The Community Behind the Code: But the Pioneering Days of the Internet Established an Enduring Cultural Shift in Our Perception of Computing, Which Is Best Revealed in the Open Source Computing Movement

Article excerpt

Twentieth-century computing has seen the rise and fall of several "business computing models" since scientists in white coats ran their first routine on the ENIAC. IBM's white coaters and white-collar workers dominated mainframe computing, until minicomputers and high-powered workstations changed the landscape. Then the internet arose and made client-server architecture possible, and all the rules were written anew. Indeed, they are still being written. But the pioneering days of the internet established an enduring cultural shift in our perception of computing, which is best revealed in the open source computing movement. And information professionals have been heavily involved in that movement from its earliest days.

Roots of Collaboration

The open source movement, according to Wikipedia (of "open content" fame), was in the works as early as 1987 (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Open_source#History). Its leaders have tried to develop "social institutions" (i.e., effective governance and standards) that can ensure orderly development and preserve the power of creativity and collaboration. Even though the trade media have tried to make headlines that focus on personal feuds and discord among open source leaders, the power of community-based design was never more obvious than when Netscape and Linux opened their source code. Since then, the open source model has relied upon cooperation and collaboration. Good ideas travel fast and can be discovered and put to work with dispatch. Talent and community spirit can rise to the top too.

The open source movement has been good for libraries because all of a sudden our cooperative practices seem like brilliant examples. Many of the principles that govern the open source community were already envisioned and implemented by the library profession for different purposes. That urge to form collaborative alliances is universal--but so are the roadblocks. It's worth remembering that shared cataloging amounts to an open source "culture," and it is one reason why info pros quickly embraced the internet.

Library Work as Organizational Barrier-Buster

To illustrate how the profession's collaborative world dovetails well with the nonlibrary developer's world, I will share a tale of librarianship-as-subversive activity and its new value to a venerable institution: my employer.

The University of California (UC) is a "federal" system, meaning that much authority rests at the campus level. Chancellors have substantial leeway to guide the ship of state and form policy. Floating above those campuses, the office of the president plays a coordinating role in many ways. The California Digital Library is a great example, serving the whole state and, in fact, the entire world.

Recently many top university administrators have embraced the idea that UC's academic culture could be more "collaborative," even across campus boundaries. Perhaps--just maybe--the campuses could do more together to advance the academic mission. Earth-shattering, I know. But competition is at the heart of academic life, and UCLA, Berkeley, San Diego, and the rest of the UC system compete with each other as well as their national peers for top faculty and scholarly prestige.

During an energetic search for new models for collaboration, it came to someone's attention that the university libraries had been practicing collaborative work for decades: coordinating collection development, sharing cataloging records, and referencing workloads via online services and call center solutions. As our enduring culture of collaboration came more into focus for top administrators, I found myself having the occasion to be present at meetings where senior faculty members would say things like, "The libraries are light years ahead of the campuses with all these collaborative relationships!" What a surprise--library culture had something powerful to teach the larger organization. …