Is open source library software really free?

Open source library software – software for which the source code has been made available for modification and distribution by its creators –  is promoted as an inexpensive or even free alternative to purchasing library software licences. But is open source library software really a free or low cost option?
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When you consider that software service providers can charge for distributing and supplying open source software, and that you still need to pay for support, training and development costs it becomes clear that open source is not free at all. The cost comparison table below shows the typical costs involved in running a library system.

Software as a Service reduces entry costs

Indeed, as more library system vendors turn to the ‘Software As A Service’ (SaaS) model where the software is hosted by the vendor, the upfront licence fees are considerably reduced when compared with traditional capital purchases for perpetual licence rights. Instead customer pay for support, development, hosting and training services on an annual and ongoing basis. While open source library software is available to download or use online for free, librarians will typically either need in-house technical expertise or to purchase services from an external service company. Here, the similarities between library system vendors and open source service providers become more apparent.

What is open source software really costing you?

Open source software is promoted as belonging to its community, being more stable and able to respond rapidly to requests for new development. In practice, their release patterns are often not dissimilar to those of vendor library systems. Librarians may overlook the fact that development processes for library software are complicated and a dedicated team is needed to ensure the result is a coherent whole. Software vendors are responsive to their community and will develop to their users’ requirements; many run user groups and webinars to encourage this consultation process.

Who pays for development?

Open source library software may give the opportunity for the library to engage in bespoke development for their needs. There are costs and risks associated with this approach. Although the library achieves software which matches their individual requirements, they will either have employed internal developers or hired an external developer. I have seen organisations spend two years developing software, but then forget or omit to include the salary of the programmer when comparing open-source offerings with purchasing licences.

The other problem with bespoke development is that the development work will need to be revisited or repeated when the organisation needs to upgrade to a new operating system or database platform. This is especially troubling if a programmer has left in the meantime – and taken their knowledge with them.

Do you have the IT resources to support open source software?

Ultimately, open source library software supported internally may be a choice for an organisation with spare IT capacity, but it’s rare to come across an IT team who are not over-stretched with many people competing for their time. Buying into external services from an open source vendor or a library system vendor means you are tapping into personnel whose sole remit is to support the library software.

What is the future viability of your software?

What a library system vendor can offer above all else is sharing the cost of development and support across all of its customers. At the end of the day, the business model for open source vendors is only slightly different from library software vendors in that the licence costs may be lower, but both types of vendors need to sustain their income from high value development and support services. For the customer their choice of library software should be a combination of functionality, overall price, IT platform, the quality of the support and services and the future viability of the product.