How do you educate others on what open source really is?

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A bulldozer getting rid of FUD

I've been educating library professionals about open source software for nearly seven years now, and sometimes I feel like I've made huge strides and other times, like today, I feel like I have so much more work to do.

I recently offered to teach a workshop for a local organization on open source software for libraries and received this reply:

The "open source" topic suggested might not be relevant to us as most of our members work in an environment where the selection or application of the open source technology is not within their decision-making authority.

Additionally, open source requires tremendous amounts of customization. Although, "open source" is a technology oriented topic, it is not quite relevant to our member community.

Where to I begin?

As an educator I strive to teach people both what it means for an application to be open source and what it means to adopt open source in your organization. I actually start my talks not with "What is open source?" but with "What isn't open source?" so that I can get all of the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) out of the way.

So, let's start with the simple fact that just because you aren't in a decision-making position you do work for the organization and have to use various bits of software as part of your daily responsibilities, so you should be able to bring recommendations to the decision-makers that might make your day-to-day a little bit more efficient. And, even if you aren't in an environment where sharing and outside opinions are welcome, you should never turn down an opportunity to learn about something new—something I feel very strongly about.

That said, how is it that people still think that open source requires so much additional work? Have they not heard of Firefox or LibreOffice or Ubuntu? All of these applications work right out of the box and I have never had the need to ask a developer to customize them further—not that that has stopped the developers from constantly improving these products. That's not to say that all open source applications are like this, but I do make a point to teach newbies about these types of applications first before talking about the freedom to develop and improve upon open source applications.

Obviously, I think the aforementioned group is the perfect candidate for my workshop because they need some help understanding exactly what open source software is and what it means to adopt it. But, I'd love to hear from all of you on how you combat FUD like this in your communities and fields.

What techniques do you use to educate others on what open source really is?

Nicole C. Baratta (Engard) is a Senior Content Strategist at Red Hat. She received her MLIS from Drexel University and her BA from Juniata College. Nicole volunteers as the Director of ChickTech Austin. Nicole is known for many different publications including her books “Library Mashups", "More Library Mashups", and "Practical Open Source Software for Libraries".


Hi Nicole,

For OSS Watch, I think the answer has been:

1. Educate, don't advocate

People are still surprised when I turn up to give a talk on OSS with a Mac running MS Office!

Focus on making effective choices and getting the best solutions, which means considering a wide range of solutions, including open source.

Never disparage closed-source solutions or use FUD to counter FUD; that's the easiest way to lose trust. Be balanced.

2. Understand the context of the audience

While audience members may not have the power to replace the LMS, there are things they can do - e.g. set up a library blog with Wordpress - see how you can empower them to take those smaller steps, as these will build confidence.

Sometimes you can involve someone directly from the audience's community in your session - perhaps as the lead speaker - to help break the ice and establish a sense of familiarity.

3. Show rather than tell

Examples help, particularly if they involve their peers rather than completely different industries or sectors. Sometimes you can also enlist audience members too.

4. Never give up

Mark Taylor from Sirius recently used a quote from Schopenhauer at a government OSS event:

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

I'm sure you do all this already..but I hope it helps!


Those are all things that I do! Glad to see we're in agreement ;) Of course in this case I'd have to get through the door first to tell them all of that.

(I too walk in with a Mac and MS Office ... of course I have Ubuntu running on it too and LibreOffice as well)

See, that's my point. You're running MS Office with Apple's proprietary OS) because you've been indoctrinated by the Open Source campaign. If instead of pragmatism, you valued freedom, you wouldn't have these problems and you'd settle for nothing less than taking real ownership of your computing.

With my colleagues and coworkers I constantly point out that suspensor software is the most interoperable, saving us from the problems that come with any proprietary vendors closed file formats that limit our options in working with our technology. We all have bitter experience getting burned by vendors of closed source software where we can't get our data out of their proprietary format after our contract with them has ended. Open source is the best safeguard against that.

Additionally it seems that open source software is more compatible with end users' rights. As closed source vendors have been steadily eroding what you can legally do with a book you "own", open source is the only area that continually develop tools to empower users to read, remix, and reuse content.


Great advice. I do talk about vendor history and things like mergers and acquisitions causing you to have to switch systems or go without support and that does seem to resonate with people.


I recently presented at my state library conference about my pragmatic, positive experiences with open source software and how my library uses it.

The presentation went very well, but it felt like I was preaching to the choir. Everyone in the room seemed like an open source advocate / fan.

So we are making some progress.

Awesome! I do find that more and more people are aware of what it means for software to be open source and that is great!

Are you kidding me? For starters, how about using real language? The term "Open Source" is a complete scam since it teaches people to value pragmatic aspects of software alone while completely ignoring freedoms and ethics.

In other words, "Open Source" isn't anything... at all. Never has been, never will be.

If you want to help teach people something of value, you should be talking about "Free Software". RMS does an excellent job of explaining this important difference...

Obviously we're not going to agree on this point, but for the other readers I"d like to explain a bit further.

The word "free" in front of software conjures an image of $0 in people's minds in libraries (and many businesses). It makes it so that no one listens to freedoms associated with the software. In fact I was asked to teach a class on free software for libraries and the invitation said "things like Google Docs and Facebook" ... so "Open Source" allows us to explain that the software comes with freedoms and has nothing to do with the cost of the software.

