Chapter 9: Building Open Source

Article excerpt

In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, the National Center for Education Statistics reports academic and public library spending topped $14 billion, yet makes no mention of spending on research and development of library systems or services. (1)

Using open-source software can reduce the costs of experimentation--the GNU General Public License guarantees our right to experiment with the software--and can make possible the kinds of innovations that patrons have come to expect from electronic services. Indeed, we've enjoyed a steady stream of prototypes demonstrating new ways of using or manipulating library data from the growing cohort programming-savvy librarians in our midst.

But going from prototype to product, even an open-source product, is no small feat. California Digital Library's Roy Tennant agrees: "We don't have a lot of experience managing open source projects in libraries." (2) Still, citing the ever-growing portion of library budgets allocated to vendors selling proprietary products, Tennant says he has high hopes for the future of open-source development. He points to Evergreen, an open-source ILS being developed by the Georgia Pines consortium, as an example of the possible future of OSS: "If they can pull this off and people can see that the entire state is running this, then we have a new ball game." (3)

David Hughes, CEO of VisualArt Systems, however, worries about what happens when grants overtake organic evolution of a project.

   A good or not so good idea gets run up a pole, usually by managers
   or grant writers or heads of foundations, the idea gets tossed over
   the fence to engineers who promise the moon, stuff gets funded
   often looking to appease the needs of the grantor or grantee and
   somewhere in the mix, the greater good gets lost. And the life of
   such grant projects takes on less the need to attain functionality,
   but goals and objectives that end up as timebase reports. I've seen
   more of these than I care to shake a stick at, and most end up as
   non-sustaining projects. (4)

Open-source software, he says, works well when the people leading the project are passionate about what they do, and passionate about using the software they're developing.

In Detail: OSU's LibraryFind

Federated searching, or metasearch, is a problem unique to libraries.

Many other industries put their catalogs online and track inventory in the way our ILSs do, but metasearch, the tools that allow a patron to search a number of databases simultaneously, is a rare bird. Indeed, University of Windsor systems librarian Art Rhyno notes, "Metasearch is peculiar to libraries." (5)

So Oregon State University's release of LibraryFind, "an open source metasearch application developed by librarians for libraries," is particularly notable. (6) To better understand how open-source development in libraries works, I spoke with OSU's Jeremy Frumkin, lead developer for LibraryFind (see figure 7), about the project. (7)

[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]

Q: What is LibraryFind?

Frumkin: With LibraryFind, we want to redefine the information discovery experience. We want to simplify the user's experience without losing the advantages we provide to the user through our rich data, and we want to enable other portions of the user's workflow, whatever their particular workflow may be. We also want the tool to provide [better statistics on] the use of [library] collections and resources--we spend a great deal of our budgets on our article databases, and we need to have the ability to better assess the value we are getting in return for our investments.

We decided to pursue LibraryFind primarily because of our dissatisfaction at the time with our vended federated search product. Our users were not using the vended product, even though it was on our front page, and even our librarians had difficulty using it. …