Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Evergreen Picks Up Support

The Open-ILS blog (official blog of the Evergreen open source integrated library automation system) announced yesterday that the University of Windsor has partnered with the Georgia Public Library Service to work on Evergreen's acquisitions module.

Beginning in January 2007, staff from Windsor and GPLS will begin to collaborate on software specifications and development, and the blog notes that a possible "building block" could be provided by the Open Source ERP program OFBiz.

One of the special strengths of open source projects is that the code of other open source projects can be incorporated and used to provide a head start for later projects. Open source programs become constellations of projects working together, and this extension to Evergreen represents a key event.

Another key advantage for open source projects is the ability of users to drive the process. Successful OS projects need an active user community to keep them alive and moving forward. As Evergreen expands its functionality, it will need strong support from all levels of the library world to help it succeed. This move is a great step forward. Happy New Year, indeed!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Some thoughts on libraries and the future of publishing

Science Fiction author Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting column last week on Forbes.com. He has chosen to publish electronic copies of his works under a Creative Commons license that allows free copying and distribution.

Users/readers have downloaded over 700,000 copies of his first book, translated in into several languages, formatted it for various online devices and uses (including the Djvu scanned document format!), and created two competing audio book adaptations. His other books have been similarly licensed, with similar results.

Doctorow still sells print copies of his works, and he figures that while giving away electronic copies may cost some sales to online readers, others decide to purchase print copies. Mainly, though, he profits from the exposure he gets from the user community that has grown up around discussing and distributing his books online.

I've heard it said that for most artists, musicians, and writers the real problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity. Doctorow (with his print publisher's permission) used free online distribution to overcome this.

But it's more than just a stunt. "You sure can't force a reader to pay for access to information anymore," he states. Comparing this to the problem that free radio broadcasting posed for entertainers of the early twentieth century, and the elaborate tracking and licensing systems that evolved to assure the livelihood of the performers, he states that while the future of publishing is hard to predict, thanks to the Internet, "There has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. "

For libraries, this points out several problems. First, although "free" certainly works for libraries, the community nature of some publishing projects makes the print version something of a digest. In some fields of scholarly publishing, the copy of record is the online copy, often including vast stores of test data. The print copy is just a sometimes convenient legacy.

How do libraries fit into this world where even in "book" publishing the printed work is no longer central? The example of radio, which like the Internet was fast, ephemeral and democratic, is not comforting for libraries. The "problem" it posed was solved for performers, but libraries (except for a few highly specialized archival libraries) have largely ignored it.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Chat with me

This is a test of the chat feature.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

OLPC Receives Test Build X0-1

Christopher Blizzard reports that the OLPC people have received the first hand-built X0-1 "Test build" device destined for "destructive testing" over the next few months.

There are interesting pictures posted on the OLPC

The pictures show the display in both black and white and color mode, the touchpads (including the one intended for use with a stylus), and one of the keyboard layouts.

Most interesting to me, was this photo showing the comparative size of the device when placed on a "normal" laptop. It is clearly scaled for little hands.

It is so exciting to see this project hit important milestones with such apparent success.

Monday, November 13, 2006

OLPC X0-1 : the new Carnegie?

Technology Review has a good article on the OPLC X0-1 (yes, that seems to be the official new name), which compares the project to Andrew Carnegie's project to build libraries across the United States and Great Britain from a hundred years ago.

I'm glad more people are seeing this connection-- the OLPC project is no more about computers than Carnegie's project was about architecture. It's all about making information available to all, or nearly all. Remember that if the OLPC really does meet its goals of putting tens of millions of these devices in the hands of students around the world, each one will be an e-book reader. This will revolutionize publishing, and not only in the developing world.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

OLPC 2B1/XO wins "Best of What's New" award

Popular Science magazine has selected the OLPC's 2B1 (or maybe it's now called the XO) as a "Grand Award" winner in it's Best of What's New 2006 article.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

LITA Forum 2006 - Impending Demise of the Local OPAC

I'm an "official" LITA blogger now! My piece on this somewhat stormy session is on the LITA blog site.

Friday, October 27, 2006

LITA Forum 2006 - Open Source Installfest II

Friday's second session of the Open Source Installfest found Amy De Groff and Luis Salazar of the Howard County Library in Maryland presenting the story of the migration of their 270 public pcs to the Linux distro Groovix.

Although the name suggests visions of love beads and lava lamps, this is a modern, mainstream Linux based on Ubuntu and supported by the company Open Sense Solutions.
Similar to the perhaps better known Canadian company Userful, Open Sense allows customers to leverage the power of Linux by creating multiuser clusters with multiple keyboards, video displays and mice sharing a single PC.

