Monday, February 4, 2008

Session 418: Open Source and Libraries in the Developing World

Bess Sadler, Research and Development Librarian, University of Virginia; former co-chair of eIFL-FOSS
Nasser Saleh, Integrated Learning Librarian, Queen's University
Randy Metcalf, Program Manager for eIFL-FOSS

Bess started with a few words about open source software, and the meaning of "free" - in terms of "as kittens" (where there are associated costs down the road) or "as beer" (where there are no future costs). Then she outlined Stallman's four freedoms associated with software:
  • you are free to run the program;
  • you are free to study and adapt the program to your needs;
  • you are free to redistribute;
  • you are free to improve the software and release your improvements (and the whole community benefits).
She gave a number of examples of developing countries where commercially available software was unsuited to local needs, and open source software was a more flexible and reasonable alternative.

Digital collections and libraries are of growing interest in developing countries, where it is often easier to access information on foreign collections that it is to learn about local histories.

For me, one of the most eye-opening lessons from Bess's talk was when she brought up the frequent criticisms of programs working to bring open source software to developing countries: what use is it when people are starving in those places?
  • The technology is a part of the solution - it facilitates the spread of knowledge and supports access to it;
  • Information access is vital to alleviating poverty;
  • Access to information is as basic and vital as other services; and
  • Where will local experts, such as engineers or farmers, get their information from?
Nasser reiterated how important it is for developing nations to have access to information; it is essential for development and the empowerment of citizens depends of equal access to information. He outlined some of the challenges to setting up open access to information in developing nations (language, economic, human resources, and socio-political), as well as some of the opportunities.

Both Nasser and Randy talked about what eIFL is and does, and why its work is so important. Randy also talked about the aims of the program, and the need for realism.
  • Simple advocacy isn't enough (you need action to back it up);
  • Understanding alone doesn't get you a functional ILS;
  • Building a community takes time (it doesn't happen overnight);
  • There are always more challenges than are obvious at first;
  • Expectations of the community can't always be managed.
Finally, he spent some time talking about open source ILS's, the time lines, and what the challenges to using open source ILS were.

(Ethan Zuckerman's summary of the session can be found here.)

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