This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Library students test Internet freeware

Work provides students with training and knowledge rarely available in school

Published: July 17, 2003

Contributing Editor

The School of Informatics is testing a revolutionary freeware integrated library-automation system that can be used to automate all of the daily functions of libraries, from recording the purchase of materials and helping patrons to find them, to billing them for overdue books or rentals.

According to Christopher Brown-Syed, assistant professor in the school's Department of Library and Information Studies, the system not only will be a tremendous boon to not-for-profit and under-funded libraries in information-poor nations, but the testing provides UB library and information studies students with training, knowledge and experience rarely available in library schools.

"It's a real-world project that gives UB and the School of Informatics a chance to do some good internationally," he says.

The name of the system is "Koha" and it is the product of an international volunteer software development effort based in New Zealand. Koha, which is Maori for "a gift," is an extension of the worldwide "open source" movement in computing responsible for the development of free or inexpensive software.

Patrick Eyler, who manages Koha from New Zealand, says UB's School of Informatics is the second university-level program in the world involved with this effort. The other is Group ESIEE (Center for Advanced Engineering Education) in France, one of the best-equipped centers for electrical engineering education.

The development of Koha is important especially for non-profit libraries and libraries in less-developed nations, because it makes computer services available to them that, were they commercial products, would sell for anywhere from $2,000 to $2 million.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is installing Koha to make much of its international resource library available online.

Brown-Syed says Koha software can provide a chronically under-funded information sector with the same functional systems that have been in place in the world's largest and best-funded libraries for the past two decades.

"It gives these libraries access to other library holdings around the world and allows them to share their own materials with distant libraries," he notes. "Because the Linux-based system is not proprietary, it can be tailored to meet the specific needs of users, which makes it attractive to university libraries.

"Koha gives them an alternative to the commercial library automation market. That market is quite volatile, and not infrequently plagued with corporate takeovers and the planned obsolescence of entire product lines," he says.

"When a major public library or a university invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor, hardware and software," he adds, "it wants to make sure that system will be available for five to seven years."

Brown-Syed likens the Koha effort to initiatives like "Simputer," a project in India that makes low-priced, pocket-sized or palm-held computers available to farmers in developing nations so that they can access crucial agricultural information. It also is similar to the international "Free Software Foundation" open software movement. Detailed information on the three projects can be found at, and

Koha, like "Simputer" and other innovative programs, runs under the Linux operating system, which is free to anyone and uses the MySQL database engine, which also is free. Linux, the second-most-popular operating system in the world, is based on the Unix system. It is stable, has many free components and currently runs about 30 percent of the servers on the Internet.

Brown-Syed says the Koha project involves volunteers around the world.

"They are writing the computer programs necessary to make the Linux and the MySQL database system—the poor man's Oracle—work in librarianship and archival management settings," he says. Linux itself was invented by Scandinavian programmer Linus Torvalds aided by volunteers, and was given to the world as a gift.

UB graduate students in the Department of Information and Library Studies also derive great benefit from the fact that Koha is being tested here.

"Students who want to become systems librarians rarely have the chance to get hands-on experience as systems managers," says Brown-Syed.

"This is true for several reasons," he says. "The UNIX family of operating systems—including the free Linux variant, as opposed to proprietary systems like Microsoft Windows—most often are used to power servers available commercially for library automation software.

"With the help of a $200,000 grant from AT&T, the UB School of Informatics was able to purchase high-powered computers for our lab last year with the assistance of Sun Microsystems. They give our students hands-on control of the types of servers they are most likely to find on the job, and the technical complexity involved in setting up Koha is on a par with what students might expect if they worked for a library-automation company.

"In our LIS Special Topics course (LS 501)," he says, "these computers permit our students to act as systems administrators using Linux and Macintosh System X, another variant of UNIX.

"This has made training and knowledge available of a sort rarely offered in library schools," he says "Such experience usually must be learned on the job—mounting Web sites, configuring servers and monitoring system functions.

"Students in our introductory computing applications course (LS 506) are expected to evaluate 'off-shelf' systems, but vendors usually provide only demo systems or products that are already on the market.

"To demonstrate a systems librarian's job more realistically," Brown-Syed says, "we were looking for a project that would allow them to manipulate and contribute to the design of library software.

"Now," he adds, "our LS 501 students can learn to configure and mount a Koha system from scratch, then test it and provide 'bug' reports to the Koha group responsible for the overall development and testing of the system. This fall, our LS 506 students will participate in end-user testing of the system."

Brown-Syed has worked in the field since 1974, as a customer and with two different pioneer vendors—Plessey and Geac—throughout the U.S. and Canada, in Great Britain and in Australia.

"All those years," he recalls, "I lamented the fact that students were receiving no training in their graduate programs that would equip them for this aspect of librarianship. Thanks to the new lab and to projects like this one, that situation is changing."