How I Learn

code4lib technology epistemology

I’m sitting at O’Hare, waiting for my return flight from this year’s Code4lib conference. Code4lib always gets me to think about things - code, community, craft and creativity, to name a few - but most of all it gets me thinking about my identity. It gets me to ask “who am I?” in subtle, complex and unexpected ways. This year at Code4lib, there was a lot of talk about “hacker epistemology,” which got me to think back over my introduction to and involvement with the Code4lib community, and how it’s transformed the way I think, learn and do. A few disjointed and undercaffeinated thoughts:


I came to Code4lib for the first time three years ago, and I came because Mark Matienzo wouldn’t stop badgering me until I registered and bought a plane ticket. I’m really glad he did. At the time, I was a library school student, and I had a highly developed case of imposter syndrome. Mark signed me up for a lightning talk, which was one of the more terrifying experiences of the last few years of my life. Still, I did it, and nobody laughed me off the stage. And after that, the conversations were easier. I keep coming back to Code4lib primarily because of the people I’ve gotten to know. Sure, the presentations are great, but what’s even better is knowing I can grab someone in the hallway, or in IRC, or even an email months later, to ask them about something they’re working on; to get advice and feedback.

I’m convinced - as an archivist, musician and human - that human relationships are at the core of who I am and what I do. I’m better at my job when I know how to work with my coworkers; when I understand who my user community is and what they want; when I understand the lives of the people and organizations whose experiences are in The Archive, or just in the archive where I work. I can do, build and experiment more if I know people who will share their expertise, experiences and time. I’m a better musician if I understand my audience; if I know how to collaborate with other musicians; if I delve deeply into the lives, aesthetics and influences of the artists who influence me. Relationships are my consolation and my challenge. In myriad ways, they are essentially woven into not only my learning process but my very ability to learn.

Do Something

One of the things I love most about Code4lib is that anyone who sees something that needs fixing is encouraged to try and do something about it. Nobody will tell you not to do something. People will probably have (a lot) to say about what you do, but they’re also willing to put in some work to make your initial solution better. I can’t say how transformative a value this has been for me. I work in a very change-averse profession, and my personality is one that tends to be concerned with “doing things the right way.” In Code4lib, there is no right way. There is no way it’s always been done.

I’m still not brave enough to act that way all the time at my job, but I know that internalizing that model of engagement with the world around me has led me to seek out certain kinds of jobs and professional roles, and to avoid others. It has also inspired me to work differently; to iterate faster; build more flexibly; try things I’ve never done before.


One of the other values that seems to underpin the Code4lib community, although we don’t talk much about it, is craft. People don’t just want to make things, they want to learn how to make things better and how to make better things. This probably has a lot to do with the strong open-source orientation of many in the community. If you’re working with technology, particularly open source technology, chances are good that you are not the first person to encounter a particular problem. It’s also quite likely that someone has a solution for that problem, and you can probably use that solution, or even improve on it. Craft is built on a “do something” mentality and relationships: we get better at doing something if we keep doing it and work on it with others.

I learn from other people. I learn by doing. I learn by trying to do better than I did last time.