Editorial: The Open Source Movement and Libraries

Article excerpt

I've been thinking about open source software (1) lately for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the March 2002 issue of ITAL will be a theme issue devoted to open source applications in libraries, guest edited by Jeremy Frumkin of the University of Arizona.

The other reason is a bit closer to home. I hired Eric Lease Morgan to be head of a new department at the Notre Dame Libraries called the Digital Access and Information Architecture Department (DAIAD, pronounced "die-ad," frontward or backward). Eric is something of a force in the open source movement and was the primary developer of the MyLibrary@NCState (http:// my.lib.ncsu.edu) open source software created at North Carolina State University. (He is contributing an article to Jeremy's issue, incidentally.)

One of Eric's first responsibilities here at Notre Dame is to convert our library Web site to a database-driven technology and he wants to do it on an open source platform. My job is to decide whether to go along with that or to dictate a more conventional approach using something like Oracle and ColdFusion or Active Server Pages (ASP). Hence my immediate reason for devoting my time to the subject.

So what's the problem? Why not just do it? One reason is that despite a few well-publicized examples, there is not yet a whole lot of open source software available, and the movement is still fairly young and unproven. Another is that if we go this direction, we will have to commit some substantial human resources to do the required programming.

Does that mean we shouldn't do it? Why put my eggs in an unproven basket? Why commit valuable human resources to create more of this unproven software?

Maybe it isn't all that unproven. There are, as I mentioned, some fairly well known and widespread open source applications, such as the Apache Web server and the Linux operating system. My sense is that Linux is finding its way into more and more libraries these days, and that Apache is the leading Web server in colleges and universities. So to call those two unproven is really subject to debate. Likewise, open source products such as MySQL and Perl are being used in many applications.

While it's true that open source applications require programmers, the fact is that ColdFusion and ASP also require programming, and I would surely not want to run a critical library application based on Oracle without someone with extensive Oracle knowledge and experience on hand. Thus the human resources argument is also less compelling, especially when you realize that not only do you have to invest dollars in people to make those commercial products works properly, you also have a substantial cost in licenses for them that you don't have with open source software. …