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

Making the Switch

Because of efforts like those at the Horowhenua Library Trust and PINES, libraries don’t need to start from scratch to use and implement open source software. In fact, libraries around the world have been developing open source software for years. FOSS4Lib ( is a great website to use to find out what open source is out there specifically designed for and by libraries. Of course, making the switch from the known to the unknown can be scary. That’s where having an active open source community comes in handy.

When evaluating open source software, I always encourage people to look at the community behind it. Every open source project should have some sort of mailing list, forum, and/or chat room. These tools allow the contributors and the users to communicate about how to use and improve the system and how to solve problems. Without this communication, the tool can stagnate just as proprietary systems do. While the open source definition says nothing about collaboration or community, these are two pieces that I personally find to be key to identifying a great tool.

I also recommend starting small; no need to jump in headfirst and switch all of your software to open source over night. Why not try something simple such as making Firefox ( or Chrome ( the default browser on your public and staff workstations? Or install LibreOffice ( on all public machines and remove Microsoft Office?

Start teaching classes in your libraries on using and finding open source software to show your patrons that there are valid alternatives to spending hundreds of dollars on software or being forced to use systems that might not do what they want. Explain that open source software is just software with a different license than what they’re accustomed to. Choosing open source doesn’t mean you need to know how to program or how to work on the command line.

You can start adding to your library’s software collection by choosing an open source graphics management application such as GIMP ( or Inkscape (, an open source survey application such as LimeSurvey (, and an open source desktop publishing application such as Scribus ( You can spent thousands on these kinds of applications if you want more than one copy of a proprietary solution, but by choosing an open source alternative, you spend nothing in licensing fees and only a few dollars on books to learn the ins and outs of the software.

You can also do what Mark did and try out a new operating system. Mark attended a talk I gave on open source software and afterwards emailed me the following message (links added):

The hard drive on one of our reference desk PCs died today. I threw in a new one, but I didn’t feel like spending the day sitting through Windows updates, so I loaded Ubuntu ( 11.04 on it instead. The install, as I’m sure you know, only took about 15 minutes. Now, before I add my next point, keep in mind that I manage a staff whose average age is about 63. No joke. Most of them have been working at my facility longer than I’ve been alive. Still, once I had Ubuntu up and running, they were literally fighting over who got to use the new operating system. They loved it that much.

Now I agree, Linux kicks butt. I use it about 80% of the time. Typing to you on Mint ( right now! However, I never expected novice users to take to it so quickly. Please, next time you do an open source webinar, impress on your attendees that libraries aren’t sacrificing a thing by switching over to open source software. If anything, open source operating systems and applications can be far more user friendly for the novice user than Windows will ever be …

The possibilities are endless and the fears around open source software unfounded. For too long now, proprietary software companies have been spreading falsehoods about open source to scare us away from making the switch. But the power of the internet, the power of crowdsourcing, and the power of education are winning. Even Microsoft has entered the open source arena telling the world that it loves and contributes to open source ( One of the most proprietary companies of all time is making the switch, so it’s time for libraries to embrace open source as well.

The Future is Open

Businesses, governments, and individuals around the world have made the switch from proprietary to open source. Each year, surveys of open source software use find that the uptick is strong. Libraries need to be involved in the move to open source, not only to stay ahead of the curve, but also to return to how it all began. We need to be in charge of our own software again; we need to follow the model set forth by Ohio State, Dallas Public, PINES, and the Horowhenua Library Trust. No one knows what we need better than we do, and now is the perfect time to take back control.

More Open Source Suggestions

Open Source Bibliography

Open Source Bookmarks Articles

Practical Open Source Software in Libraries

ByWater Solutions Articles

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


Comments? Email the editor-in-chief:

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