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August 2014
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The Courage of Misha and Amy

I continue to be blown away by the courage in the face of bigotry displayed by the We Do Campaign. Watch the new video they’ve just released (embedded here) and contrast the self-righteous Bible quoting at the beginning with the quiet dignity and brave commitment to the path of love shown by Misha and Amy.

And then go give the Campaign for Southern Equality a few dollars.

Please also join our Mad4Equality March Madness tournament, which is raising money for the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Trevor Project.

Chris Bourg, a wonderful colleague of mine at Stanford, wrote a great blog post about Mad4Equality, in which she calls me out:

And I’m calling out Bess Sadler right now to put up another $25 against my bet that my Blue Devils will dance longer than her Tarheels. Go Cardinal, Go Blue Devils!

I accept. And I also back a similar bet that Stanford’s Nerd City Kids will dance longer than any other team anyone cares to name.


Earlier this year, the Campaign for Southern Equality released some powerfully emotional videos (see above) in which same-sex couples across the South walked up to counters where they knew they would be denied marriage licenses and asked for marriage licenses anyway. Simple acts of courage like this can make an enormous difference in changing culture. Furthermore, I am convinced that we need to fight for marriage equality in the south if we want to achieve it everywhere else. Why support CSE?

Across the South, LGBT people lack basic legal protections, face robust opposition to our rights and have limited resources for advocacy. LGBT people in our region are also at an elevated risk of poverty. Beyond this, the South receives less than five percent of the total annual funding that goes to LGBT organizations nationally. Factors like this contribute to the commonly held belief that the South is “unwinnable” when it comes to LGBT rights.

But we hold a different view. First, we believe there is a pressing need for advocacy, legal and crisis response services for LGBT people in the South. Second, we believe that LGBT people and allies in the South are uniquely positioned to accelerate winning full equality on the federal level by directly resisting discriminatory laws and systems. Third, we believe that every person – including those conflicted about or opposed to LGBT rights – can become an ally.

As a result, we’re taking a new approach, building upon a rich legacy of civil rights organizing in the South and working in close partnership with other LGBT and civil rights groups.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Tar Heel basketball is taken pretty seriously. I have long since moved away, but March Madness always makes me homesick. This year, I dedicate my homesickness to improving my home’s culture.

I am proud to team up with my friend Chris Bourg (”the Feral Librarian”) and the Butch Wonders blog to host a March Madness tournament, proceeds to benefit the Campaign for Southern Equality

The basic details are described at Announcing … Mad for Equality! We are planning on a $10 per bracket entry fee, with 1/3 of the pot going to the winner(s), 1/3 to Campaign for Southern Equality, and 1/3 to another LGBT equality charity to be determined by popular vote. So — head over to Butch Wonders and nominate your favorite charity. We will also be tweeting about the contest on the hashtag #mad4equality.

You can also donate directly to the Campaign for Southern equality at

Why we don’t speak up

Oh, Internet. There is never a shortage of anonymous cowards willing to say horrible things in secret. And this is not good for discourse, because only some of us get to receive emails like this on a regular basis:

I think the most accurate conclusion that can be drawn from all this complaining of late is that women actually are inferior.

I know that, because you have a vagina, you probably have lots of dudes tripping over themselves to tell you how great you are! But, to the rest of us who do not play that game, you just look dumb.

I received this email and I took a few deep breaths. I recognized that I was feeling shame. Time to unpack that feeling! Among many other reasons, I am feeling shame because we aren’t supposed to say the word “vagina.” That is one of the words I (and you, and all of us) have been conditioned to feel shame around, because we view women’s bodies as shameful. This leads to the kind of thinking that classified “pregnancy” under the heading of “disease” in the Dewey Decimal system. [1] More personally in my own life, it leads to a society where some of us can’t really get medical care because we have medical issues concerning parts of our bodies that everyone is trained not to acknowledge. So when this anonymous coward sent me this nice little message, one of the things he’s trying to do here is re-assert the patriarchy. It’s a dog whistle to the conditioning he knows I’ve received. I feel sorry for the women in his life, I’m sure he finds lots of little ways of letting them know how valueless he believes them to be.

