Anthony Taylor [opinions]

Free books for free software [documentation]

The shelves of my local bookstore are crammed with hundreds of computer titles, meters of space dedicated to titles such as, “Get Your MCSE In Three Days”, and, “Microsoft Exchange Explained”, and, “The Moron’s Guide To MS-Windows XP”.

I’ve noticed a dearth of free software titles. It’s a shame.

There are a few free software subjects which get a lot of attention: Apache, PHP, a smattering of Perl, and even an occasional book on Red Hat GNU/Linux. For the most part, though, there are few good free software books available on those shelves.

Of course, I could purchase books on-line. I prefer to browse, though, to check the quality of the binding, the clarity of the prose, the knowledge of the authors. I like to have choices, alternatives. I don’t purchase many books these days, but when I do, I like them to be comprehensive, clear, concise, and most of all, entertaining.

I believe the free software community could use a good collaborative book development site. The Linux Documentation Project is one such resource, with many high-quality texts available. It does have some drawbacks—it isn’t easy to browse all texts by subject, for instance. (You can browse the HOWTOs by subject, but not the longer texts.)

The website itself isn’t terribly well organized, but it isn’t disastrous, either. The books and HOWTOs are mostly geared towards GNU/Linux, and subjects such as Apache, PostgreSQL, GNOME, KDE, are either underrepresented or not represented at all.

I would like to see the concepts of The Linux Documentation Project expanded out to include other free software. Why isn’t there more documentation for the *BSDs, or Inkscape or OpenOffice, or a hundred other deserving software projects?

The radical idea of free software is simply this: we the people are building software for society. We are taking back what is rightfully ours: control of our knowledge, our information. If we expand that ideal to the texts documenting our free software, we help society take just a little more control. The Linux Documentation Project certainly has the right idea, and has contributed quite a bit to the GNU/Linux community.

I don’t know if there are enough skillful writers willing to contribute the time and energy required to produce comprehensive, high-quality manuals. I don’t know if there are people interested in editing, critiquing, and testing the texts produced by the willing writers.

I don’t even know if there isn’t already a site like this. My ten minutes on Google turned up nothing but the usual suspects: the various distribution-specific wikis, The Linux Documentation Project, and the like. So, if there is a site dedicated to universal free software guides and end-user manuals, it is well-hidden, at least according to my ten-minute Google rule.

If there isn’t a site like this, there should be.


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