How Open Source Software Can Improve Our Library

Remember a time when doing research required us to have to go to the library? Your school had one, and that's probably where you spent most of your library time. If it wasn't your school, then it was probably your local town or city library. Some of these libraries may have been tiny little holes in the wall with just a few thousand books while others were huge university libraries with 10,000 of books, magazines, newspapers, cd, microfiche, and more.

The depth a library can have can range greatly; it all depends on how much money that library gets in funding. The big college libraries obviously get the most due to the fact that they are part of an actual business model that produces a significant amount of money. Public libraries on the other hand only get what the government gives them, which in smaller municipalities can be very little.

Organizing Libraries

For many libraries, organizing books and other media can be a daunting task, especially as the library grows with more material. Years ago we had crude card catalog systems (remember the Dewy Decimal System) that kept things organized, but were difficult to maintain. With today's computing technology, organizing our libraries has never been easier or more efficient. Gone is the card catalog and in some libraries, it's much easier to locate a book through an internet connection and picking it up upon your arrival, rather then wasting the time scouring the aisles looking for your next read.

Now just because the world has been blessed with wonderful software solutions that make everything easier to do, doesn't mean that every library in the universe is using these solutions. As noted above, many libraries do not have huge amounts of money to burn, and any that they do get usually goes to purchasing additional resources for you to have at your disposal (think about how many books get printed in a year).

Because of this need for software (and the installation and training costs associated with any), and the lack of money available to spend on it, many libraries are left to fend for themselves when it comes to staying up-to-date with the latest technology. Unless, of course, they embrace the open source movement and use some of the countless software solutions available to help out. "Open Source" you say? If you are unaware what open source is, then let me briefly enlighten you.

Open Source Software

Most software that we all use everyday is known as "proprietary", which in a nutshell means that it costs money and that the actual code of the software is restricted, in that the code of the software cannot be modified, copied, or changed from its original construction. The code is "unreadable" and pretty much is what it is.

Open source software, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. The open source mentality revolves around sharing and collaboration, and these two important elements describe open source software perfectly. First and foremost, open source software is free for anyone to have; more importantly, not only is the software free, but it is also free for anyone to copy, hack, modify, etc. This increases the possibilities of a software program's potential because of this free-thinking model. Many large groups of programmers have customized basic open source programs into whatever they deemed necessary, and have in turn given these modifications back to the open source community for free where others can continue to build on their work.

There are many different kinds of open source software solutions out there today that could be embraced by the library. There's basic operating systems and document processing programs. Then there's many web-based content management solutions and database driven organization software. So why aren't libraries using these free, open programs to make their lives easier and their libraries better? The answers you'll find lie in an area that one would think to be ironic given the situation - the lack of information. It will be our goal here to outline some of the prominent players in the open source software game and offer solutions to not only portray their role in the modern library, but offer the means to get these programs installed and up and running.

Basic Computer Programs

  • Ubuntu: The most popular player in the Linux-based operating system game. (Linux is the open-source answer to Microsoft's Windows operating system; Ubuntu is a modification of Linux). Ubuntu is a perfect solution for libraries who need to upgrade their older computers using outdated Windows or for bulk computer purchases requiring a new operating system. Many libraries feature computers for users to gain access to the internet, and that being the only function those computers serve. Why pay for all the unwanted things on Windows when you just need to get online? You might be a little scared at first of a new operating system, but just like anything else, the hardest part is getting started. Plus, there's plenty of Ubuntu installation help out there to give you a hand.
  • Firefox: So, you've installed Ubuntu and are ready to continue a Microsoft-free lifestyle. What next? One of the first things you'll notice is that you have a new browser to surf the web with. No more clicking on that big blue Internet Explorer icon anymore. Instead, you'll be looking for the orange looking fox. Firefox is the Mozilla organizations answer to Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser, and has taken the web by storm over the past few years as the biggest competitor to IE in quite some time. Firefox offers a much more secure browsing experience compared to IE (mostly because the majority if the population uses IE and that's who the bad guys are targeting). The biggest draw, however, is the modifications that can be made to Firefox through its many plug-ins, which can make using the net more constructive. HINT: Many of the basic programs that come with Windows can be found as a plug-in for Firefox!
  • Open Office: Another component you'll find bundled with your Ubuntu operating system is a software package known as Open Office. Does "office" sound familiar? Of course is does; you've probably used Microsoft's Office products many times before, including the industry standard "Word", "Excel" and "PowerPoint" programs. Well guess what? Open Office can do the same thing, and you can use both programs to handle each others file formatting (i.e. if someone builds a presentation in Microsoft PowerPoint, then you can edit the same presentation in Open Office). In addition to these must-have programs (either to be used by the library internally or for the patron to use in various projects), Open Office also comes with a calculator, draw, and mathematics program as well. Looks like were beginning to forget about Windows already (and remember, we haven't even spent a dime!)
  • Thunderbird: Firefox's little brother program, Thunderbird, is the Mozilla foundations open-source alternative to Microsoft's Outlook Express, and is your fourth tool in weaning yourself off of the Windows juice that you have been so accustomed to drinking for so long now. The program works exactly like Outlook, providing you with a secure and safe desktop email solution. And just like Firefox, the open source programming community has created free add-ons to make the Thunderbird email client customized to your liking. If you absolutely need a desktop email client (as opposed to a web-based email client like the recommended Gmail), then Thunderbird is the open source program you need. Windows who?

