Preparing to be “Open” at ODC in Phnom Penh

Tomorrow I will begin my internship at Open Development Cambodia (hereafter: ODC). When you enter a space that is dealing with being “open,” you have to ponder what it means to be “open.” You have to ask yourself this question both as it relates to the current terms and their definition, as well as how each term might develop in the future.

The biggest terms under our umbrella, “open,” terms which a lot of people have heard of (even if they don’t understand them or understand them fully) are “open access” and “open source.” Despite major differences between the terms, the latter term is certainly the more common, as some of the most popular computer software applications take advantage or are based on open source technology: Mozilla’s Firefox, Google’s Chrome, and Linux are all open source. In some cases, even library systems like NextGenLib, used at ODC, are open source and available to be used for free. As I was made aware when I chose OPALS as an open source ILS for the Seward Park Library, open source might equate to vulnerability. But it also inspires community and camaraderie.

You might describe something as “open” the same way you would describe something as “free.” Some people might use “accessible” as a synonym to “open.” When it comes to information and information systems, however, I would argue “open” is a blanket modifier describing a philosophy or system of ethics, particularly of paramount importance to the digital age. When I think of “open” I think of not only the content that is being delivered and received through a system, but also the reasoning behind bringing the information within the content through the system. As defined on Wikipedia, “open access” is:

the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly research. It is most commonly applied to scholarly journal articles, but it is also increasingly being provided to theses, scholarly monographs, book chapters, and entire books.

And “open source” is defined as:

refers to a computer program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design. Open source code is typically created as a collaborative effort in which programmers improve upon the code and share the changes within the community. Open source sprouted in the technological community as a response to proprietary software owned by corporations.

Regardless of proper definition, in an open culture, information is brought to the public free of charge and in a welcoming, inviting way. Think Wikipedia. Think Archive. Think of public libraries. But! We must never forget that what is public may be paid for, and what is paid for may notbe public. Copyright issues. Information ownership. These countering terms are challenging to deal with, and “open” is a term that deals with them. In some cases we run into issues of creative exploration and integrity. Does having the source code of your software available to everyone help or hinder the mission and vision of your design? If you have information freely available to the public through open access, does that benefit the authors of the work (and the information therein), or is there a stunt to competition?

This is the first time I’ll be dealing with that which is open on a broad scale. And while I have some exposure to openness through my previous library project, and through some coursework, I only have touched the iceberg. But this is an iceburg that is slowly melting, becoming part of the ocean, so to speak. I believe that as we move forward, being more open will be more common in more spaces. The joy of being ethical and beyond the constraints of capitalism, and the building of communities through access and greater sources of obtainable knowledge, will become more and more digestible and attractive to Western countries like the United States, and Eastern countries like Cambodia. In fact, it’s not science fiction, a pipe dream, or otherwise: there are already vast cultures that have long-since been established. Arguably, cultures have always existed championing that which we call “open access” today. But I will post about those later.

For now, a brief update: first, I met with Terry, Tree (the new Director of ODC), and Margaret (my adviser) at East Meets West (the parents org) early last week, where I learned about some of the major current needs with ODC’s digital library. There are many, many things that need to be done and they all involve decisions that someone needs to make. Who, you might ask, will be making the decisions? Well, most likely Margaret and I. I have been deemed “librarian” by Terry (though I do understand how sacrilegious that status is for someone who has not actually held a library title in an actual library, or for someone who does not yet have an MLIS just), and so while I do feel awkward being “librarian,” I may have to bite the bullet and go with it: maybe I will finally be able to call myself this sacred term and move on with my life. We shall see. I also, during the meeting at ODC, met the entire team that creates and maintains the website, and manages the flow, organization, and display of information. It’s a youthful and energetic team of Cambodians and they all seem very, very awesome. I am sure I will have plenty to say after I have worked with them for some time.

In addition to the meeting, I had the opportunity to meet up later in the week with Pinkie, the volunteer and research coordinator over at ODC. She will be my point of contact going forward regarding all of the work that needs to get done, scheduling, coordination, sub-projects, and so on. Pinkie is truly awesome and knows Seattle so we’re already on positive ground. It was a fantastic meeting. We discussed life, art, and (briefly) a sense of the information needs here in Cambodia. We also came to grips with the fact that I’m starting my internship tomorrow, Monday, and will be thrown into the madness like Dorothy in the tornado. Well, maybe the madness is more constructive. But in any case, cheers to all. This is going to be an intensive test as to my abilities as a library enthusiast, and my interest in all that is open. I will try to post twice a week, though there are no promises.

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