Coding in Librarianship – Tips, Tricks, and and Troublesome Foibles

2020 will define the next several years, perhaps the next decade or two, of librarianship in the United States. A cascade of statewide quarantines from March and onward wreaked havoc on many an MLIS candidate’s progression towards their individual goals, and mine was no exception. While ongoing mass protests and a less than optimal (sometimes ridiculously dismal) response to such by both libraries and librarians has revealed many a sociopolitical fault in the information science landscape, current events have also demonstrated the need for the field’s technological intensification.

That is why, when it came down to a summer of destroyed internship opportunities, uncertain work conditions, and a single class left in my master’s degree, I, loather of coding ever since a five-class quarter tossed me into C++ without so much as a by your leave, looked into this social-distancing-fit aspect of librarianship and signed up for a class on HTML and CSS. Summer 2020 was shaping up to be a rare time when obligations to be homebound were far less numerous (or time consuming) than obligations to be active, and if there was ever a time to face a minor demon of my chosen career, it was this one.

Simply put, HTML and CSS are vital components of the librarianship experience involved in delivering information online: the first involves bare bones structure of the website, while the CSS makes sure your patron can appreciate it. The two are used in tandem because of a technical explanation that boils down to loading efficiency; and chances are good that a number of you have encountered LibGuides, a shortcut integration of the two languages used for library webpage design in school or on the job. If you have, you may have found, as I did, that sometimes the comparatively intuitive building mechanisms offered by LibGuides do not work out the way you want, and that the only solution is to dive into the nitty-gritty mathematical symbols and quotation marks and play with it one line at a time. If you are less coding-averse than me, you may already have your own toolkit approach to such, but here are some helpful tidbits I have picked up over the course of my coding class.

ScreenCast Learning is Fantastic

Getting bogged down by the endless text is a common event in librarianship, and adding a bunch of mysterious non-Latinate ideograms to the mix certainly does not help. What does help is taking as much advantage of the inherent technological nature of coding as possible and finding what works for you. For me, screencasts are indispensable: having the video up on one side and my personal notes or text editor on the other allows me to easily segue between learning and attempting, easily comparing, backtracking, and zeroing in on the necessary fix all the way through. It also adds a human component to an often alienating work process, and a few seconds of humor can go a long way.

Research, Research, Research (Pickiness Not Essential)

Another advantage of coding’s being vitally embedded in the technological landscape is, oftentimes, the much maligned first Google search will get you what you need. Even the varying levels  of similarity and difference between search results can work as a boon, as it is often a matter of what mode of explanation “clicks” best with you that determines your success, rather than what is objectively promoted. I have listed my class’ chosen textbook below, which I plan on getting in some form when my access to my university’s library expires (I am usually a treebook person, but the eBook’s accessibility options are very tempting), but honestly, a few quick search terms is often enough.

Quotation Marks in Word Docs are Not the Same as Those of Text/Source Code Editor

Beware the temptations of copy/paste between differing text programs: I learned that lesson through an extremely painful and baffling couple of hours during the course of one week’s assignment.

What Worked Before Will (Probably) Work Again (AKA, Your Past Work is Your Best Resource)

However, carefully copy pasting if it is within the same program, has the right visual output when uploaded online, gives you a place to start, and has a high chance of resulting in a speed/confidence boost? Go for it.

Start Early, Pace Yourself, and Know When It Is Time to Play

Coding comes with a notorious high risk of frustration, so the more time you give yourself at the start, the more opportunities you will have to take that much needed break. I am a personal fan of giving myself the rest of the day off once I have figured out an especially thorny issue, as the thrill of success rarely outweighs the agonizing time that led up to it. I doubt I will be able to do the same outside of a rare one class (albeit summer shortened) semester, but the mentality holds.

A Final Note

There is a lot to learn and the rate at which the learning changes can be obnoxious, everything can get extremely confusing extremely quickly, and a screen full of indicated errors can be ridiculously demoralizing, but one of the best perks by far? No masks required.

Recommended Reading:

McFarland, D. (2015). CSS: The missing manual (4th ed., Missing manual). Beijing, [China]: O’Reilly. (potentially available online through your university’s library)

Categories: advice, Technology, tools

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