Chapter 11: Open source library automation – Practical Open Source Software for Libraries


Open source library automation

I remember when my library first introduced the automated catalog. It was a black screen computer with bright green lettering. It was amazing to me that I could now search for the books I wanted without having to finger through the card catalog. We have come a long way since then and have many choices available to us. One of the choices that has recently become more viable is the open source integrated library system.

Open source faces

One obvious way to provide your patrons with better services is to improve the look, feel and functionality of your OPAC (online public access catalog). Although there are proprietary applications to do this, they can be very costly, making your overall library automation budget stretch its limits. An alternative would be to use one of the many open source OPAC layers available for download today without any extra cost to you or your library.


The first major open source OPAC to hit the web was WPopac, now known as Scriblio (, which

was developed by Casey Bisson while at the Lamson Library at the Plymouth State University in 2006.1 Scriblio takes the power of the WordPress content management system and integrates the OPAC into it. Libraries using Scriblio simply use WordPress to design their entire library site and then patrons can search for books from the library homepage (see Figure 11.1) without ever realizing that they have left the library site for the OPAC.

Figure 11.1 Scriblio at the Collingswood Public Library

11.1   Open source in the real world: Scriblio

Brett Bonfield

Director Collingswood Public Library, Collingswood NJ, USA

Why did you decide to use Scriblio in your library?

For me, the initial decision to use Scriblio and the ongoing decision to stick with it are both difficult and obvious. I really like using WordPress and know it well – I created a very basic Scriblio site even before I had my first interview for my current job, and setting it up took just a few hours – and I really like Casey Bisson as a person and as a web developer: our visions for libraries are awfully similar. For instance, Scriblio creates unified websites: for Scriblio libraries, the catalog and the rest of the website look alike and run on exactly the same software. What closed the deal for us was Scriblio’s ability to pull in funding and its decision to turn some of that funding into free hosting for (and similar libraries).

How are you using Scriblio in your library?

As our website.

How long have you been using Scriblio in your library?

The website has been live for almost a year, though I started working with Scriblio (and with Casey Bisson, its developer) about 18 months ago.

Did you have any trouble implementing Scriblio in your library?

There have been issues, sure. Many of them have been fixed, but there are a few outstanding issues.

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

We didn’t really switch. Millennium is still there, including its web OPAC interface. Scriblio just complements it.

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

I worked directly with Casey Bisson, the main developer.

What do you think of Scriblio now?

I like it. Scriblio isn’t perfect, but I’m very comfortable with it and excited about where it’s heading. While I’ll be happier when there’s a larger developer community, more internal interest in standards, and better documentation, I have the ability to help make these changes.

What do others in your library say about Scriblio?

Many people like it; some prefer the old system. It’s like Dewey: most of the people who have gotten to know it well have developed a fondness for it. The rest of the world wants a website that works like Google and a shelving system that works like Barnes & Noble.

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

I have written a full article about my decision here:


The second open source OPAC release was in 2007 with VuFind ( Released by Villanova University to ‘empower users by supporting personalization and social networking services such as tagging and peer-to-peer comment sharing,’2 VuFind’s simple interface quickly became very popular among OPAC critics (see Figure 11.2).

Figure 11.2 VuFind at the Falvey Memorial Library at Villanova University


Shortly after the release of VuFind came Blacklight ( Released in 2008,3

11.2   Open source in the real world: VuFind

Joel Harbottle

LCG Library, South Launceston, Australia

Why did you decide to use VuFind in your library?

We decided to use VuFind in our library because we found it was an easier interface for our patrons to navigate and understand compared to the OPAC packaged with our LMS.

How are you using VuFind in your library?

VuFind is used as our primary OPAC and we also give our patrons the option to use the original OPAC, which was packaged with our LMS.

How long have you been using VuFind in your library?

We started to look at VuFind as another option to our existing OPAC during January 2008. We decided we would use VuFind as an alternative OPAC on the 20th January 2008 (two weeks later); during early February 2008 we installed VuFind and connected to our LMS’s training database, and we asked some patrons to conduct some searches in VuFind and give us their feedback on its interface and how easy it is to use. With positive feedback we installed VuFind onto a production server and went live with it on the 1st March 2008. (We use VuFind as our primary OPAC, but still offer our patrons the option to use the OPAC which was packaged with our LMS.)

VuFind has now been in use in our library for over one and a half years.

Did you have any trouble implementing VuFind in your library?

No, we didn’t have any trouble at all implementing VuFind in our library. It was all quite straightforward and we didn’t have any problems. The major part was to make some minor changes to our LMS.