That said, I do explain the two different definitions both "open source" and "free software" in the talks I do.

so why do you use (and therefore, advocate the use of) freedom-restricting software? Again, I suspect it's because you do not understand and/or value freedoms 0-3. This lack of understanding and appreciation is a direct result of campaigning for the "Open Source" crowd. You're being taught to value 4 things:

1. More powerful software
2. Cheaper software
3. More secure software
4. A distributed development model

Again, everything listed above is subjective (at best). Microsoft and Adobe can give you more powerful and secure software (so long as you believe it) that's been developed across a distributed environment at no cost. That doesn't mean you're winning or are in more control of your computing.

There's really nothing so terribly confusing about the word "free" when used in the context of "free software". Is your audience too dense to understand it? Probably not. I suspect we're still just feeding into the "let's not ask people to think about the important issues" copout.

I recently gave a workshop on Zotero to group of librarians at Uni of London. I've been trying for years and never bypassed IT service suspicion. Then the suspicious guy went elsewhere and at the end of my demo they were like : "where we've been so far? " Quality in Foss matters but also institutional prejudice.

That is a good point. In situations the idealistic part of me always thinks education would have helped that suspicious guy - but it probably wouldn't have.

I recently gave a workshop on Open Source in Education where I tried to explain the values of Free Software and the practical advantages that they bring besides the usual $0 price tag.

I'm afraid that I'm with some of the above commenters: using commercial proprietary software to develop and deliver a presentation can only be negative for your goals. "Why is she promoting this for us when she turns around and chooses Apple and Microsoft? So this thing she is talking about is only worth checking out if you are broke???"
I know that I wouldn't want those ideas to even come near the minds of the audience.

Here is the page of resources that I used for my workshop:
You can find my LibreOffice slides there, with notes.

I think you need to promote the practical advantages that users obtain from choosing software that respects the 4 freedoms: future-proofing your work and your effort. Time spent learning Free Software will never be wasted. You will always be able to access that software and use it for your purposes. You will never force your friends to make tough financial and moral/ethical decisions.
Commercial software (and web 2.0 sites) can hardly promise you all this.

That said, keep fighting the good fight!!!

I appreciate your opinions and comments. I will say that once I get in the door to give the workshop people don't so much care what computer I'm using and can't tell what software I used to create the slides (if I have any) because that's not advertised on the screen.

The fact of the matter is that people are pragmatists and you can't go in the first time preaching that they are all wrong for using the software they know and love. Instead you need to start small with definitions and examples and applications that they can find that they maybe didn't know about before.

I also don't bring up money - what I was saying before was that people heard 'free' and think $$ - I instead talk about what the software can do for them, how it can make them more efficient or allow them to offer services they couldn't before.

The example in my original post was a group that wouldn't even consider learning about a different software model because of the FUD they had been fed all these years - not a group who ignored what I taught them after seeing that I too was a pragmatist :)

I do agree though, that we have to show those we're training that we too are practicing what we preach and are using what we recommend them to use and in my case I do use the software that I recommend in my workshops and I always show examples of how these applications work.

It's about baby-steps.

I don't actively speak against commercial software or products the audience is using. And I don't actively highlight what I use. I just prefer to know that I'm using Ubuntu and LibreOffice, in case someone notices. I got quite a few comments about my use of Ubuntu, LibreOffice and the Android Impress Presenter app after the workshop, even though I didn't mention anything about it.

My approach is to address what I think are the most common topics: price being one of them, pretending it isn't there makes me feel uncomfortable.

In my workshop I encourage baby-steps, and I described how we did it that way at my school: never directly replacing software without user input, always starting by simply including the open source alternative alongside the commercial one.
It is the future-proofing for me that makes the huge difference: open source software lasts longer, and lets you grow to newer versions on your own terms, or to more users and computers without any artificial restrictions. Unexpected surges in demand are no problem at all when you base your work around open source. Sudden changes of commercial companies' strategies have no effect on your work and productivity. You set the rules, you set the schedule, you set the direction. Empowerment.

Finally, please don't focus only on my comment about your choice of computer :) You feel it is an appropriate choice, and that the possible negative impact of this choice on your goals is negligible. That's a valid opinion.
For me, I feel I can get away without using commercial software for my presentation, fully getting rid of that possible, unmeasurable negative impact. So I make that choice, based on my own opinion.
An effort to promote Free Software, even if this effort uses some commercial software, is obviously much better than no effort at all!
So keep up the good fight! :)

I think you have to be careful with how you discuss cost issues - when that comes up I focus on TCO, which is *usually* less for OSS solutions, but not always, and local factors are important in areas such as support and hosting, particularly with organisations that have very limited internal technical capacity. Overall I find that licensing costs are less critical as a factor compared to sustainability and avoiding lock-in.

Again, failed language....

There is nothing wrong with "commercial software" since, depending on the license, it can respect and protect your freedoms.

In other words, Free Software can be sold commercially. When you position your argument(s) in a "commercial" vs. "non-commercial" approach, you are basically revealing your lack of understanding to the people you're talking to. Anyone who has taken the time to develop an understanding of the ecosystem and its history now knows they're being engaged by someone who is simply not informed.

There are only 2 kinds of software: freedom-granting and freedom-restricting. Either one can be sold commercially.

I think it is also about Free as 'free beer' because public money in education is very little and shrinking. So, the objection to the use of 'free' Zotero over copyrighted Endnote (Thomson Routers) was that this was given for free to the Uni. My argument was also the cost for the students ass soon as they leave Uni and of couurse the issue related (accusation to George Mason, behind Zotero, of reverse engineering, for instance). The 'free' as for 'no money' is also more understandable for people that are not involved in any kind of development. This is also why I always (always) use it as FOSS and not OSS.

Zotero rocks! And yes, the money conversation can be very handy :) I also recommend, if you haven't read it, 'Zotero : a guide for librarians, researchers, and educators' by Jason Puckett.

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