Monthly Archives: August 2007

Free As In Free Speech?

The American Library profession is at a crossroads: will our future be marked by the predominance of free and open source integrated library systems and open access journal publishing, or will we continue to use proprietary software and tolerate barriers to scholarly information? Does it matter?

The ethical and philosophical implications of open source and open access were debated at the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference in Chicago this past July. Keynote speakers included Richard Stallman on open source free software, and Peter Suber on the open access movement.

Richard Stallman, I found out, is something of a celebrity in the computer science world. He is founder of the GNU Project and president of the Free Software Foundation. Stallman has a particular conception of free software that he promotes and defends with great verve. Stallman believes the terminological distinction between free software and open source software is important. Free software to Stallman means that the user has the “freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes.” Stallman believes these freedoms are not only about price, but about promoting sharing and cooperation. One of Stallman’s slogans is “free as in free speech, not free beer.”

The Library community, I’ve noticed (here, here, and here), tends to use the phrase open source. (Casey Bisson uses them both in “Free at Last” a recent American Libraries column only accessible to… ahem.) Systems librarians have long been fed up with the lack of development of proprietary OPACs and are now experimenting with open source models.

“Open source” originated at a strategy session in 1998 in which it was decided to “dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds.”

As a marketing strategy, this maneuver seems to have worked. Open source software is all over the place, and mainly for pragmatic reasons–the open development process is producing better software. And besides a few licensing details, open source software and free software are very similar and share the same goals. So does it matter what it’s called?

In their fascinating new book, Decoding Liberation, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter sidestep the issue by using “free and open source software.” Chopra and Dexter explore and expand on the ethical issues raised by Stallman. They raise the interesting points that as a scientific discipline, computer science requires code to be publicly inspectable, and that in a world increasingly infused with code, “personal and social freedoms become the freedoms granted or restricted by software.”

(Chopra and Dexter are taking some flak over publishing their book with Routledge which is listing it at $95.00 with an eye toward the suckers who buy anything no matter how much it costs enabling publishers to make hefty profits and restrict knowledge from people the academic library market. Chopra and Dexter reveal why they went with Routledge and an interesting discussion is emerging on the differences between copyright in book publishing and copyright in software over at their blog.)

It’s time for the library community to start looking not only at the practical aspects of free and open source software but at the ethical issues as well. For Stallman, the development of free software is an ethical imperative. Chopra and Dexter raise issues of academic freedom and social responsibility. One thing I realized at the conference was how similar philosophically the library values of free speech and the hacker ethic of free software really are. What should be the future of academic libraries? More collaboration with programmers and more free and open source software for libraries which result in better services for users. Put that together with open access and we’ve got a vision that includes making scholarly information accessible to more people. If we’re not for that, what are we for?

Looking For Our Next First-Year Academic Librarian

You probably saw a recent final post from Lauren Jensen, ACRLog’s 2006-07 new academic librarian. It seems like we were just introducing Lauren to you. On behalf of the blog team I want to thank Lauren for agreeing to be our first new academic librarian, assigned with the task of providing field reports on the academic librarian’s first-year experience. The reports were informative and insightful, helpful to new librarians and seasoned professionals alike.

But as Lauren moves into her second year, her role as the new academic librarian comes to an end. So the blog team is searching for a new librarian to become our 2007-08 academic librarian’s first-year experience reporter. We are looking for an academic librarian who will be starting (or has started within the last month or two) their first full-time position in any type of college or university. Those interested in being our next first-year experience reporter can contact me directly. If you have a first-year colleague who you think would be good for this, please pass this on. What we’ll need from interested parties is a sample first post – between 250 and 300 words – that shares thoughts, concerns, feelings, observations, etc. on entering the academic librarian profession. We’ll be accepting these writing samples through September with the goal of introducing our new first-year colleague at the beginning of October.

Too True

The New York Times has a lengthy and scary article (the first in a series) on the environmental effects of China’s booming economy. Though freedom of information was not a theme of the article, it kept cropping up. First, basic public health data is being suppressed by the government because . . . well, it’s bad news.

This spring, a World Bank study done with SEPA, the national environmental agency, concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution.

