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Open source systems bring Web 2.0 to special libraries


Academic year: 2021

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1 Open source systems bring Web 2.0 to special libraries

Edmund Balnaves Don Keast

Prosentient Systems Department of Rural Health Sydney, Australia Sydney University

Broken Hill, Australia Abstract

The library management systems market place has been transformed by two

innovations: Web 2.0 and open source systems. Open source developers have been quick to implement Web 2.0 functionality in their systems, making it possible for special libraries to be early adaptors of new technology that supports community networking with their members. These services are particularly important for special libraries, who can have disparate, often widely separated, patrons and who can benefit greatly from the library 2.0 community networking innovations. Their free source code base and help bring web-based functionality to small (and often isolated) libraries whose budget does not measure up to conventional vendor-based systems. The experiences of implementing the open source Koha library management system will be explored in the context of the Greater Western Area Health Service network.


Special libraries providing health services are characterised by a community of library users that are often highly engaged with electronic services and have critical requirements for information discovery. Health libraries have therefore been enthusiastic adopters of Web 2.0 technologies to enhance their communication with a disparate user base. The Greater Western Area Health Service (GWAHS) has an added need for effective communication with their user base given the wide dispersal of their client population, with libraries situated in Dubbo, Bathurst, Orange, and Newcastle being dispersed over a region of more than 800 kilometres.

In this context there is an emerging revolution in the ways in which library clients engage with library systems. The Web 2.0 phenomenon has combined with enthusiastic adoption of open source systems to provide new frameworks for the delivery of library systems.

Background to Open Source

The "open source" movement emerged as a systematic method of distributing software in full source code in a manner that ensured it's ongoing availability in open source. The success of this movement has hinged on the ease of collaborative programming in an Internet environment, and service-based and reputation-based business models for software development.


2 Libraries themselves have an established history in systematic development of standards and the implementation of data interchange systems. The MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloguing) standard has been a critical pre-XML standard for open interchange of bibliographic data. The Z39.50 standard has enabled open inter-networking of library catalogues.

The first comprehensive suite of software released in open source for libraries was the Koha Library Management system. It has an active developer community internationally and has been translated for a variety of languages. (1)

The first experiments in open source library management systems have also helped evolve the sophisticated database schemas supporting current open source library management systems such as Greenstone, Evergreen and Koha 3(2). Even before this there have been numerous supporting tools developed by library institutions. These include open source modules for:

• text indexing and searching • barcode generation

Software provided with source code is not new (for example the release of the IBM operating system source code in the 1960's as a result of anti-trust action in the US). However a long-term model for sustaining software development and improvement in an open source framework is new. The concept of open source has its origins in the

evolution of the Internet and the Unix operating system - all on a C programming

language base and often in the collegial environment of the University. Low cost access to personal computers and networking has inspired a new generation of computer users engaged in “social networking” and “social media”, and capable of building and

contributing to their own systems, and mashups of other systems.

Open Source library management systems have been available for nearly a decade now. Reviews of open source systems have moved from cautious (3) to optimistic (4). During this time they have gradually evolved in both functionality and stability to the point where they are credible alternatives to commercial systems and in some cases provide a framework for earlier adoption of Web 2.0 features than might be otherwise available through commercial products(5). The evolution of open source Library Management has been energised by the Library 2.0 era. Other software that facilitates communication between librarians and their clients has emerged with the second generation of internet software - the Web 2.0 and Library 2.0. Web 2.0 capitalises on the internet framework to provide means for online collaboration, networking and communication. This communication is facilitated by the availability of tools which make sharing and

distribution of content and information easier, including community and tagging systems, and mashups using web services.

One of the challenges in implementation of open source is the selection of a sustainable support model. This involves the scrutiny of the levels of professional support available internally and externally to support an open source implementation.


