First law: Software is for use

February 23rd, 2007

Ranganathan came up with his first law, Books are for use in response to his perception that, at least in the 1930s, many librarians believed that books are primarily for preservation. In discussing the consequences of this first law of library science, he talked about extending library hours, improving library furniture, hiring the right type of library staff, and providing a readers’ advisory service, all of which contribute to increased use of books. We tend to take many of these things for granted now, largely as a result of Ranganathan’s vision. However, he didn’t talk about what ‘using’ books involved, perhaps because he thought it was self-evident: people use books by reading them.

In considering whether the first law of open source software is that Software is for use, the question that comes to me first is “what does ‘use’ mean?”. Most people would probably respond by saying that to be able to use software, the code needs to run without errors, and the prospective user needs to have enough information about its requirements (for example, the operating environment and any dependencies) to be able to get it working. In other words, documentation is needed in order to be able to ‘use’ software. I don’t think this necessarily means that developers need to write complete user documentation, though. Well-commented code, with some brief instructions, might be all that’s needed for a simple program, but as the software increases in complexity (as the number of scripts/components increases, say), there is an increased need for good documentation, if end-users are to be able to use it.

However, unlike books, which have one primary use, source code can be used in other ways. The Free Software Foundation’s four software freedoms identify other types of use, including being able to study the software to learn how it works and being able to improve it.

While it seems clear that developers release code under an open source license so that it can be used in some way, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are thinking of end users with limited technical skills when they do so. They might simply be hoping to encourage other developers to study and then improve the software. This could be one of the reasons for the Jekyll and Hyde personality of open source projects Karen Coombs recently discussed, with some developers releasing their code primarily for other developers, and not for end users.

One other point to mention here is that one route to ‘opening’ up source code seems to come from funders. I’ve never seen anyone else talk about it, but the Mellon Foundation Intellectual Property Policy gives people a strong incentive to release software funded by a Mellon grant as open source. Some of the high-profile library/information management open source projects, such as dSpace and Fedora, have received Mellon Foundation funding. I suspect that IMLS grants carry a similar requirement, since many IMLS-funded projects are also open source.

Entry Filed under: Free/open source


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