Public libraries, public access computing, FOSS and CI: There are alternatives to private philanthropy
First Monday

Public libraries, public access computing, FOSS and CI: There are alternatives to private philanthropy by Siobhan Stevenson

In January 2007, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) announced its second multi–year technology grant program for America’s public libraries. The purpose of Phase II, Keeping communities connected: The next step is to help public libraries sustain the public access computing infrastructure laid down during Phase I. Now, as then, the goal of the program is to bridge the digital divide. But it is a digital divide as defined by Bill Gates and not the public library community. Situating Gates’ philanthropy within a critical policy frame, this paper considers two alternatives to Gates’ problem definition of the digital divide, and how knowledge of these might benefit those communities served by public access computing (PAC) services as found in public libraries. The two specific alternatives considered come from the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and Community Informatics (CI). Significantly, both social movements promote the potential of free and open software as an important part of any solution. Finally, the public library literature is reviewed for patterns in the community’s use of FOSS, and the argument is made for its use in the delivery of PAC services.


A note about power, the public policy process, and private philanthropies
Bill Gates and the digital divide
Alternative perspectives on the digital divide: The FSF and the CI movement
Public libraries and FOSS
Free software versus open source: The forking of a social movement
Library discourses
Pulling the arguments together
Concluding remarks




In January 2007, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) announced another multi–year technology grant program for America’s public libraries. The purpose of Phase II, Keeping communities connected: The next step is to help libraries sustain the public access computing infrastructure laid down during Phase I. The goal now, as then, is to bridge the digital divide. According to the Foundation,

It has become virtually impossible for Americans to succeed without computers and the Internet, and millions of people in the U.S., most of them low–income and disadvantaged individuals, rely on public libraries as their primary access to this essential technology (BMGF, n.d.–a).

The new program will entail, among other things, (1) facilitating regular equipment upgrades (hardware and software) through a matching grants strategy; (2) growing local support by assisting libraries in demonstrating the positive benefits associated with public access computing; (3) providing technology training for staff so that they can support technology systems; and, (4) helping the 37 percent of libraries in need of connectivity upgrades with planning for those upgrades (BMGF, 2007, ¶3). The Foundation hopes to prevent what it sees as a “second digital divide” developing in poorer communities because of a lack of local funding for system maintenance and upgrades (BMGF, 2006). According to a Foundation FAQ,

The goal of our grant-making strategy in 2007 and beyond is to reduce inequities so that all people have access to high–quality technology services in their communities. We’re doing this by helping public libraries — especially those serving low–income people — sustain their computer and Internet services. We also help library staff get the skills and support they need to maintain technology systems and to secure local funding (BMGF, n.d.–b, Q. What is the foundation’s current U.S. libraries strategy?).

The response from the library community to the Foundation’s recent announcement is a far cry from the heated debates that surrounded the launch of Gates’ original program. Few, if any, questions are being raised regarding the suitability of the program at this point in the public library’s history of providing PAC services. From the Foundation’s side, Keeping communities connected: The next step is presented as a logical progression in the partnership between America’s public libraries and the BMGF in bridging the digital divide. But it is the digital divide as defined by Bill Gates and not the library community.

For public library advocates, it is important to remember that PAC services, which have become standard fare in America’s public libraries, remain an important site in the battle over the future of the Internet, that is, the Internet as public information commons versus the Internet as private marketplace. Further, in as much as Microsoft products continue to be at the center of Gates’ philanthropy to bridge the digital divide, it is the commercial software industry that benefits most, not the intended recipients of the program, the digitally divided.

The goal of this paper is to begin a dialogue within the library community about the importance of integrating free/open source software (FOSS) into public access computing (PAC), more specifically, PAC as conceived by the Community Informatics (CI) social movement. The fundamental question underlying this discussion is that, given the demonstrated value of FOSS for the digitally divided in impoverished communities throughout the world, why not provide poor communities in the United States with access to, and training on, this powerful, and also more cost effective alternative? FOSS, it has been shown, provides people with the necessary skills to create indigenous ICT industries (Hoe, 2006; Karp, 2003; Notonha, 2002; Schenker, 2003). Such an approach would break the cycle of dependency which public libraries have on the BMGF for the provision of PAC services as currently constituted by the Foundation. Also, it would create the space for more economically sustainable and community empowering public access computing options.

To follow is a comparison between the BMGF’s definition of, and prescription for, the amelioration of the digital divide, and those of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the CI movement. For the purpose of highlighting some of the more obvious ideological differences between these social movements and Gates’ private philanthropy, those working principles which the FSF and the CI movement share are summarized. In the second part of this paper, the results of a literature review of the relationship between public libraries and FOSS are presented as a means of gauging where public libraries are situated on a continuum of use of free versus proprietary software. But first a brief note about power, the public policy process, and philanthropy.



