Open Source Isn’t Free, but that’s not a problem

Or: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but some meals are still better than others, even on a budget.

The horizon-l list has rather incredibly turned into “open source ILS for newbies” lately.

Someone posted [paraphrased, it’s a closed list] “I know open source isn’t free, despite what everyone says. We don’t have much in-house technical expertise, and we’re worried that the open source ILSs don’t have the feature we need from a mature ILS yet. What can we do?”

I replied:

Very true. We know it’s not free, the question is how expensive will it be, and can we afford it, and what will get? Will it be a better bet for the library economically than other options?

You don’t need in-house expertise, there are vendors you can buy support contracts from, just like you do proprietary software. Including implementation. The difference between open source and proprietary does not need to be one of support model. Except with open source, you could change support vendors without changing your product, which is huge. You could also have one vendor for support, and pay another vendor to add functionality, if you desired. LibLime ( is a long established vendor providing support for Koha, and plans to provide support for Evergreen. Equinox ( ) is the new company created by the Evergreen developers to provide support for Evergreen. You may also be interested in the open-ils-general listserv for general discussion of Evergreen ( ).

I’m not an expert in the feature set of either of these two products. Before making a decision for sure, you’d probably want to get the full information—perhaps by soliciting proposals with an RFP from these vendors! But I believe you are right that neither of these products yet has the feature set that many of our libraries would need. So then the questions that occur to me are:

1) When will one or both of these products have the feature sets we need, at the current expected development plan? Soon enough that we can wait?
2) If enough libraries need the same feature set, can libraries pool some funds and pay a developer (perhaps Liblime or Equinox) to add the feature we need? (This would, I realize, be a serious political feat to pull off, may not be feasible on the customer end; but there are plenty of vendors happy to sign a contract to add features to open source, and I think it could be financially feasible).

But in general, I think you should approach these open source products the same as you would any other product. The difference is that you have _multiple_ vendors that can provide support (and develop new features) for the same product. But you can (and probably should, if it’s your libraries process) solicit proposals from these vendors, and consider them head-to-head with proprietary solutions from SD, or anyone else. Consider current feature set and performance metrics, future plans, trustworthiness and stability of the vendor, cost (‘total cost of ownership’), etc.. Open source ends up giving you _more_ options, and you need to know a little bit about how it works to properly evaluate the product on these criteria. Open source ends up opening up some unique possibilities too, which may be unique ‘plusses’ for open source—but to begin with, you can start with the same criteria for evaluation you have and would always use for ILS software.


One thought on “Open Source Isn’t Free, but that’s not a problem

  1. Too late to send it to horizon-l, but to be clear, I know very little about Koha OR Evergreen as far as what features they currently have to meet today’s needs for a large or complex library as of today.

    I did not mean to imply that I had expertise to tell you for sure that either Koha or Evergreen is not yet ready. That is my not very well informed impression, and I’m nonetheless still expecting/hoping that the next ILS I work with will be one of those products. But the reader should evaluate for herself what either of these products currently offers with regard to what their library needs. The best way to start doing that is probably to contact the vendors—just like you would for a proprietary ILS (rather than relying soley on the comments of some dude on the net). That was the main point of my post there, evaluate an open source ILS the same way you would the ones you are used to. Open source has some unique benefits, but it’s not complete terra incognita. There are vendors, and your previous skills at evaluating ILSs are still valid.

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