Advanced Programs

  • GIMPshop: So now our library has replaced its Windows operating system, and installed some basic programs to, for the most part, get what most people come to the library to get done. However, what is the library could offer MORE than what patrons are used to using the library computer for, and offer other programs to use? One important but rather expensive software program that is sometimes needed is the ever popular Adobe Photoshop. Because we're cheap and only choosing open-source alternatives, we're going with Gimpshop, a Photoshop alternative. While not as feature rich as Adobe's photo manipulation program, GIMPshop is just as easy to use and will take care of any users basic needs (many, unless seasoned Photoshop pros, will only need the program to so basic tasks anyway).
  • Audacity: For those looking to get a little more creative in the library, you'll want to make sure that you can record and edit audio; hopefully, they'll be taking advantage of Audacity, a cross platform open-source program that does just that. In the digital recording industry, there are hundreds of programs with a wide range of features and capabilities, and can cost anywhere from a few bucks to a couple of thousand dollars. Now, no one expects a library to have thousand dollar recording software installed on their computers, but having a basic program sure does help. Audacity will give you the ability to cut, copy, edit, and splice sounds together in a variety of formats. Plus, as it is open-source, it's capabilities are continuing to evolve.
  • Avidemux: Well we have the means to manipulate our audio recordings, then what about video? Don't worry you budding filmmakers (or librarians looking to produce their own promotional videos, how-to-tutorials, or video book reviews), because the open source community has you covered. Next up on the free software train is Avidemux, a video editing software program for users to edit together online video. Avidemux can take care of simple cutting, filtering, and encoding tasks, and work in a variety of file formats. It's not going to produce any elaborate visual effects for you, but it'll take care of the simple ones and would be a great addition to a library's catalog of resources.

So, we've covered some of the basic and advanced programs that traditionally, would set a library back in terms of finances. By running the above free open sources programs, a library could offer plenty of software resources to it's patrons that if could afford to do in the past. While these programs are free, some of them (especially the photo, audio, and video programs) may be difficult for the first time or novice user to grasp. It will be up to the librarians and staff to educate themselves in order to provide their patrons with the know-how to get the most out of these programs (thus providing the greatest resource a library can offer - assistance in retrieving and properly using available tools and information).

In addition to these tools being helpful to a library's patrons, they are obviously very important to the operations of a library as well, and it will benefit each employee to use the same open source programs for library operations as to educate the employee of the ins and outs of each software program, so that knowledge can then be shared with a patron should a question or problem ever arise. But what of the other computing needs of the library? Obviously we still have some other very important organizing and cataloging needs as we addressed earlier. In addition, a library needs to have a strong online presence and offer their knowledge and support through the internet in order to really provide a resource. Thankfully, there are open source solutions for the library to take advantage in these departments as well.

