Open Source Tools for the Day-to-DayBy Nicole C. Engard, Published on September 18, 2010
Last time we covered what open source was and what it means to use open source software in our libraries. Keeping all of that in mind it's time to introduce you to some open source tools that will help you in the day-to-day.
But first, there is one thing we didn't address last time. When teaching open source software I often hear from law librarians (and other special librarians) that they couldn't possibly use open source software in their organization because it poses too many security risks. This is nothing more than a manifestation of their fear, uncertainty and doubt (also known as FUD).
We live in a world where software runs everything; that in and of itself is risky and scary, but whether it's open source or proprietary has little to do with adding or removing risk. In the end it all comes down to how the software was developed and by whom. My recommendation is to always compare software applications that serve similar purposes to each other. We are librarians after all and if we know one thing it's how to do research and find reliable sources.
One example of this type of FUD is when people say that Firefox (http://firefox.com), an open source browser, can't be used in their organization because it is not secure. In studies Firefox has been found more secure than Internet Explorer and in my personal life I haven't seen a virus warning pop up since making the switch. The reason for this is not just because Firefox is programmed better, but also because Firefox offers users the ability to download any number of add-ons (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/) to enhance the browser experience and add security.
In my install of Firefox I have added the NoScript (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/722/) and FlashBlock (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/433/) add-ons because these both stop scripts from running on pages I visit without my express permission. This alone can stop viruses from being automatically downloaded to your computer while you're browsing the web. Additional security add-ons can be found in the 'Privacy and Security' section (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/extensions/privacy-security/) of the Firefox extensions site.
Another common reason law librarians give me for not using Firefox is because it doesn't work with their databases (such as LexisNexis, Westlaw and HeinOnline). This may have been an issue when Firefox was first released, but it is no longer the case. And if by chance you find a page that doesn't display right in Firefox it is because the website was not coded to web standards. That point aside, you can use the IE Tab add-on for Firefox (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/1419/) to make it so that the page renders as if in Internet Explorer.
In recent years many tools have appeared on the scene to help us manage our bibliographic references and resources, but my favorite by far is Zotero (http://zotero.org). Zotero is a plugin for Firefox that will allow you to save references you find on the web, in databases, in catalogs and/or in print to your computer and to their servers in the cloud. This means that you can create multiple bibliographies and access them from multiple computers. You can even share your resources publicly (if that makes you uncomfortable you just have to customize your settings to not share) so that others can learn from the articles and books you've read. I share my Zotero library publicly (http://www.zotero.org/nengard/items) and I also belong to groups who share resources on the topic of open source software in libraries (http://www.zotero.org/groups/freelibre_and_open_source_software_and_libraries_bibliography/items).
We've all heard of the Microsoft Office Suite and probably have been using it for years, but did you know that you can download OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org) for free and it serves the same purpose? OpenOffice is a mature office suite that includes word processing, spreadsheets, drawing and database applications. It also allows you to save files in formats that can be opened in other proprietary office suites, including Microsoft Office.
When I was working in the law library we only had one station with a complete office suite for the patrons to use. This was both because of the price of a full office suite and the time people spent on our computers using it. If you wish you could provide your patrons with more stations to do their word processing and document creation, then OpenOffice is the tool for your library.
At my law library we used to put together a monthly print newsletter. We used expensive programs like Quark to publish these newsletters, but we had an old version because we couldn't afford to upgrade. I have since found out about Scribus (http://www.scribus.net) a free and open source desktop publishing application. Scribus can do all the same things as more expensive programs like Quark and Microsoft Publisher, but it's much more accessible to those of us in libraries with shrinking budgets. Scribus provides you with a complete set of tools to create print-ready publications and PDFs for publishing on our websites. This kind of tool can also be used to help create professional looking signage, research guides and help documents.
In the next couple of articles I will talk about more open source tools for your law library (or even for your home office) but if you're impatient to learn more now, you can read through my Zotero library or check out my open source bookmarks on Delicious (http://delicious.com/nengard/opensource).
Open Source Tools for the Day-to-Day by Nicole C. Engard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.