By Meredith Farkas | November 2, 2009
Ever since the news of LibLime’s enterprise version of Koha and whether or not their actions consisted a fork of the code, I’ve been thinking about how black and white some of us (me included, at times) tend to see library products and library vendors. Stephen Abram’s “position paper” on open source ILSes got me thinking about it again.
I’ve found it interesting how some vendors are vilified (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) while others get a free pass — to the point where we no longer even think of them as vendors. Open source vendor? You’re cool. Vendor who blogs and gives talks about 2.0 stuff (a la Paul Miller, Stephen Abram and Tim Spalding)? You’re cool too. Product manager, marketing dude or executive at a company like Ex Libris or EBSCO or Elsevier? Not so much. And why is that? They’re all trying to sell something to libraries, right? They all want to make money from us. But some of these people are seen as being good and having our best interests at heart while others of them are seen as being out to screw us.
Once upon a time, I was asked to speak on a panel. So was Tim Spalding. Because I was a member of this organization, I was not paid and had to pay for my travel to get to the conference. Tim got paid to come and be a part of this panel, in which he spoke about his product, LibraryThing. I mentioned it to the organizers because I thought it was odd that a vendor get paid for the opportunity to drum up free publicity for his product. The organizer said that she really hadn’t thought of Tim as a vendor. Interesting. Is Tim an awesome guy who most of us think a great deal of? Certainly. Is he a very entertaining speaker? Without question. Does he sell stuff to libraries? Yes. Does he sometimes exhibit at conferences? Yes. Does that make him a vendor? I’d say so!
And that’s not to say that vendors are bad. Most aren’t. But I really take issue with the way our profession tends to idealize some types of vendors and vilify others. I think a lot of people have started to see this black-and-white thinking as problematic in light of the whole LibLime Koha fork thing. Because suddenly you have this open source company — a company that is supposed to be good and out to benefit the larger open source community — doing something that benefits them and their customers at the expense of the community. But weren’t we just hoisting the LibLime folks on our shoulders last year? Weren’t many of us (me included) promoting them and weren’t we excited when we saw their client list growing and growing and growing? (Many of us may still be happy to see their client list grow as it’s a sign that the market share of open source software in libraries is growing.)
Folks at OCLC definitely used to get a pass in the same way the open source folks did, though that seems to be changing as public perception shifts towards viewing them as a vendor that wants to gobble up and control our data (which is also a simplification). It reminds me a lot of how some librarians felt about Google — how they went from loving Google to feeling totally betrayed by them. I guess my take is that if someone makes their money off a library without working in it, they are a vendor. Consultants are vendors. People who sell products are vendors. People who sell services, like maintaining open source systems, are vendors. And all of them will put the good of their company over the good of libraries. That doesn’t make them evil — it makes them good businesspeople.
And again, with the Stephen Abram thing. I didn’t like his paper because it lacked a level of quality and polish that I would expect from Stephen and a company like SirsiDynix. It was about at the level of professionalism of a poorly-researched blog post (hey, like this!). I take issue with anything that doesn’t cite where its information is coming from and uses phrases like “some companies”, “some software” “some argue.” There were lots of factual inaccuracies and opinion masquerading as fact (“Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly”). And what was up with the completely pointless chart on page 4? It was just an awful piece. The fact is, there are a lot of good arguments against open source and against choosing an open source ILS, but Stephen’s lack of good hard facts and citations made any point he made seem less credible.
Part of me started to wonder on Friday if someone from an open source company wrote a similar screed against proprietary systems, would it garner the same reaction from the Twittersphere/blogosphere? And I hate to say it, but I think the answer is no. If someone from Equinox went off on the weaknesses of proprietary systems in a way that was badly researched and perhaps contained some hyperbole, many folks would probably nod their head and say, “yeah, they do suck.” Some of us might send the link to our colleagues, writing that it contains a great distillation of why open source is the better option for the ILS. I’m not saying this to damn anyone or shame anyone, because I know I do it too sometimes without even thinking about the double-standard.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been so sleep-deprived lately that I’ve been seeing everything through whatever the opposite of rose-tinted glasses are (green?). I guess what I’m trying to say is that we really can’t look at things as being so black and white. We can’t say open source=good, proprietary=bad. It’s not that simple. Stephen Abram is not a bad person because he wrote a crappy “position paper. OCLC isn’t necessarily evil. Open source vendors aren’t necessarily good. We shouldn’t assume that a vendor is out to take us to the cleaners and steal all our data, but neither should we assume that a vendor has our best interests at heart (no matter how cool they or their representatives are). Things are really, really gray, and require a much more critical eye than we sometimes have by default.
Updated: I just read Cindi Trainor’s The Sacred Cows of Library Technologists, which I think dovetails so nicely with my points and is far, far more eloquently written. Check it out!