report every year, except maybe the 4D printing mentioned in the 3D printing section. If you are looking for the emerging technologies that are on a farther horizon of adoption, check out this article from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which lists technologies such as screenless display and brain-computer interfaces.)

According to the report, “Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.” (ACRL TechConnect has covered personal data monitoring and action analytics previously.) Quantified self is enabled by the wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit or Google Glass, and the Mobile Web. Wearable technology devices automatically collect personal data. Fitbit, for example, keeps track of one’s own sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned. And the Mobile Web is the platform that can store and present such personal data directly transferred from those devices. Through these devices and the resulting personal data, we get to observe our own behavior in a much more extensive and detailed manner than ever before. Instead of deciding on which part of our life to keep record of, we can now let these devices collect about almost all types of data about ourselves and then see which data would be of any use for us and whether any pattern emerges that we can perhaps utilize for the purpose of self-improvement.

Quantified Self is a notable trend not because it involves an unprecedented technology but because it gives us a glimpse of what our daily lives will be like in the near future, in which many of the emerging technologies that we are just getting used to right now – the mobile, big data, wearable technology – will come together in full bloom. Learning Analytics,’ which the Horizon Report calls “the educational application of ‘big data’” (p.38) and can be thought of as the application of Quantified Self in education, has been making a significant progress already in higher education. By collecting and analyzing the data about student behavior in online courses, learning analytics aims at improving student engagement, providing more personalized learning experience, detecting learning issues, and determining the behavior variables that are the significant indicators of student performance.

While privacy is a natural concern for Quantified Self, it is to be noted that we ourselves often willingly participate in personal data monitoring through the gamified self-tracking apps that can be offensive in other contexts. In her article, “Gamifying the Quantified Self,” Jennifer Whitson writes:

Gamified self-tracking and participatory surveillance applications are seen and embraced as play because they are entered into freely, injecting the spirit of play into otherwise monotonous activities. These gamified self-improvement apps evoke a specific agency—that of an active subject choosing to expose and disclose their otherwise secret selves, selves that can only be made penetrable via the datastreams and algorithms which pin down and make this otherwise unreachable interiority amenable to being operated on and consciously manipulated by the user and shared with others. The fact that these tools are consumer monitoring devices run by corporations that create neoliberal, responsibilized subjectivities become less salient to the user because of this freedom to quit the game at any time. These gamified applications are playthings that can be abandoned at whim, especially if they fail to pleasure, entertain and amuse. In contrast, the case of gamified workplaces exemplifies an entirely different problematic. (p.173; emphasis my own and not by the author)

If libraries and higher education institutions becomes active in monitoring and collecting students’ learning behavior, the success of an endeavor of that kind will depend on how well it creates and provides the sense of play to students for their willing participation. It will be also important for such kind of learning analytics project to offer an opt-out at any time and to keep the private data confidential and anonymous as much as possible.

D. Back to Libraries

The changed format of this year’s Horizon Report with the ‘Key Trends’ and the ‘Significant Challenges’ has shown the forces in play behind the emerging technologies to look out for in higher education much more clearly. A big take-away from this report, I believe, is that in spite of the doubt about the unique value of higher education, the demand will be increasing due to the students’ need to obtain a competitive advantage in entering or re-entering the workforce. And that higher ed institutions will endeavor to create appropriate means and tools to satisfy students’ need of acquiring and demonstrating skills and experience in a way that is appealing to future employers beyond credit-hour based degrees, such as competency-based assessments and a badge system, is another one.

Considering that the pace of change at higher education tends to be slow, this can be an opportunity for academic libraries. Both instructors and students are under constant pressure to innovate and experiment in their teaching and learning processes. Instructors designing the Flipped Classroom model may require a studio where they can record and produce their lecture videos. Students may need to compile portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for job interviews. Returning adult students may need to acquire the habitual lifelong learning practices with the help from librarians. Local employers and students may mutually benefit from a place where certain co-projects can be tried. As a neutral player on the campus with tech-savvy librarians and knowledgeable staff, libraries can create a place where the most palpable student needs that are yet to be satisfied by individual academic departments or student services are directly addressed. Maker labs, gamified learning or self-tracking modules, and a competency dashboard are all such examples. From the emerging technology trends in higher ed, we see that the learning activities in higher education and academic libraries will be more and more closely tied to the economic imperative of constant innovation.

Academic libraries may even go further and take up the role of leading the changes in higher education. In his blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim suggests exactly this and also nicely sums up the challenges that today’s higher education faces:

  • How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?
  • How do we increase quality while increasing access?
  • How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

How will academic libraries be able to lead the changes necessary for higher education to successfully meet these challenges? It is a question that will stay with academic libraries for many years to come.

Query a Google Spreadsheet like a Database with Google Visualization API Query Language

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Dec. 4, 2013. ***

Libraries make much use of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are easy to create, and most library staff are familiar with how to use them. But they can quickly get unwieldy as more and more data are entered. The more rows and columns a spreadsheet has, the more difficult it is to browse and quickly identify specific information. Creating a searchable web application with a database at the back-end is a good solution since it will let users to quickly perform a custom search and filter out unnecessary information. But due to the staff time and expertise it requires, creating a full-fledged searchable web database application is not always a feasible option at many libraries.

Creating a MS Access custom database or using a free service such as Zoho can be an alternative to creating a searchable web database application. But providing a read-only view for MS Access database can be tricky although possible. MS Access is also software locally installed in each PC and therefore not necessarily available for the library staff when they are not with their work PCs on which MS Access is installed. Zoho Creator offers a way to easily convert a spreadsheet into a database, but its free version service has very limited features such as maximum 3 users, 1,000 records, and 200 MB storage.

