Blog Archives

Resource review #8: Library Technology Manifesto

Tennant, R. (2007, November 12th). Library software manifesto. Retrieved from

To wrap up my resource reviews for my LIS644 project on the open source ILS Koha, which has turned into a kind of overview on the state of the ILS today, I thought I’d post Roy Tennant’s Library Software Manifesto, written in 2007 to address the “unhealthy” relationship between libraries and library software vendors. Tennant is one of the leading library technology voices, and although this piece is a couple of years old now, I think it’s still important and interesting.

The Manifesto lists consumer rights — such as the right to use the software you have paid for, without having to pay more for it; consumer responsibilities — such as the responsibility to realize that you’re not special, and the vendor has other clients too; and shared responsibilities — such as the responsibility of mutual respect (at least until one party does something unforgivably ridiculous). I think this kind of approach could be very productive in thinking about changes and implementations to a library’s ILS.

I admit it: I’m a library school student, and my knowledge of the ILS selection and management process is limited to a couple of talks and quite a bit of reading, so I don’t have any real experience with how this works. But there’s a fairly small selection of ILS vendors, and librarians on the whole tend to be less than completely familiar with programming and technology implementation, so some of the problems implied by this manifesto don’t surprise me at all. The overall points made by the manifesto, though — librarians have a right to use their ILS to their greatest advantage, and to have some idea of how it works; librarians have a responsibility to treat the vendors and programmers fairly and without unnecessary acrimony — seem to indicate to me one reason why open source ILS solutions like Koha have become popular in spite of their detriments. When you have full access to the source code of your software, you can use it however you want, and you’re going to have to figure out how it works. When you have to contract out or hire someone to do upgrades or added features, you have a much more direct, less bureaucratic relationship with them. Open source projects can get rid of a lot of red tape that can hinder a good working relationship.

Of course, open source solutions aren’t without flaws — the first comment on the post is from someone mentioning that he feels his experience as a software user isn’t taken seriously by open source developers. The tradeoff with open source, I suppose, is that many developers work on open source projects as a hobby, and their income isn’t affected by users’ dissatisfaction. (Companies like LibLime eliminate this problem, but add the bureaucracy back in… nothing’s perfect.) Obviously this is no way to eliminate problems with the librarian/developer relationship, so the best way forward appears to be the one implied in Tennant’s manifesto: for everyone to know a little bit more about what the other side is doing, and to acknowledge both their own and the other side’s priorities in doing so.

Resource review #7: Survey of Open Source ILS

Riewe, L. M. (2008). Survey of Open Source Integrated Library Systems. Unpublished master’s thesis, San José State University, San José. Retrieved 25 November 2009 from

This paper is a thesis by a San José State University MLIS student, a thing that I am very glad I don’t have to write. Linda M. Riewe, however, produced this document comparing various ILS options via a survey of libraries using both proprietary and open source ILS options. There’s a wealth of information here, on open source generally and on library uses specifically, and a number of very fair comparisons of the pros and cons of proprietary and open source software.

Riewe surveyed 361 libraries who used either Koha, Evergreen or some form of proprietary ILS software, asking them questions about the level of satisfaction with the ILS, how the ILS was chosen, how it was customized, cost and ease of use. She then divides up the libraries into demographic categories by size of collection to compare the data.

Overall: libraries tended to choose open source ILSs like Koha for philosophical reasons, in addition to the lower cost; they felt that the principles of open source were important and should be supported. (The cost of the open source ILS was generally found to be less over time, although initial costs were higher than for proprietary software.) Users of Koha and Evergreen reported slightly higher satisfaction with the system than users of proprietary systems, despite installation and documentation difficulties. This is a valuable survey, on many levels; it offers a snapshot of the open source ILS movement in libraries, and it will be interesting to see how things might change in future years.

Resource review #6: SirsiDynix White Paper Causes Many Tweets

Fitzpatrick, S. (2009, November 11). Open source advocates reject SirsiDynix’s warning about OSS. Retrieved from

Scandal! Well, kinda. Anyway, it’s jucier than most of what you’ll get when reading about open source ILS implementations, so I was perfectly happy to find this ALA report on a white paper from the Sirsi-Dynix Vice President of Innovation that pretty much proves that open source software is a viable alternative to traditional vendors. (If it weren’t, they wouldn’t be worried about it.)

The white paper itself is extremely negative about open source, although to be fair, it seems to be pretty truthful. Abram emphasizes the small size of the ILS programming community, giving the impression that open source software needs a user base as large as that of Firefox to be worthwhile. The warnings given about open source software are accurate — but they’re the same warnings open source advocates give. Many of the detriments of open source Abram lists apply largely to new software, but neither Koha nor Evergreen, the two major open source ILSs currently available, could really be called new at this point: libraries looking into them now are certainly not early adopters.