3 There is also a range of tools that are freeware, shareware or low cost which are not addressed in this article. They include MARC Edit (software for MARC data conversion) and EzProxy (widely used for single sign-on to database services). Koha

Koha is only one of several established open source library management systems. There are already over 20 open source library management systems projects of varying sizes visible through SourceForge (http://sourceforge.net). It is not uncommon for OSS projects to last a few years only and falter either for lack of ongoing patronage or lack of take-up. Systems such as Koha and PMB have a strong presence in Europe. Evergreen, one of the newest OSS entrants, has been built from ground up for scalability in large networks of libraries.

Being the oldest multi-branch open source LMS, the latest version of Koha (version 3) has a rich set of features The architecture, based on PERL, MYSQL and Apache is stable in a Linux environment, and the recent release of Koha3 brings a more stable framework for Windows also. The Koha development community is active, and this is reflected in solid wiki resources for developers and strong development and code management guidelines. Several commercial services provide implementation and ongoing support(6). Koha also has a diversified installed base, which gives an assurance of ongoing viability. The concerns regarding scalability of Koha Version 2 (when addressing catalogues of hundreds of thousands of items) have been reduced with the integration of a scalable search engine using Zebra. The release of version 3.0 looks to address many cross-platform issues and better multi-lingual support. The new version extends the use of Web 2.0 features, and the adoption of Zebra to enhance searching using facets. The Perl language base may not be popular in the long term among developers and implementers of the system, but the system has a healthy developer community.

GWAHS blogging and remote patrons.

Prominent in Library 2.0 adoption is the use of blogging to extend the exchange of ideas and news between library. Even before implementing Koha 3, the GWAHS has been exploring Web 2.0 communication methods to keep contact with its diverse client base (see Figure 1).

The GWAHS Libraries Blog was commenced in February 2007 as a way to use the Internet as an alternative method of disseminating information, rather than rely on an overloaded Intranet. Library clients from co-partner organizations could also be reached on the Internet, whereas they were not always reachable by internal means.

The blog focuses on resources which may be useful to health staff in rural locations. There is an emphasis on free material available both on the web and elsewhere (although other material is included when relevant). The blog is not a “what’s happening in the library” exercise : it is about disseminating useful information, often to clients who are


4 never able to physically visit a library. There is an emphasis on rural health and

indigenous health matters. Staff of all 5 libraries are authors.

Tagging & Virtual shelves

The opening of the catalogue to library client participation is a phenomenon of Web 2.0 more specific to the library environment. The ability for end users to create "virtual shelves" in Koha, and the extension to enable features such as tagging and to create user-generated RSS feeds based on library catalogue data is part of a general trend to "open up" the catalogue to end user participation.

Open source, Library 2.0 & special libraries

Curiously, the one thing that open source does not offer in most cases is zero cost software. Software, whether free, open source, shareware or proprietary/licensed must still be maintained to be useful in an operational context. Organisations implementing open source systems still need to source a support framework for ongoing management of the software and its infrastructure. However, while not zero cost, open source can

provide an entry point to highly functional library solutions that are well in advance of the field in exploring innovations in Library 2.0.

What open source does offer libraries is rich functionality without necessarily being locked in to a particular proprietary framework. Most open source systems leverage existing work in open data and networking frameworks. The nature of open source is to encourage innovation off an existing base.

Library 2.0 is an umbrella term for innovations in library the library interface with library clients through the new Web 2.0 mediums of social networking, social media and mash-ups. Where large library institutions face considerable inertia in implementing such innovations in the context of their existing proprietary systems, open source software developers can move quickly to integrate such innovations in their own systems. For instance, one of the weakest points of the Koha 2.0 implementation was the lack of scalability of the OPAC search engine. The integration of the open source ZEBRA indexing and search engine has not only address that issue but opened up the catalogue to opportunities for integrated search with other data sources.

Koha and Mashups

Koha also includes nice features for cover image presentation using Amazon services through Amazon web services. It also integrates with Z39.50 search engines. The integration of other services in open source is referred to as mash-ups. The combination of tagging, RSS, and other services extensions opens the library catalogue not only to greater utility of the catalogue itself but also the integration of catalogues in other peoples information mash-ups.


