Open source – why?

Once upon a time technology was an awesome mystery and we were amazed just to watch what it did. We put those geeky gods who made it work on pedestals and carried their coffee. Technology made any job that involved keeping track of stuff easier.

Libraries were particularly thankful for automated procedures that tracked the hundreds of thousands of pieces of stuff that we entrusted on loan to thousands of people. We were so mystified by how it worked and thankful that it did that once we found a program and learned how to use it (another monumental task) we didn’t want to think about picking out something different or learning new tricks to use it. Besides that, librarians are by nature collectively a cautious bunch who don’t welcome a great deal of change.

So, a few vendors developed logistics type software to manage library materials and procedures and everyone was happy. The vendors didn’t do a lot of research and development and library systems didn’t change much.

During the next 20 years, technology changed the way we managed business and lived our lives. Since I’m a late arrival librarian, I wasn’t in libraries during the early technology implementations. I was involved in automating processes in several other businesses, also related to keeping track of and assigning accountability to things. I automated processes in hospital logistics and later on in grocery store sales operations. In both cases, the end results of the processes and procedures were not so different than libraries’ implementation of technology management systems.

While technology vendors in many areas have made refinement and development a priority and the systems in use now don’t look much like the early legacy systems, library automation systems have changed not so much. While most businesses do not tolerate clunky procedures or incomplete responses, the performance and results of library automation systems does not come close to other systems. Library automation systems cannot deliver the kind of interactive performance that is standard in most other industries. Furthermore, library automation vendors do not deliver the responsiveness in customer service that libraries need to remain viable in a competitive economy that sometimes marginalizes the value of library services.

There are reasons for library automation vendors’ failure to deliver desirable performance or service. First of all, I don’t think that libraries initially asked for a lot. Furthermore, with minimal profits to be made off from libraries, I don’t think that development of library systems was very lucrative for systems developers, and there wasn’t a lot of competition out there. Effective customer support doesn’t seem to be a priority and in recent years, company mergers have resulted in fewer viable choices for libraries to go where the service is better.

Enter the realm of open source options, where “they” becomes “us.” My library’s options for automation services do not have to be driven by what my vendor offers. There are choices my organization can make where we could potentially have more influence in the development of service-point utilities. And most importantly, there are other options for my organization to consider in deciding who would really understand and respect us as a customer for their services.

MINITEX is sponsoring workshops this month to allow libraries to look at open source options for integrated library systems. At the first session this week the room was packed with library managers and system administrators. The sizes and capacities of our organizations varied considerably, but we hold in common a desire for better systems and service than legacy library vendors provides.

My friend DL did an excellent job summarizing the first session on Koha, which means I don’t have to . In his summary, he discusses the question on whether buying open-source from a vendor isn’t just another vendor. Yes, it is, but with a difference that there is a different relationship with an open-source vendor. The underlying program is as open and available as we wish it to be, constrained only by our own limitations. Indeed, my systems geek has already downloaded his own copy of Koha to experiment with and learn from.

Will all of us who are educating ourselves through the open-source workshops rush out and implement a Koha or Evergreen based ILS? Most likely not. We have varying abilities and budgets. Some have the capacity to dive right in, others will build cooperatives, others will make a decision to remain status quo. But through our discussion, we’re becoming better informed and more discerning about the potential for library automation solutions to equip us to provide the most cost-effective and best possible customer service and access.