Chapter 5: Open source for day to day operations – Practical Open Source Software for Libraries


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.

Operating system

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 ( 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 ( because of its ease of use and popularity among librarians and educators.

5.1   Open source in the real world: Ubuntu

Jessamyn West

Community Moderator at Library Technologist at Tunbridge Library Tunbridge VT, USA

Why did you decide to use Ubuntu in your library?

We were gifted some computers that were great except for the fact that they had no installed operating system. My choices were to steal a copy of XP [the library had no budget for more software] or get a copy of Ubuntu to work on the two public access PCs. I decided to go with Ubuntu.

How are you using Ubuntu in your library?

Just as public access PC operating systems. We run Firefox and OpenOffice on them mainly but people can access games and a few other programs if they want. People listen to music and surf the web on them mostly; sometimes they word process.

How long have you been using Ubuntu in your library?

This started maybe two to three years ago.

Did you have any trouble implementing Ubuntu in your library?

Not really. I was surprised how easy the implementation was. It’s not a very tech savvy community, so switching operating systems on the public wasn’t as much of a problem. People just wanted to know ‘okay how do I get on the internet?’ on these machines; they weren’t that cognizant of the operating system. There was still one other PC running Windows that they could use if they have OS-specific tasks to do – chat clients were the biggest problem for people – but they mostly didn’t. The install was simple and took a lot less time than any XP install I’ve done. The two biggest hurdles were getting the librarian to say okay to this idea, and having a safe place for them to put the admin password so that we could find it but that it wasn’t available to patrons.

What was the process of switching from proprietary to open source like?

Sort of a no brainer really. Anyone who has dealt with re-installing a corrupt OS knows that it’s a serious headache. Being able to wipe/reinstall the OS on this machine or upgrade to the latest version made a lot of the trepidation of public access PCs really go out the window. We could let the public just use the machines how they wanted to and we knew we could fix stuff if it got broken. Just having patrons being able to use a machine that wasn’t always popping up dire warnings like ‘your computer may be at risk!’ was worth the extra effort. With novice computer users, not having their experience be full of fear and uncertainty is a huge deal.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up Ubuntu?

No, I read the websites of the support groups and did it myself.

What do you think of Ubuntu now?

I recommend it to people whenever they’re complaining about XP or Vista. I think it’s basically a shining example of how Linux has become a genuine option for public access computing.

What do others in your library say about Ubuntu?

In some ways they don’t even know they’re using it. They like that it’s free. They like the idea of open source though often they’re not that deep into the culture. Libraries have always been about free culture in many ways, this is just another way to forward that ideal.

Anything else you want us to know about Ubuntu or your process of switching to Ubuntu?

I’d rather be someone wrestling with a new operating system than continuing to complain about Microsoft any day.

Learn more

Watch Jessamyn install Ubuntu at

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).

Figure 5.1 Ubuntu Software Center

It is for these reasons and of course the $0 price tag that libraries and educational institutions are switching their public machines (and even some staff machines) to Ubuntu.

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.

Virtual machines

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 ( 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).

Figure 5.2 Four operating systems open in VirtualBox

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.

5.2   Open source in the real world: VirtualBox

Heather Braum

Technology Librarian Northeast Kansas Library System Lawrence KS, USA

Why did you decide to use VirtualBox in your library?

The IT department and many of the staff have Macs, but we still need to be able to have ready access to Windows because most of the libraries we provide technology support to and work with are PC-based. BootCamp would work, except we wanted to use Mac and PCs (and other operating systems) side by side. BootCamp is a one-system solution. You can only run one at a time.

Our network administrator, Liz Rea, needed to be able to run multiple virtual servers in the background on her Mac. Initially, we purchased licenses to the Parallels software, but the program turned out to be clunky, slow and buggy. When launching the software, our computers would freeze for 10 minutes and often would require a reboot. We hated it and other staff members hated it. New versions were available but we didn’t want to keep paying for upgrades to the software every time a new version was released, especially when the software never worked well to begin with!

