Libraries facilitate open access to information with open source software


Author: Tina N. Burger

The open source movement and libraries have a lot in common, not the least of which is the belief in free and open access to ideas and information. Yet, until recently, libraries have been slow to switch to open source software. Libraries have highly specialized software needs because the library community has developed its own complex standards and protocols to facilitate things like interlibrary loan, meta data sharing, and federated searching. Until recently, lack of commercial support made implementing open source unfeasible for libraries without an IT staff. Also, open source alternatives weren’t perceived as scalable or feature-rich enough to handle the complex needs of most libraries. Now, commercial support has facilitated new levels of collaboration between libraries through sponsored development.

Today several companies worldwide have committed to supporting and developing open source software for libraries. They offer everything from hosting and installation to support and development services. With these new options, libraries don’t need an IT staff to deploy software or steer development of new features. Here’s an inside look at three libraries that are moving to open systems.

Crawford County Federated Library System

When Crawford County Federated Library System (CCFLS) in Pennsylvania went shopping for a new integrated library systems (ILS) in 2005, it had already deployed open source tools for everything from content management to firewalling and filtering. After a year of evaluating ILS options, library director John Brice and his IT team decided on Koha, the first and most mature open source ILS, to replace their legacy library automation software.

Koha is a full-featured open source library management system created by Katipo Communications of New Zealand for Horowhenua Library Trust. It is a six-year-old mature open source project and is maintained by a team of software providers and library technology staff from around the globe. Koha means “gift” in the Maori language. The software is in production in hundreds of libraries worldwide.

Crawford County decided that only Koha could offer what it had come to expect from its software: the freedom to customize and control their own development cycles. “The final decision to use Koha was based on the fact that we could modify the software to fit our policies and not have to modify our policies to fit the software,” Brice says.

Brice believes open source is the key to helping libraries stay competitive with the user-centric services offered by commercial competitors like Google and Amazon. “All libraries now compete with other electronic resources. Using canned software developed for a one-size-fits-all world is no longer an effective solution.” Koha lets libraries “leverage our unique skills and resources” to create software that reflects the needs of a library’s staff and community. “You will not necessarily save time or money implementing open source,” Brice says. “However, what you gain is priceless: complete and utter control.”

CCFLS’ decision to use Koha dovetailed with an important milestone in Koha’s development. Koha’s core development team was looking for libraries to sponsor new search technology for Koha. The goal was to offer better support for library standards and overcome searching and scalability limitations that made earlier versions of the software unfeasible for very large collections. The project selected Zebra, an open source indexing and retrieval engine created and maintained by Index Data, to get this job done. CCFLS decided to give back to the library community by being a primary sponsor of Koha’s Zebra integration by outsourcing development work to LibLime, a US-based Koha support company.

Zebra integration was completed in the summer of 2006, and CCFLS began the process of migrating its data and customizing their system. First on their agenda? Customizing the look and functionality of Koha’s staff interface to meet the needs of their nine libraries. CCFLS then contributed its interface design back to the Koha project as a theme, and also released several improvements it made to Koha’s reporting module.

CCFLS network administrator Cindy Murdock says implementing Koha in-house is “one of the most complex projects we’d ever undertaken,” but says that it has also been empowering. “If we need to alter the functionality or appearance of the ILS to make it work as we need it to, we can do it ourselves without having to beg a vendor to do so.” Murdock says that participation in Koha’s close-knit community has been critical to making the in-house migration a success. “I’ve been able to work with the developers far more closely than other open source projects we’ve implemented. We would never find such a level of participation with a proprietary ILS, but it’s common with open source.”

CCFLS plans to go live with Koha next month.

Nelsonville Public Library System

When Ohio’s Nelsonville Public Library System (NPL) migrated to Koha in 2002, it became the first public library in the US to use an open source ILS, and NPL was the first library to go live with the new version of Koha — dubbed “Koha ZOOM” — in November 2006. Like Crawford County, NPL utilized support services from LibLime and has continued to devote in-house resources to Koha’s development. NPL webmaster Owen Leonard serves as the official Koha Interface Designer, and worked closely with LibLime developers to redesign the public catalog interface for the new Zebra-based search engine. “We are committed to helping foster the growth and development of this open source project, which can benefit libraries all over the world,” says Leonard. “With this upgrade comes a system that rivals any in the commercial realm, and NPL is proud to have helped make it possible.”

Library director Lauren Miller sees open source as a way to “level the playing field and let libraries pool resources and participate in steering development regardless of their size or technological expertise. To me, open source is truly the great equalizer. I see public libraries as being about equal and open access to information and community. Choosing open source software is a natural extension of this philosophy.”

Koha fits in well with NPL’s “patron first” mentality. “It is a relief to know that my library will always have access to our data and will never pay license fees,” says Miller. “In my opinion, this provides us with flexibility and frees up our budget to develop software features that our staff and patrons truly want and need.”

Near East University

Near East University (NEU) in Cyprus chose Koha to manage its impressive new library and culture complex in early 2006. NEU Library houses 250,000 open shelves, is open 24 hours a day, and is available to the public free of charge.

Tümer B. Garip, university libraries director at NEU, was unimpressed with the handling of Turkish characters in other major proprietary ILS systems. Improper handling of characters is bad news for libraries because it results in bad searching. “So Koha being open source, we decided to implement Koha and develop according to our needs,” says Garip. The increased scalability offered by Koha’s Zebra integration was critical for NEU. NEU had begun testing the Koha/Zebra integration in early 2006. Impressed with initial results, it decided to pitch in. NEU devoted significant programmer resources to help complete Zebra’s integration with Koha’s cataloging system.

“With Koha-Zebra we have the most advanced search engines available to the library community. It is also probably the fastest. It also provides us capabilities of organizing union-catalogues,” says Garip. The ability to customize Koha has enabled NEU to “add an SMS service where users just send a text message from their mobile phones to renew their books automatically.”

Garip sees a bright future for Koha. “We believe that Koha has the capacity and functionality to become the Apache of the Library Information Science world.”

Tina N. Burger is the vice president of marketing for LibLime.


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  • Case Study