Open Minds, Open Books, Open Source

Libraries are starting to embrace technologies developed in-house or by other universities. Will they eventually replace third-party vendors?
February 19, 2008

As card catalogs once gave way to computers, it might be time for another paradigm shift at libraries.

Last month, a survey by Marshall Breeding, director for innovative technologies and research at Vanderbilt University's library, revealed a measure of discord over the options available to librarians for automating their electronic catalogs and databases, software called integrated library systems. Most libraries use solutions from third-party commercial vendors, paying up-front fees and yearly maintenance charges. "Dissatisfaction and concern prevail," Breeding wrote, "yet some companies maintain exceptional levels of satisfaction from the libraries that use their products."

So librarians aren't exactly reaching for their torches and pitchforks. Still, some libraries, fed up with software that doesn't fully meet their needs, have decided to take matters, figuratively, into their own hands. With a bit of grant money and some eager developers, institutions have begun creating their own open-source solutions that are fully customizable, free for others to use and compatible with existing systems. The result has been a whole crop of projects that, when combined, could serve as a fully integrated, end-to-end open-source solution for academic libraries, covering the interface, search mechanism, database system, citations and even course management.

Meanwhile, the increasing availability of open-source software has nudged some libraries to reconsider the role of their in-house technology gurus, and to wonder whether it would make more long-term financial sense to hire more developers than to continue paying for products over which they have limited control.

"If we truly want to remain relevant, it’s what we have to do,” said Susan Gibbons, an associate dean in the University of Rochester library system.

The code4lib conference, for example, has seen its popularity grow from some 75 attendees in 2006 to a cap of 200 this year, according to Andrew Nagy, who is on the technology management staff at Villanova University's library.

Along with developing their own tools, academic libraries are rethinking which tools they really need.

At Rochester, for example, a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is helping to fund the eXtensible Catalog (XC) project, a Web 2.0-oriented library catalog interface that is still in development. The software, according to its Web site, will "provide more intuitive access to resources, a customizable interface to include Web 2.0 functionality, and seamless connections to other web applications, such as learning management systems, that a library may already be using." The partnership extends to other universities, each working on a different piece of what they hope will become a full open-source alternative.

Another project that's currently in beta is VuFind, a project that originated at Villanova with Nagy as the lead developer. "We just weren’t happy with our library catalog, the Web component, and we wanted to be able to have our own library catalog that we could customize, change around ... without having to deal with a vendor," he said.

Villanova's library director previously worked as a systems administrator, so Nagy received the green light for his project (without an external grant). It wasn't until six months into the project that his team decided to take it open source, he said -- a decision that allowed the university to work with developers at other institutions and test the software on different platforms. At the moment, the university continues to operate the third-party Voyager system while funding the VuFind Web catalog. But eventually, Nagy said, the hope is to move to an all-open-source solution and invest more in in-house developers, a shift that could serve to save costs in the long run.

Open-source Web catalogs like VuFind tend to look a lot like search engines that people who work online are already used to. VuFind (and, eventually, XC) adds Web 2.0 functionality on top of the traditional interface, allowing users to e-mail search results and save results to their favorites. One feature Nagy said was a high priority for library developers is "faceted navigation," which allows users to drill down and refine searches by, for example, author, topic or format. The VuFind interface is also completely compatible with the open-source citation management tool Zotero, a plugin for the Firefox browser.

Another piece of the puzzle is federated search: an engine that sifts through numerous different databases for each user query. One tool being developed at Oregon State University, LibraryFind, combines federated search with a simple, Google-like interface that lets users sort by relevance, save items, refine searches and view electronic documents.

“The more we could simplify the experience, the better people reacted to it," said Jeremy Frumkin, the Gray Family Chair for Innovative Library Services. He said the challenge was often to refine the interface to make it more user-friendly, and to aid as much as possible in the "discovery" portion of the research process.

There's a “growing disconnect in what we’re being provided from commercial companies ... and what libraries are starting to realize they need,” he said, but libraries aren't blameless either: He believes they need to communicate more effectively the features and functionality they require. And just because it's open source doesn't mean it's better. Soon enough, Gibbons suggested, open source innovations might spur competition and eventually result in more and better choices in the consumer market.


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