Many people get harassed on the internet, but for some of us it carries extra baggage or vulnerability. It is one of the very real reasons why many women (and queers, and ethnic minorities, and any kind of “othered” group, especially one whose members have been conditioned by violence) sometimes fear to speak up when they witness unacceptable behavior. I have reached a point in my life when I am done accepting it quietly. The consequences of ignoring this kind of behavior are too high. The Workplace Bullying Institute has a great summary of some of the effects of bullying. I am convinced, and they show some compelling evidence, that bullying is a form of violence. This is what happens to an employee who experiences regular workplace bullying:

  • You feel like throwing up the night before the start of your work week
  • Your frustrated family demands that you to stop obsessing about work at home
  • Your doctor asks what could be causing your skyrocketing blood pressure and recent health problems, and tells you to change jobs
  • You feel too ashamed of being controlled by another person at work to tell your spouse or partner
  • All your paid time off is used for “mental health breaks” from the misery
  • Days off are spent exhausted and lifeless, your desire to do anything is gone
  • Your favorite activities and fun with family are no longer appealing or enjoyable
  • You begin to believe that you provoked the workplace cruelty

I want more diversity in the open culture movement, and I do not want the people we recruit to feel like that. Those of us who are here already, please join me in making your harassment public, when it is safe for you to do so, so that we can have a more useful community-wide dialogue on the issue.

[1] See The Power to Name by Hope Olson for many other examples of how library classification systems have repeated societal biases

Creating a Commons

This is the text of my talk from code4lib 2013. My slides are here. Video is here.

Hi, I’m Bess Sadler, and I work at Stanford University Library. I build open source software for libraries, and it’s pretty important to me. This is not my first code4lib, I’ve been around for awhile.


We lost a member of our community this year. Aaron Swartz spoke at code4lib in Portland in 2008. His work on Open Library was inspiring to many of us, including me. He was a library hacker in the very best sense, and he brought a sense of ethics to his work that affected me deeply. I am glad to have known him, and I am grateful for his contributions.

In addition to his work with bibliographic data, Aaron also helped to design the creative commons licenses.


I love the creative commons licenses. In case you haven’t encountered them before, let me explain that they say the same thing in three vocabularies: Machine readable, human readable, and lawyer readable.

I’d like to suggest that successful community developed software projects, and technology communities like code4lib, should adopt the same strategy.

Machine readable means cool uris, and unit test coverage, continuous integration, and semantic markup.


It means building software that’s easy to integrate, and is able to accept code contributions without breaking. I won’t spend much time on this because it has already been well covered at this conference, and in books like Practices of an Agile Developer and Producing Open Source Software. I will just say that shared engineering practices become more and more important the larger and more distributed your development team becomes, and it is an investment that’s worth making.


And lawyer readable, well, we’re not lawyers, so I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on legal contracts, except to say, yes, you really do need to figure out your governance and legal structure if you want to collaborate across institutions for very long. And it’s a very good idea to get anyone who is contributing code to your project to sign a contributor license agreement. It goes a long way toward establishing a clear legal standing for any code that is produced.

Being lawyer readable can make your life a lot easier, and can make a big difference in whether your software project attracts new adopters and committers. In fact, it might determine whether their employment contract allows them to participate at all.

Again, this is covered in the books I just recommended, and the apache software foundation also maintains an excellent guide to getting your open source software project on firm legal footing. Again, this is an investment in your project and your community that is worth making. I too love under the radar software that we develop and share informally. I don’t want to lose the spirit of informal collaboration that code4lib does so well. But we must recognize that we live in a larger context, one where major lawsuits have happened because of unclear code provenance. Be smart and protect yourself.

Machine readable, lawyer readable, these are important. But what I really want to talk about today is being human readable.

When we build software, what are we building? Software code, certainly, but we are also building ways of doing things, a group of people who know how to work together, and the traditions they create. In other words, a culture. In other words, a commons.

How many people here went over to the fedora4lib house this week? Fedora4lib is a team of software engineers from several institutions, who arrived in Chicago early, rented a house together, and have been collaboratively creating the next version of fedora. They had a couple of open house events this week, which were really fun.

When I got over there Chris Beer had just baked cookies. This is definitely my idea of developer happiness. I talked to the developers, and the feedback I heard was that not only had they been productive and produced something that all of these institutions can benefit from, they felt closer as a team, they communicated better.

