Chapter 6: Open source web access – Practical Open Source Software for Libraries

6

Open source web access

There isn’t a day that goes by when librarians do not have to access the internet in one way or another. We have research to do online, reference questions to answer via email and books to buy from our vendors online, and just as our computers do not need to use proprietary software, so too is proprietary software unnecessary for us to access the web.

Open source web browsing

If you were to make the switch to only one open source application in this book (and I hope that is not the case), Firefox (http://www.firefox.com) is for you (see Figure 6.1). Firefox has taken the web browser from being a way to read web pages to being a way to interact fully with the web. The power of Firefox lies in its open source architecture; because anyone can see how Firefox works behind the scenes, they can easily expand on it by writing add-ons and suggesting overall code improvements.

Figure 6.1 Firefox browser

As with most open source applications, Firefox is also known for being able to address bugs and security leaks quickly by releasing minor updates in between release cycles. One of the greatest, and most misguided, concerns library administrators have about switching to Firefox is security.

A study done in 2006 by Brian Krebs of Security Fix (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/) showed that for at least 98 days of 2006 ‘no software fixes from Microsoft were available to fix [Internet Explorer] flaws that criminals were actively using to steal personal and financial data from users.’1 In contrast, there was a single period of only nine days that year when Firefox was left without a patch to a serious security hole.

With data like this it becomes hard to believe that Firefox is less secure than Internet Explorer. As part of its default framework, Firefox includes security functionality such as popup blocking, anti-malware, anti-phishing, parental controls and private browsing. If that’s not enough, you can extend Firefox to include even more protection for yourself and your patrons.

6.1   Open source in the real world: Firefox

Greg Johnson

Digital Initiatives and Systems Librarian, Governors State University, University Park IL, USA

Why did you decide to use Firefox in your library?

We had too many problems with Internet Explorer crashing. Plus students seem to like it better.

How are you using Firefox in your library?

We have made Firefox the default internet application for use on all of the library computers.

How long have you been using Firefox in your library?

About one year.

Did you have any trouble implementing Firefox in your library?

It took a little while for students to stop looking for the ubiquitous Internet Explorer icon, but after that, we have not had any problems.

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

Easy.

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

Since it comes from out of the download fully loaded and ready to go, all we needed to do was set the main library page as the home page and image it out to all the computers.

What do you think of Firefox now?

It is one of the best browsers available for personal computers.

What do others in your library say about Firefox?

Oddly enough, librarians are not fans of Firefox. Other technical staff members prefer to use either Firefox or Google Chrome, both open source options.

In addition to the efficient development process and built in security, Firefox also offers many useful add-ons to increase privacy, security and overall efficiency. These are just a few of the reasons why libraries have been switching their public stations (if not all of the computers in the library) to use Firefox as the default browser.

Of the thousands of available add-ons, my favorite is AdBlockPlus (http://adblockplus.org). AdBlockPlus blocks nearly every ad on the web from loading in your browser. Another way to protect yourself is by preventing scripts from running without asking you first. One add-on that many librarians use is FlashBlock (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/433), which prevents all Flash scripts from running in your browser without you first clicking a ‘play’ button. Another add-on that prevents scripts from running is NoScript (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/722). Once installed, NoScript prevents executable content from running without your express permission.

To find more security add-ons for Firefox you can browse through its security add-ons section (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/browse/type:1/cat:12).

Expanding Firefox

I mentioned earlier that Firefox has grown to be so much more than a web browser; it can also work to assist you with your research. One popular tool among libraries is LibX (http://libx.org).

LibX is an open source browser toolbar that you can customize to help patrons (and staff for that matter) find library resources while browsing. Once the LibX toolbar is installed it puts a search box for the library catalog at the top of the user’s browser (no need to visit the library catalog website).

6.2   Open source in the real world: LibX

Chris Keene

Technical Development Manager, University of Sussex Library, Brighton, East Sussex, UK

Why did you decide to use LibX in your library?

Looked interesting and decided to set it up when I had a free hour or so.

How are you using LibX in your library?

We have a public LibX toolbar which is not very well promoted. It can search our local catalogue (we use two, Aquabrowser and Talis Prism), online journals and link resolver, and allows people off campus to reload a page using EZproxy. It also searches the local public library catalogue, which we’ve had some good feedback on.

In addition we have a staff toolbar; this was in part to streamline our reading list processes. Staff can right click on a book title or ISBN and search our catalogue and, more importantly, Coutts Oasis (a book supplier online ordering system, which links in to our library management system – via EDI Quotes – and creates orders). We use OCLC’s xISBN a lot so that staff can right click on an ISBN and find out if we have that book in stock regardless of edition and so on. We are currently trying to integrate xISBN and Coutts Oasis.

