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Tips for Everyone Doing the #codeyear

***   This post has been originally posted to the ACRL TechConnect blog.  ***

Learn to Code in 2012!

If you are a librarian interested in learning how to code, 2012 is a perfect year for you to start the project. Thanks to CodeAcademy (http://codeacademy.com), free JavaScript lessons are provided every week at http://codeyear.com/. The lessons are interactive and geared towards beginners. So even if you do not have any previous experience in programming, you will be able to pick up the new skill soon enough as long as you are patient and willing to spend time on mastering each lesson every week.

A great thing about this learn-how-to-program project, called #codeyear in Twitter (#libcodeyear and #catcode in the library-land) is that there are +375,443 people (and counting up) out there who are doing exactly the same lessons as you are. The greatest thing about this #libcodeyear / #catcode project is that librarians have organized themselves around this project for the collective learning experience.  How librarian-like, don’t you think?

Now, if you are ready to dive in, here are some useful resources.  And after these Resources, I will tell you a little bit more about how to best ask help about your codes when they are not working for you.

Resources for Collective Learning

Syntax Error: Catch the most frustrating bugs!

Now what I really like about #codeyear lessons so far is that some of the lessons trip you by trivial things like a typo! So you need to find a typo and fix it to pass a certain lesson. Now you may ask “How the hell does fixing a typo count as a programming lesson?”

Let me tell you. Finding a typo is no triviality in coding. Catching a similar syntax error will save you from the most frustrating experience in coding.

The examples of seemingly innocuous syntax errors are:

  • var myFunction = funtction (){blah, blah, blah … };
  • var myNewFunction = function (]{blah, blah, blah … };
  • for(i=0,  i<10, i++;)
  • var substr=’Hello World’; alert(subst);
  • –//This is my first JavaScript

Can you figure out why these lines would not work?  Give it a try! You won’t be sorry. Post your answers in the comments section.

How to Ask Help about Your Codes      

by Matteo De Felice in Flickr (http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3577/3502347936_43b5e2a886.jpg)

I am assuming that as #codeyear, #catcode, #libcodeyear project progresses, more people are going to ask questions about problems that stump them. Some lessons already have Q&A in the CodeAcademy site. So check those out. Reading through others’ questions will give valuable insight to how codes work and where they can easily trip you.

That having been said, you may want to ask questions to the places mentioned in the Resources section above. If you do, it’s a good idea to follow some rules. This will make your question more likely to be looked at by others and way more likely to be answered correctly.

  • Before asking a question, try to research yourself. Google the question, check out the Q&A section in the CodeAcademy website, check out other online tutorials about JS (see below for some of the recommended ones).
  • If this fails, do the following:
    • Specify your problem clearly.
      (Don’t say things like “I don’t get lesson 3.5.” or “JavaScript function is too hard” unless the purpose is just to rant.)
    • Provide your codes with any parts/details that are related to the lines with a problem.
      (Bear in mind that you might think there is a problem in line 10 but the problem may lie in line 1, which you are not looking.) Highlight/color code the line you are having a problem. Make it easy for others to immediately see the problematic part.
    • Describe what you have done to troubleshoot this (even if it didn’t work.)
      : This helps the possible commenter to know what your reasoning is behind your codes and what solutions you have already tried, thereby saving their time. So this will make it more likely that someone will actually help you. To believe it or not, what seems completely obvious and clear to you can be completely alien and unfathomable to others.

Some JavaScript Resources

There are many resources that will facilitate your learning JavaScript. In addition to the lessons provided by CodeAcademy, you may also find these other tutorials helpful to get a quick overview of JavaScript syntax, usage, functions, etc. From my experience, I know that I get a better understanding when I review the same subject from more than one resource.

If you have other favorite Javascript please share in the comment section.

ACRL TechConnect blog will continue to cover #libcodeyear / #catcode related topics throughout the year!  The post up next will tell you all about some of the excuses people deploy to postpone learning how to code and what might break the mental blockage!

