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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 10

An openness to open source

I've been thinking a lot lately about the logical intersections between librarianship and open source software – and about the compromises we make when deciding whether or not to implement it in our libraries.

At its most basic, both the library community and the open source community subscribe to the principles of sharing information and trusting our community of users. Yet what am I doing? I'm telling you this by typing it out in Microsoft Word, simply because it's easier. Yes, I could use an open source alternative like OpenOffice. I've played with it; there's nothing wrong with it; it does everything I need it to do. So why don't I use it?

Because I'm comfortable with Word; because almost everyone I need to share files with uses Word; because it's the easy, lazy thing to do.

This is why I admire the heck out of the librarians and libraries who go the open source route, either partially or in whole. They're truly putting our professional principles into practice, and were I back working in a library systems role right now, I'd seriously be investigating the alternatives. It may seem hypocritical to stress open source in our libraries when I don't use it for everything I do at home, but, as with everything else, it takes finding the right balance. MS Word works for me – but so do Firefox for web browsing (http://www.mozilla.com/firefox/) and WordPress for blogging (http://wordpress.org). I use a mix of proprietary and open source software depending on what best meets my needs, and depending on what's simply a better product.

In libraries, we can do the same. We might, though, push a bit harder to use open source in libraries, given its natural affinity with our principles and given the advantages it offers in terms of giving us more control over our institutions' destinies (which are inextricably tied up with our technological implementations). We should take the time to educate ourselves on the uses of various flavours of free and open source software and its potential to save our institutions money while also allowing us more control over the products that we and our patrons use every day.

Delighted by discussion

Thinking about open source and libraries brings us inevitably to the recent LibLime kerfuffle. If you missed this one, LibLime, a vendor which came into being to support libraries using the open source Koha integrated library system (ILS), recently decided to create a LibLime-only version of Koha. Its essentially "forking", or splitting off a different version of the software that includes custom code for LibLime customers (http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/1090000309/post/1050048905.html). While its perfectly within its rights to do so, a number of people are dismayed about the decision and its potential ramifications.

Dismay or no, the best thing about the LibLime action is that it's got a lot of librarians talking and thinking about what open source means to them and to the larger field. It's prompted a number of bloggers and commentators to craft thoughtful responses, so people who hadn't before given much thought to open source and libraries have now read about the decision and been invited to form their own opinions. It's prompted other vendors that support open source software in libraries to clarify their own principles and their responsibilities to both their stakeholders and the larger open source community (http://librariansmatter.com/blog/2009/09/19/the-koha-fork-and-being-the-change-you-want-to-see/). And it's prompted discussion about the formation of a Koha Foundation (http://wiki.koha.org/doku.php?id=vote_in_prelim_survey) – and the purposes such a foundation would serve.

Now, that's all interesting. If LibLime's move helps clarify librarians' thinking about open source and helps bring new support structures into being, then we all benefit. (Those interested in discussing further should check out the oss4lib-discuss e-mail discussion list at https://lists.sourceforge.net/lists/listinfo/oss4lib-discuss to connect with other advocates of open source software in libraries.)

Considering compromise

When we first start out in the field, most of us come in gung-ho about putting into practice all of the ideas we've picked up in library school. This enthusiasm often dissipates when we're confronted with the compromises we all need to make in order to keep our libraries running – and to keep ourselves employed. Especially in tough economic times, principle often takes a back seat to practicality – in implementing open source, just as in anything else.

Sometimes, though, we should take stock and think back to those basic principles in order that we not wander too far astray. And sometimes, we need to call ourselves and our vendors to account and seriously consider our alternatives. Compromise in one area (say, filtering our public PCs or installing MS Word) might be balanced out with a deliberate effort to hold fast to our principles in another (choosing an open source ILS; choosing an open source blogging platform).

Other considerations being equal, perhaps open source should be the tipping point for choosing one product over another. Other considerations being equal, perhaps free should be that tipping point; tough economic times can give us the push we need to move forward. (And, while free open source software is generally "free as in kittens", perhaps this will also give many librarians the push we need to become more involved in the larger open source community, which in turn can support us when we need it.)

We all benefit when we focus on our principles and foundations and the best ways in which to balance these out with real-world considerations. We all benefit when we take the time as a community to hash out what practices best fit with our principles. So take the time to do some reading about open source and the ramifications of these recent decisions, and decide where you and your library stand.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).