The Values of Open Communities

I (relatively) recently came back from Open Repositories and have had a myriad of jumbled thoughts bouncing around in my head about aligning communities, values, software, and expectations within libraries and archives. Hopefully, this blog post will serve as an outline for the thoughts that have been percolating for a few weeks, and really, a few years before that. I’ve met a significant number of professionals that I know share these opinions as well, but I think it’s helpful to spend some time reflecting on the ideas they’ve imparted and how we, as members of a community, can better align our actions with our values, and the difficulties that work presents.

I mentioned Open Repositories above because Casey Fiesler’s opening plenary about working with the fanfiction community to grow and develop Archive of Our Own got me started thinking about how our inclusion of values and community members into our development projects at the RAC has grown and changed over the, almost, five years that I’ve been here. Fiesler described a situation where fanfiction authors had been driven out of their previous communities due to changes in ownership that included new values that went directly against the values of the larger fanfiction community in general. Left with no platform that aligned with their internal values, the community banded together to create Archive of Our Own, both a community and platform whose mission is to “preserve our fannish economy, values, and creative expression by protecting and nurturing our fellow fans, our work, our commentary, our history, and our identity while providing the broadest possible access to fannish activity for all fans” (Archive of Our Own, About the OTW, n.d.). This story resonated with me because the D-Team has spent a lot of time trying to make sure our systems choices align with our values, and the values of the larger archives and libraries communities. We were at a conference dedicated to open access in libraries and archives, so, ostensibly, we all were thinking about aligning our systems with our values. But how do we do that?

Years ago, the D-Team created mission and values statements that would help guide our work and the choices we make. These documents have helped us think about and contextualize every choice we make and the projects that we decide to focus on in the future, and we revisit them every year to make sure they still accurately represent our work and goals. These guiding documents have proved invaluable in helping us keep ourselves accountable for our choices. However, we’ve been blessed to have the freedom to pursue the projects that best align with these values, and that’s in large part of our leadership. Our President and our Director of Archives have been extremely supportive in understanding our team’s mission and giving us the resources (time, labor, and financial support) we need to do our work.

During the conference, I got a couple of questions about how we were able to make the case for open source systems that require a substantial amount of labor to spin up and maintain. Obviously, it really depends on the institutional context, but the more I thought about it, the more I believe that it’s essential to tie these arguments and choices back to institutional and professional values. If we, as an institution, are committed to the open access and spread of information, so, then we should be committed to open source systems and the communities around them. Archivists have a social responsibility to contribute to their larger communities, as laid out in the SAA’s Core Values Statement. Supporting open systems that align with institutional values is one such way that we try to uphold our team’s social responsibility, as laid out in the “Build networks, not silos” section of the D-Team’s values statement. We see it as part of our duty as an independent operating foundation to share our work out and support others doing work that aligns with our values. Our responsibilities do not end with our materials and our researchers. Using your own mission and values as a guide, coupled with realistic discussions about the resource costs, will help you make a better case for your desired systems. However, it’s important to remember that it can be counter-productive to try to make these types of choices in a vacuum.

You can never make the truly right decision without first understanding your community’s functional and ideological requirements. Involving and engaging with our community has helped guide our systems design and selection process. “Human values have become increasingly important for technology design due to ubiquitous technology included in our work and private lives on a daily basis” (Detweiler et al., “Personal Informatics for Reflection on Personal Values“). Archives are service institutions, and we have a responsibility to make sure our values and choices are in line with the values and desires of the communities we serve. “By analyzing which values are relevant for the stakeholders of a system, the design can be driven into the right direction from the beginning” (Detweiler et al., “Personal Informatics for Reflection on Personal Values“). That means that we try to bring community stakeholders into the process as soon as possible, whether it be with suggesting workflow changes, changing an archival system, or small discovery and display changes. So, while we have values that we can use to guide our work, we also have to remember who we are working for, and understand where our values overlap, and where they stray from the needs of our users.

It’s not easy to put aside our own desires for work that may not directly help us, as developers and archivists. I’ve been a part of an open source community that only started thinking about and meeting accessibility standards four years after system release. It wasn’t any sort of conscious choice that led to that state, but it was a combination of a few things: the developers needed to get the functionality of the system to a certain point for wider adoption, there were limited resources available, accessibility wasn’t written as a priority on the roadmap anywhere, and, finally, the community needed more accessibility expertise to make the changes. However, because accessibility had become a bit of an afterthought, we were in turn not meeting the needs of some of our community. We were not meeting our social responsibility, and had gotten out of step with our professional values. Additionally, “it has been shown that a lack of consideration of social values in software systems can lead to the same consequences as a major security breach,” resulting in the loss of trust or adoption of a system (Hussain et al., “Integrating Social Values into Software Design Patterns“).

This is a perfect example of how these communities that we’d like to make use of also require support from us. Even if we don’t help create something, we can help shoulder the burden of maintenance that it takes to keep communities growing and thriving. Open source projects are especially in need of this type of support because they often lack direct funding or institutional support through mandates.

This has been a long, and somewhat rambling post, that I’m sure has been written better by multiple other people, but I think it’s important to take the time to think about fitting values and communities into our professional responsibilities. This is all to say that the values guiding the work that we do are vitally important in helping us make choices that fulfill our social responsibility to our direct communities, as well as supporting those communities that help us do our work. There’s a lot in here, but ultimately, I’ve found that the most compelling arguments can tie your choice back into your professional values. There’s a lot of emotional labor involved in aligning the values of your projects, your systems, and your institutions, but it’s worth it.

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