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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Open Source Perspectives

Smart Libraries Newsletter [November 2019]

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Open source library systems continue to represent an important component of the library technology industry. This approach to software development and distribution embraces a distinct set of values and business models compared to proprietary technology products. The mandatory rules relating to how the software can be shared and modified aligns well with the collaborative values inherent to the culture of libraries. Communities that develop among the individuals and organizations involved with each open source product likewise appeal to libraries. These communities enable libraries to participate in the design and development of these software products that they rely on as vital components of their technical infrastructure. Libraries using proprietary products also engage in participatory processes to guide ongoing developments, usually through user groups.

Business Models

The business models of open source software contrast sharply with that of proprietary products. Libraries today have a savvy understanding that open source software requires significant investments, even though the use of the software itself is free from licensing fees. The characterization of open source software as free applies to its patterns of use and modification, rather than to any expectation that it does not involve direct and indirect costs. For larger-scale products, such as integrated library systems (ILSs), the costs may involve payments to commercial or non-profit organizations for hosting, support, and development services or to dedicated in-house technical personnel. In some cases, the overall costs of open source software implementations may be less than comparable proprietary products or services, though some libraries may make greater investments.

In the earlier phase of open source library systems, many libraries chose this route as much for its contrast to the offerings and practices of the proprietary vendors as for the capabilities of the software. Today, libraries rarely have the luxury of making choices on philosophical affinities but must implement technology products with proven capabilities to meet their current needs and future expectations. The ability for open source products to thrive is based on the maturity of their features and on the quality of the services available from support organizations.


It is essential for any product that libraries depend on for their critical operations to have a reliable foundation for ongoing development and support. In the proprietary arena, this reliability comes in the form of stable and profitable businesses that are motivated to continually maintain and improve their products to retain existing customers and attract new ones. The library technology arena has seen mixed results in the proprietary ILS sector, with many products over the years falling victim to business events, especially mergers and acquisitions. As the industry consolidated, the remaining products seem to have solid prospects with reasonable resources from each company dedicated to product development and customer support.

Open source products likewise must demonstrate sustainability. For these projects, sustainability usually takes the form of broad global communities of individuals and organizations committed to devoting resources to the ongoing development of the software. It is essential for these projects to have adequate financial and personnel resources and to have a competent organizational model for defining technical and functional strategies.

In the library context, open source projects that are dependent on philanthropy have not been the most successful. It is unrealistic to expect any grant-making organization to provide perpetual funding for even the most deserving software project. Even when initially seeded by grant funding, it is essential for major projects to develop a financial model where the organizations benefiting from the software contribute appropriate levels of resources. These contributions can take the form of in-kind contributions of personnel or infrastructure or through direct financial support. The open source model naturally makes it possible for some organizations to make use of the software without making such contributions, but it is essential for the health of the project to have a mix of contributors versus free riders.

Commercial self-interest also plays an important role in open source projects. Companies that profit from providing services to a software product have strong motivation to contribute to ongoing development to ensure its position in the market. If a product were to become stale or outdated, interest in services would evaporate.

In the Koha arena, for example, there are many dozens of companies globally involved in providing services. Companies such as BibLibre in France, ByWater Solutions, Catalyst IT in New Zealand, and others devote substantial resources to the development of Koha. The global Koha community, volunteers from support companies, and libraries using the software actively participate in software development, quality control, and documentation. In an environment with diverse organizations providing hosting and support services for Koha, it also becomes possible for some to become free riders, deriving income from services, but not devoting resources to improving product. While it is healthy and expected for an ecosystem of commercial providers to become established surrounding any open source product, it is important to ensure a reasonable balance of contributors.

Adoption Trends

The implementation of open source integrated library systems has grown steadily since their initial developments and deployments. Two open source products have become well established—Koha and Evergreen. In the United States, the adoption of open source ILS products began in the mid-2000s. Koha, an integrated library system initially developed in New Zealand in 1999, has become one of the major products used internationally. Although there are no definitive statistics on the total number of Koha implementations, it is probably the ILS software used by the largest number of libraries globally. I estimate that at least 20,000 libraries may have implemented Koha. Most of these libraries are in regions with lower levels of economic resources where the absence of license fees and the availability of local expertise and ingenuity have made it a quite successful option. Throughout Latin America, India, Turkey, and the Philippines, Koha finds widespread use through both governmental initiatives and informal and commercial support arrangements.

