Open source for day to day operations
In every business there is a set of operations that must be completed. In today’s world, these operations often include the use of a computer. This means that everyone in the workplace must have the same or similar applications on their machines so that they can easily share information back and forth.
The one piece of software you need on every computer in your organization is an operating system. When it comes to operating systems, we’ve all heard of (and probably have some experience with) Microsoft Windows™. Windows is so prevalent in the operating system market that there are some people who think it powers all computers. However, as we’ve learned in earlier chapters, Windows is not the be all and end all of operating systems; it is just one option available to personal computer users. Other options include a wide variety of Linux (http://www.linux.org) flavors.
Due to the open source license associated with the Linux operating system, developers have been able to take the original code and develop several Linux operating systems all to serve a difference audience. While any number of these iterations can be used in libraries, I have chosen to focus on Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com) because of its ease of use and popularity among librarians and educators.
Why name an operating system Ubuntu? When we look at Windows we understand where the name came from – from all of the windows that you can open and close to view applications and documents. Ubuntu is an African word meaning ‘Humanity to others’ or ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.1 In a few of the open source products mentioned throughout this book, you’ll find names that embody the open source sentiment, and Ubuntu is one of those.
In my career I have installed several different operating systems – from scratch and as upgrades – and I must say that none was ever as easy as installing Ubuntu. Once installed you have access not only to the operating system but also to several necessary applications like the complete OpenOffice suite, instant messaging software, games, a notepad, and several other necessary applications. If there is an application you are missing you can simply search for it from the built-in directory of Ubuntu-compatible software applications found under the Ubuntu Software Center (see Figure 5.1).
As open source applications go, Ubuntu is one of the better-documented options. You can easily find online and print guides to help with your installation and day to day use of the operating system. The active online community also makes for a great source when needing to find a quick answer.
As someone who has migrated from one operating system to another I know that it can be very scary to make the switch. This is why I use VirtualBox (http://www.virtualbox.org) to test operating systems before making the switch. On my one (and only) computer I have the ability to work in five different operating systems, concurrently or at different times (see Figure 5.2).
VirtualBox allows you to create multiple virtual machines that make use of your primary machine’s hardware while running different software applications. This means that you can install VirtualBox on Windows or Mac OS and then install Ubuntu on it to learn how to use a different operating system before making a blind switch. It also means if you switch to Ubuntu you can still run Windows or Mac OS using VirtualBox.
This would allow libraries that teach technology classes to teach patrons to use multiple operating systems without having multiple operating systems running the machines in the library. As Heather mentions in her summary of VirtualBox, this is not the kind of application that you will use all of the time, but it is a great time and money saver.
Once you have installed your operating system you need an office suite to help with your documenting and calculating needs. Ubuntu comes with the OpenOffice suite (http://www.openoffice.org) already installed. If you are not using Ubuntu you can still use OpenOffice because there is a version for every major operating system.
OpenOffice is a complete office suite with word processing, spreadsheets, databases, image editing and presentations, all of which have menus that are very similar to other office suites (see Figure 5.3); this has the advantage of making the transition easy. With over 20 years of development behind it,2 OpenOffice is extremely stable and full of great features.
Like Ubuntu this is an application that many libraries are putting on their public stations to allow community members access to powerful applications without having to pay the license fees for each computer. It is also very easy to bring information from other office suites into OpenOffice because it can read in and write out to several different formats – one of my favorite features in OpenOffice is the ability to save a document as a PDF.
Many libraries find it useful to keep statistics of their day-to-day operations. In some libraries this is done with a piece of paper and a pen, others use a simple spreadsheet, and some use the open source Libstats (http://code.google.com/p/libstats/) application.
Libstats is a very simple application (see Figure 5.4) developed solely to help librarians keep statistics on reference queries and a knowledge base of frequently answered questions. Using the data stored in the Libstats database librarians can easily generate reports on the numbers of questions, where questions arrive from (email, phone, walk-in), and what types of questions are asked (general reference, database related, and so on).
Another way to collect data is to survey your patron base. There are many popular web applications that can be used for this task, but there are limitations and costs associated with them. When I started writing this book, I went out on a hunt for open source survey applications and came across LimeSurvey (http://limesurvey.org).
LimeSurvey (see Figure 5.5) is an open source application that resides on your local web server. This means that you can host as many polls and surveys as you want without incurring any extra fees. Since LimeSurvey is such a powerful tool, it does take a bit of learning to figure out how to best create a survey for your library, but the documentation for the product is outstanding and very easy to follow.
Using LimeSurvey you can set up surveys to ask your patrons what they think about the library, what they want to see from the library, or just what their favorite types of books or movies are. It also offers you the ability to create polls in multiple languages, allowing you to reach a wider audience. As the application is run from your own server, you can control the look of the surveys as well as the time the survey remains available for answering.
The applications in this chapter are all meant either to replace applications you may be spending too much time and money on or to provide your library with a service that you maybe didn’t think you could afford before. Libraries worldwide are making the switch to open source for applications such as these, to provide patrons with improved services and the staff with functionalities they would not be able to afford otherwise.