Professor Penguin? Linux for Academic Historians
The Linux operating system has long been a favourite of computer scientists, security professionals, hackers and server administrators, but those working in the humanities have mostly remained oblivious to its advantages. The system has a great deal to offer the historian, however: philosophically, practically and (crucially) financially. It is in many ways a far better fit than either Windows or macOS for our brand of academic work, and it has certainly streamlined the way in which I ‘do’ history.
A comprehensive introduction to Linux is a little beyond the scope of this post – though there are many decent efforts online (here, for instance). Here, I’ll confine myself to setting out the most relevant advantages of the OS for academic historians, and to providing one or two software suggestions for those considering releasing themselves from Microsoft’s or Apple’s clutches…
Linux is an open-source operating system, which brings with it a wealth of benefits for the researcher:
- Philosophy (at the risk of sounding overly grandiose): the way in which open-source software is developed tends to place much greater emphasis on both transparency and cooperation than most commercial applications. The source code, along with any bugs and security issues, are all publicly reported on, and are generally worked on collaboratively, a process that mirrors the sort of transparency that is the ideal in any academic community. As Linux user Christopher Desjardins puts it: ‘academia is suppose[d] to be about sharing ideas, learning, and seeking knowledge collaboratively. So why would you use an operating system that doesn’t fully embrace these ideals?’
- Customizability: variety is the hallmark of the Linux community. Indeed, it doesn’t really make sense to refer to a single Linux community at all. There are hundreds of different versions (or distributions) of Linux, each one a self-contained operating system with its own developers, userbase and unique software. Each distribution, in turn, gives users control over which programs, or even which desktop environment, they install. Most importantly, users are able to decide the level of customization they want (by choosing one distribution, or one program, over another) . Linux therefore appeals to the inveterate tinkerers as well as those who simply want a system that works ‘out of the box’. And, of course, those who fall somewhere in between these extremes (like me).
- Stability: while some Linux distributions prioritize stability more than others, almost all of them behave better than Windows or macOS. In the words of Luke Jones, a computer science student who uses Linux in his work: ‘I’m still absolutely amazed at how bad Windows can be. My old workplace had a Windows server that crashed every month. Insane! Contrast this to Linux. I really can’t remember the last time I had a crash; maybe an app crash, but that never brought the foundations down with it’ . This stems in part from the way in which Linux handles programs and processes, and partly from its community-driven approach to updates.
- Security: for similar reasons, Linux systems are usually less prone to infection by malware than other operating systems. Admittedly, this is also because they are less popular targets; with far more Windows users in the world, most hackers are less concerned with creating Linux malware at present. That situation may change – though Linux’s greater flexibility and adaptability will not.
- Cost: most distributions of Linux are available (legally) for free from their respective developers, who also provide free security updates, bugfixes and other support for the current main release of that distribution. Moreover, most Linux software, from text editors to full-fledged office suites, is also available at no cost. For the cash-strapped student or early career researcher, this is probably the most persuasive argument.
Migrating to Linux: some software equivalents
Of course, an operating system is only as good as its software selection, and all these advantages would be meaningless if Linux were incapable of supporting the tools historians need to record, organize, write up and present their research. Happily, the Linux software ecosystem is healthier than ever, and most distributions offer multiple equivalents to all the programs used by Windows and Mac-based scholars. Below are some of the best, based (for the most part) on my own experience:
- Word processing
By far the most comprehensive replacement for Microsoft Word, and the most popular, is LibreOffice Writer. The LibreOffice suite in general covers the same ground as Microsoft Office, and is intended to be fully compatible with it. As a result, Writer incorporates all the features familiar to Word-bound academics: footnote and endnote insertion; track changes; integration with EndNote, Zotero and other reference managers; automatic generation of indexes and tables of contents; and so on. The program also handles numerous file formats, the most useful being Word’s .docx/.doc format and the open-source .odt.
- Markdown/LaTeX writing
Of course, if you’ve taken our previous advice on the subject, you’ll already have cast aside all word processors in favour of plain text writing, probably using either Markdown or LaTeX. Both can be written using any of Linux’s hundreds of text editors, ranging from the simple (such as Pluma, which resembles Windows Notepad) to the more advanced (such as Sublime Text, or the more old-school and esoteric vim). Linux also supports more specialized LaTeX editors, including Texmaker and TeXstudio.
As mentioned above, LibreOffice offers easily the highest-quality replacements for all Microsoft Office tools, and its Impress program is more than a match for PowerPoint. As with LibreOffice Writer, it provides a very similar interface to its Microsoft counterpart, along with most of the same features, so PowerPoint users will get their bearings very quickly.
- Database management
It’s LibreOffice to the rescue again – this time with Base, its equivalent of Microsoft Access.
- Reference management
We have already advocated the use of the open-source reference manager Zotero on several occasions, and it runs just as well on Linux as on Windows or Mac. The Zotero team also offer a host of plugins to integrate your bibliographic database with web browsers, word processors (including both Word and LibreOffice Writer), and website development systems such as WordPress or Drupal.
