Earlier this week, Amy and I went to CLA’s speed mentoring session. We met LIS students, new librarians and those considering library school. Almost every time I talked about our move to Evergreen, I was asked what open source is. It seemed like everyone had heard the term and had a vague sense of what it meant, but longed for a more concrete understanding of what all the fuss was about. After giving my (speedy) explanation a few times, I thought I should post an open source cheat sheet here for our members to refer to.
What is Open Source?
The short answer: Open source software allows anyone to see and change the underlying code.
A more complete answer: The code underlying open source software is freely available to anyone who wants to improve or modify it. The result is a community-developed product that’s more secure and stable, and offers a rich set of features.
A little more nuance: Open source software uses an open licensing structure. You know those looooong blocks of fine print that pop up when you install new software? Those are End User License Agreements, and they usually prohibit the user from modifying the software or giving it away (among other things).
Open source software, by definition, requires free redistribution and access to the source code. A complete list of criteria can be found on the Open Source Initiative’s website: http://opensource.org/docs/osd
And this is good because?
Software that is developed by a community has the advantage of having many eyes and hands looking at and working on the product. Security loopholes are spotted and closed quickly and features are developed and released regularly.
In the case of an ILS, the speed at which features are added is particularly good news for our patrons. OPAC tools and toys will be available before they’re obsolete and the library’s primary discovery tool will keep pace with the web. On the staff side, an intuitive interface and a customizable report structure are huge benefits. When one library makes an improvement to their system, that change will be made available to all libraries using the system.
No software it perfect, of course, but open source software gives users more freedom to make (or ask for) the improvements they’d like to see.
Does anyone else use open source software?
Almost everyone does, in some way, shape, or form. Firefox is an open source alternative to Internet Explorer and Open Office is an alternative to Microsoft Office. Both are successful projects with lots of users.
More popular, though, are server-side packages that are used by companies and organizations worldwide. Many websites are hosted on servers running a suite of open source software commonly called LAMP (for Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) and chances are, you’ve visited, shopped on, or worked on a site on a LAMP server.
The move to Evergreen will be a big change. Thanks to the community of open source enthusiasts, programmers, and companies, it will be a change for the better!
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