December 21, 2006

Librarians stake their future on open source

Author: Michael Stutz

A group of librarians at the Georgia Public Library Service has developed an open source, enterprise-class library management system that may revolutionize the way large-scale libraries are run.

The system, Evergreen, whose 1.0 release came in November, is an Integrated Library System (ILS): the software that manages, catalogs, and tracks the circulation of library holdings. It's written in C, JavaScript and Perl, is GPLed, runs on Linux with Apache, uses a PostgreSQL database, Jabber for messaging and XUL as client-side software. The system allows easy clustering and is based entirely on open protocols.

Evergreen powers the GPLS' network of libraries, PINES (Public Information Network for Electronic Services), consisting of 44 different public library systems in 123 counties covering almost the entire state of Georgia -- 252 member libraries in all. The system has 8.8 million items in its index and 1.6 million active cardholders. In fiscal year 2006, there were almost half a million loans made between its libraries.

Librarian Brad LaJeunesse, PINES System Administrator with GPLS in Atlanta says that his "main motivator" for Evergreen was that the world of library software is "pretty dismal, and the products are awful. Trying to run a state-wide library system on duct tape and bailing wire is pretty difficult."

It's an open secret that ILS systems today are a frustrating mess for smart librarians (and patrons). Asked what problems he had with prior systems, LaJeunesse is quick to tally off a list: "Scalability. The ability to treat organization units as individual entities. Lack of granular permissions. Poor customer service. Lots more," he says.

And yet, the ILS is the backbone of the modern library -- if it's down, the library's down. "It's a mission-critical piece of software," LaJeunesse says.

The PINES network first went live in December of 1999 using the proprietary Sirsi Unicorn ILS, says PINES Program Director Julie Walker.

She says that a few years ago, when PINES decided to develop its own open source ILS to replace Unicorn, it had to hire two new developers, increasing their administrators from two to four. But this team doesn't just support the system -- they're creating it.

"I think that what they've done is nothing short of remarkable in the library world, and really, in any world," says Walker. "I'm really, really pleased with what they've been able to pull off."

The first alpha demo of Evergreen happened early in 2005, and was followed by a beta in July 2005; then came a barrage of "little mini releases," where users could give input on development as it was happening, says Walker. "We really kept our libraries involved every step of the way, and every time we had something new for them to look at we'd put it out there and they'd comment on it."

Finally, in September of this year, Evergreen went live on all 252 libraries in the system. Walker says that when the libraries closed at six o'clock on Friday evening, they turned off the old system and spent the weekend migrating; by the Tuesday after Labor Day, all of their systems throughout the state of Georgia were on Evergreen. There were a few "bumpy moments" on Tuesday because they didn't expect nearly as much traffic to the site as what hit them -- but otherwise, it was smooth sailing.

"It has really been the easiest conversion I've ever been through in my 25 years of working in libraries," Walker says.

One of the happiest consequences of having development done in-house is the response Walker now gets to feature requests.

"I think that's the biggest frustration we hear from all of our library colleagues," Walker says. In the past, if you requested a change, she says, "you went into an 'enhancements queue,' and the member base voted on it, and it took a really long time -- if ever. There aren't very many consortiums of 252 public libraries, so what we wanted a lot of times wasn't what the rest of the customers wanted, so it got real frustrating waiting for things to happen."

Now, she says, sometimes things happen overnight -- literally. "We suggest something one day, and the guys fix it that night, and the next day we see it!"

In fact, the catalog has many features and innovations that are lacking in non-free systems. It does on-the-fly spellcheck and gives search suggestions and adds additional content, such as book covers, reviews, and excerpts. The Shelf Browser shows items ordered along a "virtual" shelf built out of the holdings of the entire system. Patrons can create "bookbags," which are lists that contain a selected collection of annotated titles. Bookbags can be kept private or shared as a regular Web page or as Atom or RSS feeds.

"If you choose the 'share' option, then you've created a URL of that list, and you could then email that URL or post it on your MySpace page," Walker says. "And then when somebody clicks on it, it opens up and you've got your live links right into the catalog -- so then your friends can place holds on those books, too. It's got a lot of really great applications for libraries if they want to do a book list for a book club and put it up on the library Web site, and the people can just click on it and go directly in."

Over the next year or so GPLS plans to write an acquisitions module that will be used for the selection and purchasing of library materials, and plans more social networking applications along the lines of tagging and collaboration between patrons -- what Walker says are "exciting things that we think would be fun to add to our catalog."

According to Walker, the financial savings from Evergreen come on a number of levels.

"Our Sirsi system ran on a great big Sun server that was quite expensive. We poured a lot of money into that over the years to continue to upgrade it, plus the housing of it was very expensive. [Evergreen] runs on a Linux cluster, which is a lot less expensive. Also, we're not paying licensing fees anymore. When you're talking 252 libraries, which is what we are today, that's the great big savings."

According to a study that PINES conducted in 2002, Walker says that if all of their libraries would have to buy a new system, it would cost more than $15 million dollars, plus about $5 million dollars a year for maintenance. They run PINES for a lean $1.6 million a year.

Librarians are not all strangers to open source, nor is this even the first open source ILS; the Koha ILS has been around for years. But Koha "wasn't built with the scalability or deep organizational hierarchy that PINES requires," says LaJeunesse. "It would work fine for a 10-branch library system, but not for a statewide system."

Tina Burger, a vice president at LibLime, a company that helps libraries adopt open source software, says that her company is now providing Evergreen support along with the support they already provide for Koha. "Evergreen is ideal for large-scale deployment in very large systems (hundreds of libraries, tens of millions of records)," she says.

LaJeunesse says that they are presently in discussions with other institutions about development partnerships; and while GPLS is the only institution currently using Evergreen as their production system, he suggests that will change very soon: "Ask again in a month," he says with a smile.

Walker confirms that the inquiries have been coming in from both academic and public libraries. "We've been fielding a lot of calls and we've been making a few presentations at some conferences, so I think people are really interested in having an alternative to vendor-based systems."

By designing its own Linux-based system, PINES took its future in its hands -- and now it's happier for the risk.

"Libraries are not the biggest risk-takers in the world," says Walker. "We talked about that a lot when we were making the decision to go in this direction, and finally a couple of us looked at each other and said, 'You know, we're librarians -- how often do we get a chance to really take a big risk and see what we can do?'" she laughs. "And we're really glad that we did."

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