All posts by Will Sexton

Why We’re Dropping Basecamp

Screen shot depicts a Microsoft To Do task labelled "Let Basecamp subscription lapse."

We at Duke University Libraries have decided to stop using the project management platform, Basecamp, to which we have subscribed for almost a decade. We came to this decision after weighing the level of its use in our organization, which is considerable, against the harms that we see perpetuated by the leadership of Basecamp’s parent company, 37signals. As a result of our discussions, we will not renew our current subscription when it ends in December. In the meantime, a small group of our staff have committed to help colleagues export their Basecamp content so it can be archived, and we will move to using other productivity platforms.

In July of this year, in a team chat, one of our colleagues shared a link to a blog post authored by one of the founders and owners of 37signals, and commented, “We really might want to rethink our usage of Basecamp.”

It jogged our memories of events some 26 months earlier, when another colleague shared an article published on The Verge, “Breaking Camp.” As reported, internal conflict regarding a culturally-insensitive list of “funny” customer names led Basecamp’s leadership to ban employees from holding “societal and political discussions,” ignoring that the conflict focused on workplace dynamics. Mass resignations resulted, and the experiences of the employees interviewed paints a picture of company leaders who initially supported Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) activities but eventually placed severe restrictions on how those activities could play out at work. In a playbook for the ages, those in power failed to acknowledge the complicated interconnectedness and nuance of the issues under discussion, and set policies that shut down discussions challenging the company culture.

The discussions we had in 2021 identified concerns about both the culture at Basecamp and the impact a decision to leave it would have on our daily work. Staff reflected on the ease of using the platform, the large number of projects that rely on it, and the complication of a decision that would impact groups across in the Libraries in such a direct way. While we talked about how we might respond to the values of third-party companies, we eventually decided not to pursue a cancellation.

When we revisited the discussion this summer, it took a decidedly different direction. The blog post that our colleague shared in July, titled “The law of the land,” by 37signals co-founder, co-owner, and CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, celebrates the US Supreme Court’s ruling ending considerations of race in admission to colleges and universities. In that post, Hansson links to another that drew our attention, “The waning days of DEI’s dominance.” We also read a third post of his, “Meta goes no politics at work (and nobody cares).” We found there a thread of ugly thought, couched in an overriding intellectual dishonesty, that re-escalated our discussion about continued use of Basecamp.

Continue reading Why We’re Dropping Basecamp

Reopening 2021

Welcome to 2021, and the Spring semester at Duke University Libraries!

  • Libraries reopen on January 4, but services and hours will remain limited through the 19th. You can learn more on the Library hours page.
  • Swipe access to library buildings remains linked to COVID-19 testing and symptom monitoring. See below for more detailed information.
  • Beginning with the start of classes on January 20, library services will return to the same level as the Fall semester. Use Library Takeout for print materials, reserve study spaces and technology, and join in virtual instruction and research consultation.

Access to Library Buildings

Students who are cleared to remain on campus through the intersession must continue to participate in testing to access library buildings. To gain access, patrons must swipe in, show their SymMon clearance, and demonstrate a need to be in the library (e.g., Takeout). Anyone not compliant with testing will have  swipe access cut off until they comply with testing.

Undergraduate and graduate students who have NOT been cleared to remain on campus must test and quarantine as soon as they return to campus. You cannot test and begin quarantine any earlier than January 11. Beginning January 13, students who have tested, quarantined, and received a negative result will have swipe access to library buildings during open hours. Students will need to show their SymMon clearance and demonstrate a need to be in the library (e.g., Takeout).

Closing Out 2020 at the Libraries

Fall 2020 has been an unprecedented time for all of us, and a semester that required us at the Libraries to adapt almost every aspect of our services. As we come to the final weeks of the term, we will be changing up our hours and the availability of spaces to support reading days and finals, and then reducing and finally shutting down services for the end of 2020.

You can see the full scope of changes over the coming weeks on the Library Hours page, but I’ll share some of the highlights here.

Expanded Hours for Reading Days and Finals

The Libraries will have weekend and expanded hours during the reading period and final exams. Starting November 17, Lilly will open earlier, at 10 am, for the duration of the reading period. The study areas in the West Campus libraries – Perkins, Bostock, and Rubenstein – as well as Lilly on East Campus will also be available starting at 8:30 am over the weekend of November 21-22. On Monday the 23rd Lilly returns to a 10 am open, and maintains that schedule through the final day of exams, November 24, when it will close at 7 pm.

Students studying in the Gothic Reading Room.
Wearing masks and physically distanced, first-year student Kennedy Cleage and classmates study in the Gothic Reading Room of Perkins Library, which is open through reservation only.

Reduced Services During November and Early December

All libraries close by 3 pm on Wednesday, November 25 and remain closed through the weekend. Starting Monday, November 30, services on West Campus will be greatly reduced, as Library Takeout, ePrint, and equipment reservations will be available exclusively at the Bostock entrance from 11 am to 4 pm through December 11. The only available study spaces will be at Lilly, from 1-6 pm Monday through Friday.

