The Open Source Experts
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Open Source is Beautiful

June 24th, 2008 by

Note: Expect to hear this announcement more than once this week, but Equinox will be at Booth 1888 at ALA Annual in Anaheim (that’s a triple-A statement!). Come on by!

As the newly-minted Community Librarian for Equinox, the open source support and development company for Evergreen, I’m going to be writing at this blog and at the Open-ILS blog as much as possible. I’m going to try to keep my posts short — the blogging equivalent of Lunchables, for readers who are busy and on-the-go — but I’m breaking my own rule with my first post to roll out a carb-heavy five-course post explaining why I took this job and why I feel so passionate about it.

On being at the right place at the right time

A few times in your life you get to be part of something truly important. Sometimes you realize it after the fact, as happened with me in 1989, when en route to my next Air Force duty station I turned on a motel television set to see the Berlin Wall being torn down and realized I had spent that decade as something that had just ceased to exist–the Cold War warrior.

But other times you are fortunate enough to know it right then and there. I remember the night—it was 10 p.m. on a mild evening in New Jersey in 1993 — when after spending a day installing Trumpet Winsock and NCSA Mosaic on my computer and patiently tinkering with inscrutably geekish settings, I rebooted, dialed into my Internet connection, and saw the graphical Web for the first time—huge, glowing images of the planets, courtesy of NASA.

I was so filled with belief and expectant wonder I had to immediately leave my house and drive up and down Route 17 for an hour, just to shake the willies from my flesh. I had seen the future, and it thrilled me to the core. I didn’t know if I would ever again have a moment like that, and that knowledge only sweetened the feeling.

Many interesting events in the world of computing and technology have come and gone since then, but none with the full-tilt amazement I felt that night as I zoomed past strip malls and garden stores and suburban cul de sacs, my brain shimmering with the excitement of being There, in the glory of the era when the Web as we truly know it was born.

None at least until September of 2006, when a small announcement wangled its way into the Biblioblogosphere that Georgia PINES had gone live with Evergreen. By then I had racked up close to fifteen years in libraries–closer to twenty, if you added in my college years typing overdue notices in Columbia’s Butler library and the summer in high school I spent inking book spines for San Francisco Public.

Sad, sad software

I had been part of the Great Diaspora, the pioneers trudging across the plains to move libraries from card catalogs and bound periodicals to OPACs and Web journals. I had a great, fierce belief that technology could improve our libraries, but I was also aware that sometimes, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo was wont to reflect, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Most libraries used software so bafflingly bad that when I was a special librarian for a library in the Environmental Protection Agency, my boss, an engineer and an overall smart cookie, took me aside to ask, in a whisper, why library software was so hard to use.

If an engineer can’t find a book in a library catalog, Houston, we have a problem. But it wasn’t any better in the public or academic libraries I worked in. It was all profoundly bad, from the cataloging modules that made it hard to catalog to the acquisitions modules that didn’t work with our vendors’ software to the online catalogs that simply puzzled our users.

It’s easy to point at vendors and ask why our software isn’t better. (Furthermore, some vendor software is pretty good—which has been particularly true of the vendors who have moved into the public-access layer.) But the real question is why we–an organization of information professionals–don’t fix our own problems.

With traditional commercial software, we can’t fix our own problems. We propose, and the vendors dispose. Commercial software is designed around the assumption that there are great secrets to be hidden within the software’s code, and that we buy and use software “off the shelf” — a truism I’ll tackle in greater depth in future posts. It also encourages some very strange and sadly duplicative behavior.

Imagine the same several dozen libraries having the identical problem with their software, but unable to share this knowledge on lists or wikis or blogs, because they (in most case government agencies!) had signed nondisclosure agreements with companies to Protect Their Secrets. Imagine each library using thousands of hours of developer time coming up with the same “fix,” because (bizarrely enough, for librarians) we had signed away our rights to share information.

