When people freely share, it makes things better for everyone

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Joshua Holm is the kind of guy you want to have on your chat list if you’re ever looking for an open source tool to tackle a task. That’s because he actively keeps up with the latest open source tools and projects because much of his work involves helping people find the right software tool to meet their needs. So if you’re looking for an open source version of something, chances are Joshua can make a recommendation.

At opensource.com, Joshua is a frequent commenter, regularly doling out insights based on his open source and real world experiences. He also recently wrote a post highlighting Ren’Py, the open source tool for developing visual novels.

Beyond evangelizing for open source tools and resources, Joshua also enjoys academic research and providing technical assistance to job seekers. Learn more about how Joshua uses open source tools in his life in this Community Spotlight interview.

The Basics:

  • Name: Joshua HolmOpensource.com user holmja
  • Opensource.com username: holmja
  • Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
  • Occupation/Employer/Position: Freelance Tech Support
  • Open source connection: Longtime user and frequent advocate of a wide array of open source projects
  • Favorite open source tool or application: Zotero
  • Favorite opensource.com channel: Education

Open up to us.

I live in Michigan where I work, not entirely by choice, as freelance technical support. I have a Bachelor's degree in History and Master's degrees in Library and Information Science and Higher Education. One of these days, the economy permitting, I'd like to finally start a PhD in Book History, Digital Humanities, or something along those lines.

My open source journey began about 16 years ago when I purchased a Red Hat Linux box set. I've been using open source software for all my computing needs since then. Nowadays, Fedora is my OS of choice, and I don't even have a Windows partition or virtual machine on my computer. I readily admit that I largely fall into the user and advocate categories, but I do, on occasion, make contributions to various projects that I use. To give one example: right now, I'm making a few modest contributions to the manual for Koha.

Much of my work involves helping people find the right software tool to meet their needs. So, while I'm no developer or major contributor, I do keep abreast of a large number of open source projects in order to connect people with the right tool. I have several virtual machines set up on my computer with installations of various Content Management Systems (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress), Learning Management Systems (ATutor, Claroline, Moodle), Integrated Library Systems (Evergreen & Koha), and other sundry web-based software. Non web-based software that I regularly use/recommend runs the gamut from smaller utilities, like 7-Zip, to things like Audacity, GIMP, Inkscape, LibreOffice, and OpenShot.

What open tools and data help you get things done, and how do they help you?

Aside from the software listed above, I use Zotero to keep track of my research. Zotero lets me keep all of my research organized in once place. Because Zotero is a Firefox extension, I can take my research collection everywhere using the PortableApps version of Firefox. I can use the portable edition of Firefox on a computer at the library and have it sync just fine with my Zotero account. And, if all else fails, I can use Zotero's web interface to access my collection. Zotero integrates with LibreOffice so I can add citations (using a wide variety of citation methods) to my papers with ease, and it can even create a complete bibliography. Zotero really helps with the research and writing process. I even use it for non-scholarly writing.

Another tool I use is Omeka, which, like Zotero, is developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Omeka is a web-based platform for creating and sharing online digital collections. Items in Omeka collections are cataloged using the Dublin Core Metadata standard, so adding items to an Omeka collection is a less complex task than it would be with other cataloging/metadata schemes. My own personal projects using Omeka are still works-in-progress, so I encourage people to check out this list of sites using Omeka to see what this wonderful software is capable of.

When it comes to open data, the Directory of Open Access Journals is my go-to source for academic knowledge (and, admittedly, leisure reading). Since I'm no longer a university student, I don't have access to any of the journals that the universities I attended subscribe to. If it wasn't for open access journals, I wouldn't be able to read scholarly, peer-reviewed articles about topics that interest me.

What do you wish were more open?

Academic research and cultural/historical collections. As I stated above, without open access I'd be pretty much cut off from scholarly research. Keeping knowledge behind a pay-wall is never a good thing. It really disappoints me when access to knowledge is placed behind a price tag. liberate I don't wish to disparage any non-open/free effort to make knowledge more accessible, but I much prefer seeing things like the British Library's digital edition of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (The Beowulf Manuscript) than products like those produced by Evellum.

