Chapter 10: Open source research tools – Practical Open Source Software for Libraries


Open source research tools

In addition to digital collections, libraries have many other resources to share online. Many library websites offer lists of links on specific topics, subject guides and even online workshops to help educate their patrons. As with every other area of the library, there are open source technologies to help us deliver these guides and classes in an efficient manner.

Subject guides

In my first job in a library I was in charge of managing the librarys research links collection. This area of our site was very similar to the pages that academic libraries call subject guides. Whatever you might call them, these pages can be tedious to keep up to date if you are not using the right tool. In my library we were just using a series of static HTML pages that had to be updated regularly,1 a practice not uncommon in libraries around the world.

Two open source tools that libraries have created to tackle this problem are SubjectsPlus ( and Library à la Carte™ (

10.1   Open source in the real world: SubjectsPlus

Bryan P. Carson

Electronic Services Librarian and Technology Liaison to the Language Schools Middlebury College Middlebury VT, USA

Why did you decide to use SubjectsPlus in your library?

It is open source. It was easy to implement, lightweight and database-driven and it integrates well with other platforms.

How are you using SubjectsPlus in your library?

We use it for library subject guides and associating librarians contact info subject-specific content. We also use it for EZProxy integration with our subscription resources. It is also our main database (A-Z) list as well.

How long have you been using SubjectsPlus in your library?

I installed it in November 2007 and content has been gradually migrated into it over the 2008/09 academic year.

Did you have any trouble implementing SubjectsPlus in your library?

Not really. The open source community for this is growing and active. Andrew Darby (the lead developer) is very helpful. He is ourLinus orDries.

What was the process of switching from proprietary to open source like?

Conventional wisdom says that proprietary software is expensive but it saves your staff time and money, while open source isfree but it does still cost you in staff time. Not true! We have found that proprietary is expensive and costs you just as much in staff time and money, often more, because fewer folks can pitch in and help. So it was for us. The switch from content in a Microsoft product was met with enthusiasm. We were able to meet the usability needs of our users better. Changes and customizations are easy. Costs and time are down. User satisfaction is way up.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up SubjectsPlus?

Our network administrators set up virtual server for it and set up security, so it cant bring down any other servers if it gets hacked. One of our web programmers looked for any obvious security issues in the code and sent them back to Andrew Darby for his prompt repair. All the customizations and other tweaking, I did myself.

What do you think of SubjectsPlus now?

I think it is excellent (and the price is right). Now that we have a critical mass of records, SubjectsPluss ability to distribute the content creation lets us create and update guides very quickly. Additionally, it stores the data in a very structured way allowing our web programmers to create feeds for our website.

What do others in your library say about SubjectsPlus?

Everyone who sees the resulting interface loves the look, feel and the usability. In addition the content creators find it easy to use.

Anything else you want us to know about SubjectsPlus or your process of switching to SubjectsPlus?

If you are person who implements SubjectsPlus, you must have a good knowledge of HTML and CSS. You must know some basic PHP and know how to administer a MySQL database. These skills are used for customization and installation. Except for the server setup, I have done most things myself. Anywebby/techie could do this.

However, if you are not a techie librarian but have a designated programmer set up the system, the web admin interface is sufficient for most administrative tasks. If you are the only content provider or librarian making a guide, it is very easy to use SubjectsPlus (you need no programming, HTML and so on.)

Learn more

See SubjectsPlus in action at Middlebury at

SubjectsPlus was developed by the Ithaca College Library as a way to allow librarians to organize and present their data to patrons easily (see Figure 10.1). It allows for the storage of subject guides, A-Z lists and lists of staff members with their specialties. All of this is then published to the web, making it easier to research a specific topic, such as computer science (

Figure. 10.1 Computer science research guide at Ithaca College Library

One problem with managing static HTML pages is that you often want links to appear on more than one page, but that means you have multiple places to look when making updates. SubjectsPlus enables you to add a resource to the system just once and then have it appear on multiple guides. SubjectsPlus also has you associate anexpert with each subject guide, so patrons know whom to contact at the library or on campus should they have additional questions about the topic they are researching.

Library à la Carte™™, from the Oregon State University Library, is another alternative to using static HTML pages for your subject guides. Like SubjectsPlus, it allows for the easy creation of dynamic subject guides. Unlike SubjectsPlus, Library à la Carte™ does not handle your A-Z lists and staff directories, but it does allow you to create course pages and tutorials.

10.2   Open source in the real world: Library à la Carte™

Kim Griggs

Programmer Analyst, Margaret Mellinger, Science Librarian

Jane Nichols

Social Sciences/Humanities Librarian, Oregon State University Libraries Corvallis OR USA

Why did you decide to use Library à la Carte™ in your library?

