Why libraries are intrinsically open and should adopt open source solutions

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Sharing is a fundamental part of the open source philosophy, and the same goes for libraries. Spreading, disseminating, and breaking down barries to gaining knowledge is a core mission of most library systems and their staff.

That that end, libraries—which are essentially hubs of knowledge and gathering places for learning and continuing daily education—may choose to implement open source tools and software.

An advocate for "open libraries," Nicole Engard, is one of our new opensource.com community moderators, a long-time contributor, and a 2013 People's Choice Award winner. She has a passion for libraries and wants libraries' core operations to run on open source.

Let's find out how some of the open source tools like Koha and Zotero are changing the future of libraries and learn more about Engard's open source passion.

The Basics

  • Name: Nicole C. Engard
  • Opensource.com username: nengard
  • Location: Philadelphia Area, PA
  • Occupation/Employer/Position: VP of Education, ByWater Solutions
  • Open source connection: I learned about Koha while working in my first library and I was hooked!
  • Favorite open source tool or application: Koha and Zotero
  • Favorite opensource.com channel: Education (and Life)

Community spotlight

Open up to us

I am lucky to live and work at home, north of Philadelphia, with my husband Brian and my two shelties (Coda and Beau). What's better than a comfy office at home with a dog on either side of you? I started out in libraries right out of college as web developer. While I was there I didn't know much about what it meant to use and participate in open source, but I did use PHP and MySQL to write our library's intranet and several other applications (I just didn't share my code).

Eventually news of the Koha open source ILS (integrated library system) reached me and caught my interest. After years of fighting with a woefully outdated and closed library system, I loved the idea of a library system that was open and flexible and modern! I contacted some libraries who were using it and brought the stories to my library, but the staff there felt that it was too much of a risk, so I tried to help make the software better by participating in the community. I eventually got a job working as a Koha trainer and decided that working as Documentation Manager for the project was the perfect fit. After writing the first ever manual for Koha I got my current job at ByWater Solutions where I now educate libraries all over the world about open source and Koha specifically.

Since finding Koha in 2003 I have written numerous articles, given several presentations, and written a book about open source software for libraries. In addition to Koha I love teaching libraries to use WordPress and I promote Zotero at every conference I attend/speak at. I always try to talk about how open source can make our libraries better and try to dispel the misconceptions about what it means to use and participate in open source software projects.

What open tools and data help you get things done, and how do they help you?

Being a writer and a researcher, I couldn't live without Zotero and WordPress. I use Zotero daily to save articles I find in all of my areas of interest. I also use it to generate bibliographies for my books and share what I'm finding with anyone interested in following me. WordPress, on the other hand, is my daily publication platform. I use it to share my rants, my passions, or just something fun I learned today. It also helps me manage information from and the promotion of my books.

As for data, I am in love with open access journals like Code4Lib, D-Lib, and Collaborative Librarianship. I hate to leave out others, but these three are journals that I visit monthly to see what's new and search through the archives to see what I might have missed in the years before I became so active in open source and library education.

What do you wish were more open?

Library software! Even though Koha is great, there are still so many locked down systems in libraries—and so many libraries still using closed-source integrated library systems. I think it's very telling when you do a training at a library on how to use Koha and telling them that their overdue notices will be generated automatically (no need to manually generate them daily) makes people stand up and cheer (I kid you not, this happened at a training I did a couple months back).

When we (the public) think of libraries, we think of openness, places where we have free access to information and so much more, but what might surprise the public is how restricted things are when it comes to the technology libraries are using to do their jobs. It's not that there aren't open source options available to/for libraries, it's that there is a lack of education on the matter (which I'm working to fix) and a comfort in "the way it has always been." The most costly option, or the option they have always used, isn't always the right option.

Too often I hear stories of layoffs and cutbacks in libraries that are proudly stating that they use the 'Cadillac of integrated library systems' (yes, I've heard these exact words used), but why, if a Ford still gets you from point A to B and saves you enough money to keep on at least one more staff member. Now, I don't know much about cars, but that's the best comparison I can come up with. It's this sense of cost = value that we need to change in some people's eyes to get them to see open source for what it is and how it can continue to grow when we apply our resources (knowledge and funds) to it.

What are the biggest challenges to openness that you encounter, either at work or in your life?

Fear. Fear of change, fear of becoming obsolete, fear of the unknown. It's no surprise that we're always talking about FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) when it comes to open source, because it's everywhere. Too many people are scared to share what they know or what they have because it might then mean that they're no longer special. In the library world (and everywhere else I'm sure) jobs are scarce and people want to hold on to their way and their knowledge so that they can't be replaced by technology or by their colleagues.

When it comes to open source software specifically, I've had trainees get upset with me, and with Koha, because it makes procedures that used to take 10 minutes take 1 minute. This isn't because I just made their lives easier (who'd be mad at that?) it's fear that by making the process work better their job might become unnecessary—or worse yet—they might have to learn to do something else to fill the time.

Often people who are new to the field ask me how I can stay so positive while training when everyone around me is being so negative: it's because this is the only way I can think of to combat the fear. Put on a happy face and hopefully people will start to see the good that open source can do. And if that doesn't work, you just have to accept that sometimes it takes more time to change the world.

Why choose the open source way?

It just makes sense. Two heads are better than one: "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." I'd rather work with a team of great people and share the results of our work with the world than work solo and have no one to share that success with. I accept that I don't know everything and can't possibly know everything and that I like working with others who have different viewpoints—it makes me better at what I do and makes what I produce that much stronger.

Someone tweeted at me regarding my post about developing open source openly to tell me that he/she didn't agree that open source could be successfully developed in the open. I replied quite simply, "What's the point of OSS then? Why not just develop proprietary software?" I think that sums it up quite nicely.

Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and Opensource.com community publications.


Nice to read how you got involved in the Koha project. And thumbs up on your positive mindset and persistence when it comes to your training and being an 'ambassador' to open source.

I wish this was true of NZ libraries, they are going to DRM protected E Books

That is true in the US too, open source adoption is going slowly, but that's why I'm out there educating people!

Great article. I wonder what advice you would have for people wanting to approach their local libraries to support more open solutions. I know my local library has ten computers running Microsoft Windows operating system and old Internet Explorer browsers and their ILS software has one of the worst search features I've seen. It's so bad that I end up using WorldCat just to find things in my library.


What a great question! First I would make a meeting with the director or head of technology (maybe the systems librarian). I would talk to them about your problems with their systems and findability. I would bring in suggestions for better options. If they're resistant I would remind them that you pay their salary with your taxes. Also, I offer free webinars for libraries all the time on Koha and open source in libraries - almost always free of cost to attend - that you can share with them if they want to learn more.

In the end, if you have the time, you might even volunteer to help the staff learn to use Firefox or Chrome and/or LibreOffice or something else open source. Libraries also like facts and research, so bringing in the research that shows that IE is horrible for security and Koha great for usability might help your cause as well.

Let me know how it goes!! and if I can help.


Well Done.

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