Tag Archives: open source

Initiating conversation: let’s talk about web content (part 2)

Colin Harris, Superintendent of Special Collections reading rooms. Chosen site: cyndislist.com

‘I am a founding member of Oxfordshire Family History Society and I’ve long been interested in family history. As a phenomena it surged in popularity in the 1970’s. In about 1973 there was great curiosity (in OFHS) in Bicester as everyone was interested in the popular group, The Osmonds (who originated from Bicester!). Every county has a family history society and I would say it’s they who have done the lion’s share of the work. All of their work and indexing…it’s all grist to the mill in terms of recording names and events.

So the website I would like to have access to in 10 years’ time is cyndislist.com, which is one of the world’s largest databases for genealogy. In fact it’s been going for over 21 years already. This was launched on the 4th March 1996. The family history people have been right there from the very beginning, it’s been growing solidly since then; it’s fantastic. It covers 200 categories of subjects, it has links to 332,000 other websites, and it’s the starting point for any genealogical research. The ‘Cyndi’ is Cyndi Howell, an author in genealogy.

Almost every day the site is launching content that might be interesting in some particular subject. So just going back within the last couple of weeks: an article on Telling the Orphan’s story; Archive lab on how to preserve old negatives; The key to family reunion success and DNA: testing at a family reunion! Projects even go beyond individuals…they explore a Yellowstone wolf family. There is virtually nothing that is untouched. Anything with a name to it has potential for exploration.

To be honest, I haven’t been able to do any family history research since 1980, but I am hoping to do some later on this year (when I retire). All these years that have passed has meant that so much is available to be accessed over the internet

Actually I’d love to see genealogy and family history workers and volunteers getting more recognition for the fantastic amount of industrious and tech savvy work they do. Family history is something for people from all walks of life. Our history, your history, my history is something very personal. As I say, 21 years and going strong; I’d love to see the site going stronger still in 10 years’ time.’


Pip Willcox, Head of the Centre for Digital Scholarship and Senior Researcher at Oxford e-Research. Chosen site: twitter.com

Twitter is an amazing tool that society has used to show the best of what humanity is at the moment…we share ideas, we share friendship, fun and joy, we communicate with others around the world, people help each other. But, it shows the worst of what humans can do. The news we see is just the tip of the iceberg – the levels of abuse that users, particularly minority groups, receive is appalling. Twitter is a fantastic place to meet people who think very differently from us, people who come from different backgrounds, have had different experiences, who live far from us, or close by but we might not otherwise have met. It is so rich, so full of potential, and some of what we do with it is amazing, yet some of what we do with it is appalling.

The question for the archive is “which Twitter?” There is the general feed, what you see if you don’t sign in. Then there are our individual feeds, where we curate our own filter bubbles, customizing what we see through our accounts. You can create a feed around a hashtag, an event, or slice it by time or location. All of these approaches will affect the version of Twitter we archive and leave for the future to discover.

These filter bubbles are not new: we have always lived in them, even if we haven’t called them that before. Last year there was an experiment where a series of couples who held diametrically opposing views switched Twitter accounts and I found that, and their thoughtful response to it fascinating.

Projects like Cultures of Knowledge, for example, which is based at the History Faculty here at the University of Oxford, traces early modern correspondence. This resource lets you search for who was writing to whom, when, where, and the subjects they were discussing. It’s an enormously rich, people-centred view of the history of ideas and relationships across time and space, and of course it points readers on in interesting directions, to engage closely with the texts themselves. This is possible because the letters were archived and catalogued over the years, over the centuries by experts.

How are we going to trace the conversations of the late 20th and the early 21st centuries? The speed at which ideas flow is faster than ever and their breadth is global. What will future historians make of our age?

I’m interested from a future history as well as a community point of view. The way we are using Twitter has already changed and tracking its use, reach, and power seems to me well worth recording to help us understand it now, and to help explain an aspect of our lives to future societies. For me, Twitter makes the world more familiar, and anything that draws us together as a global community, that reinforces our understanding that we share one planet, that what we have in common vastly outweighs what divides us, and that helps us find ways to communicate is a good and a necessary thing.’



