The Benefits of Open Source for Libraries

The following post appeared as a question and answer piece in the August edition of the Cilip Update magazine

What are the main benefits to the library of adopting open source?

There are some well known benefits that open source could bring to libraries, these include:

Lower costs: Open source offers a lower total cost of ownership than traditional library systems. There are none of the traditional license costs associated with open source. Libraries are able take advantage of the reduced costs the cloud offers by reducing local support and hosting costs (if it is supported and hosted by a third party).

No lock-in: Libraries are, in a sense, removed from the traditional lock-in associated with library systems. There is a greater opportunity to pick and choose components, and take advantage of what is, generally, better interoperability with open source solutions. Related to this is also the idea that open source is more sustainable: If a vendor goes out of business the software may disappear or be sold-on. With open it is always available, and there is usually a community involved in it to continue its development.

Adaptation and Innovation: Connected to the above is the greater capacity that libraries have to innovate with open systems and software. There is no need to await the next update or release, instead in either isolation or collaboratively, can develop the functionality required. This enables much more agile services and systems, as well as ensuring user expectations are exceeded.

A richer library systems ecosystem: A less direct impact of open source is a richer library systems ecosystem. This is both in terms of the library solutions available (a healthier marketplace with both proprietary and open solutions) and in terms of collaboration and engagement between libraries themselves. Libraries are able to collaborate and share code on the functionality and fixes they require. Indeed, there are open source systems such as Evergreen, which were developed as an open source library system for a consortial approach.

While these benefits are the headline grabbing ones, it might be argued there are more subtle, but none the less powerful benefits in the adoption of open source in libraries, especially within higher and further education. There are broader trends and themes emerging (and some fairly well entrenched) within the new information environment that make open source particularly timely for libraries. These developments include: open (linked) data; managing research data; open scholarship and science; Open content such as OERs; crowdsourcing, and, of course, open access. Open source solutions for the library fit very well into this broader open momentum affecting the academic world at present.

Away from the academic world it is difficult not to notice the close correlation between the open, learning, sharing and peer-production culture libraries embody and that of the open source culture.

So it may be that one of the greatest benefits of adopting open source is that it mirrors the very philosophy and values of the library itself.

Is it something all libraries should consider, or are there limitations to its usefulness as a solution (if so, what are the limitations)?

There are very few barriers to any library adopting an open source library system. The business models that surround open source library systems are currently based on third parties offering support and hosting services for libraries looking to implement a solution. Effectively, this means any library could take advantage of an open system.

There can sometimes be very pragmatic limitations to the systems themselves – the open source management system Koha, for example, doesn’t include an inter-library loan module (although they recognise this and have a wiki to collect the requirements for the module’s development).

For me, open source offers libraries an exciting opportunity: better understand the skills, roles and processes that are critical to the library’s community of users (whether academic, public or other). Open source can be about simply outsourcing your system and support to a third party; but it can also be about re-evaluating services, systems and understanding where the real value of the library lies. This may mean that support for the open source LMS is outsourced to a third party, so the local developers can work with librarians to ensure the services are innovative and meeting the needs of users.

Open source is an opportunity for the library to become more agile, and adopt a more ‘start-up’ like culture to the development and deployment of services.

What are the main barriers to a library adopting open source? (fear of the unknown, lack of technical ability etc)

It would be simple to blame the slow adoption of open source systems on fear – fear of the unknown, cost, security, perception, the list could go on. These are real concerns within the library community. But, it would miss the fact that libraries are using open source software. There are discovery interfaces that include Blacklight and VuFind. These open products themselves often run on top of the open search platform Apache Solr, for example.

Search and discovery are critical functions of the library, so these are not inconsequential adoptions.

Furthermore, there is a small, but growing recognition of the viability of open source for libraries. Halton Borough Council was the first to adopt open source for its public libraries, the University of Staffordshire was the first UK university to adopt an open source management system . These early adopters are helping raise the profile of open source and helping make it a visible alternative.

These developments point at potentially more entrenched barriers to adoption. One such barrier is the impact institutional and organisational procurement processes have on the decision making process (This, it might be argued, is a barrier to the development and adoption of proprietary systems as much as it is to the adoption of open source) . The procurement process for libraries (certainly in the academic sphere) has not been one that has traditionally explored innovative approaches – instead it has focused on relatively static and core specifications. This has had the effect of reinforcing the type of system, and the systems approach institutions and organisations adopt in their tender to suppliers.

For many organisations it might be summed up as simply as: who do you put a tender out to in the case of an open source solution?

However, many of the more superficial barriers are already largely redundant within the sector – the viability of open in general has been proved with the adoption of open source operating systems such as Linux in most sectors including business. Some of the more embedded organisational issues may take time to resolve, but already these are starting to dissolve as institutions seek to make effeciencies and adopt new approaches to procurement.

Are there issues over ongoing support? and do libraries need a decent IT dept to even consider open source?

As I mention above, IT support isn’t necessarily an issue for the library, this can be outsourced to a third party if necessary . But, having the right technical skills in the library is essential; it’s essential whether or not you’re choosing an open source solution.

However, the IT department does play an important role (whether they are in the library or wider organisation) as they are the people you’ll be talking to a lot about your decision. I think they key issue regarding the IT department is making sure they understand what you’re doing, and get them on your side!

There are also opportunities for libraries to engage in projects which share many of the characteristics of open source, but which have a slightly different approach. Examples include shared community activity such as Knowledge Base+ in the UK (a shared community knowledge base for electronic resources) which is a collaboration between HE libraries to improve the quality of e-resource metadata. Or the US ‘community source’ project KualiOLE (an Open Library Environment designed by libraries) where you pay to join the project to affect development, but the code for the system is open source. These examples build on the library’s tradition of openness and collaboration, and provide similar kinds of benefits to straightforward open source software.

Finally, it might just be that the greatest issue of open source facing libraries has already been overcome. David Parkes, Associate Director at University of Staffordshire, jokes that you should never be first. Of course, Staffordshire was the first HE institutions to implement an open source library system, so in many ways he’s removed the biggest hurdle to adoption there is!


4 thoughts on “The Benefits of Open Source for Libraries

  1. Graham Beastall

    It is a fallacious argument that open source is lower cost than other systems. The costs are no different – a commercial business model is no different in terms of licensing except we know exactly who is coding the programs and can direct them accordingly. The situation may have been different five years ago when software licences were charged for but today that argument falls down. At some point in the supply chain people have to be paid for work being performed.

  2. Anthony Hornby

    Thanks for the article. Do you have any good open source solutions for discovery of electronic resources a library may hold? I understand that commercial publishers are not generally making metadata / abstracts etc of the content of their databases / journals available publicly to be able to be harvested / indexed and searchable.

    Are there any good articles / reviews of open source discovery out there? Should we just use Google Scholar?

    All info appreciated 🙂

    Warm regards,

  3. Ben Showers Post author

    Anthony – Some good questions here!

    A useful place to start is the Free/Open source software for libraries website: which has a good section on discovery layers.

    Marshall Breeding is always a very good, and authoritative voice on these matters, and there’s some interesting briefing papers available at:

    Hope that’s a few useful places to start. It’s an interesting question about just using Google Scholar: There are an increasing number of voices that are suggesting that may be the future:


  4. Pingback: Los beneficios del Open Source para las bibliotecas | Universo Abierto

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