How long have you been using LibX in your library?

We have had a public toolbar for a couple of years but have only recently started to use it.

Did you have any trouble implementing LibX in your library?

The configuration website is very good, but does have some quirks. Getting it to do exactly what we want it to do has been slow at times.

We have had no real non-technical problems. I think we would have done if we heavily promoted it, especially on the main library catalog. There would have been questions as to how we support it, how we manage changes, about training and worry that it would confuse users with low IT levels. By promoting it on ‘tech-friendly’ channels (such as Twitter) and keeping it low key we have avoided this.

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

I would say it wasn’t a switch. It wasn’t a key need, which one product catered for and then it was replaced with LibX. I came across it, spent a few hours setting it up, showed a couple of people and quietly made it public, refining it since then.

We already use open source applications (EPrints) and infrastructure (Apache, Linux and so on) and would certainly use it again for other needs (for example OPACs such as VuFind).

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

No, but the help on the website was good. And I come from a computer science background.

What do you think of LibX now?

Fantastic and very useful. I think the context menu options are more useful than the toolbar (already have too many toolbars!) and I would like to see it developed further.

I do wish it provided usage statistics per library, on the number of downloads and so on.

What do others in your library say about LibX?

The staff love it, especially those in our resources departments (reading lists, acquisitions, cataloguing) who are always under pressure to improve their efficiency. It has proved a time saver. Users seem to like it too, though we have had little feedback.

LibX also has several scripts that integrate the library into popular websites like Amazon.com (http://amazon.com), Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com) and Barnes & Noble Online (http://bn.com). When you search on any of these, links back to the library appear on your results. For Amazon and Barnes & Noble, links will take you into a library catalog search for the book in question. When on Google Scholar, each article is followed by a link to the library databases to search for the article, a nice little reminder that not everything is available for free online (see Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2 The LibX VT toolbar

Over 700 libraries have set up LibX toolbars and many more are added daily, simply because the tool used to create a toolbar specifically for your library is so easy to use. First, you want to be sure that you have all of the necessary proxy information for your databases and catalog. Next, enter the LibX builder and start answering questions. You will be asked for information about connecting to your library catalog and subscription databases. You will also be prompted to brand your LibX toolbar by adding an icon or logo for your library.

Once your toolbar is done you will want to install it on every computer in the library and promote it heavily on your library website so that your patrons download and use it at home.

Another favorite open source tool that integrates into Firefox is Zotero (http://zotero.org), which is a citation management tool that allows you to save references to your computer for easy access and bibliography creation.

Once Zotero is installed, it is possible to save citations from many popular research sites and databases2 with one click, through a button which appears in your status bar. Once in Zotero you can organize your resources using folders, tags and notes. You can also export resources directly to many word processing applications, including OpenOffice, in the citation format of your choosing. Zotero allows you to store all of your research materials in various folders right in your browser (see Figure 6.3).

Figure 6.3 A search for ‘Koha’ on Zotero

Zotero also has the ability to share your resources over a network with other Zotero users, making group projects and librarian research projects much easier for everyone involved. With an account on Zotero.org you can sync the resources you save on your computer with your collection on the web. This works as a backup and a way to share your resources with your colleagues or fellow researchers.3

6.3   Open source in the real world: Zotero

Jason Puckett

Instruction Librarian for User Education, Technologies, and Journalism and Speech Liaison, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta GA, USA

Why did you decide to use Zotero in your library?

I had been teaching EndNote for several years when I discovered Zotero. I didn’t really start using it until I installed Linux on my laptop at home, which of course can run Zotero but not EndNote. I was blown away by how much easier it was to use and how easy it was to incorporate into the research process. I dropped EndNote immediately and put together a web guide and a workshop plan. I was the first person to start promoting it at the GSU Library, and I’ve been very gratified to see interest skyrocket since I got here last year.

I’m a fan of the benefits of open source software in general, and all other things being equal I prefer to use it when I can, but realistically some OSS products just aren’t as slick and easy to use as their commercial equivalents. That’s not the case with Zotero. It’s much easier to use than any other citation manager I’ve tried, and the latest version is a lot more versatile and powerful than EndNote. I like the fact that it’s designed by academic researchers for academic researchers, since the developers really seem to understand how people are using it.

It’s also a lot easier to install, which sounds like a small thing but is a big headache for those of us providing EndNote support at GSU. We have a site license for EndNote, so we have it available to download, but users have to log in, download a huge installation file, and in order to end up with a full authenticated installation they have to follow some specific steps during the install process. Despite providing instructions and a tutorial video, that’s still the number one problem our users have with EndNote. No such difficulty with Zotero.

