Libhack 2014: Free Your Mind

You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind. – Morpheus (The Matrix, 1999)

Aside from the knowledge I learned at Libhack 2014, I internalized the quote above. I’ve always believed that 90% of computer literacy is simply being willing to work through the technology. Because if you don’t work with it, you can never master it. But knowing that still didn’t conquer all of my fears with new material. Fear of failure, of looking incompetent, of “just not getting it”, of being assumed as being somebody who THINKS they know more than they do.

So it was with APIs or Application Programming Interfaces. I’d read about APIs and knew that APIs could do cool stuff if you knew the right programming. But I wasn’t really clear on what APIs were and my programming skills are basic – though I am good at tweaking code to do my will – as long as it is a self contained file.

When I first signed up for LibHack 2014, I was a little nervous but couldn’t turn down the opportunity to learn about this useful technology. But as the day crept closer and closer I had more doubts about my abilities and whether this was really for me.

Then the day came and I wound up showing up an hour early because I’d misplaced an e-mail. That made me feel silly but I put the time to good use resolving some e-mail issues I had with my phone.

The day began with overviews of APIs from OCLC and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). I was in the OCLC beginners track and at first I was relieved because there were dozens of people who seemed to be in the same boat I was and the instructors from OCLC – Steve, Shelly and Tim were encouraging and supportive.I made a rookie mistake trying to get into the University of Pennsylania wifi, but nothing I couldn’t blame on jet lag.

Then Steve asked “Is there anyone out there without a working PHP web server on the laptop?” My first thought was “Huh? What? I thought we’d be going to a computer lab — though this was NOT mentioned in the signup form. I made an assumption. A bad one. But at least I’d brought my netbook. I *think* I was the only one without a web server on my laptop. Steve gently pointed out there was an install file for WAMP (Windows, Apache, MySQL, PHP) on the Useful Info section of the LibHack web site.

Steve was gentle, but as I started downloading the install package I felt SO. FREAKING. INCOMPETENT. I was telling myself – “Why wasn’t I paying attention weeks ago? Why hadn’t I installed, configured and tested the server prior to coming to Philladephia? Why did I even call myself a technologist?” My sense of technoshame deepened as my older netbook struggled to install the package. I told Steve he ought to go ahead with the class since I couldn’t predict when I’d even start to be ready. At that point I was just about ready to snap my netbook shut and leave. Clearly I just didn’t belong.

BUT – I didn’t. I told myself that it would be worth staying for the tutorials even if I couldn’t apply them that day. Turns out I was too cynical. While my netbook wheezed away installing the WAMP server, a number of people couldn’t get the tutorial pages to display correctly. After trial and error and several iterations, the proper local locations of the tutorials were located and put up on a white board. By the time that was settled, my WAMP installation was FINALLY finished and I was able to configure it with ease thanks to the struggles of my classmates.

After that, things got better. I learned that in essence, an API is simply a call for data using a structure specified by the keepers of a given database. The reason there is programming that comes with it is so you can format and manipulate the data. Steve’s example files were really clear. The lessons came within the code. Shelly and Tim were on hand to help us if we got lost. I ended the thinking about how I could tie OCLC data to Novelist, a database we subscribe to in Alaska. I even dreamed a little about how we might tease Alaskana out of the DPLA. But let me get the OCLC idea working first.

BUT I couldn’t have learned any of this if I hadn’t let go of the fear, doubt and disbelief I had before attending LibHack 2014. To paraphrase another quote from the Matrix, “The OCLC staff could show me the door, but only I could walk through it.”

I tell you this story of doubt, self-loathing and engaged learning in hopes that you will cast aside your own fear, doubt and disbelief about learning something new. Step through the door, face your fears, even the limitations of your equipment and you’ll come out the other side more skilled, confident and stronger for it.

I hopeful that they’ll be other Libhack events in the future. If they are, consider attending if you’re in the neighborhood.

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