Introduction – Practical Open Source Software for Libraries


My introduction to open source software came from one of the original developers of the Koha ( open source integrated library system, Chris Cormack. It was for this reason that I asked him to write the foreword for this book, so that he could see how much he taught me and share in educating future librarians about the true nature of open source software.

As library budgets worldwide are sliced, librarians look for ways to slim down their spending. It is for this reason that libraries are so interested in learning more about open source software. What they may not realize is that while open source software comes without license fees, and will most likely save them money, open source software is about so much more than a price tag.

As Chris taught me, open source is about openness, sharing, community and collaboration. It is a philosophy as much as a method of software development. As future chapters will elaborate, in the beginning all software was open source; all software was developed in the open and distributed for free among friends and colleagues. The traditional software license that we are used to dealing with in libraries and our homes does not take the form that the first developers envisioned for the future of software.

Knowing this is not enough though. It is my contention that it is essential for libraries to embrace the philosophy behind open source and follow through by participating in open source communities. Over the years I have seen many libraries adopt open source applications, but continue to act as though it were a proprietary system. Using open source software is a rule changer. You no longer need a vendor’s approval to add a feature to the system, you no longer have to depend on any one vendor for support, and you no longer get to work in your own library bubble.

What do I mean? Well, as I said, open source software is about community and that means the only way an open source application can survive is if there is an active community behind it. This community can be made up of any combination of developers, software users, bug testers and manual writers.

One misconception that librarians (and many others) have is that to participate in an open source community they must know how to write code; this is not the case. No software application can make it into production if it hasn’t first been tested, and who better to test the software than someone who plans to use it daily? No software application is easy to use without well-written documentation, and who better to write that than someone who has learned to use the software the hard way? And no software application without well-organized menus and navigation will be considered user friendly; who better to tell people how to organize things than a librarian?

Librarians have a lot to give to open source software and I hope that after reading this book you will be so excited about what you learned that you will jump in and start to communicate with others who are using and developing open source software to find out how you can participate.

This book is broken into two sections. The first will give you a brief overview of the history and definition of open source software. It includes facts and statistics to combat the fear, uncertainty and doubt (often referred to as FUD) that surround open source and explain why open source software and libraries make the perfect fit. The second section will provide you with a toolbox of open source applications that are being used in libraries right now. Each of these applications will include a first-hand story from a librarian who is using the application regularly. I hope that these insights will help you decide if an application is right for you.

When you are finished with this book you will be able to speak to your colleagues about open source software and make practical suggestions for software improvements in your library. Remember that not every application is right for every library, but you should be able to come away with a few that will either make your workflow more efficient or enable you to provide better services to your patrons.