My paper on Open Source Software for KM/LIS 5043:
The Value of Open Source Software in Libraries
Public libraries organize information for the purpose of making information resources free and accessible to the public. Similarly, open source software provides resources in the form of free computer applications with publicly accessible source code that is open to revision and improvement. Open source software allows individuals to organize information according to the methods that best meet their needs, while proprietary software is much slower to accept and manifest revisions. However, if a contractor is required to develop an open source application from scratch and provide technical support, utilizing such tools can be costly. Open source resources rarely come with warrantees, and availability of technical support for unique open source programs is uncertain. Not all open source tools feature user-friendly interfaces, although improvements can be made. While it has some drawbacks, open source software is a rapidly evolving tool of enormous potential for the field of information organization.
Many library and information professionals feel that open source software aligns with public library values and First Amendment rights. Tammi Moe, a librarian working for the open source consulting firm Re:Evolve, explains, “The Open Source community shares common goals with the library community… Both work to maintain free access to information” (2004, 291). Freedom of expression and the right to seek information represent core values of the library profession (American Library Association). According to Moe, “Open Source is driven by the desire to create superior computing technologies,” rather than for profit (2004, 291). Libraries also strive to provide excellent resources to meet customers’ informational needs, not for profit but for the benefit of the community. Moe states, “Open Source code is transparent for peer review and modification…[meaning] software functions can be customized to fit the user’s needs” (291). By revising and refining open source code, libraries can “tailor technologies to meet the needs of the communities they serve, rather than having those technologies dictated to them” (292). The ability to provide sophisticated, customizable applications facilitates efficient and effective customer service. Customizing options also enable libraries to change and improve methods of organizing information within the system.
Linux is perhaps the most well-known open source program. Capable of functioning within proprietary operating systems, “Linux is stable, secure, can be modified, is free for use, and is cross-platform compatible” (Moe 2004, 292). Linux includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and email applications (292). Several open source integrated library systems (ILS) have been developed recently. Koha is an open source ILS currently utilized in New Zealand and British Columbia, including an OPAC, library system intranet, circulation tracking system, and acquisitions/budgeting system (Koha). The open source structure allows libraries utilizing Koha to expand and improve the system’s organization of content. Evergreen is another open source ILS with circulation, cataloging and statistical reporting modules, as well as acquisitions and serials modules currently in development (Evergreen). Open source tools have the potential to reduce overhead expenses. Bernard Chester notes that “sharing of improvements and applications within the [open source] community eliminates software maintenance and upgrade fees” (2006, 21). Since acquiring it costs nothing, open source software is a valuable resource for libraries with limited budgets.
Some advocates believe open source utilization is imperative to the library’s maintenance of currency and community value. Because open source applications “represent both core functionality and cutting-edge innovations in the online world,” Lee David Jaffe and Greg Careaga argue that libraries lacking experience with these tools “risk becoming increasingly marginal as these new technologies shape the coming information world” (2007, 1). Benefits of utilizing an open source ILS include local control, customizability, interoperability, vendor independence, and collaborative development (5). In addition, continuous peer-review and program improvements make open source software less vulnerable to Internet viruses (Moe 2004, 292). Jaffe and Careaga maintain that libraries should utilize open source software because it “returns local control of future systems, allows us to decide which features to change and when, gives us access to the inner workings of our systems and our data, and promotes interoperability with other tools” (2007, 13). Open source empowers libraries to actively participate in all aspects of the organization of digital information.
According to Jaffe and Careaga, the Open Source Initiative “was established as an attempt to re-brand the free software movement in terms that were less hostile to business” (3). Open source applications are more secure; “because code is in the public view it will be exposed to extreme scrutiny, with problems being found and fixed instead of being kept secret” (Nelson, Open Source Initiative). Peer review and rapid evolution of source code makes open source software “more reliable than closed, proprietary software” (Nelson, Open Source Initiative). Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, believes proprietary software is at least partly responsible for the digital divide because proprietary software licenses and restrictive copyright laws obstruct the free sharing of information (Stevenson 2006/2007, 64-65). If this assessment is accurate, it represents another way in which open source aligns with the library’s mission, as a means of helping to bridge the digital divide.
