The Public Library as an (Almost) Open-Source Institution

The Linux Analogy

As an example, I tried to use Linux in 2003, back when Mandrake, which became Mandriva, before Mandriva died and forked out to Mageia was the hot distribution for usage, competing with Red Hat Linux, which had a desktop version at the time. (The desktop Red Hat would merge with another project to become Fedora.) In this 2003 world, simple things like playing sounds and movies required a lot of console typing, scouring for libraries, solutions, and configuration files just to get ALSA (the Advanced Linux Sound Archietecture) set up correctly and able to play common media formats. On this attempt, I could not accomplish what I considered basic tasks on a Linux system, and trying made me think of all the tricks I had to play with MS-DOS to get around the memory requirements and play later-generation graphical adventure games. It was not a fun situation.

Fast forward just four years to 2007, or so, where, as a graduate student in library science, I decided to give Linux another go, as a dual-boot setup on a new computer that a friend had bought me, tired of how much I was complaining about how Windows was sucking resources on the old one. The hot distribution was Ubuntu at the time, in both its GNOME and KDE versions. After installing my preferred flavor, there were clear directions on how to install any non-free codecs (those that would require a license fee to be paid to use) from the repositories, assuming you had the proper licenses to do so (or were willing to take the risk of being sued by those companies for installing those codecs). There was a suite of default software installed that handled most basic tasks a user would expect their desktop computer to do, and if I wanted to update the system to the newest available software, it took two commands:

  • sudo apt-get update
  • sudo apt-get upgrade

Additionally, Ubuntu made it a promise to include major software updates every six months, on schedule, alleviating the need to hunt down and find the latest versions of programs to update them. As a system, Ubuntu was At Least Good Enough as Windows, and it Just Worked. The threshold had been crossed.

Jumping ahead again to today, with more Linux experience, as well as having shifted through Linux Mint to Arch Linux and now I only need one command to update my system, any time that I would like to do so:

  • yaourt -Syua

That's more like it. Ease of use, of updating, and enough software to do the functions that I'm going to need, and some functions that I might discover I need later on. That's what makes Linux a contender now for the desktop and mobile environments. There's still some work to be done on making those update commands more human-friendly, less cryptic, and in developing excellent GUI interfaces for the update commands, but that we can get it down to one command to make the system seamlessly update itself is a good thing.

How this extended metaphor applies to public libraries is that many public libraries are now operating more like Mandrake than Mint or Arch. If you have the patience, the time, the ability to come to the public library's buildings, and are willing to learn the library way and vocabulary, you too can accomplish great things with your public library's resources. Outside the public library, though, the world is moving on and building, compiling, and releasing newer tools that make the processes that public libraries are supposed to be very good at much much easier to use, using resources and fees and other things from outside the public library. If we want to insist on certain things, we need to do it in a way that's at least explainable (a la The Arch Way, even though The Arch Way itself may not be the best way of articulating good public library principles and ideas) and that will constantly re-evaluate its decisions to see whether or not the way that's been decided on is really still the best way.