Why Public Libraries Need to Support Open Source

Phil ShapiroPeople turn to public libraries for answers, and a lot of times libraries are superb at providing them. But when it comes to providing answers about open source, libraries have an uneven track record.

What can we do to make this better so that more people can turn to their public library to learn about open source software, hardware, and principles?

Right now, if you walked into my public library and pelted me with questions about open source—like, "What is it?" "How does it work?" "How can I use open source?"—I'd rattle off answers so fast you'd be walking out with a new tool or technology under your belt. Open source is a big world, so of course there are some things I don't know, but guess what? We have the Internet and books right at our finger tips. Saying that you don't know the answer is fine, and patrons will respect you for it. The key is helping them find the answer.

Two things you can do right now

  1. Learn the answers to the basic three questions I posed above.
  2. Find out where to point someone if you don't know the answer to their question.

Point people to resources

Opensource.com is one great resource, and I've put together some videos and written some articles that come from a place of trying to reach various kinds of people with various types of open source questions.

Learning about Linux

Linux works well on older computers, often extending their life another five years or more. Learn all about it from Opensource.com's resource page, and I have a few videos related to installing Linux on refurbished computers:

Learning about Raspberry Pi

Open source is at the heart of the maker movement. Witness the 10 million Raspberry Pi computers that have been sold. That number is likely to double in far less time than the first 10 million Raspberry Pi's were sold. Learn all about it from Opensource.com's resource page. And follow the Raspberry Pi Foundation on Twitter.

Why is open source a good thing?

There are so many reasons. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. Open source promotes a hopeful mindset, which boosts mental health. I share some thoughts on that in this article.

2. Open source can yield better stewardship of scarce educational technology funds within our schools. Charlie Reisinger explains why in his captivating TEDx talk and writings for Opensource.com. His new book, The Open Schoolhouse, is spellbinding and is a must-read for any education leader in the United States, or elsewhere.

3. Open source levels the playing field for many new startups, and offers them some tips.

4. Open source can be a tool for greater social participation and inclusion. I explore this idea in this recent video: "After TED talks comes TUX talks."

5. Open source promotes a more diverse technology ecosystem. Diverse operating systems make the world more secure. And tech that is more secure is less stressful.

How to help your public library

One thing you can do is go talk to them. Ask the person at the reference desk if anyone can help you learn more about "open source." If they say they don't know what that is, you can tell them you think it's important that they do and hand them a printed copy of this article. Return a month later and ask again.

Another great thing to do is help them out directly by teaching a class. Here are some ideas but you really want to base this on what you know well and can teach others how to do. Maybe ask a friend to help you who has expertise in the same or a different area. You could offer to assist them while they give the talk on the thing they know a lot about. Some ideas:

  • How to install Linux on an old computer
  • An introduction to GitHub
  • How to participate in an open source community
  • Tips and tricks for using LibreOffice, GIMP, Audacity, Inkscape, Blender, Krita, Tuxpaint, etc.
  • An introduction to Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Beagle Board, etc.
  • How to build X (thing) with Y (open source tool)

Libraries are changing. Do your part to help them change for the better—to be more open and enthusiastic supporters of open source. Wouldn't it be great if you asked an open source question at the reference desk and was met with a smiling answer, rather than a sorry-I-can't-help-you shrug?

Why public libraries need to support open source was authored by Phil Shapiro and published in Opensource.com. It is being republished by Open Health News under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0). The original copy of the article can be found here.