Open Source software is software that is licensed under one of several Open Source licenses such as BSD, GNU General Public, GNU Lesser General Public, Mozilla Public, and others. Whether they know it or not, every library uses some Open Source software. Linux, Apache Web Server, OpenOffice, GIMP, Audacity, and Firefox browsers are examples of Open Source software many libraries use.
In the last several years, two Open Source Library System products have also gained in popularity: Koha and Evergreen. Both are integrated library systems (ILS) and both are licensed under a GNU General Public license. The GNU GPL license is designed to ensure users and developers always have access to the source code and can modify and distribute that software if they wish. Any derivative of the original GPL licensed software must also be licensed under the same GNU General Public license.
In other words, once a library downloads and installs Koha or Evergreen, it is theirs to use, modify and keep. It cannot never be taken away. This represents a very important change in the library world. For the first time, the library can develop expertise in their ILS knowing that that knowledge can be put to use in the improvement of the software. Koha and Evergreen will never be "end of lifed." Koha and Evergreen will not be bought out by some equity company.
Koha and Evergreen are products of a community of user-owners of the software, and the future support and development of the software depends entirely on that community.
Koha was launched in 2000 and Evergreen in 2006. Since that time, active communities have developed around the software. Koha is installed in hundreds (possibly thousands) of libraries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Evergreen is used primarily in the US and Canada but it has recently started building an international client base as well.
As of 2011, both products are full-featured ILS products complete with a public access catalog, circulation, acquisitions, serials, cataloging, and reports. Both are still actively under development in areas such as EDI support, Web Services, reporting and user interface enhancements for both the staff and the public.
One key differentiator of an Open Source ILS versus a proprietary ILS is the frequency of enhancements. Libraries with a proprietary ILS might see enhancements to their system once a year (coinciding with a big marketing blitz at ALA no doubt!). But with open source products, enhancements are frequent and it is up to the user when to install the enhancements. If a new feature is available that is very much needed at your library, you could choose to install it even before it is officially released because the code is available in the official code repository that is freely available. Or perhaps, your library is perfect content with the current features and would just as soon wait for the next community-supported to release to come out and get some of the bugs worked out before upgrading your system. The point is that the library owner is in control, not the "Vendor."
And about those enhancements...how does that work? The simple answer is that when a library, or a group of libraries, need a new feature, it is up to them to make it happen. This can be done by contracting with a developer (and sharing the costs with your co-sponsoring library partners!) or you could develop the code yourself if you had in-house expertise. Obviously at this early stage of life for both Koha and Evergreen, we don't have many in-house developers but eventually we will. For now, most libraries contract with a service provider for development and the code is submitted to the core development team who then take that code and incorporate it into an official release. The beauty is that then all libraries benefit from your efforts. Unlike a proprietary system where the Vendor can charge each client for the same module of software, once the software is developed and part of the product, it is free and available for every other Koha and Evergreen library to use.
Open Source software is a practical solution insofar as it creates a distributed development environment. Because proprietary ILS vendors compete for a limited number of library customers, their ability to invest in product development is limited. In fact, each library that chooses and Open Source ILS further limits their market making it that much more difficult to improve their product. In contrast, the most libraries using Koha and Evergreen, the more partners each library has working with them to improve the software. It truly is a community and the more active and knowledgable and pro-active that community is, the better the software and support for the software will be.
Open Source software is also a philosophy that is a perfect fit for libraries. The software is free and accessible to everyone. Participation is encouraged and empowerment is the result. Open source service providers, like librarians, are partners in the support and development of the software, rather than gatekeepers restricting access and limiting the capabilities of the software.
Libraries that have moved to an Open Source ILS recognize that the world has changed for them. They are now in control of their environment in a way they have never been before. And they are part of a supportive community of like-minded, motivated, and increasingly knowledgable users who have chosen to collaborate and share this knowledge. And that's exactly what being a librarian is all about, isn't it?