Open for Growth: Open Source Platforms on the Rise

A growing number of libraries are beginning to see the appeal of open-source integrated library systems (ILS) and library services platforms (LSP) such as Koha, Evergreen, and FOLIO.

Open-source integrated library systems and library services platforms including Koha, Evergreen, and FOLIO continue gaining ground

A growing number of libraries are beginning to see the appeal of open-source integrated library systems (ILS) and library services platforms (LSP) such as Koha, Evergreen, and FOLIO. Costs tend to be much lower than those for proprietary commercial options, even if a library contracts with a third-party vendor for hosting and support services. Since open-source code is freely available and can be modified, if a library wants a new feature added to its system, the staff can build it themselves, hire a developer to create it for them, or pool funds with other libraries to pay for development. Many open-source advocates say that working with these systems naturally results in collaboration and community building with other libraries.

Concerns about consolidation in the commercial ILS/LSP market have also prompted some institutions to seek alternatives. Elisabeth Long, interim library director and associate university librarian for IT & digital scholarship at the University of Chicago, explains in a January Q&A posted on the library’s website that one reason the library migrated to the open-source FOLIO LSP was leadership’s belief that “our major library functions should not be locked up in proprietary software. This is especially an issue because there has been a serious constriction of the library vendor market over the past couple of decades. We wanted to see more technology options and to avoid vendor lock-in and market domination, especially when so many existing systems are rooted in past practices.” (The library is a long-term supporter of open-source systems and had previously used the now-defunct open-source Kuali Open Library Environment).

Even without considering downsides of proprietary alternatives, many now feel that open-source systems stand on their own merits. The first installation of the Koha open-source ILS went live more than 22 years ago at New Zealand’s Horowhenua Library Trust, and the system is now being used by thousands of libraries around the world. The code base is mature; new features, updates, and bug fixes are rolled out regularly; and third-party vendors such as ByWater Solutions and the Equinox Open Library Initiative
offer hosting, migration assistance, staff training, feature development, tech support, and other services for libraries that want support that might otherwise be provided by a commercial ILS vendor.

“We like the flexibility an open-source solution offers,” says Jennifer Tormey, manager, Technical Services, for the Des Moines Public Library, IA, which went live with Koha and the new open-source Aspen Discovery solution in July, migrating from a commercial vendor that she declined to name, but says was very helpful during the switch. “We used this migration as a way to transition away from servers and into the cloud [via hosting provided by ByWater Solutions]. This will make our upgrades easier. One of the main things we were looking for was a fully browser-based solution—no client install at all. This would allow us to do more outreach and get away from being tied to a computer at a service desk. We can use Koha on tablets or phones.”

She adds that “we went through the formal RFP process with our city procurement. We didn’t begin the process looking for an open-source solution specifically. ByWater, Koha, and Aspen met our requirements best.”

Tormey also believes the turnaround for feature development will be faster than commercial vendors generally provide. “We are able to suggest features to ByWater and they can make those changes instantly or they can add them into the next release,” she says. “We had become accustomed to asking for features that may or may not get added to future releases based on customer voting. The world around us changes so quickly now, and it’s important that we can adjust to it.”

Nathan Curulla, cofounder and CRO of ByWater, says developers and open-source advocates are still working against the perception that “open-source is somehow less than or not as good” as commercial ILS/LSPs. For
ByWater, Aspen has been helping to change that, with libraries able to test the open-source discovery solution with any ILS they are already using. “Aspen has functions for discovery that no one else has, and once [libraries] use Aspen, they see that open-source isn’t so scary,” he says. “They say ‘this could really work’ and then they look at Koha more seriously.” In 2021, ByWater helped 357 library sites adopt Aspen, and 145 new sites adopt Koha.



In 2019, ByWater acquired Turning Leaf Technologies and made its founder, Mark Noble, the company’s new discovery team lead. Noble was instrumental in the development of the Pika open-source discovery solution—a fork of the open-source, academic-oriented VuFind discovery solution that is more tailored to public libraries—for the Marmot Library Network, a mixture of public, academic, and school libraries in Colorado. At Turning Leaf, he had continued working on a fork of Pika, which became Aspen Discovery.