5 Open source Content Management servers

A further enabling technology now available to libraries are open source content management systems. Some of these, such as Joomla (http://www.joomla.org/), come with a variety of example modules that make implementation of a library "framework" relatively easy. Joomla exemplifies the new generation of content management systems that allow relatively easy "plug-in" of additional modules for specific functions, some of which may be open source, some shareware and some licensed (but in all cases with source code provided). Canberra hospital has implemented Joomla to achieve a range of goals in providing access to library services, open up discussion groups, tagging and other social networking functions (http://tchdev.anu.edu.au/)..

Special Libraries have in the past been captive to wider Information Technology department control of web-based resources. The availability of open source content management systems provides a framework for libraries to extend their capabilities without being entirely reliant of an Information Technology section for their service delivery.

Open source glue

Koha has adopted Zebra for its indexing engine. This, and other open source solutions such as dbWiz provide a framework for “server side” definition of federated searches (7). Federated searching can also take advantage of online resource indexes provided by subscription providers (8).

Koha in the Greater Western Area Health Service (N.S.W., Australia) The Greater Western Area Health Service (GWAHS) provides health care to the

population of a huge rural area of 444,900 sq. km. or 55.52% of the state of New South Wales. This is a region more than twice the size of the entire British Isles. There are 113 health care facilities (52 hospitals and 61 community health centres) spread throughout this vast region.

The GWAHS library service has five small libraries with which to service a very dispersed clientele. Three libraries are concentrated in the far eastern Bathurst/Orange region (Orange Base Hospital Library, Centre for Rural & Remote Mental

Health(CRRMH), Orange Health Library Service (OBH), Bathurst, one in the large regional centre in Dubbo (Dubbo Base Hospital Library) and the 5th (the Far West Health Library) services the GWAHS Remote Cluster in the far west mining city of Broken Hill.


6 Figure 1: Location of GWAHS libraries

Many potential library users work in towns which may be several hundred kilometres remote from the nearest library. Many staff in remote locations are upgrading their qualifications as distance students of a number of tertiary institutions and professional bodies. By 2006, only one of the 5 libraries in GWAHS (Dubbo) had a web catalogue, while CRRMH holdings were accessible as a subset of the University of Newcastle catalogue. There was a general realization that the accessibility of the GWAHS library service would be greatly enhanced if a combined web presence could be established. There were certain problems to be overcome before the goal of a combined web presence could be realized :

• The 5 libraries were operating on 5 different library systems.

• GWAHS was formed in 2005 as a merger of three existing health services (Mid Western, Macquarie and Far West Health Services). Area service networks have had to be constructed from often very differing existing systems. As a result, developing a co-ordinated library service is a slow process.

• GWAHS is an area of large distances and logistical difficulties in providing face-to-face service. Using information technology (web catalogues, blogs, email) is a logical approach, but only about 45% of the staff are on the GWAHS email system. The Intranet is not, therefore, sufficient to reach many library users, and Internet based tools which can be accessed externally are necessary. User

feedback indicates that many staff resort to their home Internet, or rural “internet cafes” rather than limited work Internet facilities.

• Most GWAHS facilities do not have resident medical staff. Primary health care is provided in concert with a wide range of co-partners (the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Aboriginal Health Corporations, Divisions of General Practice,

University Departments of Rural Health etc). An effective library web presence must be accessible by all of these stakeholders.

• Providing library services to multiple organizations frequently leads to


7 • GWAHS has had well documented budgetary problems, and had difficulty

finding funds for the project.

• The health service IT server capacity was overloaded and not able to handle new systems.

• Internet roll-out across the area was very uneven, and the quality and speed of access was very variable.

Why Koha?

The first approach in the project was to canvass existing vendors to investigate whether any of the existing library systems could be adapted to the purpose of an area-based combined web catalogue. Response was mixed, but two of the existing vendors did submit bids (and one or two others). Despite one of these bids being very favourable, the cost was still well beyond the limited financial resources available.

