Magazine article Information Today

An Update on Open Source ILS

Magazine article Information Today

An Update on Open Source ILS

Article excerpt

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 Popular 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.


Koha (, 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 products-support for MARC record import and export, Z39.50 client and server modules, CIP or NCIP support, and authority control-were 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 libraries-including five school libraries in the Coast Mountains School District in British Columbia, Canada-is 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 in libraries. …

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