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ISIS Moves into the Open Source Arena

Smart Libraries Newsletter [November 2008]


When it comes to library automation in the developing world, there is nothing more important right now than CDS/ISIS. CDS/ISIS is a database package specifically designed to be accessible within the resources of library and information centers in countries that do not have a high level of financial or technical resources. CDS/ISIS has enormous worldwide impact, with hundreds of thousands of individuals, libraries and other organizations making use of the software. This family of software products has gone through multiple generations of technology, each in step with the broader IT trends, including its most recent transition to the free and open source software arena.

CDS/ISIS is the most commonly used software package in libraries within the developing world, though it also finds use by many libraries throughout Europe. The software was developed by UNESCO, which makes it available to organizations free of charge. The ISIS software is designed as a generic information storage and retrieval system for textual information capable of working with multiple languages. The CDS/ISIS program involves more than developing software. It follows principles that help organizations within UNESCO member nations take advantage of the software through documentation and training provided in multiple languages. UNESCO works with many different organizations to develop, distribute, and support the software.

The ISIS software has a long history of development and adoption by libraries throughout the world. The software traces its roots to the Centralized Documentation System originally developed for IBM mainframe computers in the 1960’s as a text-oriented database. In 1975, the first version of CDS/ISIS emerged. It ran on the VAX/VMS that merged the Centralized Documentation System with the Integrated Set of Information Services.

In 1985, UNESCO created MicroISIS, porting the database to personal computers under the DOS operating system. Unix versions soon followed, with networked-multi-user capabilities added. The DOS version of CDS/ISIS continues to be widely used because of its ability to run on older computers in organizations that may not have up-to-date equipment. Beginning about 1985, Bimere (Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information) got involved with ISIS, creating CISIS which provides an extensive set of commandline tools created in and for the C programming language.

The ISIS software continued to evolve in the mid 1990’s with the creation of WinISIS, providing access to ISIS databases through a graphical interface. At around the same time, BIREME produced wwwisis, a Web server that provides access to ISIS databases. UNESCO provides documentation and training materials in many different languages. The ISIS-Pascal is a programming language for creating customized applications based on the ISIS database. For more than two decades, the evolution of the ISIS software has provided a consistent information technology platform, which is especially helpful for libraries in the developing world not as able to keep pace with rapidly evolving technologies.

CDS/ISIS has become widely used since it is well suited to the practical limitations present in many parts of the world:

  • The software is free. Libraries can download the software from the UNESCO web site or one of its international distributors without cost.
  • It is available in many languages. The Arabic version can’t be downloaded, but is distributed without cost.
  • It operates with minimal hardware requirements.
  • Documentation for the software is available in many languages.
  • Training and support is available through UNESCO and other organizations.

Although UNESCO offers all its products based on CDS/ISIS to libraries without cost, until recently it has not been distributed under any of the open source licenses. Libraries can download only the executable versions of the software, not the original source code. This means that they cannot make changes to the software, but must use it as distributed. The ISIS-Pascal programming language allows libraries to make customized applications using CDS/ISIS databases.

A key issue for libraries in the developing world is the choice between the practical benefits of CDS/ISIS and the trend toward open source software. The Dehli Public Library chose to shift away from CDS/ISIS to Koha, a perfect example of how this controversy is playing out. The Delhi Public Library is interested in implementing Koha because of its interest in open source software at the same time that the ISIS community is rapidly moving toward open source.

While the adoption of Koha and other open source library automation products continues to grow in developing nations, it is still impossible to determine how this trend will play out overall in comparison to the ongoing use of CDS/ISIS. UNESCO continues to see thirty to fifty downloads of CDS/ISIS per day, not counting the requests for the Arabic version. This statistic provides some evidence that CDS/ISIS continues to grow as the dominant technology product for these kinds of organizations.

Despite the availability of open source library automation systems, the CDS/ISIS family of tools is still an excellent product for libraries in the developing world. The current slate of open source ILS products require a number of prerequisite components that make them less accessible to organizations that may not have technically proficient staff members or even access to the Internet. The need to install Apache, MySQL, Perl, and other components makes it difficult to install and maintain. While programs like Koha have modest hardware requirements by our standards, they still require more powerful and up-to-date computers than CDS/ISIS. They lack compatibility with the databases and expertise already established in hundreds of thousands of ISIS implementations.

UNESCO continues the development of software to modernize CDS/ISIS in ways that take advantage of the broad trends in information technology, while still keeping it within the means of its target user base. Three projects are currently underway to improve and modernize the technology of CDS/ISIS while maintain the continuity of its underlying data structures and leveraging the knowledge that organizations have built upon the existing versions.

BIREME has been one of the key collaborators in the development of the new products in the ISIS family.

The Third World Congress on ISIS met in Rio de Janeiro on September 15 – 16 as a key forum to establish the future directions of the ISIS software. The general objective of the conference was to “Promote the exchange of ideas, experiences, solutions, new developments, challenges, progress and perspectives on the development and strengthening of the ISIS platform and its user- and developers communities, more specifically with focus on library and documentation centre services.”

  • Java ISIS, or J-ISIS, will bring the functionality of the current system into the open source realm through a version built within the Java programming environment. This new version will continue to read database files created with other versions and supports UNICODE. J-ISIS will run on all the computing platforms that support Java, including Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and all versions of Linux and the Unix variants.
  • ISIS Network Based Platform (NBP) aims to rework the internal architecture of ISIS toward more current information technology components and methodologies, and will move CDS/ISIS into a Python-based environment. Python is an open source programming environment that has gained great popularity for Web based applications. This environment uses ZoDB (Zope Object Database) as its storage engine.
  • ABCD (Automatisación de Bibliotécas y Centros de Documentación) provides a complete Web-based library automation environment on top of the ISIS database. Whereas CDS/ISIS is a general purpose toolkit that can be used in a variety of ways, ABCD stands as a complete integrated library system.

These three development projects will converge into a new version of ISIS more consistent with current trends toward open source software and Webbased technologies. The Third World Congress on ISIS firmly establishes the commitment of UNESCO, BIREME and other organizations to continue the development of a new generation of ISIS products fully in tune with the worldwide movement toward free and open source software.

View Citation
Publication Year:2008
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 28 Number 11
Issue:November 2008
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:13725
Last Update:2022-11-26 14:03:12
Date Created:2009-01-04 20:16:17