systems of revolt: open-source and open-access as viable rivals to vendor products

This is the edited script of a presentation given by Simon Barron at UKSG 41st Annual Conference and Exhibition in Glasgow, UK on 2018-04-09 and 2018-04-10. It has been edited to incorporate the accompanying presentation into the text and to insert additional detail and quotes. Thanks to Matt Borg for asking me to present and thanks to the UKSG organisers for their hard work.

1.0: art of revolt

Surrealism has been called “the art of revolt” (Sélavy, 2018). The artistic movements, Dadaism and Surrealism, developed in the early 20th Century as reactions to the dominant bourgeois social norms and the growth of capitalism both of which were leading to economic recessions and war. A range of artists, poets, and writers came together in 1916 in Switzerland to create the Dada Manifesto. This manifesto emphasises the intense connection that the artists saw between art and life. Their subsequent art interrogated the existing bourgeois value systems that existed in the art world at the time. We see this in Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 piece, Fountain, which questions the very idea of what a work of art can be.

Surrealism emerged out of Dadaism and distinguishes itself by its explicit focus on politics. Whereas Dada focused on the meaning of ‘art’, Surrealism focused on the inner workings of the mind and the irrational in ways that critiqued capitalism and Western society. By blurring the lines between dream and reality, the irrational and the rational, the Surrealists demonstrated the arbitrariness of the rules and authorities governing capitalist society. The intention behind Surrealist art and Surrealist cinema was to shock the audience out of complacency. The first Surrealist film, Un chien Andalou, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí was released in 1929.


It was viscerally shocking for audiences of the time raising questions about the nature of desire and violence barely held back by ineffective and stifling bourgeois societal norms. Buñuel and Dalí’s second collaboration, L’age d’or, was released in 1930 and was even more explicit  in its criticism of the upper class, organised religion, and capitalist society. Following a campaign by a right-wing group in France, the film was banned and repressed until 1979.


Surrealist artists and directors had no political power. They had no means of changing society and addressing the social inequalities that they saw all around them perpetuated by capitalism and the upper classes’ relentless pursuit of capital. Surrealism – their ‘art of revolt’ – was the only way that they could express themselves against a monolithic political system that was unreceptive to their ideas and their very mode of expression for those ideas. It was an art of desperation, of irrational yearning, of passion, and of expressing themselves at any cost in the only way that they could.

In 2018, we face an even more monolithic political and economic system. Capitalism evolved into global neoliberalism and has reached a point where almost everything is subject to its processes of marketisation. Crucially for libraries, archives, and other information providers, information is increasingly commodified and marketised. Neoliberal practice turns information and knowledge into commodities: products that can be bought and sold.  It’s a system of political economy that conceives of information and knowledge as products that can be transferred or exchanged in market transactions like other objects. Closing off information, paywalling it, and restricting access to it is part of neoliberalism’s ideology to consolidate power for those who claim to own information.

Like the Surrealists, libraries don’t have power under capitalism and we have to push back against neoliberalism in the small ways that are available to us. As a library systems worker in UK Higher Education, I can use open-licensing as a tool to push back against the commodification of information. I want to talk today about open-licensing and the benefits of open-licensing for libraries and other information providers. I’ll particularly focus on open-source licensing of software.

1.1: library systems

Library systems are the lifeblood of a modern library. Whether a small public or corporate library or the national library of a country, that library uses specialist library software to help run the library. Circulation of books, acquisitions of serials, security and access control, analytics and reporting, electronic resources management, reading list management, institutional repositories, research data management repositories, digital asset management, loanable laptops or mobile devices. All these functions depend on library systems which, if functioning properly, go unnoticed day-to-day. Modern librarianship could not exist without library systems.

With such a foundational role in the everyday running of libraries, it’s curious that there is such a lack of critical scrutiny directed towards these systems. Journal articles, conference presentations, and blog posts about systems librarianship tend to focus on practical projects and how-to guides. Discussions at library systems conferences tend to focus on how our systems will accommodate the latest trendy fad – linked data or Bibframe or RDF – and on the difficulties of negotiating with the corporate suppliers of library systems. There is much less discussion of the ethical issues surrounding managing computer systems, having control over so much of the library’s functioning, and having direct access to so much of the library’s data. There is little discussion of how a systems librarian should act to balance the best interests of their users, the library as a whole, and the requirements of social justice and decency.

I advocate an approach that Preater and I (2018) call ‘critical systems librarianship’. This approach is based in critical theory: a school of thought that originated with the thinkers of the Frankfurt School and applies a holistic approach to critiquing institutions and processes by recognising them as embedded within larger power structures in culture and society. Critical systems librarianship is about acknowledging power relations and structural inequalities within libraries, an awareness that we practice within the confines of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 2009), and an active approach to addressing social justice issues in our library systems work (Barron & Preater, 2018, p. 88). Following Caswell’s (2018, p.161) approach to critical pedagogy in archival studies, critical systems librarianship empowers practitioners to simultaneously critique, imagine, and act. That’s what I intend to do today starting with critiquing current practices for library systems.

2.0: critique

From the first automation of catalogues and library management, library systems have tended to be proprietary or closed-source software and they tend to be provided by library software vendors. These are specialist companies that libraries pay subscriptions to for them to provide and run the software. Increasingly, this isn’t a matter of the companies passing the software to libraries to install and run themselves but of software-as-a-service which involves the companies running the software on their own servers and allowing libraries to access it through web browsers.

If we look at library management system implementations in academic libraries in the UK, then we see the vast majority use proprietary systems with a huge chunk using a system that is only provided as a cloud-hosted platform: Ex Libris Alma (Breeding, 2018a).


Similarly for public libraries in the UK, we see huge use of proprietary systems provided by corporate vendors (Breeding, 2018b).


Among the biggest vendors in library systems are OCLC, Ebsco, SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces Inc., Ex Libris, and ProQuest (which owns Ex Libris).

Considering the power relations between entities is an important aspect of critical systems librarianship. The relationship between libraries and library systems vendors is built on imbalanced power relations. ‘Power’ is used in the sense of Foucault (1975/1991) who understood power not simply as direct physical violence or the threat of violence but as subtle methods of coercion and control that one party operates over another. In the West, the state reserves violence and the threat of violence only for exceptional cases: Western states generally maintain power through news propaganda and education, through surveillance and legislation, through control over capital, and through the bourgeois societal norms that the Surrealists were protesting against. We need to scrutinise these kinds of power relations between the library and its users and between libraries and library systems vendors. Only by doing this can we properly consider how to redress the balance of uneven power relations.

We’re well aware of scholarly publishers who exercise power over academic researchers. Library workers, tend to say the name “Elsevier”, for example, through gritted teeth. But there’s less discussion of the power that systems vendors operate over libraries as part of what Popowich (2018, p. 57) calls the “oppressive and parasitic library technology vendor ecosystem of today”. Library software vendors offer licenses for software as restrictive as those for scholarly publishing with contracts that include nondisclosure agreements on costs of the software, no ability to retrieve one’s own data, no ownership rights over any custom modifications that are made to the software. These restrictions form a monopolising practice as they restrict the ability of libraries to choose other systems or migrate to other systems. Rather than challenging these business practices, libraries are continuing to buy software licenses and support contracts from these companies to keep their libraries running.

As Galvan (2016) writes, “vendors now have so much power in libraries their products show up in our job descriptions, as though systems don’t migrate or change.” Galvan provides several examples of how software vendors exercise power over libraries and, in so doing, further their own commercial interests at the expense of the ethical interests of the library. Her examples give two major ways that suppliers exercise power: through systems design and through library staff labour and attitudes.

Using the example of Ex Libris Alma, Galvan demonstrates how system design constrains the practice of librarianship. Alma—and specifically Alma Analytics, the system’s reporting module—was consciously designed to present data and analytics based on what Ex Libris developers thought would be valuable for the library staff user rather than what the library staff user will actually find valuable. Similarly, Galvan argues that library discovery systems are designed to look like Google but to act like Amazon. These commercial discovery layers “[prioritize] the results from certain content over others. It’s in Ex Libris’ best interest to prioritize ProQuest databases, just like EDS prioritizes EBSCO products.”

Reidsma (2016) has also written about the bias in commercial library discovery layers. In his study of algorithmic bias in ProQuest’s Summon library discovery system, Reidsma discovered how not only would Summon present inappropriate Topic Explorer results to the user but it did so because Summon was designed to add Wikipedia to the Summon index rather than match against Wikipedia’s API. Through attempting to centralise control of their product, ProQuest compromised the quality of search results presented to the user. Reidsma’s study also suggests that the bias in the algorithm reflects the biases of wider society against marginalised communities: there are specific biases against women, the LGBT community, Islam, and mental illness. These systems are therefore complicit in the perpetuation of societal inequalities which reinscribe the privilege of those who control and exercise power. Simply put, the imbalanced power relations in systems librarianship reflect those of society.

The very structure of modern library systems and the software-as-a-service infrastructure is designed to consolidate the power of the vendors. Software-as-a-service or cloud-hosting is a software infrastructure in which, rather than providing software to install on a server under your control, a supplier runs the software for you on a remote server which you access over the internet. This is the model of much contemporary software offered at zero monetary cost, such as Google’s suite of products. Cloud computing comes with a “Faustian bargain” (Rogaway, 2015), relieving systems librarians of the need to maintain servers, install updates, and deal with technical issues themselves but also shifting control over those systems to the supplier.

In library systems, cloud-hosting often uses a multi-tenant architecture in which several versions of the same piece of software all run on the same server. This saves the supplier from running a server per customer and simplifies software development, testing, and change control. A multi-tenant server has the same structure as Bentham’s Panopticon: a prison in which the guards can see every prisoner but the prisoner cannot see the guards, cannot know when they are being monitored, and cannot see the other prisoners around them. On a multi-tenant server, the supplier can monitor everything that the customer does but the customer cannot see what the supplier does, what the supplier is monitoring, and which other customers share that server. The prisoner in the Panopticon must assume they are being monitored at all times and behave accordingly. In Doolin’s (1998) terms,

“the development of information systems to monitor and scrutinize particular organizational activities facilitates control by making individuals within an organization both calculable and calculating with respect to their own actions. This invokes the notion of an electronic panopticon, in which organizational participants are enlisted in their own control through their belief that they are subject to constant surveillance[.]”

Discussing the tendency in librarianship to view technology as value-less or politically neutral, Popowich writes:

“Our tendency to see technological change as something outside our professional and social relationships has made up primarily reactive, always trying to catch up, rather than critically interrogating technological change, which might allow us to regain some agency and control over that process.” (Popowich, 2018, p. 50)

As it stands, technological change is imposed on us because vendors have power over us. Vendors provide us with software updates or tell us that their roadmap is pushing us to their new piece of software or our old processes will no longer be supported following a software update. Over the past few years, as Ex Libris has phased out support of it’s old Aleph library management system (and even older Voyager library management system), the vast majority of old Aleph customers simply moved to Ex Libris’ successor product, Alma. Technological change was driven by the system and by the vendor, not by the libraries.

As libraries, we are given these updates by our software vendors and yet, far from addressing our long-standing and legitimate criticisms of the old software, the new software tends to only introduce new issues and consolidate existing issues. Despite change being driven by the vendors and passively accepted by libraries on the understanding that new products will fix the problems with the old products, the products that they produce are not getting any better. In all these examples, the power relations are skewed in favour of the library systems suppliers. Ethical systems librarians want the best possible software to run our libraries and meet the needs of our users. Software companies want to produce the minimum viable product to maximise their profits. These two goals are fundamentally incompatible. “It is increasingly clear that our interests, as software-using humans, are diverging from the interests of software companies.” (Kriss, 2016) Regaining autonomy over systems is an ethical imperative for libraries because we cannot effectively fulfill the needs of our users or provide the best possible service while shackled to library systems that do not and cannot work for us.

3.0: imagine

3.1: openness

So what can we do to resist companies that exercise power over us? If art was the Surrealists’ medium for expression of dissent, what medium is available for libraries and information providers? I want to discuss openness as a core ethical component of librarianship and a route to this resistance. Fundamentally, libraries provide information: in the traditional view of librarians as gatekeepers, libraries open information to the world providing access to all. In practice, libraries strive to open themselves to all who meet their criteria for users and open information as far as possible within the parameters of copyright law and the restrictions imposed by commercial organisations. Librarianship is about providing information as a public good. This is enshrined in Cilip’s Code of Professional Practice (2012) in clauses D.1. and D.2 with reference to the public good and promoting equitable access to information. The American Library Association’s Core Values are even stronger saying that:

“[a]ll information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users […] [L]ibraries are an essential public good and are fundamental institutions in democratic societies”  (ALA Council, 2004).

Implied here is the view of information as a commons: a publicly shared resource held in common by the public. Information has distinct ontological characteristics that distinguish it from commodities like wheat or PlayStation 4s. Information can be shared without losing or damaging the original object, information can be transferred with the need of exchange of capital. If I give you my PlayStation 4, then I no longer have my PlayStation 4. Whereas if I give you the fundamental insights of Marxist economic theory, I do not thereby lose those insights myself. Information does not belong to anyone: it belongs to everyone.

“[S]cholarly information and knowledge, primarily articulated through scholarly communications, is inherently a commons.” (Lawson, Sanders, & Smith, 2015)

Neoliberal capitalism, on the other hand, views information as any other commodity to be bought or sold. Neoliberalism pushes against the view of information of commons through applying copyright law to information and by restricting access to information. Companies like publishing companies can create silos of information which require payment and subscriptions to access. Social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn commodify the personal data of their users and sell that personal data to advertisers who can use it to create personalised advertisements.

“Private companies generate profits from the commodification of personal data, collecting and selling in return for using “free” services (Richards, 2013). The rapid commercialisation of the internet from 1995 onwards was crucial in consolidating the notion that information is a commodity (Lyon, 2015). Increasingly our personal data has become a commodity for large corporations to derive profit.” (Clark, 2016)

3.2: open licensing

The commodification of information is part of neoliberalism: a monolithic political and economic system. Like the Surrealists, we can resist this in small ways. Open licensing is one way to achieve the theoretical ideal of openness in practice by applying rules to information that aren’t the default rules of copyright. In ethics, we talk about openness in the abstract but ‘open’ also has a precise definition and this definition is given by open licensing. A license is a document that specifies what can and cannot be done with a work or piece of content. It precisely outlines the permissions and restrictions on that content. So an open license is a license which grants permission for people other than the content-creator to access, use, re-use, or redistribute a work with few or no restrictions. For either a work or a license to be open, they must meet the conditions of the Open Definition 2.1 (Open Knowledge International).

There’s been a surge in library support of open licensing of documents and in particular scholarly research over the past few years. Higher Education libraries in the UK have encouraged their institutions’ researchers to publish their scholarly research under open licenses in order to avoid giving control or copyright over to predatory publishing companies. You may be familiar with the Creative Commons series of licenses which can apply to text documents, audio, images, video, etc. If you’re publishing, then you should be publishing using an open-access license.

Open-source licenses are licenses that apply to source code for software. Software is made of source code: underlying computer code that determines how software works. Like Creative Commons licenses, open-source licenses specify what can and cannot be done with source code. They usually specify various permissions around distribution, access, attribution, editing the code, and redistributing derivations of the code. An open-source license is one that complies with the Open Source Definition provided by the Open Source Initiative (2007). Some functionally similar open-source licenses include the Apache License 2.0, the GNU General Public License version 3.0, the MIT License, the Mozilla Public License 2.0 and the self-explanatory WTFPL (Do What The Fuck You Want To Public License). It’s worth noting that the Open Source Initiative does not endorse the use of the last license for licensing source code because it’s basically the same as releasing the code to the public domain (Open Source Initiative, 2009).

Open-source software that you may know includes Mozilla Firefox, Linux operating systems, MySQL, Android operating systems. This is in contrast to proprietary software products like Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop, iTunes, Apple’s operating systems.

I want to emphasise a couple of things: open-source software has nothing to do with the cost of that software. Proprietary software can be free like Google Chrome or MarcEdit and open-source software can be paid for. Open-source software also has nothing to do with who distributes a piece of software. A large company can release open-source software, a community of coders can release open-source software, a lone developer can release open-source software. Microsoft, one of the biggest tech companies in the world, recently released a version of Visual Studio called Visual Studio Code as open-source. Red Hat is a huge software company that sells open-source software and has built its business on it.

In terms of library systems, there are many mature open-source products which represent viable alternatives to closed-source systems. Koha, Evergreen, Invenio, and the upcoming Folio are all viable library management systems; VuFind and Blacklight are catalogue and discovery systems; EPrints and DSpace are institutional repository programs; SobekCM is a digital asset management system.

3.3: adoption of open-access

Over the past decade, libraries have widely adopted and advocated for open licensing of scholarly research. Higher Education libraries in the UK have built up open-access teams and members of staff specifically to facilitate publishing research outputs under open licensing and encourage researchers to avoid giving control or copyright over to publishing companies. Library workers publish their own research outputs in open-access journals and deposit post-print versions of book chapters and articles in institutional repositories. We’ve also seen large-scale resistance to particularly egregious restrictive publishing companies like Elsevier.

But this drive for openness in libraries has been piecemeal. Rather than embedding openness throughout library processes, libraries have developed separate teams and roles to deal with open-access and research data management. The adoption of an open ethos is confined to the area of scholarly publishing and research output rather than interrogating other, more traditional, library processes like acquisitions, cataloguing, and systems.

