May 19, 2008

New group advocates for FOSS in libraries

Author: Susan Linton

A new advocacy group, the Public Software Foundation (PSF), is working to make free and open source software available to local libraries so it can be checked out and used just like a book or video. The premise is simple: hand out one CD and maybe you've taught one person; make it available in a library and perhaps you'll reach hundreds or thousands.

Todd and Karlie Robinson formed the Public Software Foundation last month to provide Linux distributions and to libraries to introduce open source software to those who might not have the opportunity to try it otherwise. The foundation currently has one volunteer in northern Indiana, another in Colorado, and a library request from Taunton, Mass. Other library contacts are in the early stages of discussion as of now as well.

The PSF plans to increase the number of software titles it offers, but currently it provides four Linux distributions -- Edubuntu, Fedora, Knoppix, and Ubuntu -- and the office suite. Each package is composed of the software, a plain-English description, required hardware specification, links to online documentation and support, information about where PSF titles may be obtained, and licensing information. Donation kits include graphics for CD labels and case inserts.

Some additional proposed titles include Debian Multi-Arch, Linux Mint, and PCLinuxOS. The foundation's approval process is a bit informal, but the main criterion for inclusion is usability. The foundation also evaluates the maturity of software projects, the quality of their online documentation and help channels, and the strength of their community backing. Karlie Robinson, chairperson of PSF, says, "For instance, Fedora. Cutting edge usually means no one really knows how things work. However, the Fedora community quickly grasps their technological advances so that everyone can understand and use successfully."

All software available through the PSF is distributed under an Open Source License, meaning "The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale." This basically means it may be freely used and shared by anyone for any reason.

The foundation has an admirable goal, but it has many challenges to overcome. Robinson says that time is her major constraint. It's impossible for the staff to contact even a large percentages of libraries around the world. In addition, face-to-face meetings between members of the same community are more effective when proposing new ideas. Cookie Wolfrom, a system administrator for the Delta County Public Library District in Colorado and technical support liaison for Automation System Colorado Consortium, says, "I have found that meeting and talking with small groups of librarians can be very successful." Thus, the foundation's role is more of a guiding force while much of the actual legwork is conducted by library liaisons who contact and interface with library staff at the local level. Liaisons may be Linux users groups, volunteer organizations, or individuals. Robinson says, "We're actually merging Fedora Ambassador, Ubuntu LoCO, and the Freecycle Local moderator models as the framework, since all three have a level of independence at the local level while still getting support from the community as a whole. I envision my role, for the time being, to be similar to that of a Greg DeK or Max Spevack at Fedora: Give a general direction, but allow those who participate to do most of the driving."

Another challenge has been finding an economical and practical method of getting the software into the hands of library collection managers (the generic term many libraries use to refer to the person responsible for acquisitions) or curators. Webpath Technologies, an Internet technology service and digital media publishing company, is donating disks and providing low-cost shelf-ready packages of approved distributions and popular software through the Web site or through no-cost donation kits. While it's unlikely that a collection manager will be interested in downloading software and burning CDs, library liaisons in areas with tight budgets may find this option appealing. With this latter method, volunteers can create packages of titles and associated materials and donate them to libraries. Robinson said libraries can also write to the foundation requesting materials to receive packages at no cost.

The education of library collection managers is another key issue, Robinson says. "We knew from the start that the concept of open source software would be new territory for library staff and patrons. We also knew from our initial inquiries that library staff would be less receptive to software if we weren't clear about where to send patrons for tech support. To address these concerns, we've been careful about establishing a standard format for all titles that includes plain English descriptions as well as where to find help. For some libraries, there will be a local PSF volunteer to assist with questions, but the bigger picture is getting new users accustom to community support. Help may come through a wiki, forum post, a LUG, or any number of resources -- all of which were created with the user's success in mind," Robinson says.

Community efforts

The Public Software Foundation is in its infancy and needs the help of community members to bring its offerings to their libraries. The foundation recommends that a group interested in advocating open source in its area and making it available to everyone have a crew chief to oversee the operation and be the contact for the foundation, local liaisons, and the libraries. The crew chief may wish to lead library liaisons or act in that capacity as well. These positions have the autonomy to execute local tasks, but must offer only approved software while representing PSF. These positions can be held by anyone with a basic understanding of Linux and open source software.

Wolfrom has been consulting with libraries in her region on migrating to an Open Source Integrated Library System in order to save money and avoid vendor lock-in. She feels strongly open source solutions can help libraries save money to invest in books, and in her travels she's been able to convince some libraries to install on at least one public computer so that patrons can try it. Wolfrom is "happy to see more and more libraries starting to embrace open source software." When she heard of the Public Software Foundation, she says she wanted to help out. "I am excited by the potential for combining libraries and open source; this is exactly what I've been promoting to librarians throughout the state of Colorado. I would really like to help with this project, and I see myself within this year traveling throughout the state trying to get the word out."

Stephen Vermette, Education Technology Reference Librarian at the Taunton Public Library in Massachusetts, says, "Being the first public library to receive PSF's software, I am honored and interested in obtaining additional information in order to pass the word along to surrounding libraries."

For the next year, Robinson says, "Our goals are actually quite modest. While open source software isn't quite the unknown it once was, we're anticipating a slow start." However, they hope to "have at least 12 US and at least two overseas libraries with PSF titles on their shelves" by their first birthday.


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