Guest Editorial: Balancing the Playing Field
As a member of the University of Arizona's Digital Library Initiative, I see exciting and new developments in library technology, services, and software. Virtual reference services, library portals, electronic reserves, e-books, the Semantic Web, you name it; the list of new methods by libraries and librarians for serving information to the public continues to grow and emerge. These new opportunities also push us to constantly reexamine our core services and products, as well as our underlying philosophies in how and what we serve our customers. In reexamining ourselves, we must look at our relationship with technology and software and our role in the software development process. Up until now, this process has been (primarily) the sole domain of commercial vendors. Vendors are an integral part of the technology environment in libraries, especially in software development. However, it is up to libraries and librarians to ensure that they are equal partners on the software development playing field. We no longer can afford to let technology and technology companies dictate to us what we can do and how we can do it - instead libraries need to dictate the functions and features of the software they use, and take an active role in maintaining our technology ecology. To do this, we need to expand the library community's knowledge of and expertise with software development and technology - otherwise, to use a football analogy, we'll always be the visiting team.
Open source software (OSS) is both a philosophy and a method that can be used to gain that homefield advantage. Simply put, OSS allows the user to customize, augment, change, and enhance the software so that it better meets their needs. It accomplishes this by providing the source code of the software in addition to the executable program. By doing so, anyone who owns a copy of the software can become a developer as well. It does not mean that every user must become a developer; in fact, in most cases, this won't happen. What is important is the opportunity given - the opportunity to examine and contribute to the source code, which, at a minimum, allows libraries to better understand their tools and systems. OSS, in essence, empowers libraries through knowledge and understanding - it brings library values to software.
This issue presents six articles about OSS and libraries. David Bretthauer provides a detailed look at the development and history of the OSS movement. Eric Lease Morgan follows up with an article about the relationship between OSS and libraries, and the possibilities that emerge from a more comprehensive adoption of OSS by the library community. With a slightly different take, Marshall Breeding presents his views on the adoption of OSS in the library automation system arena. The authors of the fourth article present us with a set of case studies about MARC.pm, a piece of software that gives libraries greater control over their MARC records and illustrates the versatility and usefulness of open source code in a library environment. Harry Wagner's paper on the Extensible Open RDF toolkit demonstrates how new research and emerging technologies can move forward using the OSS-development model. Finally, Karen Coyle gives some context to OSS in libraries by relating it to the concept of open standards and shows how this important concept actually has a long history in the library community.
I hope you find this issue interesting and useful. As libraries become digital libraries, we need to ensure that librarians don't become "virtual" as a result. By participating more fully in the development and requirements of the software we use, we allow ourselves to compete on a level playing field, and we ensure our continued stewardship of today's information access. This role reinforces our place in providing high quality, useful content to our customers. Active participation in the library community's technology ecology, especially through understanding and involvement in software development, enables us not only to play the game but also to help shape the rules as well.
Jeremy Frumkin ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Metadata Systems Librarian for the University of Arizona Library's Digital Library Initiatives Group, Tucson.
Copyright 2001, American Library Association