Friday, May 9, 2008

Open Source in Your Library

Speaker: Stephen Spohn, Consultant for Information Access and Service Assessment Nelinet

Stephen began by asking the question "What is Open Source". He defined open source as defining a software where code is freely available with a freedom to distribute software and modify source code. Open source uses the concept of "copyleft", which is essentially an inversion of typical copyright ideals. Copyleft dictates that open source software can be freely changed as long as it remains perpetually open source.

Steve mentioned some of the open source licensing organizations:

He mentioned the fact that Creative Commons licensing is convenient in that it spells out all of the terms of the license in "human-accessible" terms, versus the typical legalese of commercial software licensing.

Open source software is usually free of cost, but, as Steve pointed out, one must factor in the cost of time spent to install and maintain the software (which is usually more time consuming than commercial software).

Some of the advantages of open source can make it very beneficial to library enviornments. Steve stressed the fact that open source software should be used only if it meets a specific need in your library, rather than using it because it is merely "cool". There is a certain amount of technical know-how required to fully run the software. A lot of open source applications do have online "playgrounds", where one can try them out before taking the plunge into downloading them.

Most open source programs do have thriving user communities which function in the place of the typical user manuals that come packaged with commercial software. These are most often comprised of wikis and forums. One must make sure that the support community is active before choosing to rely on an open source program, as some programs do fail with the user market, thus rendering them effectively dead (without active support).

Steve showed us Moodle, an open source course management system for online education. Moodle is a fine example of an open source program that functions as an alternative to more common, commerical programs such as Blackboard and WebCt which effectively serve the same purpose. He suggested a few open source alternatives to common programs used in libraries:

Firefox for web browsing
HTML-Kit for web design
Linux systems for thin-client workstations

Open source modifying means that programs are constantly being tweaked and refined by an active community of users. These users create patches, fixes, and add-ons which help the program to continuously grow.

Steve ended by asking us to view open source software as an opportunity. By using open source we can reject the status quo of outdated software given to us by vendors. This in turn allows us to make a real contribution to our profession and society as a whole.

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