A Guide To Successful Open Source Projects in Public Libraries

By John J. Brice Executive Director Meadville Public Library, Chief Executive Officer Crawford County Federated Library System

With budgets tightening everywhere in library world, one way public libraries are looking at saving money is Open Source software, because it is free.  Or is it?  And how can something that is free be any good?  If Open Source software is free and it is good what type of capabilities does my organization need to implement it?

The answer to those questions will be addressed by using my library, the Meadville Public Library which is the System Headquarters for the Crawford County Federate Library System, as an example or even a model for how open source projects can be successfully implemented.

The Crawford County Federated Library System has been using OSS (Open Source Software) in its IT operations since around 1999, beginning with some basic floppy-based routers used to share a dialup Internet connection among each library’s computers.  (Please see http://meadvillelibrary.org/os for a full listing of all of our OSS projects.) Following the success of that project we recognized the potential of OSS, integrating it increasingly into our infrastructure.

From that first project onward we decided that whenever possible any future new IT solution we offered our member libraries would utilize Open Source software.  We made this decision for a number of reasons.  First was reliability.  We were frustrated with commercial products that were a closed book to us, relying on reboots, fresh installs, and/or phone-based tech support to attempt to resolve problems, often unsuccessfully.  We found the hands-on approach to resolving issues with OSS to be a refreshing alternative; generally with a bit of web searching or queries on appropriate mailing lists or IRC channels we could find solutions to most of the problems we encountered.  Secondly, developing our own solutions with Open Source software allowed us to gain control of hardware purchases.  Numerous times we had to allocate precious dollars to replace perfectly fine computers because they no longer met the specifications of the latest commercial software.  By choosing to use OSS software on desktops and servers we were able to extend the life of much of our hardware.  The third issue was customization; we could customize Open Source software to meet our needs, from locking down public desktops to creating custom websites and services for our libraries.  Finally, the last reason was the cost.  In addition to saving money by being able to extend the life of our hardware through the use of OSS, we were able to save considerable funds with OSS since it is largely free, unlike most commercial software, and doesn’t require the payment of per-user or per-seat license fees.

Of course, no solution is completely free; with OSS you might save funds on software and license fees, but there are costs associated with hiring staff capable of installing & managing it.  However, we have found from our first OSS project onward that the costs of such employees can be considerably less than many organizations pay for commercial software solutions.  Furthermore, our IT staff was able to apply the skills and knowledge gained implementing OSS solutions in our libraries to a wide variety of projects, since OSS projects are often built using many of the same tools.

Over the ten plus years we have used open source solutions we have been extremely happy with the results.  We have a state of the art IT infrastructure costing us about 33% less than if relied on commercial providers.  We control our own destiny (with the exception of e-books) in our IT strategy.  We have a dedicated staff that is expert in assembling open source packages and writing software so that a production capable solution is possible. And as a manager I spend a lot less time on IT issues then if I had to rely on commercial vendors.

Another advantage the Open Source over a closed source commercial product is that it allows the library to customize the service for both the patrons and staff while at the same time streamlining services.  Customization and integration of Open Source programs is possible because the source code is available, while in a closed source model it is not possible to access the source code.  An example of this is the Print Fee Automation project we are currently working on.  Like many libraries we have an ILS, an Internet management program and we are planning to install a print copier fee automation program called Pykota.  If we were to follow a typical closed source development model you would have three separate programs with patrons needing three separate access points (library card, web login, print fee card) and the staff would have to know how to use three separate programs. Using the Open Source model we can connect all three of the programs into one integrated system with the ILS patron database providing the authentication and print fee management so that patrons only need one access point (library card).   On the staff side all of the print fees and fines are managed in the same program (the ILS) again eliminating complexity and training.

Is Open Source software a solution for other libraries?  I frankly, have talked with many libraries that have seen open source projects fail.  I believe that open source will work if a library is willing to make the following commitments:

  1. Top management supports the project 100% and this means that when things go wrong (and chances are something will go wrong) that they stay committed to the project until it is fixed.
  2. Do not do an ILS as your first open source project.
  3. That someone on staff has training in Open Source Operating Systems and knows how to download and compile programs.
  4. That the library has access to a developer, on a contract basis, so if something needs to be customized it can be.
  5. That a staff member is in charge of training staff and monitoring the system.
  6. That a program, such as Bugzilla, is used so that anyone can report problems and bugs to the project.

I believe that if any library followed the above listed precepts that all Open Source projects will be successful.  Of course this means that before a library considers its first Open Source Project there will be the need to invest in staff training, the hiring of a contract developer, the installation of a bug tracking program and some staff training.  However, considering the savings that occur in the subsequent years when no funds have to be paid for licensing using Open Source Solutions can  be a very wise investment.

2 Responses to “A Guide To Successful Open Source Projects in Public Libraries”

  1. I believe in the concept of open source. I do not agree that using an open source product allows you total flexibility. If you have to depend on a middle man (Liblime, BackWater, etc) to write the code and etc, you are still at the mercy of someone else. I believe that smaller OSS projects are the best way to start in Library Land. Our library system chose to do our ILS as OSS and three years down the road we still cannot get it to “pay fines” accurately, or alphabetize lists. I have yet to see an open source ILS that can do what our patrons have come to expect (think Amazon). I do not begrudge proprietary software companies making a profit. If they give me a great product with good service and it gives my patrons a good experience, than I am willing to pay for it. Until systems staff are truly trained to be developers coders, I will be paying a middleman to do it. That’s not saving me money, and it’s not giving the staff or the patrons the BEST available tools. Someday maybe, but not today.

  2. John Brice says:

    Dear Diana:

    Yes, it is true that if you use a third party company for Open Source projects you will spend money much like a proprietary ILS. However, I have personally been involved with a number of ILS projects and the cost of the OS ILS hosted solution is usually 40 to 50 percent cheaper than the proprietary solution. As for having problems with the software, that happens on any project and things have to be adjusted. I could not tell from your comment whether your hosting your ILS software yourself or are using a hosted solution. If you are using a hosted open source solution and are not happy you can always move to another vendor using the same software. If you are hosting it yourself then you can rely on the community to help you solve technical issues. If you are hosting and using Koha and having problems with the fines then have you left a message on the Koha community boards? I have found that if an OS Project has an active community I can get any problem resolved in less then a week. If an OS Project does not have an active community then you need to stay away or move to a project that does. As for your point that library staff are not coders and you have to pay a middleman to do it, because it is cheaper that is an example of an argument made in ignorance. If you have access to a programmer/developer and are relying on the position to do system support your are wasting his time and your money. For daily system management you do not need a programmer/developer. On a day to day basis you need to have someone on staff that understands OS operating systems, understands how OS works, can communicate well using chat, email and community boards, is good at solving problems but is not a coder. The head of my IT department is an MLIS with an undergraduate degree in Art History. Everything she learned about OS she learned from a tutor we hired and from on the job training. It is true at one time we did have a full time programmer on staff but he only did development work (writing code). Right now we have access to a programmer for 10 hours a week, however, he does nothing but development work no maintenance or system support. When you consider all of the funds I do not pay for support or licensing for all of my IT infrastructure and the funds expended for one OS position and one part time programmer then I do save a tremendous amount of cash and my patrons have the most advanced IT products available. It truly is a win, win win situation.