I was recently looking at Jon Udell’s library lookup bookmarklet generator and trying it with some local libraries. This got me thinking about web-based library catalogs: it is frustrating that there are so many different systems with widely varying capabilities and that the local Kinlaw library’s system apparently does not allow ISBN lookup. (If somebody can figure this out, I’d love to hear about it.)
Aside: In “Nobody expects the spontaneous integration” Jon notes how easy it can be to connect two websites and thereby create new and better services, and yet people don’t expect that nor do they design to make it easy. Having worked with bookmarklets for many of years, I know how painful it can be to create useful integrations. Thankfully, this is changing. For example, it is amazing to see the ways people are inserting new data into Google Maps, despite Google doing little to provide for this initially. Housing Maps combines Google Maps and housing information from Craigs List to make it easier to find a place to rent. Chicago Crime displays information about reported crime in Chicago on a map.
What if libraries designed their systems for integration with other web services? Do the many different systems provide a great benefit? Or is that wasted duplicate effort? It seems that a library catalog system would be a logical open source project. I mean, how hard could it be? All you’d need is a fairly simple database and web app. Then I started researching it and it seems it might be a little more complicated than I first suspected.
The OSS for Libraries site provides a wealth of information about open source projects related to libraries. From there I was delighted to find several fairly mature open source projects for full fledged library systems. I was primarily interested in what I believe are called OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogs) but discovered that many of these systems also provide Circulation Desk features and various reporting capabilities.
I found Koha first and it seemed the most impressive. It was developed in New Zealand and is in use by a number of large libraries with multiple branches. It certainly would benefit from some user interface work, but that’s a typical problem for open source projects (and library OPAC systems in general if you ask me). I believe it uses Linux, MySql, and Perl. It is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL).
OpenBiblio was also impressive and offers similar features. It uses PHP and MySql. It is available under the GPL.
PHPMyLibrary seems a bit behind the other projects, but has a clear roadmap for improvements. From what I gather, MARC format is the standard for library interchange and it is working to improve its support for the format. I didn’t play with this one as much.
Finally, the PHPMyLibrary site pointed me to the Emilda project. I found this one somewhat clunky to use, because it seems to emphasize somewhat inscrutable graphics in the interface. It was developed in Finland and is in use by several school libraries there. It was recently open sourced under the GPL.
My love for libraries started at a young age. I’m increasingly fascinated by libraries and the activities involved with organizing the collections, managing the circulation, and preserving rare works. I think it would be fun to work on converting a library that is using a commercial system to an open source project. It would also be fun to help with improving these systems. Using and improving open source projects seems an obvious way for libraries to cut costs while potentially providing better services.
To think that I started this research because I simply wanted to be able to find out if a book was available in a local library. Of course better than finding out that a local library has the book would be for the book to be available online. I’ve been happy to see more libraries making their rare collections available online. This improves access as well as protecting and preserving. It would be nice if this could be done for more libraries’ collections. Given that many works just sit on the shelves, it would be terrific to find a way to virtually check them out from anywhere in the world.