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

We didn’t have much of a process in switching over to VuFind. As our LMS isn’t a proprietary system, we use Evergreen, which is an open source ILS. Our main concern during the process of switching was our clients and how they would find the new OPAC, but we found we didn’t have to worry, because our patrons found VuFind easier to navigate than our existing OPAC and really like the interface. Our patrons gave us loads of feedback, which helps us identify things we could improve on, and they continue to do so today.

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

No, we didn’t have much help installing, migrating to, or setting up VuFind. But we did refer to the VuFind website quite a bit if we didn’t understand a particular part during the process.

What do you think of VuFind now?

Today, VuFind blows us away with its fantastic interface and wonderful ease of use, just as it did when I first started looking at it at the beginning of 2008.

What do others in your library say about VuFind?

We are constantly getting great feedback about VuFind and its ease of use from our library’s patrons.

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

I would highly recommend VuFind to any library looking at a new OPAC; it is a truly wonderful Web 2.0 OPAC.

Blacklight is a project to improve the library’s services by upgrading the library’s OPAC. Blacklight sits on top of your existing integrated library system and presents your data to patrons in an easy to understand, visually appealing interface (see Figure 11.3).

Figure 11.3 Blacklight at the University of Virginia Library

11.3   Open source in the real world: Blacklight

Tom Cramer

Associate Director Digital Library Systems & Services, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources, Stanford CA, USA

Why did you decide to use Blacklight in your library?

We chose Blacklight for a number of reasons.

1. Technology strategy and maintainability. Stanford University Libraries made a strategic choice to embrace Ruby on Rails (RoR) as its end-user facing application development language at the end of 2008. So far, our experience with RoR and Blacklight has been consistent with our expectations. We have trained a half dozen developers with no previous RoR experience to become competent developers in well under a month, and test coverage of Blacklight exceeds 70 per cent of its code base.

2. Architecture, functions and feature set. Blacklight has demonstrated support for three key features that we think are critical for a next generation search application. These are support for non-MARC data, object-specific behaviors and tailored views.

3. Community. Blacklight has a solid core of institutions and expert individuals committed to, and contributing to, its code base. Very early on, the principal stakeholders in the project at the University of Virginia demonstrated that they were open and eager to take code contributions, ideas and support (in many forms) from other institutions and individuals. This encouraged us to adopt Blacklight ourselves, and gave us the confidence that if we adopted it, we would have a chance to help further a common code base, and not have to take on long-term support for all our local modifications and enhancements.

How are you using Blacklight in your library?

We are currently using Blacklight as:

 a next generation catalog (see

 a front end for various Fedora repositories

 a search, browse and view interface for specialized digital library applications (for example, digitized medieval manuscripts).

How long have you been using Blacklight in your library?

We formally adopted Blacklight in December 2008.

Did you have any trouble implementing Blacklight in your library?

We spent the first two to three quarters after adopting Blacklight working with its core team of committers to refactor the codebase, making it more portable, better tested and more feature rich. This work culminated in the Blacklight 2.0 release in spring 2009. After this work, we have found implementing new instances of Blacklight is a straightforward task. The most demanding task in setting up a Blacklight instance is in designing and populating the underlying solr index.

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

We have had other experiences in adopting open source software, which were key factors in weighing Blacklight’s community, architecture and maintainability so heavily in deciding to adopt it. After paying the upfront cost of adopting a new technology (RoR) and a new application (Blacklight), we’ve found it liberating to work on an open code base. Our librarians have made some extremely particular requests for how data and functionality should work in the new system, and being able to manipulate the underlying data and the application to our requirements is an extremely satisfying experience, especially compared to working with most proprietary systems.

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

We have found the Blacklight developers list to be the best resource for technical support (and we’ve received much from its contributors).

What do you think of Blacklight now?

It’s an excellent tool, and one of the centerpieces to our digital library strategy.

What do others in your library say about Blacklight?

They appreciate its feature set and flexibility, and are eager for more functions and data types to be added as quickly as possible.

Learn more:


Of particular note are:

 the advanced search feature (developed at Stanford, and soon to be checked into the common codebase), available at

 the browse nearby a call number feature

 the real time availability display, showing location and status for all items at a glance on the search results page.


Finally came the release of SOPAC2 ( by John Blyberg and the Darien Library later in 2008.4 SOPAC2 went one step further than the previous two options and followed the Scriblio model by integrating the OPAC directly into a content management system, the difference being that SOPAC2 is integrated into Drupal instead of WordPress. This means that the library can now have a seamless look and feel, and patrons can search through both the library site and the OPAC (see Figure 11.4).

