August 2008

"As the open source vision and culture continue to mature, librarians would be remiss not to find our profession playing a major role in that culture. For all we have done so far, our online systems are not good enough yet. We can do better."

Dan Chudnov

Sharing resources lies at the heart of librarianship, and libraries have a long history of collaborative projects and initiatives. It comes as no surprise then to find that libraries have a natural synergy with open source software (OSS) and there have been some recent activities where open source solutions have been applied to large scale services. This article describes a project between several Ontario university libraries to work together on a mission critical OSS application for their campuses.

Integrated Library Systems

Project Conifer is a collaborative effort by McMaster University, the University of Windsor, and Laurentian/Algoma Universities to implement a common instance of an open source Integrated Library System (ILS) called Evergreen. The ILS is the production system for a library's operations, providing inventory management and other mission critical functions. The ILS has also been considered one of the most problematic open source software (OSS) options for libraries due to its sheer complexity and requirements for large scale software engineering. The integrated aspect of the ILS has traditionally referred to the major functions or modules of a library being brought together in a way that they can talk to each other. These modules are usually identified as:

  • acquisitions: module for ordering, payment tracking, and other activities associated with purchasing materials
  • cataloguing/bibliographic control: module for describing resources and providing points of access
  • circulation: the first library function to be automated, the circulation module tracks materials borrowed from the collection and typically supplies additional processing to support activities like automatic notification when materials are past a due date
  • online public access system (OPAC): the public interface to the catalogue, one of the last functions to be automated, one of the first computer layers to be made available to the general public, and the subject of much discussion in library circles because of comparisons to systems like Amazon and Google

Most major ILS vendors support two additional functional layers that are sometimes identified as core modules:

  • serials control: tracking publications that are issued at regular intervals such as periodicals, annual publications, proceedings, and transactions
  • authority control: automating activities associated with the verification and collocation of headings in the catalogue

Libraries spend more on the ILS than any other type of software. Yet, the economies of scale do not produce a wide variety of options or favourable pricing models in the commercial world. There are fewer than a dozen ILS vendors for libraries with mid-sized to large collections (100,000+ titles). This marketplace has become saturated, with vendors depending strongly on existing customers for a revenue stream, and the appearance of private equity firms as the owners of the largest ILS companies. (The trends in the ILS market are monitored by Marshall Breeding.)

The Evergreen ILS Takes Root in Canada

In September, 2006, the most ambitious and sustained open source ILS initiative ever undertaken in the library world was unveiled with the deployment of Evergreen, a multi-year project of the PINES (Public Information Network for Electronic Services) Consortium, representing over 250 libraries in Georgia with the backing of full-time developers. Evergreen was constructed from start to finish as an open source application, and one that needed to scale to a very high level of processing load. One in five residents of Georgia are serviced by a PINES library, and it represents one of the busiest library systems in North America.

Two months after Evergreen went into production, the University of Windsor hosted a one day symposium on the state of the ILS and invited representatives from PINES to present their experiences from adopting an OSS solution. There has been long standing interest in OSS solutions at the University of Windsor, and the Leddy Library at Windsor had been a participant in an international gathering of software developers, information access advocates and library representatives at the launching of the eIFL FOSS program in the Italian province of Ancona just one month after Evergreen made its debut. The PINES presentation, entitled "Evergreen: The ILS is Open and Everyone is Invited!", was a huge success. In December, the University of Windsor announced a partnership with PINES to work on acquisitions functions, one of the modules that was not required in the initial PINES implementation. The prospects for the viability of the ILS marketplace and the need for OSS solutions that were described in the symposium seemed prophetic when, in early March, 2007, a leading library software automation vendor, SirsiDynix, announced the cancellation of its long-awaited successor ILS (Horizon 8.x).

Among the organizations that had planned a migration to this product was the Public Library Services Branch (PLSB) in British Columbia (BC), which facilitates information sharing among BC public libraries and is charged with ILS support services. PLSB calculated that BC libraries currently pay ILS vendors a conservatively estimated $700,000 annually for software maintenance, and was successful in achieving an endorsement to switch its migration path to Evergreen. The BC implementation, originally given the name of BC Pines, is now known as Project Sitka. It reached a major milestone when Prince Rupert Public Library became the first BC public library system to go live with Evergreen in November, 2007. Others have followed and it is anticipated that 15 BC libraries will be using Evergreen in production by the end of 2008.

