Open Source Software in Libraries

Andrew Nagy, Director of SaaS Innovation at EBSCO, librarian and founder of VuFind open-source software, looks at open-source solutions in libraries.
Open Source Software in Libraries

Software is generally made available in 3 ways: COTS (Commercial off-the-shelf), SaaS (software-as-a-service), or OSS (Open-source Software). You likely have experienced all three models of software. Up until the late 2000s, most new system software in the library would have been purchased and implemented as COTS. Think of your old legacy ILS system that was installed on a server somewhere. Perhaps on a Sun Microsystems server in a coat closet, an-actively-used-as-a-coat-closet coat closet, not that I have ever seen that before. This type of software was purchased upfront and generally came with a license that was renewed each year. Enterprise software companies, such as Oracle, have continued to operate under this approach, but is now providing alternatives for customers to subscribe to their software rather than purchase it. A software subscription, where the vendor runs the software centrally, or in a cloud service, is known as Software-as-a-Service. This is where a company allows their customers to access the software from a centrally hosted service, and this is the model that EBSCO and most library vendors operate under today.  

Lately, EBSCO and other companies have been embracing the Open-source Software movement to help support new and innovative software projects to allow easier adoption for libraries. Open-source software is generally founded initially to solve a problem where current software is either unavailable or cost prohibitive. This grass roots effort leads to a small solution to address a larger problem and then grows in complexity over time. As the founder of a few open-source projects myself, I can attest to this grass roots approach. One project that I founded while working at an academic library, Villanova University, became known as VuFind, an open-source discovery layer. VuFind was founded because there was no simple alternative to an OPAC that would provide the user experience that our library was dreaming of being able to offer. From this project grew a community of other libraries who were looking for a similar solution and had the technical expertise to help contribute to its development. Through economies of scale, an open-source project can grow from a grass roots project to a highly competitive solution as the number of community members grows. The FOLIO open-source project, of which EBSCO is a contributing member, has seen exponential growth in advancement of the software as there has been exponential growth in the engagement of the community. In fact, open-source software has become the software of choice in the top 1 million web sites world-wide with nearly 520,000 of the top 1 million powered by an open-source software Content Management Systems.1 Open-source Software is intriguing and beneficial to so many organizations, especially libraries, because it has a number of great benefits. 

First, open-source software tends to be more secure. There is an old adage: “Many eyes make all bugs shallow.” This means that many developers and users can work with the code to find anything malicious or incorrect. If a user finds a bug in the software, it can be shared with the community and fixed in a rather quick timeframe. The fixed code is then available immediately. Think of the all the issues as of late regarding freely downloadable apps for smart phones and how they are tracking user behavior, stealing user data, etc. You have no way of knowing what the app is doing on your phone behind the scenes because other than the developer, no one can see the code to be sure. Open-source software can be audited to ensure that there is no malware embedded and security flaws can be addressed. 

Second, there is a community of users and developers who share ideas, tips & tricks and bug fixes with one another creating a network of support and development. Being open-source means that the code, testing, documentation and plans are open as well. Transparency helps in the evaluation of software as you can see how many people are involved in the community and in the development, how active the development of the software is and how many issues have been raised with the software from users. Transparency is great to have. Additionally, you can generally choose from a list of vendors for support and hosting services. Because the vendors do not own the solution, there is competition for these services. The Koha Community, a community supporting the open-source ILS system Koha, has over 60 vendors listed on their support page2. This competition creates better services for the customer and allows the library to find a vendor who will offer the service that they need. The FOLIO community, a solution that EBSCO provides implementation, hosting and support services for, hosts an annual conference for its community members to come together and learn from one another – a conference that is organized by the members.  

Third, did we say the software is free? You can try it with little upfront investment to see if the solution will offer the capabilities of what you need before making a large investment to setup the solution correctly. If evaluating open-source options for a specific need, you can download the software, set it up and give a good ‘ol tire kicking to see how it works and if it meets your expectations. Just be sure to also look at which open-source software license the project uses. Open-source software still has a software license; some have restrictive requirements, and some are extremely permissive3. For centrally used software like web applications, you can deploy in a cloud service such as Amazon’s AWS for very little cost, or sometimes even use their free tier services. Setup the software, try it out, and if you like the solution, you can deploy it in a more permanent fashion with some cost or work with a vendor to host the software and provide support. Leveraging free software helps to greatly reduce the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and either allow the library to save money or shift its funds into customization and professional services to have a more tailored solution yielding greater efficiencies and greater return on investment. 

At the end of the day, Open-source Software can provide incredible value and tends to be easier to adopt; however, open-source software is “Free as in kittens, not beer.” A friend can buy you a beer without any hooks or cost to you, but when adopting a free kitten, you have a long-term responsibility with care and maintenance. This easy adoption, innovative features and community support are some of the reasons why we see so many libraries adopting open-source software.  

 - Andrew Nagy, Director of SaaS Innovation, EBSCO Information Services


Photo by Elisa Calvet B. on Unsplash



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