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Standing up for Open Source

Jun - 15 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

There is an awesome article in Library Philosophy and Practice 2007 by Lee David Jaffe and Greg Careaga entitled Standing up for Open Source.

While the article does talk about the fact that Open Source Software (OSS) is not used in all areas of libraries, there is an focus on the ILS.

More than three decades after libraries built the first automated systems, we now depend on commercial black box systems, despite growing evidence that the proprietary ILS has outlived its usefulness. In the intervening years, librarianship has come into its technological maturity, with a generation of tech-savvy librarians proving we have the skills in-house, and yet we cling to the belief that only a commercial entity can provide the solutions we need to manage our services.

The systems available to us, to be sure, are not mechanical beasts of science fiction nightmares. They run, usually reliably, and rarely hurt us or our users. Our issue is with their closed nature. The innards of a proprietary ILS are hidden. Often our own data is hidden from us. If we want a change, we must plead our case to the vendor and, if our request is granted, we pay for the enhancement. Adherence to standards is uncertain and therefore system A cannot talk to B. Without access to the source code we cannot engineer add-on components that we need. We wait years for critical features, then are forced to implement features we do not want.

Here! Here!

The possible reason why libraries stick with the proprietary software though, is that most libraries do not have people on their staff to tell them that access to the code and data would allow for changes – and even if they do – they may not have someone on the staff to make the changes anyway.

I think that trying to sell OSS to non-techie librarians as a way to access your data is not going to cut it. We also have to explain that these proprietary systems are built on code from the 80s and 90s. Things have been upgraded along the way, but the backbone (of most of these systems) hasn’t changed. That means that sometimes the vendors can’t make the changes you want. With an OSS ILS you have new code – code that can be updated by anyone in the world (with the right skills).

I fear that my tired brain is not making as much sense as I hope it is – so I’ll close with another line from the article and then you can go off and read it on your own.

If libraries wish to turn the tide and reclaim our place as leaders in the information world, we must position ourselves where we can best take advantage of new developments. If we want the flexibility to meet these challenges, we do not have the luxury of relying on information technology solutions that are opaque and inadaptable.

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One Response so far.

  1. Lee Jaffe says:

    Thanks for the great review of our article. (Our publisher sent us your link.) While we’d agree that “most libraries do not have the people on their staff to tell them that access to the code and data would allow for changes…” we believe that situation has been shifting for the good and we sense that there are more folks in libraries who are frustrated by this situation and would do something about it if they could. The purpose of the article, embodied in the title “Standing Up For Open Source,” was to help those people make the case — and convince others that there was a case to be made. Thus a significant part of the article featured strategies for these up-and-coming leaders, of which I think you may be one. Thanks again.


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