Will Shire, Library Assistant, Philosophy and Theology Faculty Library. Chosen site: wikipedia.org

‘It’s one of the sites I use the most…it has all of human knowledge. I think it’s a cool idea that anyone can edit it – unlike a normal book it’s updated constantly. I feel it’s derided almost too much by people who automatically think it’s not trustworthy…but I like the fact that it is a range of people coming together to edit and amend this resource. As a kid I bothered my mum all the time with constant questioning of ‘Why is this like this, why does it do that. Nowadays if you have a question about anything you can visit wikipedia.org. It would be really interesting to take a snapshot of one article every month or week in order to see how much it changes through user editing.

 Also, I studied languages and it is extremely useful for learning new vocabulary as the links at the side of the article can take you to the content in other available languages. You can quite easily look at different words or use it as a starter to take you to different articles in other languages that aren’t English.’





Initiating conversation: let’s talk about web content (part 1)

To initiate conversation about preserving web content and to encourage people to think about why archiving the web is so important, I asked staff at the Bodleian Libraries to imagine the following: If you could choose just one website to have guaranteed access to in 10 years’ time what would it be – and why? Keep reading to discover staff answers and perspectives…

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, Bodleian Libraries. Chosen site: bodleian.ox.ac.uk

‘Obviously as somebody who is leading this institution, seeing its history reflected in the institutional website is so significant. If you go back to the archived captures of bodleian.ox.ac.uk that are accessible now through the Internet Archive it’s incredible not only to see evolution of the HTML site itself and the look and feel of it but just to see how it reflects the changes in the organisation since the 1990’s when the first Bodleian website was set up…which was actually the first library in the UK to have a website.

We can see the changes to the way the Bodleian Libraries reflect their public persona through the web but also the website is a useful proxy for how the organisation itself has changed: the organisational structure, the administrative arrangements, the policies and strategies, how the web is a reflection of those changes over the past 20 years is really interesting. And in 10 years’ time it would be over 30 years and there will be another decade of evolution, growth, change…the web is a very convenient place to see that at a glance. We obviously archive a large number of institutional and administrative records in paper and digital form but it’s a huge amount to wade through, whereas the web provides a very convenient lens to view our organisational past through. I can’t think of another way, so conveniently, to chart our history, our progress, our challenges and even some of the mistakes that we’ve made as an organisation over that time.

Our organisation as a whole changed dramatically in the year 2000 when we stopped being just the historic Bodleian Library and we were integrated with the departmental faculty libraries. We then changed our name to University of Oxford Library services, then back to the Bodleian. Through the website you can actually see that extraordinary change. It’s such a convenient way of getting a grip on our history’.

Lukasz Kowalski, Bodleian Library Reader Services, Weston Library. Chosen site: stackexchange.com

‘I was thinking “what’s the website with the most information in it?”. My initial thought was Wikipedia.org. But I could easily live without it if I had to, as probably most knowledge contained in it is available in print. My next thought was stackexchange.com. It facilitates an exchange of knowledge and collective problem-solving on a large scale, otherwise unattainable via printed media. It’s supported by a large community of users, including experts in their fields. Together with its sister sites, it covers virtually any discipline and questions that can be asked and answered. Stackexchange is a web of knowledge, but different from Wikipedia. Rather than being organised knowledge it is more organised thinking.

My background is in Physics and I have used this site to further my understanding of concepts which did not have clear explanations in textbooks, or when I wanted to check that my thinking about a solution to a given problem was on the same page as others.

I think it goes back to what, I guess, the internet was about in the first place: the exchange of knowledge and ideas, and such is the character of this site. It’s great to rely on good teachers if one has access to them – but it is wonderful that people from across the world can gain a deeper understanding of concepts and exchange ideas by connecting more readily with those who have the expertise.’


