Good and best open source software

What qualities and characteristics make for a “good” piece of open source software? And once that question is answered, then what pieces of library-related open source software can be considered “best”?

I do not believe there is any single, most important characteristic of open source software that qualifies it to be denoted as “best”. Instead, a number of characteristics need to be considered. For example, a program might do one thing and do it well, but if it is bear to install then that counts against it. Similarly, some software might work wonders but it is built on a proprietary infrastructure such as a closed source compiler. Can that software really be considered “open”?

For my own education and cogitation, I have begun to list questions to help me address what I think is the “best” library-related open source software. Your comments would be greatly appreciated. I have listed the questions in (more or less) priority order:

  • Does the software work as advertised? – If the program says it can do one thing, but never does, then this may be a non-starter. On the other hand, accomplishing a particular goal is sometimes relative. In most cases the software might perform excellently, but in others it performs less so. It is unrealistic to expect any software to be all things to all people.
  • To what degree is the software supported? – Support, can mean many things. Most obviously, users of the software want to know whether or not there are one or more people behind the software who can answer questions about it. Where is the developer and how can I get in touch with them? Are they approachable? If the developer is not available, then can support be purchased? Do I get what I pay for when I make this purchase? How expensive is it? Is their website easy to use? Support can also allude to software updates. “Software is never done. If it were, then it would be called hardware.” For example, my favorite XSL processor (xsltproc) and some of its friends work great but recommending it to friends comes with hesitation because I wonder about ongoing maintenance and upgrades to the newer versions of the API. Support also means user community. While open source is about “free” software, it relies on communities for sustainability. Do such communities exist? Are there searchable mailing lists with browsable archives? Are there wikis, virtual and real meetings, and/or IRC channels, etc?
  • Is the documentation thorough? – Is there a man page? A POD? Something that can be printed and annotated? Is there an introduction? FAQ? Glossary of terms? Is there a different guide/section for different types of readers such as systems administrators, programmers, implementors, and/or users? Is the documentation well-written? While I have used plenty of pieces of software and never read the manual, documentation is essencial if the software is expected to be exploited to the highest degree. Few thing in life are truly intuitive. Software is certainly not one of them. Documentation is a form of writing, and writing is something that literally transcends space and time. It is an alternative to having a person giving you instructions.
  • What are the licence terms? – Personally I place a higher value on the viral nature of a GNU-like license, but BSD-like licenses enable commercial enterprise to a greater degree, and whether I like it or not commercial enterprises are all but necessary in the world I live in. (After all, it enabled the creation of favorite personal computer’s operating system.) At the same time, if the licensing is not GNU-like or BSD-like, then the software is not really open source anyway. Right?
  • To what degree is the software easy to install? – Since installing software is usually not a process that needs to be repeated, a difficult installation can be overlooked. On the other hand, if tweaking kernels, installing a huge number of dependencies, requiring a second piece of obscure software that is not supported is required, then all this counts against an open source software distribution.
  • To what degree is the software implemented using the “standard” LAMP stack? – LAMP is an acronym for Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl (or PHP, or Python, or just about any other computer language), and the LAMP stack is/was the basis for many pieces of open source applications. The combination is well-supported, well-documented, and easily transportable to different hardware platforms. If the software application is built on LAMP, then the application has a lot going for it.
  • Is the distribution in question an application/system or a library/module? – It is possible to divide software into two group: 1) software that is designed to build other software — libraries/modules, and 2) software that is an an end-in-itself — applications/systems. The former is akin to a tool in a toolbox used to build applications. The later is something intended for an end user. The former requires a computer programmer to truly exploit. The later usually does not require as much specific expertise. Both the module and the application have their place. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the implementor’s environment one might be better suited.
  • To what degree does the software satisfy some sort of real library need? – This question is specific to my particular audience, and is dependent on a definition of librarianship. Collection. Preservation. Organization. Dissemination. Books? Catalogs? Circulation? Reading and information literacy? Physical place fostering community? Etc. For example, librarians love to create lists, and in a digital environment lists are well managed through the use of relational databases. Therefore, does MySQL qualify as a piece of library-related software? Similarly, as Roy Tennant was told one time, “Librarians like to search. Everybody else likes to find.” Does this mean indexers like Solr/Lucene ought to qualify? Maybe the question ought to be rephrased. “To what degree does the software satisfy your or your institution’s needs?”

What sorts of things have I left out? Is there anything here that can be measurable or is everything left to subjective judgement? Just as importantly, can we as a community answer these questions in the list of specific software distributions to come up with the “best” of class?

‘More questions than answers.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large

5 thoughts on “Good and best open source software”

  1. NewGenLib is an open source, web-based library management software under GPL and has been downloaded by over 20000 people all over the world. It would be interesting to know the extent to which it meets the criteria listed by Eric Lease Morgan

  2. I think that people should ask how involved the user community are. I think Nicole Engard wrote recently about how many librarians have given up trying to influence the software developers, but with FOSS, this is still possible. It’s disappointing it doesn’t happen more often, though.

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