Google Visualization API Query Language provides a quick and easy way to query a Google spreadsheet and return and display a selective set of data without actually converting a spreadsheet into a database. You can display the query result in the form of a HTML table, which can be served as a stand-alone webpage. All you have to do is to construct a custom URL.

A free version of Google spreadsheet has a limit in size and complexity. For example, one free Google spreadsheet can have no more than 400, 000 total cells. But you can purchase more Google Drive storage and also query multiple Google spreadsheets (or even your own custom databases) by using Google Visualization API Query Language and Google Chart Libraries together. (This will be the topic of my next post. You can also see the examples of using Google Chart Libraries and Google Visualization API Query Language together in my presentation slides at the end of this post.)

In this post, I will explain the parameters of Google Visualization API Query Language and how to construct a custom URL that will query, return, and display a selective set of data in the form of an HTML page.

A. Display a Google Spreadsheet as an HTML page

The first step is to identify the URL of the Google spreadsheet of your choice.

The URL below opens up the third sheet (Sheet 3) of a specific Google spreadsheet. There are two parameters you need to pay attention inside the URL: key and gid.

This breaks down the parameters in a way that is easier to view:



Key is a unique identifier to each Google spreadsheet. So you need to use that to cretee a custom URL later that will query and display the data in this spreadsheet. Gid specifies which sheet in the spreadsheet you are opening up. The gid for the first sheet is 0; the gid for the third sheet is 2.

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 9.44.29 AM

Let’s first see how Google Visualization API returns the spreadsheet data as a DataTable object. This is only for those who are curious about what goes on behind the scenes. You can see that for this view, the URL is slightly different but the values of the key and the gid parameter stay the same.

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 9.56.03 AM

In order to display the same result as an independent HTML page, all you need to do is to take the key and the gid parameter values of your own Google spreadsheet and construct the custom URL following the same pattern shown below.


Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 9.59.11 AM

By the way, if the URL you created doesn’t work, it is probably because you have not encoded it properly. Try this handy URL encoder/decoder page to encode it by hand or you can use JavaScript encodeURIComponent() function.
Also if you want the URL to display the query result without people logging into Google Drive first, make sure to set the permission setting of the spreadsheet to be public. On the other hand, if you need to control access to the spreadsheet only to a number of users, you have to remind your users to first go to Google Drive webpage and log in with their Google account before clicking your URLs. Only when the users are logged into Google Drive, they will be able see the query result.

B. How to Query a Google Spreadsheet

We have seen how to create a URL to show an entire sheet of a Google spreadsheet as an HTML page above. Now let’s do some querying, so that we can pick and choose what data the table is going to display instead of the whole sheet. That’s where the Query Language comes in handy.

Here is an example spreadsheet with over 50 columns and 500 rows.


Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.15.41 AM

What I want to do is to show only column B, C, D, F where C contains ‘Florida.’ How do I do this? Remember the URL we created to show the entire sheet above?


There we had no value for the tq parameter. This is where we insert our query.

Google Visualization API Query Language is pretty much the same as SQL. So if you are familiar with SQL, forming a query is dead simple. If you aren’t SQL is also easy to learn.

  • The query should be written like this:
  • After encoding it properly, you get something like this:
  • Add it to the tq parameter and don’t forget to also specify the key:

I am omitting the gid parameter here because there is only one sheet in this spreadsheet but you can add it if you would like. You can also omit it if the sheet you want is the first sheet. Ta-da!

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.26.13 AM

Compare this with the original spreadsheet view. I am sure you can appreciate how the small effort put into creating a URL pays back in terms of viewing an unwieldy large spreadsheet manageable.

You can also easily incorporate functions such as count() or sum() into your query to get an overview of the data you have in the spreadsheet.

  • select D,F count(C) where (B contains ‘author name’) group by D, F

For example, this query above shows how many articles a specific author published per year in each journal. The screenshot of the result is below and you can see it for yourself here:,F,count(C)+where+%28B+contains+%27Agoulnik%27%29+group+by+D,F&key=0AqAPbBT_k2VUdEtXYXdLdjM0TXY1YUVhMk9jeUQ0NkE

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 11.34.25 AM

Take this spread sheet as another example.


This simple query below displays the library budget by year. For those who are unfamiliar with ‘pivot‘, pivot table is a data summarization tool. The query below asks the spreadsheet to calculate the total of all the values in the B column (Budget amount for each category) by the values found in the C column (Years).

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 11.46.49 AM

This is another example of querying the spreadsheet connected to my library’s Literature Search request form. The following query asks the spreadsheet to count the number of literature search requests by Research Topic (=column I) that were received in 2011 (=column G) grouped by the values in the column C, i.e. College of Medicine Faculty or College of Medicine Staff.

  • select C, count(I) where (G contains ‘2011’) group by C


C. More Querying Options

There are many more things you can do with a custom query. Google has an extensive documentation that is easy to follow:

These are just a few examples.

    : Order the results in the descending order of the column of your choice. Without ‘DESC,’ the result will be listed in the ascending order.
  • LIMIT 5
    : Limit the number of results. Combined with ‘Order by’ you can quickly filter the results by the most recent or the oldest items.

My presentation slides given at the 2013 LITA Forum below includes more detailed information about Google Visualization API Query Language, parameters, and other options as well as how to use Google Chart Libraries in combination with Google Visualization API Query Language for data visualization, which is the topic of my next post.

Happy querying Google Spreadsheet!