How are you using Zotero in your library?

I’ve got a web guide that gets a lot of traffic. I’ve been teaching regular drop-in workshops in the library. I do a lot of one-on-one help for students and faculty. I’ve given presentations to some departments on campus. I’m starting some online workshops in a couple of weeks, which I’ve done for EndNote in the past and I think will work well for Zotero.

How long have you been using Zotero in your library?

I’ve been in my present job for about a year. I’d guess I was using it for two or three years before that at my previous library, so three to four years total.

Did you have any trouble implementing Zotero in your library?

Only a couple of minor hitches. One is having both EndNote and Zotero installed on our computers, since one program may want to grab downloaded citations away from the other, but it’s easy enough to disable Zotero temporarily if that’s a problem. (That can take a little time on every computer in a large classroom, though.)

The other is that it only works with Firefox, but I’ve even talked a few people into switching to Firefox solely so they could use Zotero.

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

I can’t say that we’ve entirely switched, nor are we likely to stop supporting EndNote as far as I can see. A lot of the campus still uses EndNote, but the two programs are coexisting happily so far. It helps that you can easily export data from one program to the other, and I do like having both options available to our users.

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

I asked my IT department to install it on the public computers and in our classrooms. They were great about setting it up, though they asked not to put on the latest version since it’s still in beta. That worked fine for me. They had no questions or concerns about using an open-source product. I think it’s easier for them since they don’t have to track licenses and so forth.

What do you think of Zotero now?

I love it. I’d marry it if our society weren’t so closed-minded. I use it constantly, for research, work projects, and keeping personal reading lists. The community of users and developers is incredibly helpful and creative. My friend Kathryn Greenhill just posted a great video about using it to collect image credits for presentations, which I’d never thought of even though I knew it works great with Flickr. I share citations with friends and colleagues online. And I love that it keeps my citation library up to date effortlessly on computers with different operating systems, and updates itself automatically.

What do others in your library say about Zotero?

I’m finding that it’s very easy to pick up and use for students who haven’t used a bibliographic manager before. An English professor has asked me to teach it to her freshman class next week as part of their research assignment, which I think is great since most students don’t get exposed to citation managers until much later.

I once had a student make an appointment with me for an EndNote consultation. I spent 45 minutes showing her how EndNote works, and then I mentioned Zotero as an alternative and showed it to her in five. She said ‘I wish I’d known about Zotero to begin with. I’m using that instead.’

A colleague stopped by my desk one morning and said a student was having trouble doing something in EndNote, so he just recommended they switch to Zotero and they went away happy. I’ve also been asked why the university still pays for an EndNote license.

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

Once, after I got back from a vacation in England, a friend asked if it was hard to readjust to driving on the right side of the road again. I said no, it was sort of like being allowed to relax and stop juggling. That’s what the experience of switching from EndNote to Zotero was like for me.

Learn more

Check out Jason’s guide to Zotero (http://research.library.gsu.edu/zotero).

A new browsing experience

This chapter has only scratched the surface of the amazing tools available to enhance Firefox and improve users’ browsing experience. There are entire books on the market that can tell you more, or you can simply visit the Firefox website and start browsing through the add-ons database to see what is available.

Open source emailing

At library and technology conferences worldwide I always hear that email is dead, but I respectfully disagree, as would many librarians. Email is central to our communication workflow and so we need a tool that is up to the task. Mozilla’s Thunderbird (http://www.mozillamessaging.com/thunderbird) is that very tool.

6.4   Open source in the real world: Thunderbird

Kyle M. Hall

IT Technician, Crawford County Federated Library System, Crawford County PA, USA

Why did you decide to develop Thunderbird for your library?

We decided to switch to Thunderbird as our primary email client because it had become the most popular OSS solution at the time. Previously, we had used Mozilla as both a web browser and email client, but when we switched to Mozilla Firefox as our primary web browser, we needed a new email client; the obvious choice was Mozilla’s new email client, Thunderbird.

How are you using Thunderbird in your library?

Nearly all our librarian’s desktop computers have Thunderbird installed to access their email from our mail server via SMTP.

How long have you been using Thunderbird in your library?

We have been using Thunderbird since late 2003.

Did you have any trouble implementing Thunderbird in your library?

The only issues we’ve had were the initial configuration issues. We use TLS for security, and sometimes Thunderbird would refuse to connect to our mail server properly. Thankfully, those issues seem to have been resolved with the newer version of the program.

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

We had previously used Netscape, then Mozilla as our email clients, so the switch was relatively painless. The process involved only configuring the client, as well as importing the contact list from our previous client.

