My Vision for an Open-Source Library

Those of you who have been reading this blog for any length of time will already know that I am a fairly outspoken open-source advocate. This post delves into a topic that most people are uncomfortable with. To begin, last week I was reflecting on the job that we have done in the library so far this year. The feedback from teachers and administrators has been mostly positive, although there is always room for improvement. I realized, though, that there was no one area where our library is necessarily outstanding when compared to all the other school, public, and academic libraries. Don’t get me wrong, the library staff and I work very hard to make it the best possible resource we can for students and staff, but what stands as putting us head and shoulders above other libraries? I do not settle for mediocre; it is not my nature. After spending a few days thinking about it, I had an epiphany. I wanted to transform the library into one that is completely open-source. To my knowledge, there is no library in TN that is strictly open-source, without exception. This includes everything from the programs to the operating system to the integrated library system. I compiled a list of every public and academic library in the state of TN, as well as at least 1 school library from each district. I am slowly making my way through the list. I am finding, though, that it is very likely that ours will be the first library in the state of TN to make the complete transition if I can muster the necessary support from stakeholders. When I ask the librarians if they use any open-source technology, I unfortunately have received many answers along the lines of “What’s that?” or “You need to talk to the tech person.” I have not discovered 1 library in the first dozen that I have been able to call that uses any open-source technology. For most libraries, it is the standard combination of Microsoft Windows (usually XP), Microsoft Office for productivity, Internet Explorer for web browsing because it comes with the computer, and a proprietary ILS. I still have many libraries to contact, but the landscape does not look overly promising yet. Most librarians and library staff that I have talked to do not even know what it is, let alone why they should use it. The farthest that most have gone is using Mozilla Firefox because someone told them it works better than Internet Explorer (In case you were wondering, it does. Stop using Internet Explorer.).

As passionate as I am about the open-source movement, I realize that there are times when a comparable solution isn’t available from open-source technology. For me, those times are few and far between, but I would be willing to accept proprietary solutions when necessary. For an explanation of the difference between open-source and proprietary software, see the third paragraph of this post about how open-source software can benefit churches. To make sure that this vision of the open-source library is even an option, I needed to make sure that all of our needs could be met by the library. So, what are our needs? Students need to be able to find books online, place holds, renew books, etc… Students need to be able to use basic productivity software for word processing and presentation creation. Students need to have access to the Internet for research and exploration. Students need to be able to log into the computer with a unique username and be able to turn files into their teacher’s online drop boxes through the district’s Active Directory server. Really, most of what we do revolves around different aspects of those needs and they can all be met using open-source technology. There is a stable, mature open-source program to catalog our books; Koha can be run on either a Debian or an Ubuntu Linux server, which would not be difficult to setup. Students could use Open Office for their productivity needs and they already use Mozilla Firefox to access the Internet (I disabled IE and am in the process of also adding Chromium as another option). The last requirement is a little bit more tricky since the Active D server is Windows based, but there are detailed directions on how to authenticate students using Active D in Ubuntu here and here.

Before I can plan how to go forward, I need to make an honest assessment of the open-source landscape and how I use open-source technology.

I use the following program on a daily basis.

I sometimes use:

  • OpenOffice for productivity.
  • Ubuntu 9.10 and Edubuntu as an operating system (I have to run it as a Live CD as I am not allowed to change the operating system on my employer’s computers.)
  • VirtualBox for Virtualization, which is running one operating system inside of another. An example is running Ubuntu Linux in a window in Windows XP.

Proprietary (either free or cost) solutions that I use.

  • Alexandria – This is the integrated library system (ILS) that our district uses to automate the library.
  • Avast antivirus (Free, not opensource)
  • CPS by einstruction for creating interactive questioning activities (Free, but requires very expensive remotes)
  • Examview and Edusoft for test creation and data tracking (Prices vary – both features come with our district’s subscription to the Edusoft data tracking suite)
  • Google Docs, Contacts, and Calendar (Free, not opensource)
  • iTunes for iPod Touch application management (Free, not opensource)
  • Jing for screencasting (Basis is free, pro is $15/yr)
  • Lavasoft Ad-Aware (Free, not opensource)
  • Microsoft Office (I still find Microsoft Excel 2003 to be the hands down best spreadsheet editing program on the market. Microsoft Office has a price tag to match its usefulness though.)
  • NetSupport 10 to monitor student work.
  • Revo Uninstaller (Free, not opensource)
  • Many free online services (Free, not opensource)

