Anthony Doesburg: Small town software has fans in high places

By Anthony Doesburg

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International flagbearer for open-source movement began with a librarian's quest to save money.

The library-management system has made it easier to catalogue books. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
The library-management system has made it easier to catalogue books. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

Koha, the application that put New Zealand's open-source software community on the world map, turns 10 next month. From its beginnings as a management system for Horowhenua's Levin, Foxton, Shannon and Tokomaru libraries, Koha has spread as far afield as the United States, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Exactly how widely it is used is impossible to know, since it can be downloaded free. But Jo Ransom, head of libraries at the Horowhenua Library Trust, who was deputy library head when the software was commissioned, is humbled by the impact Koha has had on the library world.

"We have Ivy League universities in the States using it, huge public library systems like Kerala state in India, and consortia of up to 70 libraries," Ransom says.

Notable users include public libraries throughout central and northeast Kansas, the Argentinean National Library, Madrid and Delhi public libraries, the African Parliamentary Libraries and, having just been translated into Arabic, it is about to be installed in a Saudi Arabian university and Egyptian public libraries.

Yet Koha came in to being almost by chance. The Horowhenua trust needed new software to see its libraries through the Y2K drama, which threatened to derail systems that weren't built to cope with the millennium date change. The quotes it received for off-the-shelf systems ranged from $225,000 to $400,000, which the district of 30,000 people couldn't afford.

Ransom says the trust consulted Katipo Communications, a Wellington company of half a dozen people started by Rachel Hamilton-Williams, a desktop publisher who had to quit her job because of occupational overuse syndrome. Hamilton-Williams had taken up web design, discovering she could work effectively using voice commands to control her computer.

Although software development wasn't Katipo's business, Hamilton-Williams, with programmer Chris Cormack, thought they could use web design principles to create a library system much more cheaply than any of those quoted.

They set to it in August 1999 and Koha was ready to go on January 3, 2000.

"We were quite naive in some ways, but it all worked," Ransom says. "It was developed very quickly for a fraction of the cost of anything else."

Katipo had built its business using freely available open-source tools because of the lower cost and greater control they afforded. It was decided that Koha would also be open source - and therefore free to others - so Horowhenua could get support from the open-source community when or if Katipo could no longer look after it.

That choice has had a huge financial benefit, Ransom says, while also giving Horowhenua free access to new features added to Koha by the international user and development community. She says that over its 10-year life, Koha has cost the trust $165,000, including the initial $67,000 development cost, versus the $865,000 to $1 million of an off-the-shelf system.

"We kicked in a bunch of money at the start but heaps more has been put in by other people around the world. Once you've done work [on the system], you share it with the community and everyone gets the benefit of it."

Nor do you sacrifice quality - Koha has features that more expensive systems lack. Even so, its uptake in New Zealand is modest, to put it mildly, with only a couple of other public libraries using it.

"It's that thing of, 'if it's local, or free, it can't be any good', which is silly because it goes against the trend of what's happening overseas," says Ransom.

"The open-source philosophy matches librarianship, which is all about sharing and extending knowledge collaboratively."

Hamilton-Williams, president of the New Zealand Open Source Society, says it's an often-repeated story that locally developed software underachieves domestically.

"Koha has done a lot better overseas than here. It does really well in Europe, where government support of open source is quite good."

It is also the second most-used library system in France.

But it is the standard-bearer for New Zealand open-source development and that status will be recognised this year at Kohacon, an international conference of Koha users and developers held in Wellington next month that will mark the system's 10th birthday.

Hamilton-Williams says entries for the New Zealand Open Source Awards, which closed last week and will be announced in November, suggest the community is in good heart. However, the society says it can't afford to ease its pressure on the government to commit to open source - and locally developed - software.

"As a country, can we afford not to be thinking like that? I don't think we can," Ransom says.

Koha

* What it is: Library-management system, keeping track of things such as acquisitions, cataloguing and circulation.

* Developed for: Horowhenua libraries, by Katipo Communications.

* Used by: Libraries internationally, including NZ, US, Spain, India, Greece, Malaysia, Kenya, Ukraine.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist.

- NZ Herald

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