It’s true that I am one of the skeptics. I’ll state that up front. But, in truth, my skepticism toward building an open source integrated library system was born in optimism that the vendors of proprietary software would be paying close attention to the landscape. Alas, I don’t think they were.
Most people have forgotten that Dynix wrote a white paper in 2003 called“Horizon Open Technology: A Vision for the Future” that was the basis of the original Horizon 8.0 (I looked all over for this white paper online and had to fall back on my own archive). The system would use Lucene and uPortal, and would support interchangeable back-end databases. The architecture was going to be open and modular. Within months of Dynix’s merger with Sirsi, Lucene was replaced with FAST, and uPortal was replaced with options like Horizon Information Portal and Sirsi’s Enterprise Portal System (EPS). But that’s all academic now that Horizon 8.0, too, belongs to the ages.
Another key aspect of open systems is the growth in open source technology. Not all open source technology is good, but there is tremendous promise here. Operating systems (Linux), application servers (JBoss), and search engines (Lucene) are among the more powerful open source developments that Dynix believes holds great promise and which the company intends to leverage.
–excerpt from 2003 Dynix Whitepaper
VTLS continues to tout its open source components, and was one of the first vendors to repackage Fedora (an open source repository application) and brand it Vital, essentially selling some of the interfaces and support for the underlying open source architecture.
Talis, a UK-based ILS company, continues to make strides in its support of open source services. The Talis Platform is the basis for many open source add-ons, thought the company’s ILS itself remains a proprietary system. Nevertheless, Talis remains nearly alone among “traditional” vendors proselytizing open source solutions.
I’ve mentioned Koha and Evergreen on this blog and on the pages of American Libraries many times. LibLime has made some success of installing Koha at smaller libraries. Evergreen, the open source ILS created for the Georgia PINES consortium of public libraries, is now supported by its creators through a new company called Equinox. Roy Tennant called this “The Dawn of a New Era.” I prefer to call it a potential tipping point.
The open source tipping point
Libraries and open source are like peanut butter and chocolate to many people. Our altruistic nature, penchant for openness, and shoestring budgets make libraries a virtual Petrie dish for open source experimentation. OSS4LIB has been around for nearly (over?) seven years. Many libraries are probably using open source software without even realizing it . . . things like Linux and apache, sendmail or Zotero.
So, where’s the tipping point? Well, it might just be the commodity status that I mentioned in starting off this series. The authors of a book called Open Source 2.0 suggest as much. That is, when the software reaches commodity status, companies will emerge to provide services associated with that software. Redhat’s Linux is a very good example of this. The question is whether the ILS has reached this point yet. It could very well be barreling in that direction.
Still, there is the skeptic in me. I am inclined to ask some baiting questions and point out what I think are some serious issues in the open source movement. I think there is still a “build or buy” paradox in going the open source route. While the services that support open source are bound to be cheaper than buying a proprietary ILS, libraries will have to ask themselves why they want an open source system. It could be philosophical—either in wanting to support a move toward openness, or in wanting software that supports easier local development and add-ons. It could be financial, or the idea that “good enough” is often just that. The point is to make an informed decision—one that is based on the freedom of open source and not its relative free-ness.
There is also what I call the “marketing paradox.” You will hear from open source vendors that one of the benefits of using open source is that if you are unsatisfied with the associated services, you can just get them from someone else without having to change software. I don’t want to downplay this benefit: It would be great to not have to migrate every time there is a bump in the road. And let’s face it, there have been a lot of bumps lately. Nevertheless, this is a cultural change for libraries, but one that I think we should be open to. The good news for libraries is that the marketing of these services within this framework should naturally keep costs down, especially as more open source–supporting organizations emerge.
Finally, there is the issue of patents. MySQL’s Marten Mickos called them the Achilles heel of the entire software industry (see this interesting article from last summer’s internetnews.com). Practically the opposite of open source reaction, patents create a visceral response from most librarians—though I would argue that libraries are as likely to rid themselves of patented hardware and software as they are to rid themselves of copyrighted content in their stacks. How patents will impact the library software market and library software development remains to be seen. I eagerly await a thorough treatment of this topic (from a library point of view) from someone much more educated on the subject than I am.
Software is software
I have been relegated to quoting myself quoting someone else, but I first pointed this out in a column last fall. Dan Chudnov, creator of OSS4LIB, was the one who gave me this truism: [added text] software is software. This led me to think that [end of added text] it does not matter whether the software is open or proprietary; what matters is whether the software is good or bad. Those are my words, not his, but they are meant to capture [added text] what I took away from that conversation [added text]
the essence of what he said to me over five years ago (some things just stick with you).
At the end of the day, the software has to work. If it doesn’t work, you have to be able to make it work. If open source makes for a better path to making things work, then all the better. If competition from open source makes vendors or closed-source systems more alert and responsive, then all the better. Better is good.
[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]