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College & Research Libraries News

Give–away software: A primer

By Jim Fowler

Headof Reference Services Lindsey Wilson College

How to make use of freeware/shareware in your library.

With the rapid expansion of personal computer use the last few years, libraries have begun to hold and loan information in a magnetic floppy-disk format. Many have also made public-access personal computers available to their patrons. These public-use PCs in the library are a logical addition to a PC software collection, rather like providing good lighting and seating for students and faculty who want to read in the library rather than going elsewhere. Thus, libraries have tended to do for the electronic medium what is done for the paper medium.

However, magnetic disk-encoded information for a PC has many characteristics that render it different from paper and make it easy to do things that are awkward, expensive, or impossible to do with paper-based information. Two differences of particular pertinence are: 1) it is cheap, easy, and quick to copy information on a floppy disk; and 2) there is a large (relative to the extant total) body of good public-domain material available for PCs, and other uncopyrighted material is proliferating rapidly due to the “freeware/shareware” movement. These characteristics allow the library to maintain absolute file integrity by holding an archival master, and also allow the library to give away duplicate copies, written to the patron’s disk, much cheaper and easier than it can loan the material.

When one further considers that college and university libraries have a higher percentage of patrons who own, work, and play with personal computers than other types of libraries do, it follows that a natural adjunct to loaning commercial software and maintaining public-access microcomputers is the acquisition of an appropriate self-service collection of public-domain and user-supported software which patrons can copy and keep. The benefits of such a collection, which is easy and inexpensive to acquire, include:

1) The distribution of useful software to students (and faculty) who can’t afford to spend hundreds, or thousands, of dollars on commercial software, but can afford the price of a disk to copy the generic version.

2) The provision of access to special-interest programs that are not available in the commercial sector, but are often of great interest to the academic community.

3) The development of an awareness of, and appreciation for, public-domain and user-supported software. Many (probably most) novice computer users are not aware that there are thousands of good, free or very inexpensive programs available to them.

4) Great promotion for the library, particularly its public-access computers and loaner software, as well as the public domain material itself.

5) A high-traffic, high-visibility feature that is easy to implement and maintain, since the material is inexpensive to collect, it is a self-service activity, and there are no circulation costs.

The following observations may prove useful in establishing a public-domain software collection:

Operating System. Initially, collect only publicdomain software that can be used with existing or proposed public-access hardware, which is overwhelmingly likely to be Apple II or IBM PC compatible.1 The self-service, copy–and-keep savings is lost if it becomes loaner material, which it would necessarily be without library copying equipment. If there appears to be a substantial local demand for software for other operating environments, this material might be added later on a check-out basis.

Collection Development. Approach the collection development process as carefully and systematically as if it were a big-dollar project. Identify specific patron groups, determine their needs, and select programs that fill those needs.2 Otherwise the temptation to take everything that looks interesting because it is inexpensive and available may leave the library awash in unused floppy disks. This overkill problem is compounded by the eagerness of many faculty members and students to plow through public-domain software catalogs compiling lists of recommendations. Such recommendations are useful and should be sought and utilized, but they invariably need to be reviewed and culled by the skeptical eye of a librarian or collection development committee. It is also desirable to encourage direct contributions from patrons. These programs will be pre-screened and often come with some user support from the contributor. Ignore the preceding “overkill” caveat if the price is right. Collections are often available at prices that make it cost effective to buy the entire collection even if part of it is never used. For example, the entire PC-SIG collection (16,000+ files, a compilation of over 700 disks) is available on a CD-ROM disk for $195, or about 28 cents per floppy disk.3 The price is $6 per disk otherwise.

A corollary to pure public-domain software is another category of uncopyrighted material variously labeled as “freeware,” “shareware,” user-supported software, and such.4 Its authors urge users to copy the material and give it to others as a means of distribution, in a kind of user-level network. Documentation is usually on the disk, like public-domain material, but is more extensive and the programs themselves are often much more sophisticated. Users who like the programs are encouraged to send a donation or user fee of $15-$ 100 to the author, which entitles the user to additional documentation, updates, and/or user support via telephone or electronic bulletin board. Most of these programs are still a bargain at that. As an ethical matter the library has an obligation to ensure that patrons understand the difference between public-domain and shareware material; usually a posted notice (like the copyright notice by the photocopier) is considered sufficient. However, as an intermediary, the library is not obligated to submit user fees unless the program will be used internally by the library.

Unless there is a staff member who is already privy to the PC subculture of public-domain and user-supported software, user groups, and PC-SIGs, it might be prudent to approach free software collecting with a core collection of public-domain material that has been prepared by a commercial vendor.5 This approach avoids problems in collecting “buggy” programs, coping with variations in format and documentation, and picking up software “worms.”6

Cost. Public-domain software isn’t completely free. The least it will cost is the price of a disk (always buy the generic, bulk ones at 25-30 cents each). This miniscule cost will only apply to programs obtained locally. Those that are ordered from one of the groups that collect, catalog, and distribute public-domain material will cost from $3-$15 per disk, sufficient to cover the organization’s expenses.

