|Ten years ago, Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds posted the following message
to a discussion group: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby,
won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones."
The project he was referring to eventually grew into Linux, the open
source operating system. Today, far from being a hobby, Linux has grown
into a mainstream operating system. Indeed, following the U.S. Department
of Justice's decision to discontinue attempts to have Microsoft broken
up, many now view Linux as the only long-term challenge to the all-encompassing
power of Microsoft.
Certainly the impressive list of industry heavyweights now supporting
Linux—including Sun, Oracle, and IBM—has given credence to this view. IBM
alone has pledged to spend $1 billion this year pushing open source, particularly
But Linux (or more accurately GNU/Linux) is just the tip of the iceberg.
Today there is a wide range of open source software available, and new
projects are being started all the time.
What, though, do we mean when we talk about open source software?
What Is Open Source?
The term open source refers to software in which the source code is
freely available for others to view, amend, and adapt. Typically it's created
and maintained by a team of developers that crosses institutional and national
boundaries. As such, open source software can't be appropriated by one
large proprietary vendor. Additionally, open source is generally more stable
than proprietary software. After all, when any programmer can read, redistribute,
and modify source code, there are more eyes to spot bugs and provide fixes.
As the Open Source Initiative (http://www.opensource.org)
claims, "This rapid evolutionary process produces better software than
the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can
see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits."
Open source software is also more secure and less vulnerable to the
many virusesnow circulating on the Internet. However, its most compelling
feature is that, although there may be some distribution and setup costs,
open source software is essentially free.
The consequent savings, argues Mike Banahan, co-founder of the U.K.-based
training company GBdirect, are significant. Having migrated his entire
company from Microsoft products to open source, Banahan claims to have
reduced the annual cost of ownership of GBdirect's desktop PCs to about
$295-$440 U.S. per machine. "Compare that," he says, "with the $8,000 a
year that Gartner estimates it costs for each PC running Microsoft software."
But does open source have any specific relevance to librarians and information
A Natural Fit
Absolutely, says Jeremy Frumkin, metadata librarian at the University
of Arizona Library. "Libraries and open source software are a natural fit.
Both promote learning and understanding through the dissemination of information."
Moreover, adds Frumkin, libraries share many of the values espoused
by open sourcedevelopers, not least their sense of communal purpose. "It
is this sense of communitythat allows libraries to work together, either
in consortia or in other ways, to help each other out—and to limit replication
of work. OCLC's WorldCat (and the concept of copy cataloging) is a prime
example of this."
Indeed, one of the Association of Research Libraries' "Keystone Principles"
states, "Libraries will create interoperability in the systems they develop
and create open source software for the access, dissemination, and management
of information" (http://www.arl.org/training/keystone.html).
Nor is Frumkin's enthusiasm for open source merely a romantic notion
of how the world might be. He, along with a growing number of information
professionals and librarians, actively uses open source tools. Many of
the library servers at the University of Arizona, for instance, use Linux
and the Apache Web server software. "We also use MySQL, the open source
relational database system, for many of our projects," says Frumkin.
Ben Ostrowsky, automation services technologist at the Tampa Bay Library
is another open source enthusiast. "We are a nongovernmental, nonprofit
organization that provides services—including Web hosting and e-mail facilities—to
libraries," he says. "And we do all of this with free [a variant of open
source] and open source software, including GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, and
Nothing But Excellent
Another convert is Cindy Murdock, network administrator at Meadville
Public Library/Crawford County Federated Library System (CCFLS) in Pennsylvania.
"Over the past 2 years or so we have been integrating a lot of open source
into our infrastructure," she says. "My experiences with it have been nothing
Today the CCFLS servers run on a combination of Linux and OpenBSD. Murdock
also uses SIPS, the open source blogging program (an integrated Weblog
and link-indexing system), to allow librarians to post library news and
In addition, she uses Gimp and Bluefish software to create graphics and
But utilizing generic open source solutions like Linux, Apache, and
MySQL is the first step. Libraries are also using open source software
to develop dedicated information and library services.
CCFLS, for instance, has utilized open source tools to develop a Web-based
catalog with an interlibrary loan (ILL) feature that lets librarians from
nine libraries in the county request materials from each other (http://ccfls.org/catalog/search.html).
"While the catalog is static—being separate from our libraries' circulation
systems—we update it every few months," says Murdock. "So it is still more
current than the online ILL facilities provided by the state."
There are also a growing number of cross-institutional library-specific
projects in development. Prospero (http://bones.med.ohio-state.edu/prospero),
for instance, is a Web-based document delivery solution designed to complement
the Ariel software system; MARC.pm (http://marcpm.sourceforge.net)
is a Perl-based module for reading, manipulating, outputting, and converting
bibliographic records in the MARC format; and MyLibrary@NCState (http://hegel.lib.ncsu.edu/development/mylibrary)
is a portal solution that enables libraries to develop user-driven customizable
interfaces to Internet resources. And in New Zealand the Horowhenua Library
Trust and Katipo Communications have created Koha (http://www.koha.org),
the world's first open source public library system. Including a full catalog,
OPAC, circulation, and acquisitions system, Koha is already implemented
in the Horowhenua District Library and a number of school libraries in
Canada. Likewise, OpenBook is an open source integrated library system
(ILS) targeted at small-to-medium-sized public and school libraries. Based
on the Koha system, OpenBook includes a multi-language OPAC interface.
