ED 650: Open-Source Software

Open-Source Software:
Current Issue Paper 6

Open-source software is software that is licensed for anyone to use, “study, modify, and distribute… free of charge” (Corbly, 2014, p. 66). Both the software and the code behind it is openly shared. Oftentimes, open-source software is developed and improved collaboratively by interested individuals worldwide, typically resulting in a program that is better and more reliable than one would expect from a single developer or team of developers. There are certain open-source software that are library-specific, such as the novel tutorial creation software, Guide on the Side, and the integrated library system, Koha. However, libraries may consider using any programs that fill a need, regardless of the intended market. Though open-source software is not exactly an emerging technology in and of itself, it remains a hot issue in libraries. Further, some emerging technologies in libraries are open-source software programs, such as in the case of the Guide on the Side, and an understanding of open-source software is needed in order to consider them.

The benefit of adopting and using an open-source program is clear: cost savings. In times of nearly universal budget cuts in academic (and other types of) libraries, we are faced with doing more with fewer resources. Whenever a piece of technology has the potential to make work more efficient, more effective, or help the work be completed at a lower cost, it must be seriously considered. As stated in a previous paper, Guide on the Side is an excellent example of an open-source software with the potential to make library instruction more efficient and effective while saving a library 1000s of dollars (Hutchings, 2015).

The initial price may be zero, but is open-source software truly free? Thacker, Knutsen, and Dehmlow (2014) points out that such software comes with “significant support, integration, and development costs” (p. 11). One must consider the potential drawbacks or challenges of adopting open-source software to understand the true costs, in terms of money, time, and headache. Open-source software:

  • Typically does not have any option for “professional technical support or training” for the product (Gallegos Samuels & Griffy, p. 44; a top 3 in Thacker et al., 2014);
  • May require in-house “highly skilled staff who [can] provide support” for the software (Thacker et al., 2014, p. 13) (63% of academic libraries surveyed identified this as a top three challenge.);
  • May even lack any sort of guide to installation or use (Corbly, 2014; a top 3 in Thacker et al., 2014);
  • May have malware or viruses attached to the downloaded file (Corbly, 2014);
  • May become unavailable for download in the future (Corbly, 2014); and
  • May not be allowed by institutional IT policies (Corbly, 2014).

Despite these challenges, it’s common for academic libraries to adopt open-source software. In Thacker, Knutsen, and Dehmlow’s (2014) survey of 76 US academic libraries, 97% of them reported using at least one open-source software program. This number is impressively large but I wonder how many of those libraries have only adopted Mozilla Firefox or WordPress, both of which are uncommonly well-supported and nearly ubiquitous. And libraries are spending substantial amounts of time working with open-source software. In the Thacker et al. survey, the time spent on the most recent open-source software adoption project was widely varied but remarkable: for initial implementation, from .75 to 9,000 hours with an average of 573 hours and a median of 160; for maintaining, from zero to 512 hours per month with an average of 68 hours and a median of 20 (Thacker et al., 2014). (Interestingly, two libraries reported Guide on the Side as their most recent adoption, with one library saying they spent 500 hours implementing and the other reporting just 2 hours. I suspect the former library included all the time creating the tutorials in that set-up time! Only one of those libraries reported ongoing staff time, less than 10 hours per month.)


Corbly, J. E. (2014). The free software alternative: Freeware, open-source software, and libraries. Information Technology and Libraries, 33(3), 65-75.

Gallegos Samuels, R., and Griffy, H. (2012). Evaluating open source software for use in library initiatives: A case study involving electronic publishing. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 12(1), 41-62.

Hutchings, D. (2015). Guide on the Side: A new alternative for interactive tutorial creation. Unpublished paper.

Thacker, J. C., Knutson, C. D., and Dehmlow, M. (2014). SPEC kit 340: Open source software. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries.

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