Top of page

When is Open Source Software the Right Choice for Cultural Heritage Organizations? An Interview with Peter Murray

Share this post:

Peter Murray

I am excited to continue the NDSA infrastructure working group’s ongoing exploration of the role that open source software can and is playing in supporting long term access to digital cultural heritage with this interview with Peter Murray about FOSS4lib, “the site that helps libraries decide if and which open source software is right for them.”  Peter is a technologist and a librarian with a background in Systems Analysis. He has worked for nearly two decades in higher education libraries, including ten years at ARL member libraries and five years at an academic library consortium.

Trevor: Could you give us some background on FOSS4lib? How did this project come about and what are its goals and objectives?

Peter: FOSS4Lib came about as a major output of a Mellon Foundation grant that LYRASIS received to promote sustainability of open source software options for libraries.  The goal is summed up in the project’s tagline: Helping Libraries Decide If and Which Open Source Software is Right for Them.  As you might expect from the tagline, there are two major portions of the site:  decision support tools helping answer the ‘if’ question and a registry of software packages helping answer the ‘which’ question.  The site launched at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association in January 2012.

A Screenshot of the foss4lib website

Trevor: In reviewing content on your site, I was particularly struck by the decision support tools available on the site. Could you tell us a bit about the tools? What they are and the needs they serve?

Diffusion of Innovation graph from WikimediaPeter: Based on the kinds of questions we were getting at LYRASIS that lead to the grant request, we think that open source software is in the “early majority” stage on Everett Rogers’ Theory on the Diffusion of Innovations.  There have been plenty of open source innovators — particularly in large academic libraries and as well as pockets of activities elsewhere — and early adopters that have brought these projects to their own libraries.  As the broader library community looks to open source, as they have been for much of the past decade, they are looking for answers to practical questions like “How do I decide if open source is something I can do in my library?” and “What packages are out there that might fit my needs?” and “Who can I turn to for support for hosting or customization?”  FOSS4Lib leads libraries through the process of answering those questions.

The FOSS4Lib Decision Support Tools are geared towards helping with the first part of the tagline: deciding if open source software is right.  We have six tools on the site now and I recommend that people take them in order starting with the control versus responsibility survey.  These 40 questions guide a library in figuring out whether they are inclined towards open source or proprietary systems and also if they are inclined to host systems themselves or use a software-as-a-service option.  The survey is short enough that different staff, say a systems librarian and a library director, can take the survey and compare results to see in what way attitudes are aligned and where they differ.  That can form the start of a deeper conversation about how systems are to be run in the library.

We also noticed that libraries in the “early majority” stage of considering open source software tend to rely on external sources of IT support: contractors, city/county government, academic computing or school district departments.  This adds a new layer of complexity to any decision to adopt a new system, so the Questions for a Library’s Parent IT Organization tool was developed to open lines of communication and facilitate discussion.  The tool is a series of open-ended questions that help a library have a productive conversation with the IT support division so all are on the same page when considering the unique advantages and support requirements of open source options.

The third tool, a Costs of Open Source Software calculator, helps to address common misconceptions of open source: the extremes of open source as free and open source as too costly because software developer resources are not in the library.  As you might expect, the primary form of the tool is a spreadsheet where the various costs are added together.  More important, though, are the descriptions behind each cell of the spreadsheet that prompt the library to consider all forms costs.

For instance, the cost for the right to run a piece of open source software is zero (by definition), but the open source software may have prerequisites that are commercial (Microsoft Windows Server, Oracle or MarkLogic’s XML database); the cost of those prerequisites must be considered.  And although the right to run an open source package has no cost, the tool prompts libraries to consider the value of a financial contribution to a non-profit that has as its mission the long-term vitality and sustainability of an open source project.  When all of the costs are added together across the expected lifecycle of the system, then the library can compare total costs-of-ownership of various options.