A note about power, the public policy process, and private philanthropies

Critical policy analyses focus on the role of power within the public policy process. Contrary to more conservative approaches which conceive of the policy environment as essentially pluralistic, the major assumption underlying critical analyses is that of a public arena within which power is not equally distributed. Further, as public policy involves the allocation of society’s resources, the public policy arena represents a central site of social struggle and contestation. Throughout the policy–making process (problem identification, program development and implementation, and program evaluation), differently situated social identities, such as the state, capital, workers, citizens, and consumers, etc., engage in a power struggle to define what constitutes a social problem and, by extension, how it is to be resolved. Success is the creation of policy agendas that resonate with, and reproduce an identity’s particular worldview and corresponding set of values. Ultimately, these are ideological struggles, most often discursive in nature and, although never fully realized, the goal is hegemonic achievement.

Within the United States, private philanthropies represent one such identity. Further, by virtue of their private status, they are able to operate outside the regular public policy process, and yet, given their resources (wealth, expertise, and the status and connections of their founders), they play a powerful role in shaping policy directions and decisions. According to the radical philanthropy scholar, Robert Arnove (1980), large scale private philanthropies such as Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, and here we could include Gates,

... represent relatively unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth which buy talent, promote causes, and, in effect, establish the agenda of what merits society’s attention. They serve as cooling out agencies, delaying and preventing more radical structural change. They help maintain an economic and political order, international in scope, which benefits ruling class interests of philanthropists and philanthropoids — a system which has worked against minorities, the working class and Third World Peoples (Emphasis added, p. 2).

Typically, this influence is achieved through a two–step process. The first step involves the development of a seed program for the purpose of establishing an infrastructure for the type of hegemonic work described above. Historically, these have included the construction of libraries, hospitals, universities, churches, museums, and galleries. Today, the distribution of hardware and software tends to predominate philanthropic initiatives [2]. Step two takes advantage of this infrastructure, and operates at a deeper level of influence by providing funding and support for the training and development of relevant service professionals. In the past, librarians, social workers, and schoolteachers, as well as university researchers and professors have been targeted as ideal conduits for creating conditions conducive to the reproduction of the philanthropist’s class interests (Lagemann, 1989; Fischer, 1980).

As the founder of the wealthiest philanthropic organization in the world, with assets valued at US$30 billion and gifts for 2006 totaling US$1.5 billion (Loomis, 2006), Bill Gates brings substantial power and influence to any public policy process. With respect to the digital divide, Gates’ definition of and solutions for the problem have become the dominant paradigm in public libraries. As well, the modus operandi of his philanthropy follows fairly closely the two–step strategic staging described above.



Bill Gates and the digital divide

In 1996, and in direct response to the 1995 National Telecommunications Information Administration’s (NTIA) report regarding the information “haves” and “have nots,” Bill Gates launched his public library campaign to provide Internet access in America’s public libraries. Designed originally as a charitable initiative of the Microsoft Corporation, by 1998 it had become the centerpiece of Gates’ burgeoning private philanthropic foundation. For Gates, the problem of the digital divide was one of access and training: access to computers and the Internet, and training on how to use these tools effectively. He targeted public libraries as the object of his philanthropy because

Public libraries have a long history of welcoming people and providing the information and help they need to improve the quality of their lives. Libraries are trusted community centers that most residents can access easily. They are natural partners for bringing free computers and Internet services to those who have no other access and those who need help learning how to use this technology effectively (BMGF, n.d.–b).

Thus, between 1998 and 2004, the BMGF installed 47,200 Internet–ready PCs in almost 11,000 libraries across the U.S. and trained approximately 62,000 library workers for this new service initiative (Anonymous, 2003, p. 51). In addition to computers and staff training, the program also included live help–desk assistance, the production of support materials and manuals for both public and staff, and a newsletter to keep libraries abreast of the program’s rollout. Finally, Microsoft Corporation donated over US$250 million in software, including both its browser Internet Explorer and the MS Office suite. As a capstone to that program and as a means of helping libraries sustain PAC services locally, the Foundation undertook two related initiatives: (1) Staying connected: A toolkit to build support in the community for your technology programs, and (2) a library portal hosted by OCLC [4] called WebJunction ( WebJunction is a clearinghouse of free information about all aspects of managing technology in public libraries including PAC services. Two major services offered through the site are (1) access to online training for library staff in everything from working with various productivity software including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to training users on the same [5]. And, (2) provision of resources to assist libraries in PAC technology planning, specifically (a) developing schedules for the regular upgrading of computers, software and connectivity, and (b) creating effective lobbying and advocacy campaigns in order to attract sustainable local funding. It is important to note that WebJunction’s scope extends beyond Gates’ computers and PAC services to include a wide range of training opportunities and resources, including: working with open source and the service benefits of social computing technologies (wikis, blogs, podcasts); personnel management; and patron services (i.e. children, teens, immigrants, etc.). That being said, within the Foundation’s promotional materials, including those pages on WebJunction dealing with PAC computing, a proprietary software model is presumed. Regular upgrading of “inadequate” and/or “obsolete” and/or “outdated equipment” is constituted as a service necessity (Anonymous, 2007, p. 28; BMGF, 2006; BMGF, n.d.–d). From a discursive perspective, the Foundation’s conflation of access to “high–quality” computer technology with the need for regular upgrading to ensure quality of service, is representative of the logic which drives the proprietary software business model.

