For the first time ever, I attended the Best Practices Exchange, held at the Columbus Metropolitan Library in downtown Columbus. The BPE is considered an ‘un’conference—usually an informal gathering of practitioners who primarily work on “managing, preserving, and providing access to digital information.” My favorite part is that the sessions are very real-world oriented, with a focus on, you guessed it, best practices. Attendees include librarians, archivists, educators, those involved with the digital humanities, and many others. I found every session I attended completely absorbing.

The first plenary featured Katherine Skinner of Educopia. Her presentation was titled “Managing Maintenance: Juxtaposing Community and Technology.” Katherine spoke about this being a pivotal moment in our field, similar to climate change and the student gun movement. Private interests are warring with the public good and the well-being of the world is being sacrificed. What motivates librarians, curators, archivists? We are a wealthy industry due to information being a hot commodity, but we are easy to overlook, especially as we are not driven by traditional market forces. Context is crucial for our work—what role have we been playing and what role will we play? There are implications for the choices we make, especially as we are challenged by the conversion from print to digital.

Many vendors are focusing on providing information for profit, which is completely contradictory to non-profit/academic goals. Our mission is maximizing access to information. She provided details about each of these competing ways of operating:

1. Investments in the creation of open tools,platforms, and services

Collaborative widely—shared missions and values; sharing

Sometimes too much so; multi-institutional

Challenges in maintaining and sustaining tools and services

Grant-funded projects—successful projects find funding

Focus on innovation; investment in development only

No dealing with technical debt

Lack of funding structures to follow up for operational sustainability

May threaten our ability to execute our mission

2. Investments in proprietary tools, platforms, and services

Relinquish control of our collections, restricted

Paywalls—disadvantaged people lack access

Takes away opportunity for creation of content

University presses give much-needed opportunity

Lack of exit strategies—BE Press purchase by Elsevier

She believes the dissolution of the Digital Preservation Network (DPN) is a cautionary example for us all. There is a distinct need for stronger financial models and infrastructure and she specifically cited Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick observes the ramp up in privatization has changed our goals from social good to private advantage. Many of us have outsourced systems to hold on to data however, we are then blocked out from accessing our own platforms. Market intentionality is not part of the university’s mission and so this becomes a significant pressure point.

Sharon Leon, now an Associate History Professor at Michigan State University, was our second plenary speaker. Prior, she was at George Mason and part of the Team who developed OMEKA. Her presentation “Collections, Data, and Intepretation: Exploring the Life Cycle of Digital Objects,” focused on how we can better present our collections and our data to digital historians. Overall, our field has focused our attention on increasing access for students and novice learners, but what about serious scholars?

She notes the following:

We need to focus on raising level of research skills beyond notecards

Researchers take mass quantities of images of original materials which are never organized

Scholar research is focused on individual primary sources which is in conflict with our digital collections methodologies

We are primarily organizing our content into digital exhibits with annotations

There is a bifurcation between large data analyses v creating edited digital collections (now seen as pedestrian)

Sharon described her work on the Histories of the National Mall, which provides a geospatial interface for researchers. It gives scholars the opportunity to develop research questions and the structured data moves laterally, based on controlled vocabulary. And this gets to her core point, which she made several times: Data is fuel for discovery and therefore, metadata is all. Without metadata to find materials, there is no future. Finally, she noted that libraries have a responsibility to provide CSV or Plain Text for our digital collections, as this will assist in making the data computationally useful for historians.

I attended other sessions but will focus on the one which interested me the most, “Prioritizing People: Accessibility and Digital Collections.” The speakers focused on how we serve those with various disabilities and how that can impact how they use our collections and web site. The key theme was that “A focus on accessibility often leads to a better experience for all users.” We discussed web sites, web accessibility, the need for always doing your own testing, and ALWAYS, ALWAYS including alt text on images. OCLC shared out 10 Simple Things Writers Can Do to Improve Web Accessibility and the speakers also cited an article on user-friendly design written by Don Norman, who authored the Design of Everyday Things.

But, by far the best part of this session was being introduced to Funkify.

Funkify is a Swedish software which serves as a live disability simulator on the web. Once installed, it allows you to see your webpages as others might if you suffer from blurry vision, dyslexia, trembling hands, and experience overload on the senses.

All in all, I really enjoyed attending this conference and would highly recommend it to others.