The remaining tools are a general Software Selection Methodology and specific methodologies for Integrated Library Systems and Discovery Layer systems.  The methodologies are geared towards open source decisions, although they can also be used for proprietary systems as well.  The general methodology was published when the site initially went public, and based on the feedback from early presentations and users of the system, the two specific methodologies were added.  The methodologies prompt the library to consider a comprehensive set of topics when deciding on a new system.  And because a single methodology doesn’t work in all instances — and because there are decision points that are unique to each system — we included a bibliography with links to other methodologies and system criteria.

Trevor: The NDSA infrastructure working group’s exploration of open software is focused on figuring out if there are any inherent benefits to using open source software for parts of an organization’s digital preservation strategy. Do you see any such inherent benefits, and if so what are they?

Peter: I do see inherent benefits of open source with respect to an organization’s digital preservation strategy.  The first is that, by definition, you can examine the code of open source options, and when you can examine the code you can understand the underlying data structures of the system.  Even if you were the last organization using a piece of open source software, you could still hire a consultant to read the code and build migration tools to a new system.

Even more important, though, is the ability of an organization to take an active role in the vitality and sustainability of an open source package.  Where with a commercial system the organization might be at the mercy of a company’s shareholder demands or private capital aspirations, an organization can contribute staff time and budget dollars to sustain a not-for-profit community surrounding an open source package.

The goals and values of the organization are more aligned with the desires of the underlying open source community.  Over the last decade I’ve seen an increasing emphasis from granting organizations on the need for community building around an open source project; they are asking for sustainability plans as part of project descriptions.  LYRASIS is becoming the enabling agent for one such project, the Mellon-funded ArchivesSpace open source tool.

Beyond digital preservation, though, there are other benefits to open source software.  Most commercial software systems, at least in the library sector, have a single supplier of support.  Open source software can be different, though.  The two major open source integrated library systems in North America — Evergreen and Koha — have multiple sources of commercial support for hosting, implementation, training, and custom development.  That is a point of flexibility that may be important in an institution’s long-term view of the systems it runs.

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about your background and experience working with software systems in cultural heritage organizations? I would be particularly interested in any reflections you have in trends and changes in how cultural heritage organizations are approaching software systems.

Peter: I’ve been working with open source, usually specific to libraries, for about a decade.  I can’t remember the first project I contributed to or the first package that I released, but I remember getting interested in the governance of open source projects while serving on the Fedora Project Advisory Board.  The Fedora Commons software had reached a point where it was gaining traction outside of Cornell University and the University of Virginia, and the core development team was looking for a home for the software outside their universities.

We talked about the benefits of putting the project under the umbrella of another organization and going through the process of creating a separate organization for Fedora itself.  In the end, the latter path was chosen and Fedora Commons was born in 2007.  Two years later, Fedora Commons merged with the DSpace Foundation, a similar not-for-profit created to be the home of the DSpace project, and DuraSpace was born.

Open source, as a technique for creating and distributing software, has crept into common usage in libraries and presumably other cultural heritage organizations.  I commonly start presentations about FOSS4Lib with the question, “Does your library use open source software?”  Usually about half of the participants will raise their hands.  When I list popular open source projects — Apache HTTPD server, PHP, WordPress, Drupal, Linux, Firefox, Chrome — and ask the question again, nearly every hand is raised.

The difference, I think, is the level of investment an organization has in the open source project.  It is easy to use broad open source projects like PHP and Firefox without becoming engaged in the process of bug identification and triage, documentation creation and translation and funding the project infrastructure and community of developers.  With smaller user populations and more focused use cases, the open source projects in cultural heritage organizations can’t survive without the direct financial and indirect in-kind resources of those that use the project.  That is where I think we are now…the tools, processes and techniques of creating, supporting and distributing open source software are well exercised; if libraries and other cultural heritage institutions can apply them to their collective benefit, then we have another viable avenue to create and maintain the systems our users need.

Trevor: As I understand it, you are interested in helping digital preservation platforms attain sustainability. I am curious about your thoughts on how these projects become sustainable.