At the completion of the U.S. library program in 2004, the Foundation had no plans to continue providing support at the level of the local library. In an interview in December 2003, Bill Gates expressed his satisfaction with the program and his hope that it would sustain itself (Anonymous, 2003, p. 51). He also described the Foundation as “moving into a new phase” which included working at the state level to help sustain PAC services in the most vulnerable areas, and “taking the library program out to some other countries” (p. 51). In the same interview, he speculated that “education–focused work, including scholarships and the high–school focused stuff, will be our biggest thing for quite some time” (p. 51).

Why then, in January 2007, has the BMGF decided to return to the site of the local library to essentially rerun what was originally a seed program? The reason given by the Foundation is the fear of a second digital divide developing due, in large part, to the inability of public libraries to garner the local support necessary to sustain PAC services as envisioned by the Foundation (BMGF, 2006a, ¶6). Certainly, given recent statistics on library funding trends, Gates’ offer can only be seen as a positive development, but why target public libraries, again? And why at this precise moment in history? Considering the question from a radical philanthropic perspective, what ideological battle is Gates continuing to wage vis–à–vis his Foundation?

During the early days of Phase I, speculation regarding Gates’ motivation included everything from trying to sell more software, to winning the browser wars, to attempting to whitewash his tarnished reputation as a result of the anti–trust lawsuit. These concerns were not without merit. But that was 10 years ago. What kinds of values is he hoping to reproduce via this second round of technology funding? Finally, who will ultimately benefit and how?

Given the emphasis on Microsoft products within Gates’ library philanthropy, the value of the program for growing Microsoft’s market share cannot be ignored — this particularly in light of the increasing popularity of open source software worldwide. However, from a critical policy perspective, which takes into account the powerful role private philanthropies play in shaping public policy, any speculation regarding Gates’ motivation must go beyond singular explanations to include the totality of class relations underlying these private institutions. As a captain of industry, it makes sense that Bill Gates, having amassed his fortune through a particular intellectual property regime (specifically one which allowed him to privatize software), would perceive as a threat any challenge to the fundamental relations of production and circulation underlying that regime.

FOSS has always represented just such a threat for Gates and Microsoft. Indeed, from the early part of this decade, Gates and high–ranking representatives of Microsoft were calling proponents of FOSS (which includes advocates of copyright reform) communists (Dean, 2005), un–American (Leonard, 2001), and “against the American Way” (Stallman, 2001, ¶1). Gates’ philanthropy can be read against the broader social and economic struggles being waged between FOSS and proprietary software. This struggle extends beyond software licenses and computing practices to philosophical orientations encompassing intellectual property rights, access to information, the future of the Internet, the conditions necessary for innovation, and the creation of a global information commons.



Alternative perspectives on the digital divide: The FSF and the CI movement

Within the public library literature, it is not obvious that competing definitions of and solutions to the digital divide exist. One consequence of Gates’ reinvestment in public library PAC services is that while it responds directly to the documented needs of many of America’s libraries (Bertot, et al., 2006; Gordon, et al., 2003), it also forecloses discussions on alternative roles libraries might play or partnerships they might pursue in an effort to ameliorate this contested social problem. The goals of both the FSF and CI movement resonate closely with the public library’s traditional mandate and philosophy of service. For these reasons, the lack of references within the literature to either the FSF or CI with respect to PAC services is curious and invites closer investigation.


For Richard Stallman, Founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the problem of the digital divide is Bill Gates — not Bill Gates personally, but the proprietary software regime which he represents [6]. Stallman considers the problem of the digital divide to be a symptom of the culture surrounding proprietary software (copyright, patenting and trademarking). This includes the implications of intellectual property rights for social relations of production and consumption. In a critique of the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Stallman described the problem this way: “Part of the digital divide comes from artificial obstacles to the sharing of information. This includes the licenses of non–free software, and harmfully restrictive copyright laws” (Stallman, 2001). Further, at the inauguration of the first Free Software Foundation in India in 2001, Stallman and the head of the FSF–India, Satish Babu, discussed the value of free software for the amelioration of the digital divide. In addition to the economic benefits associated with free software, Babu described its value for social and economic development:

The digital divide is of concern everywhere but especially is it so here in India. Unless we act, the digital divide in India is likely to widen, particularly so because of the country’s many languages and its uneven literacy levels. Free software can help level the playing field for emerging nations like India and bridge the divide by encouraging solidarity, collaboration and voluntary community work amongst programmers and computer users and invigorate an indigenous software industry. (FSF, 2001)

Stallman also emphasized the educational value of free software over proprietary software:

But free software offers a deeper benefit for education: the knowledge in free software is public knowledge, not secret. The sealed black box of a proprietary software system is designed to keep people in the dark. With free software students can study the software they use, to learn how it works. They can write improvements to the software, and thus learn the craft of software development. (Ibid.)