Though widely used, proprietary software causes libraries many difficulties. Moe argues, “Not only does commercial software lack the flexibility and scalability needed to meet a community’s broad range of use, but it is also cost-inhibitive for institutions with limited funding” (2004, 292). In the case of a proprietary ILS, librarians must appeal to vendors if they want to make a change within the system, and if their request is granted, they must pay for the changes (Jaffe and Careaga 2007, 7). Due to the inflexible way in which proprietary software is frequently packaged, libraries may have to wait a long time for critical updates, and then be forced to implement unwanted features (7). Proprietary software vendors “choose which interfaces to support and which development paths to emphasize” (7). Thus proprietary vendors may discontinue features they deem unprofitable, and choose not to develop potentially useful features in limited demand, no matter how much a specific library system may want or stand to benefit from those features. If a vendor goes out of business, libraries using the vendor’s software lose access to system upgrades and technical services, and may suffer significant financial losses. Studies show the number of ILS vendors is shrinking (Jaffe and Careaga 2007, 7; Breeding 2006, 45), and many vendors “offer highly overlapping products with marginal differentiation” (Breeding 2006, 45). Where proprietary ILS software is concerned, libraries “are buyers in a market with limited competition…[and] diminishing product choices,…in which the existing firms have a disincentive to innovate” (Jaffe and Careaga 2007, 7). Proprietary software limits the ability of librarians to customize, improve and control library applications.
Yet, for all its benefits, open source applications also offer certain challenges. While existing open source applications cost nothing to acquire and may cost little to customize, developing a new open source tool to meet unique and specific needs can be expensive (Jaffe and Careaga 2007, 9-10). Also, open source tools still require hardware, network access, system operators, and printing supplies to function, all of which costs money (10). Training staff to use the software adds additional expenses. Custom developments and staff training can potentially cost more than a proprietary product (Chester 2006, 23). It may prove more cost effective to directly hire programmers to support system operation than to contract with a software designer for support services (23). However, staff turnover among programming employees can cause gaps in support services and systems operation. Differences in programming style between past and new employees can cause glitches in systems operation. Chester cautions, “There are no warrantees provided with open source tools, although sometimes a third party will offer one for a fee” (21). Consulting and support services may also be limited (21). Open source applications without a large and active community of users and creators can be risky financial investments.
Although often difficult to customize, proprietary software has its benefits. Buying library software “shifts the development burden outside of the library,” as well as the burden of support and maintenance, helping to preserve limited resources (Coombs 2007, 24). When purchasing a proprietary system, the program is typically installed and operational in less time then it would take to develop an application internally (24). While open source software may be a valuable option for libraries with a fixed budget, Coombs warns that software revisions and user adaptation takes time (24). Marcia Jedd identifies another downside in that “open source solutions bring less appealing user interfaces than commercial products” (2007, 40). Providing “less sophisticated graphical user interfaces,” open source tools may not prove user-friendly (40). Choosing an open source platform with the expectation of full support from providers can result in vendor lock-in, just as with proprietary software companies (40). Unless using a fee-based supported model, availability of support is limited and uncertain, and users bear the burden of locating upgrades (41). Yet, choosing a well-supported model reduces such risks.
Open source software is not completely free in that it requires development, support services, staff training, hardware, and network access to operate. Existing open source applications are not always user-friendly, but neither are many proprietary resources. Support services may be limited for open source applications with small user and creator communities. Libraries can install and begin operating commercial systems in less time than it takes to develop and customize an open source system, but commercial systems provide limited customization options. Despite its challenges, open source software offers more control to the user. Libraries can customize open source tools to refine the way in which cataloging and circulation information is organized within the system, improving system operation, usability and customer service. Libraries stand to benefit greatly from the utilization of open source resources, especially resources with well-developed user and creator communities.
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Evergreen. Frequently Asked Questions. http://open-ils.org/faq.php (accessed April 30, 2008).
Stevenson, Siobhan. 2006/2007. Philanthropy’s Unintended Consequences: public libraries and the struggle over free versus proprietary software. Progressive Librarian 28 (Winter): 64-77.