This is partly because, certainly in UK Higher Education libraries, the approach to open access was driven by external pressure from outside librarianship. Our practice was driven by the requirements of the REF and the TEF and enforcing institutional compliance with open licensing as part of those mandates. As Lawson (2018) explained in their recent talk for RLUK, the UK Coalition Government pushed for the REF and advocated for openness in government and public sector organisations as a means to allow private capital to exploit public resources. The OA ecosystem consequently looks very similar to the subscription ecosystem it was supposed to replace (Earney, 2018). Rather than adopting openness because of internal critique and a drive for ethical practice or social justice, we adopted openness specifically in the area of scholarly publishing and we did this because we were told to.

This explains why, despite having the same ethical basis – the open sharing of information – open-access licensing has taken off in libraries and open-source licensing has not. Given this shared ethical basis, it’s unsurprising that open-source systems have been used to enable open-access in libraries with systems like EPrints, DSpace, and Open Journal Systems all widely used and with new systems like Janeway continuing to be developed. But adoption of open-source in other areas of the library has been scant. We’ve failed to scrutinise the licensing of our library systems software because there’s been no external pressure driving us to do so.

3.4: openwashing

Library systems vendors, however, have taken advantage of our stated ethics of openness. Capitalism deals with threats by co-opting them, diluting their message, and presenting them back in a more palatable form. We see this with Surrealist film during the 20th Century. As I explained, Surrealism is an inherently political art movement: it is a subversion of status quo norms and a reaction to the injustices of capitalism. Norris (2007) discusses how, after the first Surrealist films appeared, American animation studios co-opted the imagery of Surrealism for their cartoons, diluting the images and robbing them of their political context. The Fleischer brothers used Surrealist images in the dreamy atmosphere of the Betty Boop cartoons and, at Warner Brothers, Robert Clampett adopted Surrealist tropes in his depiction of dreamworlds in Porky Pig cartoons.


We also see the mainstream co-opting Surrealist imagery in the films of Alfred Hitchcock particularly his 1945 film, Spellbound, to which Salvador Dalí contributed designs.


In the American animations and Hitchcock’s mainstream thrillers, Surrealism is adopted as an aesthetic rather than a spirit and robbed of its emotive power to shock audiences and say something revolutionary against capitalism.

In the same way, library systems vendors co-opt the language of openness and dilute it of its power to challenge capital. Many library systems make a virtue in their marketing materials of being ‘open’, ‘breaking down silos’, or ‘empowering libraries’ in order to appeal to libraries’ principles of openness. But these claims are, in many cases, openwashing: claiming openness while actually distributing proprietary or closed software (Watters, 2012).

Innovative Interfaces Inc., for example, call their vision for libraries the “Open Library Experience (OLX)” (Innovative, 2016a) and say that “With Sierra [their library services platform product], the library is OPEN.” (Innovative, 2016b). Sierra is not an open-source licensed product and Innovative’s documentation on its products is not open-access. These terms are used to mislead. These products are not open in any meaningful sense of the term. We need to be wary of vendors co-opting our language and our professional ethics to sell their products and dilute our ethics’ revolutionary power.

3.5: advantages of open-source

I’ve been discussing the advantages of open licensing and open-source library systems throughout this piece. Those advantages have been based on ideas of ethical practice, social justice, and explicitly resisting neoliberalism. But I’m aware that we operate within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Ethical and social justice advantages are not enough to make the case for open-source systems to management. Those kinds of arguments are not politically acceptable or sufficiently within capitalism’s preferred discourse of ‘rationality’. The Surrealists placed their artwork outside the sphere of rationality and logic precisely because capitalism uses the discourse of Western rationality to justify itself and to restrict the bounds of acceptable thought. Within neoliberal structures, we don’t have the luxury of using ethics to justify our decisions. So I want to briefly adopt the language of neoliberalism to think about some advantages to open-source library systems that are based in practicality and efficiency. In the words of Adrienne Rich (1971):

“knowledge of the oppressor
this is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you”

3.5.1: reliability

When the bourgeoisie failed to understand Surrealism, they labelled it impossible to understand, too obtuse, too intellectual. When neoliberal capital resists openness and open licensing, it represents it as unreliable or inefficient. Open-source systems are often unfairly represented as the products of hackers tinkering in their basements and then releasing the code on to the Deep Web. While it’s true that open-source software can be less convenient to implement in some ways than proprietary software, it’s simply untrue that it’s unreliable. Open-source software is among the most widely used and most reliable software in the world: the Apache HTTP server serves approximately 46% of all active websites and 43% of the top one million websites in the world (Netcraft, 2016); MySQL is a central component of the LAMP stack and used as part of the backend for websites and services like Google (Claburn, 2007), Facebook (Callaghan, 2010), Twitter (Cole, 2011), and YouTube (Oracle); the Android operating system has been the best-selling smartphone operating system since 2011.

Open-source software is also more reliable in terms of security and data privacy. “In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades. Public security is always more secure than proprietary security. It’s true for cryptographic algorithms, security protocols, and security source code. For us, open source isn’t just a business model; it’s smart engineering practice.” (Schneier, 1999) Because the code is open, it means more people and a wider range of people can scrutinise it for security flaws. So holes tend to be found and patched more quickly than with proprietary software. If Ex Libris Alma has a security flaw, for example, then we wouldn’t even know it existed until Ex Libris’ developers discovered it and chose to tell us.

3.5.2: customisability

Proprietary software tends to be limited in the extent to which systems librarians can customise it. Logos, colours, and terminology can be customised but for substantive page designs, adding new pages, or adding bespoke new features, the systems are too locked down. So we end up with homogenous systems design like library catalogue and discovery systems which, for UK HEI libraries, all tend to look alike. Open-source software is, by its nature, more customisable. Because you can edit the code, you can heavily customise the HTML for display, you can write new bespoke features, and you can change the way that processes work to suit your users. Every library is unique: they have unique holdings, unique metadata, and unique users. A search solution that works for one library may not work for another. I believe that libraries should embrace their diversity and build systems that reflect that diversity. The only way to achieve that is with systems that aren’t controlled by library systems vendors.

3.5.3: extensibility and interoperability

Full access to the database of open-source software provides many more opportunities for extending and integrating the software. It’s a lot easier to get data out of a system that you can fully access than software where you are restricted by a vendor. At Soas Library, we use OLE, an open-source library management system built by a community of librarians and developers. We have full access to the underlying MySQL database which means that at any time, I can retrieve any piece of data from the system that I want from patron fines details to full Marc records. Open-source also makes it easy to send full data like bibliographic data to other libraries or to union catalogues: we can build scripts to export full Marc files in a variety of formats knowing that the system isn’t leaving any data behind as tends to happen with exports from closed-source library systems.

3.5.4: cost

I won’t overemphasise the cost benefits of open-source because it comes with huge caveats. If resources are allocated to the right places, then open-source can be cheaper than closed-source. Open-source tends not to have the extortionate license fee costs that proprietary software has and, since maintenance and development can be done in-house, you can also avoid support costs. If you work with one of the many companies who cloud-host open-source library systems, you can avoid paying for your own server and network infrastructure. However there can be initial resource outlay involved in building up a team of technical staff with the skills and knowledge to work on open-source or contracting a development team to do this work for you. You could potentially spend more up-front on open-source than you would on equivalent proprietary software. The difference is that after the initial cost investment in staff or infrastructure for open-source, those resources can be reused at low-cost to expand your systems and develop existing systems.

3.6: disadvantages of open-source

Open-source software isn’t perfect. There are very strong ethical and practical advantages to open-source as I’ve discussed but there are some practical disadvantages to open-source that mean it isn’t always suitable for an organisation particularly an organisation unable or unwilling to commit resources to initial deployment.

3.6.1: complexity

I tend to frame the difference between open-source and closed-source as a matter of control vs. convenience. When you use open-source, you have control over the system: you’re able to customise it, build new features on top of it, access your full data. But it can be less convenient to install and deploy. With some products, you don’t have support from a vendor. Instead you’re relying on the good faith of a community of users and developers.

3.6.2: toxic masculinity

From a social justice perspective, open-source development communities have been subject to criticism for their cultures of toxic masculinity and deference to white cisgender male leaders at the expense of gender and race equality. Jacob Appelbaum, a developer for the Tor Project, resigned from the project in 2016 following accusations of widespread sexual misconduct (Blue, 2016). Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement and several foundational pieces of open-source software, has been accused of misogyny and sympathy for child abusers (Geek Feminism Wiki). In its deference towards the authority of white men, the open-source community reproduces and perpetuates the social inequalities of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

3.6.3: distribution of labour

Distribution of labour. There are also concerns about the distribution of labor in open-source development. In their study of commits to code repositories for Apache projects, Chełkowski et al. (2016) found inequalities in the distribution of labor with a very small minority of developers producing the majority of commits with a similar power law distribution to other online communities. They argue the claimed benefits of collaboration in open-source development are over-emphasised. Similarly, in relation to open educational resources, Neary and Winn (2012, p. 409) argue that uncritically praising openness and the information commons can erode recognition of the labor involved in the production of open resources (or open-source software): “[t]he reification of ‘the commons’ as a site of non-scarce, replicable and accessible educational resources is to mistake the freedom of things for the freedom of labor.” The valuing of unpaid labor in open-source development also contributes to the inequality issues discussed above: people in marginalised communities tend to have less free time and social capital to expend on unpaid contributions to projects (Dryden, 2013). This contributes to a lack of diversity in open-source development.

4.0: act

We’ve discussed the ethics of open-source software and open-access licensing in libraries. We’ve discussed some practical advantages and some disadvantages. What can you do in your practice to support and promote open-source software in libraries?

Talk to your technical staff. Involve your systems teams in procurement processes and development decisions. Being a senior manager or a director does not make you an expert on systems and what will work for your library. Talk to your systems experts and your subject matter experts and get their opinions. If there are complaints about your existing library systems, don’t dismiss them. Don’t just assume that people are having a moan. Take them seriously and look at what software can overcome those issues.

Use open-source software. Even if you’re not replacing your library systems, you can use and support open-source software in place of proprietary software that you may already be using (Barron, 2016). Get over your fear of unfamiliar software. In my experience, open-source versions of popular software often work better than proprietary market leaders.

Read the contracts or licenses for your existing library systems. Or ask your senior management team about them. Interrogate anything that seems off or that seems to give the vendor too much power. Think about how much access the vendor has to your data. Ask your users if they’re aware that a company has that much access to their data.

Talk to others about open-source. Start the conversation in libraries. If someone is a supporter of open-licensing in publishing, ask them if they support open-licensing in software. If you’re a member of Cilip, push them to take a stance on open-source in libraries. As far as I’m aware, Cilip have no guidance on ethical procurement of library systems or best practices in systems librarianship.

5.0: systems of revolt

Open-licensing is not a panacea to openness in libraries or to resisting the commodification of information (Lawson, 2018). Open-access and open-source won’t fix our broken libraries, won’t bring in more revenue for libraries, won’t stop monopolistic library systems vendors or predatory publishers.

But open-licensing is a small way to resist the encroachment of neoliberalism and its commodification of information. It’s a small way to say, “Yes, I want to share this. I want the world to see this.” It’s a way to share and give that knowledge to someone else. Like Surrealism, it’s a small way to effect political change and a way to express ourselves in the way that we want to express ourselves against an increasingly commodified and capitalist society. The Surrealists resisted using art and cinema and artistic expression. We can resist using licensing, control over our own systems, and a spirit of openness.


6.0: references

L’age d’or, 1930. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Paris: Vicomte de Noailles.

ALA Council, 2004. ‘Core Values of Librarianship’. Accessed 2018-03-21 at

Barron, S., 2016. ‘11 open-source alternatives’, undaimonia. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Barron, S. and Preater, A. J., 2018. ‘Critical Systems Librarianship.’ in: Nicholson, K. J. and Seale, M., eds., 2018. The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, pp. 87-113.

Blue, V., 2016. ‘“But he does good work.”’ Medium. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Breeding M., 2018a. ‘Market share report: Academic Libraries in United Kingdom’, Library technology guides. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Breeding M., 2018b. ‘Market share report: Public Libraries in United Kingdom’, Library technology guides. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Callaghan, M., 2010. ‘MySQL at Facebook’, presentation delivered on 2010-04-13 at O’Reilly MySQL Conference & Expo 2010 in Santa Clara, USA. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Caswell, M., 2018. ‘Envisioning a Critical Archival Pedagogy.’ in: Nicholson, K. J. and Seale, M., eds., 2018. The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, pp. 159-166.

Chełkowski, T., Gloor, P., and Jemielniak, D., 2016. ‘Inequalities in Open Source Software Development: Analysis of Contributor’s Commits in Apache Software Foundation Projects’, PLoS ONE, 11(4): e0152976.

Un chien Andalou, 1929. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Paris: Les Grands Films Classiques.

Cilip, 2012. ‘Code of Professional Practice’. Accessed 2018-03-21 at

Claburn, T., 2007. ‘Google Releases Improved MySQL Code’, InformationWeek. Archived on 2012-11-16. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Clark, I., 2016. ‘The digital divide in the post-Snowden era.’ Journal of radical librarianship, 2,

Cole, J., 2011. ‘Big and Small Data at @Twitter’, presentation delivered on 2011-04-14 at O’Reilly MySQL Conference & Expo 2011 in Santa Clara, USA. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Doolin, B., 1998. ‘Information technology as disciplinary technology: being critical in interpretive research on information systems’, Journal of information technology, 13: 301-311.

Dryden, A., 2013. ‘The ethics of unpaid labor and the OSS community’, Ashe Dryden, Accessed 2018-03-26 at

Earney, L., 2018. ‘National license negotiations advancing the OA transition: a view from Sweden and the UK’, presentation delivered on 2018-04-09 at UKSG 41st Annual Conference and Exhibition in Glasgow, UK.

Foucault, M., 1975/1991. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Translated from French by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Galvan, A., 2016. ‘Architecture of Authority,’ Angela fixes things. Accessed 2018-03-23 at

Geek Feminism Wiki. ‘Richard Stallman’, Geek Feminism Wiki. Accessed 2018-04-21 at

hooks, b., 2009. Reel to real: race, class and sex at the movies. New York City: Routledge.

Innovative Interfaces Inc., 2016a. ‘The Open Library Experience’, Innovative Interfaces Inc.. Accessed 2017-01-21 at

Innovative Interfaces Inc., 2016b. ‘Sierra’, Innovative Interfaces Inc.. Accessed 2017-01-21 at

Kriss, J., 2016. ‘Anti-capitalist human scale software (and why it matters)’, Medium. Accessed 2017-01-13 at

Lawson, S., 2018. ‘An ethics of care: what kind of open access do we want?’, presentation delivered on 2018-03-16 at RLUK Conference 2018 in London, UK

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., & Smith, L., 2015. ‘Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism’, Journal of librarianship and scholarly communication, 3(1): eP1182,

Možnosti dialogu, 1982. Directed by Jan Švankmajer. Prague: Krátký Film Praha.

Neary, M., and Winn, J., 2012. ‘Open education: Common(s), commonism and the new common wealth’, Ephemera, 12(4), pp. 404-422.

Netcraft, 2016. ‘July 2016 Web Server Survey’, Netcraft. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Norris, V., 2007. ‘’Interior Logic’: The Appropriate and Incorporation of Popular Surrealism into Classical American Animation’ in: Harper, G. and Stone, R., eds., 2007. The unsilvered screen: Surrealism on film. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 72-89.

Open Knowledge International. ‘Open Definition 2.1’, Open Definition. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Open Source Initiative, 2007. ‘The Open Source Definition’, Open Source Initiative. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Open Source Initiative, 2009. ‘OSI Board Meeting Minutes, Wednesday, March 4, 2009’, Open Source Initiative. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Oracle. ‘MySQL Customer: YouTube’, MySQL. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Popowich, S., 2018. ‘“Ruthless Criticism of All that Exists”: Marxism, Technology, and Library Work’ in: Nicholson, K. J. and Seale, M., eds., 2018. The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, pp. 39-66.

Reidsma, M., 2016. ‘Algorithmic Bias in Library Discovery Systems’, Matthew Reidsma. Accessed 2018-03-23 at

Rich, A., 1971. ‘The Burning of Paper Instead of Children’ in: Rich, A., 1971. The will to change: poems 1968-1970. London: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 15-18.

Rogaway, P., 2015. ‘The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work’, paper delivered on 2015-12-02 at Asiacrypt 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. Accessed 2018-04-12 at

Schneier, B., 1999. ‘Crypto-Gram’, Schneier on security. Accessed 2018-03-26 at

Sélavy, V., 2018. ‘The beginnings of Surrealist cinema’, lecture delivered on 2018-03-05 at Close-Up Film Centre in London, UK.

Spellbound, 1945. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Selznick International Pictures, Vanguard Films.

Watters, A., 2012. ‘Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.’ Tweet published 2012-03-26,

how white is your UX practice?: inclusion and diversity in critical UX research

This is the edited script of a presentation given by Karine Larose and Simon Barron at UXLibsIII conference in Glasgow, UK on 2017-06-06. It has been edited to incorporate the accompanying presentation into the text and to insert additional detail and quotes. Thanks to the organisers for selecting our paper and allowing us to present.

Addendum (2018-03-06): This text was written up and published as a book chapter in the User Experience in Libraries Yearbook 2017 edited by Andy Priestner. The full text of the book chapter is available at It is © Karine Larose and Simon Barron and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).