Despite the apparent congruency of interests between Stallman’s Foundation and the public library, Stallman has never targeted public libraries as an ideal partner for his Foundation’s promotion of unfettered access to, and creative use of, free software. Given the public library’s commitment to life–long learning and access to information without barriers, such a partnership would be mutually beneficial. It would extend the reach of the consciousness–raising work of the FSF, provide an affordable and value consistent alternative for the delivery of PAC services in public libraries, and, most importantly, it would benefit the digitally divided in America.


The second social movement of relevance to this discussion is Community Informatics (CI). CI has a long and important history in the area of social networking and community computing. On the surface, the CI movement’s belief in the transformative potential of the new ICTs and its commitment to providing communities with the ability to effectively access and use these tools, appears not dissimilar to those of Gates’ philanthropy. But, in fact, the differences are profound, both philosophically and technologically. While the term CI encompasses a broad range of definitions and approaches, a common thread linking members of this social movement is a commitment to positive social change vis–á–vis helping communities take advantage of the new ICTs in ways which empower individuals as citizens, consumers, and producers (Bishop and Bruce, 2005; Keeble and Loader, 2001; Gurstein, 2003; Clement and Shade, 2000). Central to this approach is the recognition that solutions come from within the community and not without, and grassroots initiatives for research and development are privileged. This is a movement that is concerned with “respect[ing] and embrac[ing] public interest perspectives” (Clement and Shade, 2000, p. 33), conceiving of information and knowledge as key resources of “communicative action” (Schuler and Day, 2004, p. 354), and ultimately, establishing an alternative narrative for the future of the networked society. In other words, one authored by civil society and not “transnational global corporations and powerful nation states” (p. 355). In a survey of the field, Bishop and Bruce (2005) attempt to capture the scope of the movement,

CI research is conducted internationally in settings that range from inner–city neigbourhoods to rural villages, exploring how individuals and institutions such as schools, libraries, grassroots groups, and health agencies come together to develop capacity and work on common problems. It addresses questions of community development, learning, empowerment and sustainability in the context of efforts to promote a positive role for computers and the Internet in society (p. 7).

Michael Gurstein (2003), a key figure in the field of CI, critiques the dominant policy discourses surrounding the problem known as the digital divide and, by extension, their usefulness in developing solutions to the fundamental social, economic, and cultural challenges accompanying the shift from an industrial to an information society. Gurstein reviews the various and familiar definitions of the policy problem created by a diverse set of actors including the U.S. government in their Falling through the net series. His specific concern is with the construction of the problem of the digital divide as one of “access.” For Gurstein, an emphasis on “access” ultimately benefits commercial interests such as telephone companies, broadband and satellite network providers, and Internet service providers (Gurstein, 2003). Also, he cautions: “any broadening of the base of simple ‘access’ increases the potential market for e–commerce retailers” (Gurstein, 2003, ¶23). Rather than “access,” Gurstein prefers to talk about “effective use” which he describes as “having the knowledge, skills, and supportive organizational and social structures to make effective use of that access and that e–technology to enable social and community objectives” ((Emphasis added. Access and beyond section, ¶16). He references Clement and Shade’s articulation of three questions which allow us to elaborate on the meaning of “effective access”: 1) Access for what purpose? 2) Access for whom? and 3) Access to what? (2000, p. 33).

As with Richard Stallman and the FSF, Gurstein is not satisfied with simply critiquing the status quo but articulates a vision of “what could be.” In an analysis of the WSIS, Gurstein (2003) wrote:

What seems to be missing so far from “official” involvements in the WSIS is the sense of building a common future with a remarkable and incredibly powerful new set of tools: of going beyond the “market building” and “market failure” rhetoric of much of the “Digital Divide” (DD) discussion; and, of moving toward opportunities for effective and active use of ICTs to enable communities, active citizens, and democratic participation. What has been lost is the vision of achieving the widest possible distribution to communities and individuals (as producers of goods and services and as citizens) of the remarkable opportunities for gains in productivity, efficiency, and process and product innovation; for active participation and devolved control; for an amplification of creativity and an intensification of “voice” which ICTs are making available (Introduction section, ¶2).

There are a number of ways in which the FSF and the CI movement complement each other:

  1. Both social movements share a common vision for a vibrant civil society which functions as an effective antidote to the market imperative of a globalizing information capital.
  2. Both privilege the autonomy of communities and the abilities of individuals, particularly in poorer communities, to find innovative ways to use ICTs to become producers and creators of their own information products and services [7].
  3. Tactically, both movements express reservations with respect to state involvement, preferring instead to harness the energies of the grassroots, non–profit, and voluntary sectors. Indeed, the neo–liberal state is seen as part of the problem by creating information policies which benefit capital’s needs to accumulate at the expense of civil society’s needs for social equity and justice. And finally,
  4. For both, prerequisites for social change are a free and open access software regime, and the elimination of restrictive intellectual property rights.

