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From Open Stacks to Open Source

Nov - 11 - 2008
Nicole C. Engard

Up next in the open source presentation at the Pennsylvania Library Association conference was Joe Lucia. Earlier this year I got to hear Joe talk at VALE and he had much more time then to get his points across – so check out that summary. Joe started his talk by saying that he was going to change his focus from nuts and bolts to deeper view of open source. He said that open source is not about saving money – while that can often be the case, that’s not the argument for it in the long run.

His first claim is that to understand open source you have to understand the concept of the commons – which is a legal concept that goes back to English common law. He pointed us to the writings of Lawrence Lessig who he thinks is a good thinker about what’s happening with ideas and intellectual property in the digital age.

In addition to Lessig’s writing, he recommended that we look at The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler and The Success of Open Source by Steve Weber (which I’m reading right now).

Joe says that we need to take our infrastructure and move it to open source because of what libraries stand for; participatory culture, free flow of information and creation of knowledge.

Joe asks us what open source is – in the most naked sense. It’s software where you can get access to the code and use it and change it (the license says so). But in a cultural sense, I take a piece of code you wrote and then I add to it and then I put it back into the software – you get a community built set of tools that does what that community needs done. The focus in the open source world is on the process used to develop it – not the product. Innovations in process are often much more profound and compelling than the product that comes out of the process (Weber, p.56). In open source the primary focus is on making things better for users – as opposed to making something so that I can own it and you can buy it.

Joe explains how good open source products emerge:

  • someone has a need, software is developed to scratch an itch
  • you build or extend on work that has already been done
  • components are highly modularized – you take small pieces that do things well and put them together
    • simple standards and methods link them together
  • instead of long complex release cycles (how many years did it take for Vista to come out – and is it stable yet?)
    • Linux comes out with releases every month (fixes and features)
  • a large community looking at code bugs are patched quicker – faster than the 20 guys who are testing MS

In short, open source is superior because of the way it’s built – the fact that the community is building it for the community – not for commercial reasons.

That said, there are real costs to participating in open source:

  • migration costs
  • support costs
  • investment and development
  • maintenance costs

So how do you get there (to switch to open source) in libraries when you have legacies of systems in place that do things we need to do from a business standpoint? Joe says that we all need to make some sort of payment on a monthly basis for technology in our libraries. He thinks that if we figure out how to redirect 1/4 of this money into to the development of open source software we can fund an open source revolution – an idea I like a lot!

Joe calls librarians to commit to a deeper culture of technology resource sharing in our libraries. We should take the risk of cutting off the support costs on our stabler systems so that we can redirect those funds to open source development. We need to understand why this matters to what we do culturally – library leaders need to push this agenda – it can be done and should because the open source mission matches our cultural mission in libraries.

Joe ends by encouraging us! He says that we’re almost there – there may be no system that can do everything you want it to do right now – but the more libraries that contribute the better it will get.

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