Open-Source Software in Museums
Open-source software (OSS), free of cost, arguably more robust and stable than commercial software, and modifiable to suit users' needs, offers many advantages to information provision environments like museums. Major museums use OSS tools for uses ranging from authoring and content management to more focused special projects such as tagging and image queries. Open-source integrated library system tools like Koha are gaining a foothold in many information provision environments, and the lack of up-front cost encourages experimentation in creating new projects. Although any new system such as a content management system contains costs in time, training, and maintenance, the net savings may be worth it for a nonprofit museum. Open-source software also includes the benefits of code that is constantly examined and improved upon, as well as the potential for developing and sharing new and improved features with other users. Museums and other information provision environments are particularly situated to realize the benefits of sharing information in this way, although a small institution without programmers on staff may be reliant on outside help for improvements. Finally, its characteristics of adaptability and personalization make OSS uniquely poised to provide museums with online presences that will meet present and future Web users' demands for a personalized and interactive experience.
In early 1998, the term open-source software (OSS) was coined by Netscape to describe the public release of the source code of their then-widely used Web browser (Tiemann, 2006). Although a highly unusual move on the part of a large software company, this was in fact a new term to describe an old phenomenon in the hacker world: the free and open sharing of code. Programmers have been doing this for decades, often as side projects in their free time, in order to unearth and repair bugs, facilitate adding new features, and in general sharing knowledge in order to improve programs.
Open-source software, often called “free software,” is “free” in two senses. Open-source software community advocates carefully distinguish the meanings of the ambiguous word free (in fact, this ambiguity of English is perhaps the main reason for the adoption of the less hazy term open source) and the meaning of libre, “free as in free speech,” which refers to the users' rights with respect to the software (Free Software Foundation Inc., 2007). The secondary meaning, gratis, “free as in free beer,” available without cost, also typically applies. There is no restriction, however, against selling copies or distributions of OSS, and in fact selling copies is often an important funding mechanism for OSS projects (Weber, 2004, pp. 47-48). Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com/) is one example of a successful company whose business depends on the sale and support of OSS. In a nutshell, OSS or free software refers to programs distributed under terms that allow users to do three important things: to use, to modify, and to redistribute the software in any manner they see fit, without requiring payment of royalties or fees to the program's authors (Feller, 2005, p. xvii). The GNU General Public License (GPL) (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html) under which most OSS is released requires that not only must software so licensed remain free but so must all derivative works (Weber, 2004, p. 48).
What makes OSS particularly noteworthy today is how, almost invisibly, it has grown out of the niche of the programming hobbyist into the mainstream. For the first time, companies like Microsoft are facing real competition for their products in the open-source Linux operating system and the OpenOffice application suite, now being adopted as standard desktop configurations by many European governments (Blau, 2006). More fundamentally, though, anyone using the Internet today (which has become practically synonymous with using a computer) is using OSS on a regular basis, whether the user is aware of it or not. Economist Steven Weber (2004) stated that more than 65% of all Web sites used the OSS server Apache, Google ran Linux on its 10,000-server cluster, and 80% of the world's e-mail traffic was handled via Sendmail, an open-source mail handler (p. 6).
Information provision environments have begun to discover the advantages of OSS. The Georgia Public Library Service recently developed and adopted Evergreen, an integrated library system (ILS) now being used for its consortium of 270 public libraries (Georgia Public Library Service, 2008). The Library of Congress's archives has undertaken a digital preservation project using the open-source Scribe scanning software running under Linux (Stutz, 2007).
Museums are taking advantage of OSS to do more than just drive their Web servers. Examples range from major authoring and content management projects like Pachyderm, Koha, and Nexhibition to smaller, more focused applications like the steve.museum tagging tools and imgSeek image query programs.
