VALENJ: From Open Stacks to Open Source

This week I was lucky enough to attend an event at The College of New Jersey entitled Next Generation Academic Library System Symposium and hosted by VALE (Virtual Academic Library Environment of New Jersey). The goal of this day was for the members of VALE to decide if they wanted to join in on a shared open source ILS community.

The program started with an intro to Open Source by Joe Lucia, University Librarian, Villanova University and President of PALINET Board. Joe started off by letting us know that he thought of himself as an Open Source Evangelist – which made me say “hey, that’s my job!” 🙂 Throughout his talk, Joe quoted so many great resources that it was hard to keep up. The video and slides should be available online soon (I’ll keep you posted) – but for now, here’s my summary.

Joe called his presentation a thought piece on why open source makes sense for libraries. I did a review of literature for Drexel that was pretty similar to this – but I have to say that Joe found some better resources and makes some better arguments than I did in my paper.

He started off by talking about the concept of the “commons.” Libraries exist to support and extend the commons for the community we serve – particularly the intellectual commons which fundamentally valuable to support access and innovation. — The commons can be a physical location like streets & parks – but is more related to ideas – like the theory of relativity and writings out of copyright in the public domain.

He recommended reading The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler. Benkler says that the “commons” refers to a particular institutional form of structuring the rights to access, use and control resources.

The library as a commons

Libraries are situated within the domain of three commons

  • they provide their communities with open access to intellectual and cultural resources – no single individual controls or uses up the resources of a library
  • our resources are accessible to anyone who walks in – accessibility to all translates into “open stacks”
  • open source is an extension to our culture of openness

The next book that Joe recommended to us was The Success of Open Source by Steve Weber. (start updating your wishlist – that’s what I’m doing).

Open Source & Libraries

If anyone should be doing open source anywhere – it’s us!! Open source shares our values & missions!!

We need to open up our sense of what we’re about – open source software with the “library space” enhances the library as a center for participatory culture and collaborative enterprise.

What is open source?

  • open source can be commercial – but is not proprietary – the commercial entities neither own nor control access to the code base
  • most good applications begin because a developer needs to “scratch an itch” – a response to something that has to be done that can’t be done with available solutions
  • it’s typically built on or extends what’s already been done
  • when it’s successful it’s modular – not a big monolithic package
    • this then results in a development process that can be scaled to a very rapid update process because you’re just updating pieces instead of the hierarchical approach of the monolithic packages
  • “to many eyes, all bugs are shallow” (from the Cathedral & the Bazaar) – if lots of people are looking at the code base it’s gong to get pretty lean and pretty clean pretty fast because anyone who seeing something wrong will fix it

Why not switch?

Some librarians are surprised to find the open-source products can cost a similar amount to the proprietary solutions. Joe argues (and I agree) that the issue isn’t the cost – but how the costs are distributed and what control you have over it – there is a greater investment in development for open source than there is for actual support. This means that you’re paying for improvements to the application when you’re paying for open source and with the proprietary stuff you’re paying to have someone answer the phone and read through a script with you (sorry that was my negativity – not Joe’s – based on recent experiences trying to get support).

Librarians will often ask “open source sounds all really nice idealistically – but how are we going to do it?” Libraries are sitting on a lot of assets that they invest in proprietary software it’s a matter of how you redirect the money you’re already paying for technology into a different arena. It’s not “can we do it?” it’s “how do we do it?”

Why not take 25% of what we currently pay to propriety software and put it into open source- that would be a significant beginning – could initiate a revolution in library technology. What an amazing idea! I love it – in fact John from WALDO mentions something like this in his talk (which I’ll summarize after this one). We may even need to re-allocate positions to technology development where possible – if we change where we’re putting money it will improve our work flow within the library. Having technologists on staff will make all the difference.

We need to deepen the culture of technology collaboration and resource sharing in libraries – and stop worrying about what’s in our little baskets and start sharing – there is a competition among libraries – who does such and such better – we need to get away from this. I always found this funny – I think of libraries as places to share information – and yet I often find libraries or librarians who are unwilling to share resources.

Joe ended with: “It can be done, and we can do it!”


What a great talk!! Joe did an amazing job of revving the audience up for the rest of day. I also think he gave us a lot to think about and a lot of great resources to check out regarding open source and how it fits into libraries. Keep an eye out for his slides and video!! It’s well worth a look!

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