Update on Open Source ILS
These systems could soon offer a viable alternative to commercial
One of the trends that I follow is the adoption of open source
integrated library systems (ILS). In this column, I'll review
the progress of three ongoing open source ILS projects and talk
about what they mean to library automation.
Open Source in a Nutshell
Many readers likely know that open source software can be used
freely without having to pay license fees to its developers. Most
exists under a standard license agreement that defines the terms
of use. The most common is the General Public License (GPL),
which specifies that the software can be used, modified, and distributed
for free. Under a GPL, the software can be changed and enhanced,
but the new version must also be released under the same terms.
With open source software, the underlying source code must be
made available along with the binary version that actually runs
on a computer. This contrasts with the standard, commercial model
of software distribution in which the source code remains the
developer's closely guarded private property. Releasing source
code reveals all the details of an application's inner workings.
In the open source arena, this facilitates collaborative development.
In the commercial arena, releasing source code can be a fundamental
contradiction to basic business principles.
which is generally considered to be the first open source library
automation system, originated in 1999. The Horowhenua Library
Trust (HLT), a New Zealand consortium, was in need of a new automation
system. It reviewed the market and concluded that the available
offerings were either expensive or lacked the desired features.
HLT commissioned computer consulting firm Kapito Communications
to develop a Web-based system for use in its libraries. This was
a bold move. Even more remarkable, HLT determined that the new
software would be made available through the open source model.
This would allow other libraries to use it and make further improvements.
Koha is designed to work with a minimum of hardware resources.
It runs on the Linux operating system in conjunction with the
Apache Web server, uses the popular MySQL open source database
management system, and is written in Perl.
Koha has been attracting considerable interest. The first system
developed by Kapito was relatively simple compared to those available
in the commercial arena. The features that are taken for granted
in the commercial productssupport for MARC record import
and export, Z39.50 client and server modules, CIP or NCIP support,
and authority controlwere not included. A group of volunteer
programmers has been working on extending Koha's capabilities
to include these essential features and others. Efforts are also
underway to translate the system into several languages.
So far, only a handful of librariesincluding five school
libraries in the Coast Mountains School District in British Columbia,
Canadais using Koha. To the best of my knowledge, no U.S.
libraries had adopted it until August, when Ohio's Nelsonville
Public Library (NPL) announced its plans to implement Koha. NPL
is a relatively small system that consists of a main facility,
six branches, and a bookmobile. It serves 36,000 active borrowers
throughout Athens County with a combined collection of about 250,000
items. NPL plans to migrate from its commercially developed Spydus
system to Koha by next summer.
While NPL has confidence in Koha's potential, the library requires
features that the system doesn't have. So before NPL can implement
Koha, these features must be added. To this end, the library has
issued a request for proposal for the development of MARC support
in Koha. The specific task described in the request involves adding
the ability to store and retrieve records in MARC21 format. While
NPL isn't prepared to fully fund all new development in Koha,
it does want to offer some financial incentives to support specific
enhancements. Should NPL be successful in transitioning to Koha,
it would be an important step in the use of open source software
Seattle's Learning Access Institute, which was founded last
year, offers an open source automation system called the LearningAccess
ILS (previously known as OpenBook). The organization describes
itself as "a nonprofit dedicated to developing low-cost strategies
to increase digital access." The development of LearningAccess
ILS was sponsored by the now defunct Technology Resource Foundation
(TRF). Willem Scholten, the executive director of Learning Access
Institute, was also associated with TRF.
According to the organization's Web site, the institute's main
goals are to develop and provide "tools for reliable information
access and literacy to rural and underserved communities." The
LearningAccess ILS was designed to deliver automation solutions
to libraries that generally do not have the financial resources
or personnel to purchase and implement a commercial system. In
addition to supplying software that can be run on low-cost hardware,
LearningAccess ILS assists the library in the retrospective conversion
of its collection into MARC records.
Although the LearningAccess ILS tracesits conceptual beginnings
to Koha, it's an entirely different implementation. This system
from its very origin was designed to be multilingual. It's based
on MARC21 format for bibliographic, holdings, and authority records.
