Regularly ranked as the busiest or the second busiest library in the United States, the King County Library System (KCLS) in Washington annually processes 22 million checkouts and records more than 84 million visits to its catalog. It’s enough to strain any integrated library system (ILS), and a few years ago, IT services director Jed Moffitt decided that, owing to this volume and the need to add proprietary features to its system, there simply wasn’t a commercial ILS on the market that could meet the library’s unique requirements. He famously coauthored an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant of $1 million that enabled KCLS to experiment with, and then migrate to, the open source Evergreen ILS while developing a peer-to-peer support model to help other libraries and consortia that were interested in doing the same. The move was cited in KCLS’s 2011 Library of the Year profile (LJ 6/15/11).
Moffitt admits that there have been growing pains during the past three years. But he still maintains that commercial ILS vendors simply aren’t organized to do the type of development work that KCLS needs. In the past, even when KCLS would offer to pay commercial vendors to speed along a bug fix, “it would still be hard to get the deal done, because they really weren’t resourced to fix a bug on request, out of context from their normal delivery process.”
An open source solution, by contrast, allows libraries to hire any third-party open software developer that meets their needs to implement agile development methods: using iterative, incremental modifications to enable faster and more flexible updates, rather than waiting for a proprietary vendor’s next patch or release. A year ago, for example, KCLS enlisted the services of local agile software development provider Catalyst IT, which, along with open source PostgreSQL database specialists Command Prompt Inc., now helps the library maintain and customize its Evergreen system.
KCLS’s particular motive behind the move is somewhat rare: not many other systems must be able to handle anywhere near its transactional volume. Yet it is one of a growing number of libraries and consortia that have decided to implement an open source ILS—such as Evergreen or Koha—with the help of ongoing assistance from third-party developers.
Free doesn’t come cheap
“A lot of libraries come to [open source] because they expect to pay a tenth of what they used to pay for support and hosting of their ILS,” said Patrick Jones, executive director for LibLime, the original third-party developer for Koha. “But just because it’s not built by a [commercial] company doesn’t mean it’s not an extremely complex set of software programs” that will require maintenance and support.
“Free” may be one of the first descriptors that come to mind when people discuss open source projects, but librarians contacted for this story all said that the absence of up-front licensing and maintenance fees was not their primary reason for choosing an alternative to commercial, proprietary systems. The old saw in the IT community is that open source software is “free like a puppy, not free like a beer.” In other words, it may be free up front, but, once adopted, it will involve both labor and financial costs going forward.
In fact, Moffitt says that customizing Evergreen with the help of Catalyst IT and Command Prompt has been more expensive than it would have been to pay what he estimates would be $200,000 in annual general maintenance costs for a commercial ILS at KCLS. The difference, he says, is that the budget has been shifted to pay for development, rather than maintenance. As a large system, KCLS has demanded a higher level of customization than most libraries would need. Still, an open source ILS will require some level of in-house expertise, and at least some of the money saved on proprietary ILS licensing fees will simply be moved to another third party.
“You could build a business case, depending on your size and your needs, that [an open source ILS with third-party development and maintenance] would be comparable to the balance sheet you would have for a vended ILS,” Moffitt says. The functionality of open source ILS systems is gradually approaching that of commercial products, Moffitt says, but it isn’t quite there yet. As more libraries begin to use these systems, the community will continue to enhance the software, and the number of support options will continue to increase.
In the meantime, Moffitt points out that for large libraries or consortia, it is important to have at least one dedicated person on staff who understands the system well enough to seek out information within the open source community when needed and to communicate clearly a library’s needs when a third-party developer or consultant is hired.
Free to go, but here to stay
But for some libraries, the appeal of open source systems outweighs these considerations. Migration from one ILS to another can be a difficult process, involving not only issues with the data migration itself but also challenges related to staff training and, often, downtime for patrons. Libraries can begin to feel locked into a vendor relationship because the prospect of moving to a new ILS is more daunting than paying ongoing fees and per integration licensing charges when adding new self-check stations or other technologies. Then again, there’s always the anxiety that their preferred system could simply be discontinued owing to a merger or a vendor’s shift toward next-generation solutions.
In that sense, a move to Evergreen, Koha, or another open source ILS can be empowering. As the community of users continues to grow, each system’s long-term viability continues to improve. Evergreen or Koha libraries won’t get a message from a vendor telling them that support for their ILS is going to be discontinued, there are no questions regarding the ownership of the data within the library’s system, and as demand for third-party support grows, new providers are likely to emerge.
With its scalable, client-based architecture, Evergreen is usually described as being a more appropriate solution for large libraries and consortia, while Koha’s browser-based structure makes it more appealing for small libraries and systems. Providers such as LibLime and ByWater Solutions, which primarily support Koha, and Equinox, which primarily bolsters Evergreen, offer assistance with migration, training services, and ongoing support similar to that offered by a proprietary ILS vendor. Other U.S.-based developers include Edoceo, Emerald Data Networks, Edusys, and Lyrasis for Evergreen and Mill Run Technology Solutions and Projektlink Konsult Limited for Koha. If Koha or Evergreen libraries are unhappy with the services of their developer, they can switch to another one without migrating their ILS.
“The biggest benefit is that you have the choice of acting like your [third-party or agile development] vendor…is just like a traditional proprietary ILS vendor, where they take care of everything, or getting involved in the community and helping drive the future and the improvement of the software,” says Mike Rylander, VP, research and design for Equinox Software. “You also have vendor choice.”
Like Equinox, ByWater offers a comprehensive package of services for libraries considering a migration, according to Nicole Engard, the company’s VP of education and a 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker.
