I am not a hacker. At least by its commonly understood definition. Hackers are my colleagues in technology-forward industries who identify challenges and use specialized computer skills to find solutions. We’ve all seen the movies!
That’s not me.
I’m a Collections librarian.
I juggle cost/ use spreadsheets, sit in budget meetings, and try to find new places to store our physical collection since the current space magically filled to capacity. It wasn’t until the 2017 Charleston Fast Pitch Competition where I was awarded the Audience prize of $2,500 that I decided to change the definition of hacker. That experience inspired my participation in the 2019 Pre-Conference session, Hacking for Good.
Hacking is about identifying a persistent challenge and finding a durable solution. Even better if it’s smart and sustainable in its function. Even better if it’s innovative. To overcome challenges in my work as a Collections librarian, I develop strategic partnerships, engage in collaborative initiatives with other departments on campus, and think as far outside the box as my budget will allow to offer something new to our users. I imagine. I push. I hack.
The project that won the 2017 Fast Pitch Content Audience prize was a continuation of a partnership I forged with USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering to reimagine collection assessment challenges facing libraries from an engineering mindset and to provide usable data to apply to my assessment work in the Libraries. The team- 1 librarian, 2 engineers, and 1 computer scientist, oh my! – used object detection software along with strategically placed sensor cameras to track the frequency and duration of usage of expensive non-circulating print reference materials in USC’s flagship library. Once the Fast Pitch-funded phase of the project was completed, I leveraged the collected data for an analysis of our resources in the Libraries. And it worked! I had accurate and consistent usage data for a portion of our print collection where before, I had none.
This project was not made by utilizing technology. Partnering with a group of people with an entirely different perspective, scope, and set of skills to overcome a clear challenge is what made this project. That’s the hacker framework. As Tanya Snook explained, “hacking is a mindset, not a skillset.”
Through my project with my engineering and computer science friends, I began to cultivate a hacker mindset. And once I did so, I saw hacking everywhere in libraries! I saw new methods for instruction librarians to offer peer-to-peer teaching observations; Interlibrary Loan (ILL) strategies to quickly connect users and materials; and a really efficient workflow to re-house a physical collection to a new library building. Many of us iterate on ideas, fail, pivot, and try again. And we do so with tenacity and curiosity. The Charleston Pre-Conference session, Hacking for Good, aims to uplift the hacker mindset while providing some tools and activities that we can start to implement at work. A half-day hands-on session, the goal of the Pre-Conference is to help us identify and frame challenges and map solutions. All kinds of challenges with myriad creative solutions.
As library administrators and practitioners, we are all responsible for crafting stories that demonstrate the value of our work to various institutions. I suggest we embrace our hacker mindset and explore new possibilities. And let’s not do it alone. Vendors and publishers make great research and project partners who may also be excited to hack their own organizations for smart solutions. As librarians, we imagine. We push. We hack.
Caroline Muglia is the Co-Associate Dean for Collections; Head, Resource Sharing and Collection Assessment at the University of Southern California (USC). She is also an adjunct professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, Masters in Management in Library and Information Science (MMLIS) Program where she focuses on collection development and management.