For, as Gurstein (2003) reminds us,

The most significant and determining characteristic of ICTs ... is that they are at their essence the production and management tools of the information economy. In fact, civil society should have insisted that the issue of equitable distribution of access to ICTs, especially to excluded populations should be based on the role that ICTs play as the central instruments of production and distribution of information intensive goods and services in the information economy (as well as the information society) and that the effective and productive “use” of these is what increasingly distinguishes the haves from the have nots, including those populations in developed countries [such as the United States] who are finding their economic opportunities being threatened by the progress of ICTs.

... how is it that public access computing has become almost synonymous with proprietary software?

Where both the FSF and the CI movement privilege the social identity of citizen and the concept of civil society, within Gates’ and his Foundation’s discourses, these terms are rarely used. Further, when the former is inferred, it appears in relation to the consumption of e–government services. As recounted in one highly cited report: “In Florida, people rely on library computers to apply for public assistance including food stamps, temporary cash assistance, and Medicaid” (BMGF, 2006b). These uses are presented as part of a standard list of how people use PAC services with no attempt to distinguish between worker, citizen or consumer identities: “Some 14 million people regularly use these services to find information about health, jobs, and government services; to communicate with friends and family; and to fulfill life–long training goals. They can also find training on how to effectively use these tools” (BMGF, n.d.–c).

Perhaps the greatest difference between Gates’ solution to the digital divide and that of the FSF and the CI movement is the agency and autonomy attributed to the digitally divided. Within Gates’ discourse, the digitally divided are passive recipients and consumers of information, whether e–government or training on software. As constituted, technology and not people will solve the digital divide. According to the Gates Foundation, frequently updated equipment and software and a fast Internet connection will “level the playing field” (BMGF, 2007), will ensure that “disadvantaged people have equal access to information and educational and economic opportunities” (BMGF, n.d.–a), and will guarantee that “people do not get left behind in this information age” (Bertot, et al., 2006a, p. 34). In sharp contrast, the FSF and the CI movements constitute the digitally divided as active participants in the work required to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens. It is the community which is privileged and not the technology.

Clearly, there are two different paradigms operating here. Given the emphasis in public librarianship on free and unfettered access to information and their historical status as “cornerstones of democracy,” how is it that public access computing has become almost synonymous with proprietary software?



Public libraries and FOSS

Over the last few years, there has been an abundance of professional and academic literature on various aspects of free and open source software. A search of Wilson’s Library Literature database under the keywords “open source software” and “free software” produces 240 and 18 records respectively. Interestingly, the majority of hits under “free software” were published pre–1990 and deal with freeware as opposed to software covered by the GNU GPL. There is also a significant overlap between the remaining articles indexed as “free software” and those found under the keyword phrase “open source software.” Although the discursive conflation of these two concepts is not uncommon, distinguishing between them, according to Richard Stallman, is of fundamental importance for those institutions and governments attempting to ameliorate the digital divide by providing citizens with access to technology. Klang (2005) describes the problem of terminology this way:

To most outsiders the ethics of software is not something usually considered. To most proficient computer users with a passing interest in this question the ethics of software is recognized as one of the fundamental questions of the digital rights area. To most of the latter, terms such as free software, open source, and their derivatives (FLOSS, FOSS, Software Freedom) are interchangeable. Choosing one over the other is a matter of taste rather than politics. However, to most insiders the question is not one of taste. There is a fundamental difference between the two areas even if they share a similar root. Free software is not the same as open source. The two groups differ in their fundamental philosophical approach to software and its importance to society as a whole (Abstract section, ¶2).

Given the significance of the digital divide for public libraries and the increasing importance within professional discourses on the expansion of definitions of literacy to include information and computer skills, an appreciation of the historical differences between these two movements is necessary for any discussion about the ameliorative and empowering role that public access computing, as provided in public libraries, might play.

Before considering this question, a brief history of the division within the FOSS community is necessary if one is to appreciate the distinction between them.



Free software versus open source: The forking of a social movement

Open source software or OSS is an umbrella term used to refer to a wide range of software products, services and communities, the most famous of these being the GNU/Linux operating system. Originally released under the GNU GPL in 1998, a group of open source programmers, including Eric Raymond, split from the Free Software Foundation to create the Open Source Initiative (OSI). The reason for this split and the discursive shift in emphasis away from “free software” to “open source” was to make the product and corresponding method of development more palatable to the corporate sector. According to the OSI Web site [8], this was a specific response to the news that Netscape planned to give away the source code to its browser:

We realized that the Netscape announcement had created a precious window of time within which we might finally be able to get the corporate world to listen to what we have to teach about the superiority of an open development process.

We realized it was time to dump the confrontational attitude that has been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business–case grounds that motivated Netscape. We brainstormed about tactics and a new label. “Open source,” contributed by Chris Peterson, was the best thing we came up with (History of OSI Section, ¶ 1 and 2).

An important component of this new initiative was the creation of OSI Certified, an open source certification program [9]. This provided a mechanism for controlling the use of the term “open source software” for those licenses that conformed to the open source definition [10]. There is a long list of OS licenses on the OSI Web site [11] which have gained the community’s approval and include, among others, the GPL, BSD, MIT, Mozilla Public License, IBM Public License, and Intel Open Source License.