While I'm sure Evellum's products are nice, the price tag on some of them is very high. And I honestly have some concerns about the long term usability of Evellum's software when the system requires for their products include older releases of various web browsers and Flash. In fact, when I was looking at their product line a few years ago, they listed Internet Explorer as a requirement for running their software on a Mac, even though IE for Mac OS was no longer being produced. They now list Safari 1.3+ as the required browser for Macs. I applaud the work done by Evellum, but an interest in openness makes me prefer the British Library's efforts. Not everyone can afford to just jet off to England to read an old manuscript, but now, thanks to the British Library, you can examine the entirety of a manuscript from your own home. Things are rapidly improving, but there is still a long way to go before everything is open.

What are the biggest challenges to openness that you encounter, either at work or in your life? 

Currently, I'm providing technical assistance to job seekers who are dealing with the complete lack of openness in the job application process. Some of it is the human factor (e.g. lack of communication on the employer's end), but most of what concerns me is the technological issues. Far too often using proprietary file formats ends up being more important than the data about the applicant. I keep seeing warnings that is the applicant's responsibility to make sure that their files are readable in Microsoft Word. These warnings never say which version of Word, so an applicant, if they didn't know any better, could be passed over simply because they sent a .docx file to an employer that was still using an outdated, pre-.docx version of Microsoft Office, just to give one example.

The job hunt is stressful enough without having to jump through all the hoops required by some of the online hiring systems out there. (If I didn't know better, I'd say that most of the hiring systems were designed by Rube Goldberg.) The information about an applicant shouldn't be bound up in closed file formats, and applicants for non-tech jobs shouldn't have to be tech wizards just to get their application submitted. There is no quick, easy solution to this challenge, and it is certainly not something within my power to solve, but someday I'd love to see a nicely designed, open source solution, one that is more concerned with information than file formats, take over as the premier hiring system.

Why choose the open source way?

Because doing things the open source way removes barriers. A piece of software provides someone with a tool they can use. Open source software takes that farther and provides them with a tool they can use and the code needed to understand how that software works. Not everyone is going to want to, or need to, read the source code, but anyone interested in improving the software they are using, or learning how to program in general, has access to information that they can use. The source code provides learners with real world examples to learn from.

Similarly, open access journals provide a wealth of knowledge to people without requiring them to pay for the journals (directly or indirectly, in the form of university tuition). Someone can research issues and synthesize them into new scholarship because other people made their knowledge freely available. Taking it even farther, things like Creative Commons can grant permission to others to remix and change works (depending, of course, on the specific CC license used). With copyright terms getting longer and longer, it is nice to have an option to say, I created this, but please feel free to be creative with my work. Could you imagine if current copyright terms existed two hundred years ago? Things like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (two modernized adaptations on YouTube) might not exist if the works they were based on never fell out of copyright.

I choose the open source way because it makes things better for people. When people freely share, it makes things better for everyone.

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7 Comments

bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

This is a fantastic interview. I'm so glad Joshua is part of our community.

pascalfares's picture
Open Enthusiast

"Because doing things the open source way removes barriers" This is the point. I would add It help trust and accept complex technology.

Pascal Fares
Open Source Lebanese Movement
http://oslm.cofares.net

jhibbets's picture

The Academic research issue is fascinating to me. If you go back to the roots of software, open source and libre/free software was the default. I wonder if the academic world has a similar history. Somewhere along the lines, things got closed.
Jason

holmja's picture
Open Source Champion

I won't go so far as to say that academic research was completely open in the past, but it was more open (or, at least, affordable) before big publishers took over the publishing of journals in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to that most journals were published by non-profit, scholarly societies. Nowadays, a handful of publishers account for approximately 45% of the journal articles published (I'm going from memory with that number, so don't quote me on it). The publishers, obviously, have more interest in turning a profit than the academic societies did.

Chandler's picture

At the very end of the 2nd to last paragraph, "image" should be "imagine". Fantastic article!

holmja's picture
Open Source Champion

You're right. Thanks for pointing that out.

Ginny, could you please fix that?

Ginny Skalski's picture
Open Source Champion

All fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.