Hydra, in addition to being a digital repository solution, is a community. In fact, increasingly, this seems like our primary identity. What we are finding is that the ability to collaborate on common solutions is more important than any single project. This gives us resiliency, and room to experiment. I think having a community makes us feel safe enough to take risks, and sharing work frees up our time to innovate. By trusting each other, and cultivating in each other a willingness to experiment, we get to try cool experiments like fedora4lib. And I think we’ve hit on something worth doing again.

This intentional focus on hydra as a community has been a successful strategy. You might have noticed from the talks this year, quite a few institutions have been joining the hydra community, and it seems to be working out well for them. In fact, we realized recently that the limiting factor on our growth was our ability to hire and train people to build and run these repositories.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been spending some time this year teaching for RailsBridge in San Francisco. I am thinking about how to teach digital library concepts to people who are new to programming, or new to libraries, or both. Partly this is to help meet the hiring and training needs of hydra institutions, but it’s also because I believe that building and maintaining library software is vitally important work and it’s too big a job to leave to a small group of people. We are creating the future of libraries here. I feel like the stakes are pretty high. I want the solutions we develop to be inclusive, and I am deeply worried about the fact that only 2% of open source software developers are women. I want to do something about that, and teaching seems like a way I can make a contribution.

But when I think about what it is I’d really like to teach people who are new to coding for libraries, what I come up with isn’t about technology so much as it is about adopting a problem solving mindset, something I am starting to think of as “hacker epistemology.” Epistemology, if you’re not familiar with the term, refers to the question of how we decide what’s true, how we construct knowledge. For example, someone might have an epistemology of received knowledge. That person would decide what was true based on what an authority figure told them was true. Here in code4lib, many of us have more of what I think of as a hacker epistemology, this magic combination of collaborative knowledge building, combined with a disregard for the mental traps of conventional thinking. We like to take things apart and see how they work. Sometimes we listen to what authority figures tell us, but we easily discard received knowledge if we gather evidence that contradicts it. I think it’s this attitude that has made code4lib so successful. We value rough consensus and working code. The truth is what works.


I was very sorry to miss code4lib last year. I hear that Dan Chudnov delivered an outstanding keynote. I am sorry I missed it, but happy that I got to hear a little about it last night. If I understand Dan’s message, he was saying that it’s important for us to grow code4lib to accommodate all of the people who want to join us and contribute to our work. I couldn’t agree more. This year, we have more people here than ever before. We have taken major steps forward in making code4lib more open and welcoming for newcomers. Now I want to take a few more steps in the direction of building inclusive community.

I love code4lib, and I make extensive use of it, so it seems only natural to me to want to improve it. Step one in hacking a system is trying to understand the system, and looking for places where it might be possible to make a change. One way I hacked code4lib this year was by requesting that we adopt a code of conduct.

Having a code of conduct is becoming a recognized best practice in the open source community, and a proven way to attract a more diverse audience for conferences and communities of all kinds. I am pleased to say that we did adopt a code of conduct, and we join great organizations like the Linux Foundation and the O’Reilly conferences, in taking this step. As of January 9, the django software foundation will only sponsor events with a published code of conduct, and more and more open source projects are following suit. After code4lib adopted our code of conduct, CurateCamp adopted a similar statement. I find all of this very encouraging.

And… I get it, not everyone thinks it’s necessary, just like not everyone wants to sign a contributor license agreement. But having a readable consensus statement about our values, and a positive affirmation that this is a safe space, really does improve the quality of our commons.

I didn’t ask for a code of conduct because of anything egregious that had happened in code4lib, but because it’s a good idea organizationally, and because I wanted us to make an explicit statement about inclusiveness. Unfortunately, we as a community do not get to start from an assumption that this is a safe and welcoming space. Sexual harassment and assault have been rampant problems in the technology world, including the world of open source software. This has been true for a long time, but thanks to courageous community members who are willing to speak publicly, who make themselves vulnerable to further attacks by refusing to remain silent, these incidents are being discussed and we as a community have an opportunity to fix this critical bug in our culture.

If we don’t define our own parameters, we are accepting the default. And the default is terrible. We can do much better than that, and we have to let people know we want to try.

