Is your library system Open Source or Open Wash?

5th October 2023 | PTFS-Europe

Open source software offers libraries tremendous benefits like cost savings, customisability, and community-driven innovation. Popular library systems like Koha are truly open source. However, some proprietary vendors now claim to be “open” through misleading marketing practices known as open washing. How can you evaluate whether a vendor is genuinely open?

True open source means the source code is available for anyone to inspect, modify, and share. Projects accept code contributions and improvements from the community. The software licence grants freedoms to use, study, modify, and distribute the software for any purpose.

When evaluating a library system vendor, look for these signs of true openness:

  • Public source code repository – Can you freely access the source code to verify what is open? Closed source with only select glimpses is a red flag.
  • Contributor-friendly processes – Does the vendor accept code submissions and implement improvements from outside developers? What is their track record of responding to community needs?
  • Two-way API access – Can you read and write data through public APIs without limits? Restrictive terms of service or fees for API access indicate open washing.
  • Transparent open practices – Is the vendor forthcoming about exactly which components are open source versus proprietary? Lack of clarity suggests misleading positioning.
  • Could you, if you wanted to, self-host and use the software without any licence or fees?

Beware terms like “open-compatible”, “open platform”, or “open API” without substance behind the claims. Push vendors to articulate exactly how they contribute back to and support open source projects, not just consume from them. With vigilance, libraries can support genuine open innovation in our field rather than empty open washing.

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