Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

3 recommended books on open source

A stack of books

(Note: Two of these reviews originally appeared, in slightly different forms, as part of the 2015 and 2016 summer reading lists at They appear here via a Creative Commons license.)

When most of us think about books on open source, what comes to mind are usually technical tomes — books covering certain technologies, books which teach you to code, that sort of thing. But open source goes beyond that. And so do books on open source.

I’d like to share three books on the subject of open source with you. They might just get you thinking about open source in slightly different ways.

A Quiet Revolution: Growing Creative Commons in Aotearoa New Zealand

I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated with Creative Commons. What’s particularly fascinating is why and how people have embraced Creative Commons share their work. Some of that sharing has been from some very unlikely corners, too.

Earlier this year, stumbled across a book that shined some light into those corners: A Quiet Revolution: Growing Creative Commons in Aotearoa New Zealand (Aotearoa, in case you’re wondering, is the Maori name for New Zealand). It’s a set of short essays that detail how individuals and organizations in my adopted home of New Zealand use Creative Commons to release their work, resources, and research to a wider audience.

This book is a wide-ranging peek into how those individuals and organizations use not only the licenses but the idea of openness that underpins Creative Commons. It’s that range of perspectives that draws you into the book and holds your attention.

A Quiet Revolution gives you a glimpse of how:

  • Libraries and museums are making historical documents and photos more accessible to the public.
  • Schools and universities are opening access to research and to educational resources.
  • Artists, musicians, and writers are helping spread culture more widely
  • Government departments are trying to make data accessible to New Zealand’s residents.

If A Quiet Revolution contains one lesson, it’s this:

We want the takeaway message from this book to be not so much “look at these cool projects” as “why aren’t these cool projects happening everywhere?”

A Quiet Revolution is a free download, licensed (surprise, surprise) under a CC-By-SA license.

Mastering Emacs

Until a few years ago, I did most of my writing in the Emacs text editor. No, I wasn’t one of those uber Emacs geeks who used it as their operating system. I just wrote and published using the editor. Then, other younger editors seduced me away from Emacs.

Earlier this year, though, I decided to go back to Emacs. The problem was that my Emacs kung-fu was rusty. Very rusty. Worse, I was forced to find a new home for my favorite reference, Learning Emacs, before I moved overseas.

On the advice of an Emacs-obsessed pal, I plunked down some cash from my PayPal account and bought a copy of Mastering Emacs by Mickey Peterson. Based on his blog of the same name, Mastering Emacs is a detailed guide to the editor that’s good for anyone who’s starting with Emacs or who (like me) needs a refresher.

The book is aimed at a fairly technically-savvy audience. If that’s not you, then you’ll find parts of the book a bit hard to follow. Petersen does a good job of explaining the slightly abstruse Emacs terminology, though. Regardless, you can skip the parts that don’t interest you. In fact, Petersen encourages you to do that — learn the commands and features you frequently use, and turn to the online help (or the book) when you need to.

I found Mastering Emacs to be a solid refresher. I’m getting back up to speed on Emacs. And while I’m not interested in mastering the editor, with the help of this book I definitely could.

The Foundation for an Open Source City

In The Foundation for an Open Source City, Jason Hibbets points out that open source is is a philosophy, a culture, and a framework for how to work collaboratively. And, as Hibbets makes clear in the book, the philosophy and culture of open source can be applied to civic participation.

The focus of the The Foundation for an Open Source City is Hibbets’ experience as community organizer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and how he (and others like him) helped make local government a bit more open.

Throughout the book, Hibbets continually stresses that it’s a combination of technology and people that make a move towards an open source city possible. It’s not technology for the sake of technology, but technology that helps people and help solves problems. And the fact that much of that technology — like SeeClickFix for reporting problems — uses data that our tax dollars pay for is a bonus.

But without passionate and civic-minded participants, any push towards make a city more open source will fail. Sort of like what happens in the software world …

What Hibbets points out throughout the book, though not always directly, is that it’s a mix of ideas, action, enthusiasm, and willingness to embrace a different set of ideals that makes a city open source. All of that may start with ordinary citizens, but it needs to spread to elected officials and to businesses as well.

As The Foundation for an Open Source City makes clear, it can be done. It’s not easy, there will be bumps in the road, but with people willing to engage civic leaders, and civic leaders open to change, the open source city can take steps towards becoming a reality.

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