Automation and small libraries – first look

It’s kind of amazing to me that after over fifteen years in this business, I’m looking at a situation that pretty much hasn’t changed for small libraries looking for an automation system.  There wasn’t much available for them at a reasonable cost back then, and there is even less today.  Go ahead. Show me where I’m wrong.

Seriously, a small library, a small public library, one that is supported, sometimes begrudgingly, by (too often non-existent) local public funds, does not have a lot to spend on annual fees for a library automation system.  They have even less to spend on a tech person who could install and maintain one of the FLOSS options.  And even if they do, there’s still the recurring cost of a web server to put it online.  O.K., maybe they could tie into the local government’s web server, assuming the local government entity has one (probably a “yes” in the U.S., but not in other parts of the world).

I actually did a complete retrospective conversion at a library years ago.  It was a special library that had the funds to support a quality system.  I was shocked and horrified at the “system” (basically a giant word processing document) that was being used to track titles.  There was no mechanism to track costs.  I have since come to appreciate the efforts of librarians in small libraries doing the best they can with what they have, and with the skill sets they have, to manage their collections.  Hello, World: librarians are amazing, and you should throw money at them, because they do amazing things with your resources.

So, in the history of library systems, the first stop is Marshall Breeding’s excellent record of what was, what is, and who ate up whom.  Although this doesn’t cover everything being used out there, it does give an interesting picture of the developing landscape.  I was surprised and amazed that the Georgia Public Library Service, back in 2004, chose to build its own automation system (Evergreen) for libraries in the state rather than use one of the existing systems.  There was, of course, Koha, out of New Zealand.  But that one got mired in nasty disputes over code and trademarks.  So far, so good, with Evergreen (keeping fingers crossed)

Next stop is Wikipedia’s list of Next-Generation library systems, especially the Comparison chart, but you might want to scan through the brief explanation of what Next-Generation means here.  The list is notable, because it includes both large systems and systems smaller libraries can use.  But note that these are all web-based systems.  Some of them, however, can function on a stand-alone basis, on the desktop.  This is important, because the most basic need of libraries is library management software.  Getting it on the web is secondary to librarians (although not to their patrons, of course).

So let’s take a stab at what some of the possibilities are for small (mostly) underfunded libraries today.  There are two perspectives to consider here:  libraries with staff that are systems-capable, and libraries with limited or no staff capable of managing the backend of a system.

In the first category (libraries with systems-capable staff), we have, first, systems that have a stand-alone option,

and second, systems that are add-ons to content management systems a library may be using, or have access to, for their web site (so far, I’m only seeing Drupal modules, are there any others out there?).

In the second category, it’s pretty bleak without (1) hiring someone, or a service, to set up a system, or (2) a funding stream to pay annual fees.  In the first case I refer back to one of the four above that can be installed on a stand-alone basis.  After installation, training would probably be required as well, despite the documentation.   In the second case, LibraryWorld seems to have a loyal following around the world.  I haven’t had an opportunity to look at it recently, so I don’t really have anything to say about it (yet).  Feel free to add comments below about your experience with it.

But LibraryWorld is a closed system, and if you are looking for something open source, there are

  • PMB Services (uses phpMyBibli)
  • OPALS  (they say they are open source, but I don’t see a download link – the acid test of open source)

There are, of course, larger open source systems, which may work for a consortium of libraries: one of the Koha versions, and Evergreen come to mind.  Both have companies that will install and customize the system.

Finally, there is LibraryThing, which is oddly ignored by everyone except those who want their collections online for their patrons and have no other way to do that.  Granted it is limited in terms of collection management:  checkouts? reports?  But it can work, because it is, actually, a next-generation cataloging system.  It’s online, it’s searchable, it’s fairly easy to add resources, the cataloging options are wide open (if that’s how you want to characterize keywords).  And even though the amount of resources that can be entered free of charge is limited  (with the option for more space requiring a small fee), most small library collections are pretty small. Best of all, it’s accessible by difference devices.  All we need is apps that extend the basic functionality offered with a LibraryThing account.

So here I am, looking for viable library management software options for small libraries outside of the U.S., and this is what I’ve come up with. Give my some feedback, library world.  Which of the options above are worth taking a longer look at?



  1. Chris Cormack says:

    You talk about Koha as if it has disappeared. It hasn’t. It is going strong with over 4000 libraries around the world using it. From some of the tiniest libraries in the world, to some of the biggest.
    There are now 219 people who have committed code to Koha, and it has a strong and vibrant community.
    In fact in about 10 days we are starting Kohacon13. This year in Reno, NV. It was in Edinburgh UK last year.