“If a library is coming from a proprietary product, and [it has] no staff to help with the process, the most comprehensive deal we have…includes migration, data cleanup during that migration process—cleaning of duplicates, linking authorities, merging together item types, things like that,” Engard explains. “Then we do training, which we offer on-site…or we also do webinars for small libraries that can’t afford in-person training…. We also offer hosting and after they’re live constant support, including ticketing, phone, chat, and for anyone who is paying for support, we have follow-up training webinars,” as well as screen-sharing troubleshooting sessions. And, of course, the company offers development services for libraries that wish to modify the ILS.
“Customers are coming to us because [with cloud-hosted LibLime Koha] they won’t have to deal with a server, they won’t have to download software,” said Jones of LibLime. “A lot of times, I’ll hear, ‘We don’t have good IT support here.’ I explain to them that our hosted environment is good for libraries with no IT support…. The other folks are coming to us because they want to do development. But you don’t have to know how to install an ILS to get into the Koha world. You’re paying a company like LibLime to do that, just like you pay SirsiDynix or Innovative to install their [ILS].”
“There’s a culture of open source. I find it similar to the culture of indie publishing,” says Henry Bankhead, town librarian for the Los Gatos Library, CA. With the assistance of ByWater Solutions, Los Gatos went live with an implementation of Koha in late 2010.
“There’s a different set of relationships between you and the technology and your staff and your patrons,” Bankhead says. “In the traditional setup with a for-profit vendor, they own the software and then they leverage you on support and development because they’re the only people that know that system. When you separate that out, where the software is free, you are just paying for development…. In the same way, with indie publishing, instead of the publisher owning [a book], you own the book yourself. You might hire an editor, or not, but you retain the rights.”
Bankhead said that the opportunity to ask a developer like ByWater to make modifications to the system has given staff a sense of empowerment.
“Everyone on staff can contribute to making it better,” Bankhead says. “A clerk, a library assistant, a cataloger, a librarian says, ‘I want the catalog to work this way.’ We can make a proposed improvement, get a price for that improvement from our developers, and then ask the community if anyone else wants to contribute to that improvement…. If they don’t, we can decide whether it’s worth it to us to fund it. When it gets built, you’re showing your employees that they have a say in making their tools work for them.”
Similarly, the South Carolina Library Evergreen Network Delivery System (SC LENDS) began in 2008 with several rural library systems seeking economies of scale through resource sharing and a more efficient interlibrary loan program. By late 2009, with the help of Equinox, the consortium had migrated ten libraries to Evergreen. SC LENDS now serves 19 counties plus the state library.
Operations manager Rogan Hamby, a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, praised the community aspect of Evergreen, noting that it had engaged many SC LENDS members in unexpected ways.
“We get together to talk about what we like about the system, what we don’t, how we want to improve things,” Hamby says. “The whole dynamic has been extremely beneficial. For our small, rural libraries—that might have one professional librarian in the whole system—to not only be able to talk to the rest of SC LENDS but to be able to jump on [discussion lists] or IRC groups and get feedback from other libraries all over the country and, increasingly, the world has been huge for them. They feel like they’re part of this bigger community. Perhaps those in large urban systems with a lot of professional employees wouldn’t understand it, but for the small and medium-sized libraries, it’s been a game changer.”
Yet communities can impose limitations as well. Notably, at the request of KCLS, Catalyst IT has made so many modifications to Evergreen that the KCLS version of the software is now considered a fork of Evergreen. Basically, KCLS is now blazing its own development trail and no longer expects its system to be fully compatible with community-approved updates and releases for the ILS. Similarly, even though Moffitt says that KCLS “will happily turn over any development that we do” to the open source community, the most recent features developed by KCLS and Catalyst IT may become difficult to integrate into future community-approved versions of the ILS.
This move was a matter of necessity, Moffitt says. KCLS chose Evergreen because it needed an ILS that it could modify. When open source communities begin to prioritize development goals, third-party developers who have a community-first approach will prioritize those goals as well. When there are limited third-party options for development support, the situation can begin to resemble the user groups and development queues of commercial ILS vendors.
“The first part of our three-year experience with Evergreen really became more like working with a vendor,” Moffitt says. “There were so few people who knew how to develop Evergreen, it was like [a former third-party developer] was the vendor and the Evergreen community became the police force. Our strategy was to work within the community and develop the system for the community of users, but that very strategy ended up crippling us in terms of flexibility, just like working with a vendor would.”
Given the size and influence of KCLS, its decision to head in a new direction with Evergreen may be a disappointment to the system’s broader community of users. Still, KCLS is one system, and the influence of its developer, Catalyst IT, over the Evergreen community is currently not significant.
By contrast, there is the case of LibLime, which in 2010 was contractually obligated to deliver about 70 new development features to several of its clients. As the system’s original third-party developer (and the copyright holder of the original source code, koha.org domain, and later the U.S. trademark to the Koha name through its acquisition of the Koha division of Katipo Communications), LibLime had a long history with the system and a huge influence over its direction.
At the time, the Koha community “was not getting our developed code into a production release,” says Jones. “They were falling behind in doing that, and we had contractual obligations to deliver the code…. So we finally put out our own release called Harley.” Many Koha users balked at these new features, accusing LibLime of forking the project in an attempt to take Koha private. Tensions still linger for some who feel that the company is no longer working with the benefit of the broader Koha community in mind.
The story may serve as a cautionary tale for libraries that join the open source movement in future. As the movement grows, factions will undoubtedly form, and competing project forks may be one result. As for LibLime, Jones emphasizes that the company has continued to stick to the open source tradition.
“All of the code we’ve built, we’ve continued to submit…. It’s all out there,” he says.