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Access 2015 Toronto Thursday and Friday notes

September 22, 2015
wvrst in toronto

Wvrst – home to many good Access conversations

I chose to lump my Thursday and Friday noted into one post. I spoke on Friday, so obviously couldn’t take notes on that, and for the same reason was slightly distracted during the opening panel, so the only notes I took were for Amy Buckland’s excellent closing keynote.


Can I Actually Use It? Testing Open Textbooks for Accessibility
Tara Robertson, CAPER-BC; Kendra Levine, U of California at Berkeley

Believe this was the first time I’ve experienced a talk with a live DJ providing a soundtrack, although I’ve seen it done in recorded talks. It was … interesting, not least since it was the first talk of the day. It did wake me up! It also made it harder to multitask, which is a good thing. She had my full attention.

Tara gave an introduction to CAPER-BC (Centre for Accessible Post-secondary Education Resources BC). They are now working with open textbooks as a way to reduce the textbook costs for students. She showed a graph that clearly illustrates how textbook prices have risen in cost at a rate well beyond the CPI or even home prices. This leads to a situation where a majority of students now admit that they have opted not to purchase a required textbook for a class. As she put it, this often leads to students starting the semester without the resources they need.

The BCcampus project has three goals:

  • increase access to course materials for students
  • more faculty control over content (adapt content to course, not the other way around)
  • move the open agenda forward in a substantive way

Tara worked with two instructional designers to do user testing for the project. She had not previously done user testing of this type. They chose content from across the curriculum (e.g.- English, psychology, etc.) to assess how accessible the content currently is. Each example was chosen for its flaws, such as an entire chapter without headers or a chapter with embedded content (e.g.- YouTube videos). Created a feedback form to test readability, not their command of or ability to understand the material.

They discovered many interesting issues with the content, for example the manner in which JAWS and ZoomText read and interpret the vertical pipe character [ | ] that is often used as a visual delimiter. It breaks the flow of text into a garbled mess, essentially, with constant interruptions of “vertical, one, vertical, two …” and so on.

From their work, they developed an Accessibility Toolkit that outlines best practices for accessible course materials. As she put it, this is less about accessibility than universal design for learning (UDL), since providing the accommodation at point of need (and upon request) engenders delays and puts the onus on the student to make the request. One of their next steps is the incorporation of the toolkit into the design process for Open Textbooks generated by the project. A key takeaway she noted is that it’s better to design things well from the start rather than to adapt or retrofit them after the fact.

DIALLED: Distributed Index of All(*) Library Location and Event Data
Dan Scott, Laurentian U

Introduced some of the issues with terms and their application in libraries. For example, Library has between and 100 and 1000 domains using it, while museum is even lower (10-100).

Introduced the notion of ‘meta-institutional data,’ which he characterized as being in our collective wheelhouse. We should be great at this, but as he noted, most of our library sites offer little to nothing in terms of metadata about the institution. The WorldCat Registry could be one source, but for one it’s proprietary, but also out of date and generally inaccurate.

Why should we care about this? We need visibility in common search engines. It also needs to be easier to build lightweight (read: mobile) applications. There are also, as he framed it, “general linked open data use cases.” He showed, as an example, a map with nearly five thousand libraries represented on it that was published in June 2014. The problem as he defined it is that there is no automated way to keep such a project up to date since the URLs cannot be crawled to retrieve new metadata.

Library of Cards
Mita Williams, U of Windsor

Opened by introducing us to the podcast 99% Invisible, a weekly podcast dedicated to invisible design and how it affects our lives. Her contribution to the series, were she to produce one, would discuss the history of the humble 3×5 index card.

She moved from there to a review of various machines and methods for organizing information, starting with the 16th century Swiss polymath Konrad Gessner’s method of putting one fact on a piece of paper and arranging the pieces of paper. She moved from there to an 18th-century library cataloguing code that utilized playing cards. Looping back to Gessner, she noted that he is considered the founder of modern bibliography. These thoughts based on her reading of Krajewski’s Paper Machines.

Bridged over to the modern world, and explained the use and place of Zotero as it currently stands. Closed that out by noting that the citations in Zotero are still more or less “stuck in a box.” We still need intermediaries such as Zotero to bridge between the source of the data and, say, a document in a word processor. Rather than sharing citations, we tend to exchange URLs or just resort to trading PDFs back and forth. Library resources in general do not operate well within the space of general Web services, such as image sharing or blogging applications.

