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!
Meredith, I appreciate how you consistently approach issues in a way that is balanced and nuanced as opposed to black and white. Your writing is eloquent and clear, and a welcome voice rising up from the all-or-nothing, “he’s gone to the dark side”, reactionary din of the biblioblogosphere.
Stephen Abram, a smart librarian, and nice enough fellow the few times I’ve met him, wasn’t a saint a week ago, and he’s not satan today. Through his writing and presenting I think he’s contributed immeasurably to the quality of thought and discussion in our profession. He’s also a guy who works for a company who sells stuff, and putting out a position paper that argues against his competitors –clumsily, or otherwise– doesn’t automatically negate his contributions. Anyone that wants to argue Stephen on the merits, have at it, but lay off the “dark side” tripe, it doesn’t take us anywhere.
Thank you for writing this! The idealize/vilify extremes bother me to no end. And it also bothered me to see so much commentary on Abram’s position paper center around the – shocking! – revelation that a proprietary software vendor was advising customers against full-scale migration to an open source system, rather than the quality and specific content of what he wrote. Surely we can have more nuanced views and discussions on such topics.
Totally agree with you. No vendor (be it III, LibraryThing, Equinox or anyone else) has your institution’s best interest’s at heart… because that’s not their job! They are businesses that sell things.
As well, the vitriol of the comments about open-source vs. proprietary are starting to sound like all of the Mac vs. PC flame wars. Lots of noise – very little productive commentary.
I’d like to think if Liblime or Equinox said all users of proprietary systems were stupid. And that they helped terrorists, there would be the same amount of outcry.
It was a remarkably badly written piece, full of scaremongering and lacking any facts. Any paper as badly written as that deserves to be rebutted no matter who writes it.
Its not you being sleep-deprived, it’s considered thoughtfulness and fairness. Thank you for expressing what more than a few of us have been thinking.
Yes, Chris, I couldn’t agree more that it should be rebutted. I’m just questioning the level of vitriol that people expressed over it and whether that would be the same if an open source vendor wrote a similar paper.
The big issue here of course isn’t just that he’s stating positions the open source folks don’t like but that he used so many at-best debatable facts.
For example, probably the the best criticism so far is the fact the one quotation by Cliff Lynch is particularly harsh and has no citation. It doesn’t help that Cliff Lynch doesn’t recall ever stating that quotation. The closest we’ve come to a citation is that “It was from a speech”.
I didn’t see it in the original posting
There’s been folks who have criticized open source in libraries and I don’t recall quite this level of reaction. Like it or not, a CEO of a major library vendor is going to be held up to a higher standard than a front-line librarian complaining about Evergreen or Koha.
There’s a list of current articles and blog posts about this issue at http://wiki.code4lib.org/index.php/SirsiDynix:_Integrated_Library_System_Platforms_on_Open_Source. I’m posting it there since I didn’t see it mentioned in the article. For nuanced criticism, some good things to look at are http://wiki.code4lib.org/index.php and /SirsiDynix_Etherpad, http://blog.ecorrado.us/2009/11/01/the-sirsidynix-and-open-source-kerfuffle/.
*sigh* too early in the morning I guess. I edited my previous comment a bit and accidentally made it a little confusing…
The “I didn’t see it in the original posting” should have read:
I didn’t see it in the original posting, so I thought I would mention there is a list of current articles and blog posts about this issue at http://wiki.code4lib.org/index.php/SirsiDynix:_Integrated_Library_System_Platforms_on_Open_Source.
Thanks for once again being reasonable, thoughtful, and (most importantly) considerate. I think that you have put your finger on one of the issues, which some people have unfortunately made personal rather than based on the issue at hand.
I have only followed this from afar, but your post is the most thoughtful I have seen. Thanks
Nicely stated. As a long-time member of LITA–which has always had a fair number of “vendor” members–I agree that some folks who work for firms that sell goods & services to libraries tend to be regarded as Vendors, horns, tail and all, while others are regarded as “one of us who happens to work outside a library.” Heck, I’ve benefited from that–I doubt too many library people would think of me as a Vendor, but since 1979 I’ve always worked for an agency that sells goods or services to libraries.
I think the difference is between people who are on point all the time–who are always selling–and those who are either more subtle about it or who legitimately aren’t acting as vendors. The “more subtle about it” is the tricky part, and I think that’s where Abram stumbled… (I’ve heard speeches from “library family” members who’ve changed jobs, where the speech sounded astonishingly as though it was coming from some other “on point” person from the new employer.)
Anyway, good post. As to Cindi’s post (also good): I wonder how folks would react if she said having all Linux servers was as limiting as having all Microsoft servers? Or is that another case where “the good guys” get a pass?
Erm, Walt, there’s one important discontinuity in your last example: Linux has Windows emulators, but to the best of my knowledge not vice versa.
Though one could certainly argue emulator vs. dual-boot. 🙂
I think part of the gray is also an alignment of values. There are some entities that support the mission of libraries that seem to be in it for the the profit — either for themselves or their shareholders. There are others that are closer in alignment to the education and information dissemination practices of librarianship. I tried to capture this discussion in a pair of blog posts a couple of years ago. If anything, the situation may be even more black-and-white today…
I think I’m agreeing with Walt when I say I’m happy to listen to or talk with people who work for vendors, but I’m not happy to engage with flacks (or people in flack mode). People like Roy Tennant, Andrew Pace, Tim Spaulding, and Ross Singer have important things to say about libraries, and we shouldn’t write them off because of their employers. We should always have our BS detectors on, regardless of who is speaking.