One key feature of Aspen (and Pika before it) is the way it groups records. When a user searches for a title, all formats of that title owned or licensed by the library are listed in a single search result—print, large print, ebook, CD audiobook, e-audiobook, etc.—enabling patrons to easily place a hold or check out the title in their preferred format without scrolling through what might be pages of results for a popular title in a traditional library catalog. Similarly, if a book has been adapted as a TV show or movie, all DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming versions of the title are grouped together as a single, separate search result.

Aspen can be used with every major ILS, and is fully integrated with eContent providers including OverDrive, Hoopla, RB Digital, Axis 360, and the Bibliotheca Cloud Library, as well as EBSCOHost,
EBSCO EDS, and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Separately, for vendors that do not currently have application programming interfaces (APIs)—the tools that enable developers to integrate their software with software from another company—libraries can manually load eContent MARC files from companies including Kanopy, PressReader, Gale Databases, Flipster, TumbleBooks, Comics Plus, and more.

Aspen is also integrated with LibraryMarket’s LibraryCalendar and SpringShare’s LibCal, which enables it to surface upcoming library events and programs alongside catalog content when patrons search terms relevant to those programs. Resources and enrichment data are pulled from third-party vendors including Novelist, ContentCafe, Syndetics Unbound, Quipu eCard, and the New York Times bestseller list. And, for e-commerce, it is integrated with Comprise, PayPal, ProPay, and FIS WorldPay. An integration with Xpress-pay is also currently in development.

In late summer 2021, ByWater launched Aspen LiDA (Library Discovery App), which will enable patrons to use their smartphones to browse collections, place holds, manage their library accounts, check out books with a digital barcode associated with their library card, and more. New features including push notifications, personal self-check, searching the library catalog by scanning a physical book’s barcode (at an offsite bookstore, for example), and adding support for e-content providers are in the works.

“We’re actively building an open-source community around the Aspen discovery product,” Curulla says. “We’re in close to 2,500 [library locations in the United States, Canada, U.K., Europe, and Saudi Arabia] with Aspen. Tons of libraries are using Aspen now, and not only on top of Koha. We’ve got a lot of Symphony libraries, III libraries, and Polaris libraries…. It’s really a cross-platform system.”



In January 2017, Equinox Software became the Equinox Open Library Initiative, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation dedicated to providing “affordable, innovative, open-source software for libraries of all types all over the world.” Founded in 2006 by two of the original developers of the open-source Evergreen ILS—Mike Rylander, currently Equinox’s research and development manager, and Jason Etheridge, currently senior developer—the nonprofit provides cloud hosting, support, migration, consulting, project management, training, and software development services primarily for Evergreen, but also for other open-source solutions including Koha, Aspen Discovery, VuFind discovery, the FulfILLment interlibrary loan management system, CORAL electronic resources management, and the SubjectsPlus content management system for information sharing and library website development.

“We are a mission-based nonprofit organization, supporting open-source communities and supporting libraries implementing open-source software,” Lisa Carlucci, executive director for Equinox, tells LJ. “Given the history of Equinox supporting the Evergreen ILS and the growth of the Evergreen community…that has been the primary open-source product we’ve supported. However, in the past two years, we have launched support for a number of open-source products and, in part, this is expanding the services we offer to meet the expanded mission of the Equinox Initiative” as a nonprofit. “We want to really be a comprehensive solution for libraries in the open-source space.”

As part of that mission, the nonprofit launched the Equinox Open-Source Grant in 2019, which includes Koha implementation, training, hosting, and support services through Equinox for recipients for an initial term of three years, and can be renewed indefinitely at institutions that continue to qualify for the grant. Funded by Equinox, the grant targets 501(c)3 nonprofits or local government entities with collections or archives no larger than 50,000 items that do not have the financial resources to pay for commercial catalog hosting services or in-house hosting, but are able to meet staffing requirements specified in the application. Preference is given to organizations serving “historically underrepresented, underserved, or marginalized communities.” Most recently, in September, a grant was awarded to the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY. Prior recipients include the Center for Khmer Studies in Cambodia, the Vermont Jazz Center, Biblioteca Nacional de Puerto Rico, and Spark Central in Spokane, WA.

Originally created for what are now more than 300 libraries in Georgia’s Public Information Network for Electronic Services (PINES) consortium, Evergreen has always been a popular choice for consortia that opt for an open-source solution, including the Central and Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing (CW MARS) consortium, serving more than 150 member libraries and library systems; Evergreen Indiana, serving more than 100 members; the Pennsylvania Integrated Library System (PaILS), with more than 100 members; and the South Carolina Library Evergreen Network Delivery System (SCLENDS), serving more than 70 members. But the scalable ILS is also used by individual systems ranging from Washington’s King County Library System, with dozens of branches, to the three-branch Kenton County Library System in Kentucky.

Although the Equinox Open Library Initiative is the largest third-party Evergreen developer focused exclusively on libraries, among other developers in the United States is Emerald Data Networks, which offers hosting, tech support, and data migration assistance, and currently serves Evergreen Indiana and PINES.



Adoption of the open-source FOLIO library services platform for academic libraries has continued growing steadily. EBSCO, which provided the seed funding for FOLIO’s initial development in 2016 and later launched its EBSCO FOLIO Services division, announced in June that it was now serving more than 50 universities and libraries around the world with FOLIO implementation, hosting, development and support services, and/or EBSCO FOLIO Electronic Resource Management via its services division. In August, the company announced that it would be implementing FOLIO for an additional 61 academic libraries that are part of Missouri’s MOBIUS consortium. Major U.S. universities now using FOLIO with EBSCO support include Caltech, Cornell, Michigan State, Missouri State, and the University of Alabama.

After the print version of this article went to press, the Library of Congress announced on September 21 that it has contracted EBSCO to tailor FOLIO to “replace several legacy IT systems and provide Library staff with new, more efficient tools and workflows to manage continuously growing physical and digital collections at scale.”  

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden described the implementation of FOLIO as “a milestone in our journey to implement a user-centered approach to connecting more people to the Library’s collections. We are grateful for Congress’s generous investment in this next-generation system that is essential to the Library’s digital-forward strategy, which harnesses technology to bridge geographical divides, expand our reach and enhance our services.”

Since FOLIO is a fully open-source system, libraries are not limited to choosing EBSCO for support. Stanford and Texas A&M University have implemented FOLIO independently, and other U.S. institutions—including Duke University, Lehigh University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Colorado, Boulder—have implemented FOLIO with the support of Index Data, the lead architect of the core FOLIO platform. Like EBSCO, Index Data offers a range of FOLIO services, including cloud hosting FOLIO as a complete software-as-a-service (SaaS), assisting with software setup and data migration, providing software support, or providing custom development of new modules or apps. ByWater also offers support services for FOLIO.

“FOLIO delivers on the promise that open-source gives, which is community input, library input, features designed by libraries for libraries,” says Gar Sydnor, executive VP, research databases and library services for EBSCO. “All of that open-source value is there. The one thing that libraries wanted to see above and beyond that—is there a commitment behind the partners that are creating the FOLIO community? And for the part that EBSCO plays…for the libraries that choose EBSCO…not only do [they] get the benefits of open-source and a company that is supporting it, [they] get a company to help with things that they don’t want to deal with—hosting, implementation, support.”

While APIs make it possible for developers to have proprietary library software work with other proprietary library software, Harry Kaplanian, VP, product management for FOLIO services at EBSCO, says that there is a misconception within the field equating open-source systems with “open” APIs. In general, APIs for commercial software limit access to specific components of that software.

“It’s really hard to equate that kind of ‘openness’ as being the same thing as open-source,” Kaplanian says. “In the case of FOLIO, really from top to bottom, not only is the community open, not only is it open to anyone who wants to take part within that community, but also, just as important, all of the code in FOLIO is available to anyone—any vendor, any librarian, any developer…anyone can take the code or the platform that represents FOLIO, anyone can create and build applications on top of it.”

Rachel Fadlon, marketing director, SaaS and open-source initiatives for EBSCO, adds that this also prevents vendor lock-in for libraries that opt for FOLIO and other open-source solutions. “One of the cool things about
FOLIO, particularly in the current market where there’s so much consolidation…. There are choices” with open-source, she says. “It’s one system, but if you don’t like your service provider, you still have a choice” of going to another support services provider without migrating to a new system.

With more options for support, growing communities, comprehensive features, and exciting new developments in discovery, the future continues to be promising for open source in the library field.

“Is there not an industry that is more well suited to open-source solutions?” Sydnor says. “You look 10 years down the road, is it not inevitable that libraries should be using collaborative, open-source systems?” 

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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