This is not a new concern. She noted Dan Chudnov et al. and their work with UnAPI from 2006. That was a long time ago and we haven’t made a lot of progress, hence her suggestion that cards are the future of the Web.

She pointed out that many of the services we use employ the design paradigm of the card, not least because they fit so well on mobile screens. There are myriad examples: Facebook, Twitter, Trello, etc. It’s quite a common concept. She showed Chris Tse’s work with various card design, noting that a key element is that cards can move. He’s less concerned with movement via swiping or manual manipulation, but how they move content via sharing and how they influence workflow documents.

At the present, however, cards tend to stay within their own application’s space. Google’s services may speak to each other, but they have no idea what you’re doing inside Facebook, for instance, if you’ve signed on to attend an event in Facebook, Google Calendar doesn’t know. Another example she showed was a Passbook boarding pass from iOS.

Showed an emerging platform known as that is an attempt to solve this barrier issue based on open source tools. Its tagline is “everything you need to build HTML5 cards and containers.” Her question, when she sees this, is: are we too late? What she means is that the walled gardens of various app stores have created the schism between the open and closed Web, and that may be a permanent state of affairs.

Final thought: “a scholar is just a library’s way of building another library.”

Ryerson Library’s Digital Media Experience Lab: Serendipity in the Digital Age
Fangmin Wang, Namir Ahmed, and Sally Wilson, Ryerson U

Fangmin opened by noting that sometimes he dislikes it when the Digital Media Experience Lab is called a makerspace, but at other times he’s OK with it. There’s some confusion around the name with Ryerson’s DMZ, but one of his main concerns is that people realize that it is part of the library.

Namir opened by describing their discussions around what to call themselves. Some just say DME, others say makerspace. He had a slide that said collaboratory, so perhaps that is their best choice. He noted his own conception of a makerspace is a loud, busy, tool-filled space. What they wanted was a space full of people, not full of technology. That said, they put their technology on display and invited people to come in and work with it. The goal was to get them to realize that “technology is not a scary thing.” They were also able to gather some metrics. People who were experimenting would be steered toward workshops, which was a way of learning about who was in the space (sneaky, but legit, data gathering–got a laugh for his way of describing this). Most of their interest was from engineering, followed by business and science, which perhaps makes sense given Ryerson’s emphases. However one slices the pie, there is a gap between the “technical” and “non-technical” disciplines.

Sally noted that Namir is the only full-time employee in the space, but that they have a number of student part-timers. These students explore both their own interests and projects, as well as assist other students with their work. It’s learning and teaching on the job. Some of their students also lead workshops, more or less in exchange for being able to use the DME to build their own projects (following their “pay it forward” philosophy).

The Lost World of Telidon: Challenges in the Conservation of Glenn Howarth’s Art
John Durno, U of Victoria

Decoding the title, it’s a project to rescue some computer art from the late 80s. Asked us all if we knew what Telidon or NAPLPS might be. Few did, but John noted that they were once important parts of the Canadian telecommunications scene. The Howarth gift–nine banker’s boxes–included hundreds of old media, mainly 5.25″ floppies. As he noted, getting at the files isn’t that hard, but knowing what to do with them is much more challenging. They had a few clues, such as one person’s recollection that the images drew themselves on the screen. They also had keywords from the labels, such as Telidon and NAPLPS.

Walked us through the forensic and detective work that it took to decipher the data they had acquired. He noted that data disks are typically in better shape than those containing software, theorizing that the software disks were simply used more. He should really consider writing this up, since it makes a good story and surely has far more detail than he could share in a talk.

They finally got some of the images to render, but discovered that they were simply throwing too much computing power at them, so they did some work with DOSBox. He eventually came across old software–Personality+III from Microstar–that was a NAPLPS emulator. It had the ability to render the image at a more appropriate pace. Still had the problem of not knowing in what order the image should be rendered. Also, how close are the current colours to the colours the artist intended. He’s also still not entirely sure if the rendering speed is correct.

At this point, he found some even older Apple disks, which had not only the software, but better instructions as well. Alas, the software would not run in an Apple emulator. They needed a Telidon terminal; alas, eBay isn’t rich with Telidon terminals on offer. Made some progress by hand-editing the ASCII files to correct some of the problems.