The American Libraries article summarizes the library blog and Twitter reaction to the leaked paper, which was generally not too supportive of SirsiDynix’s position. Several bloggers argued that while it might cost more money to train librarians and programmers to get a good open source system running, that training in people is much more valuable in the long run than maintenence fees paid to a proprietary vendor. The article also links to the variety of Web 2.0 tools that are being used to comment on the issue, from a blog post (with moderated comments) to a Google Doc to a Wiki. These documents are fascinating to look at — this is an ongoing debate, and one that will keep many people interested for a long time.

Resource review #4: Major Open Source ILS Products

Breeding, M. (2008). Major open source ILS products. Library Technology Reports, 44(8), 16-31.

This article from last year’s Library Technology Reports offers an overview and comparison of the four most prominent open source ILS products — Koha, Evergreen, OPALS, and NewGenLib, as well as a discussion of the open source phenomenon in ILS products in general.

There are a lot of tables — I enjoy tables — breaking down what kinds of libraries are using what kinds of software, what kinds of population and circulation figures they’re working with, things like that. Koha is a favorite among small to mid-sized public, academic, and special libraries, while Evergreen, designed by a consortium of libraries in Georgia, has been preferred for large library systems. Large individual libraries are still reluctant to adopt the fairly new open source ILS applications. I was interested to discover that open source hasn’t made much of an impression outside of the United States and Canada, although it has been a choice option in some developing countries.

The article continues with a breakdown of the companies that support this open source software (such as LibLime for Koha), a review of the technical backend of an open source ILS implementation, and finally a feature-by-feature rundown of the specific software discussed, based on documentation and demo sites. This would be a great source for a library curious about which open source ILS to explore in more detail.

Resource review #1: Blazing Moon installation guide


Giesler, A. (2008). Installing Koha 3.0 on Ubuntu 8.10. Retrieved from

I had honestly forgotten all about this site until I googled it in desperation whilst trying to figure out how to set up our Library & Information Technology Association student computer’s installation of Koha to be accessible remotely. And I shouldn’t have forgotten, because it was written by Andy Giesler, who ran the LITA group on campus last year and actually did the install of Koha that I’m using now.

What he’s done is written up a nice, plain-english guide to installing Ubuntu, the open-source Linux operating system; Apache, the open-source server software; and Koha, the open-source ILS. All the software is free; the costs are all in the machine and the time and effort you put into figuring out the install process.

One of the problems with open source software, you see, is documentation. Writing help files and installation documentation is probably the least popular part of a programmer’s job, so when a programmer is working for free, for the good of the community, on an open source project, the documentation is going to suffer in an obvious way. That is to say, most documentation for open source software is terrible, and Koha is no exception.

It is possible to get good documentation and support for Koha — you can pay for it. LibLime is one among many companies who offer subscription support services for Koha, and Equinox offers a similar program for Evergreen, another open source ILS. If you can afford the support, you’re still getting a deal on the free software. If you’re trying to figure it all out on your own, it can be a little…trying.

Andy’s writeup of the install process will help lead most reasonably computer-savvy people through installing Koha, which is the first step in understanding how the program functions on a base level. If you want to play with the program itself, though, you’re still left with only the open-source documentation and your own patience.

Update 10/27/09: Yeah, I wrote this post in a flurry of frustration over not being able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish as quickly as I wanted to. Allow me to rescind my statement: the Koha documentation does not really suck. (I’ve written a new post about it, above.) And, of course, documentation and support are two entirely different things; while you can pay LibLime for support, the Koha documentation is all free online, like the program itself. I will stop writing these posts while frustrated by software, I promise.


A bit more on that project, then —

What I’m doing is basically a kind of low-intensity research on open source software in libraries. I’ve a particular interest in Koha, the open source ILS, since the South Central Library System is in the process of switching to Koha from Sirsi Horizon (and having used the Sirsi-Dynix staff interface, I can tell you, it is about time). I’ll be collecting resources in a account which is feeding to this blog over to your right there, and writing up evaluations on some of them as I go along.

Koha is a fully open-source, standards-compliant and platform-independent ILS, currently in version 3.0.3. As an open source product, it is released for free under the General Public License, and libraries are free to install and use it themselves, for no charge, if they have the expertise to do so. Koha’s parent company, LibLime, offers paid support, as do a number of other companies.

Developed originally in New Zealand, Koha is currently in use on six continents, in a wide variety of libraries and library systems, including the Delhi Public Library in India and the Hawaii State Archives. (Or, for a public library catalog, check out the Grand County, Utah Public Library.) Koha supports a number of Web 2.0 techniques, including tagging, and as an open source product is fully customizable.

There are a lot of other opportunities for open source software in libraries too, though, from OpenOffice to Gimp and more, and I don’t want to neglect those. As budgets get tighter, free software (even if it requires a support contract or extra IT hours) can be a huge benefit to libraries. Above and beyond that, though, is the idea of open source — that people should be able to understand what they use, to craft it to fit their needs, and to have ready access to the resources that are important to them. That’s very similar to the mission of public libraries, and one I think librarians ought to endorse.

%d bloggers like this: