Library-in-a-Box: First thoughts
George Soros and a host of other funders are going to pay smart people around the world to develop free and open source software for libraries, specifically targeted at libraries in the developing world. This is kind of a big deal.
A few months ago I was chatting on #code4lib when Art Rhyno started asking me about my work experience in Guatemala and Mexico, and asked me to get involved with this group called eIFL (electronic Information for Libraries). Read up on their website for an overview of what eIFL has been doing up until now, but the big news is that they are about to get into the Free and Open Source Software business. The first meeting of the group now known as eIFL-FOSS was held in Cupramontana, Italy, earlier this month and I got to go. We even have a press release.
Somehow, I have ended up as the co-chair of this remarkable group. I hope I can rise to the challenge.
eIFL works with libraries in developing and transition countries to help them find sustainable ways to meet their own needs. Their first major undertaking has been to help these libraries organize into consortia and negotiate with journal database vendors for affordable licensing terms. This has been a tremendous success, and it is allowing libraries unable to pay market rates to get current journal publications into the hands of their users. Building on this success, eIFL now wants to tackle the next item on the list of “Why it sucks to be a library in the developing world.”
I speak, of course, of the ILS.
The sheer chutzpah of this is staggering, but also gets me really excited. I mean, this is something librarians at well-funded universities with infrastructure out the yin-yang complain about constantly (See, e.g. “Why OPACs Suck” parts 1,2, and 3 by Karen Schneider). But it gets even worse for systems librarians in eIFL supported countries. The ILS documentation rarely comes in your local language, the vendor will not send anyone out to support or train you, the ILS might not even support your character set, and worst of all you have to pay astronomical amounts of money (amounts which are constantly increasing due to fluctuations in foreign exchange rates) just for licensing.
Dorothy, the eIFL delegate from the University of Malawi Library, is in a common situation. Her library received a grant five years ago to institute a commercial ILS, but now the grant has run out and they have no way to pay the licensing fees. What do you do? You can’t not have an ILS. This is a national university library.
This is where library-in-a-box comes in. Thanks to the excellent work behind projects like Koha and Evergreen, there are some open source ILS solutions available. Unfortunately, people in Dorothy’s position rarely have the institutional expertise to take advantage of them. I’ve installed Koha, and I’ve talked to people who’ve installed Evergreen, and as excellent as both products are they aren’t exactly “click to install.” There is also still the question of internationalization and unicode support.
Library-in-a-box is coming at these problems from several directions. One goal, for example, is to make an easily distributable CD (it could be distributed, for example, in a box!) that can install Evergreen or Koha and all their prerequisites, possibly as part of a customized linux distribution. We want to follow the example set by the Tactical Technology Collective (TTC) with their NGO-in-a-Box product. Key features will be
- full unicode support
- full internationalization with easily customized message files so the product could have an interface in any language that someone can write a translation file for
- thorough community maintained and internationalized documentation, available both on- and off-line
- faceted browsing and other library 2.0 features (why work this hard to provide an ILS from ten years ago? We want cutting edge!)
- And, possibly most important, local communities of expertise…
Which brings me to Source Camp, the coolest idea I’ve heard in a long time. It’s kind of like foo camp, or bar camp, or some of the other events I’m familiar with from a North American context, but it is longer and has more of an agenda. The idea is to bring together about 100 people in roughly the same geographic area (e.g. Eastern Europe, Western Africa, Southeast Asia) who are interested in roughly the same kinds of goals (e.g. open source audio visual production, open source network security, open source ILS implementation) and everyone has a week-long hands-on workshop. The goal is not for the organizers to provide information in a top-down way, but for the participants themselves to learn to apply tools in local contexts, work together on regional challenges, and most importantly, become a community of support for each other so that when Tactical Tech or eIFL or whoever leaves town they aren’t taking with them all the tech support. Marek Tuszynski, one of the founders of TTC, gave a fantastic presentation about the TTC method at the eIFL-FOSS meeting, and I could feel the excitement from everyone in the room.
There is much more to write about this. We have some committements of funding already, but we are looking and applying for more. Initial pilots of ILS source camps will probably be in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and eIFL-FOSS is in the process of choosing an advisory board. I’ve sent in a proposal to speak about this project at code4lib con, so vote for me if you want to hear more there.