Considering Open Source Software: "An Open Source Library Automation Project Must Be Carefully Planned and Thoroughly Researched before Implementation ...."

Article excerpt

This month's theme of Making the Most of What You Have often leads to following the "do-it-yourself" approach. The phrase "do-it-yourself" brings a number of pictures and images to mind. I see a young child insisting loudly, "I can do it myself." I also think of library patrons looking for do-it-yourself books and video materials on many subjects including landscaping, home remodeling, and automobile repair. Some choose the do-it-yourself route out of stubborn independence (the young child), while others choose it out of frugality (library patrons), but there are some who choose it because they have an innovative idea. In describing those who are driven by innovation, I would say that they are often risk-takers. In the words of an Apple ad campaign from several years ago, they "think different." In a more eloquent statement by Robert Frost in his famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," they take "the one less traveled by."

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For librarians working with automated systems, it can be scary to embark on a do-it-yourself project. There was an old saying in business that no one ever was fired for choosing IBM. That statement now probably would be modified to say that no one ever was fired for choosing Microsoft Windows. In the early days of library automation, vendors offered turnkey systems that bundled hardware and software, promising computer-shy librarians that these systems would practically run themselves. While current library automation systems are more complex and generally require you to design and manage your own network, it still seems safer to choose an established library automation vendor whose product runs on a Windows network.

At the Monroeville Library, we selected an established vendor for our new automation system, but we did not follow the usual conventions in setting up our network. Instead of being Windows-based, we set up a Macintosh network with Xserves, iMacs, eMacs, and Airport base stations. No network is ever perfect right from the start, and there have been some problems to solve. However, some problems, such as virus infections and the need for frequent security updates, have been fewer. There has also been some resistance from those who are uncomfortable with change. As the person responsible for managing and maintaining the network, I feel that this Mac implementation has made my job easier.

Choosing Macintosh over Windows was a much smaller risk than those taken by other librarians who wholeheartedly have been "do-it-yourselfers," implementing open source automation projects in their libraries. Those librarians who have taken giant steps in innovation can encourage those who are only taking small steps by sharing their successes. Many pioneers in library automation have documented their projects on the Web, so librarians looking for inspiration (and maybe a little push to try something new) have only to turn to their colleagues on the Web.

What Is Open Source and Why Are We Interested?

Before turning to colleagues for information on their open source projects, it may be helpful to learn more about the topic. One place to start is the Open Source Initiative Web site. The Open Source Initiative, also known as OSI, defines itself as a "non-profit corporation dedicated to managing and promoting the Open Source Definition for the good of the community." Site visitors can learn about the OSI certification mark and program, read about successful open source software products, access current news on open source, and subscribe to an announcements mailing list.

Armed with a basic understanding of open source, you can begin to contemplate the possibilities and to learn from librarians who have already begun open source projects. Over the last several months I have been watching WebJunction develop and grow as an online community for librarians to exchange ideas about using technology. Each month WebJunction chooses a focus topic; a recent one was open source, and the materials collected at that time are still available on the site. …