That said, Abram is taking it particularly hard on the chin because this report didn’t come out in a vacuum. The report taking potshots at FOSS comes out hot on the heels of him taking potshots at people who don’t like the SLA/ASKPro name change. It’s partly about being a vendor, but I’d say it’s more about tone and personality.
Other Steve: I disagree with that characterization of Abrams’ statement. He was ‘taking potshots’ at people who made claims without looking at the research or outright disregarded the facts.
Can you point to some ‘facts’ in his position paper. I know of at least 4 that are outright lies.
Not talking about the position paper, I was addressing Steve’s characterization of the ASKPro comments.
OK, so how about “The report that some people see as overly aggressive in its attempt to discredit FOSS integrated library systems comes hot on the heels of an email that some people saw as overly aggressive in its attempt to discredit those who were upset over the SLA/AskPro name change.” That’s probably more airtight. And here is a link to the Abram email on the SLA thing, if anyone needs that.
Thank you, Meredith. You said some things that needed to be said.
I agree that we need to be careful about vilifying or beatifying anyone. Very few people and organizations deserve either.
But statements like the following are pretty dangerous:
“They’re all trying to sell something to libraries, right? They all want to make money from us.”
“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.”
This kind of thinking lumps people like Craig Newmark and Warren Buffett in with people like Kenneth Lay and Bernie Ebbers. And it helps to excuse library administrators who make technology decisions based primarily on sticker price, GUI, and what everyone else is already using.
Control over the data matters. Control over the software that manipulates and the data and presents it to users matters. We’ve already ceded control over the metadata that accompanies serials, and, in many disciplines, we’re losing ground on controlling access to the content of those serials as we lease more and more journals instead of buying them.
Of course there are plenty of gray areas, and I agree with your main point: pretending everything is black and white leads to shoddy thinking. But it’s just as shoddy to look at black (or white) and see shades of gray.
@Brett – Sorry for those two sentences. It was more about sloppy writing than dangerous thinking. The point that I was trying to make was that a company’s top priority is usually (if not always) going to be their bottom line. That doesn’t mean that they won’t care about making libraries better too, but it’s not going to be their #1 goal. They might happen to be evil, but that doesn’t make them evil in and of itself. Plenty of closed-source vendors have done more for the profession than open-source vendors and many have worked to open their systems up in ways that allow programmers to extend their functionality. I am a big fan of open source software, but I do not think it’s the best solution for every problem or for every library.
Ahhh, I see where we have a fundamental difference. To me the difference between proprietary and free software IS black and white.
Software which isn’t available to you under a license that protects the 4 crucial freedoms is unethical.
Much the same way as selling someone a car with the bonnet (hood i think you guys call it) welded shut is unethical.
It’s not a matter of price, but a matter of freedom, you should be free to modify (or to get someone else to modify/fix) something you own.
@Meredith–There were a couple of 10-year-old kids who graduated from my library school program with me. The weird thing was, the school required them to let the rest of us copy as much as we wanted from their papers and tests before they turned them in. As you would expect, a few of us had higher GPAs than the 10-year-olds: our experience, resources, and ability to keep our work private gave us a considerable advantage. But I have to hand it to those kids: they still did pretty well. So well, in fact, that the teachers and the rest of us sometimes forgot that they were 10 and that the playing field wasn’t anywhere close to even.
That’s my roundabout response to your second point. Give open source projects time and money–and start now, rather than later–and it won’t be long until open source is the best solution to every problem for every library.
I simply disagree with your first point. I believe there are companies, including library vendors, who refuse to behave unethically. By definition, that means they’d go out of business before they’d compromise their ethics. Which means their bottom line, while important, is not their top priority.
Chris, I guess we do disagree there. I only think it’s unethical if the person buying the proprietary software is unaware of that fact when they are making the purchase. Otherwise, people have the freedom to choose whatever software they want, whether it is open source or proprietary. We are very lucky to be living in a time in libraries where we have real choices (and good choices) of open source software. Software makers can put whatever restrictions on their software they want — it is up to the individual to decide whether they want to live with those restrictions.
If someone bought a car knowing that the hood was welded shut, that was the choice they made (a foolish choice, but no ethical lines were crossed). If they were not told about this issue with the car, then it is unethical.
Yep, we have a fundamentally different world view, I find it unethical to use a license precisely designed to stop a user from modifying the software. Them being able to choose a different piece of software instead doesn’t negate the ethical decision the software maker made to restrict users freedoms.
I do agree with you though that it is good that there are increasingly more free software alternatives available now. I also find it heartening that proprietary vendors are having to resort to misinformation and scare tactics to try and keep users. It is a sign of desperation and real fear on their part.
Meredith, an excellent post (I’ve had limited Internet access during a cross-country relocation, so I am really in an info-vacuum this fall). You capture a lot of what I was trying to say in my own post.
I could quibble about your representation of OSS versus proprietary systems (and some of us had strong issues with Liblime, yes, even before we went to work for a competitor), but that is beside the point. The key is you make an excellent argument that some vendor reps (and I include OCLC in this group) get a free pass and others do not, something I have never understood. I would add that it is not lost on some of us that there is a huge gap between what some of the front people say and what their companies do. I find it offensive to be hectored from public forums about what libraries should be doing by vendors that make it difficult or impossible to reach those goals.
Oh, and here’s my post: