Building Communities: eIFL-FOSS

When I moved back to Canada after 13 years in the UK, I had the luxury of being able to step back from things. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to think through what I might like to do with the rest of my life. But in fact I didn’t need any time at all. I’ve been heading in a certain direction, I think, for about 40 years. All I really needed time to discover was the next step along the way.

In July, I was invited to a meeting in Italy by the folks at electronic information for libraries. I was being asked to take a fresh look at a proposal for a new program area for eIFL, one that would advocate the use of free and open source software (FOSS) in libraries across their member countries. The aim would be to raise awareness and understanding of FOSS, to facilitate member engagement with FOSS development communities, and to undertake projects of special significance to members. In fact, this was a call to do nothing less than build a new community of FOSS champions in university libraries from southern Africa to eastern Europe and beyond.

How tempting is that, eh?

Of course for me it was also a bit terrifying. First, I am not a librarian, so nearly everyone involved would have specialist knowledge that I do not. Second, I am neither a systems administrator nor a professional software developer, so I have very little of technical worth to offer this proto-community, least of all first-hand experience deploying the integrated library systems (ILS) Koha or Evergreen, which would be the foci of our initial project. Third, building sustainable communities is hard. Really hard.

Sounded like just the sort of challenge I was looking for 🙂

And so I signed up at the beginning of September. (I spent much of August with my parents after my father discovered he was in urgent need of a triple by-pass operation; completely successful, I’m glad to say.)

You might be wondering what I have to offer such a program given my list of shortcomings above. The truth is that I don’t believe in shortcomings. In fact, I will be treating each of those shortfalls as pluses.

First, I will be learning something new every day, and every member of this new community will have something they can teach me. Second, my focus will be on exploring the Koha and Evergreen development communities and sharing what I find. Everyone else will no doubt be focusing on the software itself and sharing what they find. Together we’ll take the steps necessary for positive engagement with these development communities. Third, of course building sustainable communities is hard – that’s why it is so rewarding!

Funding for the eIFL-FOSS proposal was secured from the Open Society Institute in mid-October. Since then I have gradually begun putting a public face on our new program. But they are early days. One aspect of the new program I can point you to, however, is my new work blog. I will be posting there on all aspects of the program and of our ILS pilots. It promises to be a grand adventure.

So is this what I want to be doing the rest of life? If by “this” you mean facilitating the growth of new sustainable communities, then yes, that sounds about right.

Posted in general.


  1. If anyone can build a sustainable community on the OSS library landscape, Randy, I am sure it is you.

  2. Hello Randy, John Fink from McMaster here. I’m the Digital Technologies Development Librarian and general open source guru, and have personally been involved in open source software in libraries since 1995. Your group sounds very exciting! Any chance of getting a conversation going locally on these issues? Waterloo’s not too far away, after all.

  3. Hey John. That sounds great. I’m sitting here in Belgrade at the moment with Jeff Trzeciak, so talk about small worlds! I’ll get in touch when I get back to Waterloo.

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