EBSCO Supports New Open Source Project

Software for academic libraries will be developed collaboratively

April 22, 2016

EBSCO has contributed funding to a new open source library services platform aimed at academic libraries, with early versions expected to be ready by 2018.
EBSCO has contributed funding to a new open source library services platform aimed at academic libraries, with early versions expected to be ready by 2018.

Developers and librarians are working together to create a radically new, open source library services platform (LSP) aimed at transforming the technology academic libraries rely on. Backed by a multimillion-dollar contribution from EBSCO Information Services, the participants plan to fast-track production of the software, with early versions available by early 2018.

If the yet-unnamed project sticks to its schedule and finds interest as lively as expected, it could open a new chapter in library technology at least as important as the advent of LSPs and the recent rounds of major company mergers and acquisitions.

The initiative builds on the enthusiasm of academic and research libraries for open source software, such as that developed by Kuali Open Library Environment (OLE), which is pivoting from developing its own system to supporting the new project. The Kuali OLE community has been slowly expanding, with project participants optimistic about generating widespread adoption of this promising new initiative. The software will be released with an open source license friendly to commercial use and available to existing or new library systems providers for jump-starting the modernization of their products.

The project will enable libraries to choose patron-facing discovery services independent from resource management, contrary to the current trend toward bundling them together. It also injects a new dynamic into the competitive landscape of academic library technology, pitting an open source framework backed by EBSCO against a proprietary market dominated by Ex Libris, now owned by EBSCO archrival ProQuest.

Key project principles

The project aims to create a new library services platform, though with significant conceptual and architectural differences. It carries forward much of the vision of Kuali OLE and other proprietary products for comprehensive resource management and streamlined workflows. Rather than becoming a tightly knit, all-inclusive platform, its microservices architecture will support a flexible approach where modules or apps related to any given area of functionality can be inserted or replaced. A layer of technical infrastructure—being created by commercial developer Index Data—will provide core services, exposing APIs to support functional modules that can be developed by any organization or individual in any programming language.

EBSCO involvement

EBSCO does not view this software as a product that it will own and control but intends to attract a community of libraries and developers to design and develop the platform. Some high-level EBSCO personnel have been involved in this initiative, including Christopher Spalding, vice president of open source platforms and communities; Neil Block, vice president for open source innovation; and Tamir Borensztajn, vice president of software as a service (SaaS) strategy. Though they have been working outside the limelight, the project is well underway. EBSCO began exploring the possibility of launching an open source project in early 2015; formal approval came in the fall, and work commenced immediately.

EBSCO has gathered evidence to support its view that there is widespread interest in the academic library community for an open source platform.

EBSCO has gathered evidence to support its view that there is widespread interest in the academic library community for an open source platform. The company has both consulted with a variety of libraries and engaged a third-party organization to survey potential adoption rates. It has also pledged a substantial financial donation, made available as a philanthropic grant, in support of the initiative. The E. B. Stephens family founded EBSCO Industries—the parent organization of EBSCO Information Services—in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944; both companies regularly make gifts to libraries, universities, cultural centers, and other charitable interests.

Without specifying an amount, EBSCO Executive Vice President Sam Brooks states that “EBSCO will contribute more than any previous library vendor has to an open source project, comparable or greater than what other organizations have invested in creating proprietary LSPs.” The value of the contribution is far above the total amount of grant funding received by Kuali’s OLE and Global Open Knowledgebase projects.

EBSCO’s involvement goes beyond its financial contribution. The company will lend its expertise in software architecture, user experience, and business process workflows. It will also contribute to development along with other commercial firms and libraries, participate in governance, and assist with project management and other activities to ensure that it moves along at an aggressive pace. Once ready for deployment, EBSCO plans to provide hosting and support services.

Although it has provided the initial leadership and funding for the project and will play a role in its governance, EBSCO does not expect to exert direct control. Its development agenda will be set through a participatory process. EBSCO is less interested in the detailed functionality of the product beyond its basic expectations of an open and modular system. Block emphasizes a vision of resource management “where libraries have a choice regarding which discovery service they use, rather than the currently prevailing practice where LSPs come tightly bundled with discovery services from the same provider.”

