Open source library system a welcome gift

Libraries seeking to save on the cost of proprietary library systems are turning to a maturing open source alternative called Koha.

In library speak, Koha is an ILS (Integrated Library System). In other words, it is the software that public, school, and academic libraries use to handle cataloguing, circulation, acquisition of new media, and patron access.

The market for ILSs is robust. Examples of offerings in this space include Innopac by Innovative Interfaces, Advance from Geac, and Voyager by Endeavor Information Systems. Voyager, for example, is installed in the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Unlike the above-mentioned products, Koha -- the world's first open source library system -- is free. It was originally developed by New Zealand firm Katipo Communications (www.katipo.co.nz) in 1999. Koha (pronounced "kaw ha", a Maori word meaning gift or donation) was subsequently released under the GNU General Public License and is today maintained by a team of volunteer developers from around the world.

Koha 1.9.0 was released in early February. Like the numbering system used in Linux, the "9" in 1.9 means there are still some stability issues to be addressed in this version, explained Paul Poulain, a Koha developer based in France.

"It is a preview of the 2.0.0 release, and should not be used for production work," said another developer, Pat Eyler. "On the other hand, if you're keen to start using Koha in the [northern] summer/fall [autumn], grabbing 1.9.0 to play with (and help test) will let you see what kinds of things 2.0.0 will be doing -- albeit with some bugs, incomplete features, etc.," said Eyler, a US-based manager of the Koha project.

Because it is a professional-orientated software (that is, not for home libraries), Koha manages most of the international libraries standards such as MARC and Z39.50 (also known as Information Retrieval Protocol).

MARC is the acronym for MAchine-Readable Cataloguing. It defines a data format that provides the mechanism by which computers exchange, use and interpret bibliographic information and its data elements make up the foundation of most library catalogues used today. The Z39.50 standard specifies the formats and procedures for the exchange of messages when an origin searches a target database and retrieves records.

"The MARC part, the biggest one, is really stable now. It's used in a Christian library here in France since December, without problem," Poulain said.

The 2.0 version will add even more MARC support, full templating, themes and language support. Translations to French, Polish, Chinese and Spanish are on the way. It will also sport many enhancements such as reserve book for patrons, non ISO-5589-1 support, and extended login and rights managements, Poulain said.

Given its late entry into a crowded marketplace, and its continuing development, Koha has only handful of installations -- 20 at last count. But the developers hope to expand its appeal when Version 2.0 is released, most likely at the end of March. Two recent installations were at the Nelsonville Public Library in the US and Philanthropy Australia.

Philanthropy Australia installed Koha mid-2002. The organisation, based in Melbourne, is the national membership body for the philanthropic sector. Its library is used by members, policy makers, journalists and researchers seeking information on topics such as welfare, people with disabilities, and age concerns.

Louise Arkles, Philanthropy Australia's resource centre librarian, said the primary reason for selecting Koha was its free cost. "That [money saved] would enable us to put money into customising it," she said.

Proprietary library systems were considered by her library team but all had "issues" and, more importantly, had "significant ongoing costs" such as the need for additional modules (which were necessary for the library to obtain a customised solution). "It ended up looking costly and fairly expensive," she said.

Today, more than six months on, Arkles says she is impressed with the performance and features of the ILS. She said one exciting feature of the new system for Philanthropy Australia is the fact it is Web-enabled. Additionally, catalogue searches yield a page with the requested information plus a list of other relevant Web resources and hyperlinks to those resources.

Currently, developers are working to iron out bugs of release 1.9.0. This will be followed by 1.9.1 and then 2.0.RC1 (Release Candidate). To find out more on the Koha project go to http://www.koha.org.

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