    I don’t know why you decided to write off the entire project just because of the behaviour of one company that is increasingly irrelevant to the project. The trademark thing is a sideshow that means absolutely nothing, and it will be sorted with the final hearing later this month. And there has never been any dispute over code, how could there be, its licensed under the GPLv3. Koha 3.14.0 is due to be released November 22. The second feature release this year.
    Check out this map of Koha sites around the world

    To sum up, Koha is not mired in anything, it is a vibrant and continously growing project (and piece of software, as is Evergreen).

  2. Carol says:

    Very good points. And you are correct.

    To an outside observer trying to make sense of what has happened/is happening with Koha, the whole history involving PTFS and Liblime just looks messy. I can only imagine what the marketing side of each of the players makes it look like. 🙂

    But in reality, I have always liked Koha, and always thought of it as a solid option for libraries that have the means to support it. (in fact, it was one of the systems I considered when doing the retrospective conversion) But looking from a small library perspective, even though it has a large, loyal and very helpful community, I don’t see it as a viable option. I could be wrong about that, and welcome more corrections! 🙂

  3. Chris Cormack says:

    How small a library? Because there are some very very very small libraries using it, I’m talking tiny public libraries for whom this is their first automation system ever. In places like Nigeria, Kenya, Vietnam.
    Just last week I participated in an EILF-FOSS webinar with people from small (to largish) libraries all over the world who are running, or planning to run Koha.
    Heck, it will even run on a raspberry pi. 🙂
    There are also 30ish support companies around the world, who can host and support it for you.
    However for a lot of the libraries in developing countries, then do it themselves, because they don’t have reliable internet.
    I’m not exactly what makes it a less viable option than any of the shrinkwrap proprietary products. It’s packaged, so is easier to install in most cases.

    • Carol says:

      Aha! This I did not know. Well, I knew there are some small libraries that are using it, but I thought there weren’t that many.

      I am thinking about libraries with collections as small as 2000 items, up to, maybe 10,000 items, with one FTE or less, who has very little technical experience, and may or may not have access to a volunteer with the level of knowledge/experience needed to install, update and troubleshoot (keeping in mind that a volunteer is not permanent or always available)

      Cool that it will run on raspberry pi. One of these days I’m going to get me some and try out stuff like that! 🙂

  4. Chris Cormack says:

    Ahh, libwebcats tells me there are 198 less than 10,000 running it. (Libwebcats really only captures the English speaking world, (Koha is in 48 languages), so there are definitely a lot more than that)

    The things you find out, one of those libraries is the Auckland Patchworkers & Quilters Guild Library which I didn’t know until tonight 🙂

    • Carol says:

      Hmm, interested in the breakdown of that 198 are running which versions (they seem to be classed by the company that installed it).

      While not a deal breaker, it’s good to know up front how many small libraries use a service. I can’t see a way to easily get that info

      Updated: O.K., figured out how to filter, etc. It looks like most (if not all) of those libraries (1) are part of a consortium, or (2) have used a company/service to install (and maintain?) the system, or (3) both 1 and 2, or (4) are part of a larger institution that would have staff capable of supporting Koha.

      Again, not a deal breaker, but worth noting. Koha is not easy for a non-tech person (but is doable if there is interest and time). The problem is that most small libraries I’m familiar with do not have the time.

  5. I’ve worked with much smaller collections than you mention that use Koha, actually. Unstaffed libraries, as it were. Hosted installations, mostly. If you asked on the Koha mailing list, I’m sure you could find people who can talk about using Koha for their ILS in their one-person library with little more than a piece of twine, a wooden nickel, and a dented spoon for resources.

    Many of the libraries are probably running older versions. If you have a version that works, the only time you *have* to update is when there is a security release. There was one a few months ago. And maybe another one sometime last year. The other time to update is when you want free help, and your version is too old for members of the community to help you for free.

    Self-hosting is definitely not the easiest option, which is why many libraries use hosting companies. But a hosted/support-outsourced Koha installation is not significantly different from LibraryWorld or OPALS, both of which you seem to consider viable options. What makes Koha different?

    These same arguments apply to Evergreen, of course, but I don’t work with Evergreen so I can’t give you any first-hand comments on that. Hopefully someone who uses Evergreen in a small library can address the usage there.

  6. Carol says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    I really appreciate these insights, since it has been so long since I have tried Koha or been involved at all in the community (as I mentioned in an earlier comment, I considered it for a retrospective conversion). That’s why this post is a “first look” 🙂

    I don’t necessarily think of LibraryWorld or OPALS as viable options. They just look, at first glance, as probably being more viable. But as I get these comments, of course, that assessment is melting away. 🙂

    I think, for the small local libraries I’m looking at currently, a hosted install will not be an option, but having a company do installation and training, may be a doable option.

    But one of the things about Koha (maybe less so with Evergreen) is whether it is overkill for such small collections. That’s always nagging at the back of my head. OTOH, they have checkout features and reports, right? That’s what these libraries want in a system.