Gift cultures, librarianship, and open source software development

This short essay examines more closely the concept of a "gift culture" and how it may or may not be related to librarianship. After this examination and with a few qualifications, I still believe my judgements about open source software and librarianship are true. Open source software development and librarianship have a number of similarities -- both are examples of gift cultures.

I have recently been reading a book about open source software development by Eric Raymond.[1] The book describes the environment of free software and tries to explain why some programers are willing to give away the products of their labors. It describes the "hacker milieu" as a "gift culture":

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.[2]

Raymond alludes to the definition of "gift cultures", but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. Being the good librarian, I was off to the reference department for more specific answers. More often than not, I found information about "gift exchange" and "gift economies" as opposed to "gift cultures." (Yes, I did look on the Internet but found little.)

Probably one of the earliest and more comprehensive studies of gift exchange was written by Marcell Mauss.[3] In his analysis he says gifts, with their three obligations of giving, receiving, and repaying, are in aspects of almost all societies. The process of gift giving strengthens cooperation, competitiveness, and antagonism. It reveals itself in religious, legal, moral, economic, aesthetic, morphological, and mythological aspects of life.[4]

As Gregory states, for the industrial capitalist economies, gifts are nothing but presents or things given, and "that is all that needs to be said on the matter." Ironically for economists, gifts have value and consequently have implications for commodity exchange.[5] He goes on to review studies about gift giving from an anthropological view, studies focusing on tribal communities of various American indians, cultures from New Guinea and Melanesia, and even ancient Roman, Hindu, and Germanic societies:

The key to understanding gift giving is apprehension of the fact that things in tribal economics are produced by non-alienated labor. This creates a special bond between a producer and his/her product, a bond that is broken in a capitalistic society based on alienated wage-labor.[6]

Ingold, in "Introduction To Social Life" echoes many of the things summarized by Gregory when he states that industrialization is concerned:

exclusively with the dynamics of commodity production. ... Clearly in non-industrial societies, where these conditions do not obtain, the significance of work will be very different. For one thing, people retain control over their own capacity to work and over other productive means, and their activities are carried on in the context of their relationships with kin and community. Indeed their work may have the strengthening or regeneration of these relationships as its principle objective.[7]

In short, the exchange of gifts forges relationships between partners and emphasizes qualitative as opposed to quantitative terms. The producer of the product (or service) takes a personal interest in production, and when the product is given away as a gift it is difficult to quantify the value of the item. Therefore the items exchanged are of a less tangible nature such as obligations, promises, respect, and interpersonal relationships.

As I read Raymond and others I continually saw similarities between librarianship and gift cultures, and therefore similarities between librarianship and open source software development. While the summaries outlined above do not necessarily mention the "abundance" alluded to by Raymond, the existence of abundance is more than mere speculation. Potlatch, "a ceremonial feast of the American Indians of the northwest coast marked by the host's lavish distribution of gifts or sometimes destruction of property to demonstrate wealth and generosity with the expectation of eventual reciprocation", is an excellent example.[8]

Libraries have an abundance of data and information. (I won't go into whether or not they have an abundance of knowledge or wisdom of the ages. That is another essay.) Libraries do not exchange this data and information for money; you don't have to have your credit card ready as you leave the door. Libraries don't accept checks. Instead the exchange is much less tangible. First of all, based on my experience, most librarians just take pride in their ability to collect, organize, and disseminate data and information in an effective manner. They are curious. They enjoy learning things for learning's things sake. It is a sort of Platonic end in itself. Librarians, generally speaking, just like what they do and they certainly aren't in it for the money. You won't get rich by becoming a librarian.

Information is not free. It requires time and energy to create, collect, and share, but when an information exchange does take place, it is usually intangible, not monetary, in nature. Information is intangible. It is difficult to assign it a monetary value, especially in a digital environment where it can be duplicated effortlessly:

An exchange process is a process whereby two or more individuals (or groups) exchange goods or services for items of value. In Library Land, one of these individuals is almost always a librarian. The other individuals include tax payers, students, faculty, or in the case of special libraries, fellow employees. The items of value are information and information services exchanged for a perception of worth -- a rating valuing the services rendered. This perception of worth, a highly intangible and difficult thing to measure, is something the user of library services "pays", not to libraries and librarians, but to administrators and decision-makers. Ultimately, these payments manifest themselves as tax dollars or other administrative support. As the perception of worth decreases so do tax dollars and support.[9]

Therefore when information exchanges take place in libraries librarians hope their clientele will support the goals of the library to administrators when issues of funding arise. Librarians believe that "free" information ("think free speech, not free beer") will improve society. It will allow people to grow spiritually and intellectually. It will improve humankind's situation in the world. Libraries are only perceived as beneficial when they give away this data and information. That is their purpose, and they, generally speaking, do this without regards to fees or tangible exchanges.

In many ways I believe open source software development, as articulated by Raymond, is very similar to the principles of librarianship. First and foremost with the idea of sharing information. Both camps put a premium on open access. Both camps are gift cultures and gain reputation by the amount of "stuff" they give away. What people do with the information, whether it be source code or journal articles, is up to them. Both camps hope the shared information will be used to improve our place in the world. Just as Jefferson's informed public is a necessity for democracy, open source software is necessary for the improvement of computer applications.

Second, human interactions are a necessary part of the mixture in both librarianship and open source development. Open source development requires people skills by source code maintainers. It requires an understanding of the problem the computer application is trying to solve, and the maintainer must assimilate patches with the application. Similarly, librarians understand that information seeking behavior is a human process. While databases and many "digital libraries" house information, these collections are really "data stores" and are only manifested as information after the assignment of value are given to the data and inter-relations between datum are created.

Third, it has been stated that open source development will remove the necessity for programers. Yet Raymond posits that no such thing will happen. If anything, there will an increased need for programmers. Similarly, many librarians feared the advent of the Web because they believed their jobs would be in jeopardy. Ironically, librarianship is flowering under new rubrics such as information architects and knowledge managers.

It has also been brought to my attention by Kevin Clarke ( that both institutions use peer-review:

Your cultural take (gift culture) on "open source" is interesting. I've been mostly thinking in material terms but you are right, I think, in your assessment. One thing you didn't mention is that, like academic librarians, open source folks participate in a peer-review type process.

All of this is happening because of an information economy. It sure is an exciting time to be a librarian, especially a librarian who can build relational databases and program on a Unix computer.


Thank you to Art Rhyno ( who encouraged me to post the original version of this text.


  1. Raymond, E.S., The cathedral and the bazaar : musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary. 1st ed. 1999, [Sebastopol, CA]: O'Reilly.
  2. Ibid. pg. 99.
  3. Mauss, M., The gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. The Norton library, N378. 1967, New York: Norton.
  4. Lukes, S., Mauss, Marcel, in International encyclopedia of the social sciences, D.L. Sills, Editor. 1968, Macmillan: [New York] volume 10, pg. 80.
  5. Gregory, C.A, "Gifts" in Eatwell, J., et al., The New Palgrave : a dictionary of economics. 1987, New York: Stockton Press. volume 3, pg. 524.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ingold, T., Introduction To Social Life, in Companion encyclopedia of anthropology, T. Ingold, Editor. 1994, Routledge: London ; New York. p. 747.
  8. Merriam-Webter Online Dictionary,
  9. Morgan, E.L., Marketing Future Libraries,

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: Frankly, I forget where this article was published first. Alas.
Date created: 2000-12-28
Date updated: 2004-11-14
Subject(s): open source software; gift cultures; librarianship;