Another way I hacked code4lib this year was by submitting more than one talk. For those of you new to our speaker selection process, people can submit as many talk proposals as they want, but they can only give one. We periodically discuss changing this policy, but I’d like to request that we keep it. And, I’d like to invite people to use this policy the way I do. It is important to me to have women on this stage. I want diversity of all kinds, for example I would also like to see more public libraries represented in code4lib, but given that librarianship is a majority female profession, but the tech side is majority male, I am particularly concerned with hearing from more women at this conference.

— We are all impostors.

And here, this is my final hack for this year:

Who here has ever felt like there are some astonishingly smart people in code4lib? Who has ever felt afraid they couldn’t keep up? Raise your hand.

I feel like that a lot. I think all of us do. And if we just acknowledge that truth, we go a long way toward disarming that intimidation factor.

I was talking with a friend of mine this week about these issues. He is someone who I think of as an ultimate code4lib insider. He gives talks, teaches workshops, and writes amazing software. And yet he confessed to me this week that he often feels, especially at code4lib, that he is surrounded by people who are smarter than he is, and he can sometimes feel like he’s faking it. He told me that the way he deals with that is to bolster himself, to put on his game face, to go into the world armored with masculinity and emotional invulnerability. “Do you think,” he asked me, “it might make a difference to our ability to be inclusive, if I stopped doing that? If I just admitted that I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes?” I had to try really hard not to reach out and hug him. “Yes,” I said, “I think that would make a huge difference. We should all do that.”

This makes me think of what researcher Brene Brown has to say about vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is the courage to show up and allow ourselves to be seen. To try, even when we have no guarantee of success.

When we make our code public, when we allow others to find our weak spots and help us strengthen them, that is vulnerability that leads to strength. And when we acknowledge our own emotional vulnerability, the fact that many of us feel lost and overwhelmed, by technology, by work, by life, then we allow others to acknowledge those things too, and we create a context where we can support each other.

So those are my attempts at hacking on this community to make it fit my needs better. But clearly, this task is too big for me to accomplish alone. I’d like us to set up a system for accepting bug reports on our commons. The code of conduct we just adopted is our current working document for how we have decided to do that. The process can, undoubtedly, be improved further, and I encourage us all to think about how to do that.

My request of you, of us, is that we put on our hacker mindset when we file and receive these bug reports. For example, this week I received a bug report that the original title of my talk, “How to be an effective evangelist for your open source project,” was a little alienating to some here for reasons that, I admit, were invisible to me until a friend explained that, as someone who identifies as Jewish, he often feels made invisible by Christian metaphors. He didn’t like to bring it up, but he trusted me enough to let me know that that word bothered him. Because we were having a conversation where we were explicitly trying to be honest with each other without hurting each other, instead of getting defensive I was able to stay present, stay vulnerable, and accept his bug report. And I changed it. And now my presentation is better and I feel closer to my friend. This is a good system.

This community is so special to me. I joined the code4lib irc channel when I was in library school, back in 2003, before there was a conference. This community has been a source of strength to me, a place where I have made wonderful friends and developed my own skills far beyond what I once thought I was capable of. I am so happy to see the ways that we have grown, and eager to see what we’ll do next.

Thank you, code4lib, for another great year.

This is the opposite of a suicide note.

“So we weep for a person who lived at great cost /
Yet we barely knew his powers till we sensed that we had lost”

“Mark Rothko” by Dar Williams

“This is the opposite of a suicide note / I plant my roots too deep in this earth to move”

This is the opposite of a suicide note” by Guante

Aaron is gone

I woke up Saturday morning to the voice of my partner telling me, gently, “Aaron Swartz killed himself.” I had a few minutes of confusion before I managed to get to my phone, open twitter, and see that it was true. I started crying. I kept picturing him the last time I’d seen him, years ago at an Open Library hack fest day, intent over his laptop, in a t-shirt that read “Design will save the world.”

I somehow got dressed and out the door to CalTrain, even managing to arrive early for the day’s RailsBridge hack day. I tried to focus on my work. That’s usually what I do when I don’t want to feel a painful emotion.

Feeling my Feelings

I have been deeply moved recently by the courageous acts of two women who are among my heroes. The first is Maria Bamford. If you haven’t seen her new comedy special, please do yourself a favor and go watch it. ( Not only is this the funniest comedy special ever conceived, it is honest and vulnerable about mental illness and suicidal feelings in a way that feels unprecedented to me. I wonder if Maria’s therapists tell her what mine always tell me, that I have to be open and honest about who I am if I ever want to get better.