Figure 11.4 SOPAC2 at the Darien Library

Choosing an OPAC

There are four free open source OPACs for you to choose from, so how to make the choice? Part of your decision is going to be personal preference because they each offer very similar services to each other. The other part, and this is a big one, is to determine whether or not the OPAC has connectors for your particular integrated library system yet. If the OPAC cannot communicate with it then it’s not the one for you. That said, there are always new developments happening and so if you like one more than another, just contact the developers and see what it would take to get a connector written for your integrated library system.

11.4   Open source in the real world: SOPAC

John Blyberg

Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience, Darien Library, Darien CT, USA

Why did you decide to use SOPAC in your library?

No product on the market exists to meet the requirements of our digital strategy, which is to unify all of our electronic resources into a single, interactive portal.

How are you using SOPAC in your library?

We are using it as a complete OPAC replacement and as an additional online service to our users. Out staff also use it for collection development, information services and readers advisory.

How long have you been using SOPAC in your library?

Since September 2008.

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

Very easy.

What do you think of SOPAC now?

We love it!

What do others in your library say about SOPAC?

They love it!

All four offer an efficient, easy to understand search box. Although we as librarians prefer to perform more complex searches, the average internet user is a fan of the Google model, also known as keyword searching. All of these tools take that into account. In fact, Scriblio and Blacklight only offer a single search box option, so there is no advanced search.5 SOPAC2 offers a slightly more advanced search page and VuFind offers a traditional-looking library advanced search page. Although the search systems are all different, they all offer the option to filter your results by various different headings and item types, making it easy to narrow your results down to the right subset of items.

In addition to the simple search interfaces, all of these options offer permanent links to bibliographic records and search results. This means that as a librarian you can copy the URL from the address bar in your browser and send it to a patron via email or instant message and when the patron clicks the link it will take them to the same screen you were looking at. This is something that is slowly becoming standard in the traditional OPAC, but is not yet widespread.

All of these options also take into account modern social web features such as RSS feeds and commenting. VuFind and SOPAC2 go a step further and allow for patrons to add tags. SOPAC2 also allows patrons to add ratings and reviews to records in the catalog. All of this extra data is then stored outside the integrated library system so as not to interfere with librarian-supplied data, while still giving the patrons a sense of belonging to the library in more ways than one.

Open source it all

If your library is planning to change the integrated library system experience for the entire library, not just patrons, then maybe an open source integrated library system is the right choice for you. There are currently two major possibilities on the market: Koha ( and Evergreen ( In addition to these two there many other small projects that are worth looking at as well.


Development on Koha6 started in 1999 in New Zealand. Members of the Horowhenua Library Trust ( in New Zealand decided that after contracting development of the integrated library system to Katipo Communications they wanted the code released into the wild for use by any and all libraries worldwide. In January 2000, the first version of Koha was released.7 Ten years later, the system is being used by at least 945 libraries worldwide.8

11.5   Open source in the real world: Koha

Owen Leonard

Web Developer Nelsonville Public Library, Nelsonville OH, USA

Why did you decide to use Koha in your library?

We first started investigating open source library systems when we began to have some concerns about the ILS we were using at the time. We were disappointed with the quality of support we were receiving. We were interested in upgrading that system, but we were told that to do so we would have to spend thousands of dollars on new hardware.

At the same time we were interested in providing additional services to the public via the OPAC and using the data in the database. Unfortunately, we didn’t have easy access to either one: there was no option for customizing the content or appearance of the OPAC, and there was no way to connect to the system’s database using common tools like MySQL.

At the time Koha was the most mature open source ILS available and the community surrounding it was active and helpful. When we looked at the list of services any system would have to match in order for us to be able to switch to it Koha didn’t match everything, but we knew that we had the power to make it into what we wanted.

How are you using Koha in your library?

We use just about all of Koha’s functionality with a few exceptions: acquisitions, serials and original cataloging. Historically acquisitions and serials management were not elements of our previous commercial ILSes that we paid for, so our workflow when moving to Koha didn’t include those aspects. However, as serials management improves in Koha it’s becoming more and more attractive as a viable solution for us.

How long have you been using Koha in your library?

We went live with Koha on September 2, 2003.

Did you have any trouble implementing Koha in your library?

Whatever ‘trouble’ we had implementing Koha we faced with the full understanding of the task before us. When we made the decision to move to Koha the software hadn’t yet reached version 2.0. We knew that we would have to sponsor the addition of MARC support before we could make the switch. We knew that we’d be doing some data imports by hand, and that we’d be fixing bugs.