As a means of distinguishing between the OSI and the FSF, Eric Raymond (2001) focused on differing attitudes towards the commercialization of open source software. The latter he constitutes as purist — “commercial software is theft and hoarding. I write free software to end that evil” (Raymond, 2001, p. 68). The former he labels as pragmatist — “commercial software is fine, as long as I get the source or it does what I want it to do” (p. 68). Conversely, Richard Stallman provides a more ideologically informed interpretation of the divide between the FSF and the OSI:

For the Open Source Movement, the issue of whether software should be open is a practical question, not an ethical one. As one person put it ‘Open Source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.’ For the Open Source movement, non–free software is a suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non–free software is a social problem and free software is the solution (Stallman, 2002, p. 252).

Since its inception in 1998, the corporate sector’s enthusiastic adoption of Linux (sans GNU) and open source computing practices transformed Raymond’s bazaar into what is referred to by one commercial advocate as the “corporate bazaar” (Engle, 2005). For the FSF the creation of the concept of “open source” and the appropriation of open source discourses and practices by IT giants, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett Packard, are actually diminishing the freedoms embedded in the original GNU GPL. This problem is unfolding on two separate but related fronts. Technically, some corporations are taking advantage of dual–licensing strategies to obtain free software code covered by the GPL or an OSI certified license on the one hand, and then on the other hand attaching a patent or other forms of intellectual property restrictions for those modifications, customizations and applications they create to run on top of or in conjunction with the free code (Mahony and Naughton, 2004). Examples of these dual–licensing schemes include Sun’s Java and Jini Sun Community Source License schemes, Netscape Public License, the BSD License, the MIT License, the Artistic License and even Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiatives (Mahony and Naughton, 2004). This is seen as a serious threat to free software advocates as it represents an erosion of what are, for that community, non–negotiable rights and freedoms.

The second front on which this conflict is unfolding is at the level of discourse. Stallman is particularly concerned with the lack of specificity and/or conflation of the two terms and/or the increasing omission of the term “free software” in the popular and business media and, particularly, when it serves to eclipse the philosophical and ideological dimensions underlying the GPL (Bowman, 2002). With respect to the OSI, Stallman is as concerned with what they are not saying as he is with what they are saying:

[The OSI] never say it’s particularly wrong for software to be proprietary; they say they don’t particularly like it. They would rather that software is not proprietary, but they will never say that it’s wrong. Whereas we in the free–software movement say our freedom is at stake here; don’t you dare try to get us to use proprietary software. I don’t want it in my life (Bowman, 2002, Q: What is the difference between the two movements?).

As “open source software” gains a strong foothold in corporate and government sectors, teaching users about the difference between free software and open source has become increasingly important (Stallman, 1998, Open Source section, ¶1). In the words of Stallman (1998):

While free software by any other name would give you the same freedom, it makes a big difference which name we use: different words convey different ideas (¶1).

In addition to the establishment of the Free Software Law Center in 2005 with a mandate to “offer free legal advice to free software projects” (Marson, 2006), the latest development in relations between the FSF and the open source community involves the soon to be released GPLv3 license (Free Software Foundation [FSF], 2007). As the first revision of the license in 15 years, one industry observer notes: “The new license has the potential to either strengthen the free– and open–source community or deepen its divisions” (Crowley, 2007). Points of contestation include preventing dual licensing practices, particularly attaching DRM (digital rights management) software to FOSS (Rogoway, 2006), and strengthening language around software patenting.

Outside of the FOSS community, the animosity between Bill Gates and the various proponents of FOSS is legendary. While Gates no longer dismisses open source out of hand, he continues to argue that open source products are inferior and less stable than commercial software. Now, however, rather than attacking the movement head on, Gates’ promotion of stronger intellectual property rights and his use of what those in the industry refer to as FUD (spreading fear, uncertainty and dread) around issues like privacy and data security reflect his position.



Library discourses

The library community’s response to and treatment of “free software” versus “open source software” closely resembles that found in popular, industry and business media. A survey of the literature reveals a number of common themes and discursive trends that provide credence to Stallman’s concerns while simultaneously reproducing Raymond’s and the open source software community’s enthusiasm for the pragmatic benefits associated with open source products and “open source” as a software development model. The vast majority of articles surveyed focus on the technical and administrative benefits of open source software and the potential value for internal library operations and functions. Representative articles and editorials include Schlimpf (1999), Chudnov (1999), Lease (2002), Wagner (2002), MacFarlane (2003), Oberg (2003), Tennant (2003), Webb (2003), Steely (2004), Balas (2004), Cervone (2003), and Highsmith, et al. (2002). Within this context, the merits of open source software for the computing needs of libraries as a small and specialized market are emphasized.

