Open source software has become a catchword in libraryland. Yet many remain unclear about open source’s benefits—or even what it is.
By Karen Schneider — School Library Journal, 08/01/2008
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So what is open source software (OSS)? It’s software that is free in every sense of the word: free to download, free to use, and free to view or modify. Most OSS is distributed on the Web and you don’t need to sign a license agreement to use it.
In fact, you’re probably using OSS and may not know it. If you use the Firefox Web browser or WordPress blogging software, you’re using open source software. Additionally, many commercial Web giants, such as Amazon, rely on open source software such as Linux or Apache to power their services. OSS could be powering your cell phone or DVD player, or even the onboard entertainment on your latest airline flight.
Illustration by Mark Tuchman
In the last decade, OSS products have extended to libraries. In some ways, the emergence of open source software brings us full circle to where we were 30 years ago, when librarians were leading innovators who developed their own cataloging programs.
Some library software projects are relatively small, such as LibX, a browser toolbar that gives users one-stop access to library catalogs, databases, and more, while some are more ambitious. Fish4Info, VuFind, Blacklight, and Libraryfind are all Web programs that can replace the public interface of your catalogs with software that has more user-friendly capabilities, such as spell-check, tagging, user reviews, or the ability to search across catalogs and databases.
At Darien Library in Connecticut, John Blyberg is working on version 2.0 of SOPAC, the Social OPAC (online public access catalog). SOPAC integrates catalog functions in a Web presence that can supplant the library’s home page, and offers user reviews and tagging. Compatible with just about any ILS (integrated library system), SOPAC 2.0 templates will allow libraries “to make their catalogs look and feel exactly how they want them to,” says Blyberg.
The last eight years have also seen the debut of full-fledged library automation programs such as Koha, OPALS (open source automated library system), and Evergreen, which can replace their commercial, proprietary counterparts, offering not only a public front end, but back-end capabilities such as cataloging, reporting, and circulation. All three programs also offer commercial support options (See “You don’t have to go it alone,” p. 46)
How can “free” be good?
It sounds upside-down to suggest that freely available software is better than licensed software. Yet the OSS model works for reasons that might sound familiar.
Just as we have a tradition of openness and sharing in Libraryland, OSS is developed in community, sometimes by very large groups. Such is the case with Linux software. Since 2005, more than 3,700 developers have contributed to that project (www.linuxfoundation.org/publications/linuxkerneldevelopment.php). With no limit on the number of participants, an open source project can develop rather quickly. And when the software develops a bug, the programming community moves swiftly to resolve the problem. Glitches on WordPress, for example, have been resolved within hours.
Now we all have proprietary software we use and enjoy—I’m listening to iTunes and using Microsoft Word while I write this—but these products will always be limited by the company’s own resources for software development. Moreover, users can’t see or modify the code. This is fine when it works, but not good when a company’s priorities diverge from your library’s. The openly available source code also frees you from dependence on one company. We all have examples of favorite software we had to stop using because the company stopped maintaining it or went out of business. Tragic tales of “vendor abandonment” have involved library automation outfits, as well. Having been promised major upgrades for extended periods—even years—some librarians have continued to pay annual licensing fees, only to wake up one day to learn that the new release isn’t coming.
With OSS, as long as you can find software developers who can fully access the program, you can maintain and develop the software. The software’s development cycle can then meet your requirements, not those of some faraway company.
OSS, stated plainly, is also a way to get just the software that you want. Part of the impetus driving OPALS is that media specialists “wanted to get away from a la carte software,” says Harry Chan of Media Flex Inc., which supports schools and other institutions using OPALS. With licensed software, we often see demos of products that claim to do everything, but as Chan puts it, “Most of what you thought was great was extra.” Since OPALS launched in the early 2000s, media specialists have stipulated what they wanted from the product, features such as interlibrary loan, Z39.50 searching, and federated searching. Also requested: the ability to easily add a record—a function that has been surprisingly hard to come by in library automation software.
