By Meredith Farkas | November 28, 2004
I couldn’t agree more with what Aaron Schmidt wrote about in his Ten Things to Stay Tech Current, but I think he should add a number eleven to his list: learn everything you can about open source and use OSS in your library. I really don’t understand why more libraries haven’t explored the world of open source, because you’d think that librarians would naturally gravitate toward such collaborative technologies. I don’t know if they’re uninformed about open source, afraid of change, or what, but open source can offer libraries tremendous cost savings both initially and in terms of Total Cost of Ownership. Considering that library budgets almost everywhere are shrinking, OSS seems a natural solution to budget problems.
I’ve heard many of the excuses for why libraries (and other organizations) won’t move to open source:
1. It’s unreliable. And Microsoft products aren’t? At home, we have one computers running Mac OSX, two running Linux, and one running Windows. And guess which one is always having problems with viruses and spyware? Guess which one constantly requires new security patches because its initial design was unreliable? And guess which one we can’t fix ourselves because the source code is proprietary and we really have no idea what we may have installed on our computer?
2. It’s difficult to maintain. People do need to know a lot more about computers and Unix to set up open source systems than they do to set up Windows. But once it’s running, it will require far less maintenance than would a computer running Windows. It’s important that someone on your staff has a good understanding of Unix and OSS, but there are plenty of companies that provide support and training at a reasonable cost.
3. Our patrons won’t know how to use it. OK, there are some more complicated Linux distributions I would not set a library up with, but if my 71-year-old father-in-law can easily switch from Windows to Mandrake, I think the patrons can adjust as well. Platforms like Red Hat and Mandrake have easy-to-use graphical interfaces. We’re not talking Unix command prompt here! And if you’re not ready to go completely open source, you can use open source software on Windows machines. Mozilla doesn’t look so different from IE, but lacks the pop-ups and security problems. Open office has pretty much the same functionally as MS Office, and users can save documents in .doc format. Sure, patrons may have some questions at first, but don’t they have plenty of problems using your proprietary software already?
But what about all of the benefits?
1. No more exhorbitant licensing fees. With open source software you can put software on all of your computers and make as many copies as you want.
2. The source code is open for all to see. Not only to see, but to improve upon if you have the wherewithall to do it. If you want something tweaked in your system, your proprietary software vendors may not be willing to do it for a single library or it may be very expensive. With open source, you can make the modifications yourself.
3. More control. You can choose when to upgrade or what upgrades to make to the system. You don’t have to worry about vendors being bought by other companies or going out of business.
4. It’s cheap. You can set up a bunch of thin clients connected to a terminal server running Samba for a very small initial investment. With thin clients, you don’t need to purchase expensive new machines with the best storage and processing capabilities. All of the “heavy lifting” is done by the application server.
5. Need an extra piece of functionality or an improvement to the software? It may already have been created. The beauty of Open Source is that it is constantly being improved upon. Someone may have already created a new version of the software that included this functionality because they needed it too. And if not, you have a huge community of Linux users out there who will be willing to help you make the changes yourself.
There have been some encouraging signs in the past few years. Bob Kerr has made it his mission to get open source software placed on CDs in public libraries for everyone to borrow and install on their computers. Arizona State University’s West Library has switched entirely to Linux. Public libraries are starting to see that thin clients offer a tremendous cost savings and can allow libraries to invest in more computer terminals for their patrons to use rather than in more software licenses. Companies like Open-PC make it easier for libraries to switch to open source by providing the set-up and support. Koha, an open source integrated library system, is free to install and is being used in libraries around the world. I think libraries are going to increasingly look to open source solutions to their budgetary and technology problems, but right now, the adoption of open source is moving very slowly in the library world.
There is a ton of info about open source in libraries, but the best place to look is Brenda Chawner’s Open Source Software and Libraries Bibliography.