Shutdown, Startup


At the moment, I don’t have a job. The government has been shut down, and with it my job at the Library of Congress. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to pick up some part time work here and there with a few friends, to help make ends meet. I know I shouldn’t say it, but it has actually been kind of rejuvenating to scramble and brainstorm outside of the “permanent” job mentality that I supposedly have. It’s sounding pretty unlikely that I will be paid when the Federal Government re-opens, and it’s not really even clear at this point when it will re-open. Meanwhile there is a mortgage to pay, mouths to feed, and not a whole lot of wiggle room in our budget, or savings to speak of. But we’ll scrape by, like everyone else in the same boat.

But this post isn’t about the shutdown, and it’s not really about me. It’s about a startup, and it’s about my wife Kesa.

Kesa and I met at a startup in New York City in 2000. It was a magical time. We were helping start a business from the ground up, living in a truly amazing city, in a tiny one room apartment that barely fit us and our bookcase…and we were falling in love. We lived in Brooklyn, but our office was in downtown Manhattan, just off Wall Street, and a few blocks from the World Trade Center.

9/11 was an explosive, searing light that annihilated and destroyed…but somehow it also briefly illuminated delicate, evanescent, and commonplace things, making them easier to see. Most of all, the events of 9/11 made me acutely conscious of how important every day I had with Kesa was. One evening later that year I made Italian Wedding Soup for dinner, and asked her if she wanted to get married. She said yes. I think she liked the soup too.

Around that same time Kesa also decided to return to teaching. She had applied for a job in the Brooklyn Public School system and heard back the morning of September the 11th. I guess the day crystallized some things for her too. She remembered her experience teaching K-3rd grade kids how to read in New Orleans. She remembered what it felt like to help make the world a better place, one student at a time, instead of working her butt off to make some software better, that would (maybe) give some big corporations a competitive edge over some other big corporations, so they could sell more widgets. She inspired me in a way that I needed to be inspired, as our country slipped into pointless retaliation, and war.

Over the last 13 years, Kesa has largely been doing just that: teaching 5th grade in Brooklyn, Chicago and here in Washington DC. She took some time off to be with our kids when they were born, but she went back each time. Her philosophy as a teacher has always been to understand each student for their uniqueness. Don’t get me wrong, she is big into the academics; but at the end of the day, it was about connecting with the kids, and seeing them happy and thriving together. The times I went to her class I got to see the evidence of that first hand.

When Maeve (#3!) was born Kesa decided to give something else a try. She started tutoring kids in the neighborhood to see if she could help make ends meet that way. Somewhere along the way the math and reading transitioned to sewing and other crafts. She had caught the makers bug like millions of other people around the country, who are trying to reconnect our culture. She got talking to people like David and Lina Brunton who are trying to bootstrap a farm outside Annapolis, MD. The kids she taught got a real kick out of learning to make their own pajamas, bags and pillows…unwittingly they encouraged her to do more, and to think a bit bigger. She felt like she was onto something.

So in May of this year Kesa went to Baltimore to register the business Freehands Craft Studio. She found an inexpensive space to rent on the 2nd floor of a strip mall near our house in Silver Spring. The photo to the right was taken when she was painting the walls in the new space. I like it because it captures how earnest she was (and still is) about getting Freehands off the ground.

I watched as she networked on neighborhood discussion lists, talked to friends, and friends of friends, and somehow pulled together a small group of teachers with specialties in knitting, paper making, quilting, sewing, jewelry making and collage. Freehands had a few exploratory classes over the summer to figure out logistics, and this fall the classes started in full swing. Last weekend they were at the Silver Spring Mini Maker’s Faire where they demonstrated how to quickly make reusable lunch sacks, and answered questions for 5 hours from tons of people who were interested in what Freehands was doing.

So Kesa is working at a startup again. But this time it’s her startup. As the politicians fight in Congress about how to do their job, it means so much to me to see her building Freehands Craft Studio with her friends. It is a lot of work. I’m having to look after the kids a lot more when she is off teaching a class, or doing outreach of some kind. The startup expenses have set us back a bit more than we expected, and at an awkward time. There’s still a lot more to do to get the business rolling, to build momentum, and let folks outside of our little corner of Silver Spring know about it. But I can tell it’s what Kesa loves doing, because she is smiling when she’s doing it, she gets energy from doing it, the work illuminates her life, and our little family.

So I wrote this post for two people.

It’s for you Kesa. To let you know that even when I grumble about having to rush home to look after the kids, and scrape together a meal and clean up our house so that it doesn’t look like a tornado hit it– in my heart of hearts I’m so proud of you. Your Freehands experiment gives me hope and purpose. You make me happy, just like back when I made that Italian Wedding Soup.

And this post is also for you. There’s no better time to start things up as when other people are shutting things down right? Take some time to consider or remember what you want to start up. It can just be a side project for now. Who knows what it will grow into?

Oh, and if you want to help Kesa and Freehands Craft Studio please consider donating to their Indiegogo campaign, or sharing information about it with others using your social-media-platform-of-choice. There’s only about a day left, and they could really use your help. You can get a little mug or a reusable lunch sack or handmade card as a thank you … and you will become part of this little dream too.