The suggestion was made that transferring to an open-source system would ameliorate the problem of software cost while providing all of the common modules. Prosentient Systems has a long association with health libraries via the GRATISNET network. When Prosentient announced that it was now supporting the Koha software it was seen as an opportunity to achieve the desired result and have competent technical support available. Other systems such as Evergreen were investigated, but the availability of local technical support for Koha was an important factor.

In early 2008, the switch to Koha 2 was implemented, with the OPAC made published on a hosted basis at http://gwahsopac.intersearch.com.au/. Koha 3 was released at about the same time as the initial implementation, and the GWAHS upgraded to Koha 3 in

February 2009.

Any library system has its merits and disadvantages - and open source systems are no different. The GWAHS experience with Koha has been positive in the following areas:

• The Koha software is freely available online. No purchase of expensive software is involved.

• The selection of Prosentient Systems is not a “lock in” to a particular supplier. GWAHS has the option of exporting its own data and establishing its own Koha server.

• Migration of data from existing systems was smooth and reasonably trouble-free. • Major library systems are often beyond the financial reach of small libraries.

Open source solutions are not, and allow libraries of any size to make their collections accessible on the Internet.

• Koha is very adaptable, and tailored modifications for local conditions can be incorporated. This is often not the case with conventional systems which are often inflexible or have a long turnaround for adaptations to local settings. • Reporting functions seem to provide most of the basic statistics. However, a

report writing capability gives added functionality.

• Largely because of the economic factors, interest in Koha has been shown by other Australian health libraries. South Eastern Sydney Illawarra Health Service


8 went live with Koha3 in January 2009 (an eleven library network). The potential exists for small library networks to put their library on the Web at minimal cost. • Those who will eventually benefit most in GWAHS are our remote users who are

given access to our collections even though, in some cases, they are physically located 1000 km from the library. The presence of a web catalogue makes the library highly visible to all staff throughout GWAHS.

Koha : challenges and opportunities.

The switch from in-house systems to a web-based open source library system is a great advance for GWAHS, but is not entirely trouble free. Some of these issues are common to web-based delivery of systems, and some replate specifically to Koha:

• Web-based systems need good web access to provide optimum benefits. Many parts of GWAHS are very isolated, and Internet response times vary enormously. OPAC times in Koha seem to be largely acceptable, but Cataloguing and

Administration modes are often difficult to use if the health service internet connection is running slowly (a typical problem for rural and remote services). • Broadband coverage in rural areas remains patchy. Slow speed and narrow

bandwidth remain problems for GWAHS service providers.

• GWAHS has severe intranet web server capacity problems. Open source systems, Web 2.0, and the proliferation of email greatly aid communication with one’s peers. However, when bandwidth is narrow, server capacity difficulties are compounded, and computer upgrades are spread over a vast area. The distributed hosting of any new system on the internal network is not feasible for GWAHS. The GWAHS system is hosted by Prosentient Systems, in an attempt to provide the service without battling with the financial and IT server problems of GWAHS. This also gives the opportunity for knowledgeable technical support, which health service IT support personnel cannot always provide for specialist systems which are not in common use (other than by the library staff).

• Koha is a co-operatively developed system, with a large and active on-line community. It is very adaptable to local conditions. Manuals for Koha2 were very poor, as it seemed users were more interested in developing the software than writing the documentation. This is a one of a number of minor problems which has been addressed in Koha3, where the manual has its own website, and is reasonably user-friendly and comprehensive. As wiki software is employed, any member of the Koha community may contribute to the knowledge base. Even so, some users are producing in-house versions of the manual for their own local conditions. The great functionality of Koha to add some local variations is one of the system’s strengths : when it comes to what to include in the Koha manual it can also be a minor weakness.