Howard County Library had initially migrated to Linux two years ago with a custom distro they called LuMix, after the first initials of the two members of their IT staff who created it. Offering patrons (or as they preferred to call them, customers) a Gnome desktop and a collection of open source applications, the library elected to continue along this path this year, but chose to go with a vendor-based solution to save staff time and resources.

The key to public acceptance of a non-Microsoft environment seems to be aggressive promotion of the cost advantages of open source, plus a consistent emphasis on working the problems as they occurred until a solution could be found. For example, when open source pdf programs did not support the forms features required by IRS tax forms, the library added the proprietary Adobe Acrobat to its systems. When a subscription database did not support the Firefox browser, it was found that Opera could handle the site, and it was added to patron systems.

Attendees were given LiveCDs of the distro to use during the session, booting the otherwise Windows pcs in the Nashville Public Library's computer lab into Groovix (and given the discs to take home and play with).

The session concluded with a discussion other open source programs of interest to libraries, including the Georgia PINES Evergreen open source library automation system, and several attendees expressed the desire to learn more about it, perhaps by visiting Georgia.

Although not exactly an "installfest" in the classic sense, this two-day preconference was both enjoyable and informative.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

LITA Forum 2006 - Open Source Installfest I

This preconference session was held in a computer lab in the beautiful Nashville Public Library. Gary Wan, Texas A&M University Library presented an introduction to what are arguably the crown jewels in the open source library software world: the Koha integrated library automation system, the Greenstone digital library system, the Swish-e indexer, and the Wordpress blogging software.

Beginning with an introduction to the concepts of open source software, Gary proceeded to describe in some detail the ins and outs of a typical Koha install, and invited attendees to connect via the web interface to a test installation of Koha on his laptop. While it was a great idea to offer a live test system to play with, there was little data in the test system, which limited what users could do. Perhaps to keep things simple, the pages on the test system had not been customized and did not show the current state of Koha design (for that see the opac of the West Liberty Public Library ). And none of the wonders promised with Koha 3.0 were mentioned. Still, a good, and uncomplicated introduction.

Greenstone was also described in some detail, and illustrated with a test install made accessible to attendees. Gary gave a little more attention to installing on Windows this time (he had wisely warned against trying the notoriously problematic Koha for Windows), but as Greenstone works fine on Windows, it was given equal time. Again, a good introduction that could have been more interesting with more data and flashier examples (like this).

Swish-e seems a humble program by comparison to Koha and Greenstone, yet Gary showed how it could play an important role in small web sites by providing a fast, simple indexer. And Wordpress was described briefly also. But to be honest, by this time in the proceedings my mind was straying to the promised trays of cookies awaiting us in another room, so I welcomed the brevity. "Installfest: come for the Koha, stay for the cookies!"

After Gary wrapped up with a perfunctory mention of a few other tools (Prospero, OpenILL, OpenAAQ and Jybe), which seemed better left to the "for more information" handout,
Amy DeGroff and Luis Salazar of the Howard County Library introduced themselves and promised great things (and a free disc!) tomorrow in the second session when they will describe their pioneering work bringing open source to their library.

Tune in tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel, er... blog.

Nashville Skyline

I'm here in rainy Nashville for the LITA National Forum. While I'm waiting for things to get started, I'm in the hotel lobby reflecting on an exhausting cross-country flight highlighted by having my toothpaste confiscated by Federal agents. What interesting times.

I noticed for the first time the spread of airport shops selling CDs and DVDs. Although the fate of Tower Records shows how format tastes are changing, the demand for physical media is alive and well in some niche markets, such as air travelers. (At least until in-flight Internet access catches on-- how could that "Connexion by Boeing" system have failed in the market? Possibly they were driven out by fear of what OCLC would do over the name conflict?)

Well, forum registration is in an hour, I'd better go get something to eat now. More later.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Libya signs MOU to purchase 1.2 million 2b1 machines

Well, just as we were worrying that the coup in Thailand would slow down the OLPC project's drive to reach a critical mass of orders, Libya signs on with an order for 1.2 million units.

I'm reminded of the comment by Apollo 13 astronaut (or at least Tom Hanks playing Jim Lowell) that, "You never know what events are going to transpire to get you home."

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rattling the Cage

On Sunday the BBC ran a story (first in a series) documenting how risky it is to run MS Windows on a computer connected to the Internet.

Simulating an unprotected MS Windows Home machine being connected to the Internet, BBC researchers found it was hit by a potential security threat within seconds, with assaults of one kind on another coming an average of every 15 minutes, and with serious hijack attempts coming every hour or so, from machines as far away as China. They ask:

"If every hour a burglar turned up at your house and rattled the locks on the doors and windows to see if he could get in, you might consider moving to a safer neighbourhood."