If you need materials during the intersession, we strongly urge you to request them by December 8. December 11 will be the final day until January to pick up anything from Duke University Libraries.

Closed for the Holidays

All libraries will close by 6 pm on December 11 – at different times that day at different locations – and remain closed through January 3. While online resources will remain available, we will be shutting down almost all remote services. Our Ask a Librarian service will have limited capacity for email responses, but librarians will not be responding to chats. Libraries will reopen on Monday, January 4.

On behalf of the staff at Duke University Libraries, we thank the Duke community for your patronage during this challenging semester, and wish everyone all the best for final exams, and a safe, restorative time for the end-of-year holidays. We look forward to seeing you again in January!


Engineering the Killer Rabbit: How We Represented a Timeline of Doris Duke’s Life in XML

“What form does the data take?” is a question that developers ask early in the life-cycle of any information technology project.

Last year, Doris Duke Archivist Mary Samouelian approached some of us in the IT department with an idea for a project that involved a specific kind of data. She wanted to produce an interactive timeline of Doris Duke’s life for a presentation she would give at a Friends of the Duke University Libraries meeting in May. We took it on, and resolved to do something innovative with it. The final result of our work is available here; for more on the project, see Mary’s post on the Devil’s Tale blog, “The Doris Duke Collection Reimagined.”

To me, an innovation means opening the way to a new service or a new capacity. A one-off project wouldn’t have done that.

When we took up the project in earnest in mid-February, the data was in the form of an extensive and detailed Microsoft Word document that Mary had written. One of the first questions we needed to resolve was how to represent the information in the Word document as data.

We needed a way for Mary to read and edit the data on an ongoing basis. At the same time, the data must be available in a structured format that computers can manipulate. This tension between the reading methods of intuitive, interpretive human beings and fussy, unforgiving computers is the central challenge of representing data.

As it happens, archivists already represent timelines in a way that computers can process. Encoded Archival Description (EAD) is an XML standard for archival finding aids. Among its many features, it specifies a way for archivists to build timelines related to the creators of a collection’s material. As a practiced author of finding aids, Mary is familiar with the use of EAD. Since the development team for the project is the same group that recently built our finding aids site, EAD seemed like a natural fit for the project.

However, there is an emerging standard, related to EAD, that also caught our attention. Encoded Archival Context for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (EAC-CPF or just EAC) “provides a grammar for encoding names of creators of archival materials and related information.” I first became familiar with it when I saw a presentation at the 2010 code4lib for the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) project. The presenter called their prototype implementation “Facebook for dead people.”

That site uses EAC records from a variety of institutions to accomplish several ends. First, it shows the array of collections from the participating institutions associated with an individual – say, Walt Whitman. Second, it builds a social network among individuals, linking a creator like Whitman to other parties with whom he corresponded, was related, or otherwise associated.

Another aim of EAC is to establish an infrastructure of name authority for the corporate bodies and people who create archival collections. To that end, the EAC community – including our former Duke colleague Kathy Wisser – has received an IMLS grant, Building a National Archival Authorities Infrastructure. The grant will fund a series of workshops through the Society of American Archivists, and the development of “a set of recommendations addressing business, governance, and technological requirements.”

As the development team discussed Mary’s project, we liked the idea of using EAC-CPF markup to represent information about Doris Duke. For one thing, we admire the SNAC web site, and have discussed in the past using it as a model for a series of “person portals” into our collections. We wanted to familiarize ourselves with EAC, and the Doris Duke project seemed like an appropriate entry point.

There was only one problem. EAC defines a “chronlist” tag for representing timelines, but its specification was not robust enough. It does not support two of our important needs: 1) linking media files (i.e., images) to events; and 2) linking individual events to the finding aids for collections that provide source materials about the events. Faced with this limitation, we decided to take liberties.

In contrast to EAC, our reading of the EAD tag library confirmed that the specification for its “chronlist” tag is robust enough to support our requirements. We decided to mix the parts of EAD that we liked into our EAC document. The basic technique for mixing and matching XML standards is to use namespace declarations. A namespace is a kind of domain identifier for XML elements. It says, to computers (and people) reading a document, “This tag belongs to that schema.”

If my explanation is overly technical, here are some fitting analogies for what we did: we invented a new fusion cuisine dish; we installed a whammy bar on a Les Paul; we used cobra genes to engineer a killer rabbit.

The resulting EAC file for the Doris Duke project is available here. The tags in that document beginning with the prefix “ead:” are the elements we borrowed from the EAD namespace.

The solution that we devised represented a kind of contract between the content creator, Mary, and the development team. It allowed the two parties to work in parallel, Mary encoding and revising the timeline, and the developers building its display.

Duke is participating in the National Archive Authorities Infrastructure project, which will ultimately integrate our collections into that “Facebook for dead people” social network. We’re also developing our expertise by working on more “people portals”; University Archives will be assigning additional Duke family EAC documents as a low-priority, background project to its interns. It probably took double the effort for the development team to produce a new service rather than a one-off project, but it helped us take our first steps toward this promising approach to describing and exposing the contents of our archival collections.