Croudscribing: Can the free software community create a book in two days?

By Andy Oram
March 15, 2009 | Comments: 2

The Free Software Foundation is launching a project to create a simple, friendly book for people curious about the command line. This project rose to the top in their new collaboration between the FSF and FLOSS Manuals, an organization I volunteer for.

Next weekend, March 21-22, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we're going to write the book in two days.

This muscular endeavor is a public, volunteer effort known as a book sprint, which has become a signature practice by FLOSS Manuals, an organization I described in a dispatch from a recent conference. Book sprints are an amazing amount of fun, with people sitting together and getting to know each other while choosing their favorite tools to write about. It's similar to the hack-fests run by many software projects, and the upcoming sprint is actually part of an FSF hack-fest.

I know there are readers of this blog who live in the Boston area and know a thing or two about the Bash shell; this is an opportunity for you to meet like-minded people and do something to increase the capacity of software users around the world.

Even people who don't live here can get involved at any time. Sign up at the FLOSS Manuals site, read the outline, and let your thoughts pour out in a chapter on the book site. I wrote the outline (incorporating some advice from other people) and some sample text for part of one chapter. This is all on a wiki, so thoughtful contributions and changes to the outline and all the chapters are welcome.

Reason for this project

Graphical desktop interfaces have opened the power of computing to millions of people, but many would benefit from knowing how to enter text commands and are intimidated by the knowledge required. But it takes only a few minutes to learn commands that can save hours of time, and a couple hours of study will open up the world of automating computer operations through scripts and other tools.

There is a lot of documentation on the Unix/GNU/Linux command line, but we intend to write a new book on the topic that is friendly and fun to use. The manual will be available free online immediately after completion, and will be put on sale in print form as well. All proceeds from the sales of the book will go towards a second event to create another great book for free software. All material will be available under the GPL and GFDL licenses.

Who should come

We need a range of volunteers to help us:

  • Knowledgeable command-line users (particularly the Bash shell) with a talent for writing
  • Other writers and editors to review chapters and suggest changes
  • People who want to learn the material, for testing and review


We will meet at the Harvard Science Center. We have space there from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM on both days, March 21-22.

Please bring a laptop and drop in at any times that are convenient for you. Even 45 minutes may be helpful.

Important: If you plan to come, email and ask them to put you on the list for the book sprint. This is necessary because the Free Software Foundation is holding a for-pay conference in the same area and will have trouble helping unregistered people (although I'm told they'll let you in even if you don't tell them in advance).

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Interesting little collaborative project! Any update on how it came out?


Jesse Casman
San Francisco, CA

Thanks for asking: I followed up with
a blog about some lessons. Everybody seems to think the sprint was a success: dozens of contributors, 169 pages by the end, and good material.

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