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Gmane
From: Joseph Lucia <joseph.lucia <at> VILLANOVA.EDU>
Subject: A Thought Experiment
Newsgroups: gmane.culture.libraries.ngc4lib
Date: Tuesday 6th November 2007 22:01:12 UTC (over 10 years ago)
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 impl
 ementation 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 libr
 ary 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
610-519-4290
 
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