The View from Ontario

Interest in implementing Evergreen was not limited to BC. In July 2007, an informal meeting was held at the University of Guelph to discuss Evergreen in the context of sharing library resources in Ontario. The participants in the meeting were representatives from the University of Guelph, McMaster, the University of Windsor, and Laurentian University. The ILS seemed to be a natural point of cooperation among these institutions. Consortial projects have had much success among Ontario libraries, and the academic libraries in the province have a well established project called Scholars Portal which represents one of the biggest collections of digital scholarly content in the world.

Official decisions for major system installations often go through many hoops in universities, but at the Guelph meeting it was agreed that McMaster, Windsor and Laurentian would pursue a shared installation of Evergreen with the full backing of our respective administrations, and that this implementation would be hosted at the University of Guelph.

The existing contracts with commercial ILS vendors and associated timelines for the three sites involved in this deployment suggested that a rollout in 2008 or 2009 would be achievable. Further, the utilization of Guelph's network services in a shared installation would be a compelling testimony to the appropriateness of Evergreen as a networked solution to distributed campuses. Since that initial meeting, the group has adopted the name Conifer for the project, one of Laurentian's partners, Algoma, is receiving university standing, thus bumping up the number of university participants in the initial deployment, and the group has gained the official support of the administration of each participating university. A test environment is now in place at Guelph and initial loading of library data into a shared database is well underway.

It is very difficult to change ILS operations in production during the Fall/Winter semester on our campuses, and our target date for going live is May 2009. The University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) has also given Project Conifer a boost in credibility by becoming the first academic library to go live with Evergreen in May, 2008. Many other academic libraries have expressed interest in Evergreen as a replacement for their commercial ILS applications.

A Flexible Path to Agility

Given the modest size of the library community, it is gratifying to note that Evergreen is not the only open source ILS, nor the only successful one. Koha, an ILS that started in New Zealand, and NewGenLib, an ILS with roots in India, are well established in production settings. Arguably, ISIS, the UNESCO library system, follows an open source model and represents the most deployed library application on the planet. Yet, Evergreen is of special interest not only for its scalability, but also for its architecture. Evergreen utilizes a jabber-based communications infrastructure and a custom messaging layer called OpenSRF (Open Scalable Request Framework), pronounced "open surf". It provides a powerful message based system that allows for maximum utilization of network settings.

With OpenSRF, ILS functions can be abstracted and extended in a wide variety of development environments. OpenSRF has the potential to be to the ILS what HTTP was to the World Wide Web. Although the ILS is sometimes characterized as being a legacy system without a lot of resonance to web trends like Web 2.0, the ILS is still the main engine for supplying state information about library objects. This manifests itself in activities like determining whether a book is signed out through to processing the invoice that controls whether a library's subscription to an electronic database is renewed. OpenSRF represents a strong conduit for bringing forward state information to arbitrary web spaces and allowing the ILS to support rather than sit on the sidelines for web interactions.

Evergreen also shares an essential trait with its open source ILS brethren in that it runs well on Intel-based Linux systems, and opens the door to using low-cost computing platforms. The Conifer server environment at Guelph consists of several Dell servers running Debian and represents a fraction of the specialized server costs, such as IBM/AIX, that were incurred at any of the partner sites for their existing commercial ILS applications.

An ILS for a Small Planet

One of the requirements for Laurentian is that Evergreen be fully bilingual, and Laurentian has led the way in making internationalization a strong component of Evergreen's offerings. Windsor and Lakehead University have contributed a Chinese version of Evergreen, and the Academy of Sciences in Armenia is currently working on an Armenian translation. The Academy of Sciences also hosted the first workshop for the eIFL FOSS program and Evergreen is poised for deployments in Nepal and Zimbabwe through eIFL's initiative. The importance of a viable open source ILS to developing and transitional countries can not be understated. Resource poor libraries can have their budgets badly compromised by the costs of a commercial ILS, and information access, a vital part of energizing economies, is greatly improved when underpinned by efficient systems.

Next Steps

The participants in Conifer will continue to work through data issues arising from shared cataloguing records and will seek to define workflows that will encourage the sharing of both data and expertise between our institutions. Our process, like that of UPEI, is public, and we are hopeful that other libraries can benefit from our experiences. Conifer is one of the most exciting partnerships to go forward among Ontario university libraries and we are confident that we are positioning our systems to better meet the needs of our campus communities in the future by embarking on this project.

Recommended Resources

Evergreen blog

Evergreen documentation wiki

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