An Open ILS for Free LIS – by Mikael Böök

An Open ILS for Free LIS

by Mikael Böök,

We never anticipated the interest in Evergreen, Elizabeth Garcia tells me
over a cup of coffee at the Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta.
Elizabeth Garcia is a librarian who works with the state-wide public
information network for electronic services (PINES), a consortium which was
formed in 1999 by some 265 public libraries of Georgia. She is employed by
the Georgia Public Library Service, a state-agency.
In these days, librarians from all over the USA, but also from Canada,
Australia, Singapore and India (and soon probably from other parts of the
world as well) are flooding the PINES staff with inquiries about their new
technical system.
One of the reasons for the excitement is that Evergreen, as the system is
called, is an in-house production.
Librarians use vast and complicated computerized systems to manage all the
catalogs, collections, acquisitions, loans, networked activities (such as interlibrary
loans) etc., plus their own work and organization. In order to be able to
implement such an integrated library system (ILS), the libraries usually buy it
from a vendor of some particular commercial brand of ILS.
Elizabeth Garcia. Photo MB

However, at Georgia Public Library Service, the librarians got thoroughly fed
up with the costly system (Sirsi) they had bought, and this led them to the
decision to go for an own system, built by themselves. Thus Evergreen has
been developed by PINES under the leadership of Brad LaJeunesse, a young
software developer who has worked with GPLS since he finished his studies in
2001. Development on the challenging Evergreen project began in 2004.
Evergreen is written in Perl to run on the GNU-Linux platform. It uses
PostgreSQL database server. Yes, you guessed right: Evergreen is
completely free and open source software (FOSS). i
The intellectual freedom which goes with free software (which is licensed
under the General Public License, GPL) and the openness of its code give
librarians important reasons to prefer Evergreen. “The decision to use open
source software fits philosophically with that of the public library”, as
LaJeunesse summarized the issue in an interview for Library Journal 2005.ii
At that time, Evergreen had not yet passed the reality test.
Evergreen is still a Version 1.0 system, Elizabeth Garcia points out. In fact.
PINES migrated to the new ILS only in September 2006. Has Evergreen so far
lived up to the expectations?
From Garcia I definitively get the impression that it has. And, nota bene, she
is not a salesperson or even a software developer herself. She is a library and
information specialist (LIS), originally a medical librarian, who has been
involved in the testing of Evergreen, and in the design of the details of its user
interface. At this stage she knows the system well enough to support the
other LIS, who by now are using it over the Internet in their daily work.
Common sense among the LIS had somehow ruled out the possibility that a
fully-fledged ILS might be produced in-house and based on FOSS. Andrew K.
Pace says as much in his book about libraries, software vendors and the
information markets:
“One thing is certain, however, and that is that the full development of a
usable and sharable open-source integrated library system remains
highly unlikely.[…] open source as a wide-range solution is noble, but
not viable.” iii
Well, the Evergreen system gives the librarians ground to believe that the
contrary might be true. Which is a third reason for them to take an interest in
A wave of inquiries about Evergreen came in February this year, after an
announcement from Ex Libris, the corporation which owns an ILS called
Endeavour. This widely used product would no longer be maintained and
updated, it was said.
We simply had to take some new decisions to meet the new demand, says
Elizabeth Garcia. After discussion , it was decided that the team of four
software developers who wrote the Evergreen code would set up a separate
business company to serve libraries which implement Evergreen and charge
them for their services.
Equinox, the new companyiv, announced its presence on the ILS market 30
June, just a couple of days before I met up with Elizabeth Garcia in Atlanta.
As a consequence, Georgia Public Library Service will henceforward pay
Equinox fees for Evergreen updates. And new staff must be hired at PINES to
do the system administration job of Brad LaJeunesse and the other guys, who
are now busy working for Equinox.
If each of our libraries purchased a vendor product independently, it would
cost well over 15 million per year. We are able to provide service to all of our
libraries for 1.6 million per year. That includes the provision of the ILS to our
libraries, support and training, processing of overdue notices and provision of
courier services. It is quite a deal, Garcia confirms.
How much or how little money Evergreen will in the end save the library ,
compared to proprietary systems, remains to be seen. This is not a simple
count. However, FOSS-based solutions generally tend to be economically
affordable, in addition to being freely modifiable and controllable by their
users. That, of course, is an additional reason for librarians to consider
Mikael Böök is an international library activist and a founding member of the Helsinki-based
Internet service cooperative Katto-Meny.
i “ Librarians stake their future on open source”,
ii .
iii Pace, Andrew K.: The Ultimate Digital Library. Where the New Information Players Meet.
American Library Association 2003, p 23.
iv About Equinox: