It says on the iBiblio FAQ page that iBiblio "stands above other digital libraries" by maintaining "a close relation to the open source models for development and management of collections." The FAQ page also says, "We're all about freedom, man! Free Tibet, free Burma, Free Love, you get the picture. We offer a free platform for the exchange of free thought. We host tons of cultural sites like the DocSouth Project, Zen@iBiblio, and North Carolina Raves (all of which can be seen from our collections index). We are also one of the first servers to mirror the original Linux kernel, so you can tell we're big on free software, too."
Paul Jones, listed on the who we are page as "fearless leader," has been the project's director since it began in 1992. He is a computer scientist, a poet, and a professor of both journalism and library science. He has eclectic tastes in music, a high forehead, hair that ripples over his shoulders, and speaks in an accent you could call Mayberry PhD; imagine a good ol' boy-talking leftover hippie who co-wrote The Web Server Book (which later morphed into The Unix Web Server Book, Second Edition, and you have Paul pegged -- and some insight into the nature of the iBiblio collection, which could be loosely defined as 'information and amusements Paul likes or needs or thinks a whole lot of other people might like or need.'
The iBiblio collection policy is vague; "eclectic" is the polite word. There is a fair amount of southern U.S. culture (the Mayberry part) and plenty of scholarly studies (the PhD part), and lots of everything else. The Web's longest-running comic (since 1993), Dr. Fun, is hosted by iBiblio. So is the Virtual Shtetl, an online repository for Yiddish language and culture.
The current iBiblio name was chosen, in large part, because it was available. Paul says, "Naming anything on the Internet these days is a combination of what's available and what you're trying to say." The old SunSite name had to go when the site's relationship with original sponsor Sun Microsytems (amicably) dissolved several years ago. Then, Paul says, people both in the free software community and the rest of the world seemed to associate the MetaLab name almost entirely with the software aspect of the site (which only makes up about half of it), and when the latest sponsor, red hat center, donated $4 million to the project, a name change was in order -- but not to one that had either redness or hatness in it.
"Bob Young felt like since this was the first and biggest [charitable] project he had done," Paul says, and since they were going to have many changes in the site, "... he also wanted to try to do a little bit different name. He noticed when he kept certain names, say like red hat center and Red Hat, Incorporated, that people got them confused." So instead of a Red Hat-boosting name, it became iBiblio, a made-up word that alludes well to librararyness -- and is easy to remember once you get your tongue around it correctly, pronoucing the first "i" long so that you are saying, "eye - bib - lee - oh."
Right now the amount of material iBiblio can hold is limited only by server capacity. "We have plenty of bandwidth," Paul says. And now, new hardware is going online steadily, paid for in large part by the Red Hat center grant. It all runs Linux for reasons that go beyond the current sponsorship. Indeed, the MetaLab/SunSite relationship with Linux started before Red Hat was formed, and came about almost entirely by accident.
"Originally," Paul says, "the first U.S. [Linux] mirror site was for a brief time a place called banjo, at concert dot net, and that's right up the road from us. I forget how many Megabytes the kernel was then, perhaps 30 -- now that doesn't seem like anything, but at the time it seemed like quite a bit -- and they were getting a little bit of traffic, several hundred file transfers a day. It was enough to make them nervous. They were a small company, just getting going.
"Jonathan Magid, who in fact still works with me, was an undergrad who was interested in operating systems, and he came to me and said, 'You know, there are these guys that are cooperatively building an operating system, and you can have it.' I said, 'Oh yeah? When can I run it?' He said, 'Well, you can only run the kernel, the rest'll be coming soon.' At first I said, 'We don't really need another operating system.' I already had a Mac, we had Suns, and we had PCs, so what did we need another operating system for? He [Jonathan] said, 'This one, you can actually work on yourself if you want to,' and I thought this was kind of nice, we'll try that out, and we sort of rescued it from banjo before they got in trouble [over the traffic], and we've never stopped [hosting Linux] since."
Paul has no accurate count of the number of Linux and free software files currently hosted at iBiblio.org. He says, "I know the separate distros, each one is an entire tree of its own, we carry about thirty-some distros. We have between four and six thousand community-contributed files. Some are active and some are now becoming historic, but the librarian part of me doesn't want to throw anything away."
In a little side note, Paul adds, "After Jonathan got overwhelmed as the Linux portion took off, I said, 'We need to find somebody who really cares about this who will come in and help us out.' Jonathan suggested a friend, Eric Troan, who he said would work for 'a couple of t-shirts.'"
Troan stuck around for a while, but eventually got hired by then-new Red Hat (Paul says Troan was Red Hat employee number four), and another Eric, surname Raymond, got involved and continued his participation until, Paul says, he more-or-less accidentally found himself flying yon and hither speechifying and writing as the prime spokesman for the entire open source movement.
Paul cannot remember exactly how long Raymond worked on MetaLab; "You'd have to ask Raymond," he says. "About three years, I think, but I'm not positive."
This lack of certainty, this semi-anarchy, this sense of people coming and going, each bringing something to the whole, shows why iBiblio is inextricably linked to the free software and Open Source movements in ways that extend beyond software into both management style and general philosophy. Some volunteers have made noticeable, even site-shaking contribitions. Paul credits Eric Raymond, for instance, with bringing Trove, an open-source distributed archiving system for use at large software archive sites, with him.
But other equally-valuable contributions may be less visible than Trove, and many iBiblio contributors may be unknown within the Linux, open source, and free software communities, where the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry [IUPAC] or the Vietnam Multimedia Archives are not daily discussion topics.
The point to all this is that open source software and concepts have uses beyond the confines of the programming community, and that iBiblio.org, with new money from a foundation that owes its funding to open source software, is an endless experiment in open source and library science (which might also be called "library art" in the iBiblio context), and how a combination of the two can evolve as a public resource if given money, time, and a little (but not too much) guidance.