EBSCO wants to accelerate the development of this open source platform without encroaching on the relationships it has established with the global community of integrated library system (ILS) providers. This approach puts EBSCO’s involvement at arm’s length. Brooks has stated repeatedly that the company does not intend to enter the ILS arena directly. Its ability to compete in discovery services depends on not being locked out through the tight bundling of ILS or LSPs with their own discovery service or by lacking the technical capability for integration. EBSCO has consistently supported the ILS industry through partnerships and contributions to open source software projects, rather than acquiring an ILS company, as did ProQuest, or by developing its own proprietary LSP.

EBSCO has partnered with dozens of commercial vendors to simplify the technical integration of their products with EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS). This integration can take the form of either using EDS as the primary patron interface for the ILS or using the EDS API to produce article-level search results through the ILS. EBSCO has worked with some of the global companies, such as SirsiDynix and Innovative Interfaces, as well as dozens of smaller ILS providers worldwide.

Support of open source software is one of EBSCO’s approaches for strengthening the ILS sector to promote competition in discovery services. In February 2015, EBSCO funded development activities for the Koha ILS, not only to strengthen its ability to integrate with EDS, but also to enhance other areas of functionality. EBSCO joined the Kuali Foundation in June 2013 as a Kuali commercial affiliate and as a member of the board of directors for Kuali OLE. This new project massively accelerates EBSCO’s commitment to open source software to influence the ILS arena in ways that preserve the ability for libraries to make independent choices of discovery services.

The role of Index Data

Index Data, a software development firm based in the United States and Denmark, will participate in the development of the software. This company has been involved in open source library software since 1994, when it was cofounded by Sebastian Hammer. It specializes in the development of infrastructure components used by higher-level applications. It created, for example, the YAZ programmer’s toolkit for the Z39.50 protocol, used within many ILS products.

The company will especially be involved in defining the architecture and creating the midlevel infrastructure for the platform, designed specifically to support functional modules as plug-ins. Index Data began work on the development of the infrastructure for this new initiative in late 2015.

While Index Data will perform some of the work on the initial technical infrastructure, the project generally embraces a more distributed model of development. In contrast to earlier phases of Kuali OLE, where almost all software engineering was performed by its contractor HTC Global, this project will enable libraries and others to tap existing technical expertise or expand their own development capacity.

According to Hammer, “Although Index Data will be involved in creating the initial foundation of the system, engaging with developers and technically minded people is a crucial element of an open source project. This approach enables a more direct, peer-based conversation between commercial developers and librarians. The ability to engage in a dialogue and partnership across libraries and vendors will be one of the main disruptive aspects of this initiative.”

Engagement with Kuali OLE

With the unanimous approval of its board of directors, the Kuali OLE project has made a major shift in its ongoing mission in order to collaborate with the EBSCO-sponsored initiative. The new project will gain substantial benefits from the Kuali OLE team, both through the expertise that it has gained in the course of its work and in the community of libraries committed to open source software. According to Kuali OLE Managing Director Michael Winkler, “The EBSCO initiative was consistent with Kuali OLE’s interest in developing its own internal capacity for development and in contributing its experience and functional expertise into the development process.”

As a result, the Kuali OLE software will not be completed as planned. The current codebase will be developed incrementally to support the three libraries that currently use it in production, but it will not be built out as a comprehensive resource management system. Remaining enhancements will provide a stable environment to support the ILS functionality needed by existing library customers until the new open source system is ready for migration.

The new initiative brings substantial resources into play far beyond those available to previous open source projects. These resources will be directed not only toward technical development, but also on building a community committed to using open source software in ways that can better support library strategies and values than proprietary products. Kuali OLE’s participation will be an essential catalyst in developing this community.


A nonprofit entity called the Open Library Foundation has been established for the governance of the initiative. Any open source project requires some type of arrangement for the assignment of copyrights, decision-making processes, and managing financial and other assets. Details regarding how the foundation will be organized are still under consideration.

Functional expectations

Planning functionality is still in the early stages. The new system will take advantage of the workflow designs and specifications created by the Kuali OLE project. General expectations include the ability to manage library content in all media, to support MARC and other metadata standards currently used in operational systems, as well as linked data.

Timeframe for delivery

To make an impact on the way that academic libraries approach resource management, any new initiative must be created quickly. Libraries that had their sights set on Kuali OLE, under development from 2008 to 2016, will need strong reassurance. Realizing the urgency of the situation, the project aims to deliver the initial version of the software in early 2018, a timeframe consistent with the latest estimate of when the Kuali OLE software would have been ready for full implementation.

