Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Practical Open Source Software for Libraries

Muhammad Rafiq takes a look at a work on the open source community and open source software.

Open source (OS) usually refers to an application whose source code is made available for use or modification in line with users’ needs and requirements. OS projects usually develop in the public domain where contributors participate in a collaborative manner and update or refine the product. OS offers more flexibility and freedom than software purchased with licence restrictions. Both the OS community and the library world share many common principles. They share and promote open standards and believe in sharing. Open source software (OSS) often provides greater freedom of choice and is considered by many as more cost-effective. Although certain costs are associated with OSS such as the cost of technical support, training and further development, it is argued that OSS remains less expensive than many proprietary choices. However, the major reason to choose an OS application is the freedom it confers to change the source code for individual requirements.

This book provides an extensive introduction to the OSS concept, the OS community and discusses the OSS choices available to libraries. The OSS covered in this title spans everything from day-to-day, Web access and applications, media, collections, research tools, and automation software. This title also offers an overview of common barriers, both real and imagined, to apply OSS in real world. Case study interviews with people using open source applications in libraries around the world are also included and present real-life examples from libraries and librarians of all types and locations. In other words, this title provides a toolbox of practical software that librarians can use both inside and outside the library to meet their technological needs. However, it may well be considered as an introductory text. The book is based on the author’s extensive practical experience with OSS both within and beyond the library community.

The book is divided into two sections: Introduction to Open Source, and Practical Applications for Libraries.

The first section consists of four chapters which define OS, explains the facts about OS, and OS principles for libraries. They debunk the common myths and provide a brief overview of the history of open source software. The second section comprises seven chapters that encompass the OS tools for day-to-day library operations and the technological needs of an information organisation.

Chapter 1, What is Open Source, defines and discusses some of the hallmarks of open source history and give an understanding of the ideals surrounding open source activity. The author establishes that OSS projects normally start to address an individual problem, ‘scratching an itch’. Linux, the most popular OS project on the Web today, is an example of this approach. An important characteristic of OS applications is the freedom to change or distribute the software free of cost. Sharing is another important characteristic of OSS development as free collaborative approach we see in action.

Chapter 2, Community and Open Source, identifies the key patterns of operation to build an active and healthy community for OSS development. OSS communities work as volunteers adopt and pursue threads of effort in line with their own preferences and expertise. There are certain rules, unwritten, of OS community working: extensive communication through mailings lists, bug databases, forums, wikis, etc. There is an etiquette which promotes openness and honesty; respect for each other; a willingness to teach, and transparency. Governance of such communal effort is achieved through designating particular members or bodies to tasks, for example by making one person or body to test and include the new codes and patches in the source code of the product.

Debunking the Myths, Chapter 3, exposes the common myths people propose about OSS. The author stresses that home-grown software is not OSS. A home-grown system is managed and maintained by the home organisation while OSS is managed and maintained by an entire community that normally ranges across international borders. Another myth is the security of OSS. Engard rejects this myth by offering the comparison of Internet Explorer and Firefox. Another myth, the risks associated with OSS is also rejected by the author. She considers that the both proprietary software and OSS attract the same level of risk, but OSS presents less risk because of the higher level of transparency and interoperability with which it is associated.

In Chapter 4, Open Source and Libraries, the author advocates the alignment of libraries and the OS community. Both libraries and the OS community practise the common principles of free access, freedom to use information, and gift culture. Gift culture is giving something without expecting any monetary benefits in return, is a common characteristic between libraries and the OS community. She further presents the reasons for libraries to adopt OSS. Libraries are facing shrinking budgets while OSS offers cost-effective solutions for the development of technological applications. Gift culture, not to expect any monetary benefits in return, is a common characteristic between libraries and the OS community.

Chapters 5 to 11 introduce the readers to OSS applications in a concise but effective way. Case studies are available for every application, which also present the general points of view of the people who were involved in these OSS applications.

Chapter 5, Open Source for Day to Day Operations, gives a brief introduction of OSS options available to perform day-to-day and general operations: Linux as operating system; VirtualBox to use multiple operating systems on a single computer; OpenOffice suite for word-processing, spreadsheet, presentations, etc.; Libstats to collect reference statistics in libraries; and LimeSurvey to conduct polls and surveys. Chapter 6, Open Source Web Access, introduces the reader to open source Web- browsing tools: Firefox, LibX, and Zotero. These tools offer an enhanced and value-added Web experience for library users. Mozilla’s Thunderbird for emailing and Pidgin for instant messaging are also discussed. There are certain OS applications available for media applications. Chapter 7, Open Source Media Application, familiarises us with: GIMP, a suite for photo editing and graphic operations; Scribus for desktop publishing; Audacity for audio editing; CamStudio for screencasting. Audacity may be used to produce podcasts. CamStudio enables us to record videos from our computer screen that may be used to produce tutorials and training materials.

Libraries are developing new roles like Webmasters, etc. Chapter 8, Open Source on the Web, offers a glimpse of some OS applications that are available for the librarians and people who are performing such jobs. Filezilla is an easy-to-use application for file transfer from a local machine to Web server. A concise introduction is also available for content management (CMS) solutions, a major task for libraries in today’s world. Engard discusses Joomla, Drupal, MaiaCMS, and WordPress as content management solutions. Discussion on wikis, an alternative to CMS, is also discussed. Wikis are growing in popularity and enable users to participate in the creation of content.

Libraries are making their collections accessible to wider world through their Web sites. Digital libraries and institutional repositories are entering in the sphere of library users to offer access to full-text information remotely. In chapter 9, Open Sourcing Collections, the author presents OS tools to build digital libraries and institutional repositories. The book introduces us to Greenstone, DSpace, and Kete. Greenstone is an easy-to-use digital library software to build digital libraries on the Web or to distribute data via digital media such as CD-ROM or DVD. DSpace offers an enhanced ability to store various data types and offer remote access to stored content. Kete allows the library to host and moderate the content added by the community members as well as to publish library’s contents.

Libraries, currently, are not only offering digital access to their own collection but also connecting the users to related resources on other Web sites. Libraries offer lists of links on specific topics. Chapter 10, Open Source Research Tools, introduces us to OS applications that may help libraries to support such activities. SubjectPlus and Library à la Carte™ allows library staff to create dynamic subject guides without having any knowledge of Web design or development. The library’s responsibility to teach and train its users about library use, new technologies, research practices, etc is more visible nowadays. This title introduces us to Moodle, an OS course management system which helps to manage course materials, online lectures, research references, etc. Chapter 11, Open Source Library Automation, presents the OS choices for libraries to automate their basic but imperative functions. This book briefly introduces us to a wide range of OS automation solutions including Scriblio, VuFind, Blacklight, SOPAC2, Koha, and Evergreen.

In addition to the 11 chapters, there are three appendices. Appendix 1, provides an OSS Survey that received responses from all over the world. Appendix 2 has Web links cited in the book while Appendix 3 contains additional references.

This book is recommended for staff at all levels within Library and Information Services as well as LIS students studying to become librarians.

Author Details

Muhammad Rafiq
PhD Scholar
Department of Library and Information Science
University of the Punjab

Email: rafiqfsd@hotmail.com

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