Peter: I think sustainability comes less from the effort to build technology and more from the effort to build community.  Community can’t be an afterthought, and community-building can’t focus solely on the developers.  Successful projects have ways to bring new members into to the community, to mentor them and help them contribute to the community as well as receive assistance from the community.  Sustainability comes when organizations using the software realize that it isn’t “free” and it isn’t “purchased” — that there is something in between that takes real resources (in money and in staff time) and has a different value proposition than huge open source projects (Linux and Apache HTTPD and Firefox) and commercial off-the-shelf software.

So my interests, and the interests of LYRASIS, revolve around helping projects find a healthy sustainable path.  As a multi-state, member-governed, not-for-profit consortium, LYRASIS can be a catalyst for projects looking to build community.  We’re building a body of experience and expertise on governance practices for projects and skills in helping a project’s community form around those governance practices.  We have fiscal systems that can accept membership dues or project contributions and disburse funds to others in accordance with the actions of the community’s governance decisions.  We’ll be starting with the ArchivesSpace project, and will look to add additional projects in the future.

The ideas behind sustainable open source are not new, but they are not yet ingrained in the mindset and the business processes of libraries and other cultural heritage institutions.  There is a role for active education and advocacy of open source methodologies.  I think open source is still seen as risky, mainly because some of the lines of accountability point back to the institution itself — has it been investing its own resources in the project and its community?  Has it modeled the kinds of behaviors that make a community sustainable?  Has it valued the contributions of other institutions?  When a project fails, and some will fail, was it because the institutions using the open source project’s code didn’t understand or didn’t properly value the community needs around that project?

Trevor: Given your experience, what do you see as some of the emerging trends in the role for open source software in cultural heritage organizations?

Peter: I do see open source moving into early majority stage.  It has been slowly emerging to the point where libraries and others are putting their mission critical systems on open source software offered by commercial companies.  Geoffrey Moore built on Everett Rogers’ theory on the diffusion of innovation when he described a chasm between early adopters and early majority.  Open source, at least in libraries, has spent a lot of time in this chasm as options for commercial hosting and maintenance for open source have slowly geared up to support the early majority.

For institutions with an eye towards long-term viability, the degree to which they can influence their destiny is key.  Open source software provides an avenue of control that is not available through commercial off-the-shelf software.  There is a closer alliance between the values of a cultural heritage institution and the values of an open source project in the longer term as compared to the needs of a commercial organization with a proprietary system.

Trevor: I would be curious to hear if there are any ways that folks working on digital preservation might get more involved with the FOSS4lib project. Is the site something you are primarily working on maintaining or are you interested in contributions from others in the field?

Related, how broadly is your group scoping the idea of libraries in your definition? Do you consider broader cultural heritage organizations in scope (Archives, Museums, Planetariums, Aquariums and Zoos?) For that matter, what about various digital asset management systems used by any number of commercial and non-profit organizations?

Peter:  Our original mandate in the Mellon grant was for libraries, although there is some built-in synergies with related cultural heritage institutions — particularly in the area of digital repositories.  The software registry portion of FOSS4Lib is open to addition and modification by anyone who wants to register for an account; they can be a user or a solutions provider, a librarian or archivist or anyone else.  The categories in the site now are geared towards libraries, but are expandable.  We definitely want to keep the focus on libraries and cultural heritage institutions; we don’t want FOSS4Lib to become a generalized registry of all kinds of open source projects.

The Mellon Foundation grant that created FOSS4Lib has ended, and the LYRASIS board has affirmed the use of resources to keep FOSS4Lib up and running.  LYRASIS received a subsequent grant from the Mellon Foundation to help projects find sustainable paths, and part of those grant funds will go towards expansion of the capabilities of FOSS4Lib.  We are definitely open to contributions from others — be they ideas for features that would improve the site, additions of content that would be helpful for organizations making decisions about open source, new knowledge added to the software registry or even new code for the site.  Anyone interested in helping out is welcome to contact or post a message in the FOSS4Lib forums.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.