At the time that we developed Library à la Carte™, there were only a few software products available for the creation of library course and subject web pages. We assessed those that were available and didnt feel that they matched our need to add Web 2.0 functionality to the guides as we desired. LibGuides hadnt yet come out. Thus, we turned to developing an in-house solution.

How are you using Library à la Carte™ in your library?

Subject librarians are using it to create and manage course assignment pages and subject guides. Instruction librarians are using it to build tutorials.

How long have you been using Library à la Carte™ in your library?

Since its original iteration as the interactive course assignment pages (ICAP) tool in 2006/07.

What was the process of switching from proprietary to open source like?

Our previous practice was to create course and subject pages in html using Dreamweaver and Contribute templates. The process of switching was mostly a matter of understanding how a web content management system functions differently from using html templates. Training was needed for librarians to take advantage of all the features of Library à la Carte™. When librarians moved the content into Library à la Carte™, they had many more options for how to present that content.

What do you think of Library à la Carte™ now?

We like it and plan to continue to develop it. Our current focus is on using it for making tutorials and on hosting Library à la Carte™™ through a cloud computing environment.

What do others in your library say about Library à la Carte™?

Responses are positive and librarians and library administrators are engaged in and supportive of its continued development.

Anything else you want us to know about Library à la Carte™ or your process of switching to Library à la Carte™?

The source code has been downloaded hundreds of times since its release in 2007. The tool is currently being used at over 20 libraries that we know about, including Reed College, Portland Community College, California State University (multiple campuses), University of Arizona, University of Montreal and Sheffield Hallam University.

Library à la Carte™ offers your staff an easy way to manage guides for their areas of expertise without having any knowledge of web design or development (see Figure 10.2). From the Library à la Carte™ administration area you can easily create your guide by clicking the linkCreate a New Subject Guide. Your guide can then be made up of various tabs with information on each. As in SubjectsPlus, you need to choose an expert and include their information so that researchers can easily find the right person to direct their questions to. Once your page is created you click thePublish button and your page is available on the librarys site (see Figure 10.3).

Figure. 10.2 The Library à la Carte™ administration area

Figure. 10.3 A sample Library à la Carte™ subject guide on open source software

So, how do you choose between the two (and the many other alternatives available)? Try them out; both offer you the option to try a demo. See which one best meets your librarys needs. As with many of the open source products mentioned in this book, SubjectsPlus ( and Library à la Carte™ ( also offer online communities where users and developers can communicate with each other about problems, suggested uses and future developments; use them to assist in your decision making process. As stated before, the process of choosing an open source application is no different from that of choosing a proprietary option; you must research and try the products before making a final decision.

Additional research tools

Having a dynamic way to manage subject guides is just the first step in providing better services to our patrons; we also have many other research tools in our library that we would like to make accessible to our patrons via our websites. reSearcher ( is a suite of tools to do just that.

10.3   Open source in the real world: reSearcher

Dan Hoyte

Senior Library Systems, Technician Chapman University Leatherby Libraries Orange CA, USA

Why did you decide to use reSearcher in your library?

Several factors went into the decision. Primary was the fact that we wanted finer control over the data that drove our link resolver. Secondary was the need to implement an ERM. We were able to accomplish those goals and save the university over 60 per cent of the cost of our previous solution.

How are you using reSearcher in your library?

We are currently utilizing the link resolving (GODOT), knowledge base (CUFTS) and electronic resource management. We are in the process of implementing federated searching (DbWiz). Our production system is run by Simon Fraser University, Canada. We also maintain a local backup and testing server locally.

How long have you been using reSearcher in your library?

We have been using reSearcher for nearly three years.

Did you have any trouble implementing reSearcher in your library?

We found setting up reSearcher was actually easier than setting up some of the proprietary packages that we tested.

What was the process of switching from proprietary to open source like?

The data that we had to move from our proprietary system into reSearcher was simply reformatted and uploaded to reSearcher. The most difficult part of the process was shifting the attitudes of library management to allow us to use open source. The technical side went smoothly.

Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up reSearcher?

Other than having the networking group set up our firewall, we did the entire implementation within the library (local server).

What do you think of reSearcher now?

The more that we use reSearcher, the more we like it. It was amazing how well it fitted our needs. Since we have been able to help steer some of the development it is even more in tune with the way that we work.

What do others in your library say about reSearcher?

They are most impressed with the way that reSearcher answered the difficulties that we were experiencing with our previous system. They are pleased with the control that we now have over our data.

Anything else you want us to know about reSearcher or your process of switching to reSearcher?

Just that we are well pleased with the choice to go with reSearcher. We are looking forward to moving to our own server, in the next couple of years.

Learn more

See reSearcher in action at Chapman University at

reSearcher was developed by the Simon Fraser University Library to help lower the barrier of entry into the electronic resource management arena for small and poor libraries. The tools provided in the reSearcher suite enable libraries to provide their patrons with streamlined access to electronic resources without the usual license fees associated with such services.

