BIC BATTLE OF THE LIBRARY SYSTEMS! Guest Speaker Mick Fortune sums up the debate

A BIC event held 28th November 2012
CILIP Building, London

THE MOTION: “Open source is about distributed innovation and will become the dominant way of producing software”

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from man to pig again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”

George Orwell, Animal FarmHeadshot Mick Fortune

The quote came to mind while I listened to Axiell’s Jim Burton trying to interrupt Civica’s Will Blackburn to make a point in favour of Open Source.

Mick Fortune
Mick Fortune

Were you a bit confused? I was. It seems that everyone is open and offering essentially the same services and all – as Jim appeared to suggest – almost for free. What struck me most were the similarities of the two offers – at the technological level at least.

Nick (Dimant of PTFS Europe) told us about the (some free and some paid for) services that PTFS offer in support of OS. Jim (Burton of Axiell) told us that it doesn’t matter which you buy – just to make sure you get what you need – a view echoed by Paula (Keogh of Capita).

Both of them reassuringly emphasised elements of the other’s offer – Nick stressed PTFS’ support – answering the concerns about OS made by a potential buyer with what sounded like pretty standard sales responses about their support offer. (Nick insisted at this point that most Open Source solutions would include support from a commercial company like PTFS). Jim attempted to out-‘open’ Nick by talking about three open characteristics – standards, APIs and source. At times it was difficult to decide who was on which side of the argument.

Perhaps that’s partly because we had mostly academics supporting OS and mostly public library suppliers representing proprietary. Maybe what we were really seeing here was more evidence of the growing divide between the two communities? Dave (Parkes of Staffordshire University) pronouncing himself comfortable with handling the risks that Will had identified might cause concern for public libraries – but I found myself wondering how much his library would be prepared to pay to get him back if we had kidnapped him this afternoon. His expertise and ready grasp of what are often quite complex technical and operational issues may not concern him – but it may also make him the single point of failure if things go wrong. It seemed pretty clear to me that the risks perceived by those who work in public libraries have little echo among the academic community.

Everyone appears to support Open Source, both as a concept and in practical terms. Personally I’m not sure if an open API is really as open as it sounds – opening up one system does not always guarantee that the resulting solution can be transferred to another. But the picture isn’t very different when you look at OS. There are different OS systems out there – and guess what – they don’t all work the same way either.

Everyone also agreed about the need to ‘define our terms’ carefully when we embark on discussions like this one. Open source – like RFID – can be many different things.

You were probably expecting an RFID perspective on OSS? Well you won’t be disappointed – but as I said at the RFID conference there is life beyond RFID…

It seems to me that OS is a very difficult concept to pin down. It was more straightforward when I first encountered it in an LMS context in Canada in 2009. Back then even then the ‘traditional’ proprietary suppliers were feeling nervous about the ‘threat’ of OS to their revenues.

Librarianship tends to attract people with a vocation for public service – even in the universities J – and such people often tend toward the liberal end of the political spectrum.

So perhaps the greatest triumph of OS has been to align itself with liberal ideals. As Andrew hinted, OS has – for some – become almost synonymous with ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ – and maybe I should also add ‘social’ after Dave’s presentation. All very positive and laudable ideals in my book.

As we have heard, by way of a response – or perhaps in the hope of some of that eco-friendly OS shine rubbing off – many ‘commercial’ suppliers have begun to ‘open up’ some aspects of their systems. Some – like OCLC and Capita, companies that began as co-operatives – have found this easier than others.

But it’s important to keep remembering that “open” isn’t free – at least not in the financial sense. Plenty of commercial companies are earning a living from support and development – just as the ‘commercial’ suppliers do. One of them – mentioned by Nick – is Catalyst for whom Chris Cormack (one of the original developers of Koha (pronounced Cor- Ha) works. I met Chris recently while on a trip to New Zealand.

And those developing the code – whether for a commercial company or as a library employee are being paid, and using resources – maybe even heat and light? The costs just aren’t as visible.

