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Koha: A Library Checks Out Open Source
Welcome to Nelsonville, Ohio; Hot Bed of Open Source
August 30, 2002
It is, on initial sight, not exactly the kind of place where you would start a revolution.
A small town in southeastern Ohio, Nelsonville sits snug alongside the Hocking River, with a population of about 6,000. It is home to Hocking Colege, and the Nelsonville Public Library (NPL). The NPL serves the entire county, not just Nelsonville, so it has close to 36,000 patrons in Athens County, Ohio. But that's not all that interesting about the Nelsonville Public Library. Inside its walls is an ongoing project that hopes to introduce an open source library management system to the United States.
And they're building it from the ground up.
Stephen Hedges is the Director of the NPL and is, by most accounts, the big motivator behind a two-year project to create an entire library management system from open source tools. Hedges does not want to just slap some applications together, either. He and a team of IT staffers from NPL are taking a very methodical approach to this project and are quite willing to expend the time, effort, and funding to get exactly what they want.
Getting what they want is a very important reason why they are pursuing this project, Hedges explained. Currently, the library is using a commerical application called Civica to manage its circulation. But Civica does not meet all of NPL's needs, such as patron sevices that allow a library to send e-mail notifications of books that are nearly due. While there are proprietary systems out there that will provide most of the patron services NPL needs, Hedges was increasingly frustrated with the closed nature of such software.
"When we buy it out of the box, we have to use what they have seen fit to develop," he explained.
At the core of the new project is the free library software application Koha. It offers a lot of functionality that NPL needs, but not quite all. This does not daunt Hedges, who actually sees this as an advantage to what he wants to do for the library. Hedges has been very willing to obtain training for his staff in mySQL, Perl, and PHP coding, just to name a few. His philosophy is very straightforward: "Open code does you very little good if you can't manipulate it."
Hedges and the library are putting their money behind this philosophy as well, having spent "several thousands of dollars" for programming training already.
There is also the amount of time. While Hedges was quick to point out the quality of the Koha developers' work, he was candid about their rate of speed. "Koha has a small group of developers, and it tends to develop more slowly."
This rate of development is a big reason why the conversion, which was hoped to be finished this year, won't be done until late next summer.
So, with all of this time and effort being put into a project, is the open source solution really worth it?
Absolutely, Hedges stated. "The primary goal is to offer the kind of services we want to offer." And to that end, NPL is very willing to put in whatever it takes to get the system moving along.