Are libraries resisting open source?

Open source, library schools, libraries, and digital dissemination
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My husband and I are librarians. We were talking recently about library training, the library profession, the open source movement, and how open source digital content is being distributed today in public libraries. We were struck by the way that open source thinking has infiltrated many areas—but not yet the profession or institution of librarians.

Librarians go to library school to learn how about how to process information, both print and digital. We learn how to search and retrieve information and how to research, catalog, and reference information. We learn how to evaluate sources for accuracy, credibility, scope, objectivity, clarity, and readership. We learn about intellectual freedom, copyright issues, library procedures and management, including integrated library system software. We learn about digital information and content. We may leave with a degree in library science or information science. But, in the course of our library education, we learn little to nothing about the differences between proprietary products and open source ones--there are few open source advocates in library school or in the profession.

How have libraries and library schools become a stumbling block for the open source movement? Open source could--and should--be part of the local library, an experience that revolves around making information freely available and accessible to all.

Digital information has drastically changed the library profession. Print media is dead. But libraries remain physical repositories for printed books. They are not seen as distributors of digital information. Google is. Like Google, libraries created cataloging systems to organize and control physical library collections. Google does something similar with their retrieval system and the way they retrieve information.

Librarians are usually strong advocates for intellectual freedom, but have been muted on differences between proprietary and open source, non-commercial digital information. Yet libraries and library schools are natural allies of the open source way. They should have an important role in making digital spaces and content freely available and accessible to all. A library’s core function is to advance society through learning and education. The education of children is essential to a nation’s future, but how many libraries and library schools are promoting digital literacy skills and teaching about the differences between proprietary and open source and commercial-free digital information?

Libraries and library schools need to take an active role in addressing how different the world of knowledge and digital information is today, and how it will continue to evolve in the future. Mandatory reference courses at library schools should include open source or commercial-free sources besides Wikipedia. Libraries and library schools should be contributing to national efforts to bring awareness to open source communities. They should be turning to open source Integrated Library Systems, hardware, software, books, databases, videos, audio, games, and more—all with the aim to become digital information centers for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, many library users are not aware of open source, public domain, or commercial-free alternatives already in existence, because such information is not freely available and accessible through public libraries. If library schools are not integrating open source resources into their courses and curricula, then this is hardly surprising. This is a situation that needs to drastically change.

Open source will only increase the number of library resources and services, as long as knowledge about these open source alternatives is freely available and accessible and librarians work to disseminate such knowledge to the public. In order for this to happen, we have to overcome fears about what such easily disseminated knowledge could mean for for-profit publishing.

It’s happened before. Critics once feared that public libraries would decrease book sales. Instead, as libraries grew in popularity, book sales soared. Copyrighted books ensured authors or creators retained intellectual property rights over their work. For over 100 years, public libraries have fought for the free dissemination of copyrighted books for all--not just for the wealthy or those who could physically access a public library.

Public libraries have a moral obligation and duty to serve the public’s best interests. But these public interests are compromised if open resources are not being disseminated freely and widely. Intellectual freedom sacrificed as a result.

The public also has a moral obligation and duty to speak up. Contact your library about open source. Talk to them about substituting or offering open resources. Tell them about the cost benefits and the ability to help more people and provide more resources. Emphasize that these assets are additions and improvements, rather than replacement of all proprietary products. Be global digital citizens and help librarians become keepers of the digital future, offering modern choices that will help sustain the profession--rather than keepers of a dwindling printed past.

The speed of innovation and growth of digital information is advancing faster than before. If the world’s digital information is doubling every two years and Google expects Internet users to triple by 2014, this should be a clarion call to the library profession, library schools, and the public to act.

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Lee Martin's picture

Great post!

I am in the middle of writing a blog on my recent experience with my local library.
In short, I visited to ask if I could place a poster ( relating to DFD (Document Freedom Day) on the community wall - I was asked to leave it with the librarian and they would put it up for me.
I retuned a few days later with a HQ copy of the same poster and was surprised to see that my poster was not on the board as promised. I questioned the lady about this and was met with a wall of 'polite unhelpfulness'.

There are two issues here:
1. If only this individual could put in as much effort and professionalism into doing good then what a difference she could make!
2. These issues (DFD, OSS) are at the heart of the community and as such our local Library should be open to discussion and be in a position to support the cause.

It raised the question - who are these people actually working for?

Eric Lester's picture

This is a very interesting topic, from many viewpoints. One thing I have noticed about my public library system ( a County system in Washington State) is that they don't seem to be aware of how many of their resources require proprietary software for access. In order to use their downloadable recorded books, for example, I must have a Windows or Apple computer, and install proprietary (DRM) software on it. A similar obstacle exists with their electronic books.

So many public institutions seem to be blissfully unaware of these issues. One would hope that Libraries would be advocates for Open Source, but I have not found this to be the case.

CustomDesigned's picture
Open Minded

Our library uses Windows for the public internet terminals. I've talked to them about an open source solution, with voluteer labor even, but the problem is they need a "kiosk" solution. They reimage all the windows computers every night at closing, and all removable media drives have been disabled or removed, and the cases are locked.

There is also some attempt to "lock down" IE, but I've noticed that 8 year olds have no problem defeating the lock down. :-) The nightly reimaging from a secure server is what they really rely on for security.

Another problem is that many of the paid subscription online services require Windows. (I'm not sure why - you pays your subscription, you get so many hours/GBs/whatever. I think the issue might be hiding the login credentials from library patrons so they can't use it at home.)

Is there an open source distro aimed at 1) kiosk operation 2) hiding subscription credentials from patrons?

#2 can be handled very securely using kerberos, or other ticket granting system, or more simply by forcing access to the services to go through a secure proxy in the back room which adds the credentials.

As far as downloadable media - I can understand why publishers require DRM, and I can't fault the library. Free downloads like gutenberg are already freely available online. Rental situations are the one legitimate application of DRM. Personally, if I ever need any of the DRMed media, I'll buy a kindle. Embedded DRM is much less objectionable to me than a DRMed OS on my general purpose personal computer.

Wm. F. Bos, P. E.'s picture

My experience indicates that open source should be ideal for libraries. Those in the library business just have to get into it a bit.

There is a general problem of poor or non-existent documentation for open source software. Open source programers are interested in their programming and are making it available free. Often they are not very good wordsmiths and often they just do not enjoy writing. They feel that after they have created their programs and made them available to everyone, they have done their duty to God and mankind. They then want to get on with the next programming challenge. Consequently, the documentation never gets done.

I am an engineer in private practice, and I have the same problem that you do. I have found that I just have to write my own instructions. This takes a bit of time, but when I come back to my work some time later, it is easy to use.again.

All of the basic programs that you need are available in Linux. With a little bit of work you can assemble them and modify them into systems that suit your specific purposes. This is one of the big advantages of open source programs. Document your work as you go along, including instructions for use.

You can easily share your work with fellow librarians, making your systems and documentation development projects effectively open source projects.

Unlike engineers and programmers, librarians are usually good writers so this should be relatively easy for you.

Wm. F. Bos, P. E.

Tod Robbins's picture

Jay Datema's picture

Take a look at

Nicole C. Engard's picture

I have been educating librarians about open source software for 5 years now! We need more people like you out there spreading the word and educating librarians about what Open Source really is and how it will help us in libraries improve our services and so much more!