The Public Library as an (Almost) Open-Source Institution

Encouraing Change From Without

Help Us Ditch Proprietary Things

Koha, Evergreen, and other open-source ILSes are a good start to getting public libraries into full citizenship in the open-source world. Getting Linux and open-source programs and operating systems on all the computers and servers in every public library all around the world is a good start to getting public libraries into full citizenship into the open source world. Pushing for the use of TOR, HTTPS Everywhere, ad blockers like uBlock, NoScript, and other add-ons and privacy protection measures in your public libraries is a good start to getting public libraries into full citizenship into the open source world. Advocating with ideas like Reset The Net is a good start to getting the public library and community to think heavily about systems, software, and privacy. These are admirable goals, and if that's where your talents and advocacy lies, then we're more than happy to have you pushing us in that direction. If you want to code up the new killer app for libraries, to make our systems and technology run better, and to give us software options to use that are free, open source, easily extensible (for a given value of "easy"), and have a structure in place to support us and train us on the open source software we have, we'll happily have you.

We need more than just technology, though. Even if we are freed of proprietary technology to the nth degree possible, we still have institutional structures, policies, and procedures that need to be opened up and examined. Many public libraries still use the Dewey Decimal System, and pay the proprietary fee to OCLC for it, even though Dewey is awful in so many ways, because it's a fairly easy system to implement, with a regular method of finding and classifying items under its purview. The alternatives are things like BISAC (which is how bookstores lay out their wares), which groups things in similar categories close to each other, but doesn't necessarily make it easy to find groups of materials on one specific subject without browsing the general area they're housed in, or the Library of Congress system, which has become the go-to system for academic libraries due to its infinite extensibility, but is an ad-hoc system at best, which can result in the problem of like things not being near like things, making it less likely for a researcher to find all the possible relevant materials on their subject. Plus, LoC is expansive - to cover all the possibilities would need a space the size of most academic libraries.

It would be lovely if there was an Open Classification Standard for all forms of materials, based in open-source, freely-available ideas like FRBR and FRAD, using an open and freely available standard to generate machine-readable records, and, most importantly, that makes freely available the process by which a material receives its classification. There was an attempt to start with this, the Open Shelves Classification, although it appears to have died down in 2009. Still, with sufficient people, and especially those with experience working on community-driven projects, the pieces of the first project could be revived and used, or their remains harvested for a new effort. It will take a big group to handle all of the moving parts involved, from developing the classification rules and symbols, the documentation that would accompany those rules and symbols, the procedures for classifying, the structure of a compliant record, the underlying philosophy, and to bring the idea into existence and promote it to libraries of all types. All of these goals would work best if undertaken in conjunction with libraries and librarians, with the ultimate end goal of a finished classification system freely available to all, made by an open-source community. Organizers of big projects can contribute their expertise in getting deliverables and managing lots of people, enthusiasts can draw new people in, keep the morale of those working on the project high, and run Kickstarters for funding. Coders and machine thinkers can help structure the system to be logically consistent and understandable to both machines and humans.

The benefits of a big project like this are immense. A public library can save a lot of money if they don't have to pay for the seats to Windows, the seats to OCLC, and the seats to the organizations in charge of the RDA Toolkit. Those building and classifying their own collections and libraries can create records that could be freely shared, and programs that could search such shared collections and coordinate their lending and use. The system itself could adapt and extend, so as not to get caught in a situation where an entire classification level is functionally dedicated to Christianity, with a very small element for non-Christians to live in, or to be able to redefine and rework itself so that any artifacts of a particular time's thinking can be smoothed out and refactored to match the mindset of the future. It would be the work of a lifetime – maybe several lifetimes, but the librarians and communities of the future would thank you profusely for giving it to them. De-coupling the institution of the public library from the for-profit companies that hold the keys to various systems will help the public library stay strong and able to adapt to the needs of the future.

We also need people who are skilled with privacy and security issues to help us stay informed about the latest ways that governments and private corporations collect and mine data on our daily activities. We need information about methods that have been developed to obfuscate, confuse, or prevent the disclosure of our personal data to those entities. Much of this will be software-focused, because we do most of our disclosures on-line these days, but we also need people who can teach us how to spot social engineering, help library administrators and boards write and enforce policies that provide maximum protection of our members and a smooth experience with the library, and help all people fight for their rights to own digital things, rather than just having licenses to use them. We need people who can help us translate EULAs into human, who can show us how to spot surveillance cameras, how to maximize the likelihood that the police will not attack us for peaceful protest, and how to effectively make changes in our government when it does things in our name that we don't approve of. An open-source library can house all of these things and more, and fiercely advocates on behalf of its community against those who would take away its fundamental freedoms.