The second inspiration came from this post by Valerie Aurora, co-founder of the Ada Initiative, in which she discusses suicide the way a good hacker should, in terms of how we actually fix the problem. One of the ways she enumerates is for all of us to be more open and honest about our own experiences.

I am deeply concerned about addressing suicidal behavior and mental health issues among hackers, activists, and free culture advocates, because those are the people I love. And they (some of them at least) love me. And they are not going to shun me for being open and honest about who I am.

I have been struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for a very long time. It has been there since before my brain was fully formed. I was raped when I was twelve, and because of misogynistic beliefs I had been raised with, I responded to losing my virginity by attempting suicide. Ever since then, suicidal thoughts have dogged me.

I am no longer afraid that I will kill myself. I have spent the past few years, including a very intensive few months last year when I was recovering from a concussion and the ensuing depression, practicing cognitive behavioral therapy with an excellent therapist. I still have panic attacks, sometimes for no obvious reason. I still get anxiety induced nausea, and I’ve kept my hair trigger startle reflex. But the blinding, crippling migraines have mostly stopped, and that is a blessed relief. The endometriosis that gave me unbearable pain for much of my life is mostly dormant these days. Life without chronic pain is good, and life with meditation, exercise, and CBT is amazing. I can hardly believe that I am the same person. In many ways, I’m not.

Central America

I don’t often talk about my time in Central America, at least not in any detail. On my resume, that time is written out as a list of skills and technical tricks I picked up doing IT support for human rights agencies. I don’t often go into what life was like in post-NAFTA-ravaged war-torn Mexico, in places where people attempt to live everyday life amid a state of “low intensity warfare.” It was a place where, while we weren’t being bombed (which I guess is what makes it “low intensity”), anyone who was putting up a fight, even via the legal system, against having Mayan ancestral lands stolen by American corporations might end up dead. I had no idea what we were up against before I accepted this job.

I was used to political organizing on American college campuses, and to impassioned conversations about the ideals of the free software movement. In my political work, we protested, we even got arrested, we even occupied buildings, but none of us ever seriously feared being harmed, or at least I didn’t. I was twenty-three, I believed passionately in the causes I fought for, and I wanted to find a contribution to make that would actually matter. I had been earning a living as an IT professional since the age of 19, and that work had put me through college and had done well for me financially. I had just started earning my first significant money as a software engineer, and I was confident, idealistic, and perhaps naive enough to believe that providing better Internet access for human rights agencies was my little corner of saving the world.

My slow realization that real people were dying around me, that mistakes on my part could kill, was not something I had been prepared for emotionally by my years providing IT support to bookstores and universities. I was deeply religious at the time, and my work was an attempt to serve God. My heroes were the men and women who had given everything to God in order to make peace in the world, like Sister Dianna Ortiz, and Juan Gerardi. When I felt that I had failed at my task, when I realized that I had probably been a security liability to the very people I had cared so passionately about protecting, I fell into despair and I tried to end my life. I took as many sleeping pills as I could swallow and washed them down with lots of wine.

Miraculously, and I give thanks for this as often as possible, I woke up the next day. And then, to everyone’s shock, I decided to move to Edmonton, Alberta to go to library school, and my life shot off in a totally different direction. To paraphrase Augusten Burroughs, sometimes you have to kill your life so you don’t kill yourself.

This is the opposite of a suicide note.

I got into library software because it seemed so safe to me. “No one’s life will ever depend on my actions again,” I remember thinking with relief. And yet I feel now the way I felt then, powerless to save my heroes. The people I care about, the people in this movement that was my salvation, are still dying around me. At a wake for Aaron at No Starch Press in San Francisco this week, I sat around a table with some hackerspace friends and we talked about mental health issues in the geek / hacker community. This was their third friend lost to suicide in the past year. I got to sit in on part of a much larger conversation about how to better provide emotional support and mental health service access to our community. I look forward to continuing that conversation at Aaron’s memorial service at the Internet Archive in San Francisco this week. My first contribution to the effort is this blog post, an attempt to be open and honest about who I am. This is the opposite of a suicide note. This is a love letter to all the hackers and activists and artists, to all the people who do what’s right instead of what’s safe. I link my arms with yours and together we cannot be moved from this earth.