Included in reSearcher is CUFTS ( for serials management; GODOT (, a link resolver; dbWiz ( for federated searching; and Open Knowledgebase ( to manage an open database of journal titles and publishers to be used within CUFTS (see Figure 10.4).

Figure.10.4 The CUFTS page for technology and operations management2 at the Simon Fraser University Library

Each of the tools included in the reSearcher suite is meant to work in conjunction with the others to provide a better service to all involved. Kevin Stranack writes in his amazing overview of the reSearcher suite:

From its earliest days, reSearcher and its predecessors relied upon the cooperative spirit of libraries, their innovation and leadership, and their willingness to pool their limited resources, both in terms of staff and money, to create better technologies and services for their clients. The collaborative spirit of reSearcher continues today, with the ongoing support provided by the two major library consortia, COPPUL and BCELN, and the willingness of individual libraries to provide startup funding for new initiatives that will enhance the project and ultimately benefit the wider library community. reSearcher is an important example of the value of both open source and library collaboration.3

To learn more about the suite and how each module interacts with the others, I highly recommend you to read Kevins article and some of the others listed on the official reSearcher site (

Online course management

As more and more educational materials become available online, libraries need to start thinking of new models for educating patrons about library use, new technologies, research practices and many other topics. In tough times we see that people are more likely to turn to their libraries for free access to the internet, free access to job search materials and free access to workshops.4 At the same time, libraries are suffering from the same economic woes, so providing additional free services can be difficult.

One way to offer our patrons an added benefit without too much of an investment, and without the need for providing more space in the library, is to start to offer online workshops. Moodle ( is an open source course management system, which can be used to help manage your course materials, online lectures, research references and plenty more.

10.4   Open source in the real world: Moodle

Georgia Katsarou

Librarian International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies, and College Year in Athens Library Athens, Greece

Why did you decide to use Moodle in your library?

We wanted to use a course management system in order to offer more up-to-date teaching facilities to our faculty and in order to facilitate the communication between faculty and students. Our IT support suggested Moodle because they were familiar with it and knew that it is working well and can fit our needs.

How are you using Moodle in your library?

We are the administrators and in brief we create new courses, update data, add and remove resources, create and delete user accounts, assign roles for the users and train faculty on how to use it.

How long have you been using Moodle in your library?

Two years.

Did you have any trouble implementing Moodle in your library?


Did you have any help installing, migrating to, or setting up Moodle?

Our IT support did the installation. There was no need for data migration since we didnt have a course management system before.

I did the settings and asked for the IT departments help just once when I wanted them to increase the file upload size limit. It was very easy to use and understand and the available documentation is clear and comprehensive.

What do you think of Moodle now?

I think its a very good and usable software with useful and user friendly features. Up to now we had no problems at all and I was surprised that we didnt encounter any problems due to bugs. I would definitely recommend it to other possible users.

What do others in your library say about Moodle?

Everybody seems to be happy about it. It is significant that they dont have to spend a lot of time in order to learn how to use it.

Anything else you want us to know about Moodle or your process of switching to Moodle?

As is the case with any open source application, the administrators have to read the documentation thoroughly.

Using Moodle, librarians can create classes on topics related to their community and provide online access to the information (see Figure 10.5), for example they could give a series of workshops on real estate in hard times. A librarian could offer the workshops in person at the library and online simultaneously, or completely online (so there was no need for the library to provide a large public meeting space).

Figure. 10.5 Moodle at Whittier College

Moodle offers the ability for instructors to upload materials, links and course schedules so that students can work in their own time. It also makes it easy for students to communicate with each other and the instructor using chat rooms and message boards. All of these services are found in popular proprietary offerings, but without the added license fees or use restrictions. This means that libraries can offer additional services to their patrons without having to go outside their allotted budget.

Teaching our patrons

Using any one (or combination) of the tools listed in this chapter, your library can offer patrons easier access to information, and these tools not only benefit our patrons, but also make our jobs more efficient simply by putting the right tool for the job in our hands. Next time you are updating your library’s subject guide with your HTML editor, think about using a tool meant just for that purpose, and instead of printing out handouts for your newest workshop, why not store the information online for easy access and printing by the attendees themselves?

In libraries we often get stuck in a rut. We continue to do things the way we always have because we dont know of any better option. Well now you know about four open source tools that will assist in providing information to and teaching our patrons.

1.To learn more about the research links project at Jenkins Law Library you can read my article ‘Following the Yellow Brick Road to Simplified Link Management’ at


3.Stranack, Kevin. ‘The reSearcher Software Suite: a case study of library collaboration and open source software development.’ Serials Librarian 55, no. 1/2 (2008): 117–139.

4.Rettig, Jim. ‘Libraries Stand Ready to Help in Tough Economic Times’. The Huffington Post, December 11, 2008.