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

The process of switching from a proprietary vendor confirmed for us that switching to open source was the right decision. The software we were using at the time did not make it easy for us to export our data. When it came time to export some of our data we tried to use a tool we found in our system, but it didn’t work. We contacted the vendor and asked why it was broken and they told us, ‘You have pay us to turn that on.’

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

We did everything with in-house staff, with the frequent support of the Koha mailing list and IRC channel.

What do you think of Koha now?

Koha continues to work very well for us. We really enjoy the flexibility of having direct access to our database for performing custom reports. It’s empowering to be able to find a bug, diagnose it, develop a fix, and submit it for inclusion in the next version. I love that we can feature our own content on the OPAC and customize it to match our website.

What do others in your library say about Koha?

Being Koha users has taught many of the staff that we have the power to make changes to our own software. Staff will report bugs to me and help to diagnose problems knowing that we can actually make a difference. This is a big change from the mindset of living under a proprietary vendor and fearing that bug reports will never be heard about again.

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

Our original migration from a proprietary vendor’s system to Koha is completely atypical: we were the first Koha public library in the United States, and we went through a lot to make it work. I think that work has helped pave the way for the process to be easier for libraries adopting Koha today. Improvements in the software and the arrival on the scene of Koha hosting and support companies make the prospect of moving to Koha no different, in terms of effort, than moving to any other ILS.

What we learned this year was that having moved to Koha, we’re in a much better position to be able to pick and choose the paid support we want. Now that there are choices in the Koha support market, libraries that use Koha are no longer tied down to one vendor for support and development. That makes a huge difference to a library that is unhappy with their vendor. With a proprietary ILS, a change in vendor is a change in ILS requiring a full-blown migration. If you’re using Koha and you’re not getting the support you want you have the option of choosing another support company. It’s incredibly empowering to know that you have that choice.

Unlike many traditional library systems, Koha is completely web-based; this means that staff functionalities and the OPAC are accessed through your browser. In its current version, 3.2, Koha offers access to all of the major modules necessary to run a library: patron management, cataloging, circulation, acquisitions and serials (see Figure 11.5). There are also many tools and reports available to automate processes and provide statistical data.

Figure 11.5 Koha’s web-based staff client

Like many of the open source OPACs, Koha offers patrons social functionality as part of its standard OPAC. These include things like RSS feeds, commenting, tagging and creating lists of favorites in the library (see Figure 11.6).

Figure 11.6 Koha’s OPAC at the Athens County Public Libraries

Also like the open source OPACs, Koha provides patrons and librarians with permanent links to bibliographic records and search result screens, making reference work just that little bit easier.


Although six years younger than Koha, Evergreen is a strong open source integrated library system contender on the market today. Evergreen was developed by the PINES library system ( in Georgia, USA, and was debuted on September 5, 2006.9 Evergreen was different from any open source system before. It was originally designed to manage the 252 libraries in the PINES consortium, making it the biggest open source release the library world had seen to date.

Since that initial release, Evergreen has been adopted by at least 54410 libraries worldwide. In its current version, 1.6, Evergreen offers libraries access to many of the modules they will need to run their library: patron management, cataloging and circulation (see Figure 11.7). There are also reports and tools to help libraries automate process and gather data. Although it does not yet offer an acquisitions or serials module,11 these modules are in development and should be available in a future release of Evergreen.

Figure 11.7 Circulation and cataloguing in the Evergreen staff client

11.6   Open source in the real world: Evergreen

Karen Collier

Public Services Librarian, Andrea Buntz Neiman, Technical Services Librarian, Kent County Public Library, Chestertown MD, USA

Why did you decide to use Evergreen in your library?

For our new ILS we were looking for a certain combination of price, features and support. Evergreen had the features we wanted at an excellent price, with top notch support available. The freedom and opportunity for community involvement that come with open source software were icing on the cake.

How are you using Evergreen in your library?

Evergreen is our integrated library system, providing circulation, cataloging and reporting functionality, as well as our public access catalog.

How long have you been using Evergreen in your library?

We’ve been running Evergreen live since June 4, 2008.

Did you have any trouble implementing Evergreen in your library?

Migrating to Evergreen turned out to be significantly less trouble than we thought it might be. We’ve heard our share of migration horror stories, but ours was painless. We were running Horizon on Tuesday and Evergreen on Wednesday with no interruption to services.

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

The move to open source has been an eye opening experience. The community of Evergreen developers, users and enthusiasts has proven active, helpful and welcoming. And the freedom that comes with open source is like a breath of fresh air.

