Compass is an archive of Library news from 2005 - 2008. For the latest Library news check the Library Blogs.
Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 4
April 2007   

Director's Watch: From open stacks to "open source"

by Joe Lucia, University Librarian and director of Falvey Memorial Library

The social and institutional implications of the networked digital information revolution are coming into sharper focus over time. For example, Yochai Benkler’s 2006 book Wealth of Networks is a wide-ranging study of the economic and political ramifications of many new social practices enabled by networked digital culture. One paradigmatic example Benkler examines is the emergence of “free” or “open source” software and, more broadly, cooperative intellectual activity that exists outside of proprietary markets.

Benkler notes, "We are beginning to see the expansion of this model not only to our core software platforms, but beyond them into every domain of information and cultural production . . . from peer production of encyclopedias, to news and commentary, to immersive entertainment."[1]

Open source initiatives can be well understood in relation to the idea of the “commons.” A number of significant works in recent years have examined the centrality of the commons to a vital and creative cultural and intellectual life.[2] At the heart of Benkler’s study is a vision of the commons as a key locus of exchange and collaboration.

Benkler provides a helpful definition:

“Commons” refers to a particular institutional form of structuring the rights to access, use, and control resources. It is the opposite of “property” in the following sense. With property, law determines one particular person who has the authority to decide how the resource will be used .  . . .The salient characteristic of commons, as opposed to property, is that no single person has exclusive control over the use and disposition of any particular resource in the commons. Instead, resources governed by commons may be used or disposed of by anyone among some (more or less well-defined) number of persons, under rules that may range from “anything goes” to quite crisply articulated formal rules that are effectively enforced.[3]

Public and academic libraries are conceptually situated within the domain of the commons, in the sense that their key role is to provide their communities with open access to intellectual and cultural resources. No single individual controls or “uses up” the resources of a library. In the context of print collections, the idea of accessibility to all translates into an “open stacks” framework, in which all materials are available to all who use a particular facility. By trolling around in the stacks, many library users have experienced moments of serendipitous discovery and accidental inspiration. In this light, libraries exist to encourage exploration and discovery by members of their communities. Their core mission is to facilitate the creation of new ideas by preserving and extending the intellectual commons.

The emergence of open source software – software that is collectively developed by a community of technologists with an interest in a particular application or tool and then distributed at no cost to the broader community of individuals who can find a use for it – has amplified my sense of the potential for envisioning the library as a center for participatory culture and collaborative enterprise. Libraries are profoundly social in their origin and intent, to the degree that an important aspect of their function is to put different ideas and different perspectives adjacent to each other and to allow the project of inquiry to yield new insights and discoveries.

In an open source framework, libraries have an opportunity to extend this aspect beyond static and accidental manifestations in the book stacks. This will require the re-direction of resources and the development of new tools that extend the social framework in a number of complementary directions. One obvious context for this is technological: build systems and Web-deliverable services that harness social networking capabilities in the services of inquiry and discovery. We are actively engaged in precisely this sort of pursuit here at Villanova University, and I will devote time in a future column to outlining some of the specific details of that activity.

Beyond software development, the open source framework – exemplifying a broadly participative, communicative, self-refining community project with the goal of serving the common good – provides an engaging perspective for understanding and refining the core institutional values of libraries. This framework can be inflected back into library’s physical avatars in collections and facilities. Over time, it may be essential for universities to re-imagine and re-instantiate their physical libraries as collaborative settings for and manifestations of local intellectual activity.

Hence, the imperative is to make the library a site where the community explores and revises its values, where complicated conversations occur, where complexity and controversy are embraced and engaged, where, in effect, the intellectual commons is modeled and enacted through events, programs and chance encounters in a space that is hospitable, comfortable and accessible to all. Moreover, this requires that the library engage the members of its community in thinking about its purposes and possibilities.

And it is precisely that collective investigation and recreation of the library’s role at Villanova that I look forward to engaging in with all of you during the next several years.


[1] Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale UP, 2006), p 5; ellipsis mine.

[2 ] Two books I have found especially useful in this regard are Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (O,Reilly, 1999, rev. ed., 2001) and Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (Vintage, 2002).

[3] Wealth of Networks, pp 60-61; ellipsis mine.