working in the open: software

Last night’s #radlibchat  a Twitter chat where we discuss issues in librarianship, prompted by a particular article  was about free and open source software (FOSS) and its relation to libraries (based on Gabriella Coleman’s article ‘Code is speech’). I thought I’d write a brief note here about how I’m using FOSS in my current work as a PhD student.

This post is not aimed at experts, because I’m not one myself. I’m not a particularly technical person and my research sits broadly within the humanities so most of my computing needs are met by a web browser and a word processor. This actually makes it really easy to use open source software almost exclusively:

  • My operating system is Ubuntu, one of the more popular versions of Linux, which works great ‘out of the box’ and doesn’t take long to get used to (especially for anyone who is familiar with using both Windows and Mac). I started off dual-booting my laptop i.e. having both Windows and Ubuntu installed and switching between the two but after a while I stopped using Windows and no longer have it installed.
  • For a web browser I use Mozilla Firefox. It’s as good as any browser out there right now.
  • My word processor is LibreOffice. You can think of it as an open source replacement for Microsoft Office. I’d been using Microsoft Office for a decade and it only took me a couple of hours to get used to LibreOffice instead. Firefox and LibreOffice both come pre-installed with Ubuntu.

And that’s basically it! I’m using Zotero (also FOSS) as a reference manager but haven’t really started using it heavily yet.

I think it’s important for me to have at least some knowledge of FOSS and how it works because my research is going to touch on open source as a subject area. A conference paper last year by Sheila Corrall and Stephen Pinfield (2014) used a typology of three types of openness: open content, open process, and open infrastructure. I’m doing okay at making all the content I produce open, and this blog is part of making the research process open; I will also be posting early stages of my research as it develops. For me, using FOSS is a way of making my own personal research infrastructure open.

If you want to go a bit deeper: the digital rights organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) produces a Surveillance Self-Defense guide to help understand ways of behaving securely online. They even produce a set of guidelines specifically for academic researchers. For librarians, the Library Freedom Project is doing great work teaching librarians about surveillance and digital rights in libraries.

See also: Switching to Linux, saying goodbye to Apple and Microsoft.