Evergreen 2012: ownership and interdependence

“Cats that Webchick is herding” by Kathleen Murtagh on Flickr (CC-BY)

A challenge common to any large project is, of course, herding the cats. The Evergreen project has pulled off a number of multi-year projects, including completely replacing the public catalog interface, creating acquisitions and serials modules from scratch, creating a kid’s catalog, writing Evergreen’s manual, and instituting a unit and regression testing regime. As we speak, we’re in the middle of a project to replace the staff client with a web-based staff interface.

All of this happened — and continues to happen — in a community where there’s little room for anybody to dictate to another community member to do anything in particular. We have no dictator, benevolent or otherwise; no user enhancement committee; no permanent staff employed by the Evergreen Project.

How does anything get done? By the power of Voltron interdependence.

In 2011, Evergreen become a member project of the Software Freedom Conservancy, representing a culmination of the efforts started in 2010 (as Grace mentioned).

As a member project of Conservancy, Evergreen receives several benefits: Conservancy holds the project’s money, negotiates venue contracts for the annual conference and hack-a-way, and holds the project’s trademark. However, Conservancy does not run the project — nor do they want to.

As part of joining Conservancy, the Evergreen Project established an Oversight Board, and in 2012, I had the privilege of beginning a term as chair of the EOB. The EOB is Conservancy’s interface with the Evergreen Project, and the EOB is the group that is ultimately responsible for making financial decisions.

Aha! You might think to yourself: “So, if the Evergreen Project doesn’t have a dictator in the mold of Linus Torvalds, it has elected oligarchs in the form of the Oversight Board!”

And you would be wrong. The Evergreen Oversight Board does not run the project either. The EOB does not appoint the release managers; it does not dictate who is part of the Documentation Interest Group; it does not mandate any particular sort of QA.

What does the EOB do? In part, it does help establish policies for the entire project; for example, Evergreen’s decision to adopt a code of conduct in 2014 arose from the suggestions and actions of EOB members, including Kathy Lussier and Amy Terlaga. It also, in conjunction with Conservancy, helps to protect the trademark.

The trademark matters. It represents a key piece of collective ownership, ownership that is in the hands of the community via a nonprofit, disinterested organization. Evergreen is valuable, not just as a tool that libraries can use to help patrons get access to library resources, but in part as something that various institutions have built successful services (commercial or otherwise) on.  If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: if you plan to launch an open source project for the benefit of libraries, give a thought to how the trademark should be owned and managed.  The consequences of not doing so can end up creating a huge distraction from shipping excellent software… or worse.

But back to the question of governance: how does the day to day work of writing documentation, slinging code, updating websites, training new users, seeking additional contributors, unruffling feathers, and so forth get done? By constant negotiation in a sea of interdependence. This is complicated, but not chaotic. There are plenty of contracts helping protect the interests of folks contributing to and using Evergreen: contracts with non-profit and for-profit service providers like Equinox; contracts to join consortia; contracts to pool money together for a specific project. There are also webs of trust and obligation: a developer can become a committer by showing that they are committed to improving Evergreen and have a track record of doing so successfully.

Governance is inescapable in any project that has more than one person; it is particularly important in community-based open source projects. Evergreen has benefited from a lot of careful thought about formal and informal rules and lines of communication…. and will continue to do so.

— Galen Charlton, Added Services and Infrastructure Manager

This is the seventh in our series of posts leading up to Evergreen’s Tenth birthday.