1.0: introduction

During summer 2016, Imperial College London’s Library Information Systems team ran user experience research into the information-seeking behaviour of undergraduate and postgraduate students focusing on the use of the library catalogue and discovery interface. We gathered some really interesting findings which are helping to inform the design of our library catalogue. Our results are available in reports at and (licensed as CC-BY 4.0) but today we want to talk about what we did wrong, the limitations of our methodology, and the impacts of that on our approach to inclusion and diversity in our UX work and our view of wider UX research in libraries.

Our research methodology used semi-structured interviews and comparative think-aloud exercises underpinned by elements of the grounded theory approach to data heavily influenced by Kathy Charmaz’s (2014) methodology outlined in her book, Constructing Grounded Theory. Grounded theory is a methodology for data collection and analysis: “Stated simply, grounded theory methods consist of systematic, yet flexible guidelines for collecting and analyzing qualitative data to construct theories from the data themselves. Thus researchers construct a theory ‘grounded’ in their data.” (Charmaz, 2014: 1) Grounded theory is simply a set of systematic but flexible guidelines for collecting and analysing qualitative data from UX research. The method keeps the researcher close to the data by stripping away their assumptions, their preconceptions, and other baggage that researchers bring to the data. In theory, it therefore produces findings which are truly grounded in the data rather than in the preconceptions of the researchers.

Our published reports are therefore only half the story: the ‘objective’ acceptable face of the story. The other half is the personal half. The grounded theory methodology for data analysis helped us acknowledge some of our unconscious biases and assumptions and during our analysis, we discovered problems with our approach to inclusion and diversity. More problems than we had space to adequately discuss in an evaluation section. We had failed to get a representative sample of our diverse student population, we hadn’t tried to attract or make accommodations for users with disabilities, and, at times, we hadn’t treated the research with the ethical responsibility that it deserved.

So our personal evaluation extended beyond the published evaluation. And we couldn’t evaluate our own UX work without evaluating the larger context within which it took place: a specific organisation working to a specific paradigm of library UX work with a specific library UX community taking place within a society of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We also needed to think intersectionally about various reasons for prejudice against users: although focused on disability, we couldn’t think about disability without also thinking about how it connects to gender prejudice, class prejudice, racial prejudice.

Critically reflecting on our experiences in context with our personal experiences and the environment in which we operate has been useful when evaluating our UX research. Fook (2007) describes critical reflection as the “ongoing scrutiny of practice based on identifying the assumptions underlying it.” We are hoping that this will transform our practice as UX researchers and create positive change. In our view, the desire to create positive change following critical reflection requires a willingness to make a conscious efforts, a readiness to challenge, and the courage to stand your ground when encountering resistance.

As well as using our critical reflection and evaluation of our own research to talk about improving our UX practice, this paper takes something of an autoethnographic approach (Ellis et al., 2010) describing the experiences of Karine Larose, a woman of colour with a disability, conducting UX research. The beginning of our process of change started with her traumatic experiences working in the library profession and in her UX research practice, recovering from her traumatic experiences, and taking conscious actions to lead on change.

2.0: background

Imperial College London is usually described as an international university. We have students studying at Imperial who come from all over the world. In general, the number of international students exceeds the number of British students. This table shows the diversity of undergraduates and postgraduates at Imperial College London: we’ve deliberately removed the numbers of students of each nationality because numbers shouldn’t matter when it comes to diversity but each one has more than 250 students for 2017-2018.

Country Language/s
UK English
China Chinese
France French
Malaysia Malay, Malaysian, English
Italy Italian
Singapore Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, English
Germany German
Spain Spanish
Greece Greek
India Hindi, English

There are also lots of students with disabilities at Imperial: both visible and invisible disabilities. When conducting user experience research and designing both spaces and systems, we think that using concepts from the social model of disability can have a positive impact. The social model of disability sees ‘disability’ as socially constructed (Scope, 2017). Many of the problems that people experience that we associate with ‘disability’ are actually created by the social environment around them. “In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.” (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, 1975)

Andrews (2016: 111) is an example of a user with autism experiencing a “sensory assault” in one library: “I can smell the café, which is serving food and coffee. I can smell the toilets, which are disgusting. I can hear a thick wall of noise that buzzes around my head and makes me feel woozy. The lights are harsh.” By contrast, in another library which has eliminated all those things, they function perfectly well. In one environment, they were ‘disabled’; in another, they weren’t.

By focusing on the environment rather than the user, the social model brings new thinking and opens the path for positive transformations. We want to design library services which allow all users to fully use them and feel fully included. The social model shifts the focus from ‘integration’ – making specific adjustments for individual students – to ‘inclusion’ – anticipating and accommodating a range of possible needs (Belger & Chelin, 2013: 8). Using the background of the social model of disability, you can make your user experience research more inclusive and make the outcomes more favourable to a wider variety of library users. This benefits not only the disabled but also the non-disabled.

3.0: diversity in UX research

“UX is for everyone, not just those who are deemed to be the majority group. Everyone is entitled to a good user experience, and no user is ‘lesser’ than another.” (Andrews, 2016: 108). UX work, particularly quantitative UX work, often runs the risk of slipping into majority rule. For library systems suppliers, user experience research is often based on gathering the needs of users and averaging them out resulting in lowest-common-denominator systems that appeal to the greatest number of users. In library UX, we do this by modelling services and systems based on the reported experience of the majority of users. We “continue to design services for one majority group (e.g. ‘18-25-year-old students’) and treat other groups such as disabled users, part-time students, older users, non-native English speakers and so on as add-ons – the ‘non-traditional students’ or the ‘socially excluded’.” (Andrews, 2016: 114) If 20 undergraduates want a single search box and 10 researchers want an advanced search box, then we strip out the advanced search to meet the needs of the majority. We end up with library systems that meet the needs of a large number of white neurotypical non-disabled undergraduates but fail to address the needs of other categories of user.

There are lots of ways to take consideration of inclusion and diversity in your UX work. These are just a few.

3.1: recruitment

First, recruitment and selection. Do you feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person or other people from marginalised groups? Have you avoided talking to disabled people for fear of saying the wrong thing?

A library doing UX work needs a framework for how to recruit UX participants with consideration given as to how to attract participants from minority groups. Attracting diverse participants is the first step towards hearing their voices. It’s particularly important to consider the role of unconscious bias in selecting participants: generally we are unconsciously biased towards people who look like us. White people are more inclined to work, talk, and interact with people similar to them. White men are more likely to cite other white men or even themselves (King et al., 2016). At Imperial, the library staff are mostly white, neurotypical, and non-disabled and this generally leads to recruiting white, neurotypical, non-disabled users to participate in our UX research. For example, with the grabbing-students-who-happen-to-be-around method of recruitment, there is a high chance your unconscious bias is influencing who you pick. This way of recruiting users can be quick and easy but it creates an exclusive structure where your users from marginalised groups are at a disadvantage. Even if it doesn’t come from bad intent, we need to acknowledge the existence of our unconscious biases and how they affect what we do as UX researchers. We need to actively work on ways to eliminate them from our UX practice.

Sending emails or putting out social media messages is a better way to reach a diverse audience. Think about if your message is visible enough to underrepresented groups. Is the language used in the message inclusive? For the last UX research into library space at Imperial, Karine proposed we change the phrase “walk around the library” to something more inclusive like “explore around” or “tour around” to be more inclusive of wheelchair users. In your messages, be clear, concise, and outline exactly what is going to happen in the research process. Mention how the research will be accessible for users with disabilities including users with visual impairments, wheelchair users, and users with invisible disabilities. Our HR departments routinely do this in their recruitment processes so we can do it in our UX research processes.

Our recent UX project failed at recruitment primarily because we sent emails through only one channel: our Liaison Librarians team. We should have recruited through a range of channels rather than just the library and attempted to connect to the wider university community. Some good places to recruit through include the various departments of the university, the Students’ Union, the university’s Diversity & Inclusion Centre, and student newspapers.

3.2: research design

Second, research design. When we interview participants, we need to be mindful of factors like language barriers, accents, and other speech patterns that can inhibit understanding of one another.

As mentioned, most students at Imperial are international students and English is not their first language. Sometimes users whose first language is not English living for the first time in an English-speaking country rely on verbal and nonverbal cues to understand. Just because you understand your questions, it doesn’t mean your users do. The labour of ‘understanding’ should be on the researcher rather than the research participant. If the user has to strain themselves to understand you or the questions, then you’re doing wrong and your research is inaccessible.

‘Using silence’ is a popular technique in UX interviewing as well as coaching and job interviews. Lots of methods advocate using silence as a tool to allow users to reflect on questions to make informed replies. This says that you can use the awkwardness of silence to draw people out by making them respond to end the silence. However, silence can also be a sign of badly planned and non-inclusive research design.

Poorly-framed questions can also rely on jargon such as “Library Search” or “E-shelf”. These can be a barrier to understanding and will affect how users reply to your questions. Disabled users with learning difficulties with be particularly disadvantaged. Users with dyslexia, for example, might have problems with short term/working memory which makes it difficult for them to follow or remember instructions for an insights boards exercise with multiple axises representing different concepts and multiple colours of Post-it notes representing different meanings.

Some simple efforts like testing your questions and research design on diverse staff, printing your questions out in accessible fonts for participants, and asking about access requirements can make a difference. Based on the social model of disability, making changes to cater for the needs of your disabled users will also improve your UX research which benefits ALL users.

3.3: definitive actions

As well as these general tips, we want to share three actions that we are doing to improve our UX research and that you could find useful.

First, challenge non-inclusive UX research. Unchallenged processes create an exclusive environment. If you feel that is something is not right, you can say “no”. Saying no is scary especially if you have been undermined or called names in meetings before. It can be particularly scary if the UX meetings are mainly white men talking at you and undermining you.

Karine said “no” on our previous UX project when we were rushing data analysis and summarising complex results to create a report for senior management. She said no because she thought it was unethical. She wouldn’t put her name on rushed work. When she said “no” to Simon, he made the conscious effort of finding out why she said no and he took a side. It’s not easy but it helps to challenge a non-inclusive environment.

Second, when it comes to learning in UX, be your own leader. The UXLibs conference is a space to get inspired, to learn more about UX methods, to hear the experiences of UX practitioners, and share our practice with the UX community. What we get from UXLibs is valuable but also limited. We can’t rely on it to build our entire knowledge of user experience research.

It’s important for us to reinforce my knowledge and understanding of UX research independently, even within an organisation. Do not let someone else’s interpretations or understanding define your approach to UX research. Questioning and challenging other people’s interpretations helps with innovation and creates better UX. UX leaders need to encourage active learning in their teams and be open when being challenged.

When we did data analysis using elements of grounded theory, we had three coders and it took a lot of time but we each took the responsibility to read Charmaz’s (2014) work and discuss it together. We each challenged each other’s understanding of the data to stay as close as possible to “the voice of the users” (Charmaz, 2014).

Third, a UX inclusivity framework. This spring, Karine completed the Calibre disability leadership programme that gave me the confidence to explore her own disability and provided me with theoretical insights. It also gave her a practical guide to deal with disabling barriers in the workplace. As part of her personal project from this programme, she will be developing an inclusion framework which will ensure our UX research recognises the various needs of all our users. This will hopefully bring a positive change to the services we provide in the library.

4.0: diversity in UX community

Of course, diversity starts with the team doing the research. The staff working on UX need to have a good understanding and appreciation of diversity considerations or all of the practices we’ve outlined will just be lip service. It’s not enough to employ diverse staff and ask for their input in meetings if their input is just going to undermined. Personally we used to stay silent when hearing bad ideas in meeting hoping the bad ideas would crash and burn to the ground before getting applied but some bad ideas are resistant.

Managers and other workers need to keep their insecurities out of meetings, need to not undermine workers from marginalised groups, and give team members – especially marginalised team members – room to talk and contribute. We wish we had got to spend more time on focussing and reflecting of our UX practice instead of dealing with white men’s insecurities.

Working with people from different backgrounds needs to be encouraged as more than just affirmative action in LIS. We also need to acknowledge people’s differences and different backgrounds so that, for example, black workers in LIS are not forced to perform whiteness to fit in (Hathcock, 2015). This creates the space for different working styles, hearing and learning from a wider range of views. Ultimately diverse views from staff make for better decisions and better UX research.

Our UX research is also affected by the lack of diversity in the UX community and the wider LIS sector in general. The library systems domain in particular is already a very challenging place for marginalised groups and by ignoring those challenges for marginalised workers, we magnify those challenges and make marginalised groups invisible.

We love doing UX research but hate the inclusion challenges and the diversity gap. There simply aren’t enough visible people of diverse backgrounds in library UX. Karine has said “As a woman of colour with a disability, I know how hard it is to battle the diversity statistics all the way up to professional growth and positive change in an organisation.” White people are good at inventing concepts to justify their racism and finding excuses not to be inclusive. We hear leaders and professional bodies like Cilip (2015) saying we don’t have enough diversity or ‘we have a diversity problem’ and manufacturing data – mostly quantitative – to support them and illustrate the lack of diversity. But this is white people trying to justify the lack of diversity instead of taking concrete actions to include marginalised people in UX practice. When white people talk about the lack of diversity, it makes marginalised workers feel invisible. Black workers, minority workers, and disabled workers are only invisible if you make them invisible.

5.0: references

Andrews, P., 2016. ‘User Experience Beyond Ramps: The Invisible Problem and the Special Case’ in Priestner, A., and Borg, M., eds. User experience in libraries: applying ethnography and human-centred design. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 108-120.

Belger, J. & Chelin, J., 2013. ‘The inclusive library: an investigation into provision for students with dyslexia within a sample group of academic libraries in England and Wales’, Library and information research, 37(115), pp. 7-32.

Bonnici, L. J., Maata, S. L., & Wells, M. K., 2009. ‘US national accessibility survey: librarians serving patrons with disabilities’, New library world, 110(11/12), pp. 512-528.

Charmaz, K., 2014. Constructing grounded theory. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Cilip, 2015. ‘Landmark UK information workforce survey reveals ongoing gender pay gap’ Cilip: the library and information association. 24 November 2015 <>

Dermody, K. & Majekodunmi, N., 2011. ‘Online databases and the research experience for university students with print disabilities’, Library hi tech, 29(1), pp. 149-160.

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P., 2010. ‘Autoethnography: an overview’, Forum qualitative sozialforschung, 12(1), pp. 345-357.

Fook, J., 2007. ‘Reflective Practice and Critical Reflection’ in Lishman, J., ed. Handbook for practice learning in social work and social care, second edition: knowledge and theory. Basingstoke, Palgrave, pp. 363-375.

Hathcock, A., 2015. ‘White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS’, In the library with the lead pipe, 7 October 2015 <>

King, M., et al., 2016. ‘Men set their own cites high: Gender and self-citation across fields and over time’, arXiv, 30 June 2016 <>

Larose, K., et al., 2017. ‘Library Search UX report summer 2016’. Published 13 February 2017 <>

Scope, 2017. ‘What is the social model of disability?’, Scope <>

Stevenson, L., & Larose, K., 2017. ‘Library Search UX survey results 2016’. Published 13 February 2017 <>

Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, 1975. ‘Fundamental Principles of Disability’, discussion held on 22 November 1975 <>

Creating a registration form web application for library users

Imperial College Library’s Operational Plan for 2016-2017 included a project to replace a paper-based process for registering external users with a more modern approach. The User Services team approached Library Information Systems to work on a web-based form which would submit data directly to the library management system. Following a couple of months of development, we’re pleased to launch this registration form web application and pleased to make the code available as open-source licensed. The code is available from GitHub at (licensed under a GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3) License) and could be useful to other libraries looking to design a user registration form linking to Ex Libris Alma’s API.

At its core, this was a project to reduce manual processes which relied on humans and paper forms. Imperial College Library is available to certain groups of external users: these include Imperial College alumni, researchers from other HEIs and workplaces, researchers from HEIs registered with the Sconul Access Scheme, and users from certain NHS trusts. (1) Previously, User Services handled these external users by having individuals fill out a paper form when they entered the library and then checking and manually transferring the data from the form into the library management system, Ex Libris Alma. The user would then receive a card (or a temporary card) and enter the library. There were in fact several paper forms, colour-coded based on the type of user (or ‘User Group’ in Alma-parlance) and with each form asking for different data based on the requirements of that type of user. Given that all the data ended up in Alma, the interim steps of putting the data on paper and then manually transferring it were redundant. It seemed like a simple process to automate.

The User Services team outlined the following objectives for the project:

  • Launch an easy-to-use online registration form.
  • Include a validation step to ensure quality of metadata.
  • Achieve automated data entry from the form into Ex Libris Alma.
  • Reduce the time spent by User Services staff in administration processes.

Based on earlier investigation of the Ex Libris Alma API, we had determined that an automated process was possible. The ‘Create user’ function (documented on Ex Libris’ Developer Network here creates a user record in the Alma database based on a submitted XML object. We chose to create a HTML form into which a user could submit their data: the form would submit to a PHP script (2) which would clean up the data, create the required XML object, and then POST the XML to the Alma API.

Creating the HTML form submitting to PHP was relatively easy and was based upon the instructions and examples at These instructions contained some basic details on data validation using PHP and ensuring security of data. The Ex Libris Developer Network provide code samples for submitting to the specified Alma API function. They also provide samples of the XML for a user object at this schema is also used as the basis for the data feed between our Student Information System and Alma. So the spine of the application was built by assembling these separate chunks of code into a single file. The first prototype was a very basic HTML form which only contained those fields required to make a minimal user record in Alma.


