A Thought Experiment

From: Joseph Lucia <joseph.lucia_at_nyob>
Date: Tue, 6 Nov 2007 17:01:12 -0500
To: NGC4LIB_at_listserv.nd.edu
  My reply to Eric's message has spurred me on to share a few other thoughts that have been kicking around in my head about the success prospects for open source applications in 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.

  I have initiated a number of conversations within the mid-Atlantic region about the very real potential for a shift of those investments from commercial software support (and staff technical support for commercial products) to a collaborative support environment for open source applications facilitated by our regional network (in this case Palinet, where, in the interest of full disclosure, I currently serve as board president).

   It is frightening for many to contemplate the leap to open source, but if there were a clear process and well-defined path, with technical partners able to provide assistance through the regional networks, I suspect some of the hesitancy to make this move, even among smaller libraries, might dissipate quickly.  Within Palinet, for instance, we have a small regional public library system that has successfully made the transition to Koha and has been able to re-direct funds that used to go into software support to local initiatives.  There's also a publlic library that has transitioned its public computing environment to Linux, at considerable savings and with reduced support & acquisition costs for technology.  The success models are there and developing best practice frameworks and implementation support methods that will scale will not be rocket science.

   These are small test cases but I think they prove the concept.  Evergreen is clearly a project on a much larger scale that is working. And it seems to be driven by the same economies I am trying to describe here. I look  at my own technology budget and think about how much we expend annually for inferior commercial software.  Then I ask myself what if I could find even just a handful of regional partners to pool funds and initiate a support & development consortium for Evergreen (as one obvious choice).  I can easily envision a collaborative group of academic libraries identifying a million dollars of "liberated" software support funds within a year.

   What will it take to break this logjam?  Is it intensive, informed outreach by people like myself to other directors?  Is it credible tech support offerings from organizations such as regional consortia for open source applications?  Is it both of these and more?

   If we look beyond money to personnel, the option looks even better.  Let me suggest some numbers.  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 -- not legacy stuff.  There is not a company in the industry that I know of which has put that much technical effort into product development. With such a cohort of developers working in libraries on library technology needs -- and in light of the creativity and thoughtfulness evident on forums like this one -- I think we would quickly see radical change in the library technology arena. Instead of being technology followers, I venture to say that libraries might once again become leaders.  Let's add to the pool some talent from beyond the U.S. -- say !
 20 libraries in Canada, 10 in Australia, and 10 in the U.K. put staff into the pool.  We've now  got 150 developers in this little start-up.  Then we begin pouring our current software support funds into regional collaboratives.  Within a year or two, we could be re-directing 10s of millions of dollars into regional technology development partnerships sponsored by and housed within the regional consortia, supporting and extending the work of libraries.  The potential for innovation and rapid deployment of new tools boggles the mind.  The resources at our disposal in this scenario dwarf what any software vendor in our small application space is ever going to support. And, as is implicit in all I've said, the NGC is just the tip of the iceberg.

   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.

   Let me add one more point.  Libraries are committed to the notion of the "commons."  Libraries are in fact one of the last best hopes for the preservation of the intellectual commons.  That value system should extend to the intellectual work we do on our access systems.  We should reclaim the domain of library technology from the commercial and proprietary realms and actualize is as part of our vision of the commons. I think there's a clear path to that end.  We are also congenital collaborators.  Can you think of any other group of institions that share their stuff the way we do through ILL?  So how can we marshal the courage to make open source technology happen in more than a few isolated library environments?

  BTW, we at Villanova are looking seriously at migration module by module over the next year from commercial applications to open source solutions in every area where this is a viable option.  I intend to put my money where my mouth is.  VuFind is the first (necessary) step.

Joe Lucia
University Librarian
Villanova University
Received on Tue Nov 06 2007 - 17:16:25 EST