Exploring Koha, the Open-Source Library Solution

It’s time for us to replace our aging Sagebrush Athena library software. Commercial titles rule the school library space, although most are priced for larger schools and districts. We have found only two popular solutions, Sagebrush InfoCentre and Alexandria, that are priced appropriately for a small school such as ours. Our commercial experience with Athena left a bad taste in our mouth, as they did not upgrade the buggy web client for four years but rather released a new product (InfoCentre) that will cost us a thousand bucks to get via upgrade.

While adopting InfoCentre is the easiest path forward, there are several aspects of this choice that make us uneasy. First, will this product languish for years as did Athena? Second, the interface boasts an unchangeable bright green color. We would like to make our library online catalog integrate visually with the appearance and content of the rest of our site. Third, although InfoCentre would allow us to search the collections of other libraries, they have to also run InfoCentre for that feature to work! Why lock ourselves into that proprietary, commercial model?

Koha, the open-source library system, is seducing us like so many other open-source applications before. Koha offers all of the basic features of low-cost, commercial solutions. An OPAC web interface for user access to the catalog. A web-based librarian interface to track patrons and collection items. A “book list” feature for patrons to list the items they plan to check out or build a starter bibliography. “Virtual bookshelves” that either the librarian controls or anyone can edit — this will be most useful for teachers who want to build lists of items relevant to class research projects.

Critically, Koha also provides the openness and control that we are seeking. Template files for both the client (OPAC) and librarian interfaces are easy to find and modify. The software is written in PERL, dear to my heart, making it likely that I would be able to add special features we want myself. If it does not already exist, I could write a http request tool to add search results from public libraries through WorldCat to every catalog search. Finally, I am confident that I would be able to hijack the login scheme in order to integrate Koha into our single sign-on intranet web site.

Does the choice between open-source and proprietary change because I am leaving UHS in seven weeks’ time? If I can finish the installation and migration before I leave, then the school will still be better off than if I had helped them migrate to a commercial product. They will have free, working library catalog software with a pay support option available to them from LibLime should they need it.

What We Have Learned So Far

In two days of research, Nicole (our librarian) and I have figured out some of the basics about Koha. First off, Koha is the open-source project. You can download the package, review the documentation, or join their community by email (no forum, alas). LibLime is the commercial spin-off that provides pay installation and maintenance support. Too bad that their rates are a bit high: $0.02 per MARC record import and about $2,000 for an annual support contract. Looks like we’ll first try to go it alone.

Koha just held a user conference in Paris last week and is holding a developer conference there right now! The primary goal of the developer conference is to prepare version 3.0 for release. We were going to try installing version 2.4 this week but now plan to wait for version 3.0, especially because of this next issue. Z39.50 only works properly on Linux installations, not Windows. Z39.50 is the protocol used to download bibliographic information from the Internet — essential when adding new items to the collection. Of course, we have a Windows web server because of the ease of integrating web server authentication with Active Directory. Usually, this is no problem, but for this product it causes this significant feature hitch. We hope this will go away with version 3.0, which is using a different method (what is “Zebra”?) to provide Z39.50 support.

Koha lists the system requirements as Apache, PERL, and mySQL. I was hoping to use IIS, but the install docs indicate that .htaccess files are needed to set up some features of the site. IIS doesn’t use .htaccess files, controlling security through directory permissions. I will have to learn more about what the .htaccess files do and find out how to replicate these functions under IIS.

I would love to hear from those who have installed Koha and imported records from an existing collection. It would be even greater to speak with someone who’s done it on Windows Server with IIS. Finally, does anyone have a lead on whether the 3.0 release will make it on time? It’s exciting to think of the possibilities for our intranet.


  1. Christopher Harris says:


    I am the director of a school library system in Western NY and a former technology coordinator. We spent quite a while evaluating different open source offerings for our library automation service that we provide to over 20 districts.

    Koha has some nice features, but will require some work to customize it for school use. We also looked at Emilda – http://www.emilda.org/ – and were actually quite impressed with it. Emilda doesn’t have the development group behind it that Koha does, though.

    Win/IIS does not work for either, or at least not to the extent that I would want to risk running it in a production environment. You really need to go with Redhat Enterprise ($25/year for Educ.) or at least Fedora.

    I too spent a couple of years supporting Athena. My favorite was when we lost half of our patron records and I called tech support to learn that it was a known issue. Apparently if you checked in a book that had a hold and then, before processing the hold, checked out a book for someone it would randomly delete about half of your patrons. Oh, don’t worry, they said, we have a patch. Why, I asked…gritting my teeth at this point, haven’t you released the patch? They didn’t like to send anything out before it became a problem. Their suggestion was to restore last night’s backup (their answer to everything!).

  2. rkassissieh says:

    Thank you, Christopher, for your thoughtful and pertinent comments. Too bad about your difficulties with Athena. I guess our problems are minor by comparison! I will check out Emilda, which appears to offer many of the features that Koha 3 is trying to release. Thanks for the advice about IIS and RedHat Enterprise. My gut tells me to avoid Sagebrush InfoCentre as well, though it looks okay in the sales presentation.

  3. Bob Irving says:

    Hi Richard,

    We’re investigating Koha at the moment. I’m caught in dependency h***, trying to install everything on Ubuntu 6.06. I’d be curious to know what your library staff thought of Koha and Emilda.

  4. rkassissieh says:

    We never got so far as to try it out. I left the school and they went with a commercial vendor. At my new school, the library staff found Koha too green and went with Follett Destiny. I would still like to try it out, but Koha will need to gain more penetration into secondary schools before places like mine will take a risk on it. Unlike other open-source applications, this one treads into the core jobs of a number of school staff, so it’s harder to take a risk.

  5. Bob Irving says:

    Thanks for the reply, Richard. We spent several hours trying to get all the dependencies resolved and finally started over on Fedora Core 2. We’re not sure about the product, but we wanted to get it installed and play with it to see if it would work for us. We use Follett now.

  6. Amy says:

    Bob and Richard,
    I am looking for some input regarding Library Automation. Our school currently has NOTHING. We are a small private school that does not have a librarian. We rely upon parent volunteers. I am part of a committee looking to automate our library and make it current for the students. The software we are looking at is Surpass, and Follett. Our church/school tech guy is pushing Koha. Our concerns are we will have multiple parent volunteers in the library and need the most user friendly along with excellent support. We feel Koha can not fill these needs as well as the previously mentioned companies. Would you please share your thoughts?

  7. Paul Scaer says:

    Liblime has some nice Koha setups (classic and zoom) but they are even more expensive than Richard first learned. Records cost 15 cent each beyond a per file cost of $500 if we chose to have multiple school libraries on one server. Zoom looks great, but costs $7500 for the initial (and yearly) package. I would like very much to move in that direction, but state consortia will be the only way we can afford it.