During a few meetings and email exchanges, we unearthed the hidden complexity behind the seemingly simple manual process. As part of the process, Library Assistants assigned each user a User Group (a field which determines the borrowing rights of a user) and various Statistical Categories (for internal statistics and the annual Sconul statistical return). In other words, a human would interpret the data on the paper form and assign the appropriate User Group by making several micro-decisions. For a human well-versed in the rules for access to the library, this assignment was almost instinctual. To translate this into a process that a computer could do automatically, we had to unpick every decision and map out how the parameters contributed to determine a single User Group per user and multiple Statistical Categories. NHS users presented the most complexity. For example, if a user is NHS staff from a core NHS trust and their contract ends in more than 8 weeks, then they are assigned the User Group ‘NHS’ and given a Statistical Category 3 note with their job title in it. However if they are NHS staff from a core trust and their contract ends in fewer than 8 weeks, their User Group is determined based on the hospital they are working at: ‘CXREF’ for those at Charing Cross Hospital, ‘HHREF’ for those at Hammersmith Hospital, etc.


Since the series of human decisions is based upon reason and logic, we knew that it was translatable into machine-readable terms. No matter how complex, all decision processes based on a rational and logical process can be automated. (3) Although seemingly complex when expressed in natural language, mapping it onto a diagram (see above) made it easier to conceive of the decision tree as translatable into a series of binary decisions.

We turned the human decision-making process into machine-readable PHP using a series of if-else statements. The decision tree for NHS users, expressed in the paragraph above, was translated into the following:

if ($_POST["nhs_status"] == "trust") {
    if ($_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"] == "OTHER") {
        $ucat1 = test_input($_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"]);
        $user_group = "MEDREF";
        $note1 = "Library staff: please check eligibility to join.";
    elseif($_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"] == "HILLINGNHS" || $_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"] == "RBHRB" || $_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"] == "WESTMIDNHS") {
        $ucat1 = test_input($_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"]);
        if ($campus_code == "CHELSEA") {
            $user_group = "CWREF";
        elseif($campus_code == "CHARINGX") {
            $user_group = "CXREF";
        elseif($campus_code == "HAMM") {
            $user_group = "HHREF";
        elseif($campus_code == "BROMPTON") {
            $user_group = "RBREF";
        elseif($campus_code == "ST_MARYS") {
            $user_group = "SMREF";
    } else {
        $ucat1 = test_input($_POST["ucat1_trust_NHS"]);
        if ($expiry_date > $eight_weeks_later) {
            $user_group = "NHS";
        } else {
            if ($campus_code == "CHELSEA") {
                $user_group = "CWREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "CHARINGX") {
                $user_group = "CXREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "HAMM") {
                $user_group = "HHREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "BROMPTON") {
                $user_group = "RBREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "ST_MARYS") {
                $user_group = "SMREF";
elseif($_POST["nhs_status"] == "placement") {
    if ($_POST["ucat1_placement_NHS"] == "OTHER") {
        $user_group = "MEDREF";
        $note1 = "Library staff: please check elibility to join.";
    } else {
        $ucat1 = test_input($_POST["ucat1_placement_NHS"]);
        if ($expiry_date > $eight_weeks_later) {
            if ($ucat3 == "STDMID" || $ucat3 == "STDNURS") {
                $user_group = "NHSPS";
            } else {
                if ($campus_code == "CHELSEA") {
                    $user_group = "CWLOCAL";
                elseif($campus_code == "CHARINGX") {
                    $user_group = "CXLOCAL";
                elseif($campus_code == "HAMM") {
                    $user_group = "HHLOCAL";
                elseif($campus_code == "BROMPTON") {
                    $user_group = "RBLOCAL";
                elseif($campus_code == "ST_MARYS") {
                    $user_group = "SMLOCAL";
        } else {
            if ($campus_code == "CHELSEA") {
                $user_group = "CWREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "CHARINGX") {
                $user_group = "CXREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "HAMM") {
                $user_group = "HHREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "BROMPTON") {
                $user_group = "RBREF";
            elseif($campus_code == "ST_MARYS") {
                $user_group = "SMREF";

The script incorporates several other decision trees for the other types of user to logically determine which User Group, Notes, and Statistical Category fields should be assigned based on the user’s answers.

One of the major design requirements was that the form should show only those fields relevant to the type of user filling it in. An NHS user sees a different form to a Sconul Access Scheme user. We wanted the form to dynamically hide and show fields based on the answer to the first question, ‘What category of user are you?’. As with most coding questions, this was answered by searching Stack Overflow: The form hides and displays HTML divs using JavaScript (specifically some functions from the jQuery library). This was intended to straightforwardly show different forms based on the answer to the first question but expanded as the underlying complexity of the process was revealed. The finished form uses a branched approach which presents several layers of divs to the user with different questions based on their previous answers. (4) There are distinct user experience advantages to this approach. The user only sees those fields specifically relevant to them and doesn’t see redundant fields. Presenting fields in which the user has to type ‘N/A’ is the kind of user experience that we sought to avoid.

Similar logic is used to handle the assembling of the XML that gets submitted to the Ex Libris Alma API. Certain fields in the XML will only be populated if the user takes a particular route through the form. For example, the ‘work address’ field is only filled in for certain NHS users. We therefore weren’t able to use one XML template which would cover all users. If any elements of an XML stanza were wrapping a blank field, then the Alma API would respond with a 401664 error, ‘Mandatory field is missing’. So the XML had to be constructed by the script based on which fields had been entered by the user. Again, we used a series of if statements to determine if there was no data present in a particular field and assign the variable a blank chunk of XML if that were the case; otherwise to fill the variable with valid XML. The XML is then assembled by the line:

# assemble XML from component parts
$xml=$corexml1 . $birthdatexml . $corexml2 . "" . "" . $addressxml . $addressnhsxml . "" . $emailxml . $phonexml . "" . $notesxml . "" . $ucat1xml . $ucat2xml . $ucat3xml . "" . "";

Data cleansing and validation is largely handled by a single function:

function test_input($data) {
    $data = trim($data);
    $data = stripslashes($data);
    $data = htmlspecialchars($data);
    return $data;

Every field inputted by the user is run through test_input to trim whitespace from the end, strip slashes, and remove special characters that would disrupt the script. Data validation is also handled in the HTML form itself through HTML5 validation of input fields. ‘input type=”email”‘, for example, will only accept text strings structured as valid email addresses. For the few fields required dates, we used a date-picker input type from the jQuery library: this not only improves the user experience by saving the user the time of entering a date manually but it ensures that dates are entered in the precise format that we need. (5)

Some extra functional requirements were added to the project at the last minute. First, the form must send a confirmation email to the email address provided and the message must be personalised based on their user group. This was achieved using the instructions at and setting up if conditions to select a $message string based on the user group field. Second, we found that the Windows server where we intended to host the live form threw an error when PHP’s cURL library was used. Although POSTing the XML via cURL worked perfectly on the Linux server used for development and testing, when moved to this Windows server, it failed. After liaising with ICT to debug this, we decided the path of least resistance was to rewrite the POST request to submit the XML via some means other than cURL. (6) Our live version of the form submits using:

$url = $almaurl.'/almaws/v1/users';
$queryParams = '?' . urlencode('apikey') . '=' . urlencode($apikey);
$fullurl = $url.$queryParams;
$stream_options = array(
    'http' => array(
        'method'  => 'POST',
        'header'  => 'Content-Type: application/xml' . "\r\n",
        'content' => $xml));
$context  = stream_context_create($stream_options);
$response = file_get_contents($fullurl, null, $context);

However the cURL request was the preferred option and is included in the GitHub version of the script commented out.

Karine Larose, Systems Librarian, led work on the styling of the form. With her experience of user experience research, Karine was well-placed to consider the user experience ramifications of the form’s design and style it appropriately. She considered a number of different styles that the form could use and liaised with the team’s Library Systems Developer. The finished form uses a Bootstrap style with some added CSS for jQueryUI stuff like the date picker. The colours chosen complement Imperial College’s house-style without being too intrusive.

This web application demonstrates how well-developed APIs make it possible to create new systems functions outside the confines of the library management system. This allows the library more freedom and autonomy in choosing our own functions to implement on our own timescale. It also allowed for more granular control over all elements of the design: as library systems workers, it was a relief to be asked “Can you change the wording of field x?” and to be able to reply “Yes, we can change it to anything you want.” Creating our own bespoke software allows us to create software that meets our unique needs better than any software we could purchase from a third-party company. This project and this piece of code demonstrates the value of moving away from the monolithic ‘one-stop-shop’ library system to a network of modular code maintained around central databases. Writing our own library software makes us free.


(1) Imperial College London Library Services provide library services to a number of teaching hospitals around south-west London. We have arrangements with these core NHS trusts (and peripheral trusts) to provide library access for their staff and students.


(2) PHP was chosen as the scripting language based purely on the team’s existing knowledge of it and not due to any sublime considerations about the elegance of PHP (c.f.


(3) Citation needed.


(4) Like a choose-your-own-adventure story. Which is a good way to think about the branching logic of coding in general. If the user is an Imperial College alumnus, then ask about their date of graduation ( / turn to page 379). If not, don’t ( / turn to page 19).


(5) British dd-mm-yy format with hyphens instead of slashes. It turns out that PHP assumes the US date format if the string contains slashes and assumes the British date format if the string contains hyphens. We had to locally modify the jQuery files to change from the US date format so whereas our live form points to local .js files on the local server, the version on GitHub contains links to hosted .js files.


(6) As mentioned earlier, Ex Libris helpfully provide code samples in various languages for how to submit POST requests directly to their API. Unhelpfully, the code samples for both ‘cURL’ and ‘PHP’ use cURL: they do not provide a sample of a pure PHP POST request. The answer, using file_get_contents to POST, was found at


existentialism and free and open-source software: an attempted synthesis

1.0: introduction

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is computer software that allows the user to view the underlying source code, edit the code, and share the code with others. It is ‘open’ in the sense that the source code is metaphorically open and available for all to see. But in what sense is FOSS ‘free’?

In this piece, I examine the ‘free’ in ‘free and open-source software’ and argue that FOSS aligns with the philosophy of existentialism in terms of several key themes. Both focus on the experience of freedom, value the autonomy of the individual, and encourage active choice to exert control. Using free and open-source software allows for existentialist engagement in one’s digital life.

2.0: freedom

Discussions of FOSS tend to refer to political freedom rather than personal freedom. Stallman’s (2002, p. 41) famous idiom uses the example of ‘free speech’ as opposed to ‘free beer’ to illustrate the distinction between free-as-liberty and free-as-lack-of-cost. A central argument used by FOSS advocates argues that software source code has the same status as speech and therefore should be protected as free speech (Salin, 1991; Coleman, 2009). These examples both refer to one specific kind of freedom: the freedom that is enshrined in rights; that is protected (or not) by states. This political sense of freedom can also be called ‘liberty’ and, though it is often treated as such, is not the only sense of the word ‘freedom’.

The distinction between two types of freedom – political freedom and personal freedom – is explained by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 lecture, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Berlin (1958) distinguished between positive liberty and negative liberty: roughly speaking, ‘freedom to…’ and ‘freedom from…’. Negative liberty (or political freedom) is freedom from constraints. It is being unrestrained by constraining factors or rules imposed by someone or something else usually a state, a corporation, or another individual. For example, if the state will not arrest a person for something that person says, then that person is said to have free speech. The kind of freedom they have in this case is negative liberty.

By contrast, positive liberty (or personal freedom) is the freedom to engage in action of one’s own volition: ‘[t]he freedom which consists in being one’s own master…’ (Berlin, 1958) It can be thought of as self-mastery or the autonomy to exercise one’s will. ‘The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.’ (Berlin, 1958)

Berlin (1958) notes that classical Western political philosophers tended to refer to negative liberty when they used the word ‘freedom’. Proponents of political philosophies like classical liberalism or libertarianism advocate freedom from constraints – whether imposed by the market or the state or other people. Locke, Mill, Constant, and Tocqueville, as examples, almost quantify the concept of freedom by thinking of it as measurable to the extent that one can count how many constraints one is free from. If one is unrestrained in 1. speech, 2. assembly with others, 3. owning a weapon, then one is free.

FOSS philosophy does refer to negative liberty / political freedom. Free and open-source software is, by definition, free from constraints on reading, editing, or sharing the code. FOSS licenses – such as the GNU General Public License, the Mozilla Public License, or the Apache License – are a way to enshrine these protections from constraints in a legal form to ensure that the state protects this freedom and that the market respects this freedom.

Less commented upon is the extent to which FOSS allows for positive liberty. I will discuss how FOSS philosophy exemplifies this sense of freedom with reference to the 20th century philosophy of existentialism. This requires a brief interlude summarising existentialism and drawing out some of the philosophy’s foundational values.

3.0: existentialism

It would be reductive to say that existentialism is concerned only with freedom in the sense of positive liberty. Existentialism’s conception of freedom is complex, nuanced, and intimately tied to the somewhat-metaphysical philosophy of phenomenology. But existentialist freedom and positive liberty do have similarities: both emphasise ‘freedom to…’; both focus on self-mastery and autonomy; both are primarily concerned with the individual’s experience of freedom. In the introduction to her book on existentialism, Bakewell (2016, p. 33) distinguishes between political freedom and personal freedom making the point that talking about personal freedom should involve talking about existentialism: ‘We find ourselves surveilled and managed to an extraordinary degree, farmed for our personal data, fed consumer goods but discouraged from speaking our minds or doing anything too disruptive in the world, and regularly reminded that racial, sexual, religious and ideological conflict are not closed cases at all. Perhaps we are ready to talk about freedom again — and talking about it politically also means talking about it in our personal lives.’

Existentialism emerged in Europe, primarily France, in the 1930s to 1940s. For a while, the philosophy became very fashionable and, as well as being propounded by philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir, was incorporated into the novels and plays of writers like Albert Camus (1), Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard. Existentialism was most fully elaborated by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 work, L’Être et le néant (translated as Being and Nothingness), and best summarised by Sartre in his 1946 lecture, L’existentialisme est un humanisme (usually translated as Existentialism and Humanism). In this lecture, he explained that existentialism is a philosophy of freedom and autonomy; of activity and responsibility; of anguish, abandonment, and despair. And all of this makes it a philosophy of action and hope.

Although not a metaphysical philosophy, existentialism stems from the metaphysical premiss that ‘existence precedes essence’. Sartre (1973) referred to existentialism as ‘an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position‘. Before Sartre, Nietzsche (1974, §125) said that ‘God is dead‘. With no god, humans have no predefined essence – no blueprint for ourselves and no guidelines for our behaviour. There is no divine law to determine what humanity should do. There is no authority to tell humanity what to do. We are on our own in the world. We are abandoned. Existentialism draws out the full consequences of this position.

‘What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.’ (Sartre, 1973) We are therefore free to define ourselves, to act however we choose, and to make our own path through the world. No-one can, in moral terms, decide for us or tell us how to behave. Existentialism can be thought of as an articulation of the alleged final words of Hassan-i Sabbāh (حسن صباح), founder of the medieval Islamic sect, the Hashshashin: ‘Nothing is true—everything is permitted.’ (Bouthoul, 1936) The idea is also found in The Brothers Karamazov when the character Rakitin summarises Ivan Karamazov’s belief that ‘if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful.’ (Dostoyevsky, 1997)

‘Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom.’ (Sartre, 1973)

Everything is lawful. Everything is permitted. This is an articulation of absolute freedom and autonomy. For existentialism, the absolute freedom of the individual is the starting point. Premised on an atheistic position and the individual’s phenomenological experience of being, it builds a philosophy of freedom and action.

In Sartrean existentialism, freedom causes anguish. Acknowledging absolute freedom means knowing and accepting that every aspect of your life – every choice you make – is yours alone and is your responsibility. With every single decision, you choose the person you want to be. More than that, with every choice you make, you are implicitly deciding what you think every other person would and should do in your position. ‘The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it.’ (Sartre, 1973) As Bakewell (2016, p. 159) summarises, ‘Sartre argues that freedom terrifies us, yet we cannot escape it, because we are it.’

The emotional reactions of abandonment, anguish, and despair are an essential part of being: they are an essential part of the phenomenological experience of being a free individual acknowledging one’s own freedom. Despite the centrality of anguish, abandonment, and despair, existentialism is an optimistic philosophy. The moral emphasis in Sartrean existentialism is on taking action, being in control of your freedom, and accepting responsibility for the impact of your actions upon the world. There are no excuses for your actions: you cannot blame the gods, society, or other people for how you choose to act. Your choices are entirely your own. Sartre (1973) explained this doctrine of action in contrast to ‘quietism of despair’: ‘[q]uietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot do.” The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds, “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.”’

‘Bad faith’ is the term that Sartre (2003) uses for denying absolute freedom and making excuses for one’s actions. Acting according to some predefined moral code which you did not yourself define is bad faith. Acting as you believe others want you to act rather than how you want to act is bad faith. Pretending that you have no choice in how you act is bad faith.

