Koha Optimistic That Forked Tree -- And Troubles -- Are History

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 15, 2010

Batgirl and I have something in common besides wishing we were Wonder Woman -- we're both librarians. There are some striking differences between us, as well. For instance, work in my public library was seldom for the meek or passive. I'm also far more aggressive in my adventures with open source software.

There are many reasons to like open source software in libraries -- secure, stable, cost-efficient public access terminals spare librarians and patrons time and heartache. And of course, the humble card catalog has metamorphosized into the unruly beast known as the integrated library system (ILS).

Any cataloger will tell you that the nature of an ILS (even back in the days of cards shackled in long wooden drawers) is oddly proprietary. Controlled language makes the database work, but catalog cards were often sold partially completed, ready for a little customization at the local library. Today, it's not so much that the records themselves aren't modifiable -- it's the ILS that's immutable.

There are a few exceptions -- Georgia Public Library System's Evergreen and the long-lived New Zealand born Koha.

Koha developers, contributors, and users might sum up the past year with a bastardized comic book tag line: "With great adoption comes great growing pains." Many now, however, hope the worst of it is ready to be shelved away.

Koha, incidentally, was my first introduction to how great the open source developer community is. I was installing it on my home machine -- to see how it stacked up, and to file away for a later date when licenses were begging for renewal. While I wasn't someone with much say in renewing proprietary licenses on the consortia level, I was very impressed with how Koha worked. I was more impressed, however, when I pondered aloud on my personal site why I was having such a problem with a Perl script, that then-release manager Chris Cormack left a suggestion in my comments as to where things were going wrong.

Soon, a lot of libraries were looking at open source systems. Koha gained a support service and contributor in LibLime -- a relationship structured not unlike other open source projects with a business providing support and code sharing. Then there was Koha Enterprise, Koha Express, and the wider community of developers -- and that's where things got a little dicey.

Any open source project with contributing paid-support vendors can take away valuable lessons from the arguments that ensued. Perhaps hybrid licensing structures and scores of lawyers from the beginning could have prevented the fall-out. Probably not -- the real concern was that LibLime's division of Koha into two entities would constitute a fork. If the customized, library-specified changes made in Koha Enterprise were introduced into the codebase suddenly, sporadically, or too far down the road, it could greatly undermine the less expensive support and no-cost community version.

Perhaps it's lesser crime that this decision wasn't in the spirit of the original project, and a far more serious offense that the Express version's life cycle was threatened by the existence of a very different Enterprise version trickling down. It muddied the waters for developers and contributors -- think what it must've resembled for non-technically inclined library directors who recently purchased support plans.

With Wednesday's announcement that PTFS is acquiring LibLime, however, there remains hope that the Koha codebase won't have to split. Once-and-future release manager Chris Cormack explains in his blog:

Over the last year PTFS has grown into a participating and valued member of the Koha community. Its developers are active on irc, the mailing lists, bugs.koha.org and the koha wiki. Patches are regularly sent from PTFS for bugfixes and new features. The fact that PTFS is an active member of the community leads me to treat the news of its acquisition of Liblime with great optimism.

That's not the only positive sign for a cohesive Koha, however. Cormack reports ByWater Solutions and BibLibre have joined to offer support services to libraries and other institutions using Koha. Even if all the sub-plots have yet to resolve, it looks as though developers and librarians have a better chance for a happy ending.