Monday, May 15, 2006

WPopac: A WordPress OPAC?

I am little late on uncovering this one. I thought I would post it anyway since it fits in with my recent library innovation theme...

At ALA Midwinter in January, Casey Bisson presented Designing an OPAC for Web 2.0 which describes building an OPAC using the WordPress blogging software. This work was the result of a very simple blog post where he wondered aloud why library catalogs should be like WordPress .

Casey's question was how to design an information service in a world rich with information services and filled with users who make information seeking — though not necessarily at libraries — part of their everyday lives. His vision was that every catalog record should support comments, trackbacks, and pingbacks. Every record should have a permalink and content should be tag-able. The look should be easily customizable with themes. Content should be available via RSS or Atom and should be extendable with a rich plugin API.

Well, he did just take in creating WPopac (WordPress OPAC) for the Lamson Library at the Plymouth State University. He explains a bit in how it all works in a self interview.

Let's set aside for the moment the OPAC functions of circulation and acquisitions and the whole issue of record migration and look at what he has done.

I have been a supporter of open source systems for libraries for some time. I feel libraries can and should find ways to leverage open software whenever possible instead of relying upon commercial vendors that essentially lock libraries into using their sustaining technologies. No matter how special we feel we are the software needs and technology solutions of libraries are really not that special.

Commercial software developers rarely develop new products until they find a critical mass of users since they need to recoup development costs and make a profit at the same time in order to survive. The relatively limited size of the library system market makes it a difficult one for new vendors to enter. This means libraries have few choices when choosing software solutions.

The affect this environment has on libraries is that many may delay innovative services waiting for commercial vendors develop and market software solutions. The reality is some solutions are never developed. In the changing world of the Internet, libraries looking to develop cutting edge services can no longer wait for commercial solutions.

The reliance on commercially supplied systems often means libraries purchase systems that meet their budget, not necessarily ones that meet their needs. Libraries often make budgetary sacrifices in order to obtain and support a system that does meet their needs. Such decisions can have a significant impact on a library's budget, staffing, and patron services. Few libraries will switch once a significant investment in licensing, maintaining, and training support for their information systems has been made.

Software vendors have created an effective paradigm that many libraries cannot afford to break away from. Library administrators need to begin viewing open products as alternatives to commercial products and as a means to break away from, if even partially, the paradigm’s grip.

Software vendors do not actually sell software; they sell licenses for users to use their software products "as is". The vendor retains ownership and all rights to the original source code that makes the program run. The vendor, and not the library, often controls functionality and user interface since software licensees often do not include the rights to make any modifications.

Library systems vendors will often customize systems at a library's request, but usually for additional fees. New features are often years in the making and are often added only after a significant number of libraries request a specific change, or have paid for the modification. Any customizations or features add to the overall cost of a library system.

Getting back to Casey.... when one looks at the number of individuals using and developing WordPress plugins and extensions and compare it to the total number of commerical library software developers, well, the numbers favor WordPress. Since most of these plugins are open for others to repurpose, the modification and addition of new functionality is a fairly quick task. Since most of these plugins are freely available the library does not have to pay for the modification, or more importantly wait for a vendor to include it in an update.

Casey's approach is important because it helps his library to break his library away from the library systems paradigm. It allows for the development and deployment of a library system that can evolve quickly and adapt to the changing needs of the library community without mortgaging it's future.

The bottom line is that libraries that wish to innovate and keep up with information technology can no longer afford to rely upon commercial vendors. As Nicole C. Engard puts it, "Where does III fit? I’d say it’s a like the crazy cousin you have to deal with because he’s family!" That's no way to plan for the future. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

brd said...

Thanks for this post. I appreciate your thoughts.