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Why I feel like an Open Source Failure

I presented a version of this talk at the Supporting Cultural Heritage Open Source Software (SCHOSS) Symposium in Atlanta, GA in September 2014. This talk was generously sponsored by LYRASIS and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.


I often feel like an Open Source failure.

I haven’t submitted 500 patches in my free time, I don’t spend my after-work hours rating html5 apps, and I was certainly not a 14 year old Linux user. Unlike the incredible group of teenaged boys with whom I write my Mozilla Communities newsletter and hang out with on IRC, I spent most of my time online at that age chatting with friends on AOL Instant Messenger and doing my homework.

I am a very poor programmer. My Wikipedia contributions are pretty sad. I sometimes use Powerpoint. I never donated my time to Open Source in the traditional sense until I started at Mozilla as a GNOME OPW intern and while the idea of data gets me excited, the thought of spending hours cleaning it is another story.

I was feeling this way the other day and chatting with a friend about how reading celebrity news often feels like a better choice after work than trying to find a new open source project to contribute to or making edits to Wikipedia. A few minutes later, a message popped up in my inbox from an old friend asking me to help him with his application to library school.

I dug up my statement of purpose and I was extremely heartened to read my words from three years ago:

I am particularly interested in the interaction between libraries and open source technology… I am interested in innovative use of physical and virtual space and democratic archival curation, providing free access to primary sources.

It felt good to know that I have always been interested in these topics but I didn’t know what that would look like until I discovered my place in the open source community. I feel like for many of us in the cultural heritage sector the lack of clarity about where we fit in is a major blocker, and I do think it can be associated with contribution to open source more generally. Douglas Atkin, Community Manager at Airbnb, claims that the two main questions people have when joining a community are “Are they like me? And will they like me?”. Of course, joining a community is a lot more complicated than that, but the lack of visibility of open source projects in the cultural heritage sector can make even locating a project a whole lot more complicated.

As we’ve discussed in this working group, the ethics of cultural heritage and Open Source overlap considerably and

the open source community considers those in the cultural heritage sector to be natural allies.

In his article, “Who are you empowering?” Hugh Rundle writes: (I quote this article all the time because I believe it’s one of the best articles written about library tech recently…)

A simple measure that improves privacy and security and saves money is to use open source software instead of proprietary software on public PCs.

Community-driven, non-profit, and not good at making money are just some of the attributes that most cultural heritage organizations and open source project have in common, and yet, when choosing software for their patrons, most libraries and cultural heritage organizations choose proprietary systems and cultural heritage professionals are not the strongest open source contributors or advocates.

The main reasons for this are, in my opinion:


1. Many people in cultural heritage don’t know what Open Source is.

In a recent survey I ran of the Code4Lib and UNC SILS listservs, nearly every person surveyed could accurately respond to the prompt “Define Open Source in one sentence” though the responses varied from community-based answers to answers solely about the source code.

My sample was biased toward programmers and young people (and perhaps people who knew how to use Google because many of the answers were directly lifted from the first line of the Wikipedia article about Open Source, which is definitely survey bias,) but I think that it is indicative of one of the larger questions of open source.

Is open source about the community, or is it about the source code?

There have been numerous articles and books written on this subject, many of which I can refer you to (and I am sure that you can refer me to as well!) but this question is fundamental to our work.

Many people, librarians and otherwise, will ask: (I would argue most, but I am operating on anecdotal evidence)

Why should we care about whether or not the code is open if we can’t edit it anyway? We just send our problems to the IT department and they fix it.

Many people in cultural heritage don’t have many feelings about open source because they simply don’t know what it is and cannot articulate the value of one over the other. Proprietary systems don’t advertise as proprietary, but open source constantly advertises as open source, and as I’ll get to later, proprietary systems have cornered the market.

This movement from darkness to clarity brings most to mind a story that Kathy Lussier told about the Evergreen project, where librarians who didn’t consider themselves “techy” jumped into IRC to tentatively ask a technical question and due to the friendliness of the Evergreen community, soon they were writing the documentation for the software themselves and were a vital part of their community, participating in conferences and growing their skills as contributors.

In this story, the Open Source community engaged the user and taught her the valuable skill of technical documentation. She also took control of the software she uses daily and was able to maintain and suggest features that she wanted to see. This situation was really a win-win all around.

What institution doesn’t want to see their staff so well trained on a system that they can write the documentation for it?


2. The majority of the market share in cultural heritage is closed-source, closed-access software and they are way better at advertising than Open Source companies.

Last year, my very wonderful boss in the cataloging and metadata department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came back from ALA Midwinter with goodies for me: pens and keychains and postits and tote bags and those cute little staplers. “I only took things from vendors we use,” she told me.

