Category Archives: open data

The Benefits of Open Source for Libraries

The following post appeared as a question and answer piece in the August edition of the Cilip Update magazine

What are the main benefits to the library of adopting open source?

There are some well known benefits that open source could bring to libraries, these include:

Lower costs: Open source offers a lower total cost of ownership than traditional library systems. There are none of the traditional license costs associated with open source. Libraries are able take advantage of the reduced costs the cloud offers by reducing local support and hosting costs (if it is supported and hosted by a third party).

No lock-in: Libraries are, in a sense, removed from the traditional lock-in associated with library systems. There is a greater opportunity to pick and choose components, and take advantage of what is, generally, better interoperability with open source solutions. Related to this is also the idea that open source is more sustainable: If a vendor goes out of business the software may disappear or be sold-on. With open it is always available, and there is usually a community involved in it to continue its development.

Adaptation and Innovation: Connected to the above is the greater capacity that libraries have to innovate with open systems and software. There is no need to await the next update or release, instead in either isolation or collaboratively, can develop the functionality required. This enables much more agile services and systems, as well as ensuring user expectations are exceeded.

A richer library systems ecosystem: A less direct impact of open source is a richer library systems ecosystem. This is both in terms of the library solutions available (a healthier marketplace with both proprietary and open solutions) and in terms of collaboration and engagement between libraries themselves. Libraries are able to collaborate and share code on the functionality and fixes they require. Indeed, there are open source systems such as Evergreen, which were developed as an open source library system for a consortial approach.

While these benefits are the headline grabbing ones, it might be argued there are more subtle, but none the less powerful benefits in the adoption of open source in libraries, especially within higher and further education. There are broader trends and themes emerging (and some fairly well entrenched) within the new information environment that make open source particularly timely for libraries. These developments include: open (linked) data; managing research data; open scholarship and science; Open content such as OERs; crowdsourcing, and, of course, open access. Open source solutions for the library fit very well into this broader open momentum affecting the academic world at present.

Away from the academic world it is difficult not to notice the close correlation between the open, learning, sharing and peer-production culture libraries embody and that of the open source culture.

So it may be that one of the greatest benefits of adopting open source is that it mirrors the very philosophy and values of the library itself.

Is it something all libraries should consider, or are there limitations to its usefulness as a solution (if so, what are the limitations)?

There are very few barriers to any library adopting an open source library system. The business models that surround open source library systems are currently based on third parties offering support and hosting services for libraries looking to implement a solution. Effectively, this means any library could take advantage of an open system.

There can sometimes be very pragmatic limitations to the systems themselves – the open source management system Koha, for example, doesn’t include an inter-library loan module (although they recognise this and have a wiki to collect the requirements for the module’s development).

For me, open source offers libraries an exciting opportunity: better understand the skills, roles and processes that are critical to the library’s community of users (whether academic, public or other). Open source can be about simply outsourcing your system and support to a third party; but it can also be about re-evaluating services, systems and understanding where the real value of the library lies. This may mean that support for the open source LMS is outsourced to a third party, so the local developers can work with librarians to ensure the services are innovative and meeting the needs of users.

Open source is an opportunity for the library to become more agile, and adopt a more ‘start-up’ like culture to the development and deployment of services.

What are the main barriers to a library adopting open source? (fear of the unknown, lack of technical ability etc)

It would be simple to blame the slow adoption of open source systems on fear – fear of the unknown, cost, security, perception, the list could go on. These are real concerns within the library community. But, it would miss the fact that libraries are using open source software. There are discovery interfaces that include Blacklight and VuFind. These open products themselves often run on top of the open search platform Apache Solr, for example.

Search and discovery are critical functions of the library, so these are not inconsequential adoptions.

Furthermore, there is a small, but growing recognition of the viability of open source for libraries. Halton Borough Council was the first to adopt open source for its public libraries, the University of Staffordshire was the first UK university to adopt an open source management system . These early adopters are helping raise the profile of open source and helping make it a visible alternative.

These developments point at potentially more entrenched barriers to adoption. One such barrier is the impact institutional and organisational procurement processes have on the decision making process (This, it might be argued, is a barrier to the development and adoption of proprietary systems as much as it is to the adoption of open source) . The procurement process for libraries (certainly in the academic sphere) has not been one that has traditionally explored innovative approaches – instead it has focused on relatively static and core specifications. This has had the effect of reinforcing the type of system, and the systems approach institutions and organisations adopt in their tender to suppliers.

For many organisations it might be summed up as simply as: who do you put a tender out to in the case of an open source solution?

