One of the big reasons I decided to move to Crawford County, Pa., in 2015 to run the Benson Memorial Library was because the Crawford County Federated Library System uses Koha as its ILS. At that point in my career, I had been through so many proprietary ILSs and changes that I wanted to experience something new.
Koha was that something new. Fast-forward to November 2015, when I met Chris Cormack, one of Koha’s creators, at the LIANZA (Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa) conference. He told me about how Koha got started, how it grew, and where it was headed. Speaking directly with someone who developed something that has helped so many people was invigorating, so for this NewsBreak, I spoke to Cormack to try to re-create that amazing conversation we had back in November 2015. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me.
Justin Hoenke: First up, let me just say that I’m a big fan of Koha. We use Koha at my library and we love it. It’s easy to use and it really gives off a great community-oriented vibe. The whole Koha system just feels like one big love letter to libraries and their employees.
Chris Cormack: Thanks!
Hoenke: Every awesome and world-changing thing starts somewhere … and yes, I do consider Koha to be quite an awesome and world-changing thing! Can you talk to me about the beginnings of Koha? What was the feeling like in the moment when these ideas started?
Cormack: Koha was started as a necessity. If an open source system had existed, we (the Horowhenua District Library in New Zealand) would have used that. It didn’t, so we had to write our own. We had 3 months to write a system because Jan., 1, 2000, was coming and there was no way we could stop it. It was a team effort: Without Olwen Williams to get the data out, we would have had nothing. Without Rachel Hamilton-Williams to do the front end, there would be no front end. Without the librarians to tell me how it should work, I wouldn’t have been able to weave it all together.
Hoenke: Once you got the ball rolling with Koha, what happened next? I’m most impressed by how a community of developers and library people came together to build, grow, and manage it.
Cormack: It took until about June 2000 before the code was documented and tidy enough for it to be released and be useful for others. But within hours, we had people downloading it, and it was within days that we had the first messages on the mailing lists. The first update made to Koha was by Glen Stewart in the Michigan area. It just snowballed and snowballed from there. Librarians understand sharing, so this makes using open source (in libraries) a natural fit.
We also wanted Koha to be translatable from the start, so allowing people to use it in their languages opens up a whole lot more users.
Hoenke: Let’s talk about the future of Koha and where you think it is going. What kind of improvements and advancements do you see happening to Koha over the next 2 years?
Cormack: I always try to push people toward thinking about the users, not the librarians. Whatever we add into Koha should have a benefit (direct or indirect) to library users. Too many systems focus on the librarians as the users of the system. But in reality, they are also there to serve and benefit the actual users of the system. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work on making it better for librarians, but that we should always have “and this is better for users because …” in the back of our minds.
I want Koha to be the most privacy-respecting library system out there. There is a lot of talk of platforms at the moment, which is a fancy way of saying interoperability. This is something we should continue to work on, especially with the increasing amount of electronic resources being offered by libraries.
Hoenke: Imagine that I’m a librarian who’s hesitant to give Koha a shot because “I just don’t understand open source and I don’t really trust it to be reliable.” What would you say to that person?
Cormack: I’d say that 15,000 libraries can’t all be wrong. But seriously, Koha has had the most eyes looking at it of all the systems. There are no hidden bits: We develop and talk in the open. And you will never be locked in. Try it—you have very little to lose.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Images courtesy of Chris Cormack.