Wikipedia’s 10th Birthday Party at the National Archives in Washington DC on Saturday was a lot of fun. Far and away, the most astonishing moment for me came early in the opening remarks by David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, when he stated (in no uncertain terms) that he was a big fan of Wikipedia, and that it was often his first go-to for information. Not only that, but when discussion about a bid for a DC WikiMania (the Wikipedia Annual Conference) came up later in the morning, Ferriero suggested that the National Archives would be willing to host it if it came to pass. I’m not sure if anything actually came of this later in the day–a WikiMania in DC would be incredible. It was just amazing to hear the Archivist of the United States be supportive of Wikipedia as a reference source…especially as stories of schools, colleges and universities rejecting Wikipedia as a source are still common. Ferriero’s point was even more poignant with several high schoolers in attendance. Now we all can say:

If Wikipedia is good enough for the Archivist of the United States, maybe it should be good enough for you.

Another highlight for me was meeting Phoebe Ayers, who is a reference librarian at UC Davis, member of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, and author of How Wikipedia Works. I strong armed Phoebe into signing my copy (I bought this copy on Amazon after it was de-accessioned from Cuyahoga County Public Library in Parma, Ohio ). Phoebe has some exciting ideas for creating collaborations between libraries and Wikipedia, which I think fit quite well into the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museuems (GLAM) effort within Wikipedia. I think she is still working on how to organize the effort.

Later in the day we heard how the National Archives is thinking of following the lead of the British Museum and establishing a Wikipedian in Residence. Liam Wyatt, the first Wikipedian in Residence, put a human face on Wikipedia for the British Museum, and familiarized museum staff with editing Wikipedia, through activities like the Hoxne Challenge. Having a Wikipedia in Residence at the National Archives (and who knows maybe the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress) would be extremely useful I think.

In a similar vein, Sage Ross spoke at length about the Wikipedia Ambassador Program. The Ambassador Program is a formal way for folks to represent Wikipedia in academic settings (universities, high schools, etc). Ambassadors can get training in how to engage with Wikipedia (editing, etc) and can help professors and teachers who want to integrate Wikipedia into their curriculum, and scholarly activities.

I got to meet Peter Benjamin Meyer of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who has some interesting ideas for aggregating statistical information from federal statistical sources, and writing some bots that will update article info-boxes for places in the United States. The impending release of the 2010 US Census Data has the Wikipedia community discussing the best way to update the information that was added by a bot for the 2000 census. It seemed like Peter might be able to piggy back some of his efforts on this work that is going on at Wikipedia for the 2010 Census.

Jyothis Edthoot an Oracle employee and Wikipedia Steward gave me a behind the scenes look at the tools he and others in Counter Vandalism Unit use to keep Wikipedia open for edits from anyone in the world. I also got to meet Harihar Shankar from Herbert van de Sompel’s team at Los Alamos National Lab, and to learn more about the latest developments with Memento, which he gave a lightning talk about. I also ran into Jeanne Kramer-Smyth of the World Bank, and got to hear about their efforts to provide meaningful access to their document collections to web crawlers using their metadata.

I did end up giving a lightning talk about Linkypedia (slides on the left). I was kind of rushed, and I wasn’t sure that this was exactly the right audience for the talk (being mainly Wikipedians instead of folks from the GLAM sector). But it helped me think through some of the challenges in expressing what Linkypedia is about, and who it is for. All in all it was a really fun day, with a lot of friendly folks interested in the Wikipedia community. There must’ve been at least 70 people there on a very cold Saturday–a promising sign of good things to come for collaborations between Wikipedia and the DC area.

Wikipedia 10

Wikipedia is turning ten years old on January 15th, and celebratory gatherings are going around the globe, including one in my area (Washington DC) on January 22 at the National Archives.

Like you, I’ve been an accidental user of Wikipedia when searching for a topic to learn more about. Over time I have started actively searching on Wikipedia for things, linking to Wikipedia articles (in email and HTML), and even saying thank you with a small donation. I’ve only attended one of the local DC chapter events before, but am definitely planning on attending the DC event to meet other people who value Wikipedia as a resource.

Perhaps also like you (since you are reading this blog) I also work in a cultural heritage organization, well a library to be precise. I wasn’t able to attend the recent Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums & Wikimedia conference at the British Museum last November. But I have been listening to the audio that they kindly provided recently with great interest. If you are interested in the role that cultural heritage organizations can play on Wikipedia, and the Web in general definitely check it out if you’ve got a long commute (or time to kill) and a audio device of some kind. There are lots of museums, galleries, archives and libraries in the DC area, so I’m hoping that this event on the 22nd will be an opportunity for folks to get together across institutional lines to talk about how they are engaging with the Wikipedia community. Who knows maybe it could be a precursor to a similar to GLAM-WIKI here in DC?

I’m planning on doing a lightning talk about this side/experimental project I’ve been working on called linkypedia. The basic idea is to give web publishers (and specifically cultural heritage organizations like libraries, museums, archives, etc) an idea of how their content is being used as primary resource material on Wikipedia. The goal is to validate the work that these institutions have done to make this content available, and for them to do more…and also to engage with the Wikipedia community. Version 1 of the (opensource) software is running at here on my minimal Linode VPS. But I’m also working on version 2, which will hopefully scale a bit better, and provide a more global (not just English Wikipedia) and real time picture of how your stuff is being used on Wikipedia. Part of the challenge is figuring out how to pay for it, given the volume of external links in the major language Wikipedias. I’m hoping a tip-jar and thoughtful use of Amazon EC2 will be enough.

If you are interested in learning more about the event on the 22nd check out Katie Filbert’s recent post to the Sunlight Labs Discussion List, and the (ahem) wiki page to sign up! Thanks Mark for letting me know about the birthday celebration last week in IRC. Sometimes with all the discussion lists, tweets, and blogs things like this slip by without me noticing them. So a direct prod in IRC helps :-)