Law in the Internet Society

Open Source ILS Software for Public Libraries

-- By MadihaZahrahChoksi - 10 Nov 2017

A Conundrum Facing Libraries

The 21st century library is under siege, at least that’s what current discourse among library professionals and library critics centers around. The internet of things has changed some of the fundamental attributes of the library space - from a place to acquire books and research services, to one that’s more interested in service delivery, workshops and trainings in an effort to maintain relevance. The modern library is a complex institution attempting to keep up with the times while staying true to two of its core values: the dissemination of free, open, and accessible information for the public and maintaining patron privacy.

Modern Challenges

Funding is one of the major challenges faced by library systems across North America as all levels of government continue to shrink library budgets. In my experience in and around libraries, lack of funding has made necessary creative opportunities to use resources such as area specific librarians to design and implement their own workshops and services - an attempt to work from the bottom (or branch) up.

A New Hope?

But what would happen if a library system such as the New York Public Library were to abandon its proprietary integrated library software (ILS) and switch to an open source programme to solve funding gaps and privacy concerns? ILSs were historically developed as proprietary products to be controlled by distant vendors in glass towers charging unaffordably high costs. Not only are libraries dependent on these programmes to meet branch specific needs (which do vary between library systems and branches), they must also wait for software updates, reach out to vendors for troubleshooting, and be wholly dysfunctional any time the ILS malfunctions - which happens more often then one would think. Essentially, libraries are beholden to the software and the company that controls it at an exorbitant cost that constrains other programs.

A best practice of librarians according to American Library Association standards is to ensure that the patron is in control of as many choices as possible within the library. As outlined in the Library Bill of Rights, library spaces strive to ensure the privacy of their patrons, however, proprietary ILSs store personally identifiable information of patron records (i.e. library cards and loan history), search patterns, as well as web history within their databases. The information does not technically belong to the library, nor can the information be controlled by librarians. While proprietary ILSs are legally obliged to protect user privacy, the switch to open source ILSs would shift the power of protecting patron privacy to librarians.

But are users really in control of their privacy within a library that utilizes proprietary ILSs? In my (short) opinion, no.

In 2005, when the NSA issued a letter to obtain patron data from a Connecticut library under the Patriot Act, librarians across the nation united to support the ACLU in a Supreme Court brief. Since then, librarians have prioritized informing their patrons of their fundamental Freedom of Expression in the library, and the ways in which the Patriot Act and other surveillance mechanisms strive to impede that right. In the spirit of maintaining patron privacy, softwares that promote similar ideals have emerged, presenting a viable option for progressive library systems.

Open Source Alternatives: Koha

Koha was released under the GNU GPL license - a first in the library world, and has since become the most widely used open source ILS programme within the USA. Of the over 17,000 public library branches across the United States, approximately 800 have open source ILS ( To many libraries, the shift/switch/transition/awakening/enlightenment (call it what you may) to open source ILSs is an ideal far out of their reach. The major misunderstanding is that the library system must invest in in-library technical expertise to implement the ILS, run trainings and troubleshoot. In fact, any library with technical expertise can navigate trainings and implementation by coordinating with their local Koha service provider. The very idea of open source software is foreign because it contrasts so sharply with the status quo - complacent implementation of proprietary software. While open source software seems “distinct” and “unfamiliar” to users who are uninitiated to its open-ness, in reality, it aligns more closely with the goals of the library than conventional software.

I believe the privacy features of the Koha ILS are the strongest argument for its implementation. The platform allows librarians to control patron data at every point of contact. For example, if a book is checked out and returned by a patron, the librarian has the ability to control information and records management of the transaction. Options include anonymization of patron and/or material data, erasure of all identifiable data captured at the initial checkout, or assigning an automated retention period for user or material data captured. This ability to protect user data stands in stark contrast to the present reality, in which private companies hold vast amount of user data through their software products that libraries rely on in order to function.

The Open Road

Currently, ILS platforms used by libraries impose a subservient relationship upon users. Vendors issue licenses for a fee, and any error on their part results in a gridlocked library. Additionally, the cost of software licenses reduces funds available for programs that have a greater impact on the patron experience. An open source ILS programme such as Koha presents an opportunity for libraries to create a digital ecosystem outside of the monetization of browsing habits, one in which user information is secure and anonymous. Librarians have long been concerned with user privacy and in my opinion, they are Snowden-esque in their efforts. While I do know that open source software for libraries is on a slow-but-certain upwards trajectory, I wonder what excuse trendsetting and model library systems such as the NYPL, the Chicago Public Library, or the Boston Public Library have for their complacency?

This is a very good introduction to the subject for non-specialists. It explains the situation clearly, and poses at least the basic questions so that taxpayers could at a minimum understand what they might stand to gain.

But for specialists (which we both are, in different aspects of the situation), the issue is not so much explaining the situation as deciding what can be done about it. The best way to improve the draft, in my opinion, if this is the relevant direction, is to ask people who work for major public library systems to discuss the issue with you, not for attribution as necessary, to see where the missing links are in the chain. Does Koho need a set of marketing, not just support, organizations to get it into the acquisition discussion? What is the business case for hiring away the marketing or strategy VP from one of the proprietary businesses to sell Koho? Where are the proprietary firms legally on risky ground with respect to anti-competitive activities in the acquisition process? With some questions like these answered, it might be possible to move from the de-energized state in which your current draft leaves us to something a little more operationally relevant.

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r2 - 04 Dec 2017 - 16:25:06 - EbenMoglen
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