Chapter 4: Open source and libraries – Practical Open Source Software for Libraries


Open source and libraries

It has been suggested that libraries are almost ethically required to use, develop and support open source software.1 The parallels between the rules of librarianship and open source are easy to spot just by comparing the open source definition (and/or the free software definition) to the rules set forth by nearly all library associations. Both organizations center their rules on freedom of use and free access to information, a fact that even non-librarians notice:

Librarians espouse many of the same ideals that drive the free software community. They collaborate and communicate; they work hard to share the results of their work with one another. They understand freedom and feel that it’s an important value. That more librarians aren’t actively using and evangelizing free software is an indictment against us for not letting them in on our secret.2

The Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states, ‘We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.’3 Simply put, members of the American Library Association should deliver information to their patrons without prejudice and without asking what the patron intends to use the information for or with whom they plan to share it. Eric Lease Morgan puts it another way when comparing open source communities to libraries:

There are many aspects of open source software which are akin to the principles of librarianship. First and foremost in my mind is the expected use of the deliverable – none. In the first case, the deliverable is software. In the second, it is data and information. In both cases, there are very few expectations in regard to what a person does with the information. ‘You are free to use and modify the program in any way you desire… It is none of my business why you want to know the answer to this particular reference question or borrow that book.’4

This parallel is just one of the reasons why so many libraries have been producing, adopting and promoting open source in recent years. That said, there are still many misconceptions regarding open source software that have slowed library adoption.

Library budgets

One of the most obvious reasons for libraries to consider open source as an alternative to their current systems is shrinking budgets. Open source software usually has either no or low cost to entry and ownership.5 Because of the nature of the open source license, most open source applications offer a way for software users to demo the product without any limits on time frame or any fees.

Once you have decided to go with an open source product, there is no need to buy licenses for every computer that software will run on, another huge cost saving to libraries. If there are any fees associated with the software it will usually be for support and/or development, both of which libraries can choose to forgo if they feel they have the necessary skills in house to manage the software.

Furthermore, with more and more libraries adopting open source alternatives, the potential for development partnerships becomes more of a reality. A development partnership will allow libraries to pool funds to pay for enhancements to the products, or even to share skilled staff members who will develop the new feature for all libraries in the partnership.

Gift cultures

When the Horowhenua Library Trust ( decided to release their new integrated library system as open source, they gave it the name Koha, the Maori word for gift. This was their gift to the library world, an open source integrated library system for all to benefit from.6 This is very much in line with gift cultures, which are societies where gifts are made of products and/or services without any explicit request for payment or return services.

Eric Lease Morgan muses about gift cultures, libraries and open source: ‘Open source software development and librarianship have a number of similarities – both are examples of gift cultures.’7 He goes on to explain just how libraries can be considered a gift culture. Most importantly, librarians are known for providing access to information and research without any expectation of monetary exchange. As we all know, most librarians share the information because they love their jobs and furthering the education of others. This is their gift to their communities.

Open source communities follow a very similar model, where community members participate and share their knowledge for the joy of the final product, not a monetary payment. Christina Garsten and Helena Wulff explain this gift giving as the power behind open source software:

Work, collaboration and sharing of knowledge in open-source communities are culturally organized around the concept of gift giving. Gift giving creates flows of knowledge and makes it possible to innovate and refine software-development processes on a global scale.8

This similarity in the ways that libraries and open source both provide gifts to their communities is just another in the long list of reasons why it seems like a logical choice for libraries to use and develop open source software.

Thinking ahead

When I worked at the Jenkins Law Library ( in Philadelphia I did a lot of development to scratch the itches of the library staff. I used an open source language, PHP, and an open source database, MySQL, but I didn’t think that anyone else would ever want to use the products I developed and so I didn’t think of how to share them with the world. Years later I am an active member in open source library communities and I wish I could go back and think ahead to this moment and the benefits that my tools would have had to other libraries.

While at the law library I developed a powerful content management system to maintain the library’s intranet,9 and now libraries are exploring options like Drupal ( and Joomla ( to manage their websites. I also wrote an inter-library loan and billing system specific to the law library that I now see would have been useful to integrate into Koha ( or Evergreen (

I bring this story up because libraries need to think ahead when they start development projects. They need to sit down and say, ‘this is what we’re going to develop; could it by any chance be of help to other organizations like ours?’ It is because of questions like this that we have the amazing selection of library specific open source applications today.

1.Crawford, Richard. ‘Open Source Solutions for Library Needs’ presented at the Linux Users Group of Davis, December 5, 2003.

2.Eyler, Pat. ‘Koha: a gift to libraries from New Zealand.’ Linux Journal 106 (2003): 1.

3.ALA. ‘Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.’ American Library Association, January 22, 2008.

4.Morgan, Eric Lease. ‘Open Source Software: controlling your computing environment,’ March 28, 2009.

5.Corrado, Edward M. ‘The Importance of Open Access, Open Source, and Open Standards for Libraries.’ Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 42 (Spring 2005).

6.Eyler, Pat. ‘Koha: a gift to libraries from New Zealand.’ Linux Journal 106 (2003): 1.

7.Morgan, Eric Lease. ‘Gift Cultures, Librarianship, and Open Source Software Development,’ November 14, 2004.

8.Garsten, Christina, and Helena Wulff. New Technologies at Work: people, screens, and social virtuality. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2003.

9.Engard, Nicole C. and RayAna M. Park. ‘Intranet 2.0: fostering collaboration.’ Online 30, no. 3 (2006): 16.