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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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Libraries don’t have to use a specific discovery system with Koha, or a specific ebook vendor. ByWater Solutions partners with providers whose services will work with Koha without additional setup, says Engard. For example, if libraries want to include their NoveList Select information in Koha, they simply enter their NoveList username and password into the appropriate screen on Koha, and the information automatically populates the public catalog. Another example is that libraries can choose whether to show cover images from Open Library. “And using Koha is super simple when it comes to these things—they really are just little toggles to turn on or off. … It’ll say Show or Don’t Show, those are the two options in the pull-down menu [for] covers from Open Library, and so you choose to show them or not, and then you hit Save,” says Engard. She notes that every system preference in Koha is that easy to understand.

Open Source vs. Proprietary ILSs

Curulla asserts that Koha’s functionality is just as good as that of proprietary ILSs, and it costs a fraction of the price. “That was always our pitch: better quality product with higher levels of service for less money, but no one believes us,” he says. “Because it hasn’t been the norm, so I understand why people would be suspicious of that. But the more and more libraries that sign, the more and more people say it’s real. …”

He likens the open source/proprietary debate to a David and Goliath fight. It seems David is holding his own, because proprietary ILS vendors have begun marketing their products the same way open source ILSs do—as offering high levels of service and support. “When we started this company, it wasn’t to take over every single library in the entire world and get them on Koha. It was to change the way that libraries interact with their support vendor,” Curulla says. “We created more competition within the market with a different way of doing things that has forced the industry norm to change. And that’s what we set out to do in the beginning. So I think, so far, we’ve been successful.”

Koha doesn’t charge for every feature the community adds to the software; all of the updates are free. For example, Koha recently integrated electronic ordering and invoicing functionality, which is an expensive add-on for libraries using a proprietary ILS. With Koha, even small libraries that are paying ByWater Solutions $1,000 a year for Koha support will have access to electronic ordering and invoicing in acquisitions. That functionality would be impossible for a small library customer of proprietary software to afford, Curulla says.

ByWater Solutions does biannual Koha upgrades, with the next update expected to include ebook integration. Libraries will be able to access all of their content from OverDrive, Axis 360, Recorded Books, and Freading in Koha so patrons can check out books without leaving the system. “And you can pick and choose which ebook vendor you use, and that’s one unified platform for all the library patrons. There’s not going to be any extra charge for that access once that comes out,” says Curulla.

Dispelling Open Source’s Myths

Besides getting more functionality for less money with Koha, it allows libraries to participate in its community so the software can benefit from their input. “It’s collaborative, it’s sharing, it’s what libraries do,” says Curulla. “That’s one of the concrete reasons to use open source.”

Curulla says there are misconceptions about open source software that stop libraries from using it. He’s heard that using open source software requires hiring a large IT staff. “Not true. You hire ByWater. You need less IT staff because you don’t have to start banging your head against the wall to figure out workarounds to make your current system operate correctly.” He’s also found that people hear “free” and assume there are hidden costs beyond hiring a support vendor such as ByWater Solutions.

Engard’s job involves dispelling these fears. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been working with Koha. I started as a volunteer in the community just because I believed in it, and participated in whatever way I could, and then started working for vendors that supported it. But ever since the beginning, my goal has been to educate people on what open source really is.” She visits libraries, gives webinars, attends conferences, and writes about open source, explaining that the only difference from proprietary software is the licensing terms. An open source license states that users are “free to take this software, to run, study, modify, and redistribute for any purpose. And so you have these four freedoms with open source software. And that ties right in with what we believe in in libraries—sharing of information, working collaboratively, making things accessible to everyone. That’s what we do. And so it just makes sense that libraries at least look into open source software. And then once they start to look at it, we’re confident they’re going to see how awesome Koha is. …”

When Engard educates people on what open source is, what it means to use open source software, what types of software are available, which companies use it, and who trusts it, they see that their fears are unfounded, she says. To back up her discussions with facts, she maintains bibliographies on open source and open source security. She also has a set of bookmarks on Delicious, and she wrote a book, Practical Open Source Software for Libraries. “[W]hen people come to me and say open source is too risky … I have facts and figures, just what librarians want, to say no, all software has potential risk associated with it. You have to evaluate software side by side, and look at it, and really take the time to compare it. … I know you’re going to pick the open source solution over the proprietary because it is so quickly developed, so quickly fixed, so ahead of the curve as far as technology is concerned.”


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Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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