Expectation for multitenant SaaS

Deployment of library applications through SaaS has become a fundamental expectation in the current environment. Few libraries want to maintain local servers that require costly physical infrastructure, as well as systems administration and security personnel. As the business software has increasingly shifted to SaaS, libraries likewise have gained confidence in this approach.

Organizations developing and supporting library applications increasingly prefer architectures that favor SaaS deployment. Developing multitenant, web-native platforms offers many benefits. Once the platform has launched, adding new institutional users is much easier than the previous model of installing an independent version of the application on physical or virtual servers. New features and bug fixes need be deployed only once for all users of the product. With a well-designed, multitenant platform, hosting services can manage large numbers of customers more efficiently than separate instances of a single-tenant application.

This new initiative will be based on multitenant software, which will be available for multiple implementations. Existing multitenant LSPs, including Ex Libris Alma and OCLC WorldShare Management Services, have been deployed through a single global implementation. As an open source alternative, the software created by this new initiative will be available to any organization. Multiple vendors may create their own implementations for libraries that choose to pay for hosting and support services. EBSCO plans to offer such services. Libraries or consortia could also deploy their own instances of the software.

Why a new project?

As part of its analysis of the ILS industry, EBSCO concluded that none of the existing open source ILS products, such as Koha, Evergreen, and Kuali OLE, could serve as the foundation for this new initiative. While these applications have become well established as open source ILS alternatives, they do not provide the comprehensive scope of functionality spanning both digital and print resources, nor do they have the multitenant architecture deemed mandatory for this project.

While Koha ranks as one of the most widely adopted ILSs globally, it lacks both comprehensive electronic resource management capabilities, essential for large academic libraries, and the underlying architecture for deployment as a multitenant platform. Evergreen was designed for public library consortia and not for academic libraries.

Kuali OLE, oriented to large academic and research libraries, was given special consideration. After a thorough technical review of Kuali OLE software, EBSCO opted not to adopt its codebase as a starting point, but rather to invite the Kuali OLE partners to engage with the initiative. The reliance of the existing Kuali OLE application on the now-orphaned Kuali Rice infrastructure, with its inability to be deployed through modern SaaS technologies, made it unsuitable. Kuali OLE, despite its eight-year planning development process, has experienced slow growth beyond its initial development partners, and it has not yet completed electronic resource management functionality.

Given these findings, EBSCO decided on the creation of an entirely new open source LSP, backed with the resources to make a more effective impact than previous open source projects.

Competitive context

This move addresses the deep consolidation of LSP companies and the narrowing of options for academic libraries considering new platforms. While EBSCO does not want to become an ILS or LSP provider, it aims to affect the overall industry in a way that expands options and preserves competition in the discovery services sector.

The new project must be seen in the context of the recent acquisition of Ex Libris by ProQuest. Not only is ProQuest a key competitor in content products, but Ex Libris follows a strategy of bundling its Alma and Primo products in a way that threatens EBSCO’s position in the discovery services arena. Ex Libris has seen considerable success with Alma, which has become established as the dominant choice as academic libraries move away from traditional, print-oriented ILS products. Alma has been especially popular with large academic libraries, multicampus systems, and consortia seeking greater collaboration through shared technology infrastructure.

OCLC has provided some competition in this sector with its WorldShare Management Services, though its appeal has so far not been as strong with large-scale projects. Kuali OLE offered some potential competition as well, though its impact in the overall sector proved to be minimal.

Industry impact

This change comes at a crucial time in the product cycle of LSPs for academic libraries. Proprietary platforms have taken on a new momentum. At the end of 2015, 626 libraries have selected Ex Libris Alma and 386 have selected OCLC WorldShare Management Services. These numbers, however, represent a small but growing percentage of the global academic library community. This new open source initiative aims to aggressively pursue a new alternative with the potential to disrupt existing trends.

The overwhelming majority of academic libraries has yet to commit to a new LSP and can be considered still in play. This project has a good opportunity to gain momentum, making use of an affinity that libraries hold for open source software and inclusive processes. Its launch opens a new chapter in the library technology industry—potentially wielding an even greater impact than the latest rounds of mergers and acquisitions.


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