Community, not Code, is the True Heart of Open Source

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thoughts from Sebastian Hammer, co-founder and president of Index Data.

Of all the many kinds of “Open” that populate the library landscape, Open Source is perhaps the one that is subject to the most conflicting stories about precisely what it means and why (and whether) it is important. There are, of course, legitimate differences of perspective, depending on your background, role and interests. However, there are also cases where the meaning of the concept is somewhat bent and misconstrued, perhaps due to misunderstandings or ignorance. Or occasionally even out of a certain level of “open envy” on the part of technology creators or pundits that cannot lay claim to the commonly accepted definitions of openness. I don’t claim to be the arbiter of what Open Source really means, but having been a professional creator of open source software through a 30-year career in library technology, I have formed a perspective that guides my work. I’d like to offer up this perspective for consideration along with a concrete example.

Once you get past the aw-shucks jokes about free beer and free kittens, I think the most insidious rhetorical “trap” laid by Open naysayers is the notion that the sole benefit of Open Source software is that anyone can download the source code to look at it and change it. The implication is that if you don’t have the skills, the time, or the interest in messing around in the code, Open Source does not offer value to you, and in fact you’re better off choosing a conventionally licensed product because it will come with a vendor that can fix it for you if it breaks. That is a bunch of hooey. At my place of work, we use other people’s Open Source software every day, and it is extremely rare that we find ourselves digging around in the source code. Granted, sometimes it does happen. Maybe we’ve come across a bug in the software and it is more expedient just to fix it and submit the fix to the maintainer than wait for someone else to do it. Maybe we’ve used a piece of software for many years, and the original developers have moved on; rather than abandon the software, we might decide just to keep maintaining it ourselves. But those things are exceptions rather than a rule; they also have little to do with why Open Source is critically important to the library community right now.

I have said for many years that the most important feature of Open Source software is that it facilitates a conversation between software creators and users that is impossible to realize in any other model. That is because Open Source licenses (and here I am thinking chiefly of license models like Apache and BSD) do not distinguish between the rights of the creator and the consumer. Open Source means that those people using the software have largely the same rights as the creators. This gives rise to a fundamentally democratic space between the users and creators that recognizes both have a stake and both have agency. In that space of openness and equality, magical things can happen.

This is fundamentally different than the power dynamics between commercial operators of software and their users. It doesn’t matter if the company is called Meta or Clarivate or Elsevier, and it doesn’t matter if the business model is based on selling your data to others or selling data to you: in closed-source services models, the operator gets to reserve almost infinite power for themselves (in addition to the value that they gain from aggregating and monetizing data across their platform). Beyond what choices the vendor deigns to grant the customer this year, the only true power left to the customer is that of taking their money elsewhere. But where do you take your money when the last credible competitor has died off or been acquired; when the free marketplace has collapsed?

To explore these ideas a little deeper, I’d like to talk about an important project that I have been part of over the past few years: the FOLIO Project. It very much began from a sense that the conventional market for library technology had shrunk (through attrition and acquisition) to the point where there no longer existed a real marketplace of technology and ideas, where libraries had lost agency because they no longer had real choices to make in terms of technology, and thus they felt hampered in formulating strategies to address emerging challenges. I feel like this project speaks to a larger vision of what Open Source means, one that might even deserve a new term: Open Product Management.

One of my roles over the years has been to participate in product development conversations with libraries, consortia, and especially other vendors. I’ve always really prized those moments where groups of people come together to imagine the future and to think of ways to make it better. But when the marketplace collapses, not only do those rooms and those moments become fewer, the conversations become less urgent or they transition from imagining new functionality to thinking of ways to protect market share and equity. One of the big motivators as the conversation about FOLIO took hold, not just among the initial stakeholders but among all the people cheering for us from the sidelines, was this sense of longing for a reinvigorated conversation about technology and how technology might enable libraries to provide new services and create new value.

In response to this sense of our industry in peril of collapsing into a monopoly, we didn’t just imagine FOLIO as another product in the marketplace, but as a way to supercharge innovation and the exchange of ideas by re-thinking the dynamics of product management. A central tenet behind the early vision of FOLIO was an open platform, owned by its community of users. Open Source software provided real power behind that notion of community ownership, but it was our approach to governance—the structure of the conversation—that sought to make it real, effective, and meaningful. FOLIO isn’t ‘against’ other products in the marketplace, it is an ongoing attempt to redefine how we as an industry talk about technology and how technology fits into the ways that libraries and others face strategic challenges.

The concrete way that we sought to realize our vision of community ownership was first through an architecture that was fundamentally different than monolithic products, and entirely based on in-platform apps from top to bottom. Every bit of business functionality in FOLIO is realized through replaceable apps and anyone can come along to build new apps or replace existing ones.

The second key idea was our governance model, which was designed to give professionals at all levels, in different kinds of organizations, a way to participate and contribute. At the heart of the FOLIO governance model is the special interest group, or “SIG” for short. Every major area of library functionality is overseen by a SIG constituted of experts coming together from many different organizations who work with designers and developers to imagine new functionality. Other SIGs look after communication and project infrastructure. You don’t have to be anyone’s customer to join a SIG; you just have to show up, and you have to care. Coordinating the project’s activities are three councils: the Community Council sets project priorities and budgets, the Product Council organizes feature development, and the Technical Council oversees the platform architecture. These councils are made up of people elected from contributors but again, nobody has to be anyone’s customer or to work for any particular company to take part in FOLIO’s leadership.

But that is not all. FOLIO was always envisaged to be the foundation for an open ecosystem with many different modes of engagement. Anyone who has priorities that are not met by the community can contribute funding or development resources to meet their needs within the platform. The architecture is designed to support the needs of disparate development teams with different timelines and needs, much like a smartphone can host apps developed by many organizations to create a vibrant ecosystem that is enormously adaptable. Indeed, some organizations may band together to support each other and build their own roadmaps that complement the broader community. For instance, several organizations in Germany have partnered to arrange national “FOLIO Days” and have contributed invaluable functionality to the platform for the benefit of everyone. We expect to see the same happen organically in other places and library types as the community grows. Project ReShare is one example of a sister community geared towards resource sharing that is built on the  technology infrastructure of FOLIO but has its own open governance model and its own vision and roadmap.

The FOLIO community is not a static thing, and it has grown and evolved dramatically during FOLIO’s short existence. It will continue to evolve in ways that we can’t predict today, as you would expect from a true ecosystem. It is not beholden to any one owner, and although large organizations have invested enormous resources in FOLIO, it has been done with an eye towards engagement and participation by a greater community. For me, this absence of walls and gatekeepers is what “Open” means; it is all made possible because Open Source enables an expansive notion of co-ownership with a very low bar of entry. It means so much more than merely the right to inspect the source code.