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Enterprise Open Source

Submitted by Karen G. Schneider on August 29, 2007 - 5:44pm

I wrote my longest TechSource post of last summer while sitting in a very warm home office in Palo Alto, sweating in my skivvies. Now in late summer 2007 I find myself in a day-job where the A/C is so efficient I drape a my “office blanky” around my shoulders in the afternoon (I'm essentially a snake, so I'm cold wherever I go in the well-refrigerated South). Things change, don't they?

Things have changed in LibraryLand as well. We've seen further consolidation in the library automation industry. Earlier this year wExplain again where Spearfish is...e watched the surprise smash hit, Now, Voyager; then CSA nibbled up ProQuest; meanwhile, Sirsi-Dynix devoured Docutek, and then Vista-Equity devoured Sirsi-Dynix (which has a hyphenated name due to an earlier consolidation some of us antique librarians remember). It's all so very Old Testament!

Meanwhile, the 4.0 release of MetaLib feels faster, has nifty faceting, and identifies the full-text sources. (A full-text limiter would be even better, but labeling full-text is a big leap.) Furthermore, as Roy Tennant wrote over on Library Journal, integrated library system vendors are rolling out “unified finding tools” such as Encore, Primo, and Rooms that hold out hope for a single search interface for library information.

But the truly significant activity in LibraryLand technology hasn't been vendor-driven. It has been the maturation of what I call “enterprise open source”: products such as Evergreen and Koha that are robust, well-implemented library automation packages with strong development communities and equally strong funded-support models. (Next month I'll discuss other open-source up-and-comers, such as Sakai—yes, there is an alternative to the laborious hell-in-a-web-app that is Blackboard!—and small but lithe products such as LibraryFind.)

Olde-Tyme Open Source

For a while, open source had a shaky reputation (when it had a reputation at all) as software written by a guy in a torn teeshirt sitting in his parents' garage. If you used open source software, you were on your own if it didn't work (unless you happened to have a programmer in your library familiar with the code the product was written in). Too often, unless you were talking about massive projects such as Apache, the best you could say about open source software, compared to commercial products, was that it was “free” (as in “free kittens,” as Eric Lease Morgan first put it).

I feel that way about a few open-source products I've had to work with. You can't compare commercial sound-file software such as Soundforge with the limited and irritating Audacity. The best I could say about Audacity, particularly after struggling with it for a couple of hours, is that it is “free” (though my time certainly isn't).

But I don't feel that way about, say, Evergreen—and neither do the members of Georgia's statewide PINES network, who are enjoying far better software, for far less money, than could be bought off the shelf. The Georgia State Library faced upgrading its ILS for $10 million. Instead, their developers built Evergreen for $1.5 million. I don't know about you, but I think it's a good day when I save $8.5 million, particularly when the product I bought for $1.5 million actually does what I want it to do.

And then there's the support. Companies such as Equinox and Liblime exist to support open-source library software (respectively, Evergreen and Koha). These companies provide the configuration, installation, and maintenance activities of any typical library vendor.

Foundation garments

But third-party support is a completely different support model with a very different customer dynamic. Unlike the traditional vendor-support model, open source software support isn't an ancillary post-purchase service where you write the check and pray for good support; good service is the business Equinox and Liblime are in. There's no reason other companies couldn't spring up to compete with them for customers, as has happened for other open source products such as Linux, and they behave accordingly.

Customers are coming on board. In addition to the Georgia PINES network, Equinox —only in existence since July 1 of this year—has signed an agreement with the British Columbia Public Library Services Branch. Liblime has a number of agreements in place and has recently signed several partnerships with membership organizations such as Pennsylvania's Palinet and INCOLSA in Indiana, and has signed up several large groups of libraries, such as the Indiana Shared Library Catalog.

Information wants to be... well-supported

When you ask why open source is important, some developers and open-source enthusiasts might wave incense in front of your nose. One argument is that you can modify the code. But most libraries don't have developers, so this argument isn't often compelling. Another argument is that open source software is “free.” But I've worked in an organization where we poured money into developing “free” open source software (and once we stopped pouring money, the development also stopped), so that argument isn't persuasive.

The primary value of open source software is the open nature of its code. Those of us who have worked with traditional vendor software, with our hands and feet bound by nondisclosure agreements, know the frustration of not being able to share development issues with the broader library community (let alone actually look at the private code driving the software purchased, in most cases, with public dollars). In the open source world, transparency is a strength, not a threat: problems are pondered and solved in public. In the same vein, in the open source library software world, the “secret sauce” isn't the software code; it's the companies that support it. Service is everything; software code is just part of the means to the end.

Another significant value of open source software is that its survival depends on a community's needs, not the whims of a corporation. I don't begrudge anyone the need to earn a living—I too have a mortgage to pay—but too many vendors have left librarians at the altar while they pranced off to follow their bliss (can you say “Taos”?). As we librarians know all too well, there is no greater protection for intellectual property than to place it in the public trust.

Finally, I'm going to contradict myself a little by saying that another advantage of open source software is that you can modify it. True, many of us do not have developers who can do this work. (I often dream of a world where every library had one programmer on staff. Imagine tens of thousands of librarian developers, working full-time—and collaboratively—on library software!)

Biblio-code-monkeyBut even if you wouldn't hire a programmer for your library—permanently or for a few hours—the ability to modify the software changes the balance of power. It says this is software of and by the people; it's a statement about ownership.

In a library automation market of massive consolidation and buy-outs, enterprise open source software is above all disruptive. It opens up opportunities to choose between traditional closed software and open source software—or even to write your own. All that is good for all of us.

Next month: other open source packages get attention. What's your favorite? Write in!

Comments (15)

Sorry the html tag isn't

Sorry the html tag isn't appearing. A new blog by a Georgia librarian on Evergreen. the url is:

For those who think

For those who think Evergreen is 'all that' take a look at this I love the concept of an open source ILS too but in practice I'm not so sure

Thanks for the nice comments

Thanks for the nice comments about Koha - it was our baby before it was anyone else's. Now have a look at our new open source venture - Kete (another Maori word. This one means basket) It's a digital library, more wikipedia than Britannica, inviting users to join up their scraps of knowledge about a specific topic - ours is geographical.

Wow, I am really impressed

Wow, I am really impressed with other librarians talking about OS. Sometimes I feel that I am on my own at state conferences. I think that a lot of people got burn by OS programs before. The adage once bitten, twice shy comes to mind when I talk to experience librarians. My blog has my experiences working with KOHA. It was a long fight, but that was at my own doing. My goal was to know as much as possible about it. I do want to give back in coding. What I have done so far is set up a Moodle site for other K-12 school libraries that are using Koha. Hopefully, we will all be able to help each other out. Thanks for your article.

Thanks, to Karen, for the

Thanks, to Karen, for the posting and, to all, for the thoughtful comments. OS has always had great potential to further the 'social' mission of librarianship, and the emergence of Equinox and LibLime now make OS a real option for libraries...big or small. Very small libraries or systems that have solo librarians (with no budget for big vendors and/or no expertise to brave OS on their own) benefit greatly from librarians who are generous with their time and talents; support also makes it easier for larger libraries to 'take the plunge' with systems that are already up and running while also making it easier for 'codies' among us to tinker for the benefit of all. Now, to combine 2 items from your earlier posting, 'Software isn't 'free' unless the labor to maintain it is 'free.'...but if you can get your consortia to help pay for the support (rather than 'prop up services with questionable return on investment'), you have a built-in pool of potential coders too! Can't wait to see what OS you'll cover next time! (Full disclosures: 1) I use Audacity, it has been good to me, and I know I will never contribute anything to the code; 2) I use RefWorks (part of CSA/ProQuest) all the time and would have a hard time giving up for an OS alternative at present, but I have also found the RefWorks developers to be very responsive to our library's requests; 3) our library hosted a pitch by LibLime for our local consortium and we were so impressed that we volunteered to be the test-school for the consortium, should they decide to give it a try...I'll let you know if/how it goes!)

Karen - Thanks so much for

Karen - Thanks so much for this post and for your continued leadership in all things technical. I think it is extremely important that management understand that there are a suite of tools we need to be looking at: integrated library systems, institutional repositories, collaborative workspaces, Web content management systems, link resolvers, federated search engines, etc. We cannot get stuck on JUST the library's catalog.

Rosalie, that's amazing! NZ

Rosalie, that's amazing! NZ has some of the best library stuff. Darla, a lot of state agencies are looking hard at open source; they increasingly 'get it.' Kathryn, I'm with you on RefWorks. My only observation is that I have lost 'my' RefWorks several times, as I've moved between institutions. Dan, I really like your post! Thanks all... keep talking open source... discussion greases the wheels!

Karen - great post! I jumped

Karen - great post! I jumped off from your thoughts to answer the 'how can a library without programmers contribute to enterprise open source projects' question at

Jon, that's cool, I think

Jon, that's cool, I think you really clarified what I am saying!

Jim, thanks for bringing up

Jim, thanks for bringing up Plinkit--that sounds very interesting. Next month I'll mention both. Expect a ping from me!

Support Open Source! The

Support Open Source! The more people who use open source software makes it better for all of us!

Karen, thanks for mentioning

Karen, thanks for mentioning LibraryFind which the Oregon State Library has supported with LSTA funds. We also funded the development of Plinkit, the Plone-based hosted content management system that allows even the smallest public library to have a great web site. Now Colorado, Texas and Illinois have joined us in the Plinkit Collaborative ( so we can pool our resources to continuously improve Plinkit. We'd love more states to join us!

It definitely changes the

It definitely changes the balance of power. Seeing the code is like being able to look under the hood of a car you've bought. It won't help everybody, but there are enough people that understand what is under the hood and can then share an informed and honest opinion.

Thanks for mentioning

Thanks for mentioning PALINET's agreement with LibLime. But one clarification: PALINET covers the mid-Atlantic region, not just Pennsylvania. We have significant membership in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

I've been chewing on the

I've been chewing on the 'Why open source is important'. I think that part of the reason you ended up saying you contradict yourself a little is that you're really talking about several different layers of benefits of open source. One might be able to say that the very basic 'tenants' of open source might be: 1) Visible Code - you can actually see the source code that will end up performing the software functions. 2) Communication - you can talk about the code. That is, it's not bound by those pesky NDAs or scary laws. 3) Ability to modify - you can tweak and enhance, or more importantly, others can tweak and enhance. Others can submit patches and the like. The point you're making, that being open encourages a more responsible vendor needs the previous three conditions. It's more than just saying 'open' is more important than 'modification'. The results of all those advantages holds the promise of more advantages like better vendor competition, healthier service orientation, actual fixes. Of course, I wonder the role attitudes play. Web servers are rarely an end to themselves. That's why Apache took off, many people could use it in hosting websites, where the money is. Right now library vendors seem to providing just the software (with support for that software). Many of them don't provide a service function like say, establish a data center and take care of maintaining the machines and Internet connections. And of course there's forking issues, commercial pressures, leadership issues....ah well, I'm rambling. I suppose I should try to make my own post ;). ps. I'm pro-open source, really ;)