Help, I’m surrounded by librarians. :-)

Have you seen that wonderful video that reports on the American Library Association’s annual conference as a nature video? The one that narrates the gathering of librarians as you might describe herds of bison or flocks of penguins?

Yeah – watch that first.

Okay, so I’m at Canada’s largest gathering of librarians. There are likely 4500 librarians from across Ontario in a conference center located in the funky-shaped shadow of the CN Tower. I’m here because I’ve been asked to give a keynote this afternoon. When I got the invitation, I assumed that the Ontario Library Association had wanted to invite David Weinberger, realized he was busy and invited me instead.

To my surprise and pleasure, the folks who invited me, knew my work and hoped I’d come to Ontario to talk about some of the issues I addressed at the Idea Festival in Louisville late last year – the internet in the developing world, homophily, serendipity, xenophilia. Which should be fun… for me at least.

What this means is that I’m, yet again, at someone else’s conference. There’s librarian jargon and in-jokes that I don’t get. I’m vaguely tempted to look for sessions on topics I know the least about – providing public library programming for the elderly, for instance, or the workshop on book preservation. But, of course, geeks and librarians have vast areas of common cause, and the first session I find myself in is very much at the intersection of my interests and those of global librarians.

Three librarians affiliated with EIFL – Electronic Information for Libraries – introduce the audience to the value of open source software to libraries in the developing world. EIFL is a project I know pretty well – it’s supported by Open Society Institute’s Information Program, who I’ve worked with for the past four years. It’s a really admirable project – an effort to open digital resources to libraries in developing nations. Access to online journals and databases in incredibly expensive, and accessing these resources is usually outside the capacity of developing world libraries. EIFL has helped these libraries access free digital resources, negotiate lower prices for some key resources, and embrace the use of technology to modernize and connect their libraries.

Now EIFL is focusing on the importance of Free and Open Source Software, or FOSS. Bess Sadler, a research librarian and software developer from Virginia, offers the standard “free beer versus free speech”, then gives a wonderful twist I hadn’t heard before: “free as in free kittens”. Sure, the kitten is free, inasmuch as you don’t pay for it, but it’s going to cost you a ton of time and money down the road. This is true of open source software – if you’re going to love and use it, you’ll be tending to it and caring for it for the forseeable future.

Sadler outlines Richard Stallman’s Four Freedoms associated with free software (numbering them from 0-3, just to prove her geekiness.)

0: Free to run for any purpose
1: Free to study and learn from, and to adapt for your own purposes
2: Free to redistribute to your neighbors
3: Free to improve and release your improvements.

Without these freedoms, we face “information imperialism”, control of information by established powers. She offers some useful examples of the importance of free and open systems in developing nations:

– In Zimbabwe, where the currency is collapsing, it’s unrealistic to expect librarians to pay hard currency to library management systems. FOSS systems may be the only systems that are affordable.

– In Georgia, most library management systems are available in English or Russian… any student of eastern European politics will understand why Georgians don’t want to use a Russian-language tool. Open software can be translated and adapted into different languages.

In Bhutan, there’s a great desire to preserve the local language – Dzonghka – against the encroachment of Mandarin Chinese. Local authorities wanted a Dzonghka version of Windows, and raised some money to demonstrate a market for the software, but weren’t able to persuade Microsoft to create the product. But it wasn’t difficult to localize Linux, and there’s now Dzongkha Linux, with support for Open Office, GAIM, Mozilla and other key pieces of software.

– There’s a strong desire in developing world libraries to put digital collections online… which suprises many library professionals in the developed world, as they’re just moving towards digital collections now. Sadler quotes a Ghanaian librarian: “Students in Ghana can view artifacts from Britain more easily tha they can artifacts from their own heritage.” Open source software systems like Greenstone are allowing libraries to scan and preseve documents and share them online. There’s a hope in the future for a pan-African digital library which will allow libraries across the continent to share their resources.

While there are a lot of obvious upsides to FOSS for the developing world, there are challenges as well. It can be harder to support, and especially hard to find support contracts to cover open source. Documentation can be sorely limited, and seeking support from open source communities can be very intimidating.

Despite these obstacles, developing world librarians, like Palestinian Nasser Saleh, are enthusiastic advocates for open source, on ideological as well as practical grounds. He points out that many developing nations are signing onto trade agreements which force them to aggresively enforce anti-piracy laws for the first time. As a result, librarians in developing nations are finding they have to suddenly revamp their software strategy when they find they can’t pay for the tools they need.

The ability of librarians to work in their own languages is encouraging a movement towards celebrating and preserving those languages. But it’s still difficult to involve people in the project unless they speak English or Russian – there’s a strong concentration of EIFL projects in English and Russian-speaking nations, and a real need to expand the work into Latin America and francophone Africa as well.

Randy Metcalf is EIFL’s new FOSS program manager. A long-time FOSS enthusiast, he’s now in a position where he can unambiguously promote free software. But he’s realistic, telling us that “advocacy is not enough” to bring free software into global libraries. EIFL FOSS is managing a project to bring two open source ILS (integrated library systems) into six libraries around the world and to docment the process. The project involves the libraries working closely with the developers of Koha and Evergreen, two leading ILS systems. The goal is to make these systems more usable in developing nations, and to develop the necessary documentation to allow thee tools to be used effectively in the developing world.

This is a long process – it can take two years or more to set up an ILS, and the libraries he’s working with are anxious to get started. If the project works well, the libraries end up with better systems to manage their operations, and the world gains some major open source success stories about IT in very challenging environments.

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6 Responses to Help, I’m surrounded by librarians. :-)

  1. Rachel says:

    That video made me cackle out loud; it’s fabulous!

    And I like “free as in free kittens.”

  2. quixote says:

    What Rachel said!

  3. Mark R. says:

    So glad you could join us at our annual herding! You were fantastic and glad you found lots of areas of mutual interest here. Till next time. Cheers.

  4. Pingback: Oil and Water for the Spiral Jetty, Surrealism on the block and the Mating Habits of Librarians

  5. Dan Scott says:

    Hey Ethan, it was undoubtedly homophily that led to me sitting behind you during the EIFL session. (Oh, I flatter myself!)

    One note – the origin of the “free as in free kittens” phrase dates back at least as far as 2002 to Simon Phipps (http://news.com.com/2010-1071-954384.html). The typical retort to “free kitten” as a downside of open source is that the pedigreed kitten that you paid lots of money for also requires food, cleaning, playtime, etc… and my own addition (unless I’ve subconsciously absorbed this from somewhere) is that your pedigreed animals tend to be inbred beasts that have physical defects and succumb easily to illness, etc, whereas the mixed-breeds tend to be hardy due to the wide gene pool. Har.

  6. FOSS for libraries permits us to do amazing things. In my work I was able to install and use Koha. The translation was not completed and had some minor error that I can correct myself.
    With popular libraries in Argentina we are building a network and publishing their catalogs online without a penny from the government using Koha and WebGUI. Our only cost is actually the server we are paying with the support of the libraries (and sometimes the librarians).

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