Open-source software: Expertise required?

I have spent a lot of time in the last few weeks installing software.  Or, to put it more precisely, I have spent a lot of time trying to install software.  Some of my attempts have been successful; some, less so.  The time I spent tinkering with various programs (and occasionally wanting to bang my head against a wall) has led me to reflect on the evolution of my own technical skills and the ways that software programs and documentation encode certain expectations of their users.

Two years ago, I would have considered myself a fairly competent computer user.  I was able to do pretty much everything I needed to do on a computer, but I had very little knowledge about (or frankly, interest in) what went on under the hood.  In my time at the iSchool, though, I’ve learned quite a bit more, mostly through my coursework in digital archiving and records management, but also from just being in a more technical milieu.  I’m still very much a novice, but I am at least at the beginning stages of becoming an “advanced” user.  I know the basics of how a computer works on a physical and logical level, have a very rudimentary understanding of a few programming languages (not enough to do much on my own, but enough to interpret basic code), and most importantly, I am gaining the confidence to explore and try new things (just recently I made my first foray into a Linux command line).

I explain all of that mostly to express my frustration with the way most software installation guidelines are written.  In my attempts to install various open-source software programs, I’ve discovered that installation guidelines aren’t really intended for people like me.  For example, a group of classmates and I are currently trying to install Web Curator Tool on a computer running Ubuntu.  (My good friend and project collaborator Jarred Wilson describes the website project as a whole on his blog.)  WCT has two support documents available: one is for “users,” who presumably don’t need to understand the rather complicated back-end, and the other is for “system administrators,” who are assumed to already have a significant set of technical skills, to be able to do things like configure a database through the command line and deploy programs on a web server.  That’s understandable, but it excludes people like me, who need to install the tool but do not have an extensive technical background.  Before we can even get to installing the program itself, my group has had to spend hours teaching ourselves how to use the command line, how to deploy programs in Apache Tomcat, and other “preparatory” issues.  While that is frustrating and time-consuming for us as students, we still have access to resources and support staff who are willing and able to help us figure it out.  (In fact, one of our IT staff confirmed to us that the WCT installation guide was particularly unhelpful.)  It is very easy to imagine how issues exactly like this make it extremely difficult for small institutions or lone arrangers to take advantage of the really exciting open-source tools that are being developed.

One of my other projects this semester has actually been to try and create a beginner-friendly installation guide for the archival management program ICA-AtoM.  Working in a group, five of my classmates and I installed ICA-AtoM on our own laptops (including MAMP or WAMP software to create a server environment).  Then, we extended and simplified the installation instructions provided with the software, to explain exactly what needs to be done to run the program, step-by-step.  Writing those instructions has been a fascinating window into both how many different components are necessary to get a program up and running, and how difficult it is to clearly articulate the steps needed to get each of those components running in turn.

The experience of creating the ICA-AtoM installation guide has helped me understand how difficult and time-consuming it can be to create beginner-friendly documentation.  However, I believe that it is necessary work.  For open-source software to be truly “free,” more work needs to be done to make it accessible to a wider audience of users, including those without a strong technical background or access to IT support staff.  Combined with that, I think the archival profession and society at large need to encourage computer literacy at a much higher level, to begin decreasing the gap between “experts” and “beginners.”  As someone who is still working to bridge that gap, I know how difficult that is.  But our work (and our world) is only going to continue getting more technical, and we should all be able to participate in it fully.

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