ILS (Integrated Library Systems)

  • Koha is a promising full featured open source ILS (integrated library system) currently being used by libraries all over the world. For those of you out there unfamiliar of what an ILS is, well, it is a system of keeping track of the operations of a library - payroll, expenses, purchases, and most importantly, keeping track of the various media being checked out by the librarians patrons. Many smaller libraries cannot afford to purchase, install, and maintain an ILS, and Koha is a perfect alternative. Koha is built using library ILS standards and uses the OPAC (open public access catalog) interface. In addition, Koha has no vendor-lock in, so libraries can receive tech support from any party they choose.
  • Evergreen ILS is another option when researching open source ILS options. Developed by Equinox Software, Evergreen is a robust, enterprise level ILS solution developed to be capable of supporting the workload of large libraries in a fault-tolerant system. It too is standards compliant and uses the OPAC interface, and offers many features including flexible administration, work-flow customization, adaptable programming interfaces, and because its open source, cannot be locked away and can benefit from any community contributions.
  • VuFind is a new open source OPAC that you can put over your ILS (in this case, replacing the basic OPAC of Koha). VuFind suggests that is is "the library OPAC meets Web 2.0"; it enables users to search through all of your library's resources (as opposed to limited resources through the traditional OPAC) through an easy to use web interface. VuFind is modular, meaning that you are free to only use the components of the program that you deem necessary. VuFind is powered by another open source program known as Solr Energy (Apache Solr, an open source search engine technology).
  • LibLime is an open source library automation system and is the library communities most trusted open-source software solution. LibLime provides commercial support services including hosting, migration assistance, staff training, and software maintenance, development, and support. LibLime will help take care of installation of the aforementioned Koha and Evergreen Ils programs if your library does not have the in-house technical support to install it yourself, and because of their expertise in the library environment, are the most educated partners to have when deciding on which solutions to use in your specific library.

Web Publishing

  • Wordpress started out as a quick, free, open-source solution blogging solution just a few years ago; today it is a perfect alternative to building a web site from scratch. In addition to being free to use (and easy to install), the Wordpress community has exploded, with thousands of users and programmers creating custom themes and plug-ins to completely change the way the software looks and operates. The most important aspect of the software is it's easy-to-use interface and content management system. With it's visual rich editor, anyone can publish text and photos to the web site. Other options include multiple authors (with separate log-ins), built in RSS (Real Simple Syndication) technology to keep subscribers updated, and a comment system that allows readers to interact with the sites content. A fantastic way to communicate with patrons, staff, etc.
  • Drupal is another open source web publishing option that some libraries may want to consider using. One of the most important aspects of any library is its community, and that's where the technology behind Drupal might come in to play a little better. Many have used the software to build rich community based web sites where many different users can control a large amount of content. Some examples include web portals, discussion sites, corporate web sites, and intranet (internal) web applications. Just like Wordpress, Drupal as an ever growing community of users developing add-ons to make the software work better in addition to providing technical support online to answer any of your installation or maintenance difficulties.
  • MediaWiki is the original software that powered the famous Wikipedia, which basically allows users to create and edit information from a very simple to use text interface. Another open source wiki platform is TWiki, a flexible and powerful enterprise wiki that is perfect for project management. These wiki solutions can be used as alternatives to the web publishing methods used above, but can better be used as the library's place to keep maintenance and training information available that can constantly be updated as library operations change and develop. Imagine keeping the employee and support community of your library up-to-date with the inner workings through a community wiki, where they can go to troubleshoot any problems that may have been already solved once before in the past.

So, it seem that there are some very powerful solutions available today that could be used to create a much more resourceful library, whether it's a large college or state financed operation, or a local community library that before probably didn't do much for that community in the technology department. By using open source software in the library, money that otherwise would be spent on software solutions can be used for other important resources, such as purchasing additional media resources (books, magazines, dvds), or can be used to hire educated, technical support that provides patrons with the know how to better use already existing resources. In addition, this free software is constantly being updated, changed, and customized to meet the library's needs.

While all of this is fine and dandy, and sounds like the win-win solution for your library, there are still pitfalls and hurdles we'll need to overcome. Hopefully this article provides some introductory information as to how to wean your library off of traditional computing products and dive into the pool of open source resources available today. Many libraries are fully integrated into Microsoft products like Outlook Exchange and have invested a lot of time and money to make these systems work efficiently. Other problems involve the installation, maintenance, and training costs associated with adapting to open source software, as it can be at times difficult to understand at first (mostly because of our dependence on Windows based products); usability is an issue that is being addressed by the open source community daily who is working hard to make these free products easier for all to use and maintain.

As with any form of technology, many usually fear what they are not used to and do not understand. Hopefully, as the word gets out and more of our peers and fellow educators use and promote the open source movement, we will all will embrace and become more comfortable using these open source solutions, and in the future be responsible for contributing and and becoming part of the open source movement.

Customize Your Education