China’s environmental agency insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on “social stability,” World Bank officials said.

Another part of the article discusses a government-supported research program that developed a means of calculating “Green GDP” to inform the rewards system for various public officials whose success is measured in increased productivity. When the group issued their first report, it turned out that these officials aren’t doing so well; if you factor in the cost to the environment, in many cases gains are zeroed out. The government withdrew its support for the project. The second report, scheduled for March, was never published.

And finally, the article concludes on this chilling note:

China does have an army of amateur regulators. Environmentalists expose pollution and press local government officials to enforce environmental laws. But private individuals and nongovernment organizations cannot cross the line between advocacy and political agitation without risking arrest.

At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment.

Reading this article reminded me that we have a couple of things going for us that we may take for granted.

One is the amount of publicly-available government information. Sure, it’s been constrained of late, and the current administration has been criticized for it. But we have a valuable tradition of providing government-generated data for citizens and scholars to interpret for themselves. We need to preserve that availability. Reading this article, it’s hard not to think about the healthy debate over the closure of the EPA libraries. We need this information. Let’s keep it available.

Second, we have a valuable tradition of academic freedom. As a society, we need to create conditions where the facts are not only available, but can tell us what we need to hear, even if it might be unpopular. This article shows just how high the stakes really are.

See No Evil

[photo by Keith Kris]

A Top Twenty Academic Library List From The Same Folks Who Rate Party Schools

Though it is probably not as eagerly sought after by prospective (and even active) college students as their top party schools list, the folks at Princeton Review may have noticed this and decided that students would also want to know more about the best libraries. You can get to the list via a post at LISNews (they supply an account so you don’t have to register – thanks LISNews) if you’d like to see which libraries made the top twenty. Apparently there is but a single criterion for making the list. The Princeton Review makes it clear at the top of the list that the rankings are based “on students’ assessment of library facilities”. I haven’t visited nearly all of these libraries, but I could understand why Valparaiso – which I have visited – would make the list if it is based on how much students like the library building.

Tp be sure, any of the libraries on this list is an example of an academic library that is doing good work and is, in at least some specific area(s) (collection, facility, service quality, etc.) a standout. To be sure, there are many others that are equally good and would deserve to be in the top twenty. I suppose that is the primary reason why a list like this is bound to irk many academic librarians. But I thought I’d check to see if The Princeton Review’s methodology for rating academic libraries would actually identify truly excellent academic libraries – according to the real experts – academic librarians. So I visited ACRL’s web page that lists all the winners, present and past, of the Excellence in Libraries Award. It was first awarded in 2000. Of the Princeton Review’s top twenty, four academic libraries have also won the ACRL award. They are Cornell, Loyola University New Orleans, Mount Holyoke College and University of Virginia. So four out of twenty isn’t great, but I have to admit that I didn’t think there would be any matches between the two lists.

Perhaps next year The Princeton Review list will have a little footnote that provides the link to the ACRL Award page – just to give their readers another perspective on which schools have the best libraries. Of course, the students may be too busy checking out the top party schools to take much notice. And in case you are wondering, West Virginia University, this year’s top party school, also takes the number five spot on the best libraries list. They must have some awesome parties at that library.

Suspicious Circumstances

According to The Guardian, one of the reasons a German academic has been arrested on terrorism charges is that he had access to a university library.

Academics from around the world have protested to Germany’s federal prosecutor about the arrest and detention of a Berlin sociologist who is accused of associating with a terrorist group – apparently on the basis of his academic work . . .

The federal prosecutor’s office arrested Mr Holm on August 1 under paragraph 129a of the anti-terrorism law, citing the repeated use of words such as “gentrification” and “inequality” in his academic papers, terms similar to those used by the urban activist organisation “militante gruppe” (mg). According to the prosecution report the frequency of the overlap between words used by Mr Holm and the group was “striking, and not to be explained through a coincidence” . . .

The fact that he and another academic had access to a library meant they were “intellectually in a position to compile the sophisticated texts of the ‘militante gruppe’,” the prosecutor’s office said.

More coverage and critique available in the Chron.