- PDF viewing and editing
Almost any Linux distribution will include a basic PDF reader, such as Evince or Okular, so replacing the basic functions of Adobe Acrobat will be no problem. For annotation, commenting and other more advanced functionality, you may want to install an additional tool such as Foxit Reader. In my experience, however, Foxit is slower and more feature-rich than necessary for normal PDF viewing, so it’s worth keeping a lighter reader on your system and calling on Foxit only when your PDFs require editing.
- OCR (optical character recognition)
This is the only software category for which I can’t offer any personal recommendations, since I’ve had no need to use OCR tools in my research. If you do find yourself with hundreds of scanned source documents, book chapters or journal articles that you’d like to make text-searchable, however, your best option is Abbyy FineReader.
As we’ve mentioned before, FineReader is the best performing OCR utility on Windows and Mac, and while Abbyy has not ported it to Linux as yet, it does offer a command line tool that runs on the same engine. This allows you to process documents by typing in instructions at a terminal; as such, it is potentially even more flexible and powerful than the graphical version, albeit less user-friendly. Uniquely for this list, it is also not free (though this is of course true of the Windows and Mac versions as well).
- Image editing
One of the finest Linux image editors is the amusingly named GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program). GIMP performs many of the same functions as Adobe Photoshop, allowing you to modify the colour, scale and resolution of images, as well as convert them to over a dozen file formats. Indeed, the program is capable of far more than this, but these are the features likely to be of interest to historians working with graphical sources.
Taking a third option
All these programs are perfectly serviceable (and in many cases superior) equivalents to the Windows and Mac software more familiar to most humanities researchers.
It is worth mentioning, however, that changing operating systems and finding new software don’t necessarily go hand in hand. For a start, many of the tools listed here are cross-platform, and therefore run on Windows and Mac just as well. Almost all of them are worth switching to even if you have no intention of migrating to a new operating system. If you ever change your mind on that point, however, you’ll already have grown accustomed to much of the software you’ll be using. This allows for all manner of more flexible solutions: migrating to Linux gradually; dual-booting Linux and Windows/Mac while using the same software on each system; or simply taking advantage of some open-source software without abandoning your existing OS .
The situation has also been complicated by the rise of cloud-based software, such as Microsoft Office Online, Adobe Creative Cloud and especially Google Docs. These have significantly reduced the importance of whichever operating system you happen to be running: as long as you have access to a modern web browser, you’ll be able to run these tools, and will have the same user experience as anyone else. The natural extension of this approach is the Google Chromebook, a low-cost, relatively low-performance laptop running a Linux-derived OS, which serves as little more than a portal to these cloud applications .
While that sort of online-only setup is unlikely to suit most academic historians, it is entirely possible that you might want to make use of one or two cloud applications – which, again, would minimize disruption should you later decide to switch to another operating system. Cloud-based software is also ideal for collaborating with others, irrespective of which OS each researcher is using.
The upshot of all this is that software availability should not be the only (or even the main) consideration when deciding whether to give Linux a try. The system’s support for the programs above certainly helps to make it viable as a platform for academic research, but it is all the advantages unique to Linux – its underlying philosophy, its versatility, its stability and its low cost – that really recommend it.
My own setup
While I don’t necessarily practice everything I preach, I am a keen Linux user, and have run various versions of the OS for over fourteen years. For most of that time, unwilling to cut the cord completely, I have dual-booted Linux and Windows. Over the last few years in particular, however, I have grown progressively more reliant on Linux, and it is now my primary OS.
My current work laptop runs Debian, a venerable Linux distribution that is widely considered one of the most stable. I do the bulk of my academic work on my Debian system using the tools mentioned above: I write my thesis in Markdown using Sublime Text (though I’m planning to switch over to vim); I use Zotero to manage my sources; I use Evince to read PDFs; and when I need to send my work to my supervisor (or, if I’m feeling especially thick-skinned, a friend or colleague), I convert the Markdown files into a Word document and use LibreOffice Writer to tidy it up.
When working on posts for this website, I generally write a draft in Markdown as usual, then copy it to Google Docs to allow other HTTP writers to give their feedback. I edit images, including those littering this post, in GIMP before uploading them to WordPress.
Technically, I do still have Windows 10 installed on my computer as well, but I’m struggling to remember the last time I booted it up. On the rare occasions that I do, I find it infuriatingly slow, largely because my laptop (a Lenovo ThinkPad X201, in case you’re interested) is a little long in the tooth, and doesn’t quite meet Windows’ hardware requirements. Debian, on the other hand, runs as smoothly as I could wish.
More to the point, if I do grit my teeth and wait for Windows to load, I find nothing there that Linux doesn’t offer me. Linux provides me with the same reading, writing and publishing tools, in an environment that is far stabler, more secure and more customizable. I will never be required to pay for the latest version of any of my software, and if the developers of a particular program, desktop or even the entire operating system make changes I don’t approve of, I’ll be able to replace it with dozens of others. Linux exemplifies the freedoms that should be at the heart of all academic endeavour, and it’s definitely worth seeing how it can enhance your workflow.
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