The Pachyderm project is an authoring tool designed to allow the easy creation of online multimedia exhibits. Developed by a partnership of six universities and six museums led by the New Media Consortium and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pachyderm represents an example of wide-ranging collaboration among institutions that would not have been able to produce such a product on their own (New Media Consortium, 2005). Museums (both within and outside of the partnership) have created a variety of online exhibits using Pachyderm. The project maintains a showcase page at http://www.pachyderm.org/showcase/index.html.
The Guggenheim Museum's library recently adopted the open-source ILS Koha, maintained by programmers in New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Poland, and France (Koha Development Team & Katipo Communications Ltd., 2005). Like many Linux distributions, commercial companies offer fee-based tech support for this free open-source product, although institutions still have the option of installing it and using it without cost if they prefer to rely on internal IT departments or free community support.
These two applications represent major institution-spanning OSS tools that affect the entire technological work of the museum. Many smaller open-source projects exist that can be used on a more specific project. The Musedoma index of museum Web sites (http://access.museophile.net/index.museum) uses the Betsie tool, developed by the BBC, to create a version of its page for visually impaired users (Bowen & Filippini-Fantoni, 2004). The steve.museum project has released its “steve tagger” image tagging application as free software under the GPL (Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project, 2006).
Small museums like the Ellenville, New York, Public Library and Museum find that the zero up-front cost of OSS allows them the freedom to experiment in creating new projects. The Ellenville Museum staff installed the Greenstone image collection software and trained themselves in its use to digitize a collection of historic postcards, a project made possible by the free availability of Greenstone (Valero, Perry, & Surprenant, 2007).
Open source does not always mean better. Commercial does not always mean more expensive. Museums considering adopting OSS must weigh a complex set of variables before making a decision: economic factors, social and personal factors, and technological factors. How much weight to give to each depends on the environment at any given museum.
Open-source software is free, isn't it? Yes, with a “but.” Open-source software typically costs nothing up front, and if one is talking about installing OpenOffice or Firefox on a personal laptop, the story ends there. In a complex information provision environment like a museum, the situation is not as simple or absolute as that. Anyone can download a copy of Pachyderm from SourceForge and install it to their server at no cost. Actually implementing a new content management system (CMS) of any kind will always have a cost in time and effort, which in turn costs the museum money. Technical expertise and time are required to configure the new system. Staff must be trained, and productivity may lag as they adapt to the new system. Administrators must not assume “that open-source software costs nothing to run. There are always support costs, and those can often be as much as 75% or 80% of what it would cost to buy and maintain an expensive software package from a company” (J. R. Young, 2004, p. B4). Librarian and author Karen G. Schneider (2007) identifies a third sense of “free” to add to beer and speech: “All of these technologies are ‘free’ as in ‘free kittens.’ ... They come with maintenance and deployment issues, from opening ports on a secure network, to how much bandwidth they will use, to how much time IT personnel need to devote to deploying and maintaining the ‘free’ software.”
All of these hidden costs assume that the museum is adopting an existing OSS package. Developing software from scratch certainly requires more: more time, more money, and perhaps more dedicated staff. Pachyderm received a half-million dollar grant from the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services and required years of development (J. R. Young, 2004). A major CMS project is surely the opposite end of the scale from installing Firefox!
Assuming Young's estimate is right and the operating cost of free software is as high as 75% to 80% of commercial equivalents, in a pure bottom-line calculation, it may still make a great deal of sense for museums to consider OSS. “Free as in kittens” is more costly than “free as in beer” but can still result in saving a good deal of money. For a nonprofit organization, this can be a very significant factor.