• The MARC cataloguing interface is not familiar to all librarians and the original cataloguing interface is somewhat laborious. However copy cataloguing is simplified with its Z39.50 interfaces.

• With GWAHS having the unusual situation of having 5 libraries converting their 5 different systems to a sixth, data quality would always be likely to be variable. While all the data transferred well, we are left with a large number of duplicate


9 records, and authority files which are quite confused. While we have written a “merge” function for our data, Koha does not seem to do this well. All systems have room to improve (hence their new versions) and Koha is no exception. The Koha version 3 release has alleviated some network-related issues with

improvements to the MARC cataloguing interface.

Open Source, library 2.0 and professional development

The internet phenomenon has changed many jobs. The role of librarians as information brokers in the organisation presents a professional development challenge to the library profession as a whole. Libraries face impatience from their organisations for transition to new and open methods for information service delivery, while facing the need to meet the challenge of professional development of library staff to familiarise with these new technologies. In rural areas, the information technology infrastructure and expertise of computer support staff to implement new technology is often inadequate to keep up with the pace of new developments.

For GWAHS, Koha is an example of open source technology which can be readily and successfully implemented even in an environment where information technology resources and budgetary concerns are stretched to the limit.

Professional development for GWAHS library staff is necessary to implement change, although meetings are often difficult to arrange for logistical reasons. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing are used to enhance professional development. Nevertheless, change can be successfully achieved through the networking of resources and a willingness to confront the challenges of serving clients spread over a vast area. Conclusion

Web 2.0 and open source systems are providing the opportunity for the GWAHS to transform the ways in which it reaches a diverse and geographically spread client base. The Koha installation in GWAHS has enabled the library service to provide a greatly enhanced library service, especially to the many staff in isolated locations who are rarely in a situation to visit the library personally. The functionality of the system is

comparable to many of the better-known commercial systems, while the system’s flexibility allows much greater local adaptability of the various modules. As a cost-effective method of enabling small libraries to establish a web presence it is a system with enormous potential.


10 Web Sites

Canberra Hospital/ACT Health Library http://tchdev.anu.edu.au/ Evergreen http://evergreen-ils.org/

Joomla http://www.joomla.org/ Koha http://www.koha.org/

Koha demonstrations http://liblime.com/demos

Koha manual https://sites.google.com/a/liblime.com/koha-manual/Home Prosentient Systems http://www.prosentient.com.au/

GWAHS website http://www.gwahs.nsw.gov.au/

GWAHS Library Services http://gwahsopac.intersearch.com.au GWAHS Blogspot: http://www.gwahslibrariesblog.blogspot.com

PMB http://www.sigb.net/index.php?page=secteurs&id_rubrique=1&lang=en

SESIAHS Library Service http://sesiahs.intersearch.com.au/cgi-bin/koha/opac-main.pl Source Forge http://sourceforge.net/


1. Balnaves E. Open source library management systems: a multidimensional evaluation. Australian Academic and Research Libraries. 2008;39(1):1-13.

2. Breeding M. Major Open Source ILS Products. Library Technology Reports 2008;44(8):16-31f.

3. Dorman D. The Case for Open Source Software in the Library Market. Ubiquity. 2004;4(47).

4. Chalon PX, Alexandre-Joaquim L, Naget C, Becquart C. Open your mind! Selecting and implementing an integrated library system:the open-source opportunity. 10th European Conference of Medical and Health Libraries; 2005; Cluj-Napoca , Romania, 11th-16th September 2005; 2005. p. [Online]


5. Breeding M. Open Source Library Automation: Overview and Perspective. Library Technology Reports. 2008;44(8):5-10.

6. Breeding M. The Commercial Angle. Library Technology Reports. 2008;44(8):11-5.

7. Mah C, Stranack K. dbWiz: open source federated searching for libraries. Library Hi Tech. 2005;23(4):490-503.

8. Balnaves E. Integrating Federated Searches in an Inter-library Loans System. Information Online 2007; 2007; Sydney Australia; 2007.


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