Librarians should start programming

The following post by Christopher Erdmann appeared yesterday on the e-Science Community Blog.

In a previous blog post, Donna Kafel wrote about a course called Data Scientist Training for Librarians (or #DST4L), which will start at the end of January. The motivation for this course stems from my own experience teaching myself how to program and then learning throughout my career how it can be a powerful tool in any situation you find yourself in. For instance, I have worked for the Smithsonian Institution, CNET, University of Washington Center for Commercialization, United Nations International Labour Organization, Supreme Court of the United States, European Southern Observatory and now the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. These organizations are in completely different domains, but at each place of work, I always found my ability to program to be a huge asset.

Roughly six years ago, when I moved from the Supreme Court to the European Southern Observatory, programming saved the day as I was presented with an ailing software program developed in Visual Basic, which librarians used to curate the astronomical literature. At the time PHP/MySQL was code du jour and I used it to create a new curation system which allowed librarians to filter through the literature, instead of flipping through journals manually, and to annotate the literature in a database that could be easily queried depending on the questions being asked. We called this system FUSE and telbib and by the time I left the European Southern Observatory, other astronomy libraries around the world were using the software. Even the visiting committees praised the library’s bibliometrics work, using these tools.

Now at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, I have encouraged our library to work more closely with the NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), a one-stop shop for searching the astronomical literature. Using this powerful system coupled with programming techniques, we have been able to curate unique datasets such as the Compiled List of NSF Grants Matched to ADS Records, which was used by an astronomer named James Davenport to produce a story on his blog titled The Pace of NSF Funded Research, later picked up by the Atlantic Wire.  While working on this project and other projects involving altmetrics, Mendeley Institutional Edition and theastrodata.org, I was encouraged primarily by my staff member Louise Rubin to teach the DST4L course to our incoming librarians and to librarians outside our walls.

In the course, I expect participants to get their hands dirty with data by learning some of the more popular programming languages and tools available. My philosophy is that you will never learn anything well unless you face it head on, fail many times but also have a goal to focus your learning efforts throughout. As we progress through the course, I intend to post information about everyone’s project work via the course website, together with materials used in the course. Jennifer Prentice will be assisting in that effort.

Some people have asked me if I will teach the course again? In response, I say let’s see. If it is successful, then why not! In the meantime, stay tuned.

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