Paper + Presentation: Open Source Ideology in the Public Library

[PDF + References]


Open Source Ideology in the Public Library


Free software doesn’t mean free beer, it means free in the sense of freedom of information (GNU, 2013). Freedom of information is also an ideal in the library. Part of New York Public Library’s mission statement is to provide “free and open access to materials” (NYPL, 2014.) In 1985, Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation, to promote and protect the right of users and developers to share software and code. “To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others,” Stallman says (FSF, 2014). Open source software also refers to software to which the code is made available and has a strong community focus, but is less socially concerned. The goal of the Open Source Initiative, founded in 1998 as a clarifying equivalent to Stallman’s FSF, is primarily that of a standards committee, enforcing peer review, distribution rights, and transparency (OSI, 2014). From the founding of the NYPL in 1895 to the founding of the OSI in 1998, these movements share the ideal of access.

Taking the ideologies and methodology of both FSF and OSI in comparison to NYPL’s mission, history, and core values, as an example of public libraries in the US, a discussion of why free and open source software is a natural fit for libraries becomes relevant. While ideological concerns are not the only consideration, the other pros and cons of choosing free or open source software are outside the purview of this paper. This paper focuses only on the working method and goals of free and open source, rather than the distribution and installation considerations.


What is Free and Open Source Software?

“Free” software is free of cost, upfront, but the name comes from the idea that information should not be owned or contained, but should be open and available for anyone who may need or want it. The information concerned began with source code. In 1983 Richard Stallman began working on the GNU (GNU is Not Unix) Project and made the code to the operating system available to other developers. Out of this came the Free Software Definition, which states four freedoms: “to run the program for any purpose, to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish, to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor, to distribute copies of your modified versions to others” (GNU, 2014). The sharing for the purpose of helping one’s neighbor becomes a key ideological concern in free software development, to be discussed in the next section.

Open source software is distinct from free software in its definition and criteria. The program is free, often developed collaboratively, and the source code is available, as in free software, but the definition includes ten stipulations to distribution terms: “free redistribution, source code, derived works, integrity of the author’s source code, no discrimination against persons or groups, no discrimination against fields of endeavor, distribution of license, license must not be specific to a product, license must not restrict other software, and license must be technology neutral” (OSI, 2014). Summarized, the program must be available to be used by anyone however they wish, but the author and original license must also be respected. The ideology of open source has more to do with licensing and fair use than with community values.


What is Free and Open Source Ideology?

Free and open source software differ mainly ideologically. The Open Source Initiative was founded by people “who also supported the development and distribution of free software, but who disagreed with the FSF about how to promote it, and who felt that software freedom was primarily a practical matter rather than an ideological one” (OSI, 2014). Supporters of OSI have “philosophical differences with the FSF about the reasons why to promote such software, while others who adopted the term did so because of differences of opinion with the FSF about tactically how to support such software, even while sharing an ideological motivation” (OSI, 2014). The FSF’s stance is “ for free software adoption and against proprietary software,” and they actively campaign towards these ends (FSF, 2014). FSF believes everyone deserves freedom of information because “With these freedoms, the users (both individually and collectively) control the program and what it does for them. When users don’t control the program… the program controls the users… this makes the program an instrument of unjust power” (GNU, 2014). Marx expressed similar sentiments, 150 years earlier:

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas. (p. 21, 1968).

FSF’s freedom to access code is Marx’s theory of the means of production, specifically stated for the software development community. For FSF, it isn’t about the code being open and available, but about the principle of making the code open and available because that will affect change. Marx believed making the means of material production available would affect change in the class structure, affecting who controlled information. Dorman, in writing about the open source movement, says

Those who favor the free flow of information stress that technology, if not used to foster information access, will create a society in which information will be controlled by a political and economic elite. Political and economic democracy will then cease to exist. Those who favor information control stress that if all information is allowed to flow freely, the economic incentive to produce useful information will cease to exist. (p. 53, 2002).

This view is shared by the FSF, and their mission is to combat information control, in order to do away with the controlling class.


Is Open Source More Democratic Than Free Software?

Free software ideology has Marxist parallels, but this does not necessarily mean that open source software is the democratic alternative. Eric Raymond, in his seminal essay on open source ideology, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” equates open source software development to “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches” (2000). These different working styles coalesce into “a coherent and stable system,” a “miracle” (Raymond 2000). The opposite of the bazaar is the cathedral, which is treated with reverence and is often restricted. Raymond’s ideal of open source development is democratic, in the social sense of this dictionary definition of democracy: “the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” In open source development, anyone is free to contribute to the code, to modify it, or to distribute it. The “elected agents” are often project leaders or initiators. Deek and McHugh discuss the example of Linus Torvalds, the initial developer of Linux: “Even though they are egalitarian in their attitude in terms of meritocratic skills… project management must inevitably be vested in some person or small group” (p. 173, 2008). In the case of Linux, as more developers began to work on the project, they naturally took on leadership and organizational roles. “Project authority can evolve and spread out,” Deek and McHugh point out (p. 174, 2008). The choice of the word “meritocratic” is perhaps more accurate than “democratic” to describe open source development. Studies on motivation of open source software developers (Lerner & Tirole, 2002 and Likhani & Wolf, 2008) find that developers garner reward by reputation and recognition from peers, rather than monetary rewards in working on these projects. The meritocratic system provides these types of rewards. Meritocracy also explains the power structure more accurately than the “elected” official of a democracy. “Egalitarian” is also a key word choice used to describe communities that work on open source projects. While the power structure may be necessarily meritocratic to keep a project running smoothly and coherently, the “egalitarian attitude” is key to how the community functions.

