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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2005

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Vol. 25 No. 5 — May 2005
Online Treasures
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 might have.

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., 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 GNU software.

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.

Resources Discussed

Mozilla—Home of the Firefox Web browser, Thunderbird e-mail client, and Mozilla Suite
http: //

Open Source Initiative—Welcome

FSF—The Free Software Foundation

The GNU Operating System

http: //

Open Source Soft
http: //

Software (OCLC—Research)

New Zealand Digital Library

Greenstone Digital Library Software

Koha—Open Source Library System

Index Data
http: //


Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pa.) Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at or

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