Law in the Internet Society

Open Source ILS Software for Public Libraries

-- By MadihaZahrahChoksi - 6 April 2018

A Conundrum Facing Libraries

The 21st century library is under siege, at least that’s what current discourse among library professionals and library critics centers around. The internet of things has changed some of the fundamental attributes of the library space - from a place to acquire books and research services, to one that’s more interested in service delivery, workshops and trainings in an effort to maintain relevance. The modern library is a complex institution attempting to keep up with the times while staying true to two of its core values: the dissemination of free, open, and accessible information for the public, and maintaining patron privacy. While funding remains one of the major challenges faced by library systems across North America as governments shrink library budgets, the preservation of cash flow is eminent.

Open Source Alternatives

Koha was released under the GNU GPL license - a first in the library world, and has since become the most widely used open source ILS programme within the USA. Of the over 17,000 public library branches across the United States, approximately 800 have open source ILS ( To many libraries, the shift/switch/transition/awakening/enlightenment (call it what you may) to open source ILSs is an ideal far out of their reach. The major misunderstanding is that the library system must invest in in-library technical expertise to implement the ILS, run trainings and troubleshoot. In fact, any library with technical expertise can navigate trainings and implementation by coordinating with their local Koha service provider. The very idea of open source software is foreign because it contrasts so sharply with the status quo - complacent implementation of proprietary software. While open source software seems “distinct” and “unfamiliar” to users who are uninitiated to its open-ness, in reality, it aligns more closely with the goals of the library than conventional software.

Time vs. $

What would happen if library systems, both public and academic were to abandon proprietary integrated library systems (ILSs), and switch to an open source program to solve funding gaps and privacy concerns? While ALA standards strive to ensure that library spaces protect the privacy of their patrons, proprietary ILSs store personally identifiable information of patron records (i.e. library cards and loan history), search patterns, as well as web history within their databases. The information does not technically belong to the library, nor can the information be controlled by librarians. While proprietary ILSs are legally obliged to protect user privacy, the switch to open source ILSs would shift the power of protecting patron privacy to librarians.

But are users really in control of their privacy within a library that utilizes proprietary ILSs? In my (short) opinion, no. In 2005, when the NSA issued a letter to obtain patron data from a Connecticut library under the Patriot Act, librarians across the nation united to support the ACLU in a Supreme Court brief. Since then, librarians have prioritized informing their patrons of their fundamental Freedom of Expression in the library, and the ways in which the Patriot Act and other surveillance mechanisms strive to impede that right. In the spirit of maintaining patron privacy, software that promote similar ideals have emerged, presenting a viable option for progressive library systems.

The Problem of Expediency

In an effort to make this discussion more operationally relevant, my research sought to understand current impressions of open sourced ILSs. Their response revealed the incongruity of the individuals’ deeply-held beliefs about user data and the institutional challenges of implementing real change they have internalized through their professional roles. Over the last few years, the Arthur W. Diamond Library has considered a shift to open sourced ILSs, even hired new staff to aid in research and migration. The information presented to library bureaucrats highlighted the pros and cons of open sourced ILSs, of which the pros centered around the affordability and “next-gen” features such as RSS feeds, search facets, end-user tagging, text-messaging service support, even the ability to integrate a Meebo chatbox. Moreover, the pros emphasized the growing community of users and the list of established companies and experts in the field. The cons, of which there were not many, included the time-consuming migration process, the loss of standard features (whatever that even means), and the necessity to develop new workflows, potentially deal with new bugs, and the dependency on developers belonging to another institution.

The information gathered from librarians at the New York Public Library and NYU Law Library demonstrate the same conclusions. The problem is not so much surrounding the efficacy of the platform or the cost, it’s merely the convenience of not having to transition to a system that is distinct from the one currently in use.

The Open Road

Librarians have long been concerned with user privacy – I wonder what excuse trendsetting and model library systems such as the NYPL or the Chicago Public Library have for their complacency?

The strategy for marketing Koha, as well as the cultural moment in which we live, can create pathways towards adoption. Firstly, Koha and other companies currently presents very little content regarding one of the main hurdles facing open LIS – credibility. For example, a quick scan of Koha’s website renders no information about adoption or current users, however, delving into the list of customers on the wiki site dedicated to Koha users highlights the global spread of users (sorted by continent, with every one represented), and shows hotspots of concentrated adoption such as India, Australia, and the Philippines. If Koha’s marketing focused more on the momentum already achieved, the resulting enhancement of its credibility would help increasingly influential library systems feel comfortable with making the switch. However, the impetus to consider open software remains the missing piece.

There has never been a moment where discussion around data privacy has been more mainstream than April 2018, and people are searching for the action nearest at hand. While for most people this could entail something only as extreme as deleting their Facebook, for library and other information professionals, the current moment is one in which they can be the hero – taking actions that speak to relevant, contemporary concerns about open access. Koha and other companies could energize librarians to act by strategically centering their marketing on librarians as champions of data ethics, by creating a digital ecosystem outside of the monetization of browsing habits, one in which user information is secure and anonymous. Koha could capitalize on a moment in which the public is looking for leadership on personal data through emphasizing the role of the library in their marketing.

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r3 - 07 Apr 2018 - 05:31:23 - MadihaZahrahChoksi
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