Raymond refers to the bazaar of open source software development as “gift culture,” a thread picked up and expanded upon by Morgan. In gift culture, Morgan says, the “exchange of gifts forges relationships between partners and emphasizes qualitative as opposed to quantitative terms. The producer of the product (or service) takes a personal interest in production” (2002). Qualitative terms can be seen as the “intangible” rewards such as respect or admiration of peers developers often work for, while quantitative terms would be monetary rewards (Morgan 2002). A producer investing in his or her product sounds like a Marxist ideal (controlling their own means of mental production), but the structure of leadership is “asymmetrical” in open source software development, necessarily, to manage the project (Deek & McHugh, p.173, 2008). The close relation between producer and product in gift culture and ideal Marxism is what allows for the meritocratic power structure to exist. In the case of Torvalds and Linux, he assumed a leadership role because he “[knew] it better than anyone else” (Deek & McHugh, p.174, 2008). Meritocracy also provides the motivation for developers that was found to exist in studies on the economics of open source software development.

Lessig describes open source software in terms of open and closed societies (2008). He cites the fall of the Berlin Wall as the last remnant of a closed society – referring to the West as an open society. This is somewhat at odds with his definition of property: supposedly the open society is also the one that values individual property. Individual property ownership seems to align more with closed societies and open societies more with Marxist ideas of shared property, or the commons. But, Lessig’s ultimate point is “how important the commons is – not against property, but with property” (p.352, 2008). The combination of open source and proprietary software is often a good option for libraries or nonprofit institutions, and if ideology is a deciding factor, by choosing some proprietary options to complement open source programs, or by paying consultants and IT staff, a library is not selling out on ideology (see also. Fitzgerald, 2006). Lessig’s view that the commons and ideas and innovations protected by intellectual property rights fuel each other allows for a “symbiotic balance” of open and closed (Lessig, p. 359, 2008).


The Mission of the Public Library

The mission of public libraries in the US aligns with the goal of free and open source software to provide open access to information, as well as the meritocratic structure of open source software development.

The New York Public Library, as an example of an early public library founded in the US, has a mission “to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” Under the mission of advancing knowledge it is explicitly stated that “We advance knowledge by providing free and open access to materials and information.” The mission points are supported by seven core values: accountability, excellence, expertise, freedom, innovation, passion, and teamwork (NYPL, 2014). Here, freedom is the explicit link to the freedom of information value shared by free and open source software. The link in mission is easy to see and examples of librarians fighting censorship of books and other materials, fighting for their patrons right to information, in public libraries is a tangible example.

A meritocratic structure may not be immediately apparent in public libraries, especially a large institution such as the NYPL, but in analyzing the mission and core values, the meritocratic relationship between librarian and patrons becomes visible. The meritocracy of open source software developers falls naturally along lines of knowledge. Librarians are librarians and patrons are patrons because of training. Linus Torvalds was the leader of the Linux project because of his knowledge, but, as Deek and McHugh pointed out, knowledge tends to trickle down and when it does, power spreads. The mission to “advance knowledge” and “strengthen communities” is an example of knowledge trickling down. Librarians teach, provide, engage, answer, and promote, according to the action verbs in NYPL’s mission (NYPL, 2014). They spread their knowledge, in the same way developers working together and contributing to a common goal do. The ideal outcome of librarians investing in patrons and communities is those patrons and communities taking ownership of their information retrieval and processing, of their own means of mental production, to return to Marx. Libraries, like open source software development, may be idealistically Marxist, and when functioning properly, function meritocratically.

In libraries as in open source software development communities, the underlying structure is egalitarian. Some need necessarily to be in power over others, to organize and facilitate information retrieval, but the “egalitarian attitude” of librarians towards their patrons, and specifically, to “treat everyone with respect and compassion” remains a core value (emphasis mine, NYPL, 2014).



The purpose of this paper was to show how the ideology of free and open source software corresponds to the mission and core values of the public library. Distinctions need to be drawn between free and open source software, and upon closer examination, open source egalitarian attitudes and meritocracy more closely correspond to public library ideology than the Marxist idealism of free software. The Free Software Foundation, Open Source Initiative, and New York Public Library served as examples of ideology and mission. While alignment of missions can be a consideration in choosing software, it is important to note that it is only one consideration of many in choosing a software platform.