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Just Do It Part III: How learning a new skill may help offset funding cuts April 13, 2010

Posted by michaelpawlus in Uncategorized.
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Funding for libraries is increasingly in jeopardy with SaveLibraries reporting that Colorado, Ohio, and New Jersey are especially feeling the pinch at the moment.  It is a tragedy that a service as valuable as the public library is facing funding threats that seek to strip away such a core asset from so many communities.  I am in no way making the claim that these funding cuts can be completely or even substantially compensated for by following any ideas listed below but I do feel that there are somethings that will save money and provide a better service and I think in times like these maybe every little bit helps…

Meredith Farkas just gave a presentation at CIL2010 where she has rightly stated that all too often when it comes to tech projects, they are given as add-on projects, heaped onto an already overworked member of staff who receives no reward for their extra time and labor.  I agree.  Libraries ideally should invest in emerging technology librarians or some similar position.  However, right now with budget cuts threatening jobs if a move to open source can free up enough for a salary or too it may be worth the thankless hours of extra work.

In a previous blog I mentioned Koha, which I stand by as an open source catalog that rivals or outperforms a number of proprietary systems.  A move to Koha could save a library money.  However, here I also really want to focus on open source content management systems.  In particular, there has been a lot of attention paid to Drupal lately and I think for good reason.

The first bit to note about Drupal is that it is supported by DreamHost which offers free web hosting for non-profits so this could save libraries in two web-related areas.  The next bit to note is that the SOPAC project is proving that your CMS can actually replace an OPAC.  As a free solution with a large and active developer community and a wide range of modules (including library-specific modules) for customization the question really becomes why aren’t more (or all) libraries moving over to Drupal.

To find an answer one needs to look no further than a lecture that I had to today where a couple of lecturers tried to show five different options for CMS implementation and also tried to examine the disadvantages of the open source option.  Now, I don’t think open source is for everyone but I think New York Public Library proved that open source is for every library.

The disadvantages that these lecturers found were:

1. Open source is not as stable as proprietary:  When will this myth die.  Drupal has been around since 2001, WordPress since 2003, and Joomla since 2005.  They are only getting better and more popular.  These systems are not going anywhere.

2. Open source does not have as many features as proprietary: Drupal has a sea of modules.  As mentioned before, some are specifically for libraries.  The lecturers mentioned link management and application integration as two areas were open source doesn’t compete with proprietary but as can be seen in the last link they do on the library page and even more in the list of general modules.

3. They claim that open source solutions are only for small projects that are one server based.  First, for most libraries a one server solution is probably adequate but once again I didn’t have to look far to find that Drupal can be installed across multiple servers.  In terms of large projects, NYPL has 50,000 nodes.  I can’t imagine most libraries needing even a tenth of that many.  In sum, open source can handle big projects.

What is the reason?  What other reason could there be to not make the move?  Sadly, I think it is just librarians unwilling to be innovative and to take on a new skill like PHP.  However, without open source projects like Drupal I think libraries will never be able to customize the service that they deliver to users and will never be able to keep up with trends.  It has become easier than ever to start and modify a Drupal site and with a little training staff can not only contribute content but can work on code to enhance the system.  Any problems that cannot be solved can be outsourced to the Drupal community and I think that one would be hard pressed to spend more on the occasional call to a Drupal developer than even the standard annual fee for customer service on most proprietary systems.

However, this last bit seems to be the other cog in the wheel.  Managers seem to want someone they can call who will be accountable.  Staff may be unwilling to put their own neck on the line.  It can be easier to just know that if anything goes wrong there is somewhere to pass the buck.

It seems somehow equally tragic though that this budget crisis could be mitigated, if even in a small way, and a better service could be offered but the road blocks are old paradigms and an unwillingness to learn a new skill.  One of the major calls for libraries is too be places for informal learning opportunities and it seems we are having a hard time using them that way ourselves.  The information required to make critical system changes that respond to user needs is all out there; and that’s what we do we find information.  In fact, a book on the subject may even be in your local library…. that is if it’s still there.

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Would your OPAC benefit from being more modular? January 19, 2010

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Nicole Engard, author of Library Mashups: Exploring New Ways to Deliver Library Data,  was recently on Sarah Long’s Long Shots Podcast talking about all the tools available to libraries through the use of mashups (or combining elements of different web services to create a unique product).  On the podcast she notes that the hardest part of incorporating these modular resources is that first one must ‘break into’ their OPAC.  I just want to say that this is the big problem with proprietary software, it is too slow to respond in a world where new technology emerges everyday that could benefit our users.

Recently, I wrote about how New York Public Library migrated their site to Drupal.  This will make their site much more dynamic and flexible and give all members of staff more power to contribute so their web identity can always stay current.  A few years ago, the National Library of Australia started using the VuFind OPAC which is an open-source project from Vanderbilt University.  I think the criticism of open-source projects is that they are experimental, unstable, and always in beta.  Here though we can see that NLA has continued to use VuFind and I think it is time that other libraries started looking into this as a solution.  Especially when one considers that aside from its collection, a library currently spends the majority of its budget on its OPAC. In a time when budgets are tight these could result in much needed savings.

VuFind is modular by design and that is a good thing as there have been some great products released recently which serve to augment library systems.  The ones getting the most buzz are tools developed from LibraryThing including Local Books, Library Anywhere, and Shelf Browse (pictured above).  These tools have been built to be compatible with most OPACs but that will not always be the case especially if you create a mashup that is specific to your community.  Do you really want to have to break into your OPAC just to deliver better service to your users?

Will open-source solutions move OPACs past the “lipstick on a pig” metaphor? January 14, 2010

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I remember first hearing about Drupal sometime in 2006.  At first, it was all the rage around the Brooklyn neighborhood where I lived.  Then, a forward-thinking programmer was hired on to revamp the website of my then-employer and he chose to build the site on Drupal.  It was clear from the examples that I was seeing that this open-source model was far superior to anything happening in the proprietary software universe.  Drupal developers were pushing out code at an amazing clip and if any functionality didn’t exist then one could just email a developer and ask them to write some code and very often someone would.

Yet, I was surprised that our organization had gone along with this idea.  I think a lot of organizations get set in their ways.  They do not want to make drastic changes and this leads to relationships with vendors where clients don’t really threaten to cut off revenue and vendors don’t really work very hard to make their software any better.  This culture of acceptance for mediocrity led to Roy Tennant’s famous comments about how many new OPAC interfaces are really just lipstick on a pig.  Vendors were delivering small changes to their product periodically but the modifications weren’t really meeting end user needs.

That is why it was so encouraging to see that the New York Public Library had decided to migrate their site over to Drupal.  This will hopefully set an example for other libraries.  At one time, I think organizations feared working with open-source technology but now I think it is clear that they are outperforming their peers in the proprietary world and with all budgets getting slashed in this economy all libraries could benefit from the savings involved in using open-source software.

While I realize that Drupal is not an OPAC the recent news that LibLime has been acquired by PTFS may mean more open-source solutions will be become available soon for libraries.  I think the library sector needs more big name institutions to move over to using open-source technology and show smaller organizations by example that it is safe terrain.  Working with developers will bring about a culture of seeking consistent improvement. Looking at the profile for 2010 Librarian of the Year, Craig Buthod, it is clear that listening to what your users want is important but empowering yourself to deliver results that meet those needs is equally important and will become more possible as librarians begin using dynamic, flexible open-source software.