Considering Open Source Software
by Janet L. Balas
This month's theme of Making the Most of What You
Have often leads to following the "do-it-yourself" approach.
The phrase "do-it-yourself" brings a number of pictures
and images to mind. I see a young child insisting loudly, "I
can do it myself." I also think of library patrons
looking for do-it-yourself books and video materials
on many subjects including landscaping, home remodeling,
and automobile repair. Some choose the do-it-yourself
route out of stubborn independence (the young child),
while others choose it out of frugality (library patrons),
but there are some who choose it because they have
an innovative idea. In describing those who are driven
by innovation, I would say that they are often risk-takers.
In the words of an Apple ad campaign from several years
ago, they "think different." In a more eloquent statement
by Robert Frost in his famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," they
take "the one less traveled by."
For librarians working with automated systems, it
can be scary to embark on a do-it-yourself project.
There was an old saying in business that no one ever
was fired for choosing IBM. That statement now probably
would be modified to say that no one ever was fired
for choosing Microsoft Windows. In the early days of
library automation, vendors offered turnkey systems
that bundled hardware and software, promising computer-shy
librarians that these systems would practically run
themselves. While current library automation systems
are more complex and generally require you to design
and manage your own network, it still seems safer to
choose an established library automation vendor whose
product runs on a Windows network.
At the Monroeville Library, we selected an established
vendor for our new automation system, but we did not
follow the usual conventions in setting up our network.
Instead of being Windows-based, we set up a Macintosh
network with Xserves, iMacs, eMacs, and Airport base
stations. No network is ever perfect right from the
start, and there have been some problems to solve.
However, some problems, such as virus infections and
the need for frequent security updates, have been fewer.
There has also been some resistance from those who
are uncomfortable with change. As the person responsible
for managing and maintaining the network, I feel that
this Mac implementation has made my job easier.
Choosing Macintosh over Windows was a much smaller
risk than those taken by other librarians who wholeheartedly
have been "do-it-yourselfers," implementing open source
automation projects in their libraries. Those librarians
who have taken giant steps in innovation can encourage
those who are only taking small steps by sharing their
successes. Many pioneers in library automation have
documented their projects on the Web, so librarians
looking for inspiration (and maybe a little push to
try something new) have only to turn to their colleagues
on the Web.
What Is Open Source and Why Are We Interested?
Before turning to colleagues for information on their
open source projects, it may be helpful to learn more
about the topic. One place to start is the Open Source
Initiative Web site. The Open Source Initiative, also
known as OSI, defines itself as a "non-profit corporation
dedicated to managing and promoting the Open Source
Definition for the good of the community." Site visitors
can learn about the OSI certification mark and program,
read about successful open source software products,
access current news on open source, and subscribe to
an announcements mailing list.
Armed with a basic understanding of open source,
you can begin to contemplate the possibilities and
to learn from librarians who have already begun open
source projects. Over the last several months I have
been watching WebJunction develop and grow as an online
community for librarians to exchange ideas about using
technology. Each month WebJunction chooses a focus
topic; a recent one was open source, and the materials
collected at that time are still available on the site.
Librarians who have just begun to explore open source
might want to begin with the group of articles prepared
by WebJunction to provide technical overviews and a
discussion of basic concepts. These include "What is
Open Source Software?" by the Gates Foundation's Ed
Sargent, "Open Source Application Primer" by Eric Lease
Morgan, and "Open Source Library Systems: Getting Started" by
WebJunction's focus on open source also includes
Reports from the Field from locations as far away as
New Zealand, the University of Windsor, and, based
on my location, as close as Meadville Public Library
in Meadville, Pa. In these reports, the librarians
involved in the decision to use open source explain
the reasons for their choices and the outcomes of their
projects. Librarians interested in online discussions
could follow links to WebJunction's Access Policies
and Practices forum and the Software forum. In addition
to the page devoted to open source as a focus topic,
WebJunction also has another page with links to additional
articles and resources.
