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The Evolution of Open Source in the Library

by on May 2, 2013

Libraries and individuals use open source software everyday.  If you are surfing the web, Apache is likely playing a part in your activity.  Do you use Firefox or Google Chrome?  Android tablets use a Linux-based operating system.  Open source technologies often seem esoteric and unwieldy, and in some cases this is true, but many of their core principles align with libraries, and while they may not always be the right solution for a project, they should likely receive more attention.

Open source literacy is a piece of digital literacy that is often given scant regard, if any at all.  Yet, when training community members on how to use Word and other Microsoft offerings, do you know if they will have access to these resources when they go home?  Open Office  and LibreOffice both offer powerful, free word processors (spreadsheets, etc.), but also a community that develops a wiki that can walk users through many questions of functionality.  I do not wish to imply that these solutions should be used instead of Microsoft, but instead that we need to know what our community actually needs and then respond appropriately.  Many libraries use Firefox, but do not necessarily point out that it is an open source application to their members.  Perhaps even acknowledging this would help disperse the myth that open source software is completely foreign.

Open source software also offers the opportunity for cost-saving measures within the library.  Many library websites are built around WordPress or Drupal, while few know the complete functionality of these resources, libraries, and users in general, have been able to create what they want with a relatively low learning curve.  Integrated library systems such as Koha, Evergreen and Greenstone require more programming knowledge.  Understanding whether they can be incorporated with the current staff, or if they will require paid expertise that will be in excess of a commercial solution is a question each library must consider within its own context.  I am not insinuating that we should move exclusively towards open source resources, but in conversations with vendors it is important that as consumers we understand what our options are.

A more recent development in open source is open source hardware.  At Computers in Libraries 2013, Jason Griffey presented on this trend, highlighting Arduino, a platform that can be used for a variety of educational and technical interfaces, and Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of a credit card running a fully operational Linux machine.  I have written a blog focused exclusively on open source hardware for InfoSpace at Syracuse University if readers are interested in more details about this.

More generally, I learned at this same presentation the extent of material that was already freely available and ready for download at sites such as Source Forge and GitHub.  While open source is a participatory activity, there is a wealth of material available for free download and to be modded to fit an institutions individual needs.  As budgets for libraries in many communities continue to be slashed, we cannot ignore the potential for open source, because it seems inaccessible.  Instead, we must, where possible, enhance its profile, and implement it where it is the cheapest best solution for our community.  The collaborative possibilities for libraries and open source programmers are great if we are willing to make their materials part of our strategic goal.  If we succeed we may see greater offerings for our communities at discounted rates, or at least a more equitable rapport with our vendors.  If we fail, we may find it impossible to afford to remain technologically relevant to our communities.  I cannot stress enough that open source is not a panacea, but we ignore its potential at our own peril.