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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).