The question of what Code4Lib wants to be when it grows up seems to be perennial, and the latest iteration of the discussion is upon us. Quoting Christina Salazar:
… I really do think it’s time to reopen the question of formalizing Code4Lib IF ONLY FOR THE PURPOSES OF BEING THE FIDUCIARY AGENT for the annual conference.
I agree — we need to discuss this. The annual main conference has grown from a hundred or so in 2006 to 440 in 2016. Given the notorious rush of folks racing to register to attend each fall, it is not unreasonable to think that a conference in the right location that offered 750 seats — or even 1,000 — would still sell out. There are also over a dozen regional Code4Lib groups that have held events over the years.
With more attendees comes greater responsibilities — and greater financial commitments. Furthermore, over the years the bar has (appropriately) been raised on what is counted as the minimum responsibilities of the conference organizers. It is no longer enough to arrange to keep the bandwidth high, the latency low, and the beer flowing. A conference host that does not consider accessibility and representation is not living up to what Code4Lib qua group of thoughtful GLAM tech people should be; a host that does not take attendee safety and the code of conduct seriously is being dangerously irresponsible.
Running a conference or meetup that’s larger than what can fit in your employer’s conference room takes money — and the costs scale faster than linearly. For recent Code4Lib conferences, the budgets have been in the low- to-middle- six figures.
That’s a lot of a money — and a lot of antacids consumed until the hotel and/or convention center minimums are met. The Code4Lib community has been incredibly lucky that a number of people have voluntarily chosen to take this stress on — and that a number of institutions have chosen to act as fiscal hosts and incur the risk of large payouts if a conference were to collapse.
To disclose: I am a member of the committee that worked on the erstwhile bid to host the 2017 conference in Chattanooga. I think we made the right decision to suspend our work; circumstances are such that many attendees would be faced with the prospect of traveling to a state whose legislature is actively trying to make it more dangerous to be there.
However, the question of building or finding a long-term fiscal host for the annual Code4Lib conference must be considered separately from the fate of the 2017 Chattanooga bid. Indeed, it should have been discussed before conference hosts found themselves transferring five-figure sums to the next year’s host.
Of course, one option is to scale back and cease attempting to organize a big international conference unless some big-enough institution happens to have the itch to backstop one. There is a lot of life in the regional meetings, and, of course, many, many people who will never get funding to attend a national conference but who could attend a regional one.
But I find stepping back like that unsatisfying. Collectively, the Code4Lib community has built an annual tradition of excellent conferences. Furthermore, those conference have gotten better (and bigger) over the years without losing one of the essences of Code4Lib: that any person who cares to share something neat about GLAM technology can have the respectful attention of their peers. In fact, the Code4Lib community has gotten better — by doing a lot of hard work — about truly meaning “any person.”
Is Code4Lib a “do-ocracy”? Loaded question, that. But this go around, there seems to be a number of people who are interested in doing something to keep the conference going in the long run. I feel we should not let vague concerns about “too much formality” or (gasp! horrors!) “too much library organization” stop the folks who are interested from making a serious go of it.
We may find out that forming a new non-profit is too much uncompensated effort. We may find out that we can’t find a suitable umbrella organization to join. Or we may find out that we can keep the conference going on a sounder fiscal basis by doing the leg-work — and thereby free up some people’s time to hack on cool stuff without having to pop a bunch of Maalox every winter.
But there’s one in argument against “formalizing” in particular that I object to. Quoting Eric Lease Morgan:
In the spirit of open source software and open access publishing, I suggest we
earnestly try to practice DIY — do it yourself — before other types of
formalization be put into place.
In the spirit of open source? OK, clearly that means that we should immediately form a non-profit foundation that can sustain nearly USD 16 million in annual expenses. Too ambitious? Let’s settle for just about a million in annual expenses.
I’m not, of course, seriously suggesting that Code4Lib aim to form a foundation that’s remotely in the same league as the Apache Software Foundation or the Mozilla Foundation. Nor do I think Code4Lib needs to become another LITA — we’ve already got one of those (though I am proud, and privileged, to count myself a member of both). For that matter, I do think it is possible for a project or group effort to prematurely spend too much time adopting the trappings of formal organizational structure and thus forget to actually do something.
But the sort of “DIY” (and have fun unpacking that!) mode that Morgan is suggesting is not the only viable method of “open source” organization. Sometimes open source projects get bigger. When that happens, the organizational structure always changes; it’s better if that change is done openly.
The Code4Lib community doesn’t have to grow larger; it doesn’t have to keep running a big annual conference. But if we do choose to do that — let’s do it right.
Code4Lib and the “open source way” by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.