Areas I personally need to try to be more open-source:

  • Productivity – I need to abandon Microsoft Office for personal use. I still need to use it to demonstrate things to students as it is the program that is on all the students’ computers.
  • Screencasting – I make a lot of video tutorials for my students and staff using Jing. I just downloaded the open-source CamStudio and plan to try it out as a replacement.
  • Music management – I have had to use iTunes to setup and manage my libraries 32 iPod Touch, but I am planning on switching to the open-source Songbird; Mozilla is a very respectable company that puts out some of my most used programs (Firefox and Thunderbird).
  • Library Automation – I am currently lobbying the powers that be in my district to allow me to pilot Koha, an open-source integrated library system that could replace Alexandria. I really do not like Alexandria, so as soon as I get the go ahead, I want to move forward with this.
  • Operating System – I am very impressed with Windows 7 and I still really like Mac OS X, but to be a model to my students, I am now dual-booting with Ubuntu 9.10.

If open-source technology is able to meet all of my needs, which are much more demanding than the average teacher and student in the district, then I have every confidence that the students’ needs would be met. So, if open-source technology could meet our needs, then what would we use? Currently, in the library, we have 40 Dell desktops and 35 Dell mini netbooks as well as an iMac server running our library catalog. What I propose is simple, although sure to meet with some resistance. My district was Mac-centric for a long time, and while most of the teachers seem to prefer the Macbook to the Dell Latitude E5500s that many, including myself, are now issued, there is a distinct preference for Windows at the highest levels. From what several people close to the situation told me, there is also a bias against open-source at the highest levels of the technology department. Ubuntu has come a very, very long way since its inception. It is mature, stable, adaptable, and not prone to viruses. It also has a devoted developer community that results in many different useful, educational applications. Ubuntu cannot do everything that Snow Leopard or Windows 7 can, but the same can be said in reverse. An operating system is an intensely personal choice and I can use any of the 3 easily. I would like to install Edubuntu 9.10 (Ubuntu with extra educational applications bundled in) on the Dell desktops and Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the netbooks. Lastly, I would like to replace the aging Alexandria with Koha to manage the online library catalog. I would not recommend any installation that I had not tried and personally felt was worthy of use by my students.

Fully making the switch to open-source technology requires a paradigm shift in the way that we view technology. Technology can be viewed in several ways, similar to the boxes that we put students in. Do we want to value creativity, openness, relationships, and work ethic, or do we only want to value data, test scores, and measurable outcomes? Do we want students to collaborate or to compete? Looking at technology through the lens of capitalism and a society that pits people against each other results in seeing it merely as a competitive tool. In that view, technology is just a means to an end (higher test scores, graduation rates, etc…), not part of the path. As technology becomes more embedded into our lives, a more useful way to look at it is as an extension and reflection of our philosophies of teaching. Embracing open-source is one way to show students that we value openness (anyone can change or contribute to open-source projects), creativity (open-source in its truest sense is the removal of the barriers put in place by proprietary software vendors), cooperation (OpenOffice, for example, allows you to save in any format to play well with other computers), community (open-source projects are driven and supported by communities of users who give back and help each other, whether through contributing code or offering support and advice), and individuality (open-source lets you modify whatever you want however you want) without sacrificing excellence and achievement.

Finally, there will be a learning curve, as there is with any new program. I am proposing that we get everything ready over the summer and introduce the students at orientation when the new school year starts in August. Students are nothing if not adaptable; they have shown me time and again that they can use whatever kind of technology we throw at them once they are trained and get used to it. Last year, I installed Ubuntu on a mobile computer cart in my room. Most of the other computers in the school were Windows XP except for two Mac labs running OS X 10.5. I had some students that would come to me after having used the other two labs; there was an initial discomfort, but once they started, they quickly adapted. After a few weeks, I was mandated to restore the computers to Windows XP because the school district’s credit recovery website was optimized for Internet Explorer, but many students complained when they had to use Windows again. One even said, “How come I don’t have the good system anymore?” Truthfully, there were some that were thankful to see the old faithful Windows logo again, but even they could navigate Linux with relative ease.

This is my vision. What do you think? Any advice?