However, many of the more superficial barriers are already largely redundant within the sector – the viability of open in general has been proved with the adoption of open source operating systems such as Linux in most sectors including business. Some of the more embedded organisational issues may take time to resolve, but already these are starting to dissolve as institutions seek to make effeciencies and adopt new approaches to procurement.

Are there issues over ongoing support? and do libraries need a decent IT dept to even consider open source?

As I mention above, IT support isn’t necessarily an issue for the library, this can be outsourced to a third party if necessary . But, having the right technical skills in the library is essential; it’s essential whether or not you’re choosing an open source solution.

However, the IT department does play an important role (whether they are in the library or wider organisation) as they are the people you’ll be talking to a lot about your decision. I think they key issue regarding the IT department is making sure they understand what you’re doing, and get them on your side!

There are also opportunities for libraries to engage in projects which share many of the characteristics of open source, but which have a slightly different approach. Examples include shared community activity such as Knowledge Base+ in the UK (a shared community knowledge base for electronic resources) which is a collaboration between HE libraries to improve the quality of e-resource metadata. Or the US ‘community source’ project KualiOLE (an Open Library Environment designed by libraries) where you pay to join the project to affect development, but the code for the system is open source. These examples build on the library’s tradition of openness and collaboration, and provide similar kinds of benefits to straightforward open source software.

Finally, it might just be that the greatest issue of open source facing libraries has already been overcome. David Parkes, Associate Director at University of Staffordshire, jokes that you should never be first. Of course, Staffordshire was the first HE institutions to implement an open source library system, so in many ways he’s removed the biggest hurdle to adoption there is!


Observing the Web

Like a lot of people, when I think about it, or when I’m reminded about it, I understand that the Web is a place where someone is always watching what you do. I understand that … but then I think, well … the Web is such a huge beast; such a vast ocean; such a giant metropolis where the comings and goings of individuals are insignificant. How and why would anyone notice what I’m looking at and which links I’m clicking on?

Then up pops Tom Barnett from Switch Concepts Ltd. at a meeting yesterday to tell us that ‘Google has a file the size of an encyclopedia on everyone in this room.’

Hmmm … that’s not a particularly comfortable idea for someone to put in your head. I start to feel a vague sense of paranoia creeping through my mind.

And then I think, c’mon Neil, pull yourself together! Google really doesn’t care who you are. They just want to put things in your line of sight that are more rather than less likely to get you to open your wallet and part with your wages!!

Such were the thoughts that were buzzing around my head yesterday at an event organised by the Web Science Trust (

The meeting was entitled ‘Observing the Web’ and the purpose was to highlight some of the work that the Web Science Trust and their partners and collaborators are doing to build a global network of Web Observatories providing an open analytics environment to drive new forms of Web research. We went round the room doing introductions and Dame Wendy Hall ended up branding us a ‘motley crew’. Academics, industry players, not-for-profits, technologists, funders, charities, a lawyer. (Quite a respectable looking motley crew in the very smart surroundings of the Royal Society I might add). But ‘motley crew’ felt about right for a topic and a collaborative, academic, open activity that is still exploring the territory and testing new ground. Presumably in contrast to the well-resourced, sophisticated and highly developed (but opaque) methods employed by the corporate observers of the Web (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo etc.).

The point of all of this ‘observing’ is not to try and take account of every little bit of data and content on the web, but rather to understand what the aggregated use of the Web can tell us; how trends and fashions and changes of behaviour in relation to the Web might illuminate aspects of our society and culture, both now and for future students and researchers.

This was all of great interest to Jisc. We are currently working with the British Library, the Oxford Internet Institute and the Institute of Historical Research on an initiative that aligns very well with the notion of the Web Observatory.

The Big Data project (


the AADDA project (

are both using a copy of the Internet Archive’s collection of UK domain websites collected over the period 1996-2010, to examine new ways to engage with the web at domain level, and develop new forms of research that leverage the scale of the web. As the name of the Oxford project says … it’s all about using ‘Big Data’.

This was work that emerged from influential JISC-funded reports commissioned in 2010 –

Researcher Engagement with Web Archives

As we heard at the meeting, the academic observatory is a very different proposition to the corporate observatory and comes with enormous challenges including: interoperability (how do we link observatories?); access (asides from Twitter which of the big corporates will let us use their data?); privacy (will people feel spied upon?); and sustainability (what is the business model?).

A fascinating meeting and big topic. There will be more discussion in Early May at the ACM Web Science Meeting in Paris.



Licensing Data as Open Data

One of the findings that has emerged clearly from the UK OER Programme and from the UK Discovery work is that for a healthy content ecosystem, information about the content needs to be available to many different systems, services and users. Appropriately licensing the metadata and feeds is crucial to downstream discovery and use.

