integrated-circuit-441294_1920*hack·a·thon /ˈhakəˌTHän/ noun

an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming,

Chattahoochee Valley Libraries hosted an event called Hack the Library on October 25-26. Our goal was to apply technology to better help our library engage the community and empower our customers. The event focused on engaging in collaborative computer programming and technology, forging new partnerships, nurturing local tech cultures, and presenting CVL with opportunities for new solutions and resources created by technologists and young talent in their own communities. It was hands-down one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved with in my professional career, and feels more like a beginning than an ending now that it’s over.

This event took months of planning, beginning with creating relationships. For the past 2 years, I’ve been telling everyone within shouting distance that I want to have coffee with the technology community in Columbus and get them involved with the library. This finally came to fruition when I met Lucas Shaffer and Hack Columbus.The Mighty Hack Columbus Chalice of Victory

I quickly discovered that this was a group of people who cared deeply about their community, loved the library for what it represents, but rarely actually used it themselves. Like so many, they were pleasantly surprised to find out we are so much more than books. I told them about our growing tech and maker programming for tweens and teens. I told them about all of our downloadable content. I told them how public libraries are in a period of great transition, and that we believe technology is a huge component of that. I also expressed a genuine openness about what we do well and the challenges we face. No single organization in the community attempts to serve as diverse a population as the public library, and we seek to adapt and face that challenge in an ever-changing world. Most importantly, we can’t meet that challenge alone.

After attending a few of their monthly hackathons, which function as hangouts and “jam sessions” for local techies, we arrived at an idea for taking the work they had already begun to the next level: Hack the Library. Bring all this great energy and brain power into CVL and focus is on making our technology better. Who among us in libraries hasn’t griped about limited product choices, stagnant vendors who seem more interested in profit than innovation, and inflexible tools we have little control over? I saw a chance to perhaps create some tools of our own, as well as foster future relationships.

Weeks before Hack the Library, we held an Interview (with a Capital I, because how do you ask really smart people to help solve problems if they don’t know what they are?) with representatives from Hack Columbus and a wide variety of CVL administrators, managers, and IT staff, to have an open dialogue about some of the library’s issues, and how technology might help solve them. The Interview was one of the key moments of the event, as this dialogue led to greater organizational buy-in from everyone at the library, and ensured that we were all on the same page. This generated a list of 21 “challenges,” or problems facing the library that we issued as possible projects.Hack the Library poster

We received a generous grant through the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley and the Knight Foundation to feed everyone for 2 days, provide marketing, t-shirts, and a $2000 prize for the winner to start their own business. We assembled a team of community judges, including CVL Director Alan Harkness, a former School Board member, the head of Columbus State University’s Computer Science Department, and State Senator Josh McKoon, who were given a judging criteria based on purpose, simplicity, design, sustainability, and creativity.

The attendees’ diversity created a lot of energy and excitement throughout the event. Over the course of 48 hours at the Columbus Public Library, we hosted about 80 hackers, makers, coders, designers, artists, entrepreneurs and mentors interested in technology, and on-lookers, and set them loose to find technology solutions to help us better reach our community. Grade schoolers worked alongside experienced IT professionals. First-year computer science students collaborated with experienced technologists. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, male or female, experienced or merely curious – the event’s inclusiveness created a strong team environment for all participants. After 2 days, final projects included:

  • Read It – a mobile app that acts as a book diary, awards badges for reading, and allows you to compete via a leaderboard to gamify using the library
  • Search Engine Optimization – Stephen Finney of SparkMacon created a SEO guide for CVL’s website, full of immediately actionable and easy fixes to make our site easier to find via Google. We often get confused for Columbus, OH in web searches, so this will make us more accessible.
  • Project Data Dump – A group of CSU Computer Science students and grads created a Java program and database for analysis of library data via SQL, including an interactive heat map showing the city’s “hot” and “cold” spots of library use. We have a veritable sea of data from our ILS, and often no clear ways to analyze it. We provided some collection and geographic data to get them started, and they ran with it. With their help extracting better data and more time, they created a tool I’d personally love to use every day to better analyze who’s using our libraries and how to target those who aren’t.
  • A virtual reality tour of the library that could be accessed via mobile app or a web browser

In a room full of talented computer programmers, Hack the Library’s winning team came from the most unlikely of places. Girl Scout Troop 50132 won over our judges with their app Badge It Up, which will allow them to track the badges they earn electronically and find books and resources in the library to help them earn those badges.

Cedric Searcy, a Hack the Library participant who invited our winning team to the event, sums it up best:

Girl Scout Troop 50132 - WinnersI cannot tell you enough how truly proud that I am of these young ladies. As I watched them this weekend, I admired their consistent dedication and focus. They had an idea and turned that idea into a reality. As a result you’re now looking at a group of KIDtrepreneurs who have solved a very unique problem for not only themselves but for Girl Scouts everywhere in the world. Their app is a game changer and will soon be on the app market available across multiple platforms! You all have changed their lives forever and I want to tell you how much I personally appreciate you all allotting them the opportunity to partake in the event! Hate to be so cliché but the children are truly the future. It’s important that we let their little imaginative creative minds run wild and create! Winners of the 1st annual Hack The Library! Their legacy has begun!

The best part is that this is not an ending, but a beginning. Many of the apps and concepts introduced at Hack the Library will require further development. It’s a superhuman task to get everything 100% done in 2 days, though you’d be shocked at how much a focused coding ninja can accomplish when powered by headphones, something to eat and drink, and dedication to an idea.

Chattahoochee Valley Libraries plans on working with the programmers to hone and implement many of these projects, and we look forward to tapping into Columbus’ talented technology community and using their intense brain power to help us better reach our customers.

This post is being written on very little sleep, a common side effect of all-night hackathons. I’m still running high on the energy, excitement, and passion I just witnessed being directed at making the public library a better place. These events definitely involve burning the midnight oil for the greater good. Future posts will detail more about how this event came to be, and how you can duplicate it in your community.