December 15, 2003

Getting open source into public libraries

Author: Bob Kerr

Editor's note: Bob Kerr has tackled an important task: Making open source software available through local libraries. He's been extremely
successful at doing it. But that's not all. He has also written a Howto
on the subject so that others can follow his lead. We invited Bob to do a commentary on the subject for NewsForge, and he has graciously accepted. If you are looking for a way to help spread open source software to those still on the wrong side of the digital divide, Bob writes with intimate knowledge of one way you can do just that.

Why are open source CDs not available in libraries for borrowing? The answer is because no one has asked librarians why.

I have been spending the last six months working to get the first open source or free software CDs available in libraries as lending CDs. I have now succeeded; 415 public libraries out of a possible 507 have accepted them in Scotland.

The first reaction from the open source community is usually "Great, I'll burn a whole set of CDs and donate them to my local library." This is completely and utterly the wrong thing to do. It is wrong because you will not be taking into account the responsibilities libraries have for their patrons. The CDs you burn will have to be thrown away. You will also be trying to force libraries to do what you want them to do, and nobody likes that.

How did I do it, then? I asked librarians, "Why can't you accept them?" Then I listened to what they said.

A matter of trust

Their first reason is, "They can't trust the public." I was insulted at first, but when someone at my local Linux User Group came up to me and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if I made a CD with a virus on it and donated it to the library?" I realized the libraries were absolutely correct. This idiot in my local group proved the case for them.

Librarians do not and should not have any liability for their patrons? computers, for damage or for technical support. I'm sure that most of you have installed some software on a friend?s computer, only to have him come back and ask you for more help later on. Librarians not only have no interest in doing this; they actively want to make sure that they do not need to do it. They have many more important things to do.

Open source projects can deliver new versions of software almost daily. It can cost a library a lot of money to catalogue items. If it were to cost a library $40 to catalogue each CD from a cover of a magazine, then they will quite rightly say, "Go and buy the magazine."

The last reason is that librarians don't know what the software is. How many times have you received a piece of software from a friend telling you that it is the best in the entire world, and you have not bothered to install it? Librarians have no interest in spending time analyzing software to find out if it has any worth. They don't read all the books they are given, but they judge if the books have long-term value and social worth. A book on household plants may be of more use to their patrons than one on virtual brain surgery.

Some libraries in San Francisco go to the effort of removing the CDs that come with books because of the reasons stated above.

Light at the end of library row

This sounds all very depressing, but it is not. All it is a problem to be solved, and we must help solve it with them. It has nothing to do with the software and everything to do with presentation and supply.

The librarians to whom I have talked are very enthusiastic about free software, but there are no solutions for their problems. I gave them my solutions, and they became very interested.

It's not the license. Or is it?

When I mention GPL (General Public License), their eyes glaze over. When I mention copyleft, they instantly understand and smile. When I tell them that I have not, and never had, the intention of getting this software installed on any library compute, they are relieved. That is their choice, not yours. When I mention that this is a major release of the software and that they will not need to consider it further for a long time, they accept it has long-term value. When I tell or show them how good the software is, they can understand its value. Not because of the software itself, but what it can enable their patrons to do.

When I point out that the big liability statement on the back of the DVD cover, they know that they are not responsible for any technical support and that the library cannot be sued by anyone, solving another problem.

The fact that it is in a DVD cover means that they do not need to buy special furniture to hold normal CD cases. Did you know that librarians hate normal CD Jewel cases? (Why? They break all the time and need to be replaced). A DVD box can be placed on a shelf. There are also a lot of libraries that do not have a computerized catalogue and can then put a bit of paper on the inside of the cover to be rubber-stamped. The cover can be in exactly the same format as a normal book -- displaying what it is, the author, ISBN number, and -- most importantly -- licenses and the liability statement. The CD itself should not have a printed paper label (that can be made or written on by the public) but, like a music CD, have a unique look that is easily identifiable.

This is what I offered the libraries of Scotland. They accepted it in droves.

You will probably say it is easier to download it. The lending CD is for those people who cannot get access to the Internet, cannot afford it, don't know how to do it. In Scotland, approximately 85% of people are still on dialup; it will be a long time before they can afford to pay for or get access to broadband. This makes it very difficult to download 60MB of OpenOffice.org 1.1, let alone 180MB for the source code. Everyone has access to their local library.

So libraries are happy, but free software/open source CD vendors are not. They believe it may destroy their market. The answer to this is, "No, it will not."

In Edinburgh, there are 26 libraries for 500,000 people. Libraries will only be able to hold a copy of the software, which is valid for a year and is a major version release. The appearance of a library doesn't make all the bookshops disappear. People want their own copy -- and one that hasn't been handled by lots of other people. Libraries will need replacements in the special format that they need. This is a unique market, and a big one.

The same goes for distributions. There is a big fixed market in libraries for distributions that come with books, yet people will still want their own copy.

A distribution such as Debian may give certain CD vendors a preferred status. They only get a preferred status if they follow the rules of the distribution and donate part of their profit back to the project.

Having free software CDs in libraries will not be a threat to business models. It can easily take six weeks to catalogue and deliver a CD to library shelves. Compare that to Bittorent, and you will see what I mean. However, it does get to places and to groups of people who would normally not know about the software.

Looking ahead

Going into the future, I see the huge amount of power that magazines with CDs on their covers now have. With a slight change of cover design, they have the ability to supply the entire library system of the UK with one donation through their readers.

They must, of course, ask libraries what they want. Normal CDs on magazines are useless to libraries because they don't have a specific purpose. A CD like TheOpenCD or Freeduc 1.4.1, which is sponsored by UNESCO and UNICEF, does.

Would magazines donate more than one CD a year? Unlikely, because that is not what their readers want. Would the magazines club together and donate different CDs at the same time? Yes, they could, because it would be beneficial to all of them.

Should I be angry at San Francisco libraries not allowing CDs in their library? No. Forcing anyone to do something they don't want to do just breeds resentment. The problem facing the libraries is one of money. They cannot afford to spend resources on maintaining all the CDs. If I donated to them a computer not connected to any network, with a very simple, easy-to-use interface such as TIVO, the only purpose of which is to copy specific CD content which the library has control, it may be a solution.

They may still resist copying software, but it would allow them to give out copies of free documents at minor expense.

On the CD I donated, I also included the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states, in Article 26, "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages ..."

It also says, in Article 27, "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits ..."

The reason I added the document is because it changes the social value of the CD. It proves that by adding a good free program with a valuable document, it combines the value of both the documents and the software.

It is difficult to sell free software CDs in computer shops. It is much easier to give librarians the choice and ability to lend them out in libraries. This can be beneficial to them and us.

After working on this project, I have gained respect for librarians. Supplying information in an unbiased manner is extremely difficult. They have also been sharing information for thousands of years before the birth of free software. Libraries are presently helping in a myriad of different ways in many more areas than just computers.

If you are in a library, find the computer section and view the proportion of computer books there are compared to other subjects. The free software movement is still learning to do what libraries have done for years, so be polite. Listen to them.

If you're nearby, please see the Edinburgh or West Lothian online catalog for copies of OpenOffice (1.1).

One final note: I applaud and welcome donations of computers and software from large companies such as Microsoft to the libraries of the world. The social value of these donations is important and should not be frowned upon.

I hope those companies will treat our donations with the same respect. I hope, too, that they will also understand and acknowledge the importance of impartiality of libraries, and of keeping a balanced and unbiased presentation of knowledge and resources.

Category:

  • Open Source
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