Sophie Quantrell, Library Assistant, Philosophy and Theology Faculty Library. Chosen site: youtube.com

‘I was thinking about youtube.com as a resource mainly because it’s so versatile. It can be used to display images, sound…I’ve seen some people use it for musical scores – putting musical scores alongside the sound and that sort of thing. I think it is a site that can be used almost for any purpose – so you’ve got the social aspect of it with the comments and the interaction as well as the instructional aspect. I learn sign language when I am not busy with other things [gestures around her at the library] so to be able to see and learn it through videos it is great…it’s much more difficult to tell what the signs are if all you’ve got are drawings on a piece of paper!

It can link to videos on so many different topics, like instructional TED talks. There are so many good quality resources online that get overlooked with all the cat videos. It also crosses cultural boundaries…you can upload and view videos in whatever language you want. You could post a video from Australia and someone could be watching it in Kazakhstan!’

Iram Safdar, Graduate Trainee Digital Archivist, Weston Library. Chosen site: wikipedia.org

Wikipedia has been the main source for my knowledge since I was a kid. It’s also provided me with countless hours of entertainment by following the breadcrumb trail of links and seeing where you end up! All sorts of hilarity ensues when you find a rogue edit by someone…I like that it is an open source resource.

Similarly, it shows you what society thinks about things and reveals how we view stuff…which I think in a broader sense is quite interesting.’

Keep an eye out for part 2 and more staff insights coming up on the Archives and Modern Manuscripts blog imminently…


Comparing software tools

While looking at software relating to digital video earlier today I came across a handy website called alternativeTo. It’s a useful means of comparing software applications and getting an idea of the tools that are out there to help perform a particular task. AlternativeTo gives a brief summary of each piece of software along with screenshots of the software in action. Another useful feature is that searches can be filtered by whether the tools are free or open source.

-Emma Hancox

Open Development: Building an Engaged Community

I had an interesting day on Monday at the OSS Watch workshop Open Development: Building an Engaged Community (the slides are available from there).

The days aims were

  • Understand how open development works and know the common community structures
  • Be familiar with the skills and processes that encourage community participation
  • Develop ideas for improving the community friendliness of a specific project

I’ve been using open source software all my career but I’ve always been 1) a bit sketchy about how and 2) very nervous of getting involved in any open source software development so this sounded perfect!

From the offset Steve Lee of OSS Watch, in his introduction to the day, made it was clear that open development practice was key to open source software rather than simply access to the source code. (A couple of the presenters said “don’t just throw it over the wall”, referring to the practice of putting your source code some where public and walking away – a very common practice in our field – as this would not lead to a sustainable software product).

The rest of the day supported this ideal… Sebastian Brännström of the Symbian Foundation spoke of how Symbian hoped to make as much of the Symbian operating system (for phones) open source as soon as possible, and outlined the large (and quite formal) organisational structure required to support the 40 million lines of code. For a software project that large, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but clearly shows that “open sourcing” (I mean, the process to make software open source rather than sourcing work in an open way – though both are valid!) might not always be cheap or a free (beer) option. Indeed, he hoped that there would be a full-time, paid, community leader whose sole role would be to maintain and manage one of the 134 software packages that make up the Symbian OS.

Next up, Sander van der Waal of OSS Watch took us through the developer experience of taking part in an open source project – both from being part of a commercial company in the Netherlands and also working on the OSS Watch project SIMAL. It was very interesting to hear how his team had gone about contributing to Apache Felix & Jackrabbit (Two products very much of interest to our community!). He suggested it was very important to make use of the usual cluster of open source development tools – not just version management, but also mailing lists, bug tracking systems, wikis and the like – and that this was important if you were a “one man band” developer or a whole team. In many ways his experience here helped ease my nerves of contributing to projects.

The final speaker was Mark Johnson, of Taunton’s College, giving his experiences and tips on being involved with the open source course management system, Moodle. In a past life I’ve developed for Moodle, so this was interesting to hear about. His advice was broadly similar to that of the other two speakers, though from a different perspective and here there was evidence of useful reinforcement of ideas rather than repetition, which is always a good thing.

