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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hudson, Litchfield, Lyndeborough libraries embrace open-source software

Why would your local library, a symbol of print-on-paper respectability, embrace open-source software, a symbol of the digital world’s most anti-establishment streak?

Money, mostly. Open-source software, which can be used and tweaked by anybody and which carries no corporate charges, is reasonably close to being free. ...

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Why would your local library, a symbol of print-on-paper respectability, embrace open-source software, a symbol of the digital world’s most anti-establishment streak?

Money, mostly. Open-source software, which can be used and tweaked by anybody and which carries no corporate charges, is reasonably close to being free.

But that’s the only reason, say some area librarians who are about to switch circulation, acquisitions, Web development, and other functions to one of two major open-source systems for libraries, called Evergreen and Koha.

“With proprietary (software), if you want an enhancement, a new feature, you’ll have to wait until demand builds for it. With Evergreen and Koha, you have access to a developer network worldwide that can work on it,” said Charlie Matthews, director of the Rodgers Library in Hudson. It is about to switch to Evergreen, originally developed for the Georgia state library system.

“As for annual maintenance cost, it’s probably 20-25 percent the total cost of proprietary system license,” he said.

Up the road in Litchfield, the Cutler Library is one of six New Hampshire libraries, including the Tarbell Library in Lyndeborough, participating in a state program to help them adopt Koha, which was first created in New Zealand and now exists in variants worldwide.

Vicki Varick, director of the Cutler Memorial Library in Litchfield, says the directors wanted to switch because their current software hasn’t been updated in five years. It’s a proprietary system, so there’s nothing that Litchfield could do to fix it.

“We are very limited in what patrons can pull up online. It certainly isn’t the kind of experience people are used to having online,” she said. “When the state started talking about coming up with a group of libraries that could buy in together to reduce the cost, we put our name on the list.”

So far, Varick said, the library had paid about $4,000 in preparation for the change, which doesn’t include the cost of switching its current records to make them compatible with Koha. Even so, she said, it will be far cheaper that licensing new commercial software.

“To get something comparable? It would cost maybe $10,000 for use, but I really don’t know,” she said.

The switch should happen in the next month or two. Patrons probably won’t even notice the switch and won’t have to do anything to get ready. Existing library cards will still work.

The New Hampshire State Library is pushing open-source systems for small libraries to give them more options and save them money, particularly because consolidation in the business world has left relatively little competition for what is known as integrated library system packages.

“We’ve had some interesting developments,” said Michael York, New Hampshire state librarian, pointing to tiny Sanbornton, near Laconia, which adopted open-source software early on, and some cooperative developments done by small neighboring libraries.

“Anybody can do anything they want to open-source (systems), but don’t own it,” he said. As an example, he noted that a module was developed for Evergreen to handle credit cards, a function that didn’t previously exist. “Now, anybody else who is using Evergreen has access to that module.”

Work is currently being done to help the system handle e-books, a growing part of modern libraries.

This isn’t to say that open-source software is a snap. While it has long been the pride of the computer community, most famously with the Linux operating system that underpins Evergreen and Koha, adoption of open-source software by laymen has been more limited due to its complexity.

Without corporate backing, open-source software can fall short in areas that programmers don’t enjoy doing, such as support systems, documentation, reports and easy-to-use interfaces.

This is partly why large urban libraries, like Nashua, mostly haven’t gone with open-source systems.

“We looked at Evergreen, Koha,” said Loren Rosson, director of circulation at Nashua Public Library, which has the industry-leading Symphony system. “Open-source has its advantages, but it really didn’t come down to a choice between open-source and proprietary. We went with the features that were best for us.”

“What we really like about Symphony is the reports that it could do – very helpful.”

Another disadvantage of open-source software is that, because anybody can tweak them, programs tend to fragment (“fork,” in computer-speak) into semi-incompatible variants. This makes it even more difficult to get outside help if you don’t have information technology expertise.

“IT staff? We don’t have any,” said Varick, of Litchfield, laughing. “I learned how to write HTML code to work on the website, but am I geeky enough to contribute to the source code? No.”

Rodgers Library has contracted with Georgia-based Equinox Software to help install, troubleshoot and run its Evergreen software.

“We’re more or less a support organization for Evergreen and Koha,” said Rob Herrmann, director of sales for Equinox. “The way that I view it, (open source) is another option. There’s nothing inherent as far as advantages or disadvantages – a lot has to do with the library system itself.”

In general, large or urban libraries have been slower to switch from proprietary systems, partly because as big customers, they have more clout with the software companies to get changes made.

Hudson’s Rodgers Library, which has about a quarter of the circulation of the Nashua Public Library, will probably be the largest library in the state to use an open-source system when it launches next month.

But with 234 library systems in New Hampshire – some so small and un-computerized that they still use card catalogs – there’s plenty of room for expansion.

“It’s not inconceivable to me there will be a fair number of libraries in New Hampshire that will go with open source,” said York, at the state library. “We decided to get them into this to help every library provide the highest level of service that they can.”

David Brooks can be contacted
at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow him
on Twitter (@Telegraph_DaveB).