Sunday, November 8, 2009

The OSSification of viewpoints.

I will admit that the recent stir over the release of SirsiDynix’s paper about open source software for libraries by Stephen Abram bothered me. Not because I thought either side in the debates (the responses were on Twitter and in various blogs) had presented their cases well. In fact, my concern was that we are EVEN still having these debates (as I mentioned when interviewed by Library Journal on the subject). Particularly at a time when we have so many, so much more important, issues to be focused on in the library profession.

What we saw unfurl in this debate was what I’ve titled “OSSified” viewpoints. Each side rehashes viewpoints about open source that have been expressed hundreds, if not thousands of times. One side shouts “FUD” and the other side shouts “anti-proprietary” and neither side, in my opinion, is adding anything new or valuable to the discussion. Yes, both sides have many valid points buried under their boxing glove approaches. No, neither side is presenting their view in a compelling, well-reasoned, logical fashion.

When I was in college, (yes, a long time ago) I was on the debate team for the university. On weekends, we’d travel across the country to engage in debates on a wide range of topics. Each topic required massive preparation. Research, statistics, quotes, all kinds of supporting information and not just for one side of the debate, but for BOTH sides of the debate. You never knew until you arrived, which side you would be taking – but you had to be prepared to debate either. The end result was that you learned a great deal about both the advantages and disadvantages of wide range of topics. You also learned, as we often do in life, that the world is not black and white, that depending on what is important to you as an individual, an organization or a profession, the right answer is frequently something in between.

So it is with open source and proprietary software. Both have advantages, both have disadvantages. Which of those apply to your situation depends on who you are and what organization you’re representing. But here is reality as far as I’m concerned – open source software represents a need and ability for organizations and professions to adapt services to end user needs and to do so very quickly. Particularly so in environments where the pace of change is accelerating with every day. However, It also carries with it the need to internally have, or externally pay for, technical staff to adapt the software to those needs. Proprietary software can and usually does offer complete, very functionally rich, systems that address wide market needs at reasonable costs and with limited technical staff on the part of the organization using it. An added bonus can be if the proprietary software is open platform (as are Ex Libris products), so that the proprietary package supports open source extensions which can be made in order to enhance services for users. This is a combination that brings some of the best of both approaches together.

However, let me point out the obvious and yet frequently forgotten key point in what I’ve just said. Because of the rate of change libraries are dealing with today, they need to adapt and implement quickly. Software development technologies, as with all technologies, have limitations. Open source and proprietary do represent two different approaches to development technologies. But what matters at the end of the day is to provide a total SOLUTION that works in meeting the needs of the users. Until such time as users can sit and completely configure software applications to do exactly and exclusively what they want to do – there will be room for both open source and proprietary software in this profession. Each has advantages. Each has disadvantages. Each offers different approaches to solving problems and providing a solution. If we become zealots for either point of view we are not serving our profession or users well. Becoming zealots means we will fight against the use of what the other offers and we will waste massive amounts of time reinventing things that already exist and work well (a point shared by Cliff Lynch in this debate). Libraries can’t afford this redundancy, particularly in the economic climate we’re currently in.

The profession of librarianship has more important things to do at the moment. Let’s devote the energy being wasted in this debate to defining and agreeing what librarianship will look like in five years. What will librarianship mean to end-users and what will our value-add to information be in that time frame? This would greatly help solve many of the funding problems we’re all fighting at the moment. Finally, let’s map out the plans and technology that are going to help us fulfill that vision. I’m sure if we do that, there will be plenty of new places for both OSS and proprietary software to make major contributions and in ways that will build on and support each other. That’s what we’re trying to do at Ex Libris and I would encourage a wider adoption of this approach across the profession rather than continuing boxing matches using old and outdated arguments that do nothing to advance the need to provide solutions to users.

We simply have more important things to do.