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Adoption Patterns of Proprietary and Open Source ILS in U.S. Libraries

Computers in Libraries [October 2015]

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Copyright (c) 2015 Information Today

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Abstract: I spend a lot of energy gathering and analyzing data describing the automation systems implemented in libraries. These data are recorded in the libraries, org database I maintain as part of Library Technology Guides. One of the interesting patterns relates to the adoption of an open source ILS versus those libraries that use proprietary products. In broad terms, proprietary products continue to dominate, but over the last decade, use of open source ILS products has grown to 12 percent in U.S. public libraries. Unique patterns apply to each sector of libraries and in each geographic region of the world. This discussion focuses primarily on public libraries in the U.S. and explores the interesting dynamics and adoption patterns between proprietary and open source ILS products.


I spend a lot of energy gathering and analyzing data describing the automation systems implemented in libraries. These data are recorded in the libraries, org database I maintain as part of Library Technology Guides. One of the interesting patterns relates to the adoption of an open source ILS versus those libraries that use proprietary products. In broad terms, proprietary products continue to dominate, but over the last decade, use of open source ILS products has grown to 12% in U.S. public libraries. Unique patterns apply to each sector of libraries and in each geographic region of the world. This discussion focuses primarily on public libraries in the U.S. and explores the interesting dynamics and adoption patterns between proprietary and open source ILS products.

I base my research on data that I collect on the technology products used by libraries throughout the world. The resource management and discovery products used by libraries in the U.S. are most accurately and comprehensively represented. Although there may be some degree of error, this portion of the database tends to be the most complete and up-to-date. I also track public and academic libraries more closely than other types. School libraries, for example, far outnumber other types and have fewer systematic sources of information related to the automation systems used. Corporate libraries tend to be the most reluctant to disclose the technology products they employ.

libraries.org includes entries for 9,472 public library organizations and 17,087 individual branches in the U.S. These numbers should not be taken as an exact representation of the current reality. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) reported 9.082 public libraries in 2012 managing 17,219 branches. There is some contraction in public libraries through consolidation of library systems, closing of branches, and other changes. Despite a margin of error, libraries.org serves as my principle source of tracking technologyimplementation trends in libraries.

Proprietary Products Dominate

Public libraries in the U.S. overwhelmingly have chosen to implement proprietary ILSs from commercial companies, with 88% falling into this category. A minority of 12% have selected open source ILS products, primarily Koha and Evergreen. Prior to the mid-2000s, all of the ILS products in use in the U.S. were based on proprietary software. Today, open source products fall into the routine mix of options when libraries consider new technology solutions.

I also note that the proprietary systems have shifted toward a much smaller number of providers. Continual rounds of mergers and acquisitions have resulted in consolidation that places multiple products under the ownership of a few large companies. SirsiDynix now supports Symphony, Horizon, and EOS.Web as it develops a new set of BLUEcloud products. Innovative supports Sierra and Millennium as well as the recently acquired Polaris ILS and VTLS Virtua. The Library Corp. (TLC) offers Library.Solution and CARL.X.

The chart above illustrates the deployment of ILS products in public libraries in the U.S. An interactive version of this tool is available on Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology .org/products/marketshare.pl) with options to view product implementation proportions according to library type, country, state, and library size.

Proprietary ILS products dominate in U.S. public libraries, with a large portion provided by a small number of commercial companies. Innovative tops the list, providing its ILS products to 2,266 libraries and their 5,034 branches. When counting library organizations, 24% of U.S. public libraries have selected products now supported by Innovative, or 29% when counting branches. Most of the public libraries using Millennium have migrated to Sierra; 242 libraries (594 branches) remain on Millennium, while 962 (2,133) have implemented Sierra. Another 1,061 libraries (2,307 branches) have implemented Polaris, acquired by Innovative in March 2014. Virtua was implemented in the Queens Public Library in New York, but, apart from that high-profile site, has not attracted significant interest by other public libraries in the U.S.

SirsiDynix holds 20% of the U.S. public library sector when counting by library organizations, or 26% when counting total branches. Symphony has been implemented by 1,557 public libraries (3,458 branches), or 16%. The number of libraries using Horizon continues to decline, with 304 remaining (990 branches), or 3%. The EOS.Web ILS acquired last year is used primarily in law, medical, and small academic libraries.

Library* Solution is used in about 538 public libraries (1,018 branches), representing about 6% of the public library sector. CARL*X is used in 5 large library systems in the U.S. (283 total branches), representing less than 1% of the total number of library organizations in the U.S. and 2% of branches.

The Apollo ILS from Biblionix has been adopted in 509 U.S. public libraries (537 branches), representing 5% of library organizations and 3% of total branches. Catering to very small public libraries, the portion of industry revenues received by Biblionix may be well below its market share as measured by libraries served.

Reflecting the fact that the data in libraries.org isn't entirely comprehensive, there are 689 U.S. public libraries for which I do not have information regarding the automation system used. All of these are very small libraries- most do not have websites-and it is likely they either do not have an ILS at all or they use an older, PC-based product. Another 551 libraries in the sector (6%) have specifically indicated that no ILS has been implemented. One of my major concerns is that as much as 10% of the public libraries in the U.S. lack a modern ILS, and this presents an opportunity for any organization able to provide technology affordable within very modest budgets and with features designed for libraries serving small towns or rural areas.