A workshop isn’t complete without a bit of group work and we were asked to complete a questionnaire designed, I think, to get us thinking about the sustainability of our open source projects by highlighting areas we should be considering – licensing, use of standards, documentation, etc.

This was a very useful tool and the questions got me thinking about all sorts of things. The results for futureArch were bad – all “red” (for danger) expect the section of use of standards – but that didn’t come as much of a surprise. I think it would be fair to say that futureArch isn’t an “Open Source Project” per se. Rather we’re avid users of open source software. We, like many, do not have the resources to run a community around anything we build (who has funding for a full-time community manager?) and it would probably be inappropriate to try. But we can and will contribute to other projects and the workshop helped me see that this was both pretty easy (assuming everyone is nice) and desirable.

And, of course, anything we build here – the ingest tool for example or the metadata manager – will probably be “thrown over the wall” and people will be able to find it and others, if they get the urge, will be able to found a community, which I guess shows there is value in simple publication of source code in addition to the (far more preferable and more likely to succeed) development of a community around a product. (The revelation that community building is essential for a sustained software product, probably so obvious to many, sheds light on the reasons behind things like Dev8D too).

Just some final thought then as it grows ever darker and it is good not to cycle too late home!

Firstly, it struck me as people talked, that while open source could be seen as less formal than closed software development, it clearly is not. Development of communities and the subsequent control and management of those communities, requires formal structures making open source anything but an easy option.

Secondly, fascinating were the reasons given to contribute to an open source project. Someone mentioned how by taking part you felt you were not alone, but the overwhelming reason given was “recognition”. By contributing you could get your name (and that of your employer) in lights, that participating in a community could lead to job offers, or other personal success. As most projects are on a meritocratic basis – the more good you do, the more say you have – that success could be to become the community leader or at least one of the controllers of the code – the fabled “commiters”. This is a curious thing – the reason to participate in a “community” is the “selfish” urge to self-promote. Something jars there, but I’m not quite sure what.

-Peter Cliff

open source forever, right?

As much a note to self as anything, but also a cautionary tale…

Open source libraries (I mean software libraries rather than big buildings with books – so apologies for the non-technical readers!) – are very useful. Sometimes they can vanish – projects go under, people stop being interested, and soon a code base is “unsupported” and maybe, one day, might vanish from the Web. Take, for example, the Trilead Java SSH Library, the demise of which I think must be fairly recent.

A quick Google search suggests the following:


Which helpfully says:

“Trilead SSH for Java The freely available open-source library won’t be anymore developed nore supported by Trilead.” (sic.)

Unsupported, in this case, also means unavailable and there are no links to any code from here.

Other sites link to:


which gives a 404.

None of which is very helpful when your code is telling you:

Exception in thread “main” java.lang.NoClassDefFoundError: com/trilead/ssh2/InteractiveCallback

(Should any non-technical types still be reading, that means “I have no idea what you are talking about when you refer to a thing called com.trilead.ssh2.InteractiveCallback so I’m not going to work, no way, not a chance, so there. Ner.).

Now, had I been more awake, I probably would have noticed a sneaky little file by the name “trilead.jar” in the SVNKit directory. I would have also duely added it to the the classpath. But I wasn’t and I didn’t and then got into a panic searching for it.

But, and here is the moral of the tale, I did find this:

“Also, in the meantime we will put Trilead SSH library source code into our repository (it is also distributed under BSD license) so it will remain available for the community and we still will be able to make minor bugfixes in it when necessary.” [SVNKit User Mailing List, 18th May 2009]

Hooray for Open Source!

The open source project SVNKit, which made use of the open source library, was able – due to the open licensing – absorb the SSH library and make it available along with the SVNKit code. Even though the Trilead SSH Library is officially defunct, it lives on in the hands of its users. Marvellous eh?

All which is to say: 1) check the classpath and include all the jars and 2) open licensing means that something at least has a chance of being preserved by someone other than the creator who got fed up with all the emails asking how it worked… 🙂

-Peter Cliff