There's No Need to Fear Open Source
by Janet L. Balas
The last time I wrote about open source (OS) software
was in last September's issue of Computers in Libraries, which was devoted
to making the most of what you have and do-it-yourself solutions. After the
column appeared, I received an e-mail from David Dorman of Index Data,
who believed that I had done OS products a disservice by discussing them with
do-it-yourself projects. He felt it implied that products based on open source
were unsupported and required technical expertise that not every librarian
Mr. Dorman is correct: Products based on open source do not have to be homegrown,
unsupported software. Commercial vendors can certainly offer OS products and
provide top-notch support. In fact, I have often heard the argument that OS
software is more secure and reliable because its entire community of users
can identify its weaknesses and help develop solutions for them. Bertrand Serlet,
senior vice president of software at Apple, was quoted on the Open Source Initiative's
Weblog as saying, “A lot of security problems derive from the core … [With
open source code,] thousands of people look at the critical portions of source
code and … check [to make sure that] those portions are right. It's a
major advantage to have open source code.”
My points in that article were that using OS products can open up specific
customization and development possibilities without ignoring standards, and
that librarians should be open to trying something new. While that “something” can
be a homegrown solution with only in-house support, it can also be software
from an established vendor with a proven support channel. Librarians do not
need to be afraid that choosing open source software will mean that they are
totally on their own.
Taking the OS Plunge
Actually, many of you may already be using open source software without realizing
it. Firefox, the Web browser that is growing in popularity as an alternative
to Internet Explorer, was developed by the Mozilla Foundation's open source
project. Mozilla.org, which is overseen by the Mozilla Foundation, is an organization
of people who are interested in using or improving the Mozilla source code.
More information about the foundation and its philosophy, as well as a free
Firefox download, can be found on the Mozilla Web site. An e-mail client, Thunderbird,
is also available for download as is Mozilla Suite, a set of Internet applications
that includes a Web browser, an e-mail and newsgroup client, an IRC chat client,
and an HTML editor. Documentation for these programs as well as other resources
are also available on the site.
While you may have dipped a toe into the waters of open source software by
using Firefox, you may still be reluctant to take the plunge and explore its
possibilities for larger library applications. The best way to dispel fear
of anything new is to learn about it, and a good place to start learning about
OS is the Open Source Initiative Web site. (I quoted its Weblog earlier.) The
Open Source Initiative identifies itself as a “non-profit corporation
dedicated to managing and promoting the Open Source Definition for the good
of the community, specifically through the OSI Certified Open Source Software
certification mark and program.” The site offers information on the Open
Source Definition as well as the project's certification program, approved
licenses, and OS software. The OSI News Weblog keeps track of the latest OS
news and contains links to other sources of information.
Another place to check out is the Free Software Foundation (FSF) Web site.
FSF was founded in 1985 and is “dedicated to promoting computer users'
rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs.” It
is important that users understand the meaning of “free software.” It
is not a reference to the cost of the software, but rather to the freedom of
the user, i.e., the user has the right to use the software, study and adapt
it, copy it, and release the improvements to the public. According to FSF,
access to the source code is essential to these freedoms. The organization
is the primary sponsor of the GNU Project, which was started with the intent
of developing a complete UNIX-style operating system. As you might expect,
GNU is an acronym, but it is not just an ordinary acronym; it is
a recursive acronym for GNU's Not UNIX.
In addition to sponsoring the GNU Project, the Free Software Foundation
also sponsors the GPL Compliance Lab, which investigates reports of violations
of the GNU General Public License. Another FSF project is its Free Software
Directory, which contains more than 3,000 entries. (FSF has partnered with
UNESCO to combine the directory with UNESCO's Free Software Portal.) Finally,
through its Savannah project, FSF provides software development services at
no cost to free software developers around the world. The Savannah Web site
serves as a central point for development, distribution, and maintenance of
OS Software in Libraries
According to the OSI Web site, governments as well as public sector and nonprofit
organizations are beginning to utilize OS software. Some libraries have already
begun this process, and the oss4lib (open source systems for libraries) site
documents these efforts. The home page offers the latest news on OS in libraries;
links to information about the site and the group's 1999 establishment; contact
information; a list of readings including bibliographies, articles, and books;
and a link to subscribe to the oss4lib listserv. Of particular interest is
the list of open source library projects, which includes ILL forms, a management
system for public access computers, and integrated library systems. Each item
is linked to its developer's site.
Organizations that support libraries are taking note of the growing interest
in OS software and are gathering resources for librarians. One such organization
is eIFL (Electronic Information of Libraries), an independent foundation devoted
to advocating the wide availability of electronic resources in developing countries.
Its site has an introductory discussion of open source software that includes
a list of readings. It also offers examples of how OS software is being used
in libraries and contains a section of links to additional resources.
OCLC supports the development of open source software for libraries through
OCLC Research. Its Web site offers utilities for the development of library-oriented
software as well as ready-to-use components for library systems. In keeping
with the principles of OS, the source code and documentation as well as the
class files and binaries for all of the software are available. The OCLC Research
Public License, which governs how the software is used, may be read online
or downloaded as a PDF. Current projects are listed, and additional information
is available on the OCLC Research Open Software Development page.
As I was researching this column, I noticed that one of the projects mentioned
quite frequently was the New Zealand Digital Library at the University of Waikato.
The aim of this project is to “develop the underlying technology for
digital libraries and make it available publicly so that others can use it
to create their own collections.” Its Web site offers access to several
document collections through the searching and browsing interfaces of the Greenstone
Digital Library OS software. Visitors to the site can try out these interfaces
and can follow links to further information on the Greenstone software, its
accompanying documentation, and the Greenstone mailing list.
You can also try out Koha, which claims to be the first open source integrated
library system. Koha, which was developed by Katipo Communications, Ltd., is
in use at the Horowhenua Library Trust in New Zealand and is maintained by
a team of volunteers. Test drives of the acquisitions and OPAC modules are
available on the Koha Web site as are installation and support information,
an FAQ document, a subscription form for the Koha mailing list, and a downloadable
version of the Koha software.
Since I began this column by discussing the e-mail message I received from
David Dorman, I felt I should end it by visiting his company's Web site. Index
Data is a consultancy company that specializes in networked information retrieval;
it also provides turnkey software solutions. The company offers several software
products for free including the Keystone Digital Library Suite, which is distributed
through the General Public License. This suite offers open source digital content
management, portal management, and information discovery software in one package.
Information on the software suite, accompanying documentation, and support
services are available on the Index Data Web site.
Support if You Want It
As I said in my earlier article on open source, OS software can appeal to
the do-it-yourself type since modification of the software is both permitted
and encouraged. However, it can also appeal to those librarians who place a
high priority on support. As always, when choosing technology alternatives,
the bottom line is whether the product meets the library's automation needs
as well as its support needs. There is no reason to let fear rule out open
source software when it may be just the right solution for your library.
MozillaHome of the Firefox Web browser, Thunderbird e-mail
client, and Mozilla Suite
Open Source InitiativeWelcome
FSFThe Free Software Foundation
The GNU Operating System
Open Source Soft
New Zealand Digital Library
Greenstone Digital Library Software
KohaOpen Source Library System
Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pa.)
Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.