Open source and open engagement technology

I deal every day with Special Libraries, and am constantly impressed by the extraordinary results they delivery with often meagre resources.  The bulk of the library profession has, of necessity (and perhaps inclination), oriented to setting strong standards and leaving the delivery of information systems in the hands of commercial vendors.  The demand for compliance to strong standards has borne dividends in the facility with which bibliographic data can be exchanged nearly seamlessly.      Nevertheless, the nature of information delivery in organisations is gradually but ineluctably changing with the myriad of new ways for the information dissemination and delivery.  Information providers, publishers and information agents are offering new services directly to clients that would once have dealt with such issues through the library – and may now view the library as a dispensable  “middle man”.

Marginalisation of the library service is a possibility in this context.  The degree to which this marginalisation is avoidable depends a lot on the time it takes our profession to reskill in a manner that maintains the relevance of the library and the profession.  This re-skilling entails much closer engagement with the technology that library patrons are already immersed in.  It also entails projection of the strengths that the profession can historically claim to the coherent organisation of information.    Where does open source fit into this?   The last decade has opened the possibilities for direct engagement by libraries with the technology  they are working with.   A decade ago there were limited opportunities to lift the lid on the technology that commercial library vendors provided their clients, other than demanding compliance with broad library standards.   The availability of a wide range of open source tools and technologies offers an opportunity for direct technical engagement in a number of ways:  by learning web 2.0 technologies that allow direct re-engagement with the library patron base; by lifting the lid on the technology itself by downloading and installing open source systems – and even changing and developing these systems; by contributing to the community enhancment of the software.

These are real challenges and opportunities – one that Special Libraries are experience right at the coal-face.  Special libraries are the canary in the coal mine for the library profession.  They can be more easily dispensed of by organisations that public or state/national libraries, if they are seen to be of marginal worth.   I have seen the adoption of open source systems happen as a practical response of increasing information capability in a context of a diminishing budget.    There is a very clear role for librarians to ensure that the information management in organisations is coherent, effective and sustainable.  There is also a role in engagement across the multiple modes of communication.  There is a role also in being the hub of knowledge about the media assets and technologies relevant to the organisation.  All of these entail a level of technological engagement that is richest when it is informed by a willingness to experiment with the technology – to try out the tools and the new modes of communication.  While it is pretty challenging, it is also pretty interesting.  Open source has a key role here, as you do not have to wait for a vendor-delivered course in the latest software release.  You can get online and try it out, download it, even change it!

Edmund Balnaves – ITS Information Officer

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