Proportions of open source ILS implementations among Public Libraries in the United States

Koha also finds substantial use in countries with more abundant financial resources. Its continuous twenty-year development path has resulted in a product on par with the proprietary products, which paired with comprehensive support services make it a strong competitor in the commercial marketplace. In the United States, ByWater Solutions, founded in 2009, has steadily grown its customer base to become the dominant provider of hosting and support services for Koha in the United States.

Proportions of open source ILS implementations for Academic Libraries in the United States

Evergreen, initially developed for the PINES consortium of public libraries in Georgia, has become one of the major products in the United States and Canada, with only a handful of implementations in other global regions. This ILS was developed especially for consortia of public libraries. Although some academic libraries have implemented Evergreen, it lacks the capabilities for electronic resource management, especially important for these libraries. Most of its use is concentrated in the United States through deployments in statewide consortia, which have seen a pattern of growth by adding new members as independent libraries move from standalone proprietary ILS products. Equinox Open Library Solutions, which includes individuals from the original Evergreen development team, is the largest provider of support services. Other organizations, such as the non-profit MOBIUS, also provide hosting and support services for libraries using Evergreen.

Among wealthier countries, open source ILSs are usually deployed through commercially provided services. A small number of libraries in these countries have been installed and managed internally, depending on the respective communities of developers and implementors for peer-to-peer assistance. The rising levels of adoption of open source ILS products can be tracked through the directory of libraries. These trends can be reliably measured in selected countries, such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, where the directory includes comprehensive representation of public and academic libraries. Current statistics show that 15 percent of public libraries in the United States have implemented either Koha or Evergreen; just over 7 percent of US academic libraries have implemented an open source ILS. (See figures 1 and 2.) Among US public and academic libraries, the numbers of libraries opting for open source automation systems has seen a relatively gentle upward trend. In the early phase of open source ILS, enthusiasm was strong, though the actual numbers of libraries adopting these products were more modest.

Open Source Repositories Prevail

While proprietary systems continue to dominate in the ILS arena, open source options are well established. In some product categories, especially institutional repositories, open source products prevail. Academic libraries tend to rely on open source products, such as DSpace, Fedora, Samvera, and Invenio, to manage their institutional repositories with proprietary options, such as bepress, finding a smaller audience. Bepress saw some disruption when it was acquired by Elsevier in August 2017. Ex Libris has launched a new repository as a core component of Esploro, its new research services suite.

Library Services Platforms

The genre of library services platforms was established among academic libraries as a new approach for the management of their electronic and print resources. Their model of comprehensive resource management has taken hold with products including OCLC WorldShare Management Services and Ex Libris Alma. Both products were launched in about 2010 and have been deployed as global multi-tenant platforms. The last decade has seen a general shift away from legacy ILSs to one of these two products, with Ex Libris becoming established as the dominant player, especially among larger academic libraries and consortia.

The competitive environment for academic libraries has not been entirely captivated by Ex Libris and OCLC. While these two products continue to see substantial momentum, some academic libraries have interest in open source alternatives. Virginia Tech University, for example, opted to implement a suite of open source components, including Koha and Coral, as their strategic technology environment. Another cadre of libraries have joined the effort to develop FOLIO as an open source library services platform. Backed by industry giant EBSCO Information Services and Index Data as a well-regarded technology development and services firm, FOLIO has been in development since about 2016. This project has now advanced to the early implementation phase, with its first library now in production, with others apparently well on track. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features some of the recent thresholds crossed by FOLIO. These accomplishments represent important milestones, positioning FOLIO as an interesting addition to the mix for academic libraries in an uncomfortably narrow slate of viable options. Expect future Smart Libraries Newsletter coverage to track whether FOLIO manages to gain a substantial portion of the market in the future.

View Citation
Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 11
Issue:November 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:24775
Last Update:2023-01-25 10:53:13
Date Created:2019-12-21 11:59:09