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Thinking about Open Source

Free Puppies, by Flickr user calamity_hane

Free Puppies, by Flickr user calamity_hane

This Monday, 1:30-3:30 at WCC-146B, I am participating in yet another Ultimate Debate:  “Open Source Software – Free Beer or Free Puppy?”  The event features Marshall Breeding and Stephen Abram, and will be moderated by Roy Tennant. It has a hashtag of #ultdebate, and even John Berry will be there.

(Sidebar: Berry, how is it that four years is “enough” for our debate when you’ve been writing that column for hmmmm… how long? But no matter…)

The debate has the potential to be really dull or unusually interesting.  When I was invited to this event, I was just transitioning from spending a little over a year in a development and support company for open source software toward my new role as university librarian, and Stephen Abram would soon be leaving his high-profile job at Sirsi-Dynix for a position at Gale.

I suspect some people expect me to renounce open source (get thee away, open code!), and others expect me to doggedly embrace it no matter what, like those annoying Apple cultics who would devour arsenic if it arrived in a rounded white plastic container with that familiar fruit emblazoned on its bottlecap.

At MPOW, I’ve been very busy with urgent priorities, from repairing bathroom exhaust fans and tearing out unneeded shelving to rebuilding relations with campus departments and on to creating Team MPOW — a 100% tech-literate, forward-thinking, entrepreneurial squad of library miracle workers.

My library management system… well, it works, which means I can stay focused on other stuff, and its contract is really, really long. That doesn’t mean we have no other choices–there’s always a buy-out, or even a walk-away option–but I am frying all those other fish. (The issues with long ILS contracts I will save for another post someday.)

To me it boils down to who we are as a profession–not just now, but historically. I think companies that produce proprietary library software assume that libraries such as mine wouldn’t benefit from open source software because we would never be able to use OSS without paying for support services and we’d be very unlikely to engage with the development community to any great extent. But I think that’s like assuming that people who don’t use libraries don’t benefit from library service. We, LibraryLand, benefit from our hive mind, particularly in such a sharing profession.

The fundamental problem with the proprietary software model is not one of evil ownership or grasping vendors. I’ve seen both of those occur in the open source software community. The problem with proprietary library management software–from a high-level perspective, profession-wide–is that it makes us stupid. It deprofessionalizes who we are and disengages us from tool creation.

Conversely, every librarian who engages in tool creation to any degree improves the state of librarianship for all of us. This has been true since some guy in a toga put holes in a wall to store the papyrus, and it was true in the 19th century when we agreed as a profession on the size of catalog cards (which led to our early adoption of standards and network-level records), and it  is true in the open source community today.

If you think that’s not the case, compare the discussion lists for proprietary products with open source products. I do that every day. For Evergreen, I observe librarians from all roles in their organizations thinking out loud about the tools they are building. For My Home Product, enquiries are limited to simple how-tos. I’m aware there’s a mindset that librarians don’t have the skills to engage with their tools–but I think we have created these librarians. Take someone who is fresh out of library school, put a brick wall between their tools and their services, and decades later you will have someone who has lost the ability to think in terms of tool creation. Invention of any kind is a muscular activity, one that requires constant use in order not to atrophy.

One viable question is whether any of this matters. The debate on open source will probably focus on the integrated library systems most of us use. I mean no disrespect to library development companies of any type, but the local “book catalog” is a dwindling focus of our services (and the architecture of all current LMS’s, regardless of the openness of their code, is built around 20th-century workflows). Our e-services are key.

Some of you may say that projects such as OLE will replace the ILS. But I question how we can truly design new workflows when we have no insight into (and very little role in) the evolution of digital content in the next decade.

Nevertheless, most of us continue to have traditional print collections and most of us need to move that stuff around–catalog it, check it in, check it out, etc.  Furthermore, engagement with library management software–even at a distance–keeps those invention muscles buffed and toned. It is a logical focus of our attention.

If librarianship will survive the Big Shift, it will do so by reinventing itself. To reinvent itself will require many muscles of invention. And that, in the end, is why we need open source.

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