Open Source and the Second Law

Given the erudition of Computerworld’s readers, you will undoubtedly be familiar with the concept of entropy as enshrined in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.Quite simply spontaneous changes (ie changes that occur by the nature of things...


Given the erudition of Computerworld’s readers, you will undoubtedly be familiar with the concept of entropy as enshrined in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Quite simply spontaneous changes (ie changes that occur by the nature of things and not by supernatural intervention) are always accompanied by an increase in entropy. Entropy can be regarded as a measure of disorder. This is why your sock draw does not (if left alone by the house deity) tend to become more organised over time, quite the opposite.

Entropy can be looked at locally or globally. For example, as an improbably highly organised and complex organism that in effect self-assembled, I at first glance seem to contradict the Law...until that is you take into account all of the energy I have consumed during my time. The heat, waste and gas I have excreted has increased the entropy of my surroundings way more than I represent a local decrease.

The computing age has not subverted the Law, indeed it can give measure of it. A Google search represents a huge decrease in entropy as order is brought out of vast informational chaos.   One search produces 7 grammes of Carbon Dioxide gas. This gas mostly originates from the combustion of relatively low entropy fossils and so adds heat and gas to increase th entropy of our world.

All of the above brings me to the subject of librarians. Librarians are dedicated local entropy reduction units. They bring order out of chaos in return for the energy they require to stay alive. They alone can save us from the chaos of the P: drive...but they will need Open Source software to do it.

The P: drive and librarians.

Librarians are having a bad time at the moment. To save money the local library is being closed and education is savagely cutting back on academic librarian posts.

All good secondary schools employ qualified librarians but ever fewer pupils borrow books from their libraries. A succession  of ‘information-age’ initiatives called ‘portals’ where low entropy  web-based resources are filtered, archived, rated... then ignored by students in favour of Google searches has only made things worse.  Bit by bit schools are employing vestigial librarians.

The P: Drive and chaos

All teachers will be aware of Windows drive letters being allocated to shared resources, it’s why networks exist. Often T: for teachers, S: for students and P: for public. All users were encouraged to place resources in sane locations meeting the letter descriptions but rarely did and kept most of their piled up electronic stuff in ‘My Documents’  or on a USB stick most of which was lost forever when they left leaving the second Law well happy.

The above generated the fabled niche for the VLE which was a web-enabled P: drive  with a built in  course-based file structure. Again it was largely ignored by teachers who still kept their stuff in My Documents. All the while the Librarian was unhappily out of the loop sending out futile memos about the latest subscription to New Scientist and/or a new Portal.

Chaos is information’s greatest enemy and chaos is winning hands down.

Books should be in a Library

It’s true. We are in the last chance saloon for libraries but I think I see a future. Recently I blogged about the excellent e-library called Calibre. Quite simply this webserver-enabled, free, open source, universal library for any e-book format is waiting to save school libraries and bring order to chaos.

Calibre libraries have books with covers, indexes, authors and even ISBNs if required, in other words like a real library. But you say, students get their info from photocopiable pdf text books and worksheets, wiki-pedia articles, other online resources and still now and again the teacher’s compiled notes...  

...all true and all  of which, as we have seen, gets stored on the P: drive under (say)  GSCE French Y10 or equivalent until the teacher gets bored or leaves. But librarians don’t get bored or leave.  They like filing that’s what they are trained to do ...they are Chaos’ nemesis.

Consider the following scenarios:

1) Librarian A plugs mini-server (say an Acer Revo) pre-configured with Calibre Server on Ubuntu  and plugs it into a Ethernet socket...the techs allow it an IP and access to the world.

The Library now has a new e-Library and books can be checked out from here in any e-format to suit the particular reader you have.

2) Stocking it with books.

a) First stop, grab ‘em and put them on the shelves.

b) Find out what textbooks have been bought by the school that include (in the v             expensive price) the right to reproduce the content and which is supplied on CD (most         are and they use PDF).. make a trip to web2epub and start converting these to epub.

c) have a word with the teachers ..see point 3

3) Converting Resources.

a) Teachers resource all of their teaching modules. These consist of the text book         ‘photocopies’ (pdf or doc), bits from wikipedia and their own worksheets. Put these in a         folder.

b)The folder should be sent to the library where the Librarian will use OpenOffice/Libre         Office to convert the bundle into a nice little book with a cover and everything using         pdf2batch, writer2epub and web2epub.

c) any printed material can be quickly scanned to PDF and converted as above.

d) Management Documentation. Apparently school adminsitration generates a lot of         paper work which gets put on P: drive..policies on this and that. See Point 3. You’ll find t        his stuff in the Library under ‘Policies’.

Librarian A  will then put it on the shelf,  filed where it should be. We now have a well stocked e-library.


Librarians know all about Copyright, teachers often less so, so we can borrow in confidence. Some books will be free to download some will be effectively on ‘restricted access’, Librarians know about these things. So here is how it goes next:

Johnny.x  comes along with his Kindle/Sony/i-Pad/i-phone/netbook/Android x and is shown how to use the library to get what he wants in the format his device uses. When he is at home and can use the library for himself he can just login and download.


Of course you could organise the P drive properly, but we don’t. Of course the VLE could structure the resources but it doesn’t happen. Why not?  Because the likes of you and me can’t be bothered. We create disorder wherever we go whether its a shared drive or the bathroom, what we need is a Library with professional librarians.

What a fantastic combination: Open Source Software, Open Publishing Standards, Creative Commons licencing and happy (busy) Librarians at the  centre of information management in schools...where they should be, locally reducing entropy.

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