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?

So Sue Me, Round Two

Library Journal’s Academic Newswire updates the Alms for Jihad debacle addressed here earlier.

The authors of the book Alms for Jihad, pulled from the market by publisher Cambridge University Press (CUP) in the face of a controversial libel suit in a British Court, said this week they are in the process of regaining their publishing rights and will seek to republish the book with a U.S. publisher. University of California Santa Barbara Professor Robert O. Collins, a co-author, told the LJ Academic Newswire he is currently negotiating with CUP for a rights reversion and has been assured that “there will be no problem, just several weeks to draft proper legal papers.” Collins also said the authors have had several offers from U.S. publishers, but will make no firm plans until they officially secure their publishing rights.

Meanwhile ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom urges libraries to resist efforts to remove the book from the shelves. Ironically, some libraries are moving them to special collections, since the book has become instantly rare.

Smatterings and Chatterings

In an interview Brewster Kahle tells LJ why scanning books in an open way is so important.

Paul Duguid explores what happens to a cultural heritage when a book is digitized – and what is lost at First Monday. In his brilliant article he examines copies of Tristram Shandy and concludes, among other things, “Google Book’s Library Project reminds us that the newer form is always in danger of a kind of patricide, destroying in the process the resources it hope to inherit.” Once again, someone forgot to wind the clock. Read this article, and send it to friends in the English Department.

Reports are coming in that Cambridge UP is sending letters to libraries that have Alms of Jihad, offering them an errata sheet that is part identified factual errors and part legal apologia of the “I do not recall” variety, as predicted. Libraries that don’t want to insert the sheet are invited to remove the book from the shelves entirely. (Q: How many lawyers does it take to remove a book from a library? A: None. You don’t have to do what this letter suggests.)

Meanwhile, Yale took a different stance on a different suit. When the publisher was sued by a charity named in Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, Yale fought back with an anti-SLAPP suit designed to fight off attempts to litigate a non-profit into silence. Score one for intellectual freedom.

Finally – what about the children? We’ve heard about the Anthropologist on Mars at Rochester who has done an ethnographic study of college students in their own habitat. Interesting results from the field can be found in Scott Carlson’s Chronicle article. Apparently, kinship patterns are woven very tightly into library usage in this culture. We must honor the ancestors – or at least find ways to turn “lifelong learning” goals into “information literacy for parents’ programs. And maybe have a conversation about the fine cultural differences between “workshopping drafts with other readers” and “what might appear to someone in this culture as a strong taboo called academic fraud.”

So Sue Me

Cambridge University Press was sued for libel in the UK by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi accused of contributing to terrorism in the book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World. (Bin Mahfouz has filed suit against four publishers who published books that implicate his family’s bank in financing terrorism.) The press agreed the book was in error, has pulled it from the market and settled with bin Mafouz for an undisclosed sum without the case going to trial. Now, according a story in the Chron, the press will ask libraries to remove the book from their shelves.


I can understand a press deciding to pull the book from its catalog if they believe the book contains a serious factual inaccuracy. But should libraries follow suit? Add another wrinkle to the dilemma: the libel case was filed in the UK, which has laws that are far more sympathetic to a person claiming libel than those of the US. So far as I know, all of bin Mafouz’s suits have been filed in the UK, including one against a US publisher whose book wasn’t even published there. Our laws are simply less amenable to individuals editing the record through libel actions.

None of us want inaccurate information on our shelves, but it’s there. We have information that is contradictory, biased, past its shelf life, and controversial. We don’t, as a rule, buy books that are shoddily researched, but this lawsuit wasn’t about the entire book, only the part of it that that recapped newspaper and other sources’ reports about the role of a Saudi bank.

Part of being information literate is learning how to triangulate the truth using multiple sources, knowing that even good sources are likely to contain the occasional inaccuracy, that different sources will shade a story in various ways, that you need to consult more than one source to get the facts. Airbrushing controversial ideas out of the picture doesn’t help, and sometimes it’s critically important to examine texts that we know to be full of lies.

Ironically, Publisher’s Weekly has a report on a different kind of controversy in Germany. Should a scholarly edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf be published before it goes into public domain and will likely become freely available in multiple editions? Though I’m sympathetic to views that nobody should promulgate the kind of hate that’s found in the book, it’s a significant historical document. And since any deluded white supremacist can find it on the Web, it doesn’t seem constructive to prevent the release of a carefully edited version.

Academic libraries are rarely faced with the book challenges that public and school libraries receive routinely. This seems to be one of them. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to celebrate Banned Books Week next month.

Bad Habits May Hold Back Your Library Success

You’re a reasonably successful librarian at a reasonably good academic library. But do you and your library seem to be hitting a plateau? At some point perhaps all of us are challenged to determine what it is about our past success that will no longer enable us to achieve future success. It’s no easy task to determine what no longer contributes to our success. Those are the things we need to stop doing in order to concentrate our energies on those things that will help build sustainable improvement. Is there help available?

Possibly. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is a new book by Marshall Goldsmith that according to the folks at Knowledge@Wharton is not another book about management fads, but is ultimately an etiquette book. The success formula seems to be good manners equals professional success.

Goldmith delivers his top twenty habits that hold people back from sustaining their past success. The fact that they may be written in the context of business organizations does little to suggest those working in the library profession need not worry that they’ll develop (or already have) these bad habits. As you read them you may think of some that apply to colleagues, but more than likely each of us displays these bad habits without thinking much about them. Here are some examples:

Adding too much value: Happens when successful people can’t leave colleagues ideas well enough alone, and take either an “I knew that” or ” we know a better way” mentality.

Making destructive comments: Gratuitous negative comments will destroy working relationships. If you are guilty ask a colleague to give you a monetary fine everytime you do this.

Starting with “no”, “but” or “however”: Many of us do this without even thinking about it, and it can really dampen staff creativity. In addition, it contributes to bad morale.

There are other bad habits such as failing to give recognition, playing favorites, failing to express gratitude, and more. I don’t doubt you are somewhat familiar with a number of these and the rest of the 20 bad habits. But I suspect that many of us academic librarians would be far more likely to recognize the bad habits in those other members of our communities, the students and faculty, that we work with. Perhaps it is time to start looking within ourselves and library colleagues for the telltale signs of bad habits. It’s not too late to change.