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

Alpha-G Consulting ( performed our migration from Horizon to Evergreen, and Equinox Software ( provides ongoing hosting and support for us.

What do you think of Evergreen now?

We love Evergreen. We could not be happier with our decision.

What do others in your library say about Evergreen?

Seniors love the single search box in the Basic Search interface – simple to use! Teens love the single search box – because it’s Google-like! All patrons like the ability to manage their account and their holds online.

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

We believe that open source and public libraries share a lot of common values and goals, among those freedom of information, equal and open access, and community-oriented practices. We are happy to support open source in public libraries, and we will continue to urge other public libraries to make the same choice.

Evergreen’s OPAC also provides patrons with a clean look and feel they have come to expect from modern websites (see Figure 11.8). The Evergreen OPAC allows patrons to narrow their searches using facets (also known as authorized headings), browse for items on the shelf around the title they are viewing, share items with fellow patrons by creating ‘book bags,’ and copy and paste any URL into emails and websites.

Figure 11.8 The Evergreen OPAC at Kent County Public Library

Similarities and differences

Both OPACs also offer enhanced content from outside services. This means that they make use of book jackets and reviews from sites like, Google Books ( and LibraryThing ( These added services make the OPAC a little bit more appealing to patrons as they browse your collection.

Like the four open source OPACs, Koha and Evergreen are similar in many ways, and different in a few. Evergreen was developed with the consortium in mind, so although Koha can and does work in a consortium environment, Evergreen handles the consortium rules and permissions much better. On the flip side, Koha makes more sense for large and/or special libraries because it has the ability to manage your library’s acquisitions and serials. That said, these small differences are slowly disappearing as Evergreen developers work on finishing serials and acquisitions support and Koha developers work on creating system groups and consortium-like permissions.

The beauty of the open source integrated library system is that the more libraries that are using the system the more new and improved features become available. When Koha was developed it was made for one library and its specific needs. When Evergreen was developed it was meant to work in one specific library consortium environment. Over the years both systems have been adopted by libraries that are unlike the original audience and the developments that have come out of those adoptions makes both tools more powerful and valuable.

As with any open source application, it is important to test all the systems available to you before making a decision. Both Evergreen and Koha offer online public demos (usually in more than one place) that you can try before you decide. Once your decision is made you can handle the migration on your own or turn to any number of support companies worldwide.12

Taking the leap

Deciding to change such a fundamental part of your library’s operations as the integrated library system or OPAC can be scary and, like choosing any of the applications in this book, might not be the right step for your library. It is important to look at open source alternatives alongside your traditional resources so that you can make an educated decision about your automation needs. As with any software decision, be sure to consult your colleagues worldwide to see what their experiences have been and what they recommend.

1.Bisson, Casey. ‘Designing an OPAC for Web 2.0′ presented at the ALA Midwinter, January 20, 2006.

2.Lucia, Joe. ‘Villanova University Releases VUFIND, an Open Source Next Generation Library Catalog.’ Library Technology Guides, July 15, 2007.

3.Sadler, Bess. ‘First Release!.’ RubyForge: Blacklight, January 26, 2008.

4.Blyberg, John. ‘SOPAC 2 Released: the launched.’, September 25, 2008.

5.At the time of writing, Stanford University has developed an advanced search module for Blacklight, but it has not yet been added to the codebase for all to benefit from.

6.Koha is the Maori word for gift, but not just any kind of gift; it is a gift that is offered with an expectation that it will be reciprocated.

7.Eyler, Pat. ‘Koha: a gift to libraries from New Zealand.’ Linux Journal 106 (2003): 1.

8.This number was found by searching for libraries using Koha on lib-web-cats ( It is important to note that since anyone can download the software and use it without charge, there is no way to know for sure how many libraries might be using Koha.

9.‘Georgia’s 252 PINES Public Libraries Preparing Debut of Evergreen Software, Web-based Catalog.’ Library Technology Guides, August 21, 2006.

10.This number was found by searching for libraries using Evergreen on lib-web-cats ( It is important to note that since anyone can download the software and use it without charge, there is no way to know for sure how many libraries might be using Evergreen.

11.As of May 1, 2010, there are versions of acquisitions and serials modules available for testing. To learn more about acquisitions you can read my summary from the 2010 Evergreen conference at; Ian Walls has a nice summary of serials also from the conference, at

12.Eric Lease Morgan has compiled a list of open source support companies that have been known to work with libraries in the past at As he notes, this list is not exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start your research.