What is Open Source?

In the past few years, the term open source has been bandied about not just in library-land, but in every industry. When a term is talked about this much, some would say to the point of overuse, people start to think it’s a fad. I’m here to tell you that open source is no fad.

Would it surprise you to learn that open source isn’t even something new? In fact it’s the original way all software was developed. Before the personal computer was something we all had in our homes and libraries, computers took up entire rooms at academic institutions and government agencies. As with much technology, no one thought that computers would ever have a market with the home user. This meant that there was a limited supply of programmers (who proudly called themselves hackers) and they were spread out across the world.

It is for this reason that in the beginning all software was developed in the open. Programmers shared their code with others over private and government networks – and later over the Internet. They developed applications in the open for all to see, contribute, modify and redistribute. This method was (and some would argue still is) the most logical way to get the right talent to contribute to the project.

Sometime before the personal PC became prevalent big corporations jumped in and decided this was something they could make money on – the closed development and distribution of software – and so the home PC users knew no other way of acquiring and using software.

It is for this reason that libraries today are full of proprietary software, software that we pay sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for with no expectation of being consulted on for future developments. It is for this reason that the general public often sees the library as behind the times when it comes to technology when in reality, libraries were some of the first organizations to adopt the PC and the Internet and make them open for public use. Keyword being “open.”

Libraries are all about providing free and open services to our patrons. We share information openly and work together across boundaries with no expectation of repayment. I have had the pleasure of traveling the world to train librarians, and I have yet to meet one who wouldn’t do everything in his/her power to help me or those around me. This is our nature, it’s part of why we do the job we do and so it makes perfect sense for us to take these qualities and carry them over to the policies we have in place to govern our software purchasing and use.

Open source software projects all follow a series of principles of freedom. Developers and users of open source software are free to use, study, modify and redistribute the software for any purpose. In fact, it’s a common myth that all open source software is free of cost, in fact there is nothing in the open source licenses preventing people from taking a previously free application and charging for it – however, the rules say that they must distribute the code along with the software making it silly to charge because once one person pays the money they then have the freedom to redistribute the software without charging.

It is these innate freedoms and our willingness to work with the communities around us that make open source software such a logical fit for libraries. We no longer have to take part in the culture of helplessness that surrounds proprietary software use. We have the freedom to participate in improving on open source products by hiring our own developers to make the software work for us or contributing to the testing and documentation of the products to make them easier for others to use down the road. Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want the power to participate in a worldwide community of developers and software users with the end product being an application that actually meets our needs?

Over the next few articles by me, I will be covering tools that law librarians (and all librarians) can start using to improve library services today.

Creative Commons License
What is Open Source by Nicole C. Engard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Posted in: Legal Research, Technology Trends