Building Libraries With Free Software

Sarah Houghton-Jan‘s review of my LTR on open source software for libraries reminded me I wanted to blog this related piece I’d written for American Libraries.

Tim Spalding cocks his head a bit as he says it to emphasize the point: “ is social software.” However we categorize it, Spalding’s baby has become a darling to librarians, and as we sat chatting over lunch in spring 2006, the web application that had begun life just to months earlier was to catalog its 3-millionth book.

LibraryThing is no library — Spalding’s critics are quick to remind him of that — but it does open some of the activities of librarianship–the cataloging and organization of books–to a world of bibliophiles eager to partake. Librarians and patrons alike cannot help but compare LibraryThing to their own libraries’ catalogs and wonder how this free software, built (well, crafted) in less than a year by a solo developer who didn’t know he was creating a Web 2.0 start-up, could deliver so many features that we’ve wanted in our “real” libraries.

Catalogs, in libraries anyway, are inventories. Their design and features often reflect the interests and needs of those in the library’s back rooms rather than of the patrons entering and exiting through the front gates: but nobody told Spalding that before he began, and the result reflects the things he wanted to do as a reader and consumer of books: He set out to build software that allowed him and any other user the opportunity to organize the world of books to their liking.

But today he can’t quite understand my question: “How did you choose to use PHP and MySQL?” The answer, it seems, was a no-brainer. Spalding was confident and experienced with those technologies–the former a programming language and the latter a database environment–and, even better, they were free. Not just free as in “free beer,” but also free as in “free speech.”

Along with PHP and MySQL. Spalding happily and unquestioningly hopped on board with Apache, an open source web server, and Linux, the open source operating system on which LibraryThing runs. That particular combination, popular worldwide, is known as LAMP (Linux, Apache. MySQL, PHP). Together, this platform of free tools has lowered the cost of development and reduced the risk of exploration.

Librarian Aaron Schmidt agrees. While at Thomas Ford Memorial Library, in Western Springs, Illinois, he started working with open source because it was free and easy. When the library leased a fancy new printer/photocopier/scanner, Schmidt quickly figured out how to automate scanning from the library’s rich collection of historical photos. And when he went looking for a tool to easily post the pictures online. Schmidt immediately thought of using WordPress, a free open source content management application. “[I] figured people had already solved many of the issues I would face,” Schmidt says.

But free open source software isn’t just for brave experimenters looking to push boundaries. Librarian and software developer Dan Chudnov explains that you can no more run a library without software today than you could run a library without a building in 1900. Open source software, says Chudnov is “as massive a donation of time, energy, and products you cannot afford to turn down today as Carnegie-built libraries were back then.”

The economic benefits of open source are undeniable, but Free Software Foundation founder Richard M. Stallman says it’s more than that. With an eye toward the growing role technology plays in our world. Stallman holds that the right to “run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve software” is essential to any truly free society.

Chudnov is right: Libraries can’t afford to ignore the value of open source, and those in libraries who are using it agree. But among these success stories, another theme emerges that resonates with Stallman’s message: Open source software is forming the foundation of our libraries of the future, where we all get to play bricklayer and architect.