Another way of appreciating the profession’s framing of free software/open source software is to consider the nature of the sources within which articles appear. Although open source software is covered in a wide range of journals, the majority appear in those professional journals which focus on technical services and/or library technology such as Computers in libraries, D–Lib, DESIDOC Bulletin of Information Technology, EContent, Electronic Library, EMedia Magazine, Indexer, Information Technology and Libraries, Information Today, JASIST, Library Computing, Library Hi Tech, Managing Electronic Resources, Microcomputers for Information Management, Online Information Review, Online, Program, Serials Librarian, Serials Review and Technicalities. Further, articles which appear in less specialized journals such as American Libraries and Library Journal — while often providing introductory information including references to Stallman, GNU/Linux and the GPL (Frumkin, 2002; Chudnov, 1999; Tennant, 2000; Cervone, 2003) — tend to focus on specific OSS applications suitable for libraries [12] or examples of library–specific OSS projects and resources [13].

Despite the predominance of articles focusing on the technical and pragmatic benefits of open source, most of these papers also examine, to varying degrees, the philosophical aspects defining the free software movement (and often attributed to open source). At one end of the continuum some authors make a passing reference before moving on to more practical issues, such as:

Aside from the philosophical notions driving software evolution, several pragmatic principles should guide us (Chudnov, 1999, p. 42).

As with most things in life, there are tradeoffs between a philosophically pure stance and how we actually perform our mission (Cervone, 2003).

The theory of open source aside, the real question is: How useful is open source software for libraries (Webb, 2003).

At WRLC (Washington Research Library Consortium), it is the practical benefits rather than the philosophy that has attracted us to open source (Gourly, 2000).

At the other end of the continuum, similarities between the culture and values associated with open source/free software and librarianship are highlighted:

The benevolent nature of the open source ideal fits well with librarianship culture (Westman, 2004).

Open source software development and librarianship have a number of similarities — both are gift cultures ... and gain reputation by the amount of stuff they give away (Morgan in Westman, 2004).

[Open source] is perfect for organization’s predisposed towards resource sharing (Steely, 2004).

Libraries have long worked together in the community spirit that open source promotes (Poynder citing Frumkin, 2002).

Another reason why [open source] is beginning to catch on is that a lot of librarians are social and we like working together (Mickey, 2001).

Morgan (2000) describes the “similarities between hackers and librarians” including the premium placed on open access, the importance of human interaction and that both the OS culture and librarianship need more programmers. Ultimately, within these philosophical discussions, there is little to distinguish free software from open source. This leads to some interesting interpretations such as Chudnov’s historical summation “Thus we can think of ‘open source’ as ‘free software plus extensive peer review’” (Chudnov, 1999, p. 42), Iglesias’ (2003) definition of open source as “Open Source is the GPL with a business plan” (2003, p. 2), and the treatment of Stallman and the Free Software Foundation as an historical step along the OSS’ evolutionary path (Westman, 2004, p. 231).

Recently two new thematic threads have appeared in the literature with growing frequency and which cut discursively along PAC versus FOSS lines. The first is an emphasis on the value of open source for enhancing customer service (Neblett and Shivers, 2005; Farkas, 2007; Stephens, 2006). According to the assistant director of the Atlanta (Ga.) Public Library, “There’s so much we can do online 24/7. I wanted my library to be that convenient and dynamic. Open source software allowed me to take my library to my patrons” (Rynkiewicz, 2006, p. 6). For this librarian, LAMP (or Linux–Apache–MySQL–PHP) technologies:

Provid[e] me with a means to attract Internet customers to the library. People like me, who prefer to go online and have things delivered to their homes. No more requiring people to walk through our doors like the local shopping malls ... When properly utilized, the Internet can transcend the limitations of physical space, supporting the freedom of imagination and information on which the library profession is founded (Rynkiewicz, 2006, p. 56).

While these sentiments are reflective of the enthusiasm surrounding Library 2.0 in general, the possibility exists for a two–tiered service, one for those library users with access from home or wherever they are, and one for those who cannot transcend the limits of physical space and must come to the library for access.

The second significant theme to emerge is the discursive link being forged between the U.S. government’s requirements for citizen access to ICTs in order to take advantage of e–government initiatives, and the availability of PAC services in public libraries. Within this context, public libraries are positioning themselves, and being positioned, as essential social safety nets for America’s most vulnerable (Bertot, et al., 2006a; Bertot, et al., 2006b).

It is important to note however that within the wider scholarly literature of the field, an expanding body of work employing a wide range of critical perspectives is developing in response to the question of “free” versus “open” software. First Monday has become an important vehicle for the discussion of these critical issues. However, as the focus of this literature review was on professional discourses and their constitutions of these issues in relation to professional practice, only those journals of a professional and technical nature were consulted.



Pulling the arguments together

The significance of the library community’s discursive emphasis on open source software for one set of services and its unquestioning use of proprietary software for another set of services serves as a kind of barometer for the profession’s position in relation to the larger social struggle unfolding over proprietary versus free and/or open source software.

