September 10, 2010 -- "Every function of a contemporary library is mediated by software," says David Brunton, supervisory information technology specialist at the Library of Congress Repository Development Center. "Librarians are using information technology to do just about everything, most especially to manage digital content. They absolutely need really good software tools."
The Repository Development Center has been churning out such tools for over five years now, with projects including Chronicling America and eDeposit. Even so, Brunton is quick to point out that his group is not the only team of software developers at the Library; small teams exist in other departments as well.
"Software development isn’t a centralized function at the Library, nor do I think it should be," he said, explaining the importance of having small teams that can directly respond to the nuanced needs of different departments. "Our team is unique,” said Brunton, "because we’re mandated to create software that has a broad application to the Library, as well as potentially to external partners."
One result of this mandate to create broadly applicable software is that the RDC team has a strong interest in making their software open source and available for download. The software for Chronicling America, he explains, is updated on a regular monthly basis, with librarians across the country downloading the newest versions as they become available. BagIt, a software program for secure file transfers, is available on Sourceforge (external link), and LocDrop, software for tracking digital content delivery, is currently in the works. "The two words you hear most frequently around here are ‘preservation’ and ‘access’; in our view, those are the content outcomes that we’re aiming to reach with the software we develop."
Brunton said that feedback from the open-source community about existing software is welcomed, although "We’re more likely to see the problems ourselves first, since we look at everything so rigorously.” He has noticed “more and more sophisticated users" of the code over time. He explained, "People are able to participate meaningfully in the software development process from start to finish—and in the RDC we consider this a good thing. In some ways, it is easier to make software for someone who is willing to complain when it's wrong."
Brunton has worked as a software developer for the past fifteen years, and has been at the Library for the past three. "My biggest surprise working in the Library of Congress, and particularly in the Repository Development Center, is how much my twelve or thirteen years in fast-growing fast-paced software companies applied," he said. "The process here, and the output here is very familiar to me, with one striking difference: instead of customers and shareholders, there are stakeholders and citizens."