OpenOffice CDs are becoming available for lending at 415 out of 507 public libraries in Scotland, and the activist responsible, Bob Kerr, is busily packing up more CDs to send to what he estimates represents around 60 per cent of libraries in the UK as a whole. But it's the process rather than the coup itself that is most interesting - by dint of listening to libraries and trying to understand and solve their problems, Kerr has identified mechanisms and routes that can be used to get Free Software into libraries, and indeed that give it positive advantages over proprietary software in the area.
It's not as simple as might first appear, and Kerr has produced a Newsforge commentary that explains why. Librarians have potential liabilities deriving from lending software, do not have the time or resources to check out CDs of unknown provenance, and have neither the power nor inclination to switch the libraries' own systems to Linux. But they know a hell of a lot about copyright, so although the GPL is to most of them of little interest, they immediately grasp copyleft. So, if they have a supplier they can trust, software with reasonable shelf life and Ts & Cs which mean borrowers are supposed to copy it, then they'll quite possibly jump at the chance.
"Librarians love this stuff," says Kerr. "Most don't know what it is or what they can do with it. They need a trusted source of CDs and cannot accept them from members of the public. It may be more cost efficient if they had a Kiosk that is not connected to the internet but could create CDs from images rather than CDs on shelves (they have photocopiers). A CD like the Gutenberg project, TheOpenCD is of more value to them than Linux distributions.
"Everyone is trying to get OpenOffice onto the librarians computers and that is not going to happen whilst Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supplying millions of pounds to fund them. What the Free Software community can do is start a dialogue and reach out to libraries to solve their problems. We must understand their problems of liability and the amount of money it takes to put something on the shelves."
Kerr has surely discovered something of a secret weapon here; Bill Gates might just have a problem with the notion of Microsoft software being shoved into lending libraries with the specific objective of it being copied, so it's an area where proprietary software cannot compete, provided Free Software has gained access to the channel. And it has interesting potential as a 'ground up' distribution process that isn't dependent on first gaining mindshare for Free Software in the mass market.
Glasgow Green MSP Patrick Harvie has welcomed the move, and is taking an interest in the top-down side. He says that the Scottish Parliament alone has spent over half a million pounds on Microsoft software, and calls for an OS preference to be built into public procurement policies. To The Register's knowledge there are at least several other MSPs of this frame of mind, so it might just happen in Scotland, one day.
Kerr, meanwhile, can't deal with the whole of the UK in the same way he did Scotland, because he doesn't have the resources. In Scotland he was able, over a period of six months, to discuss matters, but this clearly isn't feasible on a larger scale for one person. At the moment, he's mailing 3,500 CDs designed as introductions to Open Source for librarians, but this will clearly need follow-through if it's to succeed. Anyone interested should mail him on Lendingcd@yahoo.co.uk. ®