We’re back to defining our terms again. What exactly is ‘free’? What do we really mean by ‘open’?

For academics the appeal of working co-operatively to develop solutions to manage the virtual world is obvious. A look at the Kuali OLE start page demonstrates that predilection very clearly. No circulation or cataloguing yet (or possibly ever?) – the need simply isn’t so urgent any more.

Koha and Evergreen have proved themselves to be very effective in providing the LMS in academic environments but the jury still appears to be out on larger scale implementations in public libraries (with the possible exception of the Pines consortium in Georgia).

The argument may not be a simple clash of systems – or even of ideologies. I think the key issue here is not so much the potential of the systems model but rather the sustainability, support and development of the business model.

The kind of library you work in, what expertise you have access to, and whether your governing body (a council, learned society, or academic institution) feels comfortable with the idea of support being either in the hands of a single company – or a changing group of enthusiasts all over the world (as they might view it) will all have a bearing on Open Source LMS’ suitability for any given implementation.

(An Open Source library I spoke with on Monday made it clear that their main motive for using Open Source was the chance to use remote hosting to free them from the constraints of their council IT department.)

They’re also still working out governance issues for their newly minted consortium.

And governance is another area that needs careful consideration in any co-operative venture.

When Chris explained to me the way in which Koha manages and releases base code it was very impressive. No real cause for concern there but when it comes to changes I keep hearing that adding wishes to lists in OS world is not much more effective than doing it through the many LMS user groups. Finding someone to make changes can take forever – unless you pay – but then that’s not very different to a commercial model is it? Perhaps LMS providers make these changes free of charge? No, I didn’t think so?

But today’s motion is about distributed innovation – and so, inevitably, we come to the RFID piece…

The question I have been asking Open Source advocates for some time now is “Innovation – how does that work then?”

You see – although I understand that the development of Open Source is driven by its users – I worry that those users may not be keeping up with new developments in the industry. In RFID and NFC there have been changes taking place over the last two years now that will potentially revolutionise the way in which users interact with their physical collections and with other tangible assets in the future. It’s been a struggle at times, but by engaging with the ‘commercial’ RFID and LMS companies we (BIC) have reached agreement on some key issues that will help this transition take place in a standards-based, hopefully less traumatic way. (And in case you’re missing the message here it’s “JOIN BIC!”).

But the one community absent from all the discussions and debate has been Open Source. It seems that since everyone owns it, everyone appears to assume that someone else will think about the challenge of new technologies. When I ask OS support companies like Nick’s about their plans for developing support for the new RFID standards and protocols they very reasonably tell me that they’ll do it when their clients ask for it.

Which will probably be when they see it working in a non-OS library.

Nick talked about the charges made by proprietary suppliers for SIP 2.0 (which Will dismissed as ‘legacy’) but ironically SIP 2.0 may well have run its course since SIP 3.0 was released early in 2012 and passed on to NISO soon afterwards. So currently SIP 2.0 is unsupported and may be replaced by a revised NISO version. Yet the OS community appears to be unaware of this change.

That, for me, is a potential downside of OS. Rather than promoting innovation – it seems sometimes to delay it.

But it’s not all roses with the commercial suppliers either. Many of them wait for the demands from third parties to develop more…wait for it…OPEN systems to reach breaking point before they will reluctantly stop selling proprietary solutions and engage with new initiatives – like the Library Communications Framework recently launched by BIC. I’ve visited three major LMS suppliers this year – at their invitation – to discuss what LCF is and how they should respond to it. All said they 100% supported it – but none of them have done anything about it – least of all join in the project. (Capita and Axiell are actively supporting this however).

So one way to make proprietary providers pay more attention – or for OS to gain an advantage might be to grasp the opportunity first. My colleague Lori Ayre is actively working with the US Evergreen community as we speak to try and persuade them to do just that.

So in conclusion…

Is this really a defining moment for different business models?

Which offers the best hope of developing new technologies to produce sustainable model for the future?

You decide.

If I had a vote – I’d probably spoil my paper.


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