This isn’t to say that Sartre denies the context of how we are situated within the world. We are to some extent always constrained by our ‘situation’ – our assigned identity at birth; our biological drives and imperatives; our socioeconomic status; the society around us. Sartre refers to these elements as our facticity (den Dulk, 2015). His point is not that we are literally free and unconstrained to do anything: rather, that we should not deny the freedom that we do have, whether through excuses or inaction. We possess personal freedom only within the constraints imposed by political freedom. (2) Perhaps the most important aspect of existentialist values – which can never be constrained by political freedom – is defining the meaning of your own life and choosing to interpret your experience however you choose. “Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.” (Sartre, 1973)

At its heart, existentialism is a philosophy about how to live and act in the world. It emphasises acting upon the world, taking control of life, and embracing autonomy. For the founding existentialists, ‘life’ referred to navigating the physical world. They did not anticipate the extent to which the affluent Westerner now lives partially in a digital world alongside the physical world. ‘Very few existentialists (or anyone else) foresaw the role computer technology would come to play in our lives, although in his 1954 book Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, the German author Friedrich Heinemann warned that the coming “ultra-rapid computing machine” would raise a “truly existential question”, namely that of how human beings could remain free.’ (Bakewell, 2016, p. 333) The digital world is a relatively new phenomenological part of life for modern humans: computation has been established as a ‘ground of being’ alongside biological organism and possessive individualism (Giles, 2007, p. 239). Interactions-with-computers and computer-mediated-interactions-with-other-humans are now part of one’s experience and should be scrutinised by existentialism in the same way as physical human-to-human interactions. How can one be autonomous when so much of the phenomenological experience of the digital world is prescribed by the platforms that sustain it and circumscribe it? How can one exercise control when specific tools are required to access the digital world? How can one be free in the digital world?

4.0: FOSS and existentialism

I argue that free and open-source software is existentialist. FOSS requires and encourages existentialist engagement with the digital world in the same way that action, choice, and authenticity require and encourage existentialist engagement with the physical world. FOSS is therefore a means of exercising freedom in the digital world and, I argue, it is the best means available for existential engagement with digital life.

To clarify, when I say that FOSS is existentialist, I refer to the philosophy and theory behind free and open-source software rather than the software itself. Software is philosophically and ethically inert. It is what people do with it, how people act with it, and how people feel towards it, that has philosophical and ethical weight. To say ‘FOSS is existentialist’ should be understood as equivalent to saying ‘the philosophy that lies behind FOSS – that governs its theoretical underpinnings, its development, its dissemination, and its usage – is an existentialist philosophy’.

The links between FOSS and existentialism are best articulated in terms of the broad themes shared by FOSS philosophy and existentialist philosophy: ‘the existentialists are linked by their commitment to the common themes of freedom, choice, authenticity, alienation, and rebellion’. (Marino, 2004, p. xiv) To this, following den Dulk (2015), I add ‘community’: a particularly important theme in Camus’ moral philosophy and in Sartre’s conception of the self.

4.1: freedom and choice

FOSS philosophy and existentialism share a value foundation. The moral root of both FOSS and existentialism is the supreme moral value of autonomy. FOSS philosophy has it that the software user is not free unless they have complete control over their software: in Doctorow’s (2010) pithy formulation, ‘…if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.’ The freedom to exercise complete control over an object (e.g. a piece of digital software) is a prerequisite for ownership of that object. FOSS source code is open for users to tinker with, break, fix, and build upon. Similarly, existentialism argues that the human is not free unless they accept – and exercise through free choice – their autonomous control over their own existence. The fundamental moral value that drives both FOSS and existentialism is the autonomy and freedom of the individual.

As well as the moral weight that both philosophies give to freedom and choice, the conceptions of those ideas are aligned. FOSS and existentialism both focus on freedom conceived as individual empowerment (positive liberty) rather than mere lack of constraints (traditional liberalism’s negative liberty). Both philosophies emphasise ‘action’ as a key component of freedom and choice. ‘Freedom’ means taking definitive action.

One of the major foundational definitions of free and open-source software is Stallman’s (2002, p. 41) Free Software Definition which outlines four freedoms required for software to be defined as FOSS.

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)

The four freedoms are framed using the words ‘freedom to…’. Note the similarity with Berlin’s original conception of positive liberty. Words like “study” (freedom 1) and “distribute” (freedom 3) imply action taken under one’s own volition with a view towards self-mastery. Stallman’s definitional freedoms all imply action made under free choice and doing what you want to do with software as an autonomous individual.

The user of FOSS is meant to be empowered in the same way as the person living under existentialist principles. FOSS empowers users by encouraging tinkering and, through open design, guiding users to develop their skills by customising software to their unique specifications. The emphasis on self-improvement through action and autonomy shows that the ‘free’ in FOSS is related to positive liberty and personal freedom.

By contrast, closed-source software represents the relinquishing of autonomy and free choice. Closed-source software – software with ‘closed’ source code which can neither be edited nor shared – traditionally require support relationships with vendors. Since the user is unable to adjust the software themselves, they must rely on the support of the software vendor (or a third-party support organisation) to fix bugs and develop new features. Updates and patches also arrive from the vendor when and if they develop and release them. The closed-source user allows the vendor (or others) to make decisions for them and in so doing gives away their control and their ability to make meaningful choices that can be acted upon. The closed-source user willingly gives away their control and autonomy for the sake of convenience.

Existentialism would have it that the user who cedes control over their life – their digital life – is living in bad faith. Particularly the user who does so because they claim to have ‘no choice’ but to use closed-source software. In Sartre’s (2003, p. 82) explication of bad faith, he uses the example of a waiter who acts like a waiter because he feels it is all he can be. Similarly, the software user who treats closed-source software as the ‘default’, who uses it because they feel they have to do so, is failing to acknowledge their complete freedom. In these examples, the waiter and the closed-source user both deny the anguish, abandonment, and despair of freedom and therefore relinquish the capacity most valued by existentialism and FOSS: their autonomy.

The bad faith of the closed-source user demonstrates by contrast the supreme moral value that FOSS, like existentialism, places on autonomy. FOSS and existentialism are linked by the moral weight they place on autonomy and their conception of freedom as positive freedom.

4.2: authenticity

Both FOSS and existentialism value authenticity of experience. Bakewell (2016, pp. 326-327) discusses how contemporary Westerners’ striving towards authenticity is existentialist in character: ‘existentialist ideas and attitudes have embedded themselves so deeply into modern culture that we hardly think of them as existentialist at all. People (at least in relatively prosperous countries where more urgent needs don’t intervene) talk about anxiety, dishonesty and the fear of commitment. They worry about being in bad faith, even if they don’t use that term. They feel overwhelmed by the excess of consumer choice while also feeling less in control than ever… The unnamed object of desire here is authenticity.’

4.2.1: authenticity in ethics

This yearning for authenticity is existentialist. We desire to exercise our free choice and make sincere decisions rather than wallowing in endless irony, unending self-reflection, and moral relativism. Den Dulk’s (2012) writing on Kierkegaardian existentialist engagement in the literary work of David Foster Wallace and other ‘New Sincerity’ authors articulates this striving towards authenticity and its relationship with existentialism. (3) The ethical attitude expressed in Wallace’s work ‘does not mean simply ignoring the difficulties of contemporary Western existence, such as excessive self-reflection and irony, but living (and writing) with these aspects and finding meaning nonetheless.’ (den Dulk, 2012, p. 342) The idea of finding our own meaning in life through sincere engagement and authenticity is inherently existentialist.

Similarly, FOSS values sincere engagement and authentic moral values. The user of FOSS is encouraged to engage with the software: to figure out how they might want to change it, to upskill themselves to use it effectively and to develop it, and to engage with a user community to actively change the software for the better (more on community engagement in Section 4.3.1). The structure, design, and philosophy of the software all lead the user to real and genuine investment: through self-development via upskilling technical skills and through community connection. Den Dulk (2015, p. 267) argues for a specific kind of literature as ‘aimed at realizing… an engaged consciousness.’ This is also partially the aim of FOSS: to foster engaged consciousness in a human interacting with a computer.

In this way, FOSS also values expression of sincere moral values and ethical engagement. Given the often steep learning curve involved in using FOSS as an alternative to more convenient closed-source software, a primary motivation in using FOSS is often the genuine ethics espoused by the free and open-source software movement. Ease-of-use and user-experience improvement are often not the main reasons that users choose to use FOSS. Rather, it’s the software’s genuine commitment to moral values: openness and honesty; community; (positive) liberty; autonomy. In a culture suffused with irony and fashionable insincerity, FOSS is honest, open, and sincere: its raison d’être is the ethical drive to share information and work with others.

By contrast, closed-source software vendors often appropriate language such as ‘open’, ‘open data’, ‘fully customisable’, and ‘flexible’ for their marketing knowing that these terms will appeal to their customer base. The software however does not and cannot achieve those ideals: the closed nature of the software will always prevent the user from exercising the control necessary for it to be open in a meaningful sense of the word. Watters (2012) calls this ‘openwashing’: ‘having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.’ The website recommends that ‘[w]hen you see an individual, organization, or company claim that their software is “open,” check to see if their software is licensed under an OSI [Open Source Initiative] approved license. If it is not, they are openwashing.’ Particularly for closed-source software produced by corporate, profit-producing entities, appropriation of ethical language for marketing purposes is cynical exploitation of moral values rather than expression of sincerely held moral values.

4.2.2: authenticity in experience

FOSS also values authenticity in the phenomenological experience of human interaction-with-computers. Computation is irreducibly complex: part of the function of modern computer technology is to hide this complexity from the user through slick graphic user interfaces (GUIs). More so than closed-source software, FOSS offers the opportunity to peek behind GUIs and experience the more complex command-line tools and source code that govern the workings of the computer program.

As a specific example, compare the phenomenological experiences of using a Linux OS against using a Microsoft Windows OS. Whereas a Windows OS can be entirely GUI-based, the new user of a Linux OS finds that it requires use of the command-line terminal and at least some appreciation of the underlying structure of the system architecture. Even a simple command like ‘sudo yum update’ is an extremely direct way of telling the computer precisely what the user wants it to do. The corollary of this authentic directness (and the absolute freedom and control mentioned in Section 4.1) is that the user is free to input, for example, ‘sudo rm -rf /’ which the computer will interpret literally and wipe the entire hard disk without asking for confirmation. A Windows OS, by contrast, deliberately obscures its underlying structure from the user and, when the user does want to change something, usually prompts several ‘Are you sure?’-type pop-up dialogs to babysit the user through the experience. Interaction with the computer is mediated by the GUI and by the inbuilt warnings of the system. The user is held at a remove from command and is not encouraged to think about how the system works. They are thus not encouraged to broaden their skill-set through engagement.

The reduced mediation in the user experience of FOSS and the willingness to reveal the irreducible complexity of computation results in a more authentic experience of interaction-with-computers.

4.3: community and rebellion

4.3.1: community engagement

It is a misconception that existentialism is a nihilistic and narrowly individualistic philosophy. Though the proto-existentialists, such as Nietzsche and Stirner, did emphasise the liberty of the individual and the focus on the self, later existentialists emphasised the importance of engagement with community and with others as an essential component of the phenomenological conception of the self and of exercising existentialist freedom through communal action. Like the later Wittgenstein, Sartre (2003) explicitly rejects solipsistic conceptions of the Ego and argues that the ‘I’ is irrevocably tied to its relations with the world and with other consciousnesses. ‘Existentialism is often seen as a school of thought that directs all its attention to the individual, isolating him. This is a misconception, however, especially with regard to Camus, who emphasizes the importance of community as a means of bringing an end to loneliness and meaninglessness.’ (den Dulk, 2015, p. 17)

An emphasis on community relations is also present in FOSS philosophy. Free and open-source software lives and dies on its community. FOSS projects are community-based by its nature: sharing code, swapping best practices, communicating about new developments and ideas, actively engaging with each other to drive forward large-scale changes in software development. Coleman (2009; 2012) has written extensively on community relationships in FOSS particularly the community about the Linux operating system, Debian. The absence of authoritarian control structures in FOSS means that even the basic user of a piece of open-source software may come to rely on a community. A huge part of using FOSS is appealing to the community for help: whether searching the web for an error message in the software and coming across a Stack Exchange forum conversation about the issue or reaching out to a mailing list to ask for more information on a feature. Every piece of FOSS is built upon a community of developers, volunteers, online forum contributors, and social media users.

Closed-source software, with its emphasis on the individual ‘customer’ and the cold disconnection of the transactional power relations involved in closed-source, is more solipsistic and individual. Rather than interacting with other users to fix problems and develop the software, issues are instead sent up a hierarchy: from the user to the software developer; from the community to the individual (or team of individuals).

FOSS’ engagement with a community – breaking out of the solipsism of the Ego – is existentialist in nature. ‘The sincere self attains substance, meaning (becomes a stable self), by connecting consciousness, through choices and actions, to the world, and thus to others. So, the development of the self is partly a transcending of one’s own consciousness towards the other.’ (den Dulk, 2015, p. 239) Engaging with other people (in this case through software development and use) is key to connecting one’s consciousness with others and therefore living meaningfully and ethically. The community focus of FOSS helps the user exercise focus and awareness of other people and their lives thus forging meaningful links between people in a community of practice.

4.3.2: engagement through rebellion

Community leads to rebellion. The drive towards rebellion is fundamentally existentialist since it involves elements of autonomy, free choice, and community. Rebellion is most prominent as an existentialist theme in the work of Albert Camus. In Camus’ formulation, “because the world lacks the meaning that the individual expects of it, the individual rebels to demand meaning, and in this rebellion becomes aware of his connection to the other.” (den Dulk, 2015, pp. 229-230) Rebellion links to authenticity and the feeling of sincere moral feelings: the act of rebellion emerges as the expression of ‘the sudden, dazzling perception that there is something in man with which he can identify himself… Therefore he is acting in the name of certain values.’ (Camus, 1991, p. 14, 16)

In the spirit of existentialist rebellion, FOSS represents an active choice to rebel against the ‘default’ software used by individuals and organisations. A user of Linux on the desktop makes a choice to break away from the hegemony of Microsoft Windows or Apple’s MacOS. The FOSS user rebels against closed-source models that keep their digital life in chains and traps them in walled gardens and vendor-mandated support relationships. By offering an alternative to for-profit commercial software from corporate organisations, community-driven FOSS rebels against dominant neoliberal paradigms in software and in wider society.

FOSS can also serve as a rebellion against oppression. (4) Open-source technology is particularly used to protect one’s freedom in terms of online security and encrypted storage and communication. ‘In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades. Public security is always more secure than proprietary security. It’s true for cryptographic algorithms, security protocols, and security source code. For us, open source isn’t just a business model; it’s smart engineering practice.’ (Schneier, 1999) Installing an open-source email client – like Mozilla Thunderbird – at work in place of the IT department’s recommended but inflexible client – usually closed-source Microsoft Outlook – is a minor act of rebellion that serves to assert one’s freedom. But using this email client to enable PGP encryption at work in order to protect communications from the employer or the state is an act of rebellion with political ramifications. Using a bootable Tails OS drive at work or at home to secure all aspects of digital life is an act of rebellion against state and corporate surveillance. This use of FOSS can enable monumental acts of community engagement and political rebellion as in the case of Edward Snowden who used FOSS software like Tails, Tor Browser, and GnuPG to reveal the mass surveillance programs of the US Government and other states. (Finley, 2014)

Using FOSS to encrypt communications and use computers securely allows one to exercise existentialist rebellion against parties that would seek to limit the (negative) freedom of the individual. This proactive protection of digital negative freedoms using FOSS is a way to exercise positive freedom and autonomy.

5.0: conclusion

In this piece I have argued that free and open-source software is fundamentally existentialist. Like existentialism, the philosophy behind FOSS places a high value on personal freedom and autonomy; conceives of freedom as predicated on the idea of action and empowerment; values authenticity in experience of computer interaction and sincerity in engagement with moral values; encourages engagement with a community to produce meaningful interactions and societal change; and provokes rebellion – existential and political – against the neoliberal status quo.

Engagement with the digital is a relatively new phenomenological sphere for humans and how to ‘live’ in a digital world existentially has not been widely considered. As I have argued, FOSS encourages and enables existentialist engagement in digital life. It encourages meaningful connections with software and the community of users and authentic interaction-with-computers. Using FOSS means acknowledging and respecting your own freedom by making an active and autonomous choice to exercise control over computers and hence digital life. The ‘free’ in ‘free and open-source software’ is existentialist freedom.

6.0: endnotes

(1) Though Camus explicitly rejected the ‘existentialist’ label.


(2) This is a good point to distinguish between existentialist values and traditional liberal values. As mentioned in the body of the text, liberalism is a political philosophy focused on political freedom whereas existentialism focuses on the phenomenological (and, arguably, psychological) experience of personal freedom. Classical liberalism has traditionally failed to appreciate Berlin’s distinction and failed to recognise other conceptions of freedom apart from political freedom / negative liberty. The classical liberalism espoused by Mill, Hume, and Rawls among others is focused on a narrow definition of freedom as negative liberty experienced by the affluent white man. Existentialism, by contrast, focuses on personal freedom / positive liberty. However this conception has canonically also been dominated by white men like Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and later fiction writers like Wallace and Palahniuk. But existentialism has also been used as the basis for diverse theorising of lived experiences other than those of white men: see Beauvoir’s (1988) existentialist conception of women’s experience or Fanon’s (2001) existentialist conception of the colonial native’s experience. It’s also possible to draw a line from existentialist philosophy to Foucauldian poststructuralism and hence to critical theory which emphasises the diversity of lived experience and explicitly sets out to broaden intellectual discourse beyond dominant identities and paradigms.


