I’m a firm believer in the importance of documentation for open source projects, particularly when it comes to onboarding new contributors. To attract and retain contributors, you need good docs.
Those docs aren’t just important for practical information on how to contribute (though that is important). They’re also important when it comes to understanding the more general aspects of a project, like how decisions are made, who the stakeholders are, what the history is, and so on. For new contributors, understanding these aspects of a project is essential to being able to participate. (They are also the aspects of a project that established contributors often take for granted.)
Of course, ensuring that you always have up to date project documentation isn’t easy. This is particularly true for large, long-running projects, where the tendency is for large amounts of documentation to get written and then eventually left to rot. As redundant and inaccurate docs accumulate, they increasingly misdirect and impede contributors.
This characterization has unfortunately has been true for GNOME for some time. For many years, the main source of project documentation has been the wiki and, for a long time, the vast majority of that wiki content has been either inaccurate or redundant. We can only assume that, with so much out of date information floating around, countless hours of have been lost, with existing contributors struggling to find the information they need, and new potential contributors being put off before they have even gotten started.
Enough with the preamble
The poor state of GNOME’s documentation has been something that I’ve wanted to tackle for some time, so it’s with great excitement that I’m happy to announce a new, completely rewritten documentation resource for the project: the GNOME Project Handbook (otherwise known as handbook.gnome.org).
The handbook is a new website whose goal is to provide accessible, well-maintained documentation about how to get stuff done within GNOME. It has a specific scope: it does not provide technical documentation for those using GNOME technologies, nor does it contain user documentation, nor does it attempt to provide public-facing home pages for apps and libraries. What it does contain is the information required to operate as a GNOME contributor.
The fact that handbook.gnome.org is able to have this relatively tight focus is thanks to a collection of other GNOME sites, each of which replaces a role previously played by the wiki. This includes apps.gnome.org, developer.gnome.org, and welcome.gnome.org. Thank you to the creators of those resources!
The handbook site itself is managed like any other GNOME project. There’s a repository that generates the site, issues can be reported, and changes can be proposed through merge requests. The hope is that this will avoid many of the maintenance issues that we previously had with the wiki.
The handbook is composed of pages from the wiki, which have largely been rewritten, plus a decent amount of original content. There are some sections which I’m particularly excited about, and want to highlight.
Issue tracker guidelines
GNOME has had issue reporting and triage guidelines for almost two decades. However, it has been many years since they were actively maintained, and they were never updated when GNOME migrated from Bugzilla to GitLab. I think that a lot of contributors have forgotten that they even exist.
The handbook includes a fresh set of issue tracking guidelines, which have been updated for the modern era. They’re based on the old ones from many years ago, but have been substantially revised and expanded. The new guidelines cover how to report an issue, how to review issues for quality and relevance, and policies and best practices for maintainers. One exciting new aspect is guidelines for those who want to get started with issue review as a new contributor.
I’m hopeful that having clear processes and guidelines around issue tracking will have an enabling effect for contributors and maintainers, so they can be more forthright when it comes to issue management, and in so doing get our issues trackers into a better state.
The handbook has a page on governance! It describes how decisions are made in GNOME, the various roles in the project, who has authority, and how the project works. Us old hands tend to assume this stuff, but for new contributors it’s essential information, and we never documented it before.
How to submit a code change
Amazingly — incredibly! — until this day, GNOME has not documented how to submit a code change to the project. We just left people to figure it out by themselves. This is something that the handbook covers. If you’ve ever wanted to submit a change to GNOME and haven’t known how, give it a read over.
The infrastructure pages aren’t new, but they were previously causing some confusion and so have been substantially rewritten. The new pages aim to make it really clear which services are available, how developer permissions are managed, and how to get access when you need it.
It’s still early days for the handbook. Most of the core content is in, but there will be issues and missing pieces. If you spot any problems, there’s an issue tracker. You can also submit merge requests or make suggestions (the project README has more information on this).
The plan is to retire the wiki. An exact time line for this has yet to be set (there will be an announcement when that happens). However, it’s encouraged to consult the handbook rather than the wiki from this point forward and, if you’re continuing to use the wiki for anything, to move that content elsewhere. There’s a migration guide with details about how to do this.
Many thanks to those who have helped with this project, including but not limited to: Jakub Steiner, Andrea Veri, Emmanuele Bassi, Michael Catanzaro, Brage Fuglseth, Florian Muellner, Alexandre Franke, Sebastian Wick, and Kolja Lampe.