Linux and Firefox OS hold 21% of the world’s operating system marketshare. (Interestingly, this is more globally than IOS, but still half that of Windows. On mobile, IOS and Android are approximately equal.)

Similarly, free, open source systems for cultural heritage are unfortunately not a high percentage of the American market. Wikipedia has a great list of proprietary and open source ILSs and OPACs, the languages they’re written in, and their cost. Marshall Breeding writes that FOSS software is picking up some market share, but it is still “the alternative” for most cultural heritage organizations.

There are so many reasons for this small market share, but I would argue (as my previous anecdote did for me,) that a lot of it has to do with the fact that these proprietary vendors have much more money and are therefore a lot better at marketing to people in cultural heritage who are very focused on their work. We just want to be able to install the thing and then have it do the thing well enough. (An article in Library Journal in 2011 describes open source software as: “A lot of work, but a lot of control.”)

As Jack Reed from Stanford and others have pointed out, most of the cost of FOSS in cultural heritage is developer time, and many cultural heritage institutions believe that they don’t have those resources. (John Brice’s example at the Meadville Public Library proves that communities can come together with limited developers and resources in order to maintain vital and robust open source infrastructures as well as significantly cut costs.)

I learned at this year’s Wikiconference USA that academic publishers had the highest profit margin of any company in the country last year, ahead of Google and Apple.

The academic publishing model is, for more reasons than one, completely antithetical to the ethics of cultural heritage work, and yet they maintain a large portion of the cultural heritage market share in terms of both knowledge acquisition and software. Megan Forbes reminds us that the platform Collection Space was founded as the alternative to the market dominance of “several large, commercial vendors” and that cost put them “out of reach for most small and mid-sized institutions.”

Open source has the chance to reverse this vicious cycle, but institutions have to put their resources in people in order to grow.

While certain companies like OCLC are working toward a more equitable future, with caveats of course, I would argue that the majority of proprietary cultural heritage systems are providing inferior product to a resource poor community.


 3. People are tired and overworked, particularly in libraries, and to compound that, they don’t think they have the skills to contribute.

These are two separate issues, but they’re not entirely disparate so I am going to tackle them together.

There’s this conception outside of the library world that librarians are secret coders just waiting to emerge from their shells and start categorizing datatypes instead of MARC records (this is perhaps a misconception due to a lot of things, including the sheer diversity of types of jobs that people in cultural heritage fill, but hear me out.)

When surveyed, the skill that entering information science students most want to learn is “programming.” However, the majority of MLIS programs are still teaching Microsoft Word and beginning html as technology skills.

Learning to program computers takes time and instruction and while programs like Women who Code and Girl Develop It can begin educating librarians, we’re still faced with a workforce that’s over 80% female-identified that learned only proprietary systems in their work and a small number of technology skills in their MLIS degrees.

Library jobs, and further, cultural heritage jobs are dwindling. Many trained librarians, art historians, and archivists are working from grant to grant on low salaries with little security and massive amounts of student loans from both undergraduate and graduate school educations. If they’re lucky to get a job, watching television or doing the loads of professional development work they’re expected to do in their free time seems a much better choice after work than continuing to stare at a computer screen for a work-related task or learn something completely new. For reference: an entry-level computer programmer can expect to make over $70,000 per year on average. An entry-level librarian? Under $40,000. I know plenty of people in cultural heritage who have taken two jobs or jobs they hate just to make ends meet, and I am sure you do too.

One can easily say, “Contributing to open source teaches new skills!” but if you don’t know how to make non-code contributions or the project is not set up to accept those kinds of contributions, you don’t see an immediate pay-off in being involved with this project, and you are probably not willing to stay up all night learning to code when you have to be at work the next day or raise a family. Programs like Software Carpentry have proven that librarians, teachers, scientists, and other non-computer scientists are willing to put in that time and grow their skills, so to make any kind of claim without research would be a reach and possibly erroneous, but I would argue that most cultural heritage organizations are not set up in a way to nurture their employees for this kind of professional development. (Not because they don’t want to, necessarily, but because they feel they can’t or they don’t see the immediate value in it.)

I could go on and on about how a lot of these problems are indicative of cultural heritage work being an historically classed and feminized professional grouping, but I will spare you right now, although you’re not safe if you go to the bar with me later.

In addition, many open source projects operate with a “patches welcome!” or “go ahead, jump in!” or “We don’t need a code of conduct because we’re all nice guys here!” mindset, which is not helpful to beginning coders, women, or really, anyone outside of a few open source fanatics.