Nevertheless, after all of this, he doesn’t really have any evidence of what these looked like originally. Also, do they need to be displayed on period hardware? As he put it, it can be hard to tell where the art ends and the frame begins. Key question: after so much manipulation, are these still Howarth’s images?

He noted in closing that much of his success relied on hobbyists and people making good decisions, such as Microstar releasing all of their software. The emulators and many of the utilities are created by hobbyists. His question: what happens to all of this when the people doing it are no longer around? Should we be preserving it in some fashion?

Virtual Collaboration: Tips and Tricks for Working Together at a Distance
Sarah Simpkin, U of Ottawa; Sam Popowich, U of Alberta

Sam opened by talking about “pair programming,” which links programmers with people who want to learn to code. Sarah and Sam wanted to try this out, so sought out a project that would enable them to do this. It involved using a virtual machine provided by CANARIE and set up the environment using Ansible and other tools. For communication, they used Slack, Google Hangout, tmux, and some face-to-face.

They got together for four sessions of about an hour each. Some of what Sarah learned was related to work methods, such as how to use vim more effectively.

Sarah spoke a bit about code reading groups, which meet one hour per week and review about 100 lines of codes and discuss what they see. Sarah’s version uses Google Hangouts, and a tour guide sets the topic for each week and leads the session. Sam shared more information on the Birds of a Feather sessions that they use at U of Alberta as a way to kick ideas around, review code samples, and discuss problems and solutions. They noted that it’s hard to keep this up; scheduling is hard and it’s easy to put it on the back burner. That said, it’s helpful to see how others work in a friendly environment.


Amy Buckland, U of Chicago

Amy said some nice things about my Access 2008 talk in Hamilton. I never knew that that was her first Access, nor that my talk had resonated with her that way. It’s really great to learn this. When that talk was picked by the Hamilton organizers as the Dave Binkley talk, I recall thinking, really? I figured others were way beyond me in terms of saying challenging or critical things. Given how many lives that talk’s had, and how often it’s been cited (esp. Curtis Thacker and Charles Knutson’s study) or casually mentioned, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to stand up and say those things. Go Access!

She picked up on the notion from the opening keynote of privately owned public spaces, noting that the scholarly commons fits into that paradigm easily, i.e.- our scholarship is in private hands to a great extent. From the academic point of view, this isn’t a problem, since we buy access for our users to much of it, but beyond our walls, such as in public libraries, it’s a different story in terms of who has free access. If you need an academic affiliation to get to the material, we are cutting out the public who funds it and who can benefit from it.

We need to fix this. While doing this, we need to watch and listen to our users FIRST, emphasis hers. When we fix it, we need to remember that our classification schemes do not reflect the broadest possible usages. We need to use open standards, linked data, and so forth to push this data out on to the Web so that even users we don’t identify as ours can use it.

Overarching theme of her talk: we can do this. She must have said it 20 times, but it cannot be said often enough. Many in libraries agree with this, but many also shy away from the situations (confrontations?) where we need to assert better ways of doing things. This talk does not raise many eyebrows at Access, but at an ARL meeting it would hit some serious walls. How do we do this? Hire and support/back the people who will do it? I think that’s a start. One of her suggestions was to speak as though OA has already happened, which it really has in many ways.

Took a big poke at the Elsevier/Wikipedia news that Elsevier is going to grant Wikipedia editors access to their articles so that links to paywalled articles can be applied to Wikipedia articles. Her clear point: this does not increase access, at all.

It was probably a hangover–of the good sort–from this talk that had me thinking in subsequent days about where the major holdups are in the process of open access adoption. Then I had something of a “trigger event” when I saw an ARL letter headed to Elsevier complaining about their latest bad policy decision and asking them to engage in dialogue. This struck me as utterly pointless, since Elsevier has been happily raking in profits for years despite two decades of sustained and pointed criticism. I think we should have gotten the message that they don’t care what we think. It hit me that the real problem is that Elsevier has product, i.e.- that despite the boycotts, protests, open letters, and bad press, that many faculty/researchers choose for myriad reasons to continue to publish with them and/or to do Elsevier’s work for them in editorial roles. If we directed half the commentary we direct at Elsevier toward the faculty who do this–it would help if their faculty peers who lead said boycotts would lead the charge here–then we might have achieved more in the last 20 years. We do share that message, but it’s generally soft-peddled. Amy’s title, well, it pretty much encapsulates the attitude I have now about those who persist in supporting unsustainable models that are dragging the academy down.


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