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

No, we did all the work in-house.

What do you think of Thunderbird now?

I think Thunderbird is a great program, but the advent of good web-based e-mail has made it much less essential than it used to be. Our mail server currently runs on Zimbra, so our librarians have the choice of using Thunderbird or a web-based interface to check their email. Most librarians still choose to use Thunderbird.

What do others in your library say about Thunderbird?

Our librarians are simply happy to use an email client that works consistently and correctly nearly all the time.

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

Using SMTP instead of POP3 as your standard email protocol makes switching between clients much easier, as there is no need to export and import the email messages themselves.

Many librarians are used to email clients like Microsoft Outlook or Novell Groupwise and the idea of changing from a familiar interface to an unknown can be scary. However, Thunderbird’s design is very similar to other email tools, offering several panels for viewing your messages, your contacts, your tasks and more (see Figure 6.4).

Figure 6.4 Thunderbird screen showing several panels for viewing messages, contacts, tasks and more

Thunderbird even allows for personal and shared calendars with the use of the Lightning add-on (http://www.mozilla.org/projects/calendar/lightning/). Lightening allows you to create calendars on your local machine or access shared calendars through the network, which is an important feature for anyone working in an office (see Figure 6.5).

Figure 6.5 Lightening, showing a calendar integrated within Thunderbird

If your library uses Google Apps for email and calendaring needs, you can still use Thunderbird by installing the Provider for Google Calendar add-on (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/addon/4631) and the Gmail IMAP Account Setup add-on (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/addon/6381). These tools grab your content directly from Google and publish it to Thunderbird dynamically.

In addition to a simple interface, Thunderbird has built-in spam filters, the option to download other security add-ons (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/browse/type:1/cat:66), powerful mail searching functionality and the ability to check multiple email accounts at once (including popular web-based email accounts like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail).

Instant messaging

While we can all agree that email is not dead, this does not mean that it is our sole means of communication online. Many libraries have started to offer instant messaging reference services as an additional way to allow patrons to reach them. Pidgin (http://www.pidgin.im) is an open source instant messaging tool that can make communicating with your patrons much simpler. Pidgin makes it easy to connect to several IM clients at once and keep your contacts organized for quick communication.

Pidgin allows you to log into all of the popular instant messaging clients – AIM, Yahoo!, GTalk, Windows Live Messenger, and more – at one time. Like many other open source applications, Pidgin also has plugins (http://developer.pidgin.im/wiki/ThirdPartyPlugins) available that will add access to additional instant messaging networks like Facebook and Twitter. This single interface allows librarians to monitor several communication channels at once without having to install and run multiple applications (see Figure 6.6).

Figure 6.6 Pidgin screen showing connections to several IM clients

6.5   Open source in the real world: Pidgin

Jennifer M. Turner

Support and Training Specialist PALS, A Program of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Mankato MN, USA

Why did you decide to use Pidgin in your library?

Pidgin works with a variety of different IM programs, connects to professional IRC channels, and keeps a log of conversations/discussions. Also, it’s free and easy to use!

How are you using Pidgin in your library?

Communication with colleagues – we provide technical support and training for the library system used by a majority of Minnesota’s colleges and it is often easier to send coworkers a link to a problem rather than have them try to recreate the issue on their end. It has also come in handy when a person is working from a remote location and has an issue or question for another staff person.

How long have you been using Pidgin in your library?

About six months (very approximate guess).

Did you have any trouble implementing Pidgin in your library?

No problems with the actual software, but few staff members have adopted its use. Those of us that do use it are pleased.

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

None.

What do you think of Pidgin now?

It’s great! And the more I learn about it, the more I like it!

What do others in your library say about Pidgin?

Those who use it have embraced it and use it for both professional and personal communication. Those who don’t use it don’t say much about it, as they are unfamiliar with it (and don’t really use chat services in general)

A web of options

I have briefly discussed open source options available to your library. There are many more open source applications available to make your online experiences more efficient and more secure. Give the applications in this chapter a chance and if you find you aren’t pleased, search for other open source alternatives; there are plenty out there.


1.Krebs, Brian. ‘Internet Explorer Unsafe for 284 Days in 2006.’ The Washington Post: Security Fix, January 4, 2007. http://blog.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/2007/01/internet_explorer_unsafe_for_2.html.

2.To find a full list of sites that support Zotero you can check their list of compatible sites (http://www.zotero.org/translators). You can also find out what library software supports Zotero on their list of compatible software (http://www.zotero.org/support/compatible_standards_and_software).

3.My public Zotero library can be found at http://www.zotero.org/nengard.