I’ve identified a lot of problems, but the title of this talk is “Creating the Conditions for Open Source Community” and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about what works.

Diversification, both in terms of types of tasks and types of people and skillsets as well as a clear invitation to get involved are two absolute conditions for a healthy open source community.

Ask yourself the questions: Are you a tight knit group with a lot of IRC in-jokes that new people may not understand? Are you all white men? Are you welcoming? Paraphrasing my colleague Sean Bolton, the steps to an inviting community is to build understanding, build connections, build clarity, build trust, build pilots, which creates a build win-win.

As communities grow, it’s important to be able to recognize and support contributors in ways that feel meaningful. That could be a trip to a conference they want to attend, a Linkedin recommendation, a professional badge, or a reference, or best yet: you could ask them what they want. Our network for contributors and staff is adding a “preferred recognition” system. Don’t know what I want? Check out my social profile. (The answer is usually chocolate, but I’m easy.)

Finding diverse contribution opportunities has been difficult for open source since, well, the beginning of open source. Even for us at Mozilla, with our highly diverse international community and hundreds of ways to get involved, we often struggle to bring a diversity of voices into the conversation, and to find meaningful pathways and recognition systems for our 10,000 contributors.

In my mind, education is perhaps the most important part of bringing in first-time contributors. Organizations like Open Hatch and Software Carpentry provide low-cost, high-value workshops for new contributors to locate and become a part of Open Source in a meaningful and sustained manner. Our Webmaker program introduces technical skills in a dynamic and exciting way for every age.

Mentorship is the last very important aspect of creating the conditions for participation. Having a friend or a buddy or a champion from the beginning is perhaps the greatest motivator according to research from a variety of different papers. Personal connection runs deep, and is a major indicator for community health. I’d like to bring mentorship into our conversation today and I hope that we can explore that in greater depth in the next few hours.

With mentorship and 1:1 connection, you may not see an immediate uptick in your project’s contributions, but a friend tells a friend tells a friend and then eventually you have a small army of motivated cultural heritage workers looking to take back their knowledge.

You too can achieve on-the-ground action. You are the change you wish to see.

Are you working in a cultural heritage institution and are about to switch systems? Help your institution switch to the open source solution and point out the benefits of their community. Learning to program? Check out the Open Hatch list of easy bugs to fix! Are you doing patron education? Teach them Libre Office and the values around it. Are you looking for programming for your library? Hold a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. Working in a library? Try working open for a week and see what happens. Already part of an open source community? Mentor a new contributor or open up your functional area for contribution.

It’s more than just “if you build it, they will come.”

If you make open source your mission, people will want to step up to the plate.

To close, I’m going to tell a story that I can’t take credit for, but I will tell it anyway.

We have a lot of ways to contribute at Mozilla. From code to running events to learning and teaching the Web, it can be occasionally overwhelming to find your fit.

A few months ago, my colleague decided to create a module and project around updating the Mozilla Wiki, a long-ignored, frequently used, and under-resourced part of our organization. As an information scientist and former archivist, I was psyched. The space that I called Mozilla’s collective memory was being revived!

We started meeting in April and it became clear that there were other wiki-fanatics in the organization who had been waiting for this opportunity to come up. People throughout the organization were psyched to be a part of it. In August, we held a fantastically successful workweek in London, reskinned the wiki, created a regular release cycle, wrote a manual and a best practice guide, and are still going strong with half contributors and half paid-staff as a regular working group within the organization. Our work has been generally lauded throughout the project, and we’re working hard to make our wiki the resource it can be for contributors and staff.

To me, that was the magic of open source. I met some of my best friends, and at the end of the week, we were a cohesive unit moving forward to share knowledge through our organization and beyond. And isn’t that a basic value of cultural heritage work?

I am still an open source failure. I am not a code fanatic, and I like the ease-of-use of my used IPhone. I don’t listen to techno and write Javscript all night, and I would generally rather read a book than go to a hackathon.

And despite all this, I still feel like I’ve found my community.

I am involved with open source because I am ethically committed to it, because I want to educate my community of practice and my local community about what working open can bring to them.

When people ask me how I got involved with open source, my answer is: I had a great mentor, an incredible community and contributor base, and there are many ways to get involved in open source.

While this may feel like a new frontier for cultural heritage, I know we can do more and do better.

Open up your work as much as you can. Draw on the many, many intelligent people doing work in the field. Educate yourself and others about the value that open source can bring to your institution. Mentor someone new, even if you’re shy. Connect with the community and treat your fellow contributors with respect.Who knows?

You may get an open source failure like me to contribute to your project.

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