June 17, 2002

Quiet revolution: Librarians teach and preach Open Source software at convention

- By Ben Ostrowsky -
Fresh from a
victory against Internet filtering
, many librarians are celebrating
and demonstrating Free Software that can automate a public library for
under $1,000, organize information into Web portals, and manipulate data in
arcane formats.
Librarians have always understood the value of sharing information. The
hacker librarians in Atlanta for the American Library Association's annual
convention, which continues through Tuesday, have been living out their
creed by developing freely distributable software and teaching others how
to use it. Their peers -- human search engines at the public library,
scholarly bibliographers in academia, and the rarefied ranks of
competitive intelligence researchers -- have arrived by the busload for
sessions on Linux, BSD, and Open Source tools.

The host of Friday's hands-on tutorial, Emory University Library's Martin
Halbert, says he encourages his staff to look first for Open Source
software because "it's philosophically aligned with the values of
academia." And it doesn't merely save the library money; it
brings in more money. Grant funding to develop metaScholar, a toolkit for
describing scholarly information, was contingent upon sharing the results.
Halbert said the Andrew W. Mellon
insisted that "if you want one of these grants, you'd
better do Open Source."

When public libraries need money from the city government for books, staff,
and software, they often have to compete with the dogcatcher. Linux
appeals to some librarians simply because they'd rather buy books than
licenses. "We were in desperate straits with our budget, and Open Source
bailed us out," says John Brice, director of
the Meadville Public
in Pennsylvania. His library's Web server runs FreeBSD, its
firewalls use OpenBSD, and his own desktop machine runs Mandrake.

"We've been acting as a money laundry for software vendors, and I'm
getting sick of it," agrees Jeff Huestis of Washington University in St. Louis.
Most library software vendors offered a blank stare or a flat "no" when
asked if their products were Open Source, but some are beginning to
realize that Linux is cost-effective. When Haywood County Schools in North Carolina
insisted on a Linux-friendly version of the catalog used in the district's 25
libraries, Follett Software Company
did something unusual: rather than lose a customer, Follett ported
its catalog to Linux. A competitor, Geac Library Systems, has made
sure its new Vubis system runs on Linux as well.

That's not going far enough, according to the developers of Koha, a catalog created by Katipo Communications as a bespoke
library system for the Horowhenua
Library Trust
. Horowhenua asked the Wellington, New
Zealand, company to write a library catalog when Y2K loomed over its
legacy system. Katipo convinced the library to make it Free Software, and
Koha (the name is Maori for "gift") is now installed on four continents.
Pat Eyler, a Free Software devotee since he saw the GNU Manifesto in 1991,
acts as the Kaitiaki ("guardian") of the project. He says he sees the
alliance as inevitable: "Librarians bring a level of activism and
commitment that rivals that of Free Software hackers. They also bring a
set of skills that we don't do all that well at: classification,
information architecture, searching, and user interaction. I think a
blending of librarianship with hacking will be good for both communities."

And blend they did. On Sunday afternoon, hacker librarians attended a
session called "How To Automate Your Library For Under $1000." The star
of the show was Greenstone, a
digital library creation suite that turns a ragtag menagerie of documents
in various formats into an easy-to-use collection that can run on a
standalone laptop in a Ugandan village's information center. UNESCO distributes Greenstone CDs with
information about farming, animal husbandry, economic development, and
other topics to help people in developing areas improve their lives.
Naturally, it handles Unicode gracefully, so material in Arabic, Chinese,
and other non-European languages work as well as English. It runs on
Linux, BSD, and MS Windows 3.1 or later. The software was developed under
the GPL at the University of
in New Zealand. When asked why Free Software for libraries
often has a Kiwi provenance, professor Ian Witten explained: "We do stuff
for fun, and this is a lot of fun."

Library science departments are beginning to teach and use Linux and
Open Source tools. Proprietary software vendors often gladly give away their products
to hook young librarians on closed systems. But "we don't want our
students to just be customers. We want them to influence the direction of
the technology they work with," said Shawn Collins, an instructor at the
University of Tennessee's library
school. "Putting an Open Source catalog up for the school's own library
would be the best example. It's important to show them that there are
alternatives that work and are under budget." The school, he hopes, will
soon teach novice librarians to use Koha.

Recommended reading: Other Open Source software librarians love

The Open Source Systems for
site keeps tabs on notable projects. Here are a few of the
most popular and powerful tools librarians use:

iVia helps librarians catalog
the best of the Internet cooperatively, building collections like InfoMine without all the junk a Google
search throws at you. iVia suggests author, title and subject headings
based on the content of a Web page, then lets a librarian make an expert

MARC.pm is a Perl module for
manipulating records in an arcane but perennial format designed in the
punch card era. The MARC
(Machine-Readable Cataloging) standard allows librarians to share
bibliographic records instead of recataloging every book they add to the

allows librarians to set up a portal to online databases, the library's
catalog, lists of bestselling and recently purchased books, and anything
else they can get their hands on. Users can then change the portal to
suit their needs and access their creation from any browser.

Prospero sends
magazine articles from library to library in response to a patron's
request. Instead of paying international telephone rates to fax the
latest findings on cancer treatments across the globe, librarians use
Prospero (or its proprietary cousin Ariel, with which it plays well) to
send the document online. The end user can then use a Web browser to pick
up the article she requested.

WIBS (Windsor Internet Booking
System) settles arguments over the ever-popular Internet PCs available in libraries by booking computers for specified time periods. Librarians can see at a glance which
computers are available and who has overstayed his time slot.


  • Open Source
Click Here!