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Systems Librarian

The Open Source Movement

End of the proprietary Integrated Library Software?

It would be wrong to imply that open source is set to replace proprietary vendors, but today the issue is more whether open source can provide a viable alternative.

Currently with so many public libraries having funding difficulties and budgetary constraints, it is important for libraries to find ways to accomplish as much as they can with the money they have. Using open source software is one tool that libraries can use to make their rand stretch.

Although a library may have to spend some money on training staff in how to utilize open source technologies, or occasionally hiring a consultant to implement projects, overall it can save library money on software costs, licensing fees.

Open source software for libraries with options for all types of systems is available and should be considered as a possible alternative.


Koha or Evergreen


I will only examine two open source integrated library systems:
Evergreen and Koha



  • This software is being developed and maintained by the Georgia Public Library Service (in the United States). 
  • Evergreen has not been in development as long as Koha. 
  • Evergreen has a stand-alone staff client (although it is technically online for the most part). 
  • Evergreen is made to run on virtually any number of servers (from a single server to theoretically hundreds) 
  • Evergreen is pretty complex in that it involves several perl dependencies, specialized Apache configuration, Jabber, and various other things. 
  • Evergreen has some features in the works that haven't been completed yet (such as Acquisitions, Serials, etc.). 


  • Koha was developed in 1999 by a small team of programmers working for a consulting company in New Zealand to address the needs of a small library branch on the island because their vendor-supplied integrated library software that was outmoded and not Y2K compliant. 
  • Koha has a 100% web based interface for both staff and public. 
  • Koha, is mostly scripts and MySQL. 

Both of the above mentioned systems are compliant with MARC21 and UNIMARC. Both Evergreen’s source code and Koha has also been released under an open source license, making it available for other libraries to use and adapt/modify.


Advantages / Challenges


Advantages to Using Open Source Software

  • Although there may be some distribution and setup costs, open source software is essentially free. The cost of acquiring and implementing open source solutions may be less than traditional proprietary software. Consider what you paid your vendors in the last maintenance contract and compare that to the “free” cost of the open source software. There are still costs associated with open source software. 
  • Paying a vendor to help you support an open source product may be a possibility and will still give you the flexibility to move your software and support to another vendor should the need arise. 
  • Gives libraries more control over their software. Open source software is often much easier to customize than commercial software because the source code is readily available and therefore can be adapted to perfectly suit the users needs. No limitations in terms of their flexibility and capacity to be tailored exactly to your needs. 
  • Open source is generally more stable than proprietary software. After all, when any programmer can read, redistribute, and modify source code, there are more eyes to spot bugs and provide fixes. Open source is a peer-reviewed software; by opening up the source code, bugs are quickly identified because several programmers critique and develop a project.  This process is in contrast to proprietary software “in which the source code remains the developer’s closely guarded private property”. 
  • Open source systems are often developed using open tools such as PHP and Perl preventing you from being locked-in with specific vendors or software packages. There is also more support available for open tools. 
  • There are also companies that you can hire to help support open source products. 


Challenges when Using Open Source Software


  • The vendor provides the stability of a controlled software development environment to support and enhance the integrated library software, and can define a suitable service and support contract. 
  • It is very difficult for an organization to simply move to open source software. Perhaps the library does not have the in-house expertise to support the product, or they have the expertise but not the time to devote that some open source solutions require. Only the large libraries with extensive technical staff to support the integrated library software open source software. Higher level of technical knowledge is required to install and maintain open source software. 
  • Those new to open source software may find the software frustrating. It may be the first time that there is no support phone number to call when you run into problems. Users who migrate to open source applications face a steep learning curve. 
  • Implementation and development may be slow as staff learn and adjust to the open source model. 
  • You may find there are customizations needed to adapt the open source to suit your needs. 
  • You will need to use whatever documentation and other types of help that are available, documentation is not extensive. 
  • Libraries considering open source should be aware of the staff time and expertise required to be part of an integrated library open source software project. 
  • In a similar vein, new versions or changes to software may be slow in coming, as the community of programmers working on open source do so on a voluntary basis. 

Many times when looking at proprietary software, we get an evaluation version that does not include all of the features turned on or made available. Or the vendor comes and does a demonstration of canned examples designed to accentuate what works and avoids what features do not work. Even trial versions of the software may be populated with demonstration data, so it is difficult to see what will happen when that is replaced with in-house data and workflow. 


Each open source solution should be carefully evaluated to determine whether it will integrate with the current technical infrastructure. If it requires additional hardware or other integration tools you are not prepared to add, then the product will not be a good choice. If the product cannot be easily altered to fit into your current environment or extended to add features you require, it may not be an appropriate option.


You should also determine if it uses the same standards the other systems use. Just as you would evaluate the purchase of proprietary software, open source software should be evaluated and benchmarked in the same way.



Implementing integrated library system open source software such as Evergreen or Koha will certainly be hard work, but it has been shown that an in-house team can successfully compete with commercial vendors in the library automation sphere. Much of the project’s success can be attributed to the close working relationship between developers and end user.
In a time when libraries of all types and sizes are continually looking for the best ways to address budget cuts while still providing services that meets the expectations of their patrons/users, open source solutions are becoming more of a viable alternative than they were in the past.

At this point in time, commercial vendors don’t have to worry about losing customers to open source projects like Koha and Evergreen, but this won’t always be the case. The fact remains that proprietary software is currently a better option for libraries in South Africa today.

Date: 06 December 2008 

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