The way we communicate, Facebook, libraries, and life

Monday this week, Facebook announced its new messaging system. The new messaging system is Facebook’s attempt to unify SMS, email, instant messaging, and Facebook’s existing messaging service in the already powerful and vast social network platform with five hundred million users. I highly recommend actually watching the video included in this announcement because it explains well as what Facebook regards its new messaging system.

The main idea is to create a Social Inbox that unifies all different modes of communication based upon one’s social network, thereby giving the context and the priority often needed for us to move through different emails and messages. It is a smart move by Facebook.  And it’s a reason for one to worry even more about our putting too much of our (not even just social) lives into one private company’s hands whose business plan is yet to be known. What will Facebook take from us once it decides to make money out of what they own, i.e, data of our lives?

According to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, the inspiration for this system came from a number of high school students who use mostly SMS or Facebook and rarely e-mails because e-mails are too formal and slow. So what does the Facebook messaging system offer to satisfy the teenagers’ needs for faster and more informal communication? Messages with no subject line, no cc, no bcc, one thread, and no need for paragraphs. Messages are sent as instant messages on Facebook, or either as an email or an SMS message depending on what the recipient “friend” prefers.

This sounds somewhat similar to what Google has attempted early this year with Google Wave but actually more ambitious. Also while the purpose of Wave was never quite clearly defined and focused too much on the real-time aspect of the communication, Facebook’s advertising for its new messaging system is simple and and to the point. It focuses on the convenience you will enjoy if you adopt the Facebook messaging system as the main platform for  your communication needs. That’s a much better sales pitch than real-time communication.

Facebook

Facebook by sitonmonkeysupreme in Flickr

Although Facebook explicitly specifies that its new messaging system does not intend to replace emails, the arrival of the new Facebook messaging system makes me worry about whether I will be soon living in the world inundated with the briefest messages like SMS and Twitter regardless of what setting I am in – work, family, friends, business, entertainment, culture, sports, etc.

I have recently realized that more and more people adopted the trend of forgoing the traditional greetings and sign-offs in their emails. No “Dear/Hi/Hello”, no “Best/Thanks/Cheers/Regards”, and often with not even the sender’s name in the email body. This SMS-like terse email trend is catching on thanks to the prevalence of smart phones.

Granted that typing itself is pain on the phone sometimes. It is only reasonable that the communication device we use determines the mode of our communication. However, this kind of e-mail style written on the phone is now becoming popular in normal e-mails that people compose in front of computers. Why bother with greetings and sign-offs if others do without them? So now everyone is sending emails like SMS messages. I confess that I initially felt quite far apart from those teenagers who complain that e-mails are too informal and too slow. But then I myself am not free from typing away on the phone terse and even cryptic emails trying to send out responses promptly on the go. And it is in an utterly informal fashion that I chat, vent, and joke with people on Twitter.

So the changes in the way we communicate are not just happening among teenagers. The informalization of everyday communication is happening to all of us. And one day, the mental reflex that interprets the terseness and informality of a message as rudeness may be regarded as a mere relic from the pre-digital age.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIBRARIES? Many libraries are already in Facebook and Twitter sending out and exchanging informal and brief messages. Some of the libraries also offer SMS as an option for users with research or reference questions. So are libraries going to be communicating with users in this increasingly more informal and faster manner?

Text a Librarian from http://www.textalibrarian.com

This would probably true for most library services. However I doubt if this would very much change the nature of research assistance that libraries offer. At least until we find a way to “think faster” rather than merely to communicate faster what we have thought.

Actually “communicate faster” may be an entirely wrong mantra for research as it may deprive you of the opportunity to critically reflect on the thoughts you have formed through research. Perhaps you made wrong assumption. Perhaps you missed an argument somewhere building up to your big proof.

How do librarians help users to do research better when the common mode of communication and information consumption becomes ever faster, immediate, and hectic? How do libraries show and persuade users that there are different gears they will need to use when they are in the middle of research while still engaging them and be responsive to the faster and more immediate communication channels that users make use of everyday? Certain services libraries provoke are simply not suited for the faster and immediate mode of communication and that’s due to the nature of research , not any fault of libraries.

