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An open letter to the Koha community

Marshall Breeding.

There comes a point where an open source software projects grows beyond what can be managed through informal channels. The Koha project has seen great success through widespread deployments and company involvement. Recent events suggest that it's time to take a closer look at the governance of the Koha project.

Who is the community?

I suggest a shift from a community comprised of developers to that of a community focused on the libraries that use the software.

In the Koha open source project, the word "community" has been used as the group of companies and individuals involved in its development. This represents a very developer-focused perspective and leaves the libraries using the software extremely vulnerable to a variety of external factors. An alternative approach would involve a library-focused approach were the libraries that use the software drive the strategy of the software. Libraries may not enjoy the benefits of open source regarding vendor-independence, sustained development, and enhancement of the software in ways that best meet their current and future needs unless they, rather than the developers, assert ownership of the project.

The libraries that use the software are stakeholders of the highest level. Yet, they have not been well represented at the table for many of the strategic conversations that involve the future of Koha. Companies and developers so far have had the dominant voices.

Vendors will come and go. The success of an open source project should not be vulnerable to the business viability and the commercial interests of those that provide services. Rather, libraries should manage the governance of the software, while establishing conditions that encourage participation by vendors that provide services to the community of libraries that rely on the software. Libraries involved in the use of open source software should take action to ensure that they are not vulnerable to the success or failure of any given business or reliant on specific business strategies. The companies currently involved in the support of open source software in the library automation arena are generally small, undercapitalized, with very limited resources. The individuals within these companies have proved to be dedicated to the concept of open source software, brilliant programmers, and strong proponents of libraries. While each company has strong promise of success in the short term, long-term prospects are always uncertain.

In order to enjoy the benefits of independent software governance, libraries must also assume its associated costs. Given the limited resources of the companies involved, the library community should not expect them to take on a layer of expense that may or may not fall within their business strategies. In order to ensure objective governance of the software, libraries must tax themselves in a way that supports the establishment and operation of a foundation.

A foundation that might provide a model would be the Kuali Foundation ( This foundation governs core infrastructure software used in higher education, including the Kuali Rice enterprise class middleware, Kuali Financial, a large-scale accounting system, and Kuali Student for the management of student accounts. The OLE project is looking toward Kuali Foundation as its governance body. Note that the board of directors of Kuali consists entirely of the CIO-level administrators of universities that use one or more of the Kuali modules. Since it's open source software, organizations can download and use the Kuali software for free, but that Kuali membership ranges from $4,500 to $24,000 annually. Kuali membership gives organizations a strong role is the strategic governance of the software. Corporation can be Kuali members at $20,000 annually. The Kuali software competes with commercial software that can represent over an $1 million investment, so the scale of economy is an order of magnitude higher than the ILS sphere.

Some of the characteristics of a foundation involved with Koha might include:

  • A board of directors composed primarily of individuals from libraries that use the software. Since Koha finds use internationally, some stipulations should be made that ensure representatives from many geographical regions.
  • A sustainable business model. All libraries that use Koha might be asked to pay a voluntary membership fee to the foundation. Governance overhead is a component of the use of open source software that libraries have to this point not been well educated about, but that recent events highlight as necessary.
  • A full or part-time executive director. This person would manage the foundation, coordinate the development activities, and attend to legal issues.
  • Establish the software license that will govern the legal use of the software.
  • Prepare required tax documents, such as the IRS I-990 required of non-profit organizations.
  • Custodian of the intellectual property related to the project. This would include any copyrighted material, especially the software and documentation, trademarks, patents, and Internet domain names.
  • Coordinate user meetings.
  • Maintain the repository for software and documentation.
  • Strategic planning for software development. Look beyond bug fixes and incremental enhancements to ensure that there is a roadmap toward trajectory of the software that will be responsive to the needs of libraries in a longer-term view.

The role of vendors

Companies involved in the support and development of Koha would continue to play an important role. They would be expected to compete and cooperate, providing essential services to the libraries that use the software.

Service and support companies would not be expected to bear the expense of shared infrastructure and processes. This establishes a more level playing field where large and small vendors alike gain no advantages or disadvantages relative to the key assets of the Koha project.

Companies would continue to offer support services to libraries in much the way that currently happens. Sponsored development might be coordinated through the foundation.

Provide voluntary support to the foundation through sponsorship of user meetings.

Play a strong advisory role in the foundation.

As key stakeholders in the project, companies would be entitled to membership in the foundation. Some seats on the board of directors may be allocated to vendor representatives.

Note: I am not a stakeholder in Koha. Iím not involved in a library that uses it or a company that supports it. Iím just an interested observer offering a suggestion based on my experiences and observations.

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Blog record: 126. Created: 2009-09-15 08:04:16; Last Modified: 2009-10-15 05:59:02.