Now take away the imaginary component and you know my life as a librarian for most of my career. It made no sense, and the more I lived it the stranger it seemed, particularly as outside of LibraryLand I watched open source software expand from the wrinkled-teeshirt fringes of avant-garde technology to embrace the crisp pressed shirts of mainstream automation.

Open source is here to stay

As one librarian commented recently, you know open source is viable because first, people can make money from it, and second, all the commercial vendors use it. That latter fact is amusing (or irritating, depending on your point of view) — the same vendors who swear their clients to secrecy for their super-secret code have no compunction about using open source in their own products. There’s no rule against this — part of the charm of open source is that there are very few rules — but it tells you something that the same vendors who take their clients into smoke-filled rooms and swear them to secrecy have no problem not just using but depending on software whose code is built and managed in the open.

We in LibraryLand have a lot of allied enterprises. Librarians work with many partners–book vendors, technical services companies, database vendors, data enrichment companies, and others–who need to be able to work with our software, and we don’t make it easy on them. There really should be no impediment to hooking up our software with the services of a library support company. We’re all in this together.

A few folks out there in LibraryLand think open source is still the Beatnik of the software world. But another test of open source is that people like me are now working in its industry. I’m not a soothsayer; when I first looked upon the graphical Web in 1993, I was part of the early majority, just barely ahead of the crest of the people who would find the Web.

In the same vein, when I saw the message from Georgia PINES announcing that hundreds of libraries had gone live with open-source library software, I wasn’t part of the visionary crew that had put blood, sweat, toil, and tears into a faith effort that proved to be an excellent bet. I was just a librarian who had an “ah hah” moment, a tingling in my soul that said, this is where we need to be—and this is also, specifically, where I need to be.

Saving room for dessert

You’re pretty full by now — I see the waiter coming by with the after-dinner espresso — so I’ll stop. But so you know what’s ahead, I’m going to use these blog posts to talk about open source: why it works, how you know it is right for your library, how to evaluate it, events and factoids, and what the FUD is. (FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, and some desperate vendors are spreading it around like manure on a tomato garden.)

Mostly what I want to do is welcome you to the table. This has been a long time coming, and I hope through my writing to make it clear there’s a place set for each one of you.

(Oh, and thanks to Flickr user Elmada for the great Lunchables photo!)

— Karen G. Schneider, Equinox Community Librarian

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4 responses to “Open Source is Beautiful”

  1. Roy Tennant says:

    Karen, you know it’s you and I know it’s you, but how is anyone else going to know it’s you? The way WordPress is configured here there is no author information displayed. Perhaps you could get somewhere there to change it? You write such wonderfully personal posts it would be a shame for people to not know what person is doing the writing.

  2. Roy Tennant says:

    To be specific, although you signed your post in the “full view”, since WordPress does not add your name under the title of the post as it can be configured to do, your name doesn’t show up in some other views.

  3. Roy, thanks — I realized that AFTER the fact. I think it’s the theme, not the WordPress configuration. I have hand-coded my own name. 😉

  4. parser says:

    Here’s my example to reinforce your secrecy comment: I work in a government agency, and I have had the experience of having colleagues unwilling and/or unable to share ILS vendor price quotes, contracts, service details, etc. “because of non-disclosure agreements” they feel they needed to abide by, or that they signed because they felt they had no other option.

    So when I got my quotation from vendor X, I couldn’t find another department’s library willing to share their quotation from vendor X. How am I supposed to know whether or not we are being fairly quoted, and working from a firm negotiating position? These are colleagues employed by the same employer, not sharing information that could protect our interests due to these “non-disclosure agreements.”

    And when I spoke with an authority from one of the senior contracting agencies, he laughed at how ridiculous this situation was. His recommendation was to tell my colleagues that I was going to do an ATI request (FOIA for those in the US) to get the quotes if they didn’t share it with me!!

At Equinox, unlike other administrative roles I’ve had, I get to work directly with libraries to help them solve their problems.

Vice President

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