why I don’t like the code4lib code award idea

Eric Lease Morgan has suggested an award given by Code4Lib to some outstanding open source code project. While the email doesn’t make this clear, my understanding is that there would be financial recompense attached to this award too.

No offense to Eric, but I don’t really like the idea of such an award with the Code4Lib name on it.

Implied Endorsement

The award will inevitably be seen as an endorsement of the awarded project by ‘Code4Lib.’  While some supporters say this is not the intention, I’ve also seen supporters say the reason they want the Code4Lib name on it is so the award will have more prestige. To me, this implies that an implied endorsement in fact is part of the idea:  What else would this prestige be for?  But whether it’s intentional or not, it’s inevitable.

The Code4Lib community has indeed garnered a fair amount of prestige lately, including by people who don’t really understand the informal and non-official nature of Code4Lib. I’ve seen Code4Lib erroneously referred to as an ‘organization’ several times.  Much of this audience will see such an award as an endorsement of the project awarded, by the prestigious ‘Code4Lib’.

But I don’t think Code4Lib actually has the capacity to accurately and useful determine value of an open source project.  Library technologists, and Code4Lib community members specifically, are still learning how to do this well, and still coming to a consensus about what this means. Different people in Code4Lib sometimes violently disagree on whether a particular project was done well, or whether it would be wise for someone else to adopt it.

If the award is voted on, then it becomes basically a popularity contest, and I don’t think that’s a good way to provide reccommendations on good projects.  Many projects which have been popular or had a lot of ‘buzz’ in the community — in my personal evaluation I woudln’t want to reccommend.  But regardless of how the award is decided, it’s mis-leading to imply that Code4Lib can speak with one voice in making such an endorsement — as a community, we’re still learning how to make such evaluations, and there isn’t neccesarily even a rough consensus on particular projects.

Libraries need to learn how to evaluate open source projects on their own, for their own circumstances and needs.  Libraries, always on the look-out for shortcuts, are going to be really tempted to use a Code4Lib award as a shortcut to their own investigation. If it’s awarded by Code4Lib, it must be good. I worry about anything that discourages libraries from the hard work of developing their own capacity to evaluate projects; and I also worry about such an implied endorsement actually steering them wrong because I don’t think we have the capacity to reliably make such universally applicable evaluations as a community.  Sure, the award won’t be intended as such, but it will be read as such. (And what is the award intended for exactly? More later).

The Nature of the Code4Lib Community

Code4Lib’s strength is it’s informal amorphous network. We’re just a bunch of people trying to get things done, and networking together to help each other do that. We’re not a formal organization. We are a social network of equal peers. And sure, in the usual way of human relations, some of these peers become ‘more equal’ than others, with more influence or prestige.   Some of us believe this is always based on ‘merit’, others are less sure. But all of us nevertheless take pride in striving to minimize this, to be open to newcomers, to share community responsibilities and authority.

And we are fairly succesful at this. The Code4Lib community is remarkly free of any kind of competition or political scheming. We’re an awfully cooperative bunch, almost always willing to help our peers, share our code and ideas, give credit where it’s due, let others have a turn at bat. Individuals within the Code4Lib community tend to be more interested in getting things done then in their own fame, and we like it this way.

I worry about an award with monetary compensation distorting this, introducing an element of competition,  increasing inequality of prestige or power within or outside the community.  Every open source project, but especially within the awfully cooperative Code4Lib community, is built on the shoulders of everyone else. I don’t want to encourage jockeying for award winning, risking introducing an element of competition or politics that’s been nicely absent so far. Nor do I want to encourage external observers from getting the wrong idea about the Code4Lib community, thinking it’s actually a community cohesive or formal enough to endorse something as a community, which it’s not, and we like it that way!  But if enough people start thinking or acting as if it is, in a community defined soley by the collective actions of it’s participants — it starts pushing it to be that.

What is the purpose?

So these are risks of such an award. Sure, they aren’t inevitable, and there are ways to try and minimize them. But for what? What is this award proposal actually supposed to accomplish? What is the benefit that’s worth these risks?  It’s not entirely clear to me. Supporters of this award idea should be clear about what problem it’s meant to solve, or need to fill. Why do we need it?

Regular Journal feature?

If we’d like to publisize good code better, then I think there are better ways to do this. I would actually love to see a regular “notable project review” feature in the Code4Lib Journal, perhaps in every issue.   This could cover only articles that the reviewers thought were exceptionally good, or it could cover any project of note.

Even for projects the reviewers thought were exceptionally good, the review format would provide an overall narrative evaluation, hopefully including downsides and insufficiencies, and discouraging the reader from taking it a review as an implied universal endorsement.

And reviews would have particular reviewer’s bylines attached, making it clear who was doing the evaluation, and discouraging the reader from thinking it’s the “Code4Lib community”, which isn’t capable of speaking with one voice anyway (nor do we desire it to).

And more than one project a year could be publisized this way. One or more per quarter could be.

If Eric or anyone else is interesting spending time on evaluating and publisizing community open source projects, I’d encourage them to consider volunteering for the Journal. We could assign a Project Review Editor, or even have a special sub-commitee of the Journal editorial committee that did nothing but focus on a regular Project Review feature.

Funded Internship

If the goal of the idea is to inject some money into library-domain open source software development, than rather than an award with compenstaion, I think the money could more effectively be spent funding an internship or some kind.

Perhaps something like Google Summer of Code. Give a stipend to some library student (or currently un- or under-employed Code4Libber, but I like the idea of getting library students involved as bonus) to work on a Code4Lib community project. Perhaps the community could vote on which project(s) were eligible for such an internship, and then people could apply expressing their interests, and a smaller committee would actually match an intern with a project.

Sure, there’s a bunch of annoying overhead here to making sure everything is done fairly and people do the work they get paid for. But there’s a bunch of annoying overhead in giving an award to a project properly deserving of endorsement and reflecting the (diverse) will of the Code4Lib community too.  I think a funded internship would accomplish more and have less possibility of disastrous consequences.

Award without Code4Lib

If people want to spend their time, energy, or money on creating an award for an excellent library-domain open source project, I can’t and wouldn’t want to stop them.  Maybe it’s a good idea despite my misgivings.  They can go ahead and so it — but without attaching the Code4Lib name to it,  and thus without the implied endorsement from Code4Lib, and minimizing the potential for changing the nature or perception of the Code4Lib community.

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2 Responses to why I don’t like the code4lib code award idea

  1. You make great points, as always, Jonathan. I like the Summer of Code idea and the thought of having a regular review in the Journal. Our most popular article so far is a review article: Free and Open Source Options for Creating Database-Driven Subject Guides. That’s probably because it does fill a need–aiding libraries in evaluating some of the options. It sounds like your ideas have developed considerably since you first discussed your concerns on the listserv. I think the alternatives you propose are worth discussing on the listserv as well, to make sure that everyone hears them.

  2. jrochkind says:

    I have indeed always wanted the Journal to have such a regular feature. We just need someone who actually wants to spend the time on it. Evaluating/reviewing an open source project is not a trivial task.

    But if there are people interested in spending that time for an award…. I’d be much happier if they spent that time for a regular feature in the Journal instead!

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