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ps. On a personal note, I am intrigued by this passage in the Facebook announcement: I’m intensely jealous of the next generation who will have something like Facebook for their whole lives. They will have the conversational history with the people in their lives all the way back to the beginning: From “hey nice to meet you” to “do you want to get coffee sometime” to “our kids have soccer practice at 6 pm tonight.” That’s a really cool idea.”

I am inclined to think that if somebody asserts that having the entire conversation history of his or her life in Facebook is a great idea, then that somebody may as well not know much about life, which is filled with more things that we would rather forget than remember and with more break-ups and fall-aparts than happily-ever-afters.  Is it really sufficient to place the people we know into two categories, friends and non-friends?  Are those going to be the categories that we apply to the people we meet throughout our lives?  Of course, Facebook doesn’t have the evil plan to make our human relationships flat and shallow.  But now that friend-ing, poking, status-updating, liking, and brief messaging seem to be just  good enough, are we willing to go beyond that?  I believe we all have the need for hiding ourselves from time to time behind “the arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters.”  But Facebook thinks that’s anachronistic.

Magic is more in your staff than in technologies

Roy Tennant recently posted “The Top Ten Things Library Administrators Should Know About Technology” in TechEssence blog. Among the ten things, what I like most is No. 4: “Maximize the effectiveness of your most costly technology investment — your people.”  In the other post, “Your ideas for “Top Ten Things“” a similar suggestion appears: “Allow your staff time and resources to experiment – even if nothing comes of it. Innovation comes with risks.”

I wholeheartedly agree with these as a solo web services librarian. One of the challenges for solo web-services librarians is the scarcity of R&D time. It may be true that technologies are getting easier and cheaper all the time. But that doesn’t mean that there will be less things that the staff should learn and experiment with every day. Actually, more technologies usually require more human efforts for maintenance.

As a librarian who work in e-resources management (ERM), I am often surprised by the fact that most people are simply unaware of how much maintenance is required to make those electronic resources to be accessible by one-click as many library users expect. There is no magic in online resources that would make accessing them more easy and efforless than in print resources. There are systems to be configured, maintained, and updated on a daily basis, and there are people who are configuring, maintaining, updaing those systems every day. If a library user is clicking one link and is taken to the full-text page of an article immediately, that means that a lot of people spent a lot of time on making that happen wihtout an error. Technologies do not necessarily cut down on the work that the library staff have to do in order make those technologies work as expected. Many users take it for granted that links in OPAC records work. But they rarely think about how many times catalogers have been updating those links over and over again in order to keep them up-to-date.

In a similar way, technology librarians have the burden of learning new technologies, deciding on whether they would be a good fit for a given organization, implementing them the way they would get widely adopted, tweaking them in the way that they would fit better with either users or staff’s workflows, and supporting and maintaining them so that they would continue to be tools that boost productivity. Even if it were true that technologies get cheaper and easier all the time, it isn’t true that technologies simply work and work better and better all the time.

Most solo web services librarians know too well that they have to continuously train themselves and learn new things. But not often are they given sufficient time to do so. And that is because there are many more urgent day-to-day tasks to be taken care of.  It is important to complete those tasks in a timely manner. However, without sufficient time for R&D, learn, and experiment, technology librarians are likely to be either burned out or become less effective. On the other hand, they are likely to blossom when encouraged to experiment and take initiatives in new technologies. After all, they are the ones who love to work with technologies and want to show how those technologies can improve everyday work.

Imagine a library that can afford best technologies all the time regardless of costs. Still, that library won’t be the best unless it has techie librarian staff who would work on how to make those technologies fit and work in the way that would best benefit library users and staff. One can buy technologies any time, but dedicated and knowledgeable staff cannot be established in a day. The magic is in staff, more than in technologies.

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