Interview with Jason Bengtson

Jason Bengtson is the Head of Library Computing and Information Systems at the University of Oklahoma’s Robert M. Bird Health Sciences Library. A co-editor of the Technology column of the Journal of Hospital Librarianship, he is also a member of the NN/LM South Central Region Technology Advisory Committee and ASIS&T. Jason’s work can be seen in publications ranging from Library Hi Tech to the Journal of Library Administration. His list of accomplishments goes on, and now he is adding to it by teaching a number of courses for Library Juice Academy. He agreed to do an interview here to tell people about his classes and what they can expect to learn from them, as well as a bit about himself.

Jason, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start by asking a little about your background. What got you into computing and libraries? And I know that you have an MA as well. What is that in?

Hi Rory, it’s my pleasure! I’ve been interested in libraries from as early on as I can remember. Growing up in a bit of a run down neighborhood, going to the library was like opening a door to everywhere I wanted to be. As far as computing, I was playing with Commodores and Apple IIEs as a child, writing programs in BASIC (I’m really dating myself with that statement!). I didn’t really get back into writing computer code again until college, when I took a couple of computing courses. Things started to take off more for me in Library school, where I got my first real introduction to web code on both the server and the client side. But it wasn’t until I moved to New Mexico, and became the Emerging Technologies Librarian at the Health Sciences Library there, that I began to have both the latitude and the drive to develop more expansive web coding skills. These skills aren’t just useful for building web sites. I’ve also built apps and games, XML and database driven apps, search tools, revamped the interface to an academic research database, and built data wrangling scripts to reshape data so that systems not designed to talk to each other could exchange information. To me, this kind of work is the essence of Information Science.

My second MA (which I completed just last year) is in English. This has led to a significant interest on my part in Digital Humanities. I’ve also been accepted into the University of North Texas’ Information Science PhD program, which I’m currently scheduled to start next year.

Ah, congrats on beginning your doctoral studies. I hope it doesn’t mean we will lose you as an instructor. Shifting gears a little bit, would you say something about the classes you’ll be teaching for us? Last month was your class in HTML and CSS, which I hope you will teach again. Coming up you have courses that are essentially about Javascript, right?

Yes. The first course will be an introduction to Javascript’s basic concepts (many of which are portable to other programming languages). This will include an introduction to jQuery and a discussion of what it is in relation to Javascript and how it can make client-side scripting easier. Students will learn how to create loops, store information in variables, make decisions using javascript, and create interactive web pages and apps. The next course covers some more advanced topics, including things like javascript objects and AJAX.

The courses really are a logical progression, designed to link the various languages and their application together meaningfully within the framework of the Document Object Model. Of course, a month long course isn’t going to create an expert, but these courses will give students a solid set of fundamentals including a grounding in some of the most useful Javascript tools.

In case someone is interested in these courses but missed this month’s class on HTML, how much background knowledge is required for the Javascript classes?

Not that much. There will be more discussion of the Document Object Model in the Javascript courses. Anyone with the ability to build a basic website with HTML and CSS should have the foundation they need to start adding Javascript to the recipe. Hopefully, besides teaching people useful skills, these courses will help people look at web code in a new way. I’m hoping they help cement the conceptual foundations of client side web coding, so that building upon the skill set learned is easier to do and more intuitive.

Sounds great. Could you say some more about what you will cover in each class?

The Introduction to Client Side Web Scripting course will be all about the fundamental elements of programming in Javascript and how to wire that programming into the structure of a webpage. These fundamentals include performing repetitive tasks using loops, managing user input and changing information via variables, breaking programs up logically using functions, things like that. Of course, writing Javascript is only so useful by itself. You need to be able to use it to make changes to a web document if you want the Javascript to accomplish something useful. Javascript is a bit like the brains and nervous system of a web app. Without healthy interaction with a body, provided by the HTML and CSS of a web document, it’s pretty ugly, and can only do so much.

In the advanced topics course we will discuss other features of Javascript that aren’t commonly used by novices, but which can be very useful. Using AJAX, a web app can read data files, for instance. However, there are restrictions to this ability. If you don’t understand things like Single Origin Policy, using AJAX becomes very frustrating. Similarly, object-oriented Javascript isn’t used that much; mostly Javascript is written with an imperative or declarative syntax. However, there are times when using objects is a much more useful approach than trying to juggle a constellation of variables. Those are the kinds of topics that, while more challenging, will give the Advanced Topics students the grounding to help them take their Javascript to the next level.

That is mostly over my head, but I trust that if I were to take the class I would be brought up to speed without any trouble. I’d like to ask you something that some readers might be wondering. In your experience in libraries, what are some of the library applications for these programming skills?

These skills give us the chance to reimagine what we do and how we do it. A couple of years ago, when I was at the University of New Mexico, we were discussing free NLM resources in a faculty meeting. One of our faculty, Dr, Gale Hannigan, made an observation that many people would probably make more use of the many great NLM database resources if they knew about them. She discussed building a site with links to those databases. I took her idea and built upon it, creating the La Puerta app, which UNM Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center (HSLIC) is now leveraging. La Puerta provides a dynamic user interface that allows people to find a database that works for them and initiate a search right from the app.

At the same institution, we had a home grown database: The Native Health Database. This was an amazing resource, built by HSLIC’s terrific web team. However, it had an interface that was not only showing its age, but one that lacked many of the features needed in a research tool. The search capabilities were limited, lacking even a full boolean search. Users had no way to save the results of their searches. When queries failed users faced a terrifying looking error message. I was given the opportunity to rebuild parts of it as part of an upgrade of ColdFusion at HSLIC. I rebuilt the search, adding capabilities for boolean operators, nesting, and fuzzy logic, all afforded by ColdFusion’s upgrade to the Solr search engine. I added the capability to export references to reference managers and changed the error message (after making the search a little more error-resistant). Some of that was accomplished via ColdFusion, of course, but a lot of the interface improvements were built with good old client-side web code. And an Information Science perspective is what drove the project.

Here at the Robert M Bird library, one of my recent projects was an attempt to apply a strategy of gamification to outreach. My game, Zombie Emergency!, is built entirely on the client side, and is designed to be an engaging way to teach visitors to our booth at health fairs or other venues about the value of higher quality health information sources.

Those are only a few examples. These skills open the door for librarians and informationists to build tutorials, games, search apps, and dynamic web sites capable of drawing people in and showing them what we have to offer.

That sounds great. I think this sounds like a really useful series of classes. I know people are enjoying the one currently in session. Thanks for the interview. I think it is helpful.

Thanks, Rory! I’m certainly enjoying this opportunity to teach for Library Juice Academy. Our discipline and our profession are both changing rapidly and those in Information Science are having to become the epitome of nimble in our skill sets. Together we can, and we will, build the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *