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Open Source Newbie Tells All

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on October 26, 2009 - 8:55am

TechSource has a long tradition of insightful posts about Open Source Software. I am always mindful that I write for the blog that hosted Karen Schneider's IT and Sympathy, which introduced much of libraryland to the idea that OSS is free as in kittens, not free as in beer. As I am about to embark on an OSS adventure (which sounds like the name of a ship to me: The OSS Adventure), I thought I'd add my lack of insight to the fray.

My open source experience has been largely limited to WordPress installs, Firefox downloads, and some recent excitement over Drupal's form module. As I prepare to immerse myself in an Evergreen conversion project, I'm starting with beginner's mind. I will (I hope) lose my beginner's status at some point, but I want to retain as much as I can of my beginner's mind. Beginner's mind, in Buddhism, is about keeping yourself open to possibilities--Shunryu Suzuki's book Zen Mind Beginner's Mind tells the reader that "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

Beginner's mind is a pretty abstract thing. How do we wipe away what we know and look at things with fresh eyes? As we gain subject knowledge or organizational history, how do we step back and see things as if we were looking at them for the first time? Meditation is one option, but if you're not looking for an existential solution, you might want to check out Peter Bromberg's post about using new employees as a way to see your organization through fresh eyes--a way to regain some of your beginner's mind. I have found that looking through my sent mail to see what kinds of questions I asked is also helpful ("Oh yeah, I thought that was confusing too"). As our understanding of a topic or place evolves, it's easy to forget how things looked at first.

In the spirit of Beginner's Mind (and also in the spirit of hilariously wrong technology predictions), I'm going to post my current observations about libraries and OSS. Right now, I'm transitioning from public library reference work to a consortium about to embark on a conversion to Evergreen. Hopefully, my beginner's observations will prove to be useful (or at the very least, amusing).

By now, most librarians are familiar with the term "open source". The general sentiment is that it's good, but the harder sell is why it's good. The whys and wherefores of open source are fairly abstract: "it's good because anyone can get at the code" isn't all that meaningful to most people. Librarians on the front line are also burdened with the obligation to explain any system upheaval to the public. The beauty of, say, GNU licensing is likely to be lost in a "why is the catalog down when I want to renew my books now?" conversation.

When it comes to moving to an open source system, librarians need concrete information about why the move is worth the stress of an ILS conversion. Cost savings are an easy way to pique interest, but it's not the most interesting or even useful part of open source, plus it's complicated by the kittens versus beer issue. I don't mean to dismiss the issue of cost,  but rather to reiterate that "free" is not the easy answer it seems to be, nor is it even accurate. Perhaps the most celebrated benefit to an open source ILS is the ability to make changes to the system without elaborate work-arounds.

Paradoxically, there seems to be concern that librarians will not actually use of all the very real advantages of an open source system. There is tremendous comfort in the familiar, and as every Facebook redesign has shown, most people get frustrated when familiar buttons move around, change names, change shapes, or disappear entirely. The learning curve, no matter how worthy, is not always welcome. Most library staff spend a good portion of their day using their ILS. Technical Services folks probably spend the most time using their system and are often the most familiar with its inefficiencies and weaknesses. Their use is very different from the circulation staffer who may only do three or four tasks in the ILS, but they're all performed with the added pressure of waiting patrons. When given a blank slate, will librarians simply remake their old tools? I am hopeful that we won't, but the natural starting point is always the system you know. Finding those fresh eyes is tricky and may require cross-expertise collaboration. Why not ask a reference librarian what she thinks would be an efficient process for importing records? Or ask a cataloger to think about the best way to design circ functions? An outsider's perspective can offer ideas for a workflow that makes more sense.

My favorite aspect of both Evergreen and Koha is their user focus. The design process started with the online catalog and worked its way back. Library products so frequently seem to pit the needs of the patrons against the needs of librarians. It's heartening to see that changing and to see a large scale shift to a user-centric process. Of course, library staff are users of their ILS as well, but we have the advantage of daily use. While a learning curve may be frustrating for staff, it's a deal-breaker for many users.

As a casual observer of the library open source movement, I think the initial nervousness expressed by many librarians has subsided. So too, has the "gee whiz" enthusiasm, replaced by a more mellow excitement and commitment to the work of promoting, creating, and maintaining open source solutions for libraries. Uncertainty, however, persists the most strongly among those who have limited ILS experience. As I have cut my teeth on a few different ILS's, I've learned that no matter how differently they function, excel, and fail, all ILS's perform certain tasks. After all, open source or no, ILS packages are all meant to provide the same abilities to libraries. Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that librarians who have worked with a single ILS express the most concern about a migration and the most doubts about the capabilities of the open source system they're moving to, though it stands to reason that those same people would be concerned about any migration.

I am looking forward to that "full brain" feeling of learning a lot of new stuff all at once and I hope this post will help me keep my beginner's mind about open source. I'm thrilled by the potential the open source movement has to advance libraries and allow them to meet the needs of their communities. At this summer's ALA Annual conference, Dan Freeman, TechSource's editor, asked the bloggers where we saw libraries in 50 years. I have no idea what libraries will look like in 20 years, never mind 50. My best guess, though, is that the most successful libraries will be entirely different from each other. Libraries have always adapted to their communities, but I think we'll see that specialization accelerate. A flexible and user-friendly ILS that allows staff to easily access their data is a tremendously useful tool that has the potential to change a library's relationship with its patrons.

We'll see if I can keep my shiny optimism through multiple conversions! Stay tuned...