Columbia River Gorge (3)

As the conference shuttle sped along I-84 from PDX to Hood River I tried to puzzle out a solid meaning for the selected theme of the 2015 International Evergreen Conference: Scaling Up Openness. It’s a broad, somewhat fuzzy theme.

I looked out the shuttle window and decided not to worry about it. I was absolutely floored by the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge. Young mountains thrust up by the Cascadia Subduction Zone crumbling away to leave massive cliff faces and waterfalls — pretty much exactly what you’d expect if you’ve seen the Twilight series of movies, only without the dead eyes and terrible sparkly vampires. I thought to myself, this is the kind of place that one might imagine is entirely unspoiled by things like, well, the internet.

As it turned out, that thought was fortuitous, because the magic smoke finally escaped from my trusty CR-48’s wifi card during the hackfest. I didn’t have any actual computer time all week. Looking back, though, that really didn’t make much of a difference for me as far as my enjoyment of the conference was concerned. The sessions I attended were more than enough to hold my attention, and since IRC is low-overhead and the wifi was workable, I could communicate from my phone when I really needed to.

That lack of constant virtual stimulation gave me the opportunity to really observe our community in action. Fun fact: it turns out that it’s easier to see what’s going on around you when you don’t have your hands on a keyboard and your eyes on a screen.

I’ve been working on the Evergreen project since day one, long before there was a community around it or even a name. I thought for a long time that the community I watched grow up around Evergreen was one that attracted primarily innovators and early adopters in the classic Diffusion of Innovations Theory sense. I believed that we were still low on the bell curve of adoption, and that the more risk-averse masses had just not shown up yet. On the face of it, that makes sense especially in the context of our annual conference. We show off our tips and tricks, explain how we leverage the software to help patrons and staff. More importantly, we put our experiments, both successes and failures, on display so that others can learn from our experiences. We act very much like the opinion-leaders at the leading edge of the bell curve are supposed to act.

The problem with that belief is that is too one dimensional. Over time that’s not how the theory works, and as our community grows (1,600 libraries and counting) we seem to be missing a few important cohorts. Measured over the nine years of data we have to look at, there should be an appreciable number of Evergreen users that are “riding the wave” as opposed to innovating to define their own future. While there are certainly some libraries out there that choose not to participate regularly in the community, the more risk-averse institutions have failed to materialize en masse, or so it seems at first glance. In other words, while the Evergreen userbase has been growing consistently, by the numbers we seem to be growing in the wrong way, without “average” users.

Looking around at the institutions I saw represented there in Hood River I asked myself, why are we missing these types of users? Evergreen is mature and featureful. It’s powerful and extensible. It’s objectively more cost effective than traditional proprietary solutions.

But what if they’re not missing? What if they start by joining quietly as “average” users? What if, like the Juan de Fuca plate subducting below the amazing Pacific Northwest countryside, those “average” users are lifting the whole works and are being inexorably pressed into the mantle of our community? What if they slowly meld and melt into the center, and eventually contribute to volcanic eruptions of innovation that help shape the landscape of the software and the community of which we are all a part? That, I believe, is a good description of what we see happening each year as we gather to share our stories with the rest of the community. Old faces and new, together building a culture of innovation and experimentation.

There were many great presentations at this year’s conference, a third of them by or including Equinox employees I’m very proud to say. There have always been great presentations, and I expect there will continue to be in the future. That is something of which we should all be proud. But that has become the norm. What really impressed me was the diversity, vitality, and collaborative spirit I saw on display. Small libraries and large; IT-heavy shops and weekend hobbyists; developers and documentors and testers and users; first time presenters and greybeards. I am convinced, having been forced out of my digital cocoon by catastrophic hardware failure, that this is the important lesson of the 2015 Evergreen conference: we turn users into collaborators, collaborators into contributors, and contributors into leaders. That was, looking back, also the underlying current of many of my hallway conversations.

And that is the game changing effect of Open Source. Open Source encourages the kind of participatory community we see around us. It’s the reason our community doesn’t have to fit the standard bell curve that describes an idealized “product lifecycle”. That, in turn, allows Evergreen to continually confound those who would pigeon-hole it using traditional FUD techniques, or to co-opt it for goals that don’t align with that of the broader user community. And, indeed, it is what allows Evergreen and its community to reward participants, both commercial and institutional, for playing by the rules.

We have collectively managed to convince the majority of libraries that have chosen to use Evergreen that it is in their interest to get involved and stay involved, and we continue to do that over time. Open Source development doesn’t, by any means, assure this, of course. It takes dedicated people actively looking to collaborate, and probably a bit of luck.

The theme for the conference this year was Scaling Up Openness. When I first heard that, I wasn’t sure what exactly was meant. Here on the other side, I’m quite sure what it means to me, and I think we’re all succeeding … together.