A Number of Obstacles
It would be wrong to imply that open source is set to replace proprietary
vendors. Today the issue is more whether open source can provide a viable
Certainly there remain a number of obstacles to its wider adoption,
not least the generally higher level of technical knowledge required to
install and maintain open source software. True, distributors like Red
Hat have begun to offer user-friendly shrink-wrapped installations of Linux.
But users who migrate to open source applications still face a steep learning
For this reason, the implementation of open source solutions today tends
to be restricted to infrastructure and other "invisible" applications such
as servers, where techies are responsible for their installation and management.
Currently, for instance, around 60 percent of the world's Web sites run
Capturing the Desktop
The ultimate test of open source will doubtless lie in its ability
to become more user-friendly and to capture the desktop. But this will
be an uphill struggle. Today Microsoft has a 95-percent monopoly of the
PC operating system market, a 96-percent share of the office applications
suite business, and an 88-percent share of the browser market.
On the positive side, there are new GUI-like desktop environments available
for Linux PCs, including KDE and GNOME. And Microsoft's competitors are
working hard to provide open source alternatives to mainstream applications,
such as StarOffice, Sun's open source competitor to Microsoft Office. There
are also Linux versions of both the Netscape browser and WordPerfect. Currently,though,
these tend still to lack the sophistication and professional look and feel
of Microsoft products.
That said, there are signs that the continuing arrogance of Microsoft—along
with its voracious appetite for ever-greater profits—is increasingly driving
users into the arms of the open source "movement."
When earlier this year Microsoft announced that it intended to change
its business model from selling one-off copies of its software to selling
it on a subscription basis, thousands of Dutch users reacted by immediately
logging on to the Internet and ordering copies of StarOffice.
More significantly, many large corporations are now migrating to open
source. Earlier this year, the European arm of automobile giant Ford decided
to ditch Microsoft as its desktop operating systems provider and move to
open source. Likewise in June, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency
announced that it plans to standardize with StarOffice.
The growing interest in open source among the information and library
community is clearly part of this more general disillusionment with proprietary
"I think Microsoft's recent conduct has been completely unethical and
downright offensive," says Murdock. "Libraries would do well to embrace
New Opportunities, Challenges
Open source, then, offers new opportunities. But it also raises a number
of challenges for the information and library community, and for its suppliers.
Under the greatest threat currently wouldappear to be those companies—such
as library automation vendors—that provide software solutions to libraries.
For instance, consider KLAS, Keystone Systems' proprietary library automation
product. Today it costs between $20,000-$200,000 to implement a KLAS system.
By contrast, says Rachel Hamilton-Williams, managing director of Katipo
Communications, the cost of implementing a Koha system is in the region
of $3,000-$10,000. "I think open source may offer a threat to commercial
vendors," she said.
But KLAS product manager Mitake Burts disagrees. "We don't see products
such as Koha or OpenBook as direct competition," he says. "KLAS is marketed
to libraries that provide high levels of patron service and have automation
needs to support those services.Generic automation systems do not meet
our customers' needs, and they do not have the staff resources to develop
or continue to develop customized software that will meet their needs."
"Customization is possible with both proprietary and open source solutions,"
responds Hamilton-Williams. "The difference is that with open source you
can choose whether to pay for someone to do it, or do it yourself."
This perhaps goes to the heart of the debate for libraries. While open
source is an exciting new development, and opens up the possibility of
breaking the shackles of proprietary lock-ins, it raises a question: "To
what extent are librarians and information professionals prepared to take
charge of the technology themselves?"
As Hamilton-Williams concedes: "Opensource isn't an easy option for
libraries. It requires them to take more personal responsibility for their
Her point is reinforced by Robin Murray, president of library automation
company Fretwell-Downing. "Librarians using off-the-shelf open source products
soon discover that it is not as functionally rich as they had hoped. In
this case, they have to carry the burden of development themselves, or
to turn to a commercial vendor to mold the product to their needs."
"You might well need a higher level of technical understanding," agrees
Andy Powell, assistant director of the U.K. Office for Library and Information
Networking, "but with good open source solutions help is often just an
e-mail message away."
Those wishing to find out more about open source can start by visiting
the oss4lib site at (http://www.oss4lib.org),
which includes a comprehensive list of open source software and systems
designed for libraries, as well as a discussion forum.
Richard Poynder is a freelance journalist based in Oxfordshire, U.K.
He writes for numerous online publications as well as the London Financial
Times and The Wall Street Journal Europe. His e-mail address