Evergreen began in a similar way. In 2004, when it was obvious their legacy ILS could no longer support the needs of their 270-plus library consortium, Georgia PINES, the resource-sharing network of Georgia Public Library Service, held focus groups in which librarians were told, “Pretend it’s magic, and describe what you’d like library software to do.” (Disclosure: I work for Equinox, the support and development company for Evergreen.) Librarians then helped custom design the product to do the things existing software had not done well, whether it was reindexing large amounts of data, presenting book jackets in search results, or simply making it easy to enter a cataloging record.
It’s a theme common to OSS development: the product stays close to the user. Most of us who deal with proprietary software are very far from the people who actually write those programs. But in the OSS model, the development community works in the open, on discussion and chat lists. Not only good for us, this helps developers, too, acting as a continuous reality check on user needs.
Drawbacks of OSS
OSS should not be viewed as a cure-all for what ails your ILS, and not all OSS is created equally. The OSS model makes a lot of sense, but open source products still need to be evaluated point by point against their commercial, proprietary counterparts. The key is to have OSS considered in the first place, and not reject it simply because you’ve heard that OSS “isn’t mature” or “not ready for prime time.” (Indeed, most of the software products libraries are saddled with are too “mature,” as in hard to maintain and excruciating to migrate from.)
“But how do I maintain it?” is another reasonable concern of librarians. Sure, OSS doesn’t cost, but that’s free as in “free kittens.” Like all software, open source products require maintenance by knowledgable staff.
Some library districts are lucky enough to have such in-house tech personnel. Take Fish4Info. A delightfully fresh, feature-filled OSS catalog replacement geared for school libraries, Fish4Info was developed by Christopher Harris, Andy Austin, and Brian Mayer of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley (New York) BOCES. (See “Fishing for Information,” January 2008 p. 24.)
Fish4Info isn’t just a catalog but offers a “social network and book reviews,” says Harris, Fish4Info project lead and coordinator of the Genesee Valley School Library System. If you have amenable technical staff, Harris suggests giving Fish4Info a try. “Even if you decide not to use [it], you might see features you could recommend to your current ILS provider. Or you might explore one of the other emerging products developed by technologists working in library settings, such as VuFind or SOPAC,” he says.
But even sympatico tech folk often have responsibilities spread across the district, with thin budgets, to boot. I’ve been there as a librarian in public and special libraries, where I just didn’t have the time or resources to futz with software. I needed to deliver services, and I couldn’t let software stand in the way, no matter how innovative.
Finally, some open source products, unlike Firefox, are challenging to install. OSS products may be strong, powerful, and reliable, but difficult for non-geeks to install, configure, or maintain. Sometimes that just goes with the territory with software—to get what you want for your library needs, you need a product that has a higher implementation and maintenance curve.
You don’t have to go it alone
Fortunately, as OSS has matured, commercial support models have emerged alongside it. Media Flex, Liblime, and Equinox, respectively, support OPALS, Koha, and Evergreen software. While seeming to mimic traditional support, there’s a crucial difference. Proprietary software companies sell you product licenses for their software, then give you the promise of support. Support and development are where proprietary software falls down the hardest; we’ve all purchased products that seemed very promising, until you make that first call for tech support or wait for upgrades that never materialize.
OSS companies, on the flip side, exist solely to provide support and development, plus related services such as training, migration, and consulting. If they don’t do that well, they can’t stay in business. If they do happen to disappear, because the code is open, you can always commission someone to upgrade, maintain, or, if need be, migrate the software. Finally, all three aforementioned library software companies offer hosted versions of their products, which lifts the technical burden almost entirely from local staff.
Give it a try
If you’re curious about open source software, first ask yourself if you’re already using an OSS product such as Firefox. I like recommending Firefox as an entry point for grasping OSS because it’s one of my favorite software programs. Plus, because Firefox is open code, it’s easy to write add-ons, which I’ve done, tricking out Firefox with all kinds of fun and useful tools.
Also, try speaking with peers who are using open source software in their libraries. Our community is moving to OSS for sound, rational reasons—not just to use good software, but also because OSS means they can help steer the course of the products they use. Particularly for software “Developed for librarians, with librarians, by librarians,” you might be surprised by what you find.
|Karen Schneider is Community Librarian at Equinox, the support and development company for Evergreen open-source library software. She blogs at freerangelibrarian.com.|