Open Up And Say Aaahhhhh

I just got done reading Eric Schnell's problem with libraries and open source software. I think his comparison of library networks and open source projects (like information system solutions) is right on the money. I've been asking the same question since I first started working at Ohio State almost 4 years ago now: With the significant costs involved in the purchasing and maintenance commercial information systems why haven't more libraries banded together to build library systems?

He points out the newer/better/faster open source of software development is fundamentally different (new and improved!) from past efforts to build old school (homegrown) systems. The open source method of development combines resources (including people and computing power) working on similar projects to save time and money. Eric wrote: "While a single library may lack the resources, a group of libraries working together has a greater chance of assembling a development team with a full complement of these skills."

The open source model is peer review at its best. Everything from usability to security can be greatly enhanced with a good team of open source programmers. A well organized open source librarian community focused on developing a few key systems can break the expensive stranglehold vendors currently have on most libraries.

While some of us have been talking about this for years, it's refreshing to see someone in Schnell's position extolling the virtues of open source. Maybe the time has come for all of us to start evangelizing our systems to upper management. Large academic libraries with larger staff are natural leaders in this area. But, like Eric points out, this will require library administrators to refocus their vision. "They need to begin viewing open source products as commercial alternatives. They need to begin reallocating human and fiscal resources into the development of new systems that can change and adapt as fast as our environment. They need to rethink the services they have and how they are delivered."

We need to make sure everyone fully understands how open source development works. This includes the ALA and ACRL library directors. It's important the ALA understands why it's wrong to purchase a closed source CMS, or why the ACRL could build an ILS without being charged 10 thousands of dollars a month to beta test new features.


It sounds like your coming to this conclusion, open source, from an economic perspective? If so, I think there are many, many, issues that need to be worked through before home grown open source become a reality. At least as I understand it from your piece. Some points/questions to consider from my experience.

Many libraries and small consortia are still prone to "turf protecting" when it comes sharing an ILS for example. I can think of two major proposed consortial consolidations that failed in just the last year in my neck of the library woods. In each case, an increase in savings and services was pooh-poohed for perceived autonomy loss. The truth is many libraries see their affinities and services as different and are reluctant to concede any control to a larger institution. Everything from MARC field mapping, to circulation policies becomes an issue hence the smaller guys often trust their own commercial vendor more than their state university. Working with OSU and OhioLINK, you may or may not be aware that many smaller academics have trepidation about sharing systems with large institutions having those larger staff of systems folks that you speak of. I don't necessarily buy into the argument that these large institutions will run roughshod over the little guys, in fact my experience has been the opposite, however the reality remains that not all libraries are willing to put in their chips.

Last point. I would disagree that commercial systems have become more expensive and less innovative (no pun intended). At lease for many. If libraries are willing to work together in consortia like OHIOLink, prices will dramatically fall. Again, I speak from personal experience. Not only for ILS systems but for commercial databases if negotiated for the entire consortium. Open source is certainly an option, but it seems to me to be a step backwards. I remember the home-grown system developed at the university I attended for library school, in fact I believe it was the first of its kind in the nation. I also remember trying to get patches, fixes completed by the univeristy progammers who often found library needs somewhere at the bottom of their pecking list. It system worked ok however I also remember a lot of carping from my mentors. Open-source driven by large libraries is nice option, for them, but scalability and trust will most likely prevent it from becoming the model that I think you hope for. My opinion anyway.

Wrapping up, if we are talking about money, then I think economies of scale has shown to drive prices substantially down. Particularly for the small to mid-sized libraries. But this requires concessions, trust and working together which many of us still seem unwilling to do.