Of course, we now take for granted the need to add layers of security programs, and constantly monitor MS Windows computers in our Internet labs for security breaches.

Libraries continue to use Windows computers in labs because patrons are familiar with them and we often have to follow computer policies drafted by IT groups more in tune with the needs of office workers. But Linux is safer by design, and far easier to lock down than MS Windows (Vista or beyond) will ever be.

For years now it has been obvious that diskless computers running LiveCD Linux distros provide the safest and easiest to maintain Internet lab setup.

The new mantra is "The customer is not broken", but it doesn't mean the customer is always right. Sometimes they just don't know what's out there. We wouldn't hesitate to offer a patron a better, more reliable reference source than one they asked for by name. How is that different from offering a better, more reliable public computing platform?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Someone noticed...

I read a rare article about cataloging accuracy (or the lack of it) from outside the field today. Of course this is old news to librarians, but it's one more reminder that skimping on the fundamentals always comes back and bites you in the end (er, I mean eventually).

This image is one of my favorite movie scenes-- it's from "Raiders of the Lost Ark", when the U.S. government stores the Ark in an unfathomably vast warehouse where it will probably be lost for another two thousand years. It always reminds me of a library, somehow.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

OLPC Update

Christopher Blizzard has posted a newsy update to his blog detailing progress on developing the 2B1 One Laptop Per Child device.

You can read all about it here.

They seem to be making rapid progress, although with pre-production models due for testing in the wild (i.e. real children!) in just a few months, they had better!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

An Interface built around social networking

Sugar is the new interface for the OLPC laptops. Rather than simply using Gnome or some established Linux front end, the folks at the OLPC decided to desgn their own interface incorporating tools to assit if the educational and social-computing goals of the project.

For example, Mesh View is a way of displaying the active laptops in the mesh network-- the peer to peer wireless network the units generate.

Friends View allows users to add and remove friends and invite them to participate in activities with a few clicks.

Other collaborative software will include the widespread use of Wikis.

If only the software we adults use permitted that kind of easy collaboration!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Next Generation Catalog Browsing

Another comment from the discussions going on in the Next Generation Catalog listserv:

"THAT seems to me like a major component of findability—not getting you to the book faster, but finding what you wouldn't otherwise find."

EXACTLY-- I've been thinking about OPAC browsing all day since reading that the Evergreen team is thinking about modeling a browse feature on the one used by the Barnes and Noble web site. But my most successful browsing experiences always seem to involve some serendipity or randomness. I wonder if there is a way to harness this?

For example, StumbleUpon works because they collect the "thumbs up" search results of members and associate the sites with tags. So StumbleUpon searches provide a theoretically more productive web browsing experience. Why couldn't a library discovery tool collect "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" responses from users on catalog searches, and associate them with the search terms that were used so as to create a similar improved browsing experience?

One forthcoming discovery product, Innovative Interfaces' Encore, is already going to keep it's own database of patron-supplied tags for the items in the OPAC. It could similiarly build a database of search terms and results.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Thoughts on Software Freedom Day

If you thought Foss was one of the sons on "Bonanza", you've obviously never seen a celebration of
Software Freedom Day, a day devoted to promoting the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Each year dozens of schools, clubs, and other "grass-roots" groups use the opportunity to set up booths in malls, campuses, or other public places to spread the word about FOSS. This year, the day was celebrated today.

[Note from Monday: Check out the site-- pictures from this year's activities from around the world are already being posted.]

I started thinking about how libraries now have a year to think up ways to promote the next one. Linking up with local FOSS supporters to host a both is one way, of course. But two other possibilities come to mind:

One of SFD's sponsors is The Open CD, a wonderful collection of free software
made to be freely distributed.
The programs run in Windows and cover the most common tasks such as word processing, presentations, e-mail, web browsing, web design, and image manipulation. The Open CD team only includes software they consider appropriate for a wide audience, and each program is carefully tested for stability. These CDs can be burned for simply the cost of the blank disc and would make a perfect promotional item for a computer literacy-related library event or as a prize for a Summer Reading Program.

Finally, I thought of the Freedom Toaster, a freestanding kiosk designed to burn discs of free software for people or areas without broadband Internet access where downloading over the 'net would be problematic. The specs are posted online, and the machine can look as nice as you want or can afford. The handsome one pictured here obviously represents an investment in time and materials, but would make quite a statement of support both for free software and towards narrowing the digital divide.

