Check Out Open Source Library and Collections Management Software


Libraries–the brick-and-mortar institutions that amass book and periodical collections, not software modules, that is–get taken for granted in the Internet age. They have to manage vast arrays of information and lend them out to patrons for free, but they often have to do so with shoestring budgets. Academic institutional libraries may fare better than public libraries, but both have to be cost-conscious customers when it comes to the technical infrastructure that catalogs their collections, manages circulation, and enables staff and the public to search the archives. Not surprisingly, although there are proprietary products available, open source software plays a big role in library management.

In decades past, library collections were indexed on paper card catalogs and books sorted on shelf with Dewey Decimal System numbers affixed to the spine. These days, it is more common to see the books bar-coded, and the card catalog replaced with thin client computer terminals. The front-end used on these terminals is the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), and it connects to a database server that typically also ties in to back-end library functions such as circulation tracking and new material acquisition. Collectively, such a system is known as an integrated library system (ILS).


The oldest open source ILS is Koha, which was first developed for public libraries in New Zealand. The Koha back-end is written in Perl, uses the MySQL database, and runs on the Apache Web server. The front-ends are Web-based and accessible on any well-supported browser. Koha supports full-featured catalog management, incorporating the industry-standard MARC formats and the Library of Congress’ z39.50, and can manage digital collections in the same database as printed material. It manages periodicals, circulation tracking, and acquisition, and can use email and RSS notification, is multi-lingual, and includes a Web-based OPAC.

Koha is designed to be scalable to libraries of different sizes, from small private collections to large, geographically-remote library systems with multiple branch locations. The Koha project site does not track a complete list of Koha installations, but notes that there are at least 1000 sites known to be using the code–many in the United States, but on at least three other continents as well.


Evergreen is an ILS developed and deployed by the Georgia Public Library Service. Like Koha, it is GPL-licensed and designed to run on Apache and Linux. It uses PostgreSQL instead of MySQL, however, and is written in a combination of Perl, Python, and C, with portions of the Web OPAC interface using JavaScript. The staff-side client interface is a Mozilla-based XUL application, rather than a Web app. Among Evergreen’s core features are cataloging, circulation, acquisitions, reservations, and statistical reporting. It also supports MARC and z39.50, internationalization, and multiple branches.

The Evergreen project says that its system differs from other open source offerings in that it is designed from the ground-up to serve large, multi-site consortia that may differ in policy from site to site. Thus, the database is designed to handle large transaction volume, the organization hierarchy is flexible, and the permissions system is fine-grained to allow for customization. The project maintains a list of Evergreen deployments, which includes several regional library consortia in the United States and Canada.

Other ILS and OPAC Projects

Koha and Evergreen have the most deployed ILS systems, but there are several other notable open source projects in this space, each with its own approach to the problem. Emilda, NewGenLib, PhpMyBibli, and OpenBiblio are all full-fledged ILSes, complete with OPACs, cataloging and circulation. Smaller projects such as these offer potential users a trade off: they may not have as large a user base to turn to with questions, and it may be harder to find a consulting firm to provide a support contract, but they may be easier to install and better suited to a smaller or single-site deployment. Of this set, NewGenLib is the newest entrant, having been turned from a commercial product to and open source project in 2008. Another project worth watching is the Open Library Environment, which is still in pre-release development, but is backed by a substantial grant from the Mellon Foundation.

In addition to full ILS systems, there are several less ambitious projects that could be useful to the small, private library simply looking for better organization. For example, there are several stand-alone OPAC projects that can provide a user-friendly search front-end to a library, such as SOPAC, VuFind, and Fish4Info. LibX takes a different approach, building an OPAC-like search utility as a Firefox browser plugin. LibraryFind, in contrast, is a librarian’s search tool.

Other Collection-Management Resources

Most ILSes and OPACs are centered on printed books and periodicals, but many of the same issues–searching, bibliographic cross-referencing, circulation, and acquisition–apply to other forms of collections as well, including digital content and antiquities.

The Greenstone project, like Koha, originated in New Zealand libraries, but exists to organize and serve digital content. It offers a similar bi-directional interface: a management interface for librarians, and a public search engine for patrons. The Perseus Hopper project at Tufts University does much the same thing, but with a particular emphasis on ancient Greek and Roman texts. Decapod is a scanning and digitization tool that allows libraries to convert rare or fragile materials into digital form, and integrate them with their existing digital library collections.

CollectionSpace and its affiliate project ConservationSpace offer functionality that encompasses more than just printed and written documents, including support for museum and historical society collections that could include artwork and physical objects. DigitalAntiquity is focused on creating a collections-management tool for archeological records.

In addition to these library-and museum-centric applications, there are several digital collections tools with a broader focus that seek to include libraries and other archivist organizations. Fedora Commons (not to be confused with the Fedora Linux distribution) and DSpace are two of the better known. Both can integrate images, multimedia, data sets, and other types of information into the same digital catalog as texts. The two projects collaborate under the auspices of the DuraSpace project.

Further Reading

Open source adoption, whether for ILSes, OPACs, or general IT infrastructure, is a big topic among library associations. Sites like LibSuccess and OSS4Lib exist to help interested parties gather detailed information and talk with libraries and museums that have real-world experience rolling out open source solutions. Consulting companies can help migrating to an open source ILS, but such a project requires time investments, technical support, and staff re-training, making it a major business decision even when there are no licensing costs as there would be with a proprietary product. Considering that academic, public, and private organization libraries are almost always under tight budgets, such a careful study is almost always required.