Open++: Dispatches from the OSS Frontlines — Access 2008

Keynote: Karen Schneider
Community Librarian
Equinox Software (Evergreen)

Karen Schneider on “Open++: Dispatches from the OSS Frontlines”. Karen’s job is to travel around Georgia talking with libraries around the state helping them with the Evergreen installation.


We’ve seen lots of open source software in libraries in recent years. Tons of experimentation has taken place, lots of it by and for libraries.
Pines had a need for a consortial catalog for 270+ libraries across a large state. Some vendors said they couldn’t do it; others offered far-too-expensive options. In 2004, a development team started building their own ILS. In 2006, Evergreen was launched in 200 libraries. Version 1.4 is imminent (first couple weeks of October). They have kept a tight development cycle.
Key point: With Evergreen, librarians are once again writing their own ILS. This is analogous to what happened about 30 years ago (for example, with the Melvyl catalog, built at home in pre-vendor times). In recent decades, libraries strayed from path of doing their own stuff and went down the vendor path. Now, we’ve come full circle and libraries are once again starting to take control of their own destiny again.
Network effect has been huge (combined with general state of economy and price of fuel): holds and interlibrary loans within the Evergreen system is growing exponentially.
There are now 275 libraries in PINES. Other consortia include those in British Columbia (Sitka) and Michigan. There’s also an academic installation — Indiana University — live now. In development are other consortia, including an academic one. But these are just the “known” sites — it’s open source, so many other K-12 schools likely use it.

Observations about open source and libraries

  1. Documentation is critical — must be a formal requirement. Documentation doesn’t come easy. Evergreen got a Mellon grant to write it — but that’s not the normal path.
  2. Trickle-up Engagement: Originally, it was thought that libraries would automatically know how to “do open source.” However, that turns out not to be the case. Libraries need some help getting started — getting re-engaged in the software development process.
  3. Gift economy: Community around Evergreen is small, skilled, and dedicated — a smaller community of developers than they initially expected. People contribute actively, though not as broadly.
  4. A surprising revelation: end-users are all alike – but library workflows are unique. Users are much more similar than libraries. Evergreen has a very flexible back end. This turns out to have been a very good idea. Flexibility in the workflows is critical.

Features of Openness

Open has several positive features. Communication becomes distributed — no longer vendor-contact, it’s many people looking, many people fixing. Many eyes makes a better product, with many hands to fix them. The network effect is significant on the library side: the more libraries participate, the better. Local issues and requests lead to global improvements. Customization is the user side of back-end flexibility. Fosters partnerships — there’s no need for secrecy, keeping vendors in the dark about local implementation, and libraries in the dark about vendor plans.
Cost — it’s not necessarily cheaper to go open source, but it moves the costs around from licensing to updating/maintenance.