How did TLDP get started?

The early days

As Matt Welsh, one of the co-founders, puts it: “The history of the LDP is a pretty murky memory these days.” It started in 1992, before the World Wide Web existed - hard to imagine how we did without HTML, but in those days almost everything was FTP and Usenet, and dial-in to a BBS most likely. In the beginning, most of the documentation was in one big file, split up in sections, called the Linux FAQ.

Later, Matt got together with Lars Wirzenius and Michael K. Johnson, because they had the idea of producing printed Linux documentation. Michael initially started on a kernel hackers guide, Lars did the system administrator guide and Matt wrote the first installation guide. Everything was done in LaTeX, so the only way to read these docs in a reasonably comfortable way was either printing them out or using a PostScript viewer.

But as Linux capabilities grew, it was no longer possible for one person to maintain it, and pretty soon not even for several people to manage the job. Thus the HOWTOs were born, each describing a part of the original big chunk of information, an easily extendible system that allowed for many authors to contribute their part in their area of specialization.

That effort lead to the use of SGML, allowing for fast generation of all sorts of output formats, including HTML, from one source file or set of files. The first tests were conducted at Sunsite (a famous server machine at the University of North Carolina), which was the first web site offering information about Linux. Also when you wanted to download Linux software, was the place to go. It still contains some kernel archives - probably by accident, there are also a lot of empty directories these days.

Before the crash (May 2003) I was able to find, via FTP, a document referring to two maintainers of the LDP as it was ran by the end of 1994 at UNC. It pointed to Jon Magid and a mysterious Erik with no last name, who was still at Sunsite in 1996.

After extended research in the dungeon server rooms of Google, we can state with almost-certainty that the mysterious Erik does have a last name after all. Most likely, we are dealing here with the Erik Troan, who supported possibly half of the Linux users in the 1993-1996 period and later on became the Senior Director of Engineering at RedHat.

Further research revealed that somewhere in 1996, Greg Hankins became supervisor of the LDP project. He was the original author of the Serial HOWTO, which he maintained since 1993; he was also one of the main contributors to the SGML-tools development project.


LDP is getting more popular by the day, insofar that the entire collection was published on paper several times. LSL (now CheapBytes) was publisher of multiple editions. They were called “The Linux Bible”, “Dr. Linux”, “Linux Getting Started”, “Linux the Complete Reference” and “The Linux Encyclopedia”.

By 1997, Guylhem Aznar was appointed coordinator of the LDP. His job was to unify the LDP again: there were mailinglists and servers all over the world, and nobody knew who was responsible for what. He started by putting together a “staff”, a team of volunteers that could get the LDP structured.

The exact configuration of the core team in those days has been preserved. It was composed of a hub consisting of one main coordinator, and individual FAQ, Guide and HOWTO coordinators, Greg Ferguson, Joshua Drake and Tim Bynum respectively. Furthermore, most translation efforts started in 1994 are now running more or less at full speed, and responsibles have been appointed to manage each translation. One project not listed here, altough it was among the first, is the German translation effort. As you could see with the Italians joining in recently, it sometimes takes a while before people find eachother ;-)

It appears that this team registered the domain to which they moved the entire Linux documentation collection, which was of course promptly mirrored. The relationship with iBiblio (formerly was maintained during the romance with SGI, the university became a mirror site. The love didn't last, however, and LDP moved to iBiblio again after the short SGI intermezzo. Paul Jones and his colleagues, responsible for managing LDP at iBilbio, were very understanding and provided a lot of support, which enabled the centralization of resources in North Carolina.

As far as we could find out, Guylhem and his team also started the discuss and other mailinglists - until then, discussion primarily happened in the UseNet newsgroups. And the mailinglists were a good thing: I remember that newsfeed in those days was causing enormous amounts of traffic and consumed a for that time unreasonable amount of bandwidth, in so far that some ISPs decided to offer only a partial feed or none at all.

1998 saw the publication of “Linux Undercover”, subtitled “Linux Secrets as Revealed by the Linux Documentation Project”. RedHat was the first to use the new just-in-time production method. Previous printed versions often contained stale HOWTOs, while this one was essentially printed straight from the on-line master documents.

Cautious browsing through the archives announces trouble in the years to come...