Open Source software for libraries

An overview of research on and practical examples of open source tools for libraries.

By Bert Verstappen on

Open-source software (OSS) is computer software of which the source code and certain rights are provided under a license that allows others to study, change, improve and often also to distribute the software. Open source software is usually developed in a public, transparent and collaborative manner where developers review each other’s work and give credit to each contribution.

The community decides what features to develop, a manager or managing team reviews the code, approves it and adds it to the final release.

Open Source software has become more widely used in the last five to ten years, as more applications become available and it has often proven to be of high quality, reliable and secure.

In addition to this, also the cost factor plays an important role, as the Open Source software itself is available at no costs. But as Richard W. Boss points out rightly in “Open Source” Integrated Library System Software: “While the software may be free, a developer or distributor may charge for services, including special programming, configuration and installation, training, file migration, technical support, and hosting services for libraries that do not want to implement and maintain an in-house system. Some companies that distribute and support open source software are for-profit organizations and may charge prices for their services comparable to those charged by proprietary software vendors.”

In Practical open source software for libraries, Nicole C. Engard points out rightly that libraries and open source both believe that information should be freely accessible to everyone, benefit from the generosity of others, are about communities and make the world a better place. Nicole writes and speaks frequently about open source and social media for libraries, see her publications and presentations.

The paper How to choose an free and open source Integrated Library System by Tristan Müller, librarian at the Fondation pour une Bibliothèque Globale in Québec, Canada, presents the results of an analysis of 20 free and open source ILS platforms offered to the library community. The main goal was to highlight which, from the batch of open source ILS, librarians and decision makers can choose from without worrying about how perennial or sustainable each open or free project is, as well as understanding which ILS provides them with the functionalities to meet the needs of their institutions.

The twenty software platforms were subjected to a three step analysis, whereby the results aim to assist librarians and decision makers in selecting an open source ILS, based on objective criteria.

The first step consisted of evaluating all the available ILS and keeping only those that qualify as truly open source or freely licensed software. The second step involved evaluating the community behind each open source or free ILS project, in order to determine the attractiveness and sustainability of each project. The third step entailed subjecting the remaining ILS to an analysis of almost 800 functions and features to determine which ILS are most suited to the needs of libraries. The final score is used to identify strengths, weaknesses and differentiating or similar features of each ILS. Only three softwares passed all the steps: Evergreen, Koha, and PMB.

We also explored some of the open source library softwares ourselves. First remark: most of them are not plug-and-play, and require technical support for installation, as the MySQL or Postgresql database management systems need to be set up and server needs to be configurated. One software claims proudly in its promotion video that it can be installed and configured in “less than a day”. After this hurdle has been taken, configurations are required for you to have your own setup. For example, one promising software had a user’s manual only in Bahasa Indonesia.

On the positive side, softwares like Koha and Evergreen come with useful features for creating reports, placing orders, user administration, circulation etc. These modules provide for a lot of details. These softwares also have quite elaborate end user interfaces, called Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC).

I also had a look at the software for building open digital repositoriesDSpace, which seems to be particularly well documented. But it also requires some understanding of programming and familiarity with Dublin Core, and as such is not an ILS.

HURIDOCS has built its Resource library using WordPress. It is also possible to use WordPress as a Library content management system – while user administration functions are already available, I have not come across modules for circulation or placing orders.

My little exploration appears to confirm what Linda M. Riewe wrote in her 2008 master’s thesis Survey of open source integrated library systems (p. 46): “At one extreme, open source ILSs (Integrated Library Systems) are thought to require more technical sophistication, and hence present a greater technical challenge to install. Documentation is also a commonly cited weakness of OSS. At the other extreme, open source ILS respondents are more satisfied than proprietary ILS respondents with the affordability and customisability of their systems.” She also found that that open source ILSs were more cost-effective than proprietary ILSs.

Wanna read more? There is a good, up-to-date bibliography at Zotero (the Group library contains over 500 items, unfortunately they are ordered by Date added rather than by the Date of publication). Also have a look at the collections and reviews at oss4lib open source systems for libraries (note 10 December 2020 – this is no longer active) and the Open source software page at Library success: a best practices Wiki

This issue was discussed at the meeting of the 32nd meeting of the European Coordination Committee on Human Rights Documentation (ECCHRD), on 30 May 2011 in Budapest.

In the discussion that followed, participants brought up various interesting issues:

  • Because libraries and in particular human rights libraries have good reasons to support the values behind Open Source software, they should invest in training their staff responsible for programming and documentation work
  • Problems with localisation : not all softwares fully support the retrieval of documents which are not in the basic set of Latin characters
  • The advantages provided by being able to import existing collections, using the MARC or Z39.50 formats, which are supported by most Open Source ILS – check on this when making your choice.
  • The site provides several useful links
  • Many organisations still use the UNESCO software CDS-ISIS – WinISIS, but face problems with on-line publishing. It was hoped that UNESCO would make more resources available to develop quality and user-friendly tools to allow this.

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