Librarians who are seriously interested in implementing
open source should visit the oss4lib Web site. The
site states that its mission is to "cultivate the collaborative
power of open source software engineering to build
better and free systems for use in libraries." To accomplish
this mission, the site maintains a listing of free
software and systems designed for libraries and tracks
news about project updates and related topics. The
site, in keeping with the open source tradition, is
a volunteer effort, and frequent visitors are encouraged
to support the site by purchasing oss4lib apparel and
housewares. Also in keeping with open source tradition,
visitors are invited to submit news stories for inclusion
on the site.
There are also links to various open source projects
of interest to librarians. Those wishing to learn more
about open source can visit the Readings section of
the site to find links to bibliographies, articles,
and an annotated list of book titles. An electronic
mailing list, oss4lib, is available for new project
and product announcements and general discussion. Complete
information on subscribing and a link to the list archives
are available on the site. The site also offers an
RSS feed for its headlines.
Another resource is the bibliography prepared by
Brenda Chawner as part of her Ph.D. studies at the
School of Information Management, University of Wellington,
New Zealand. The bibliography was created in October
2002 and was last modified in September 2003. In addition
to announcements, journal articles, and Web documents
on open source in libraries, it also includes articles
on specific open source applications (including Koha,
Greenstone, and MyLibrary) and provides links to the
Web sites for these products.
Using Open Source for Digital Libraries
You can find a collection of links to Web sites that
offer open source and other shareware and free items
on the Library Automation Tools for You page, which
is part of the Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications,
and Computation Web site. In addition to the links
to the MyLibrary, Koha, and Greenstone sites, there
are links to OpenBook and the e-smith Linux Server
appliance. I was especially intrigued by one product
name, PYTHEAS, which is an acronym for Powerful Yet
Tactfully Helpful Electronic Arranger of Sources, but
none of the links I found for this project appeared
to be current.
Another source of links to free software for library
systems is the UNESCO Free Software Portal, which has
a page of annotated links to software for digital libraries.
The now-familiar Greenstone and others are on this
list, but additional products include CERN Document
Server Software, EPrints Archive Software, and MIT's
DSpace. Some of the links on this page are no longer
valid, even though the page was supposedly updated
on the day I visited the site.
Librarians interested in using open source software
to build a digital library system might want to learn
more about the Fedora Project, which is described as
an open source digital repository management system.
The project, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation, uses the Flexible Extensible Digital Object
and Repository Architecture, aka Fedora. Visitors to
the site can read about the history of this project
that was developed jointly by the University of Virginia
and Cornell University; they also can access the support
resources, the usage FAQ, and the technical documentation.
There are also links to publications on the project
and additional development resources. Seriously interested
visitors can even download Fedora release 1.2.1.
There's No Room for Error
At the beginning of this column, I spoke of children
who don't want help and adults who are proud of being "do-it-yourselfers." We
know that both children and adults can overestimate
their abilities, and many do-it-yourself projects can
end in failure. A failed library automation project
would not only be embarrassing, but also expensive.
An open source library automation project must be carefully
planned and thoroughly researched before implementation
so that in the end, as Robert Frost did in his famous
poem, you can say, "I took the road less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference."
The Road Not Taken, Frost, Robert, 1920. Mountain
Open Source Initiative OSIWelcome http://www.opensource.org
WebJunction's Focus on Open Source http://webjunction.org/do/DisplayContent?id=1216
oss4libOpen Source Systems for Libraries
Open Source Software and Libraries Bibliography http://www.vuw.ac.nz/staff/brenda_chawner/biblio.html
Library Automation Tools for You http://www.smecc.org/library_automation_tools_for_you.htm
UNESCO Free Software Portal: Software/Digital Library
Fedora: The Flexible Extensible Digital Object and
Repository Architecture http://www.fedora.info/index.shtml
Balas is library information systems specialist at
Monroeville (Pa.) Public Library. She can be reached
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.