Open-source software that the museum develops or improves can be shared with other institutions. Knapp and Neder (2006) describe their experience searching for an application for an online gallery project: “We couldn't locate existing software that accomplished [our] goals, so we built on available open source software created for other purposes. The end result is a set of Web tools that can be used by other organizations in the future.” Open-source software by its nature lends itself to collaboration and partnerships. Work done by one museum is shared, redistributed, and used by institutions anywhere in the world, and it is rarely necessary to reinvent the wheel by starting from scratch. Pachyderm is a clear example of the benefits of this sort of sharing: “There is a need for a ‘cultural toolbox’ node on the cultural network where institutions that develop specialized products [such as Pachyderm] can readily share them with other institutions legally and openly” (Rinehart & White, 2007, p. 188). In fact, truly successful OSS must be shared: “Open-source software doesn't succeed unless it forms a robust community” (J. R. Young, 2004, p. B3). The more institutions that use a particular piece of OSS, the more thoroughly it has been bug-tested and the more likely that another user has already requested or developed any given desired feature.Museums are educational institutions with a mission not driven only, or primarily, by money. Philosophically, the OSS movement is highly compatible with institutions that exist to share and disseminate information. “The closed-source approach allows you to collect rent from your secret bits, but it forecloses the possibility of truly independent peer review. The open-source approach enables independent peer review, but you don't get rent from your secret bits” (Raymond, 1999, p. 170). Raymond writes from the point of view of the programmer, not the user, but his point about peer review gets to the one of the key features of OSS—it is shared information, and information provision environment organizations are uniquely qualified to see the benefits of sharing information for the common good. The Guggenheim Museum recently adopted the open-source ILS Koha. Francine Snyder, manager of the museum's library and archives, emphasized this point: “Libraries [and museums] promote access to information; utilizing an ILS that is open source can be seen as an extension of this mission” (LibLime, 2007).
Many technology-savvy users regard OSS as more reliable and stable than closed-source commercial applications. The open-source Firefox Web browser has continued to gain ground against Internet Explorer, despite the fact that Internet Explorer comes preinstalled with the Windows operating system (LeClaire, 2006). Microsoft's new Windows Vista has had a chilly early reception and slower sales than expected, and many businesses are beginning to consider open-source desktop options such as Linux (Boyne, 2007).
Open-source software is arguably more reliable than is closed-source software because any user is theoretically a debugger who can make contributions to the development of the software. “More users find more bugs because adding more users adds more different ways of stressing the program. This effect is amplified when the users are co-developers” (Raymond, 1999, p. 43). In practice, it is not literally true that every user is a co-developer, of course. Most end-users are not programmers. However, Raymond's theory still holds: Every museum that adopts an open-source application does indeed add more real-world testing time to a program. If even a single person at the institution can report his or her problems, feature requests, and feedback to the developers, or even communicate the same to other institutions using the application, the crucial development collaboration is fed with new information—all the more so if the museum has an IT staff member who can investigate solutions and create local improvements to share.
A key advantage of OSS is its capacity for extension and customization. Because the institution has access to the source code, a missing feature can be added or an undesirable behavior removed. This is particularly important in the information provision environment. Because we are in the business of meeting the information needs of our users, more and more often the face that our technology presents to them via the Web is their first impression—sometimes their only impression—of our institutions. If a museum wishes to add new features to its Web presence, an OSS application allows it to do so in exactly the way it wishes, and on its own schedule, without having to wait for a new software release. It can meet demands as they arise. “NASA ... has an expression: ‘Software is not software without source code.’ ... And unlike proprietary binary-only OSes, with Linux our users can modify the product to meet the needs of the application they are building” (R. Young, 1999, p. 120). The value of this capacity of OSS comes up again and again as one investigates how museums are using OSS.
It must be said that not every institution can easily take advantage of OSS's unique qualities. Customizing software requires technical expertise, and not every museum has a programmer on staff. Smaller institutions or those with fewer technological resources must communicate problems and requests to the software's developers and hope that their improvements can be added as a patch or new version.
