Nelsonville Public Library serves 36,000 patrons in their rural county. Like most libraries, they have to weigh the money they spend on Information Technology very carefully since every dollar spent on computers and software is a dollar they can not spend on books. They choose to spend it on Free Software.
Stephen Hedges, library director knows that this is a wise investment though. "I expect that an initial investment of $10,000 will save us about $10,000 every year, beginning in 2003." says Hedges. "I think our real ROI will not be financial, however. Within the next few years, we fully expect that our website will offer some of the best online library services available anywhere in the world. That's the value we expect to get from investing in Koha."
Nelsonville's plan is to initially copy some of their data onto a Koha system to use for testing. Then as the librarians gradually become more accustomed to the new software they will move their live system to Koha as well. They expect to complete their conversion in the summer of 2003.
Traditionally, libraries turn to big software vendors and proprietary software to run their libraries. In 1999, a rural library system in New Zealand, the Horowhenua Library Trust (HLT), was at a crossroads. They needed to upgrade their library software, but didn't want to be stuck with the high price tag that they knew would be a part of the package. They made the bold decision to work with Katipo Communications of Wellington, New Zealand to write their own software. Katipo suggested that they develop a new system based on open standards (like using a web browser for the client software), and free software (like Linux, MySQL, and Perl).
Katipo recommended that the new application be free software as well. This had three great advantages over proprietary software. First, it protected HLT; no matter what happened to Katipo, the software would be available and HLT could hire anyone to support it. Second, it freed Katipo from becoming a software marketing company; they were able to keep their attention on writing software for HLT and not have to sink resources into selling Koha to other clients. Third, it allowed other libraries to work with the software; installing it for little or no cost, extending it to fit their own needs, and then sharing those changes with all of the other libraries using Koha. Fittingly, this new software would be called 'Koha', a Maori word meaning 'gift'.
Koha was released in 2000, and was quickly picked up by several other libraries. Among the most active were the libraries of the Coast Mountains School District in British Columbia, Canada. Steve Tonnesen, a network technician working for the district, found Koha as he was searching for an inexpensive way to upgrade the library software at one of the schools in his district.
He quickly moved past just installing the system and began writing new functionality into the software. He added MARC import tools, a client for Z39.50, and multiple improvements to the system. Because the software was licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), he was not only free to make these changes but also to release them to the rest of the world. Once he'd made the changes he needed to support his local use of Koha, he shared them with the rest of the world. HLT's decision was validated.
Other libraries and developers have picked up Koha for their own use. As each one has done so, they've started to make improvements. Almost all of these improvements have worked their way back into the main Koha system. Because of the incremental improvements funded by many different libraries, Koha is now a better system for every library that's using it.
Stephen Hedges says, "HLT has paid their money and received a product that works fine for their needs. Now other libraries can pay a little more money and receive enhancements to that product that will make it fit their needs - without having to pay for the development of an entire software package. HLT got what it wanted, we plan to get what we want, other libraries can pay and get what they want. ... It's a great model for success!"
Nelsonville started looking at Koha about a year ago. They were impressed enough that in January of this year, they put together a formal team to explore using Koha and other Free Software tools. By August, they had decided to migrate their library system to Koha.
Key to making this migration work were three specific features that weren't a part of Koha. One was under active development; the other two were not. Nelsonville decided that they could contribute funding to help spur the development of the features they wanted. According to Hedges, this seemed natural. "Open Source requires just as much commitment as commercial software. Libraries should be ready to commit financial resources. The difference is, with commercial software a big portion of the money goes to research and development over which the library has no control, while with Open Source that same money can fund the development of software modules the library really wants."
This has some profound implications for the Koha project as well. While much of the work is being done by developers on their free time, this funding will allow some of them to expand their work on Koha. As libraries step forward to fund work, the work that they are most interested in seeing will be the work that gets the most attention.
Libraries around the world are looking into Koha. While its free availability might be the initial draw, it's Koha's quality and flexibility that are keeping people focused. For Nelsonville, spending money on free software is a wise use of their funds.
For more information about the Koha project, please see its website or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information from the Nelsonville Public Library, see their web site on koha.