The OER IPR Support Project have developed this fabulous animation to introduce the importance of open data licensing in an engaging way.

It was developed out of the UK OER Programme but informed by the work of several other areas including UK Discovery, Managing Research Data, the Strategic Content Alliance, and sharing XCRI course feeds. With thanks to the many people who helped in the storyboarding, scripting and feedback: particularly Phil Barker, Tony Hirst and Martin Hawskey.

You may remember the same OER IPR team produced the Turning a Resource into an Open Educational Resource (1,700+ hits and counting). The team is Web2Rights (Naomi Korn, Alex Dawson), JISC Legal (Jason Miles-Campbell) and the animator is Luke McGowan. The whole animation is (c) HEFCE on behalf of JISC, and Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0.

We hope it will have wide usefulness and we very much welcome feedback.

Amber Thomas, JISC

When ideals meet reality

At ALT-C in early September I ran a session with David Kernohan on Openness: learning from our history. The theme of the conference was ” a confrontation with reality” so it seemed fitting to explore the trajectories taken by various forms of openness. What follows is just a short thought piece that I contributed to the session about some of the patterns I have observed over the past decade or so.


Curves and Cycles

The first thing to say is that we are all different in our encounters with new approaches Whether they are new technologies like badges or new delivery models like MOOCs. We are each on our own learning curves and changed curves, and we meet new ideas and solutions at different points in the hype cycle. That is a lot of variation. So when we meet new ideas, we can respond very differently. My first message is that every response is a real response.


It’s to easy to characterise people as pro- or anti- something It’s too easy to present things as a debate for or against But polarisation often masks the real questions, because we don’t hear them properly.

“The use of technology seems to divide people into strong pro- and anti-camps or perhaps utopian and dystopian perspectives” Martin Weller, The Digital Scholar [1]

Dialectics of Open and Free

There is usually a dialectic around open and free: free as in freedom, free as in beer [2].  “Open as in door or open as in heart”: Some courses are open as in door. You can walk in, you can listen for free. Others are open as in heart. You become part of a community, you are accepted and nurtured [3]. I always add: open as in markets?


To follow on from free as in beer …A great example of branching is the trajectory of the open source movement. there were big debates over “gratis vs libre” and that gave birth to the umbrella term Free AND Libre Open Source Software term – FLOSS. By enabling the practices of open source to branch off, to allow the community to branch off, we saw a diffusion of innovation. Towards profit-making business models in some areas, free culture models in others. Its interesting how github supports the whole spectrum

This has also been the approach of the UK OER Programme. We have been quite pluralistic about OER, to let people find their own ways. We have certainly had tensions between the marketing/recruitment aspect and the open practice perspective. What’s important to note is that often it’s not just one model that comes to dominate.

Tipping points into the mainstream

We don’t always understand what brings about mainstreaming. We very rarely control it.

Consider a story from open standards: the rise and fall of RSS aggregation. Is it netvibes or pageflakes that made the difference? Or google-reader? At what point did twitter and facebook start to dominate the aggregation game and overtake RSS? The OER programme gave freedom for each project to choose their platform. They didn’t chose a standard they chose a platform. It’s often when open standards are baked in to platforms that we see take-up without conscious decision making.

I’m not sure we always notice: sometimes when mainstreaming happens we don’t recognise it. When did e-learning become part of the fabric of education?


Finally, change can take a lot longer than we hope. The 10 years since the Budapest Open Access Initiative [4] can feel like geological time. And yet the OA movement has achieved so much. Perhaps we need some time-lapse photography approach to recognising the impact of changes we started back then. So many more people understand OA now. So many more people care.

Change takes longer than you think

Key Messages

We are all unique in our encounters with new things. Polarisation often masks the real questions. There is often a dialectic around open and free. Often it’s not just one model that comes to dominate. Sometimes when mainstreaming happens we don’t recognise it. Change can take a lot longer than we hope.








My Story of O(pen)

Here at JISC we think a lot about openness: what it means, how to support it, where it takes us.

This is my contribution to that thinking. It is very much my individual views, but informed by the work we do at JISC, and by the Open Knowledge Foundation, amongst others.

My open narrative

Open makes things visible.

The everyday sense of “open” is open rather than closed – letting people see what is there, what is happening.

The web enables you to;

  • do some of your processes/practices online, visible to others
  • share some of your products/outputs online, visible to others

Open makes access easy.

This is where open–as-in-open-access comes in: open without needing to log in, and open without payment.


Open is social.

The “many eyes” principle of sharing open data and the open innovation model encourage others not only to view but to comment, to feed back, to engage. This speeds up the process in hand and improves the quality of the resulting work.


Open makes things usable by others.

Open standards exist to encourage as many developers as possible to adopt them.