I think these are all as good a promotional opportunity for libraries as National Library Week.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Global Read-Write E-Textbook Initiative Launched

Several years ago students in a graduate class at the University of Georgia wrote the first version of the free e-textbook "XML: Managing Data Exchange". Later classes at U Georgia and elsewhere have improved and extended the book. Each class using the textbook has been required to leave it in better shape than they found it.

This has inspired the University of Georgia's Center for Information Systems Leadership to launch the Global Text Project (http://globaltext.org), a project to harness the creativity of college students to create open content e-textbooks for use by other students around the world.

Similar to WikiBooks, the Global Text project is interesting because much of the work will be generated by students in the supporting institutions as class assignments. Guided by faculty and editors from the project, the books will initially be produced in English and Chinese, with translations to Spanish and Arabic appearing later. The goal is to create a library of 1,000 open content electronic textbooks that will be freely available from a Web site. Distribution will also be possible via paper, CD, or DVD.

Although much of what I wrote in college was hopeless dreck, I did learn to synthesize original research, which is what textbooks do. College students produce thousands of papers on thousands of topics each year, and all of this just gets thrown out. With proper editing and guidance (and motivation), this could be an important resource. I think this is an exciting read-write culture moment.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

R.I.P. MARC -- murder or suicide?

For the last week, the "Next Generation catalog listserv" has been buzzing with discussions of what is needed to bring library catalogs into the modern era. Listserv participant Karen Coyle describes the need to "Murder MARC" as part of the process. But I'm afraid that when MARC goes, it may be a suicide.

Our cataloging process is as broken as our cataloging format.
We need to rethink the idea of 1,000 catalogers maintaining 1,000 separate versions of the same OCLC or LC-sourced MARC record in 1,000 separate local catalogs. One can see signs that this model is failing in the declining quality of new original cataloging and in the increasing use of non-updated "raw" CIP records in catalogs. We used to worry that too many cataloging decisions were being made by paraprofessionals-- now many decisions aren't being made at all.

There is another model of sharing and updating files (which is really what modern cataloging is). The cooperative teams behind Open Source software programs use version control systems to manage the updates (bug fixes, new features, etc.) going into the program's code from programmers all over the world. Maintainers work to ensure the updates work as promised and don't create more problems. Once the maintainers sign off on a new release, it goes off to data repositories and from them to users around the world.

In this system, the changes made by the contributors are made against a master copy that is then shared with everyone. The same problem is not fixed 1,000 times for each local installation-- it is fixed once, and the next 999 contributors can work on the next 999 problems.

What if library cataloging worked this efficiently? Because most enhancements or corrections are currently made by hand at the local level, there is a massive amount of duplicated effort. A new model which uses technology to eliminate this waste could allow the labor to go into quality control or other activities where catalogers are needed (that special collections cataloging backlog, for example).

As the debate about the post-MARC format rages on, we must remember that sustainability is at least as important as functionality-- and we just can't afford to maintain the traditional cataloging model.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Open Source ILS goes live!

Today the Georgia PINES consortium (Public Information Network for Electronic Services) has launched Evergreen, their new Open Source ILS.

After two years of development, Evergreen has gone live. Designed for use by a 252-library consortium with combined collection of 8 million volumes, it represents a considerable move up-market for Open Source ILS software. (Koha's largest installation is the seven branch Nelsonville Public Library in Ohio with 250,000 volumes)

Evergreen looks like a polished, production ILS. It has an initial social web feature in its "Bookbags", which alllow patrons to create reading lists and share them with friends. The "To Do" list on the developer site mentions a proposal to emulate the browse capabilities of the Barnes and Noble site.

Koha has an active group of supporters around the world who have steadily grown the product and expanded its usefullness far beyond the modest initial product. The key step now is for a development community to grow around Evergreen.

The Evergreen documentation wiki has a lot of information on the project, including demos, presentations, and training modules.

Friday, September 01, 2006

OLPC project news

The One Laptop Per Child device has its production name: the 2B1

Lesser known in the West perhaps than its laptop features is the fact that the screen is designed to pivot around so it can be used as an ebook reader. The potential to replace printed textbooks with cheaper e-textbooks is an important consideration in funding the purchase of these machines. See the discussion here.

If successful, the 2B1 will clearly change schools, but I think that it may also change libraries. E-textbooks have always seemed to me to be a perfect "killer app" for electronic publishing-- textbooks are read for facts, not narrative, and are a required purchase, not a choice. Further, they are required by institutions that would also be in a position to dictate the model of hardware reader. The 2B1 could become the standard, low-cost reader the market has needed all along. Once people own a standard reader, they might be willing to read more in electronic form.

Which leads to libraries. Here we are, slowly (perhaps too slowly) and steadily building our ebook collections, waiting for patrons to catch on. For the first time in years, I think we can see a plausible way that they might do just that.