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Making the Case for Koha: Why Libraries Should Consider an Open Source ILS
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Posted On August 4, 2015
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Of all the ILS options on the market, using an open source solution might be the best fit for libraries looking for cost-effective, collaborative, and highly supported software. Koha is one such ILS, used by about 15,000 libraries around the world and supported by nearly 50 companies.

Koha provider ByWater Solutions notes that Koha means “gift with expectations” in Maori—the expectation is that users will contribute to its community to help enhance the software. Contributing can be as simple as reporting problems and suggesting improvements (and if the user is interested, writing code or performing other developer tasks). Read on to find out why every library should consider what it can gain from an open source ILS.

Collaboration Hub

Childhood friends Brendan Gallagher and Nathan Curulla had already started one company together before founding ByWater Solutions. Gallagher had a background in library-focused IT, and Curulla had experience in retail and small business management, so they teamed up on a real estate enterprise. Four years later, in 2008, Gallagher decided to use his library expertise to start a Koha support and implementation company, and Curulla joined him. Both avid Lord of the Rings fans, they decided to call their company ByWater, for the fictional village that served as a central meeting place for travelers. “The [inn at Bywater] was a hub for the collaboration and exchange of news and ideas in the world of Middle Earth, and thus resembles the environment found in Koha and Open Source Software in general,” according to the company’s Our History page.

ByWater Solutions signed its first library partner in June 2009, with two more joining by the end of the year. The company grew steadily; in 2015, it has signed about 42 contracts so far, bringing its customer base to a total of about 250 contracts that represent nearly 900 libraries. Now all libraries of all sizes—independent organizations, consortiums, and academic institutions—have joined as partners.

“It’s exciting because we’re seeing larger and larger institutions coming on to Koha, we’ve got some bigger names now like Rutgers Law. … In the library world it’s all about word of mouth, so having these larger names starting to adopt an open source solution really puts a lot of validity to Koha,” says Curulla, ByWater Solutions’ co-owner and chief revenue officer.

Implementation Process

Curulla says that when he and Gallagher founded the company, they paid special attention to the frustrations libraries articulated about their software and tried to address all of them. The first step was to hire people who had worked in libraries so they would be familiar with the problems librarians faced.

Nicole C. Engard, VP of community outreach, joined as its first employee in October 2009. She says ByWater Solutions engages in flexible, extensive Koha training with all of its library partners. “[T]he very first thing that we say in training is we’re here until your questions end. We’re not going to stick to a schedule; if you need us, we’ll stay however late you need us to stay,” she says.

This attitude is central to ByWater Solutions’ strategy. Every executive and employee at the company is qualified to answer libraries’ questions about Koha, although it does offer a central support station to which libraries can submit tickets when they need help. Then the employee with the relevant expertise can reply to the question. Curulla cites this system as an advantage ByWater Solutions has over proprietary ILS vendors: “That was another big frustration that [libraries] had, is that [at] these huge companies … there’s just so many people that you can’t find a contact person. So we try to avoid that at all costs.”

When a library decides to transfer to Koha and chooses ByWater Solutions as its provider, the company’s first step is to have a “get-to-know-you” phone call. Its sales team confers with the migration team to explain the customer’s worries, frustrations with its current system, specific needs, and previous discussions with the company, so the migration team has the necessary information for that first phone call, says Curulla.

The migration team talks to the library about when it wants to go live with Koha and works out a timeline backward from that date (typically 4–6 months). As soon as the team gets the library’s data, it creates a test system the library can use to learn about Koha. This means the library can do Koha training using its own data. ByWater Solutions’ education team comes to the library to provide training, which makes staffers more likely to get on board with the software and increases their comfort level with it, says Curulla. In the months leading up to the library’s go-live date, ByWater Solutions instills a testing regimen that reinforces the training it provided and helps the company identify any issues the library might be having.

“The best part about our migration process is that none of our customers need to run dual systems during that process,” he says. The night before the go-live date, ByWater Solutions does a second data extract and populates the library’s test system with the updated information, so when the library opens the next day, it’ll have the new system ready to go. He says the company is mindful of scheduling:

Most companies will make them … run dual systems, or take their system down for 4 days. We don’t do that at all. … Some libraries are open 7 days a week; in that case, we ask them to close one day, because there’s no other way to possibly do it, or we try to schedule the go-live right before or right after a vacation, summertime, or Memorial Day, or something like that. So we would rather work all night than cause undue stress to libraries. … [T]he migration process is our first real experience with working with the customer, and we want that to be a good impression. That’s why we focus so heavily on the migration and the training portions of the process. We want our customers to be educated, we want them to be calm, and happy.


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Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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