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Time for Open Source
Volume 40, Number 1 - January/February 2016

I graduated from college in 2001 knowing a little bit of Perl and PHP. These are open source computer languages, but no one ever told me that when I was in school. In 2006, I went to library school and not only didn’t learn about open source software, but also was told that M.L.I.S. students didn’t need to take computer science classes. I, of course, paid no attention to what the dean was telling us because I already had a job in a library in systems and knew that an understanding of computer science was key in all fields, libraries particularly. Shortly thereafter, I learned the true meaning and power of open source software and I’ve been hooked ever since.

What is Open Source Software?

Open source is where all software began. When computers were first hooked up to a network, there was no notion of proprietary software. All software was developed collaboratively by those connected to the network. It’s often said open source software comes about when a developer has an itch to scratch.

In the beginning, when people were first introduced to computers, they had a blank slate and many itches to scratch. The first developers were proudly known as hackers (a term that has since received bad connotations). These hackers wrote the first computer languages, the first operating systems, the first word processors, and even the first games. These applications were available to anyone on the network and sometimes were shipped on floppy disks among friends.

We often picture these hackers as kids in their parents’ garages and basements, with all the attendant derogatory perceptions. While that is true of some, many of these people were well-educated government and academic employees. And starting off in a garage isn’t all bad—look where Apple is today!

In 1991, a “famous” email ( started the most well-known open source operating system down the path to greatness:

From: mailto: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.Fi (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
To: Newsgroups: comp.os.inix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <mailto: 1991Aug25.205708.9541@ klaava.Helsinki.Fi

Hello everybody out there using minix — I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386 (486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things)…

And thus Linux was born!

When Linus Torvalds sent that email, he had no clue where Linux would be today, but he did have an itch and knew that others had the same itch. Thus, with the simple power of the network and collaboration, the most successful open source operating system came into existence.

Today, there are more than 70 open source licenses listed at the Open Source Initiative website ( All follow the open source definition (opensource. org/osd), which I can boil down to one simple sentence: Open source software is software that users have the ability to run, distribute, study, and modify for any purpose.

Software in Libraries

We often forget that librarians were actually way ahead of Torvalds and his compatriots. In 1975, The Ohio State University library developed one of the first large-scale online catalogs, followed closely by the Dallas Public Library in 1978. What if, instead of keeping those systems in house, those visionary librarians had done what Torvalds did and shared their code and their ideas? What if they had started working collaboratively with libraries around the world? It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1980s that the first commercial (or proprietary) library catalog was introduced; if we had all worked together in the 1970s, we would have a much differ ent (and much more relevant) set of systems running our libraries today.

Many libraries are spending—individually—tens (if not close to hundreds) of thousands of dollars a year on their library automation systems. Tack on the cost of the software to run their public and staff computers, and you’re looking at the salary for a few new librarians going just to cover software costs. But why?

At least once, at every library conference I’ve attended, I hear a talk about how we need to improve our software. We’ve created groups to talk about the next-generation catalog and groups to investigate ways to bring libraries up-to- speed with our technologies, but we’re not taking the actions we could be. Why not follow the history set forth for us by Ohio State and Dallas Public (and many others)? Why not start placing control of library software into our hands instead of leaving it in the hands of businesses? Why not follow in Torvalds’ steps and scratch that itch instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us?

Open Source in Libraries

In 1999, the Horowhenua Library Trust in Levin, New Zealand, was facing Y2K with an automation system that was no long supported by its original vendor. The librarians knew that their old system would not survive the change from 1999 to 2000 and started researching what was out there to meet their needs. When nothing lived up to their expectations, the decision was made to hire a development firm (Katipo Communications) to write an ILS. Katipo took on the daunting project of writing an ILS from scratch with only a 3-month time frame to finish.

This was the birth of the Koha ( open source ILS. When Katipo finished developing a system to do exactly what the library wanted, it recommended that Horowhenua choose an open source license and release the code to the world. The library agreed and chose the name Koha, the Maori word for a special kind of gift, a gift with expectations. With Koha, the gift was a free ILS and the expectation was that people would contribute back and keep it alive so that no library would ever be in a situation where its software wasn’t supported anymore.

In 2003, the Georgia Public Library Service (PINES) started researching alternatives to its ILS. While evaluating options, the librarians asked an extremely important question: Was the software driving the policy and procedure in the library or were policy and procedures in the library driving the software? Realizing that it was the former, they started out on the journey that would lead to the Evergreen ( open source ILS.

The librarians devised a list of things they wanted from their software, with ease of use for the customer being No. 1 (as it is in all libraries), and in June 2004, they started developing the system that would meet their needs. By September 2006, all libraries in the PINES system were live on Evergreen, as yet another library success story was released to the world with an open source license.

These are just two examples of libraries taking the power back into their own hands and using the open source license to make sure that their software will never stop growing, changing, and improving in the directions that libraries want to go. While both systems had to invest money and staff time to bring their dreams to fruition, they now are the most successful open source ILSs on the market. Libraries around the world use and contribute to both Koha and Evergreen. Without the overhead of a company that is out to make money, Koha and Evergreen have grown faster in the last 15 years than any other ILS ever has.

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Nicole C. Engard is VP of community outreach at ByWater Solutions.


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