Then we found VirtualBox. We already use a lot of open source software at NEKLS (Koha, WordPress, Firefox and OpenOffice), and so VirtualBox was a natural fit for us. It just works for the times we need it. No freezing or rebooting necessary.

How are you using VirtualBox in your library?

We use it to emulate Windows, Linux flavors and Linux server flavors on Macs. Liz Rea uses it to run a test system of Koha on her iMac so that she can do some testing and figure out the system more.

How long have you been using VirtualBox in your library?

We’ve been using VirtualBox for about a year now. We don’t use it a lot, maybe once or twice a month, but it’s quite helpful when we need it.

Did you have any trouble implementing VirtualBox in your library?

No trouble deploying the software itself. Deploying the operating systems within VirtualBox can be easy or difficult. It depends on the version, and how good VirtualBox’s drivers are for different operating systems. [Author’s note: Both Windows and Ubuntu are supported and easy to install]

What was the process of switching from proprietary to open source like?

The process was easy. No license keys to keep track of or buy (for the emulating software anyway; still needed license keys for the Windows operating systems). VirtualBox ran much faster than Parallels ever did, especially on startup. And, the support on the VirtualBox discussion boards ( was great. Usually a question I had had already been asked there.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up VirtualBox?

Nope. The only place I consulted was the VirtualBox website and the discussion forums.

What do you think of VirtualBox now?

Love it. I wouldn’t want it to be the way I would heavily use Windows, but for the times I quickly need to look at Windows or test out a stripped Windows disk or look at a Linux flavor, it works great. I know it can also be used within Linux and Windows, but I have never used it that way so far.

What do others in your library say about VirtualBox?

Liz Rea, the NEKLS System Administrator, loves it, as well. She’s the only other person using it at this time.

Anything else you want us to know about VirtualBox or your process of switching to VirtualBox?

If you’re a Mac user and you have that one Windows app you must always use, as long as it’s not too systemintensive, check out VirtualBox instead of keeping around a Windows computer just for that one application. Also, if you need to test Linux, but don’t have extra hardware lying around, try using VirtualBox to emulate those Linux flavors.

Office suite

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 ( already installed. If you are not using Ubuntu you can still use OpenOffice because there is a version for every major operating system.

5.3   Open source in the real world: OpenOffice

Kate, Volunteer

Management Collective Feminist Library London,UK

Why did you decide to use OpenOffice in your library?

I must admit, this was mostly a financial decision. We are a small, volunteer-run library and a software license for commercial office software wasn’t really an option. We discussed an online office suite but our internet access can be a bit temperamental and didn’t really want net access to be a prerequisite for access. We toyed with the idea of installing Linux on some of the older PCs in the office, but weren’t ready for that step just yet. Using a cross-platform suite leaves that option open for later.

How are you using OpenOffice in your library?

We use OpenOffice for most administrative work conducted in the Feminist Library. Recently, as we have moved our catalogue to a library management system and are in the midst of a big cataloguing project, we have been creating an index of some parts of the collection and using CALC spreadsheets to convert data into MARC records to import to the new catalogue.

How long have you been using OpenOffice in your library?

Basically, since we’ve revived the library in mid 2008. I’m not sure whether it was used in previous incarnations of the library before I became involved.

Did you have any trouble implementing OpenOffice in your library?

Some slight glitches with file formats when sharing documents with other organizations but the interface for OpenOffice is very user friendly and our formatting needs aren’t particularly complex. So, while not all the volunteers are as geeky as others, there have been precious few troubles with implementation and everyone adjusted easily.

As we rely on the work of volunteers, we need to be able to access our work at the library as well as at home or in the office, so the only adjustments needed were in terms of compatibility across a variation of environments. Luckily, we started with OpenOffice 3 so compatibility wasn’t as much of an issue as it could have been.

What was the process of switching from proprietary to open source like?