(3) In his more recent work, den Dulk (2015) refers to ‘sincerity’ rather than ‘authenticity’ and, through a close reading of Sartre, sets out a case for sincerity as the more valid existentialist attitude.


(4) Camus’ conception of rebellion is overtly political whereas existential engagement can be described as a more mild form of rebellion “urging individuals from reflective confinement in the self, towards connection with others.” (den Dulk, 2015, p. 230f) (4a)

(4a) There are interesting parallels between the early existentialists’ affinity for communism and FOSS’ links with left-wing political ideologies from anarchism to socialism. Such an analysis of politics related to existential engagement in FOSS is beyond the scope of this paper.


7.0: references

Bakewell, S., 2016. At the existentialist café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails. London: Chatto & Windus.

Beauvoir, S., 1988. The second sex. Translated from French by H. M. Parshley. London: Pan Books.

Berlin, I., 1958. “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Berlin, I., 1969. Four essays on liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bouthoul, B., 1936. Le grand maître des Assassins. Paris: A. Colin.

Camus, A., 1991. The rebel: an essay on man in revolt. Translated from French by Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage Books.

Coleman, G., 2009. ‘Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers’, Cultural anthropology, 24 (3), pp. 420-454,

Coleman, E. G., 2012. Coding freedom: the ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Oxford: Princeton University Press,

Dulk, A., 2012. ‘Beyond Endless “Aesthetic” Irony: A Comparison of the Irony Critique of Søren Kierkegaard and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest’, Studies in the novel, 44 (3), pp. 324-345,

Dulk, A., 2015. Existentialist engagement in Wallace, Eggers and Foer: a philosophical analysis of contemporary American literature. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Doctorow, C., 2010. ‘Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)’, Boing Boing, published 2010-04-02 <

Dostoyevsky, F., 1997. The brothers Karamazov. Translated from Russian by Richard Pevear. London: Random House Ltd.

Fanon, F., 2001. The wretched of the earth. Translated from French by Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Finley, K., 2014. ‘Out in the Open: Inside the Operating System Edward Snowden Used to Evade the NSA’, Wired, published 2014-04-14 <

Giles, P., 2007. ‘Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace’, Twentieth Century literature, 53 (3), pp. 327-344.

Heinemann, F., 1958. Existentialism and the modern predicament. London, A. & C. Black.

Marino, G., 2004. ‘Introduction’ in Marino, G., ed., 2004. Basic writings of existentialism. New York: The Modern Library, pp. ix-xvi.

Nietzsche, F., 1974. The gay science. Translated from German by Walter Kaufmann. London: Random House Ltd.

Salin, P., 1991. ‘Freedom of Speech in Software’. Published 1991-07-15 <>

Sartre, J., 1973. Existentialism and humanism. Translated from French by Philip Mairet. London: Metheun <>

Sartre, J., 2003. Being and nothingness. Translated from French by Hazel E. Barnes. Oxon: Routledge Classics.

Schneier, B., 1999. Crypto-Gram online newsletter, published 1999-09-15 <>

Stallman, R., 2002. Free software free society: selected essays of Richard M. Stallman. Boston, MA: GNU Press.

Watters, A., 2012. ‘Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.’ Tweet published 2012-03-26 <>

rebel, rebel: an outsider’s approach to management

This text is the edited script of a talk I gave to UCLDIS students on 2016-01-19 as part of the INSTG020 Management module of the course. It has been edited to incorporate the accompanying presentation into the text, to insert endnote addendums, and to give it a more prose-y feel. (1) Thanks to Katharine Schopflin for asking me to speak and to UCLDIS students for being a supportive audience.

Rebel rebel, how could they know?

Bowie, D., 1974. ‘Rebel Rebel’ from Diamond Dogs.

Being a manager was never a particular aim of my career. ‘Manager’ was not the job title of my ideal job and reaching that point was never a career goal by which I could feel like I had ‘made it’. Perhaps I saw myself skirting the outskirts of management: an outsider with responsibilities but not responsibilities for people. Until my latest job, management responsibilities came to me almost by accident – to fill in for someone or to pick up their responsibilities temporarily. It wasn’t something I actively sought out.

The concept of management is tied to complex issues of power relations, embedded hierarchies, the innate conservatism of the capitalist workforce, imbalanced societal structures. For me, the management layer of libraries represents the upper class, the bourgeoisie, the conservative old-guard keeping plucky junior librarians from doing exciting and radical new things. Managers represent ‘The Man’.

I didn’t want to be The Man. I wanted to be the plucky outsider defining themselves by their opposition to The Man: Woody Guthrie, the Rebel Alliance, Katniss Everdeen, or David Bowie. I wanted to be like Bowie: the outsider, the rebel, on the outskirts of the mainstream. A unique artist who did his own thing with no pressing desire to become part of the establishment. The visionary who could try radical new approaches and somehow never become part of the old-guard. (2)

This post is about how a self-defined outsider got into management, the peculiar struggles I experience, and how I deal with those challenges.

For year and years I roamed /
I gazed a gazeless stare…

Bowie, D., 1970. ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ from The Man Who Sold the World.

I’ve worked in a range of libraries across the UK. My current role is Library Systems Manager at Imperial College London. Given my lack of interest in management and the fact that ‘manager’ is right there in the job title, I gave a lot of thought to applying for and subsequently accepting the job.

Working in library systems, our team looks after library-specific systems and hardware. It’s an area of librarianship with a tech focus and it often straddles the boundary between library and IT work. Library systems work often involves discussions with IT departments defining which responsibilities belong to which department. For example, do library systems maintain servers or do IT? Do library systems set up desktop PCs for new employees or do IT? Which team looks after the 3M self-service machines?

In my previous role implementing Kuali OLE at SOAS Library, I’d crossed the line betwixt library and IT. As Analyst Programmer (Library Systems), I worked in CSBS (Corporate Systems and Business Services): an IT team that supported software for various sections of the university including Finance, HR, etc. I worked almost entirely on a library-focused project but was definitively IT. I didn’t want to move any further in that direction.

Finding a new position in the relatively niche field of library systems in the relatively small profession of librarianship meant facing my fears and taking management responsibilities. David Bowie radically shifted musical direction again and again in his career to keep his work fresh. The pop sound of Let’s Dance is radically different to the almost classical Philip Glass-style minimalism of Low and different again from the avant-garde jazz sound of The Next Day and . I had to be willing to be like Bowie and to try something new in an unfamiliar direction to stretch myself.

My current job involves several areas of management: day-to-day systems management; project management of service enhancement projects; and person management responsibilities including direct line management. The line management is a new job role for me representing a skill I haven’t fully developed yet. Managing someone on a day-to-day operational basis was a new challenge that I didn’t feel I had the required skills for.

I turned myself to face me /
But I’ve never caught a glimpse /
Of how the others must see the faker…

Bowie, D., 1971. ‘Changes’ from Hunky Dory.

Although the people who interviewed me and offered the job clearly thought I had the skills, I thought that, like literally everything other aspect of my career, I’d just managed to fool them into thinking I was competent. My imposter syndrome was running wild. Surely this step towards management was too far? Surely I would crash and burn and be formally cast out of librarianship?

I believe my little soul has grown /
But I’m still so afraid /
Yeah, I’m still so afraid…

Bowie, D., 2002. ‘Afraid’ from Heathen.

To do the job, I had to address why I felt so scared of management and then formulate an approach. The foundation of my approach to management is critical reflection. (3) Critical reflection is a form of regulated self-awareness that involves thinking about yourself and your practices holistically in a way that takes in every aspect of yourself and extends beyond the workplace. It’s reflection tempered and informed by critical reading and theory.

Crucially it involves praxis: mixing together insight gained from practice (i.e. doing stuff at work or outside the workplace) with knowledge gained from theory and research (i.e. from LIS academia or critical theory or elsewhere) (Freire, 1996). The framework of critical reflection itself, although it has been applied to LIS by several researchers, comes from the fields of health work, social care, and management theory. Theoretical insights can also come from art and music. Reflecting on the work of artists like Bowie can inform your professional life. It doesn’t matter where you learn something that can help your work as long as you apply that theory to your practice.

…dredging the ocean /
Lost in my circle…

Bowie, D., 1976. ‘Station to Station’ from Station to Station.

I started the reflective process by interrogating why I felt nervous about being a manager. I dredged my thoughts and feelings to articulate what in my background and personality caused the emotional reaction of fear. This process produced two reasons: personal and political.

Personal reasons:

As an individual, I self-identify as not-good-with-people. Like many in the library and information profession, I would broadly identify as an introvert. (4) I lose mental energy in social situations and participating in activities like parties, sports, being in front of an audience. And I recharge mental energy by being on my own and participating in activities like quietly reading, playing video games, listening to Bowie. In a work context, this means I’m bad at negotiating, salesmanship, influencing people, and otherwise connecting with people. And I’m good at working with complex technical systems, spending hours programming or scripting, or writing for publication.

Hence working in library systems. Systems is a good career fit for me because my personality fits with the impersonality of computers. Software is fixed, objective, and has starkly delineated rules. If condition A occurs, then perform action B. The same appeal applies to the formal logic portion of my Philosophy degree. In his book on bureaucracy, David Graeber (2015, p. 152) explains the secret appeal of bureaucratic procedures:

“The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality. Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable, and – within certain parameters, at least – treat everyone more or less the same. And anyway, who really wants to live in a world where everything is soul? Bureaucracy holds out at least the possibility of dealing with other human beings in ways that do not demand either party has to engage in all those complex and exhausting forms of interpretive labor described in the first essay in this book…”

The same can apply to systems. Humans, by contrast, are complex and exhausting. Engaging with a person on a daily basis and managing them to ensure individual and team success can be exhausting.

Political reasons:

The return of the Thin White Duke /
Making sure white stays.

Bowie, D., 1976. ‘Station to Station’ from Station to Station.

As a cissexual, English-speaking, university-educated, white man, I am privileged. I embody a lot of groups that experience high levels of privilege in society. This privilege stems from the historical power relations that have structured human society. As a white man, my privilege comes from the fact that white men set up society so that they would be in charge: through the systemic oppression of women through patriarchy or thorough white colonialism of non-European peoples or through societal protection of a limited set of sexual norms and values. When I as a white man set myself up as a manager, I perpetuate existing social inequalities and an unfair hierarchical system.

It’s a particular problem for librarianship because, despite having a workforce predominantly made up of women, women do not proportionately occupy positions of management in librarianship. According to a recent workplace survey (Cilip, 2015), men are twice as likely to occupy senior management roles in libraries as women. Librarianship also has extremely low levels of ethnic and cultural diversity with 96.7% of LIS workers identifying as white. I have a problem with perpetuating this inequality and knowing that I do so through standing on the backs of less privileged individuals and groups.

On another political level, I have a dislike of hierarchies and the concept of hierarchical management. In anarcho-communist structure of organisation, individuals are on a horizontal level contributing equally to the organisation (or at least with ostensible equal power status). This kind of structure is used for collective decision making in various collectives like some Occupy movements and the Radical Librarians Collective.

Those oligarchs with foaming mouths come /
Now and then…

Bowie, D., 2016. ‘Dollar Days’ from .

This contrasts with the vertical structure of traditional management. A worker answers to a manager who answers to a senior manager who answers to an assistant director who answers to a director who answers to a university chancellor. I believe the vertical structure stifles creativity and innovation by taking a feeling of responsibility away from the individual. In such a structure, people feel that they can’t do new things without authorisation: that new initiatives should ‘come from the top’. It leads to a general feeling of powerlessness in the lower echelons of the structure and ultimately leads to corporate stagnation. Organisations become focused on managers and leaders to push things forward rather than individual workers equally contributing to organisational changes themselves. This doesn’t apply only to workplaces but to volunteer groups, political parties, etc.

The self-reflection part of critical reflection uncovered these issues. For a solution, I turned to the ‘theory’ part of praxis. Gardner (2014, p. 109) addresses three key aspects of supervision in the workplace:

“What is agreed about supervision is first that it is of value and second that there are three key aspects or functions of supervision (Kadushin, 1985; Proctor, 2008). The language used for these varies but they are essentially:


Management/accountability/qualitative: this is often seen as the quality control aspect of supervision that ensures a high quality of practice in line with organizational goals. It includes the practical nuts and bolts of supervision such as reviewing existing work, allocating new work, discussions about leave and other organizational requirements.


Supportive/restorative/resourcing: this is the enabling, encouraging, regenerating of trust so that it is possible to reflect more deeply on practice, to explore emotions, doubts, possibilities, to debrief. In this aspect of supervision, persona, professional, organizational and contextual issues can be explored, including the dynamic in supervision itself. This may also include broad questions like: How are you going overall? How are you feeling about work? How are you managing busyness/stress?


Educational/formative/developmental: there is also a teaching and learning aspect of supervision, provision of relevant knowledge, learning and/or practising new skills through demonstration or explanation.”

I found this to be a useful framework for thinking about management and sculpting an approach. Given my individual issues with engaging with people in the workplace, I identified myself as struggling with the second and third factors: supportive and educational.

‘Emotional labour’ was proposed as a concept by Arlie Hochschild (1983). It refers to the work of regulating one’s emotions to present a different emotional face to the one you actually feel. David Bowie showed different faces and personas to express the different facets of his work and the different directions of his music. We all contain multitudes and, throughout his career, Bowie expressed that by literally showing different faces. We’re less likely to be emotional at work than at home: the Thin White Duke at work (5) and Ziggy Stardust at home.

“This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others – in this case, the sense of being card for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.” (Hochschild, 1983, p. 7)

Regulating the emotional shifting of faces is the emotional labour of work. Hochschild originally used the term to refer primarily to the work involved in public-facing service jobs like flight attendants, restaurant staff, or retail workers: those workers who have to smile and keep a cool demeanor even when people are actively rude to them. The day-to-day regulation of emotions in an office environment is a less extreme form of emotional labour.

I’m happy, hope you’re happy too…

Bowie, D., 1980. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

For managers, emotional labour is involved in engaging with employees. Talking to someone directly about performance issues at work or sickness leave or a conflict with a co-worker takes emotional engagement. Managers need to deal with upset employees professionally, ensuring that the cause of emotions is dealt with, and ensuring that emotions are expressed appropriately in the workplace. Particularly with the supportive aspect of management, emotional labour is involved in ensuring that workers feel good about work, that they’re not upset at your decisions, and that they’re not undergoing stress or anxiety.

Learning this theory helped me identify my issue with the supportive aspect of management. I hadn’t previously considered emotional labour or thought about work involving emotional labour at all. My strengths are in cognitive skills systems management and problem solving and not in emotional skills like supporting someone or addressing their developmental needs. Applying lessons from this theory involved expending more mental energy than usual by turning on the emotional engagement part of my brain at work and taking the time to regulate my mental energy accordingly.

Fear is in your head /
Only in your head /
So forget your head /
And you’ll be free…

Bowie, D., 1971. ‘Fill Your Heart’ from Hunky Dory (written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams).

I deal with emotional engagement and support by treating it with a systems-esque approach. By quantifying mental energy and ensuring I have X amount of mental energy to do Y amount of emotional labour, during the day, I can face emotionally charged tasks at work.

This leads into the other personal problem I had with management: perpetuating social inequalities as a cis white man in a position of management. Patriarchy is a contributing factor in my lack of skills to engage emotionally in the workplace.

A society that devalues traditionally feminine skills such as basic management of feelings leaves men unequipped to deal with the realities of work. Men are encouraged not to develop those skills. Reading around issues of power relations (Foucault, 1991) and issues of gender in the workplace helped develop my awareness of the gendered character of management discourse.

“Management in conventional discourse is understood as various ways of attempting to exercise some directionality on, over or through the work of others (Daft, 1991; Hales, 1993; Watson, T., 1994). What is so often left out of conventional accounts of these relations is their gendered character. Managing invariably involves attempts to enable or disable particular gendered ways of being (identities, relations) and gendered ways of doing (activities of the body, ways of speaking).” (Prichard, 1996, p. 227)

Prichard (1996, p. 232) goes on to identify characteristic behaviours of men managers such as “displays of inflexibility, unwillingness to listen, unwillingness to allow others to talk, patronizing humour and derogatory remarks” which serve to perpetuate skewed power relations in the workplace.

You’ve got your mother in a whirl /
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…

Bowie, D., 1974. ‘Rebel Rebel’ from Diamond Dogs.

Bowie experimented with gender norms and traditional characteristics of men and women. He blurred the traditional lines between the performative roles of man and woman. In doing so, Bowie showed popular culture the arbitrariness of such distinctions (in a more accessible way than, for example, Butler (2006)).

For a man manager, eschewing the norms of patriarchy and developing traditionally feminine skills like emotional engagement and supportive management is a way to meet the supervisory needs of employees while reacting against the gender disparity in management.

It’s the terror of knowing /
What this world is about…

Queen & Bowie, D., 1982. ‘Under Pressure’ from Hot Space.

I am uncomfortable with asserting myself as a manager in the workplace while being an individual that enjoys so much privilege. But I think I should be uncomfortable with that. The terror of knowing how unequal the world is keeps me honest about my place in the structural inequalities of society and the problem of cultural diversity in the profession. Uncomfortableness – and indeed anger – with patriarchy helps inform my behaviour to bring about change in organisations with which I work.

This leads on to my political issues with management: reconciling working in a hierarchical structure with my personal beliefs about individual liberty and non-hierarchical decision making. While capitalism is still a thing, I know that organisations won’t be as free and democratic as I would like. (6) But, like the gendered character of management, I work for incremental improvements within my organisation or within my team.

