Competition and the Marketplace of Ideas

Recently, my son asked me a series of questions about the cold war, and the political/military paradigm of mutually assured destruction (MAD for short). It’s always seemed like an odd premise to me, and somehow, discussing it with a 13-year old doesn’t make it look any more sensible. However, we came to agree that landing on the moon was a pretty cool thing. Would the lunar landing have happened, realistically, without the cold war? There’s probably not a stronger force in life than competition – indeed, life as we know it would not be possible without it; a race for resources, for growth (or procreation), for power. Is there a direct line between two-single celled organisms clustering together for warmth, and a whole nation uniting behind the wildest, craziest engineering feat just to prove a point to another nation?

These past few years, Open Source Software has emerged as a highly visible concept in libraries. It means different things to different people. Personally, when I released my first piece of open source code nearly 20 years ago (it was an adventure game, not library software), it was a way to share my code and ideas with others without possessing the infrastructure of a software company. In retrospect, it was also a way to participate in what I imagined to be the academic model of openly sharing ideas and knowledge, without the supporting scaffolding of publishing companies and research grants of which I was blissfully unaware at the time.

Index Data began releasing code under Open Source licenses shortly after we founded the company. We didn’t give a whole lot of thought to it at first; it just seemed natural. There was no established model for running a business on this premise at the time, but we knew we had no skills in selling software, and we figured this way at least people might get to see the code, maybe run it, and give us feedback (sometimes, it seemed like we craved the praise more than money). That became the beginning of an amazing 15-year journey; of searching for a business model that works for a group of geeks who enjoy writing industrial-strength code but who have little or no skills in marketing. That story probably would make a fun post in its own right.

But, recently, Open Source has gone from being something very obscure in the broader library business (when we first exhibited at ALA, in 2004, people would come up to us and ask what kind of a company name was ‘Open Source’) to the hot new thing in town, and as such, it has come to mean many different things to different people.

For libraries, it’s sometimes seen as a way to save money, or a possibility of getting new features by tweaking code (or having other people do it for them), and maybe a kick in the behind for some of the more staid, established vendors. For academic and library geeks and coders, it’s a way to get a seat at the big table; to write exciting code and influence the direction of technology at the deepest level. For some new service/support companies, it’s an opportunity to enter into the library system market without the overheads and upfront investment of creating a whole software platform from scratch. For some existing vendors, it’s perhaps seen as new competition, or a dilution of a marketplace that was already crowded. Some see a paradigm shift, an unstoppable wave towards a new way of doing business; others see a distraction, a wasted effort.

I work every day with libraries, with librarians, with library geeks and coders, with academics, and with different kinds of library service and software providers, and I have come to form a different perspective.

To my mind, the central aspect of open source software is that it allows for a different, more direct dialog between software developers and users of that software. It can break down institutional boundaries. Sometimes things get messy. Sometimes a lot of effort are wasted by groups of libraries in well-meaning efforts to build a better mousetrap. But sometimes, new ideas can be brought from the whiteboard into production literally in days, as an inspiration for others to follow. As someone who enjoys designing software tools for others to use, I get to have relationships with individual coders and geeks, as well as the CIOs of large businesses or organizations (and, quite a few times, I have been able to watch the former evolve into the latter), and our code is stronger and better for the range of challenges it is faced with, as are we as programmers.

Above the daily effort of coders coding, geeks trying out new mashups, and companies competing is a larger dialog. A kind of marketplace of ideas. Much like a real marketplace, or any economy, it is less governed by rules and regulations than by our intrinsic human desire to work together, to share, to compete, and to win. It is a messy and chaotic process, like life itself, and a process that probably spends as much time moving sideways as it does forwards or upwards.

The players in this marketplace are different kinds of organizations, groups, and people: Established software vendors; library interest groups; national and regional standards bodies; library consortia; formally collaborating groups of libraries and informally collaborating individuals. All of them breaking their backs and minds to come up with the best answers to the hardest questions, each from their own perspective and with their own experiences to guide them.

I would like to stipulate that no single organization in this marketplace of ideas holds the one true answer: The key to the future; the secret to how libraries can behave and work to carve a place for themselves in the Internet age. But this is okay, because the marketplace itself, not the individual players, is our best tool for finding the answer. It is in the open competition of ideas, thoughts, experience, and passion that we move forward as a community, and it is the challenge posed by the marketplace that drives each of us to do our best, as individuals and organizations.

It is my hope that libraries and librarianship will continue to be able to support a rich flora of ideas and approaches, to attract people willing to pour their hearts into making things better, even if they don’t always know how.