Processing. The simplest and least expensive approach to processing public-domain software is to make an archival copy and place a public copy in a browsing collection somewhat like “Take One— Leave One” paperback racks; only it is a “Copy It and Take It” collection. This is entirely satisfactory as long as the collection is small. It is not desirable to try to catalog the collection at first because its content will change constantly the first year or so as the library and the patrons explore what will actually be used in this relatively new format and an entirely new “copy and keep” context. A simple paper index prepared on a word processor, so that additions and deletions are easy, is adequate for a collection that remains under 500 titles. Programs can be listed under broad subject headings such as “Music,” “Education,” and “Utilities” and should include a one or two sentence description, as the programs sometimes have no title other than a filename.

As the collection grows, an online index file that can be searched by subject, DOS, RAM requirements, source, and/or title can replace or supplement the paper index. An online file also makes user statistics easy to track. At this point, the real heavyweights, like PC–Write and Q–Modem, probably should go into the public catalog. However, it is not desirable to clutter the catalog with little print-buffer utilities and such that come five or six to a disk and are primarily of interest to hardcore computer aficionados.

Security. Security for the collection is not worth the trouble or cost. At 25-30 cents per disk, it is no great loss if someone swipes one. There appears to be little inclination to steal or damage this type of software. In fact, students tend to treat it as if it were their own more than the loaner material; an interesting reaction and probably an appropriate one.

Staff Training. Much staff time can be saved if good disk copying instructions are posted by the public-access machines. It is, however, important that the library staff all be taught to copy a disk, as there will always be someone who can’t or won’t follow the posted directions and will need help.

Flaunt It. Anytime a librarian can look so much like Santa Claus is a good time to call attention to the fact. In addition to in-house promotion, notice of a public-domain software collection can be sent to campus computer user groups, posted on computer bulletin boards and in local computer stores (many encourage this sort of thing). Copies of the public-domain listing, or at least an announcement of the collection if a complete listing is too long, should be sent to academic division offices and listed with the student press and in public notice areas. “Free” anything gets people’s attention, and an electronic medium makes it easy to give away.

Additional information sources

The American Software Publishing Company, P.O. Box 57221, Washington, DC 20037. This firm has over 10,000 public-domain programs for all makes of PCs.

The Apple Avocation Alliance, 1803 Warren Ave., Cheyenne, WY 82001. Markets public-domain programs for Apples, along with commercial software and hardware.

The Boston Computer Society, One Center Plaza, Boston, MA 02108. If you can only belong to one PC users group, this should be it; it’s the premier users group and has extensive collections of public-domain software for all brands of computers.

Call–A.P.P.L.E., 21246 68th Avenue South, Kent WA 98032. In addition to free software, the group offers discounts on everything else related to computing with an Apple.

Capital PC User Group, P.0. Box 3189, Gaithersburg, MD 20878. Probably the best IBM PC users group in the country; good software collection and all the usual frills, plus a hotline for beginners.

Glossbrenner, Alfred, How to Get Free Software (New York: St. Martins, 1984). The best single source of usable information on public-domain and user-supported software; however, some of the information is now out-of-date and the emphasis is on CPM operating systems (a dead turkey).

International Apple Core, 908 George St., Santa Clara, CA 95050. Super Apple users group that is a blanket organization for other users groups; has over 12,000 disks of programs for the Apple.

Online Computer Telephone Directory, quarterly from OLCTD, P.O. Box 10005, Kansas City, MO 64111. Lists several hundred bulletin board numbers if you want to download public-domain material directly.

PC Software Interest Group (PC–SIG), 1030 East Duane Avenue, Suite D, Sunnyvale, CA 94086. Publishes The PC–SIG Library: A Directory of Public-Domain and User Supported Software for the IBM-PC, PC Jr., and Compatibles, which lists the contents of about half of the SIG’s 700 + disk collection (but all the most popular ones); also publishes PC-SIG News, a monthly newsletter; and has its entire collection available on on a single CD-ROM disk, Scholastech Inc., P.O. Box 1768, Cambridge, MA 02238. A clearinghouse for MS DOS (PC DOS) public-domain software; send for their catalog.

If your library is already connected to CompuServe or The Source, both have substantial collections of public-domain software that can be downloaded.

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Notes

  1. Robert Burgin, “Patron Access Microcomputers in Libraries: Trends in Software and Hardware,” Public Computing, Sept./Oct. 1986, pp.7-12; sources of material for other operating systems can be obtained from the Glossbrenner book cited below.
  2. Almost any collection will include the following basics: word processor, spreadsheet, database manager/filer, Hayes-compatible telecommunications software, graphics and printer utilities, a variety of educational/tutorial programs, games, general business and home management software such as interest and depreciation calculators, and programming utilities.
  3. This example is the numerical extreme, and economically applicable only if the library already has a CD-ROM reader.
  4. Douglas Kass, “I Rode Shotgun with Jim Button: Part I,” PC–SIG News, Nov. 1986, pp.9-12; provides a short historical overview of the freeware/shareware movement and the major personalities behind it.
  5. Facts on File, Inc., 460 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, has a good 200 + program starter collection for under $200.
  6. Public-domain is no more problem-laden than commercial software, but you can’t “go back to the store” except on shareware material. So far, “worms” or “viruses” (programs produced by vandals that include code to damage your computer’s operation) have only been reported in a few programs downloaded from public bulletin boards. However, this may be an incentive to stay away from downloading just now.
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