30 Days of Innovation #17: Go Open Source

I’m what some circles call a security wife – I think I’ve mentioned before that my husband is in information security.  Lately, I’ve been sucked into helping plan their conference in November, which has furthered my immersion into the whole field. Yes, a lot of it goes way over my head, but I know more than the Average Jane. So what am I taking away from all of this to use in my own work? Well, I’ve increased my skill at designing the conference badges in GIMP, which is the open-source version of Photoshop. (If you need Photoshop, and the light version isn’t enough, beg your IT department to let you download GIMP. It’s free, and if you already know Photoshop, GIMP is a breeze). Open source shouldn’t be seen as innovative for our libraries in this day and age given how long it has been around, but it is.

So, what is open source, you may ask. The Open Source Initiative provides a rather detailed definition that I’ll sum up here. It’s software where the source code  (what makes it work, for you non-techies) is freely distributed, allows derivations, must not discriminate against any person, group, or field of endeavor, is not specific to a particular product, is technology-neutral, and does not restrict other software. Most of the time, the software is freely distributed and available to any person or group that wishes to use it at no charge.

What does that mean for libraries? It depends on how open your IT department is. Some of us can download software to our work computers, and some of us can’t. If you’re one of the ones who can’t, you’re down to pleading your case or using your personal computer (which defeats the purpose of creating a program around the software, so try pleading your case).  Let’s say you want to have a class on animation, or audio editing, or [insert program idea here], but all you can find is software you have to pay for, or an online version that isn’t quite beefy enough for what you want. Start looking for an open source solution. It’s rather easy to find out if a piece of open source software does what you want it to do, and many are well-established counterparts to paid software, such as GIMP for Photoshop and Open Office for Microsoft Office. One of the places I get my open source software from is Sourceforge, or directly from the product’s Web site. All you need to do is check to make sure you’re following the terms of the license – similar to making sure you’re not violating copyright – then download it to however many computers you need and you’re all set.

But wait! There’s more! We don’t have to limit our open source usage to just applications. We teach computer classes, sure, but we (or perhaps a volunteer) can also teach Linux classes. Expose our teens to the different distributions of Linux, like Mint or Ubuntu. What is really nice is how easy it is to get live CDs, which means you don’t have to actually install the operating system, but if you do want to install and your IT will let you, ask about the possibility of running the OS in a virtual machine or partitioning the hard drive so that Windows is still available, a practice known as dual-booting (knowing these tech terms might help you when you’re talking to IT). You may even be able to provide the CDs as part of your catalog – free distribution means you can burn as many as you like –  or set up a computer station where all you have to do is provide the links and let your patrons either buy discs from you or bring their own.

So, what does this mean for teens? Look, we know jobs from Computer Science degrees (that is, the science of how computers and software work) and its cousin Computer Information Systems degrees (managing information systems to help companies actually run and make decisions) are not going away any time soon. For teens who show the aptitude, this can be a lucrative and really fun career path. It can be competitive, but once you’re in (or you’re the spouse of someone who’s in, in my case), you’re part of a close-knit community. Think about getting someone from the local Linux Users’ Group to come by, or maybe even start a LUG of your own if there’s enough interest. If we provide the opportunity for our teens learn about and become interested in open source, we might be able to give them the head start they need.

Have any of you used open source in your library (and I’m willing to bet many of you do and don’t even know it!), or do you have more questions about it? Share in the comments!

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