Open Source vs Proprietary Platforms

Open Source vs Proprietary Platforms

The pros and cons of this difficult decision

If you are looking to migrate your digital collections, one of the most important decisions to make is whether your new platform will be open source or proprietary (for a short history of this dichotomy, read the wiki article here). This question isn’t an easy one and there are pros and cons to both. Below you’ll find several helpful links and quotes for when you’re at this pivotal crossroads.

Librarian Carol Bean’s 2010 blog post shares a rather exhaustive list of platforms from both sides, some of which have already gone out of favor. Her key takeaway:

The main difference between proprietary systems and the open source systems listed above is economics. While the argument in the past has been that open source systems are not as developed and require more in-house expertise to implement, that is not the case anymore. For one thing, even proprietary systems require in-house expertise in varying levels in order to realize full functionality of their features (see, e.g., Creating an Institutional Repository for State Government Digital Publications). For another, as the number of libraries implementing Digital Libraries with resource discovery have increased, development of Digital Asset Management Systems has matured beyond the Alpha, and sometimes even Beta, stage. Open source Systems which did not reach critical mass have quietly died or been absorbed into better supported products. In the proprietary field, systems typically are developed within a parent organization that includes other software, such as an Integrated Library System, whose profits support R&D for the DAM.

So, while economics should broadly encompass all aspects of implementation, including time and asset costs, in this case the economics is primarily the money involved, since the difference in the other factors has pretty much been leveled. With any system, you will be involved in user forums, in bug fix requests, in creating (or updating) documentation, in training, in local tweaking, with or without outside help. Proprietary systems are currently asking between $10,000 and $20,000 per year for a (relatively) small archive, from what I have seen and heard.

In the code4lib journal article “Breaking Up With CONTENTdm: Why and How One Institution Took the Leap to Open Source” by Heather Gilbert and Tyler Mobley, they reiterate Carol’s cost issues with proprietary systems:

By 2011, LCDL had over 12 project partners and almost 50,000 items digitized. LCDL’s current CONTENTdm license was limited to 50,000 items. CONTENTdm defines items as single scans. Compound objects are counted as the number of scans plus one for the compound object record. The next and last tier available to LCDL in licensing was the unlimited license. This license allows an organization to upload an unlimited number of items. LCDL staff and library administrators were faced with the costly decision of committing to CONTENTdm and purchasing the unlimited license, a one time cost upwards of $40,000 with annual maintenance fees upwards of $9,000, or looking for other solutions. The easy answer would have been to invest in the unlimited license; however, even at less than 50,000 items, there were already obvious problems with the existing system, including server-side software issues and inaccurate search results. The College decided the CONTENTdm upgrade was not only expensive, but also would not solve these system problems, and focused on the viability of available open source options.”

And while the cost issue is there, it’s important to to remember that both have their challenges, as Marina Morgan and Naomi Eichenlaub lay out in the abstract for their “Digital Asset Management Systems: Open Source or Not Open Source?” poster presented at the 2016 DCMI International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications.

There are challenges with adopting both open source and proprietary software and selecting one or the other will be guided by the circumstances of each institution and even each project. In terms of implementing open source, the software may be free but there will definitely be a significant investment of staffing resources, most likely in the form of technical expertise. Alternatively, there are now a number of options to outsource open source implementation and hosting. Finally, there are well-established communities of practice to provide technical support for all the open source options described above. On the other side, implementing proprietary solutions may be feasible for libraries without an IT staff. However, one of the major drawbacks of a proprietary-software package is expense. Depending on the number of users, the licensing and installation fee can be fairly expensive especially in comparison to open source software. While out-of-the-box solutions are easier to adopt, they are not usually as adaptable to the constantly changing needs of the institutions.

Bridge2Hyku’s mission is to help with the migration process to the open source Hyku, but the tools we’re building and the best practices that will be highlighted, will be helpful to those that decide to migrate to closed platforms as well.