How open are open systems?


In my post “LING – Library integration next generation” I mentioned Marshall Breedings presentation at TICER “Library Automation Challenges for the next generation”.
Besides “Moving toward new generation of library automation” one of his other two topics was “A Mandate for Openness”, about Open Source, Open Systems, Open Content.
Marshall Breeding distinguishes five types of Open Systems, three of which in my view are the most important:

  • Closed Systems:  black boxes, only accessible via the user interfaces provided by the developer, no programmable access to the system
  • Open Source Model: all aspects of the system available to inspection and modification
  • Open API model: the core application is closed and accessible via the user interfaces provided by the developer, but third party developers can create code against the published API’s or database tables

(The other two types are intermediate or combined types: “standard RDBM systems” where third party developers can access the database schema, which in my view contains only part of the system’s data; and “Open Source/Open API”).

Especially the “Open API Model” is an interesting development for most libraries that work with commercial library systems. I have had some experience with two initiatives in this field: OCLC’s “WorldCat Grid“, and Ex Libris’ “Open Platform“. A big and important difference between these two is: WorldCat Grid is about access to a specific database already available to the public at large, Ex Libris’ Open Platform is about access to a number of commercial systems.

Interestingly, both initiatives consist of two parts: a set of open API’s and an open developers’ platform. These two parts make it possible to have a kind of marriage between commercial systems and an open source community. But how does this work in real life, how open is access to both the API’s and the Platform?

Some of OCLC’s WorldCat Grid Services are freely accessible, others are accessible for OCLC members only.
Membership of the WorldCat Grid Developers’ Network is available to “IT professionals from: OCLC member institutions, content providers, other software vendors and publishers, as well as bloggers and others in the library field who see value in a collaborative network related to the development of new functionality for the WorldCat Grid.”
Software code, snippets and API’s developed within the network will be openly available for members, and the world-at-large, to use and re-use.

With Ex Libris’ Open Platform, access to the Developers’ Platform is only open for Ex Libris customers.
Access to the existing API mechanisms (“X-Server” for the products Aleph, MetaLib, SFX, and Webservices for Primo) are also only available to Ex Libris customers. What will happen with newly developed API’s (conforming to new API standards like DLF ILS-Discovery Interface protocol) for new products is still unclear.

In my view it does make sense to restrict availability of Open API’s to members or customers in the case of access to licensed metadata or resources. But availability of Open API’s that access public data should be free to all.
It does NOT make sense to restrict access to tools developed on top of the Open API’s to members or customers only.
Granting access to data should be the privilege of the owners of the data, granting access to tools that access data should be the privilege of the developers/owners of these tools.
In this respect the OCLC platform is more open than Ex Libris, but it still is not completely open.
Of course, this is all highly dependent of the motives of the companies for supporting Openness: is it commitment to openness, or fear of losing customers?

2 thoughts on “How open are open systems?

  1. The reasons of companies to support openness will always be motivated by the fact that they see it in their own interest. There is nothing wrong with that. We all think that way, most of the time. Defining it as ‘fear of losing customers’ (which is of course a logical incentive) may sound a little negative. Saying this, I think it is in Ex Libris own interest to provide open access to the developers’ platform. There is of course a risk, some company may make a better commercial front end, but this will also boost the sales of the total Ex Libris solution. At this moment, developers within the Ex Libris user community may come up with solutions that are better for some customers, so it makes no sense to restrict this to the Ex Libris community.

  2. Peter, yes ‘fear of losing customers’ sounds a little negative, I admit that. It was meant to be a little provocative. It would also be nice if companies would just plainly say that they support openness for commercial reasons instead of expressing their “commitment to openness”; everybody knows this already.

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