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“Community” is a key word for free and open source software (FOSS). This is because FOSS is typically developed in an open manner. The more people participating, the stronger the community who contribute ideas, feedback and even software code. The result is better software that meets the needs of the user community.
The eIFL-FOSS programme aims to raise awareness, facilitate engagement with FOSS development communities and to advocate for FOSS use by eIFL.net member libraries in developing and transition counties. FOSS applications are typically available at no cost, making them attractive to libraries whose budgets are being squeezed by annual licence fees for proprietary software. Potential cost-savings are therefore a motivator, but the real advantages appear when it is localised for languages not being served by proprietary software.
Localisation, feature modification, and the absence of licence fees are possible because of the way in which FOSS software is released to the public. FOSS licences ensure that end users always have the freedom to run the program for any purpose, to study how the program works and adapt it to their needs, to redistribute copies of the program to others, and to improve the program and release those improvements to the wider community. FOSS solutions can provide realistic, sustainable alternatives for libraries. Koha and Evergreen are integrated library systems (ILS) currently being explored by the eIFL-FOSS programme. Both have large communities of users and developers who support the translation of their user interface into local languages, such as Chinese, Georgian and Ukrainian, and each has an active email discussion list. Libraries migrating to a new FOSS ILS can also obtain paid-for technical support from companies. With such robust and well-supported FOSS solutions - and there are others - increasingly the real question is not whether to select proprietary or FOSS, but rather how to choose between FOSS systems.
eIFL is creating a network of library FOSS champions in member countries. In June 2008, an intensive training workshop was held in Yerevan, Armenia to support the eIFL-FOSS Koha and Evergreen pilot sites. Key developers from the Koha and Evergreen communities committed their time and expertise to the workshop, and already the programme is bearing fruit. Technical leads for pilots in Armenia, Malawi, Mali and Zimbabwe have begun to ask questions on the Koha and Evergreen user lists. Tigran Zargaryan's team has contributed to the Armenian translations of the user interface for both Koha and Evergreen.
Each step is small and incremental, but it’s all part of how people from developing and transition countries are joining the worldwide community to make better library software through FOSS development.
FOSS solutions are not without cost, of course, they do require investment. But it is the right kind of investment in people and their skills. Library staff may need to develop new skills or to build on existing competences as they would with all systems. They may also need to learn new ways of working, such as learning how to get support from the FOSS user and developer communities. However, many of these same staff will progress to participating in FOSS communities through answering the questions of newer users, helping with translations or providing feedback to developers to make the software more useful for themselves and others. That’s the ultimate FOSS prize: local and international FOSS communities freely supporting the development and use of software for the benefit of all.