Hope in a time of hopelessness

15 April 2017

Those who know me would be aware that I view the world with some probably-not-so-healthy scepticism. World politics being what they are, it’s been difficult not to feel particularly negative lately. But negative people are tedious to be around, so I’m trying to a little more positive, and a little more hopeful for the future.

The builders of Melbourne’s Manchester Unity Building - the wonderfully named Manchester Unity International Order of Oddfellows - certainly chose an odd time for a major construction project. The building was constructed at breakneck speed - one floor per week - in 1932, the middle of the Great Depression. The IOOF said they wanted their building to stand as a beacon of hope to the people of Melbourne that things would get better (though the cheap labour queuing up desperate to work one of three shifts a day wouldn’t have hurt either). I learned all this last weekend on a tour of this wonderful partially-restored art deco building in the heart of Melbourne. I’ve always been impressed by the Manchester Unity building, but I now have a new perspective.

While I was reading up on some aspects of the Meteor API recently, I came across a concept I hadn’t heard of before - Optimistic UI. Essentially, ‘Optimistic UI’ shows the result an app expects to be reflected by an operation sent to a server before the client gets confirmation that the operation was, in fact, successful. Optimistic UI makes apps seem faster, and is somewhat related to another interesting concept - eventual consistency. I like the idea that even if the messages we’re sending each other with ever-proliferating chat apps are about the impending end of the world, at least the user interface is optimistic.

Ironically, the more I see in the world that I don’t like, the more I’m discovering other opportunities - I suppose because I’m looking harder. Twitter slowly turning into a festering sewer, for example, has prompted me to read more on my daily commute. Earlier this year I read the short but wonderful Obfuscation: a user’s guide for privacy and protest by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, the creators of the recently-banned-by-Google Ad Nauseum browser plugin. One of the things I like about their short book is that it acknowledges that complete privacy is effectively impossible, but is still hopeful about the extent to which we can re-assert control over what is known about our thoughts, actions and interests, even if only fleetingly.

I’m also continuing to improve (albeit slowly) my coding skills and knowledge, and I’m about to start learning Perl - a profoundly hopeful act since it will take a while for me to be able to actually do anything useful with Perl, and the main thing I want to do is make meaningful contributions to the Koha ILS project. My library will shortly be contracting for support to move our library management system to Koha, and there’s an exiting future ahead of me on that front. Whilst I’m frustrated by the slow uptake of open source software in the library industry, I’m genuinely optimistic about the future of open source in libraries and GLAM more generally. With the new EBSCO-led FOLIO project taking up where Kuali OLE seems to have more or less left off, and an increasing number of GLAM organisations - from NYPL to ACMI - opening GitHub accounts to share their projects, open source is slowly gaining acceptance and even enthusiasm amongst our often-conservative institutions. I’m excited to be part of this move, and hopeful that many others will follow.

When I’m down - frustrated by bureaucracy, politics and open-plan office design, I remind myself of how lucky I am to work as a librarian. The whole premise of libraries is optimistic - hopeful that the things we lend will be returned, that our members’ lives will be improved by what they read, experience and learn from our collections, and that our communities will be enriched by our existence.

Like constructing the Manchester Unity Building in 1932, building a library is always a hopeful act. Opening the doors each day is a hopeful act. Signing up a new member is a hopeful act. Lending a book, a DVD, a toy, or any of the dozens of weird and wacky things libraries lend is a hopeful act. I hope I get to work in - or at least with - libraries for a long time to come.