At a time when the nation’s economic future seems shaky, many school and public libraries are moving to open-source library management systems, which tend to be cheaper, more flexible, and fulfill the same mission a library serves: making a valuable contribution to the greater good.

Open-source software puts the right to make changes to the software in the hands of the public, rather than a company. Users can change, improve, or fix problems encountered in the software, then push it out to a community of users for their consumption. It is free to download, use, and adapt–though there might be costs associated with adapting and supporting it.

School and public librarians list flexibility, low cost, and convenience as some of the major benefits of migrating to an open-source library management system. Some of the best-known open-source library management products include Koha, Evergreen, and OPALS (OPen-source Automated Library management System).

Many larger libraries pay a hosting site, such as Equinox Software or LibLime.com, to help with the initial implementation and then pay a yearly fee for hosting. Equinox Software and LibLime.com also provide staff training, support, software maintenance, and development.

Open source can work for schools and libraries both large and small. LibLime.com’s customers include the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Toledo Diocese in Ohio.

OPALS developed out of six New York state library systems that banded together to create a catalog to provide web-based interlibrary loan services for the 300 schools in those regions. That database, “SCOOLS” (South Central Organization of Library Systems), includes more than 1 million titles and manages the interlibrary loan process entirely online.

New York school library systems that are SCOOLS members include the Broome-Tioga, Cayuga-Onondaga, Delaware-Chenango, Greater Southern Tier, Otsego-Northern Catskills, and Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga districts.

Equinox Software hosts the open-source library systems for the Georgia PINES, a consortium of more than 270 public libraries in Georgia that originally created and still uses Evergreen, as well as the South Carolina Library Evergreen Network Delivery System, a statewide consortium for a shared catalog headed by the South Carolina State Library.  The initial South Carolina pilot group includes 11 libraries, 1.3 million people, and 2.5 million books and volumes.

The Indiana Open Source ILS Initiative is a statewide project intended to implement Evergreen in the same manner as the Georgia PINES.  As of March 2009, 24 libraries in the state have migrated to and are fully live on Evergreen.

Maryland’s Kent County Public Library (KCPL) has been using Evergreen for almost a year and is fully hosted and supported by Equinox Software.

Andrea Buntz Neiman, head of technical services for the library system, said that while there are always a few bugs to work out in a new product, she and her colleagues are very pleased with the transition.

KCPL made the decision to switch to Evergreen after learning that a server and software upgrade, both needed within 18 months of each other, would cost the small library system roughly $80,000.

“It came out to cost and convenience.  The money we saved was very significant for a small library,” she said.

And while some of the library’s older staff took time to adjust to the switch, younger employees reportedly have enjoyed taking ownership of the system.

“We’re happy with the product and feel that we can positively influence its development, because it’s early in the life cycle,” Buntz Neiman said.

“We saved a ton of money, and we could put that money into books and programs and things that our patrons care about,” she added.

The Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) No. 35, which serves roughly 2,500 students, began using Koha at the beginning of the 2008-09 academic year, after Technology Director Scott Bourgoin made the decision to consolidate the district’s library systems.

Before Koha, the district used three different library management systems operating in five schools, with little communication or organized data interchange among them, Bourgoin said.

Installing Koha also allowed the district to push its resources out into the community.

“We wanted to reach out to the community and offer those services in ways that were not previously available,” Bourgoin said.

The district reviewed both proprietary and open-source library management systems, and in the end went with Koha because library staff felt it was the strongest product, Bourgoin said.

“One obvious big benefit is the flexibility–we can customize literally everything,” he said. “The options are mind-boggling.  We’re eventually hoping to build a local support system with other schools [in our area] that are using it.”

“It’s been an interesting journey with Koha with a fairly steep learning curve, but overall, we feel quite positive about the benefits and the direction forward,” said Carolyn Mauger, a K-8 library media specialist with MSAD No. 35.

Mauger estimated that the district’s libraries house 63,000 books.

