Automation many years ago ceased to be a fashion and became a necessity for libraries. Technology became an indispensable tool for the good performance of processes and services, as well as for the exchange of information with other libraries.

Among the technological advances with the greatest impact on information units is the Internet, a means of exchanging information with unsuspected potentialities, which libraries can take advantage of to disseminate their collections to various parts of the world.

Despite this, and despite the fact that the Internet became a resource whose absence would be almost unthinkable in today’s information units (such as the telephone and the photocopier), not all institutions possess the technological resources or an appropriate order of priorities to integrate into the globalized world.

Another technological need that must be a constant at this time is the automation of processes, services and management of libraries, and this requires a comprehensive automation system.

There are many integral library automation systems in the national market, from the most robust to the modest; however, all of them imply an investment that, strange as it may seem, some institutions are not willing to make. Faced with this perspective, it is necessary to explore alternatives, such as those that have been sought for other areas, in which free software has played a very important role.

What is an integrated library system?

In library literature there is a wide variety of concepts used to define an integrated library automation system (SIAB) or Integrated Library Systems (ILS).

García Melero defines it as “an organized set of human resources that use devices and computer programs, adapted to the nature of the data they must process, to carry out processes and facilitate the services that allow them to achieve the library’s objectives: to store human knowledge contained in all types of bibliographic materials in an organized manner to satisfy the users’ informative, recreational and research needs”.

For its part, Moya conceptualizes them as those “systems for the automated or computerized process of structured and unstructured information on activities and documents, adaptable to the organizational structure of the library”.3 For the purposes of this contribution, SIAB will be understood as the set of application modules integrated into a single program and sharing a common bibliographic database.

Background of integrated library systems

Since the birth of the MARC format for storing bibliographic records, library automation systems were consolidated in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, the foundations of the integrated system concept were laid.

These systems for the automation of libraries arose as an evolution of the monofunctional systems that were used until the late 1970s, which aimed to solve the problem of mechanical management of functions that involved a higher cost of human resources to large libraries (Library of Congress and The British Library).

From the 1980s onwards, the time of integrated, complete, centred and unique systems began to be considered.4

In the field of SIABs, the term integration indicates multifunctionality, a system that collects all the functions (modules) necessary for the management of any library. On the other hand, a system of this kind is also characterized by an integration at the data level, so that the information is stored for shared use and specific to each functional module.

In order to understand more about how SIABs arise, it will be necessary to situate oneself in the 1960s, which was characterized by the expansion and installation of the computer in library work. In relation to the first monofunctional programs, created by men like P. Luhn, who was employed by IBM in 1961 and developed a program to reproduce keywords and index the titles of articles appearing in the Chemical Abstract.

Luhn also initiated some automation activities with the National Library of Medicine with the MEDLARDS project (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrevial System).

Several institutions followed the Library of Congress in this kind of activities in this field: University of California, San Diego, with automated control for periodicals; Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, with the automated circulation system, and the Ontario New University Library, with the computerized book catalog.

In England, the University of Newcastle library with File Handling System (NFHS), which was used for the acquisition, and the University of Southampton, which developed an automated system for controlling the circulation of funds.

The projects mentioned above were only some of the systems that were initiated in this period, although it is necessary to highlight that, due to certain inconsistencies such as the lack of communication between specialized personnel, the deficiency of the computer systems and an inappropriate communication between librarians and computer personnel, the development of some automation projects was hindered and in most cases they were abandoned.

However, some of these initial systems designed for libraries, which began in the mid-1960s and others in the early 1970s, are noteworthy for their importance.

In the early 1960s, with a view to automating its library activities, the International Labour Organization (ILO) created a system called the Integrated Set of Information System (ISIS). The system operated on IBM 360 computers.

Once the system was implemented, the OTI initiated the distribution of ISIS internationally. This covered the existing gap in systems for handling and retrieving documentary information.

Free Software

In the early 1970s, when personal computers were still a pipe dream and computing was beginning to take its first steps, the first advances in software were exchanged and shared without any restrictions. However, with the advent of the 1980s, the situation changed.

The dizzying improvement of computers (increasingly smaller and with greater capacity for storing and processing information), revealed to those who developed the software a fertile commercial field. This led to the decision to sell proprietary operating systems and forced users to accept restrictive conditions that prevented modifications to such software.

If a user or programmer finds an error in the application, all he can do is inform the creator so that the creator can fix it. Even if the user was able to solve the problem and wanted to do it without asking anything in return, the contract prevented him from changing the software.

This situation led to the beginning of the end for cooperative communities, where software was shared and anyone could improve it without restrictions. The commercial software development model with added costs, despite generating situations of social unrest, was imposed with such force that today there are still people convinced that there is no other way to do business.

During the transition to the business model, Richard M. Stallman, an Artificial Intelligence lab worker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), realized that society was changing dangerously. Stallman himself says that during those years in the lab they had received a printer donated by an outside company.

The device, which was used in a network by all the workers, seemed not to work perfectly, since every so often the paper got jammed. As an aggravating factor, no notice was generated that was sent over the network and informed users of the situation.

The waste of time was constant because, sometimes, workers sent their jobs to print over the network and when they went to look for them they found the printer stuck and a huge queue of pending jobs. Stallman decided to fix the problem, and implement a network alert system for when the printer was blocked.

For this he needed access to the source code of the printer drivers. He asked the company that owned the printer what it needed, and explained what it intended to do. The company obviously refused to give him the source code.

If Stallman followed the same path, he would have to accept the new commercial software, sign new agreements to keep those codes secret, and eventually develop more commercial software with restrictive licenses that, in turn, would later have to be accepted by his own colleagues.