Koha: a Gift to Libraries from New Zealand
Proprietary ILS packages are expensive beasts. A larger library may pay well in excess of $500,000 US for the server, clients and software, and it still has yearly license and support fees to worry about. Once a library has bought their system, they experience a high barrier to change as well. Data is most often kept in proprietary formats from which it is difficult to export—in some cases, the data is actually “owned” by the system vendor.
As with all non-free software, customers are left at the mercy of their vendors for enhancements and customizations. Library system vendors historically have been slow to provide innovative new options. Although user groups exist for many of the existing systems, they seem to be more like mutual support groups than sources of feedback for the vendors. A worse fate is in store for those whose ILS vendor goes out of business or is bought by another vendor.
This situation presents a great opportunity for free software. It's an opportunity that's not lost on librarians either, at least not all of them. There is still a great deal of ignorance and inertia to overcome. During an interview for the 2002 American Library Association's (ALA) presidential election this past spring, the candidates were asked what were their stands on free software. One of the responses boiled down to, “We need to support standards and let the vendors work out how to provide the solutions we need.”
More encouraging signs are emerging. The ALA has an information technology interest group, which reviewed open-source software in the March 2002 edition of their journal. Some of the articles were favorable, while others expressed a lack of confidence in free software's ability to produce a viable ILS. The definition of a viable ILS seems to vary considerably from library to library.
Some of the brightest lights come from the small, but growing open-source subculture, within the library community. The best example of this is the Open Source for Libraries group, hosted at www.oss4lib.org, which maintains a news site and mailing list. usr/lib/info (www.usrlib.info) is another group with a similar focus but a less technical approach.
A number of presentations made at library conferences in 2002 offered more encouraging signs. In October 2002, Chris Cormack (one of the original Katipo developers of Koha) was at the Ohio Library Conference to talk about what we've done and where we're going. Open-source software also got on the program at the Michigan Library Association Conference, the British Columbia Library Association Conference and Access 2002, a Canadian conference on internet-based technology for libraries.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of our success is that libraries have started to sponsor the development of features they feel are important. Sometimes this patronage is direct, as with Nelsonville Public Library, which contracted with one of the core Koha developers to finish work on its internal use of MARC. In other cases, the link is less direct, as is the case with recent work done by another developer being paid by a library automation vendor to develop a Koha solution for the vendor's customer.
Librarians espouse many of the same ideals that drive the free software community. They collaborate and communicate; they work hard to share the results of their work with one another. They understand freedom and feel that it's an important value. That more librarians aren't actively using and evangelizing free software is an indictment against us for not letting them in on our secret.
It's important that we not think we'd be munificent benefactors, bringing a sack full of goodies to share. We can learn a lot from librarians as well. They have a number of skills that we, as a community, lack.
One of the key skills librarians bring to the table is information architecture. Librarians have spent a long time organizing information and making it accessible. If these skills could be harnessed in the free software community, we might see less duplication of efforts due to ignorance of existing projects, better cooperation between projects and easier acquisition of information by new developers and users.
Librarians also have been around as a group much longer, and they are fixtures in the academic community as well. This presence, and the established connections that come with it, could pay off handsomely if we used them to help spread the work of free software.
Librarians also could play a key role in creating and improving documentation in free software projects. Librarians tend to be good editors; they also have a good sense of what questions people tend to ask—the kind of thing you really want in your documentation. It also doesn't hurt that they have an expectation that documentation and support will be there. I have received personal mail (and phone calls) from librarians since my earliest involvement in Koha—writing good documentation becomes more attractive when you're faced with the alternative.
Librarians also are more likely to be involved in direct communication with end users than are most free software hackers. They are at the forefront of user-interface questions and internationalization issues. Putting that experience to work in creating user-friendly interfaces and documentation would be a great boon to most projects. Librarians also are much less forgiving of the technology; it has to run, all the time and within much tighter parameters than do a lot of other types of applications.
In recent years, open-source developers have become more political. Librarians still have a significant leg up on us in this area, however. What's more, their political ends overlap significantly with our own. Working together to help ensure open access to information, widespread adoption of free software and improved educational opportunities would be a win for both sides.
Finally, librarians tend to do a good job of engaging the public. They advertise to, interact with and provide services for our communities. They are seen as trusted sources of information, true public servants. If libraries become staunch bastions of the concepts behind free software, we gain a tremendous ally in reaching out to those who don't yet use or understand free software.
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