This is where open licensing comes in: granting others explicit and generous permissions to use your content.


Open can be a way of working.

Doing open working and openly releasing outputs can make a person feel differently about what they do. Researchers might call this collection of activities open scholarship, technologists might call their activities open development, project teams might call it open innovation. Each of these types of open practice has elements in common and elements specific to the sorts of activities the practice involves.


Open is not exclusive

Open source can mean both the open development process and the open source software. They are not always found together: open development processes can produce non-open software, and closed development processes can produce open source software.


Opens are mutually beneficial

There is a virtuous cycle when open process and open products combine. In open scholarship, both creating and using open content and using open ways of working, the content feeds the practice feeds the content.

I’m watching the Openness in Education course with interest and I expect this whole meta open concept to deepen in 2012.

A Diagram of Opens

Its important to note that is is an abstracted diagram: in my view, open is not a replacement for the  way things currently work. There is not ever going to be a total transformation to open. The reality is a mixed economy. Business models matter. Practice models matter.

Open can be good for business, open can be good for practice but it exists in a bigger ecosystem of technologies and behaviours. Good is not enough, it needs to be useful. That’s what JISC and other advocates of openness are working hard to surface.

Ultimately I think open is good because it is a good way of working.

Amber Thomas

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Activity data and data protection – what am I allowed to do?

JISC has been engaging in scoping the potential for activity/usage data for the HE sector under the Activity Data Programme with 9 projects.  There is much potential that activity data brings in terms of business intelligence for various uses such as recommendation services, collections management etc.  A very engaging synthesis of the work has been produced plus high level guides for activity data.

However up to this point, the relationship of usage data and the potential arising from data protection issues has not been explored in depth. Following on from a report commissioned from JISC Legal together with a briefing paper by Naomi Korn and Charles Oppenheim, certain issues have been explored in depth which are not clear cut such as the creation and subsequent use of anonymised data which does not contain any personally identifiable information (name, age etc) but where the mashing up of this data could lead to a user being identified.  Services therefore need to be mindful of this but not let it prohibit the potential that activity data affords. The papers and accompanying FAQs explore these cases as well as instances where consent has been given to use personally identifiable information, the importance of seeking consent, how consent might be given and when?

Berlin 9 conference

I am just back from the Berlin 9 conference. The “Berlin” series of conference are named after the Berlin Declaration on Open Access, and this was the first time the annual conference has been held in North America. It’s very hard to summarise my reactions from the conference, there were so many stories showing how opening up scholarship can lead to real benefits, in health, development, innovation and our quality of life. For example, Cyril Muller from the World Bank described how that organisation has adopted an open approach to the work it funds, and to its own operations, and is encouraging the governments with whom it works to do the same. Laura Czerniewicz from the University of Cape Town showed how open education resource, configured for SIM-enabled mobile devices, can make a real difference to some quite seriously disadvantaged students. And Elliot Maxwell highlighted some wonderfully elegant research studies, showing clearly how, when scientific findings and resources are made open, it leads to a greater diversity, quality and application of knowledge. Of course, there are implications. Michael Crow of Arizona State University argued that all this requires us to re-think the university as a social technology, and Philip Bourne highlighted some of the challenges we have in moving to a research practice that is native to the digital environment, genuinely reproducible, and that rewards researchers who move in that direction. The overwhelming impression, though, was of a scholarly community now adopting more open approaches, and beginning to see tangible benefits from that. Berlin 10 is on the African continent for the first time. I hope it will bring new voices to be heard in this community.

Marketing and other dirty words

I have been thinking a lot recently about how to move beyond the rhetoric of “open equals good” towards identifying where open approaches help us meet key business cases. A notable quote from the Power of Open book launch was that “open isn’t a business model, its a part of a business model”. I’m seeing this trend in open educational resources, open access repositories and open innovation. It’s how open source became more mainstream, and we need to be learning from that journey. If we want to see open approaches sustained, we need to get businesslike about how make the case, however contradictory that might sound.

Earlier this month I spoke at a UKOLN event on metrics and the social web, and the discussion there reinforced the potential of using the web more effectively to underpin our key business goals in further and higher education.

On 26th July I am presenting at the Institutional Web Managers Workshop 2011 and I will be developing this theme further, paying particular attention to the way that web managers can support open access, open educational resources and open social scholarship.

In reflecting on how open access and OER can contribute to the core business cases of universities, I think that activities particularly worthy of more attention include:

  • Profiling academic expertise
  • Supporting REF impact metrics
  • Enhanced research publications
  • Cross-linking open content to open course data
  • Social media listening tools
  • Web analytics and visualisation

My presentation on slideshare: Marketing and other dirty words