How Libraries Might Once Again Become Technology Leaders

Joe Lucia, Villanova University’s University Librarian, made some interesting suggestions about open source development in a recent post to NGC4Lib, a mailing list dedicated to “Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries.”

What most frustrates me in a general sense is the degree to which in libraries our human capital and our financial resources are tied into commercial software that rarely meets our needs well. That is old news. The issue is how to break free of the inertia that keeps us in a technologically paralyzed state….

What if, in the U.S., 50 ARL libraries, 20 large public libraries, 20 medium-sized academic libraries, and 20 Oberlin group libraries anted up one full-time technology position for collaborative open source development. That’s 110 developers working on library applications with robust, quickly-implemented current Web technology…. Instead of being technology followers, I venture to say that libraries might once again become leaders….

Yes, we’d need to establish sound open source management protocols and we’d have to guard against forks and splintering of effort that might undermine the best possible outcomes. But I keep thinking about how successful Linux has been, with developers around the world. Surely librarians and library technologists could evolve a collaborative environment where we’d “play nice” and produce good results for all.

I think it’s great to see a library director (and board chair of PALINET, an OCLC regional service provider) talking about this sort of thing. And it’s not just talk: he pays Andrew Nagy, in part, to lead the development of the exciting VuFind open source OPAC project.

It seems that Lucia has bought into the idea that open source development can disperse effort and expenses fairly and efficiently. For that reason, open source is an excellent model, especially for academic libraries, who have enough money to pay really good programmers, but not enough money to pay them to duplicate each other’s effort. In general, Lucia’s vision makes so much sense to me that I view something like a commitment to shared software development among academic libraries as all but inevitable.

Many technology companies already work this way to some degree. For instance, the software described in the excellent post, A Day Without Open Source—Linux, Apache, Bind, Firefox—exists in part because Google, IBM, Sun, and thousands of other large and small companies encourage their developers to help maintain and improve open source code. And it’s not just code: W3C, which maintains open Web standards, is organized into committees, and those committee are composed primarily of employees at for-profit companies. We’re starting to see that same sort of encouragement for open standards and software echoed in libraries, most of it centered around code4lib.

One concern I have about Lucia’s statement is that he may be applying standard software development thinking to open source development. As Eric Raymond has documented in The Cathedral and the Bazaar and The Art of Unix Programming, there are fundamental differences. For one thing, forking can be incredibly useful: Firefox is a fork of Mozilla. For another, many believe that open source works in part because people tend to work hardest on projects that excite them, such as transgressive technologies that place them in direct opposition to entrenched organizations like Microsoft and the Recording Industry Association of America. It may be hard to find programmers who are excited by the sorts of projects that committees of library directors would vote to approve and fund.

Another concern I have is, while it’s great that PALINET is partnering with LibLime to support Koha, what about OCLC? When do we get to see the code for the software that we pay OCLC to support for us? As Karen Schneider points out, “If we built a 66,000-member association, it would look an awful lot like ALA.” I strongly suspect that if we build a huge new technology cooperative for libraries, it’s going to wind up looking an awful lot like OCLC. Only the new one might not feature people with the talent and success of Karen Calhoun, Roy Tennant, Andrew Pace, Lorcan Dempsey, etc.

My hope is that Joe Lucia and the folks in the preceding sentence are working to change OCLC from within. It isn’t that OCLC is evil, but there are reasons that LibraryThing’s Tim Spalding tried to talk Tennant out of going to OCLC, why the Library of Congress’s Dan Chudnov joked that Tennant’s move to OCLC made him his mortal enemy, and why it made sense for Tennant to explain his move. Some of the concerns expressed in Steve Oberg’s “OCLC: the Microsoft of the Library World?” and “Answers to Roy Tennant’s questions” ring true, as do some of his readers’ comments: OCLC is a monopoly and a vendor.

It would be helpful, at least when it comes to creating and sharing open source code, if OCLC could play a role similar to the one played by the Apache or Mozilla Foundations. Having a superstructure like Lucia talks about could be a good thing, though ultimately it may not matter whether it’s OCLC, another organization, or simply a commitment by academic library directors to hire more programmers. The members of code4lib and oss4lib are already doing their part. It will be interesting to see how many of Lucia’s fellow library directors are as motivated as he is to make sure libraries again become technology leaders.

2 thoughts on “How Libraries Might Once Again Become Technology Leaders”

  1. Yes!!! I’m always amazed that libraries, dedicated to openness and sharing and access, can get so bogged down in rules and closed doors. What a breath of fresh air. Thanks for the great post, Brett.

  2. Great post!

    The key will be to get some high-visibility *something* to organize and promote OSS in libraries. The problem isn’t just in developer resources; there’s definitely a mind-share gap with library decision-makers. Vendors put a lot of effort into gaining this for their products, we have to work on a way to similarly build support for open source programs.

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