Further, a discursive emphasis on OSS (sans F) shifts attention away from the deeper ideological issues associated with either choice by focusing on the practical rather than the philosophical. As can be inferred by a survey of the literature, this may have limited the deployment of free and open source software to either the library’s backroom functions including cataloguing, serials management, document delivery, resource sharing and, more generally, creating and maintaining the library’s integrated library system (ILS), or online services to remote users. Another manifestation of this ideological blind spot can be found in those articles that focus on the area of public services and specifically maintaining public access computers in libraries. Within those papers dealing with PAC programming, the use of proprietary products is often assumed (Gordon, et al., 2003), and training patrons in the use of these products is emerging as a service priority in some public libraries (Mendez, 2001). Now that a second wave of funding has become available, the question of where the public library community stands on the issue of free versus proprietary software for bridging the digital divide becomes all the more critical.

The benefits of non–proprietary software are a welcome development for the library community (interoperability, cross–platform simplicity, the ability to pool resources and talent and create library–specific applications uniquely tailored to each community, and freedom from proprietary lock–downs and path dependency). However, failure to consider the values and goals of the FSF as a social movement jeopardize the opportunities available to public libraries to participate in a global movement committed to bridging the digital divide by providing access to and training on free and open software productivity tools and technologies. Additionally, libraries are failing to appreciate the impact of these new tools which provide the means for communities — and not information capital — to dictate the terms of a new set of social relations of production and circulation. To this end, the public library community (practitioners, scholars, and advocates) must formalize their relationships with the CI movement. The bridges already exist. A number of American faculties of information studies (broadly defined) are taking leadership roles in the areas of research and development as well as offering courses in CI (Bishop and Bruce, 2005). Surprisingly, however, while public libraries are recognized as obvious community partners (Kranich, 2004) and participate in a number of projects (Williams and Alkalimat, 2004), these projects unfold separate from the infrastructure set down as part of Gates’ original PAC program. All of the ingredients exist to transform public library PAC services from financial and technological problems to be managed into a self–sustaining, community–based initiatives. The former perpetuates dependency, while the later offers autonomy through solidarity, collaboration, and free and open access to the new means of production.



Concluding remarks

It should be noted, however, that while the public library is the focus of this discussion, the issues raised could as easily be applied to any public institution receiving private philanthropy support. The fiscal austerity of the neo–liberal state combined with the boom of the 1990s saw a historic revival in the number of private philanthropies established in the U.S. (Anonymous, 1998). As a result, private philanthropies are playing an increasingly significant role in the diagnoses of and the prescribed treatments for a wide range of social ills, not the least of which are symptoms of the ever widening wealth gap between rich and poor, north and south. The radical philanthropic approach taken up by scholars such as Arnove (1980), Fischer (1980), Lagemann (1989), and Faber & McCarthy (2005) among others provides a powerful set of analytic tools with which to critically assess philanthropic largesse for its ideological import. This is not to say that cash–strapped organizations working for the public good decline these gifts, only that a critical awareness of the modus operandi of such organizations be developed at the local level so that effective countervailing measures can be implemented to ensure that the people’s needs and not the individual philanthropy’s agenda are privileged. End of article


About the author

Siobhan Stevenson is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, Canada. Once a public librarian, now a political economist, her research interest is information policy (broadly defined).



1. Emphasis mine. Although beyond the scope of this paper, like Carnegie, Gates’ library programs to bridge the digital divide extend far beyond America’s borders.

2. Corporate philanthropies such as IBM, Adobe, Dell, HP and Microsoft donate hardware and/or software to charities and other non–profit organizations as part of their corporate citizen activities. Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Program “provides CTCs (community technology centers) with access to the most current productivity applications necessary to compete in the global economy” ( Discursively, Bill Gates is careful to distinguish between the activities of his private philanthropy and those of his corporation particularly with respect to the donation of MS software to libraries: “Microsoft Corporation and the foundation are separate entities that have independent approaches to charitable giving. Microsoft has been a valuable partner that has generously donated software in the past for foundation–funded computers, but libraries have never been required to use them.” [BMGF(b), n.d. “U.S. Libraries: Frequently Asked Questions”].

3. The U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure produced a series of reports attempting to measure and define the digital divide in America. These reports were issued in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2004 and are available online.

4. OCLC stands for the Online Computer Library Center. Established in 1967, OCLC’s mission exists to further access to the world’s information and reduce library costs by offering services for libraries and their users (

5. For an online course catalogue go to

6. According to Stallman, “Microsoft is just one of many proprietary software companies all more or less disrespecting the freedom of their own users. Microsoft is not really worse than a lot of others. They’re all bad” (cited in Bowman, 2002).

7. For an excellent discussion of citizen ownership and control of ICTs and empowerment see B. Loader, et al., 2000. “Embedding the net: Community empowerment in the age of information,” In: Michael Gurstein (editor). Community informatics: Enabling communities with information and communications technologies. Hershey, Pa.: Idea Group Publishing, pp.81–102.





12. For example Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, Perl and Samba.

13. Prospero (document delivery system), (a Perl–based module for working with MARC records), ILS systems such as Koha, OpenBook and Avanti, and the oss4libs Web site at



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Editorial history

Paper received 3 April 2007; accepted 16 April 2007.

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Public libraries, public access computing, FOSS and CI: There are alternatives to private philanthropy by Siobhan Stevenson
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