Few museums would purchase a critical piece of software like a CMS without considering technical support options. Purchase of a commercial catalog or CMS likely includes technical support from the vendor. With OSS, the idea of a “vendor” that offers tech support may be meaningless; the creator may be another museum or a loose collection of programmers working on the project in their spare time. Some large OSS projects such as Ubuntu and Red Hat Linux and the Koha ILS do offer tech support for a fee, but more often support is community-based: Users of the software request help on forums or mailing lists, and other users contribute their own expertise. “Getting answers to questions beyond the FAQs takes some dedication. But what else is new? Getting help with leased/purchased programs is no picnic either” (Valero et al., 2007, p. 8). This may or may not be reassuring enough for a given museum.Open-source software, particularly smaller projects, can drop out of development and be abandoned. If the programmer behind a particular application loses interest, runs out of spare time, or is hit by a bus, no new version of the software may be forthcoming; this happens all the time with small one-person projects (although hopefully the last case is the least frequent). If a museum is relying on an OSS application that is abandoned, they may be stuck with outdated software indefinitely. On the other hand, analogous situations arise all the time with commercial software too. Companies can go out of business or discontinue old products that sell poorly. With source code available, abandoned software can be dusted off and developed indefinitely even without the involvement of the originator, if the museum has staff capable of doing so.
The next generation of museum informatics will include two vital concepts: personalization and collaboration. These two ideas are at the center of the most current trends on the Web: so-called “Web 2.0” sites like Flickr, del.icio.us, and Wikipedia, based on content created and shared among users. It seems probable that Web 2.0 will turn out to be a catchphrase with a limited shelf life, but the ideas behind it are simple and pervasive: Users are coming to expect the ability to adapt their technological interactions, particularly online ones, to reflect their own desires and interests. They will expect and demand the ability to interact with the institution and with one another, not just to view and passively absorb content. Two characteristics of OSS discussed here make it ideal to meet these expectations: It is adaptable, and it is shareable.
If museums are to keep themselves relevant to tech-savvy users, they will have to keep up with these expectations. A system that adapts itself to the characteristics of the user is quite simply a better system for providing information: “Personalization becomes a useful tool in the selection and filtering of information for the user, facilitating navigation and increasing the speed of access as well as the likelihood that the user's search is successful” (Bowen & Filippini-Fantoni, 2004). Museums and other providers of cultural information are behind the state of the art in this respect, and “it has become fundamental for these institutions to try to improve their visitors' ability to ... access information in the most effective way. Personalization is a viable and worthwhile aid in this process,” and personalized information leading to successful interactions will bring repeat visitors (Bowen & Filippini-Fantoni, 2004).
If museums are slow to implement personalizing features, sufficiently motivated users will bring their own: “Museum goers are already adapting their own personalization technologies to the museum environment with or without official institutional support” (Knapp & Neder, 2006). When students created their own dramatic interpretations, original music, and unofficial guides based on the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA’s) collections, MoMA encouraged the project and provided publicity, “put[ting] MoMA in good stead with an upcoming generation of museum goers who will look to carve out their own personal space within the exhibition environment” (Knapp & Neder, 2006).
Open-source software is adaptable. By definition, it is software that the museum can modify as desired. This makes it ideal as a platform for personalization. Not only are some of the largest personalized Web applications—wikis and blogs—already running on OSS, but as museums using OSS on their sites identify new desired features, they can simply create them and modify them to meet the needs of their own environments.
Personalization on the individual level is a form of collaboration—an interaction between museum and patron rather than a simple one-way transaction of information. Collaboration among institutions is no less important because it means that those smaller museums without a large technical staff can still benefit from new developments and can even contribute to those developments. Open-source software “depends on joint provision for even a moderately complex program” (Weber, 2004, p. 133). Improvements in OSS don't simply benefit from collaboration, they demand it. Raymond (1999) succinctly summarizes this point of view: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow ... or, at least, that they turn shallow quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every new release” (p. 41), but it goes deeper than fixing bugs. Development of the software itself is fundamentally shaped by its users, even the non-programmers. “Using software does not decrease its value. Indeed, widespread use of open-source software tends to increase its value, as users fold in their own fixes and features (code patches). In this inverse commons, the grass grows taller when it's grazed upon” (p. 151).
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