The transition to OpenOffice was pretty straightforward as the basics of word processing and other productivity software are quite similar. Plus, some of us were already using it at home or in other projects, which helped make the transition even easier. OpenOffice has also proved to be a stepping stone to other F/OSS and I now feel our move towards open source is an ethical as well as a financial choice for us.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up OpenOffice?

My role at the library is mostly as a volunteer systems librarian, so I look after the software installation, set up and maintenance. The only concern in migrating to OpenOffice was about accessing older documents in proprietary file formats but even that didn’t prove much of a problem.

What do you think of OpenOffice now?

I still think it’s great and don’t see a reason to go back to proprietary software. The way we work depends so much on portability and a non-centralized approach (for want of a better description) that we can’t really rely on being able to access our files only on one type of computer, in one set of circumstances. And, as I mentioned before, I think OpenOffice is a great first step in the world of F/OSS.

What do others in your library say about OpenOffice?

Everyone in the management collective is happy using OpenOffice and more and more of us use it at home now too, so it wasn’t such a big shift. It takes a bit of time to adjust to a slightly different interface but hasn’t proved a problem. Volunteers at the library have varying degrees of interest and experience in the systems side of things, but using free and open source systems has helped increase interest, if only a little bit.

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.

Figure 5.3 Word processing in OpenOffice

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.

Statistics and data gathering

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 ( application.

5.4   Open source in the real world: Libstats

Kelly M. Broughton

Assistant Dean, Research and Education Services Ohio University Libraries AthensOHUSA

Why did you decide to use Libstats in your library?

We chose Libstats to facilitate and ease the effort of data collection, as well as work on standardization across a variety of service points.

How are you using Libstats in your library?

We use Libstats to track reference, technical and directional questions in the libraries (how many, how long, from which service point and via what communication method – in person, email, phone, IM and so on).

How long have you been using Libstats in your library?

We began piloting in May 2009 and implemented it fully in summer 2009.

Did you have any trouble implementing Libstats in your library?

None that our techs couldn’t overcome.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up Libstats?

Library IT and reference staff worked together on implementation and customization.

What do you think of Libstats now?

Nothing but good things.

What do others in your library say about Libstats?

Really easy! Desk students like it better than the hash marks we used to use.

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).

Figure 5.4 Adding a question to the knowledge base in Libstats

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 (

5.5   Open source in the real world: LimeSurvey

Vincci Kwong

Head of Web Services, Franklin D. Schurz Library, Indiana University South Bend, South Bend IN, USA

Why did you decide to use LimeSurvey in your library?

Cost, features and flexibility.

How are you using LimeSurvey in your library?

Currently, we use LimeSurvey to collect institutional research information from students who take the Introduction to Information Literacy (Q110) class. The survey basically asks if students would give permission for us to use their pre-test and post-test results for research purposes. We are also planning to set up the pre-test and post-test of Q110 using LimeSurvey as data can be exported to different formats; it makes it easy to perform data analysis.

How long have you been using LimeSurvey in your library?

More than a year; we started to use LimeSurvey in August 2008.

Did you have any trouble implementing LimeSurvey in your library?

Before the installation, I found out that our server didn’t meet the system requirements for LimeSurvey, as mbstring was not installed as part of PHP; however, we did get the issue resolved. Another problem we encountered was related to exporting data. We were able to export data to .csv format, but VVExport didn’t work for us. This issue was finally resolved by an upgrade of the software.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up LimeSurvey?

We got help from our campus IT department and the LimeSurvey forums when we installed the software.

What do you think of LimeSurvey now?

We like LimeSurvey, but it would be better if the user interface for creating surveys were more intuitive and self-explanatory.

What do others in your library say about LimeSurvey?

The librarian who uses LimeSurvey regularly told me that it was easy to use.

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.

Figure 5.5 Sample LimeSurvey results display

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.

Improving day to day services

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.

1.‘What is Ubuntu?’ Ubuntu, 2010.

2.‘Why’, 2009.