Many librarians and library media specialists report that open-source software has become more mainstream in recent years.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve seen products that we feel are at the enterprise level, the integrated library systems we have available are more friendly, and people are familiar with the concept of open source because of [software like] Firefox,” said Jessamyn West, a community technologist in Randolph, Vt.

“It’s really trickling down to the average user who wants to save some money.”

A combination of events, including the consolidation of the library automation market, led to the emergence of open-source integrated library systems and has caused them to gain more popularity.

“There are fewer and fewer companies that are gaining a larger market share,” West said.

For example, Follett Software Co. in 2006 purchased Sagebrush Corp., which had merged with Winnebago Software in 2000.

Users who are in the market for an integrated library system (ILS) have fewer options, and companies that offer these products sometimes have less incentive to make prices competitive or to offer “extras” for free, school media specialists say.

And as open-source software becomes more accessible, it becomes less something reserved for a “techie” to handle and more something that someone with a bit of computer know-how and experience can implement, she said.

“The best thing about open source is that once one person solves an open-source problem, [he or she] can share that solution with everyone, and everyone is allowed to share whatever that improvement is,” West said.

Open-source users might pay $1,000 or $1,500 a year for hosting and support, but the money they save can be redirected to other areas of a library.

Libraries in Texas’ Plano Independent School District went live with Koha on Jan. 5, but started the open-source process more than a year ago.

“We feel that this empowers our students,” said Diane Lutz, director of learning media services for the district. “It’s web-based, our teachers have anywhere, anytime access, and it all helps build that fundamental part of an exemplary education.”

Servers under the district’s existing ILS needed to be replaced, and public-access catalogs would have to be reconfigured–a costly undertaking, and one that prompted Lutz and her colleagues to explore new options, including open-source offerings.

Lutz and her colleagues tested Koha on a laptop for six months before making the migration during the 2008-09 winter break, which involved moving 1.1 million records.

“It’s been an amazingly smooth transition,” Lutz said.  “We have many things we’re still working on, but I am very pleased.”  Plano ISD uses LibLime.com as its support company.

“Our goal on Jan. 5 was to circulate books, and we were able to do that,” Lutz said.  “Our librarians have been quite willing to be at the receiving end of learning.”

Lutz said schools, districts, and public libraries that are considering a move to an open-source ILS should talk to others who have made the move, determine their individual support needs, and keep colleagues and staff up to date on developments.

Aside from cost advantages and flexibility, many library experts say one of the basic concepts of open-source software–to contribute to the community–is right in line with a library’s goals.

“From a values perspective, it totally lines up with what libraries … want to do–share that data that we so carefully put together,” West said. “I think open source encourages libraries to own and maintain the system they use to manage their data, and you have more of a handle on your data when you’re running or paying attention to the systems that are layered on top of them.”

“Libraries and open source have lots in common philosophically,” Buntz Neiman said.  “It’s nice for us to support an open model.”

And while the pros of open-source library management systems can be appealing, districts that are considering a move to open source should consider the time investment required if they are not going to use a hosting service.

“There’s a large time investment if you’re going to do it yourself, including learning how the software works, what options you’ll need, and you’ll need the support system of a listserve at the minimum,” Bourgoin said.

Library specialists and technical staff should anticipate a total integration and transition time of at least two months and probably closer to three, he added.

Experts agreed that the move from proprietary library software to open source is becoming a trend.

“As our budgets are all being slashed for the next fiscal year, I think people are going to take a step back and take a look at [how money is being spent],” Buntz Neiman said.  “It’s a slow-building movement, but we’ll see it pick up steam.”

“I think it absolutely is [a trend],” Lutz said. “The buzzwords are everywhere, and we hear more about it and our comfort levels go up. It’s all about educating ourselves.”

Links:

OpenSource.org

Koha

Evergreen

OPALS

LibLime.com

Equinox Software

Jessamyn West’s blog