And he was alright /
The band was all together…

Bowie, D., 1972. ‘Lady Stardust’ from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Knowing when to work with people is important. Bowie didn’t work alone: early on, he had the Spiders from Mars and later he was part of Tin Machine. In the best period of his career, his Berlin period from mid- to late-’70s, he worked extensively with Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti.

My way of dealing with political issues at work has been to rely on a support network of like-minded peers and colleagues. My professional network helps me rationalise these wider issues of management and put them into a context of striving towards social and political change. Having a group of people to talk about professional issues with is invaluable. This largely includes the Radical Librarians Collective and individual friends from the collective.

To frame it in terms of praxis: the network of people all do professional practice at work; they then come together to share developments in practice and to share theory; this goes on to inform their practice further. This continual cycle works because of the closeness of the group and their shared goals for individual (and political) development.

I never knew that /
That I could do that…

Bowie, D., 2013. ‘Where Are We Now?’ from The Next Day.

Learning about management has involved critical reflection on myself as a professional and challenging my assumptions about work, working culture, and society. Though I’m confident ‘doing’ management, I need to continue reading theory and applying it to my work. Lessons can come from anywhere – from management textbooks or history or literature or a support network of peers or from an artist whose work has meant a lot to you. The crucial act is applying it to yourself. Lessons are all around us: we just have to see them.


(1) To be uncomfortably open and honest, I’m not sure it works as a prose piece at all. The style of my presentation scripts is very different to the style of my prose blog posts. The piece was structured to be presented rather than read and the central thesis conceptually works as a presentation piece but falls apart a bit under the close scrutiny of reading. Excuses aside, y’know, you don’t have to read it.



Something happened on the day he died…

Bowie, D., 2016. ‘Blackstar’ from .

David Bowie died on 2016-01-10 during the week or so I was writing this presentation. The visceral emotional reaction that I had to this news was… unexpected. He meant more to me than I was aware of. Writing this presentation and delivering it publicly was a kind of catharsis. (2a)

For better Bowie tribute pieces than this one, see:

Ward, J., 2016. ‘Just like that bluebird’ on James Ward: I like boring things published 2016-01-13

Lukowski, A., 2016. ‘Sorrow, or: why it’s okay to be upset at David Bowie’s death’ on Drowned in Sound published 2016-01-19–why-its-okay-to-be-upset-at-david-bowies-death

Ward, J., 2016. ‘Just go with me’ on James Ward: I like boring things published 2016-01-19

(2a) Apologies to UCLDIS students for using them as a means to engage with my grief for a public figure.


(3) The critically reflective approach is courtesy of my manager, Andrew Preater. He produced an excellent reading list for critical reflection with a focus on LIS here:


(4) …if I didn’t consider the introvert / extrovert distinction to be reductive and often used as an excuse for inaction and, in existentialist terms, “quietism” (Sartre, 1973).


(5) …without the implied fascism.



“Revolution and insurrection must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the state or society, and is accordingly a political or social act; the latter has indeed for its unavoidable consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from it but from men’s discontent with themselves, is not an armed rising, but a rising of individuals, a getting up, without regard to the arrangements that spring from it. The Revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on “institutions.” It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.” (Stirner, 2014, pp. 295-296)



Butler, J., 2006. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.

Cilip, 2015. ‘Landmark UK information workforce survey reveals ongoing gender pay gap’ on Cilip website, 2015-11-24

Foucault, M., 1991. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Translated from French by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Freire, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated from Portuguese by Myra Bergman Ramos. London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2015. The utopia of rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. London: Melville House Publishing.

Gardner, F., 2014. Being critically reflective: engaging in holistic practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hochschild, A. R., 1983. The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Prichard, C., 1996. ‘Managing Universities: Is It Men’s Work’ in Collinson, D. L., & Hearn, J., eds., Men as managers, managers as men: critical perspectives on men, masculinities and managements. London: Sage Publications, pp. 227-238.

Sartre, J., 1973. Existentialism and humanism. Translated from French by Philip Mairet. London: Methuen.

Stirner, M., 2014. The ego and his own: the case of the individual against authority. Translated from German by Steven T. Byington. London: Verso Books.

11 open-source alternatives

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is becoming more widely used in libraries as an alternative to proprietary software from commercial vendors. At their core, libraries and the open-source movement have the same ideological core: protecting freedom of information and the public commons. In other words, both libraries and open-source fight the commodification of information (Lawson et al., 2015). (1)

Using FOSS in your library doesn’t have to be led from the top down: rather than waiting for your library director, manager, or library systems team to implement some grand large-scale project, you can introduce it into your workplace on a small-scale by using open-source software on your desktop PC. As well as advocating for FOSS, using open-source alternatives can enhance your efficiency at work, improve your technical skills, better protect your privacy and security online, and give you more control over your computer.

This post provides eleven open-source alternatives to specific closed-source programs. All these programs have licenses that enable the sharing and reuse of their source code. Also all of these programs run on Microsoft Windows operating systems so if you’re not ready to install a full open-source operating system like Ubuntu or Debian on your home PC, you can still sneak open-source into Windows or Mac OS.

Most of these programs will require admin rights to install them so if you don’t have admin rights you might need to ask your IT team for temporary admin rights or ask them to install the software for you: all of these programs are safe and contain no malware, viruses, etc. (2)

Mozilla Firefox

alternatives: Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Safari
license: Mozilla Public License v2.0

Firefox should be your web browser. On a technical level, Firefox has better performance than its commercial opponents and offers all the same features. Google Chrome, for example, has steadily been getting worse over the product’s life with known memory usage issues and a buggy rendering engine (Limer, 2015). (3)

Firefox has a huge ecosystem of extensions and plugins developed by a community to customise it and enhance its functionality. Suggested extensions:

Tor Browser

alternatives: Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Safari
license: Tor license, Mozilla Public License v2.0, GNU General Public License v3

Even better than Mozilla Firefox, you should use the Tor Project’s browser. Tor (The Onion Router) is a network that routes your traffic through multiple nodes across the world. This disguises your location, defends against traffic analysis, and protects your web browsing. Tor Browser is a modified version of Firefox that automatically routes traffic through the Tor network (and contains some extra security plugins).

As well as offering more security from state and corporate surveillance, Tor Browser allows you to access parts of the web that may be blocked whether because of workplace firewalls, ISP blocks, or DDoS attacks on major UK Higher Education internet providers. Should you want to do this, Tor also provides a way in to the Dark Web and allows you to access .onion sites.

Tor Browser also has the advantage of not requiring admin rights to be installed on Windows or Linux.

Mozilla Thunderbird

alternatives: Microsoft Outlook
license: Mozilla Public License v2.0

Given the amount of work time spent using email, and specifically using Microsoft’s Outlook program for email, switching to an open-source alternative seems more daunting than it is. Mozilla Thunderbird is no longer being developed by the Mozilla Foundation in the same way as Firefox (Lunden, 2015) but has a sizable user community behind it that, even without the Foundation, can ensure support for the program.

Like Firefox, Thunderbird has a great ecosystem of extensions that can more than replicate the functionality of Microsoft Outlook. Suggested extensions are:

To use Thunderbird for Gmail and Google Calendar:

Configuring Thunderbird to work with a Microsoft Exchange server or an Office 365 cloud server takes a bit of time and may require some knowledge of your workplace’s setup. Full instructions at (4). For your Exchange calendar in Lightning, you might also need:


alternatives: Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides
license: Mozilla Public License v2.0

LibreOffice is a full office suite to replace the various applications in the Microsoft Office suite. Writer replaces Word; Calc replaces Excel; Impress replaces Powerpoint; Draw replaces Vimio; Base replaces Access; Math is sui generis and does… maths things. They’re fantastic programs free of the weird quirks of Microsoft Office programs and, like the other programs mentioned so far, have a range of community-developed plugins to extend their functionality.


alternatives: Notepad, Microsoft Word
license: GNU General Public License v3

Notepad++ is a fully featured text editor specialising in editing source code. It’s particularly useful for large-scale editing of text with support for regular expression find-and-replace and plugins for other text operations. The XML Tools plugin also makes it a pretty sweet XML editor if you’re into that kind of thing.

VLC Media Player

alternatives: Windows Media Player, QuickTime Player
license: GNU General Public License v2

VLC Media Player is the most flexible multimedia player available. It natively plays dozens of file formats for audio, video, and streaming and can do so off files on your hard drive, on DVD, on audio-CD, etc.


alternatives: Adobe Photoshop
license: GNU General Public License v3

Adobe Photoshop is so synonymous with image editing that the best way to describe what GIMP does is to say that it photoshops images. GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) is a free image editor for tasks like photo retouching, image composition, or overlaying text on images. In a library context, you can use it to make marketing materials, posters, materials for web display, etc.


alternatives: Microsoft SharePoint, Google Drive, Confluence, Evernote
license: Apache License v2.0

Sandstorm is a platform for hosting of open-source indie web apps. Sandstorm provides a managed service for server hosting with an integrated platform to install open-source web applications that act as replacements for a load of proprietary web applications. It is available either as managed hosting on or can be installed on a Linux server.

While Sandstorm’s App Market has apps for a whole range of tasks, it’s the apps for collaborative working that really fill a need. Etherpad, EtherCalc, EtherDraw, and Hacker Sliders provide collaborative editing of documents in the same way as Google Drive or SharePoint. FileDrop and Davros provide secure sharing of files and document management over the web. MediaWiki provides a wiki interface for shared documentation and knowledge management. GitWeb provides git hosting for version tracking of source code. There are apps for online chat, online forms, note-taking, polls, and a range of other tasks.


alternatives: FileZilla, any LMSs FTP function
license: GNU General Public License v3

WinSCP is an SFTP and FTP client used for transferring files over SFTP and FTP. If you need to send a large file to someone, you need to use FTP. Most library management systems have an FTP function built into them to allow sending of e.g. Marc bibliographic files to union catalogues’ FTP sites. But if you need more control over your FTPing, then you need a dedicated FTP client. (5)



license: MIT license

PuTTY is an SSH and Telnet client. If you’re using a Unix operating system (i.e. any operating system except Windows), you don’t need it because the terminal handles SSH natively. If you’re using Windows, then you do need it because Windows does not handle SSH natively (7). SSH is a protocol to access Unix (and Unix-like) servers. If you’re accessing a Linux server from a Windows PC, you need PuTTY.


alternatives: MySQL Workbench, Microsoft SQL Studio
license: GNU General Public License

If you need to do any work with an SQL or a MySQL database, HeidiSQL is a great FOSS SQL browser. For library systems, it can be used to view and edit the underlying database of Sentry Isis, the unfortunately-named security gate and access management software. If you’ve got an open-source catalogue or LMS, it can also be used to view and edit their underlying MySQL databases too.


(1) I’ll be more fully laying out the ethical case for libraries to use free and open-source software in a future blog post.


(2) I realise I’m speaking from a position of sysadmin privilege. As a worker in a library systems team, it’s trivially easy for me to justify permanent admin rights and get the IT department to allow me them in any workplace. I recognise that this is not the case for all library workers.


(3) Focusing on Google Chrome because it’s a widely used web browser and there are more than just FOSS-related reasons to move away from it. Principally that Google gives users’ metadata to the NSA and other state surveillance agencies. The Google ecosystem of software is not secure and does not protect your privacy. If you really can’t bear to move away from the Google ecosystem yet, at least consider using Chromium instead of Google Chrome. Chromium is the open-source base of Google Chrome and does more or less the same thing. (3a)

(3a) Google Chrome, in contrast to Chromium, contains code that allows the playing of proprietary formats in the browser: Adobe Flash, MP3, AAC, etc. You probably won’t be able to use Netflix natively in Chromium.


(4) To set up Thunderbird to check your work email account, you’ll need to know the hostname of your workplace’s IMAP server and SMTP server. If your workplace is on Office 365, IMAP will be (port 993) and SMTP will be (port 587). If your workplace is on Exchange, follow instructions like to find out your email server settings. (4a)

To set up Microsoft Exchange email:

  1. In Thunderbird, go to File > New > Existing Mail Account.
  2. Enter your name, email address, and password to access your mail. Click Continue.
  3. Click Stop to prevent Thunderbird from auto-detecting settings.
  4. Enter the details of your workplace’s email server(s). See above. For incoming mail, the port should be 993 with connection security ‘SSL/TLS’. For outgoing mail, the port should be 587 with connection security ‘STARTTLS’.
  5. Click Done.
  6. Right-click the account in the left-hand column and select Subscribe. Add a tick next to all the folders you wish to subscribe to.
  7. Optional config things. Go to Tools > Options > Advanced > General > Config Editor:
    • Set mail.imap.expunge_after_delete to ‘true’
    • Set mail.strictly_mime to ‘true’
    • Set mail.server.default.check_all_folders_for_new to ‘true’
    • Iff your workplace uses Office 365 and you’re using an Ubuntu PC, set network.dns.disableIPv6 to ‘true’.

To set up Microsoft Exchange calendars:


(4a) Microsoft Exchange is an email server from Microsoft which you install on a local server: all email data is kept on that local server and all email traffic goes through that server. Because of the maintenance and staff costs of hosting local servers, lots of workplaces are moving to the cloud-hosted Microsoft Office 365 email service which means email data is kept on Microsoft’s servers in a datacentre somewhere.

tl;dr: if you’re using Outlook and you don’t know that you’re on Office 365, you’re probably on Exchange.


(5) SFTP is secure but not anonymous. For anonymous file-sharing, try OnionShare (license: GNU General Public License v3) which offers anonymous sharing of large files through the Tor network.


(6) The leading FTP client is FileZilla which is also FOSS-licensed under GNU General Public License v2. But the program’s hosting site, SourceForge, bundles malware and adware into the download and this malicious software is installed on the user’s PC without consent. It’s possible to download FileZilla without downloading the malware (see but since SourceForge bundles the malware installer with the consent of the developer, it’s apparent that the FileZilla developers consciously chose to endorse this approach. Taking control away from the end-user is antithetical to the ethics of the free and open-source movement and so I recommend WinSCP rather than FileZilla.


(7) Though Microsoft will be bringing OpenSSH integration into their Windows operating system in the future (Bright, 2015).



Bright, P., 2015. ‘Microsoft bringing SSH to Windows and PowerShell’ on Ars Technica, 2015-06-03

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., & Smith, L., 2015. ‘Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1), eP1182,

Limer, E., 2015. ‘Fuck It, I’m Going Back to Firefox’ on Gizmodo, 2015-02-13

Lunden, I., 2015. ‘Mozilla Wants To Split Off Its Thunderbird Email/Chat Client, Says Mitchell Baker Memo’ on TechCrunch, 2015-11-30

safe-spaces and critical discourse at library conferences

At this year’s Internet Librarian International conference, Jodie Ginsberg delivered a timely keynote speech on protection of privacy and free expression in the library and information sector. As CEO of Index on Censorship, a magazine about freedom of expression and censorship, Ginsberg was well-placed to discuss the issues around freedom that are affecting libraries today. In a witty and engaging speech, Ginsberg spoke to the audience of librarian and information professionals on a subject little discussed in the profession but which is of pressing importance to our professional ethics and our relationships with users.

About two-thirds of the way through her keynote, Ginsberg started talking about free speech issues in Higher Education. Various trends among undergraduates and students’ unions in UK HEIs serve to stifle the academic freedoms that are important for meaningful intellectual discourse. Increasingly “universities seem to want to shut down controversy, sheltering behind the dangerous notion that protecting people from anything but the blandest and least contentious ideas is the means to keep them “safe”, rather than encouraging students to have a wide base of knowledge.” (Ginsberg, 2015) The trends leading to this bland epistemological consensus include: the introduction of trigger warnings for sensitive issues; universities advising students not to study material that they find upsetting; no-platforming contentious speakers at universities; safe-space policies.

In the UK, increasing intolerance for free expression is manifest in the “no platform” movement – which no longer targets speakers or groups that incite violence against others, but a whole host of individuals and organisations that other groups simply find distasteful, or in some way disqualified from speaking on other grounds.

The decision to cancel an abortion debate at Oxford in late 2014, which would have been held between two men – and noted free speech advocates – came after a slew of objections, including a statement from the students’ union that decried the organisers for having the temerity to invite people without uteruses to discuss the issue. More recently, a human rights campaigner was barred from speaking at Warwick University – a decision that was subsequently overturned – after organisers were told she was “highly inflammatory and could incite hatred” and a feminist was banned from speaking at the University of Manchester because her presence was deemed to violate the student union’s “safe space” policy. (Ginsberg, 2015)

At the end of the keynote, the audience clapped enthusiastically. A few pertinent questions were asked regarding censorship in school libraries, expressing agreement with the free expression issues facing UK HE, and exasperatedly asking where the librarians talking about these issues were to be found.

Outside of mainstream LIS conferences.

The librarians talking about issues of freedom of expression, widespread government technological surveillance, censorship of marginalised groups, and engaging in other critical discussion are doing so outside of mainstream LIS conferences precisely because of the lack of protection mechanisms like safe-space policies.