English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Swahili versions are currently
The technical components that underlie the LearningAccess ILS
are similar to Koha's. The system runs on Linux, but can easily
be ported to Windows NT/2000. It uses the Apache Web server and
relies on MySQL as its database engine. The user interface modules
are written in PHP, a Web-oriented programming language. The majority
of the remaining system programming is done in Perl.
The LearningAccess ILS offers three major modules: OPAC, circulation,
and cataloging. A full-fledged acquisitions module is planned
for a future release.
The Learning Access Institute voices strong support for the
open source development model. The LearningAccess ILS was built
using only open source components. The organization plans to make
the system itself available through a General Public License.
Use of the software is currently limited to the initial set of
libraries that are working directly with Learning Access Institute.
The organization will release its system for unrestricted download
once it's reached a satisfactory level of stability and maturity.
While its availability is limited, the LearningAccess ILS shows
great promise. It will be interesting to monitor its development
as it expands in use beyond the initial pilot libraries. To keep
abreast of its developments, see the Web site at http://www.learningaccess.org/website/techdev/ils.php.
Another automation effort that's underway is the Avanti MicroLCS.
This project, begun in 1998, is essentially the work of a single
individual, Peter Schlumpf. The system targets institutions by
size, but is designed with enough flexibility to be adopted by
any type of library. It is written in Java and will run on any
operating system. Rather than making use of one of the existing
databases, such as MySQL, the Avanti LCS includes its own database
management system. Completion of the project's first version is
expected late this year.
The Avanti MicroLCS is not in use at any library, and its source
code has not yet been released publicly, pending further development.
To monitor this project, see http://www.avantilibrarysystems.com.
As I consider the library automation arena from a broad perspective,
the open source systems such as the three mentioned above are
but a small blip on the radar. Compared to the thousands of libraries
that acquire automation systems from commercial vendors each year,
the handful that use open source systems cannot yet be noted as
a trend. The development and support of automation software is
a half-billion dollar a year industry. Though not growing at an
astronomical rate, it's generally considered healthy and competitive.
Yet many libraries feel dissatisfied with the status quo. Commercial
automation systems are expensive, and many libraries want to be
free of the initial purchase costs and ongoing maintenance fees
associated with them.
Support is a significant impediment to the implementation of
open source software. The software license fees represent only
one component of the overall costs that a library bears in its
automation effort. The personnel required for the initial implementation
and system administration is a major consideration. UNIX systems
administrators continue to be in short supply and command high
salaries relative to other library staff members.
Another major challenge is the ever-rising expectations that
are placed on automation systems. In the commercial arena, the
functionality of the basic ILS is very much a given. All the systems
offer full functionality in the core library modules: online catalog,
circulation, cataloging, acquisitions, and serials. Most current
development lies in expanding the ILS beyond the traditional box.
New development focuses on integrating content beyond traditional
MARC records by bringing in book jacket images, tables of contents,
abstracts, and reviews. Libraries demand increased patron-initiated
Web services such as online book renewal, fine payments, interlibrary
loan requests, integrated assistance through live chat, voice
over IP, and video. Most of all, library systems must deliver
full-fledged content, not just be finding-aids for physical collections.
Although much of that content is currently in the form of text,
there is an increasing amount of images, digital sound, and video.
While the open source projects struggle to supply the basic features,
the overall landscape is shifting rapidly.
The open source model of software development can provide an
attractive alternative for libraries, if only its ideals can be
realized. It's fair to say that in their current state, the open
source automation systems offer only promise and potential and
are not yet a viable option for a run-of-the-mill library. Even
for small libraries that might be satisfied with the capabilities
of the open source systems, the technical implementation and difficulty
in securing ongoing support remain a challenge.
Yet, this is a trend to watch carefully. Things could change
very quickly. The capabilities of the open source systems could
soon surpass (or may have already) the features of some of the
commercial systems that target small libraries. As libraries consider
alternatives when selecting an ILS, open source systems should
not be ignored. But they should also be evaluated for their own
merits in features, proven reliability, support, and vision.
[Author's Note: In previous columns I've mentioned that
I maintain a Web site called Library Technology Guides: Key Resources
in the Field of Library Automation. The site's new URL is http://www.librarytechnology.org.]
Marshall Breeding is the technology analyst at Vanderbilt
University's Heard Library and a writer and speaker on library
technology issues. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.