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29 November 2011, 10:32

The Koha Saga: A gift that keeps giving

by Glyn Moody

The world of libraries is not one we normally associate with passion and high drama. And yet that is precisely what the long-running saga of Koha, the open source library management system, has been filled with.

Koha began back in 1999, when a local library in Horowhenua, on the north island of New Zealand, was faced with a Y2K problem with its existing library system. Because that system was proprietary, there wasn't much the library could do about it, and so it started looking at open source alternatives. Remarkably, when it found that there weren't any, it decided to start one. The name it chose was "Koha", a Māori word with a complex meaning to do with gifts brought by visitors.

The Horowhenua Library Trust (HLT) contracted with Katipo, a New Zealand company, to write the system. Here's the company's background to the collaboration:

Horowhenua Library Trust and Katipo Communications Ltd made a joint decision to release Koha as Free Open Source Software under the GPL in 1999 before we started the project. It was recommended to Horowhenua Library as a risk management strategy, to ensure that they could get support and development work done by suppliers other than Katipo, and because there wasn't already an open source system available. Since we released Koha other libraries have picked it up and paid Katipo and other developers to add features and improvements.

Indeed, Koha has become a huge success, not just in terms of its uptake by libraries around the world, but also as measured by the business ecosystem of companies offering support that has grown up around it. Sadly, as soon as money entered the equation, things started to get messy, as this excellent history of the Koha project explains:

One of these support businesses was US-based LibLime, founded in 2005 by Koha developer Joshua Ferraro. In 2007, LibLime purchased Katipo Communications' assets in Koha, including its copyright on the Koha source code, and took over maintenance of the web site. For several years, life continued on as it had before; was the home of the project, and LibLime participated in Koha's ongoing development as did several other support-based businesses, many individuals, and many libraries.

The first signs of trouble began to appear in mid-2009, when LibLime announced that it would be providing its customers with a version of Koha built from a private Git repository, instead of the public source code maintained by the community as a whole. Many in the community regarded this as an announcement that LibLime was forking the project, a claim that Ferraro denied.

Despite that detailed denial, the Koha community were unconvinced, and set up a new site,

Things soon became even more complicated when LibLime was acquired by another company serving the library market, Progressive Technology Federal Systems (PTFS). Initially, there was a hope that this might resolve the problems. Here, for example, is Chris Cormack, the original Katipo coder:

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, 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.

Things began with what seemed a conciliatory post from PTFS to the Koha community:

As promised, PTFS will continue to support the Koha open source community. We understand that the website was set up as a temporary measure before our purchase of LibLime, out of concerns that the content of was out of date and was not under the control of official members of the community. To resolve this issue PTFS would like help in updating and supporting

To that end, we email to solicit community volunteers to support and update portions of the web site in a collaborative fashion similar to how it worked about a year ago

But this wasn't what the Koha community was looking for: it wanted the main domain to be assigned to the community. As one person wrote on the mailing list:

Community members have decided to make the long-term home, started changing links and so on. I beg PTFS to do the right thing now: redirect * to * immediately (continuing to host bits if the community agrees) and transfer the domain to HLT as a long-term resolution.

It is incredible to ask, after that painful decision, for everyone to reverse it and then also start working directly for PTFS for free!

Since many seemed to share this view, PTFS sent the following message a few days later:

LibLime wants to assume the best and understands that the HLT Committee is new to business matters, acquisitions, and financial transactions on the scale required to move the Koha project to the next level. Perhaps the newness of these experiences has resulted in their one-sided point of view; their conflicting and inaccurate web posts; and their decision to participate in a conference call, only to decline it the next day.

Next: Patronising tone

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