Koha Leads Open Source ILS into the Mainstream

There are three main open source options in the U.S.: Koha (originally developed in New Zealand in 1999), Evergreen (created by the Georgia Public Library Service in 2006), and Kuali OLE (an initiative to create software for academic and research libraries through a series of grants in 2008). Concerted interest in open source ILSs began in about 2006 internationally and within the U.S. Prior to this time, no open source ILS products were perceived as being able to meet the needs of libraries in the U.S.

In a 2002 article, "Open Source ILS: Still Only a Distant Possibility," I noted the lack of robust systems. At the time, there were some relatively primitive products, including Avanti, PYTHEAS, and OpenBook. Avanti and PYTHEAS were never implemented in any library to my knowledge. OpenBook was adopted by a few rural communities in the northwestern U.S. through the efforts of a nonprofit organization called Technology Resource Foundation (later called Learning Access Institute). This software is no longer developed and remains installed in only one library.

Conversely, Koha has emerged as the only survivor of this early group and has grown to be the most adopted ILS product in the world. Although, I noted in my 2002 essay that it had some promise, Koha, at that time, was much less sophisticated than the version currently in use. It was originally developed for a very small group of libraries in New Zealand that did not have especially complex needs. Back then, it lacked basic requirements (such as support for MARC records and record transfer through Z39.50), and it had only minimal capabilities for acquisitions, serials management, and other areas of functionality.

Koha saw a gradual increase in interest through about 2005, gaining some new capabilities and some adoption outside of New Zealand. Beginning that year, it started to gather international interest, attracting significant development efforts, and its use has snowballed ever since. Koha is now used in tens of thousands of libraries throughout the world. Its greatest numbers of implementations are seen in libraries in less wealthy nations such as the Philippines, India, Turkey, and Argentina. It has also been adopted throughout Europe and in the U.S. and Canada.

The functionality of Koha can be considered on par with many of the proprietary ILS products. It offers a robust set of features as a result of 15 years of continuous functional enhancements and technical improvements by an international community of developers. It follows the model of the traditional ILS for print resource management and is considered part of the genre of library services platforms designed for organizations with collections dominated by licensed electronic resources.

Commercial Support for Open Source ILS

Open source software does not preclude commercial involvement. Quite the contrary, most open source projects sustain a variety of commercial endeavors in addition to volunteer or nonprofit activities. Dozens, if not hundreds, of support companies have emerged to provide services surrounding Koha.

Almost all of the libraries using an open source ILS in the U.S. do so with the paid services of a commercial support provider. ByWater Solutions is the leading support provider for Koha. Equinox is the dominant provider for services related to Evergreen and also provides services for Koha. LibLime, a division of PTFS, provides support for an ILS based on a fork of Koha.

Open Source Market Share

Roughly 12% of the public libraries in the U.S. have selected open source ILSs; 1,170 libraries, including 1,983 branches, use either Koha or Evergreen. Slightly more public libraries use Evergreen (634) than Koha (536). Kuali OLE has been implemented in three academic libraries and is not meant for public libraries.

Koha currently has been implemented by about 6% of public libraries in the U.S. (536 libraries and 765 branches). Of this group, the largest portion has implemented it through the support of ByWater Solutions: 392 libraries and 587 branches, or 4% of total U.S. public libraries. A smaller number rely on the support services of LibLime: 116 libraries and 150 branches, or 1%. A few U.S. public libraries (16) have implemented Koha independently of any commercial support service.

The open source Evergreen ILS has also has seen significant interest, primarily by consortia of public libraries in the U.S. Designed specifically for library consortia, Evergreen offers strong functionality for public libraries interested in sharing a system to provide lower technology costs and to facilitate sharing resources among participating libraries. Oriented primarily to consortia, Evergreen has fewer implementations, with each instance supporting a large number of libraries. Only 21 implementations support the 634 U.S. libraries using Evergreen. In comparison, 118 implementations of Koha support 536 libraries. Evergreen serves 7% of U.S. public libraries.

Evergreen seems best-suited for large consortia comprising mostly small and medium-size libraries. It has also been implemented by one large municipal library: King County Library System in 2009.

Disruptive, Though Not Dominant

Today, open source ILSs have become routine options for many libraries. They appreciate the freedom and community developments associated with open source software, but are willing to pay for implementation, hosting, and support services. To date, interest has been focused more on the small-to-midsize libraries and from more public than academic libraries.

When the open source ILS movement began in the mid-2000s, its potential long-term impact on the industry was not clear. At that time, there was great frustration by libraries with at least some of the commercial companies offering proprietary software. Open source ILS was seen as an alternative that could potentially give libraries more control over the technology upon which they rely so heavily and freedom from commercial companies. It seemed at least possible that open source ILS products could gain traction and sweep into more of a dominant portion of the library software industry. The trajectory of adoption has proven to be more gentle and modest.

Over the last decade, adoption of open source ILSs among U.S. public libraries has grown from zero to about 12%. Given the demographics of the libraries involved, the portion of revenue is considerably less. While the open source ILS movement has not dominated the U.S. public library industry, it has proven to be a disruptive factor and continues as a modestly growing segment. Its impact on the international scene-especially in the developing world-is another story. It seems likely that open source ILS products-especially Koha-are positioned to serve increasingly large numbers of libraries of all types in many international regions.

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Publication Year:2015
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 35 Number 8
Issue:October 2015
Page(s):17-18,20
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:21505
Last Update:2016-06-13 15:54:33
Date Created:2016-04-20 07:30:29