This essay argues that the continued lack of safe-space policies at conferences – along with the other protection mechanisms highlighted by Ginsberg in UK HE – serves to perpetuate the inherently conservative nature of traditional mainstream LIS conferences, the non-critical pedagogy employed at traditional conferences, and the embedded power relations of the library and information sector. (1)

Safe-space policies enforce the creation or active continuation of places in which everyone’s right to express themselves is upheld regardless of an individual’s background, identity, ideas, or body. (2) A safe space is one in which all participants think about the other people in the space, feel able to challenge their preconceptions and cultural assumptions, and recognise – really understand – that other people might think differently. A space in which other people are recognised has having different experiences based not only on who they are but how society treats that person based on who they are. Creating a safe space requires empathy and constant reflection from all the people in the space. See, for example, the Radical Librarian Collective’s ‘safer spaces policy‘ which acknowledges that sometimes even with the best of intentions spaces will not be completely safe for everyone. (3)

In her keynote, Ginsberg (2015) referred to safe-space policies as one trend contributing to “increasing intolerance for free expression” in UK Higher Education. Safe-space policies are associated with censorship for several reasons.

First, in this case, because Ginsberg mistakenly conflates ‘no-platforming’ with ‘safe-space policies’. No-platforming is about denying offensive speakers a platform when they have specifically indicated the intent to promote offensive views. For example, when Cardiff University Students’ Union recently called for a lecture by Germaine Greer to be cancelled because of her expressed (and abhorrent) views on transgender people. One justification for no-platforming may be that the speaker would violate an existing safe-spaces policy but enacting a safe-spaces policy is not the same as no-platforming. (4)

Second, because safe-spaces can be applied wrongly and communicated badly. A broad-brush generic safe-spaces policy that doesn’t acknowledge the context of a specific situation or the people involved runs the risk of communicating that you ‘will not allow’ certain things to be said or certain issues to be discussed. Safe-spaces are a context-dependent exercise and misguided attempts to impost generic policies are easier to perceive as creating censorship in the academe.

Third, because of a perception of how students ought to be and how they ought to behave. ““While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.” (Ahmed, 2015)

Criticising safe-spaces is a way for the privileged to avoid dealing with the difficult issues that require a safe space for discussion. “By hearing student critique as censorship, the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge is without substance.” (Ahmed, 2015) What kind of discussions would require the use of a safe space a conference? Discussions about sexism, racism, classism, inequality, and other forms of systemic oppression that exist throughout society and, in this case, Higher Education. These discussions are ones that require the participation of all voices.

At their core, safe-spaces policies are about privilege. Privilege was not discussed in Ginsberg’s keynote and is not regularly discussed in public forms at mainstream LIS conferences. Safe-spaces are about providing spaces where the non-privileged (5) feel free and able to speak without the privileged preventing them from doing so whether through overt violence (physical or nonphysical), covert suppression, or subtle behavioural cues contributing to a sense of power. The privileged are those who have historically held power in society and who benefit from those unequal power relations. Conversely, the non-privileged are those who have historically had power exercised over them. “Marginalized groups are those who have been categorically denied access to privilege including educational access, political office, high-paying jobs, and access to health care.” (Bales & Engle, 2012, p. 17) A non-exhaustive list of the privileged includes: white people, men, cisgender people, extroverts, neurotypical people, the upper-middle class, the university-educated. Safe-spaces are not created to censor these privileged groups: they’re created to make space for and/or amplify the voices of the non-privileged. They are about considering your own privilege, whatever that may be, and acting on that critical reflection to give non-privileged people an opportunity to speak.

Contrary to Ginsberg’s understanding, critical reflection and honest, even painful, self-appraisal is precisely what Higher Education is about. Safe-spaces therefore protect Higher Education and pedagogy more broadly. “Safe spaces are [a] technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen.” (Ahmed, 2015) Safe-spaces don’t censor expression: they enable expression. But the expression might not be the form with which privileged groups are familiar.

By equating safe-space policies with censorship, Ginsberg encouraged the conference to talk about the voices of the privileged rather than the voices of the non-privileged. It exhibited the self-centric perspective of the world that characterises the privileged and in so doing made that self-centric perspective the central one at the conference. For the privileged, discussions have always had us at the centre: talking about our experiences, reinforcing our perception of the world, addressing our needs. (6) History is taught from the perspective of white affluent Western men. The perception of safe-spaces by the privileged can therefore be that, suddenly and without warning, our voice is being minimised or cut out entirely. From a self-centric perspective, we see ourselves being stopped from talking. The reverse is the other-centric perspective where we realise that safe-spaces are about letting other people speak: others who have not had the opportunity because of the structure inequalities of society.

In voicing issues around censorship in the academe, Ginsberg created the opportunity for further discussion of social inequalities and power relations. But by framing her comments as negative, i.e. as ‘against’ students, Ginsberg promoted negative rhetoric around safe-space policies, trigger warnings, etc. The negative rhetoric that followed in the post-keynote discussions was functionally similar to internet discussions against ‘social justice warriors’ (or SJWS): the rhetoric used by the Gamergate movement (7) to criticise social justice initiatives, inclusion, and cultural diversity. In one discussion related to the keynote, a conference attendee was overheard complaining about the trend towards self-definition of gender identity. The individual railed against political correctness towards people who ‘choose’ which gender they are: women deciding to be men and men deciding to be women. And some people deciding that they’re not either! (8)

Negative rhetoric around e.g. safe-space policies causes damage by encouraging LIS professionals to not be critically reflective or to discuss difficult issues at LIS conferences (or indeed anywhere). Negativity towards methods designed to protect marginalised groups in the profession and particularly unhelpful given the now-more-or-less-silenced discussions of sexual harassment of women librarians at mainstream LIS conferences. Last year, the #teamharpy case and high-profile cases of sexual harassment at mainstream conferences (9) generated discussion about the inappropriate behaviour and the skewed power relations at conferences and other events. (10)

The enthusiastic acceptance and the propagation of the negative rhetoric around protection mechanisms for the marginalised highlights the lack of critical discussion at LIS conferences and the inherent conservatism of such events. Despite years of handwringing discussions about how to introduce more cultural diversity into the profession, means of discussing actual possible solutions are dismissed – either as censorship or with some other excuse. Safe-spaces are a method that could contribute to non-privileged voices speaking up in the library and information sector. But when the issue was raised, alongside trigger warnings and other methods, it was in a traditionalist and conservative position railing against SJWs trying to censor and suppress freedom of expression. “There are lots of people who will say ‘great’ when you mention the need to challenge assumptions, but bring it close to home and they’ll turn on you.” (Brookfield, 1994, p. 209)

The structure of mainstream LIS conferences perpetuates this non-critical status quo. ‘Why isn’t the profession more culturally diverse?’, asks an all-male panel. The audience – made up of people from organisations able to pay for external CPD events or of people wealthy enough to be able to pay their own way – listens attentively, repeats a few key points on Twitter (11), and claps politely at the end. A few extroverts ask questions or give short-lectures-disguised-as-questions. The audience shuffle off and small-talk about how much they enjoyed the session.

Traditional conferences use a transmission model of pedagogy (Freire, 1996): the speaker transmits knowledge and the audience act as containers to be passively filled with knowledge. The keynote speaker talks at the audience about a topic and there is little or no opportunity for the audience to reply or debate or express alternative viewpoints in a balanced way. Even with a Q&A, the speaker still stands at the front of the room or on a stage in a position physically embodying power. “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” (Freire, 1996: p. 53) The transmission model causes (or perpetuates) power inequalities by giving the speaker explicit authority and stripping the audience of their power by making them passive participants in the learning process. (12)

As well as pedagogical structure, conferences perpetuate unequal power dynamics through epistemological approach. The philosophical underpinning of conferences (and indeed library and information science in general) is the pre-postmodern epistemological view that knowledge transmission is politically neutral. Power does not inform knowledge because the academy stands apart from the petty power struggles of the political. Discussion of power relations has no place in discussion of conferences because knowledge transmission – the raison of conferences – is neutral and set apart from power relations. The figure of the keynote speaker is ‘one of us’ and we are all equal and we are all just talking about library staff.

In reality, knowledge and knowledge transmission are intimately tied to power relations. “We should admit rather that power produces knowledge…; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (Foucault, 1991, p. 27)

Both of these factors lead to critical perspectives on conference topics either not being raised (due to the transmission model being used or due to the lack of explicit safe-space provision or both) or being dismissed out-of-hand (due to the power relations involved in knowledge transmission). Those who do raise critical discussion either on Twitter or in meatspace are labelled ‘subversive’ or ‘cheeky’ or ‘troublemakers’ or otherwise classified as people-not-to-be-taken-seriously. Power relations are again skewed towards those perpetuating the status quo and away from those challenging norms or offering critical perspectives. Challenging discussions with the non-privileged – with voices other than those of neurotypical cisgender white people (predominately men) of Western heritage – are uncomfortable and require the privileged to think about their embeddedness – and complicitness – in a system of structural inequalities. Discussions about unequal power dynamics and how those invited to speak at conferences got to their position by stepping on the backs of others might upend the optimistic tone that mainstream conferences aim to strike. Such discussions would counteract “the relentlessly upbeat, positive tone which advocates for the field believe will serve to gain us professional attention…” (Ahmed, 2015) Critical points are incorporated into the relentlessly positive narrative by viewing them as coming from only the cheeky, the young, or the naïve. At a conference “[t]he more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” (Freire, 1996, p. 53)

This line of reasoning leads us into the thicket of broader social justice issues. LIS conferences are a microcosm of professional conferences more broadly which in turn are a microcosm of society with all of society’s attendant issues with pedagogy, power relations, and structural inequalities. We effect broader social change on a macro level by changing our practice at a micro level and so LIS conferences need to show the kind of social change that we want to see in society.

Until we encourage protection mechanisms for social inclusion, including trigger warnings and safe-space policies, at mainstream LIS conferences, we will be unable to discuss social justice issues intelligently, develop new inclusive methods of pedagogy, adjust the skewed underlying power relations of our events, or actively encourage cultural diversity in LIS. At the very least, we should avoid negative rhetoric towards non-privileged groups and mechanisms that enable the contributions of non-privileged groups.

Safe-space policies do not suppress freedom of expression. They protect it.


(1) There are assumptions behind the use of the words ‘mainstream’ and ‘traditional’ in the context of the library and information profession. ‘Mainstream’ as a term is defined almost entirely by its opposition: the alternative, the non-consensus, the critical, the radical. Some definitions by example (1a): The Beatles are mainstream, The Flaming Lips are alternative; Mac OS is mainstream, Linux is alternative; Netflix is mainstream, Popcorn Time is alternative. In the library and information sector, the mainstream is the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism (the ideology of the library and information sector reflects the sector’s status as a synecdoche of society). See Clark & Preater (2014) for more discussion on neoliberalism as a prevailing ideology. The alternative therefore refers to LIS stuff that actively opposes neoliberalism: critical librarianship, progressive librarianship, critical theory in LIS, poststructuralism and/or postmodernism in LIS, radical librarianship, etc. In terms of LIS conferences then, mainstream library conferences are those big events that happen around the same time every year and are structured as a keynote, several thematically-related sessions, lunch, several thematically-related sessions, an evening reception, and a canvas bag. (1b)

(1a) These examples themselves are not uncontentious.

(1b) definitions by example: Cilip Conference, Lilac, Liber, Internet Librarian International, etc.


(2) Throughout, ‘safe-space(s)’ is used to refer to the concept of providing a space that is safe and ‘safe space(s)’ to refer to a space that is safe.


(3) Radical Librarians Collective is not above criticism. There are occasions when the safe-spaces policy has been breached. The collective has discussed at their regular open meetings how to prevent this and promote greater mindfulness of the concept among participants.


(4) rebuttal: In that case, Ginsberg wasn’t saying that safe-spaces relates to censorship at all. Yes, she misused terminology (4a) but she wasn’t arguing specifically against safe-space policies and so structuring the whole argument around this one trend is creating a strawman argument.

rejoinder: In the larger context of the whole keynote, it was implied that all of these mechanisms – trigger warnings, safe-space policies, no-platforming – contribute to increased lack of freedom of expression in Higher Education. Even if the specific point about safe-spaces can’t be applied to the keynote, the point that few mainstream LIS conferences consider these issues is sufficient to set up the next part of the argument re. conservatism of conferences.

(4a) Or rather, based on context, The University of Manchester Students’ Union misused terminology.


(5) For lack of a better term. Equally applicable and more emotive terms would be ‘the oppressed’ or ‘the marginalised’.


(6) Dipping into first-person plural here because the author as a white middle-class cisgender man can only be grouped as privileged.


(7) Gamergate is a movement of people who self-identify as belonging to the video-gaming community. The movement is a thinly veiled campaign of harassment of women online. (7a)

(7a) Actually it’s about ethics in games journalism…


(8) rebuttal: In singling out and ridiculing this individual who has views that the author obviously does not agree with, the author is implying that this individual should not be allowed to speak. Surely a safe space would require that this individual be allowed to express whatever views they (8a) want?

rejoinder: First, there was no safe space established at the conference. Or generally at any mainstream LIS conference. That’s the point of the essay. Second, that’s not what a safe space is about. Safe spaces are not intended to allow the expression of any views no matter how offensive they may be under the easy-to-justify aegis of ‘freedom of expression’. They’re about realising that you may not know the full facts of a person’s identity and that, by criticising e.g. the right to self-identification, you may be denying them a fundamental part of themselves through your views. Third, there needs to be acknowledgement of the power structures involved. Transgender people and non-binary gendered people have not historically held power over other groups. By expressing views affirming traditional gender norms pitched as ‘against’ binary gender identity, this individual was using their power and privilege (8b) to ‘punch down’. They imposed themselves as having power by denying a group that does not have power the right to self-identify.

(8a) assumption: This individual would disagree with the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.

(8b) assumption: This individual presented as an affluent white cisgender man.


(9) For the avoidance of doubt, this refers to e.g.


(10) “And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced), it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases, and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.” (Ahmed, 2015)


(11) During the keynote, several people tweeted the views expressed by the keynote speaker (that which has been referred to as ‘negative rhetoric’) and were challenged on what-appeared-to-be their perception of safe-spaces. This caused upset. A similar situation happened following the Cilip New Professionals Day when some tweeters felt that other tweeters were overly harsh towards new professionals who had been repweeting problematic neoliberal motivational bullshit. There’s a whole freshman-level point here about criticising content not being the same as criticising the commentator.


(12) Slipping into first-person singular for this endnote…

I was a session speaker at Internet Librarian International 2015. (12a) In delivering this session with a transmission model, was I not perpetuating the status quo and contributing to the lack of radical approaches to pedagogy in LIS? The power relations are further skewed in this case because I am a white cisgender man cf. (6).

Yes, in contributing to a mainstream LIS conference, I was perpetuating the very approach that this essay criticises and implicitly supporting the status quo. I spoke at ILI because:

a. it’s nice to be asked to speak and I enjoy doing presentations.

b. it got me a free place at the conference which is useful for CPD, building professional networks, and just plain fun.

c. it was an opportunity to advocate for the use of free and open-source software in libraries to a broad audience so a wee bit of ethical cost-benefit analysis can be invoked.

The conundrum then for a white cisgender man who spoke at a mainstream conference and who then wants to write an essay against mainstream conferences is how to approach the issue without seeming churlish to the kind people who asked him to speak and without getting himself blacklisted from every library conference in the future. Addressing it directly, this essay does not criticise Internet Librarian International. The keynote speech at ILI 2015 and some of the troubling rhetoric of conference attendees at ILI 2015 is a starting point for a discursive analysis of LIS conferences in-the-abstract.

The conference being criticised is the Platonic form of a conference: the traditionalist theoretical mould that conferences aspire to fit. In practice, conferences fall on a non-binary spectrum between conservatism and progressivism. Conferences include more or fewer workshops, discussion sessions, etc. There was a fashion from 2013 to 2014 for mini-unconference sessions within the main conference to encourage non-structured discussion. Internet Librarian International 2015 had some particular elements tending towards progressivism The conference plenary session incorporated a range of crowdsourced opinions and viewpoints from conference attendees on the perceived ‘themes’ of the conference. These included critical perspectives such as ‘Radical ideas’ and ‘Open-source’.

And of course there’s the larger point that the people embedded in problematic structures are not necessarily problematic individuals. The organisers of Internet Librarian International 2015 are lovely people who always seemed very harried but exuberant rushing around keeping the conference running. The starting points of this analysis, Jodie Ginsberg and the individual-who-doesn’t-think-gender-identity-is-a-thing, are misguided people rather than finger-quotes bad people.

As in all debates, criticism ≠ condemnation. (12b)

(12a) Barron, S., 2015. ‘Using free and open-source software to open data’ presented at Internet Librarian International 2015, 2015-10-20

(12b) This lengthy endnote is a prime example of the kind of ad nauseum clarifications and justifications and backpedalling and uncomfortable-to-read apologising that discussing difficult issues around power relations and structural inequalities involves.



Ahmed, S., 2015. ‘Against students’, The new inquiry, 2015-06-29

Bales, S. E., and Engle, L. S., 2012. ‘The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action’, Progressive librarian, 40, pp. 16-40.

Brookfield, S., 1994. ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenography of adult critical reflection’, International journal of lifelong education, 13 (3), pp. 203-216.

Clark, I., and Preater, A., 2014. ‘Creaters not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries’, Infoism, 2014-11-13

Foucault, M., 1991. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Translated from French by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Freire, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated from Portuguese by Myra Bergman Ramos. London: Penguin Books.

Ginsberg, J., 2015. ‘Fighting to speak freely: balancing privacy and free expression in the information age’ delivered at Internet Librarian International 2015 on 2015-10-21