by Aharon Varady
Remember On1foot – the sourcesheet builder of the nonprofit American Jewish World Service (AJWS)? on1foot was a web application created to aid Jewish educators in contextualizing social justice work. Anyone, anywhere in the world could create custom sourcesheets of important Jewish sourcetexts in English translation on topics related to social justice work in a multitude of categories.
Well, it’s still online. No worries. Nothing to see here. The site looks great!
But for a day or more last week, the site was dead, the result of some assumption that websites can continue to coast along without regular site-maintenance. Visitors to the site Thursday and Friday last week were redirected to a page stating “This Website for Sale!” a tell-tale sign of a domain-registration lapse. On1foot.org is popular enough that within a day or so, enough ruckus was raised by fans of the site to motivate AJWS to quickly reassert ownership of its domain.
This incident should, at the very least, act as a wake-up call to any organization that takes its website administration for granted. But more than this, organizations need to understand the underlying reality of the Internet as a medium for whatever resources they use to advance their mission and advertise their brand.
All Internet resources should be considered ephemeral resources by the unstable nature of the medium that is their technological base. Digital archivists know this. It’s why backups are so critical. Open-source advocates know this too. For creative work to remain useful (and not merely backed-up), underlying code and the content it serves need to be shared in a way that might attract their redistribution and reuse.
That way, if one site goes down, the content is still maintained and the code actively developed, elsewhere. This is what is called, open source culture. A culture of open sharing and reuse provides a layer of robustness that technology cannot. Code and content are understood to be part of a growing infrastructure – their duplication and replication being critical to the progress of the project whose span of life is measured in thousands of years, not the 3-5 years asked for in grant applications.
Philanthropists and funding organizations would be right to ask prospective grantees whether the work they produce from their funding will be shared with certain open-source and free-culture licenses (recommended below). How else can they ensure that the money that they spend isn’t limited by the lifetime of their grantees effort? They need to demand that work funded through their donations is shared so that others can pick up and innovate with what they leave off.
The Open Siddur Project models a different mode of cooperation and partnership. We use widely-adopted open-source and free-culture licenses maintained by the Creative Commons and Free Software Foundation to create the preconditions for collaboration and partnership. We share what we code with the LGPL open-source license, release new digital editions of work in the Public Domain with a Public Domain declaration, and help a community of students, scholars, artists, and educators share their Copyrighted work with Attribution and Attribution-ShareAlike licenses. As standard licenses for sharing and collaboration they permit others to adopt, adapt, and redistribute their work so long as they provide proper attribution and credit.
Our database is shared with everyone under the terms of these licenses, both nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses. By disseminating this work they help us to preserve the ephemeral nature of this resource, as well as any fire-prevention system in a museum or library. They further our mission in sustaining a Jewish cultural commons in the sharing of Torah and Tefilah. They recognize the value of this commons and collaborate on new ways for accessing it by respecting the terms of these free-culture licenses.
The tragedy of the Commons at the onset of the Industrial Revolution was the private assertion of control and ownership of what was once publicly held and open pastureland. We can avoid the tragedy of the Commons at the onset of the Digital Age by being more intentional in the sharing of our work through open-source and free-culture licensing. We are not alone in this effort. Sefaria.org, Hebrew Wikisource, and the Ben-Yehuda Project are three other active free-culture projects that help to preserve and provide better access to our cultural commons.
If AJWS doesn’t want to be in the business of maintaining a website for generating Jewish sourcetexts, adopting a standard free-culture Attribution license from the Creative Commons would be a good start. That would enable a host of other projects to help disseminate and innovate with the valuable Jewish educational resources they’ve compiled. AJWS could work directly with Sefaria.org, a relatively new and growing open source and free-culture Torah project that would make a fine destination for on1foot. Sefaria aims to be a comprehensive database of the canon or Rabbinic Jewish literature and includes a source-sheet builder. Partnered by their common acceptance of free-culture and open source licensing, the entire ecosystem of open-source Jewish projects including Hebrew Wikisource, the Open Siddur, and other as-yet-unimagined efforts can then bring added value inspired by each of their their particular missions.
The project of Jewish education is not an abstraction. It is an edifice requiring robust support through far-sighted decision making informed by an awareness that the Internet is a wilderness of obscure and ephemeral work whose preservation and lifespan is only extended by the sharing of resources.
Aharon Varady is Founding Director, Hierophant the Open Siddur Project.
The Open Siddur Project will be presenting Wednesay morning, November 13th, 2013 at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute for the EVA / MINERVA 2013 Xth Jerusalem Conference on the Digitisation of Cultural Heritage.
This post is shared with a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0 Unported) license.