Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Opening Doors with Open Source

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Opening Doors with Open Source

Article excerpt

In Beauregard Parish, Louisiana, patrons access library catalogs and Web resources using Linux-based public access workstations at their local library. Developers at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University are leading a cooperative effort to build a free reference source to describe online journals and aggregator content. Here at the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC), located near Washington, DC, we are basing our new customizable and personalizable portal for Web resources on free software from the Apache organization.

Libraries large and small are starting to realize the opportunities that open source software can make possible. "Open source" is a buzz-phrase that is currently receiving a lot of attention in the software industry and, increasingly, in libraries. But what does it mean, and why is it important for libraries? In this article, I'll try to answer those questions by drawing on our experiences using open source software at the WRLC to develop a variety of Web-based applications and services.

Peeking Through the Door

Even though it's usually licensed for free, open source software is not the same as free software. There are free programs that aren't open source, and there are costs associated with any software besides the initial licensing fee. Open source means that you are free to use, read, modify, and redistribute the source code and program as you wish. Librarians will recognize this distinction immediately. We strive to enable the free flow of information, but recognize the many costs associated with running a library.

Others have taken the library/open source analogy pretty far. See the Web sites I've listed in the accompanying sidebar for discussions of the open source movement and how it relates to libraries. I've also included pointers to some of the open source software mentioned in this article and to essays on the technical and social aspects of open source. They include convincing arguments that open source software can be more quickly and reliably developed and enhanced than software distributed in binary format only.

At the WRLC, however, it's the practical benefits rather than the philosophy that has attracted us to open source software. The WRLC is a regional resource-sharing organization established by seven universities in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area to expand and enhance the information resources available to their students and faculty. As is true for libraries around the world, many of those resources are electronic and require software systems for access and management.

When we evaluate software to meet those needs, we are interested in whether it does the job and whether we can afford both the software license and the time and resources to set it up and maintain it. We will get the most affordable working solution, whether it is open source or not. Obviously, open source software has an immediate affordability advantage in our environment. It is usually free, but even if we pay for a package, the open source license allows us to deploy that software on as many computers and for as many users as we want.

How We Opened New Integration Opportunities

Finding a solution that meets our needs is a more difficult problem, sometimes at any price. The requirements of a library are pretty specific, and in our case we need to meet the needs of seven libraries. No longer will a single monolithic system meet all the requirements; we need to integrate various pieces together, and that calls for some degree of openness in each of the pieces. For example, our library catalog system is not open source, but the underlying database structure is open to us, allowing integration with other applications that can query the catalog database directly.

Open source gives us the opportunity for an even greater degree of integration. Even without modifying the source code (which we rarely do), by examining the code we can more easily see how the pieces of a program fit together and how we can plug our own "glueware" into it to connect multiple systems. …

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