How to choose a library system

With many library systems on the market, how do you choose the right library system?

Librarian working in library surrounded by books

So, maybe you have already taken the decision to replace your library system, because the support and maintenance costs are high, or your present system no longer meets your requirements. You are now faced with an apparently overwhelming choice of systems on the market. Here’s a helpful guide to help you make the right decision for your organisation and avoid a costly mistake!

Be clear about your objectives first

What are we trying to achieve?

Look at your existing system, list the features you like and ask yourself, “What are we trying to achieve?” These two things should help you shape your list of objectives. Next, add to your list things that you need in a new system, and that your present system doesn’t offer or doesn’t do well. It is advisable to do this before you look at external specifications or new library products. If you don’t, you could end up with a specification that is a list of every possible feature in a library system and a list of every new gimmick in all the systems you have seen. In the other words, don’t over-spec and be clear about your objectives before you look at anything else.


Involve IT

You don’t want to go down the route of choosing a system, only to find out later that it won’t work in your technology environment. For example, your IT manager may recommend that you avoid systems built on proprietary databases, because only the vendor understands how they work. Equally, they might say you must choose a system that works across all major browsers.

Research the products available

Visit trade shows or search on the internet to get an idea of the different products available on the market. Find out which library systems broadly match your requirements, meet your technology constraints and don’t exceed your budget. You may not have money allocated in your budget at this stage, because you need to find out costs first – in which case, ask the vendors for a rough price or ballpark figure, and make sure you know what is included in that price. You need to be clear about what are one-off costs which may include things like consultancy services, installation, data conversion, and training. Your Software as a Service SaaS subscription will usually include your licences, hosting, upgrades and support & maintenance as ongoing costs.

Don't just ask your friends which library system they use. What's suitable for them may not be suitable for you. Although it's also worth listening to recommendations.

Get agreement in principle from your boss

Once you have a rough idea of costs, get agreement in principle from your line manager that you can include the project in your next budget application. Now you are ready to look at the products in more detail.

Write a checklist of functions

Try not to be seduced by gimmicks but concentrate on what is necessary for your users.

With your list of objectives in mind, complete a list of features and indicate against each feature whether it is essential, highly desirable or ideal. Again, try not to be seduced by gimmicks but concentrate on what is necessary for your organisation. Send your completed checklist along with your technical requirements and an outline of your project to 4-6 vendors. Indicate a deadline by when you would like them to respond.

Make a shortlist of 2-3 library systems

The shortlisted products should match your functional requirements and technology constraints.

Your checklist will help you form a shortlist of products you want to look at in more detail. You may not find your ideal system, which is why your list of essential, highly desirable, and ideal features is useful. Your shortlist should contain only products that meet all your essential requirements and most of your highly desirable ones. You should aim to shortlist 2-3 products.

How are you going to make your final decision?

Criteria for choosing your library system may include:

  • ‘Usability’ or ease of navigation
  • Vendor’s support record
  • Vendor’s customer retention record – do clients stay with them?
  • Are they based in a suitable country?
  • Are they prepared to add enhancements?
  • Ease of maintenance
  • Training overheads
  • Support overheads
  • Price

There is absolutely no point in having a system that ticks all the boxes in your checklist, but is frustrating for users or administrators to use.

The first criterion in this list is very important and often overlooked. There is absolutely no point in having a system that ticks all the boxes in your checklist, but is frustrating for users or administrators to use. Make sure that usability is taken seriously by the vendor, and that you can move around the screens with as few clicks or keystrokes as possible. Screens should be clear, uncluttered and intuitive so you don’t need a manual to understand the system.



When considering price or costs, don’t forget to consider the initial costs as well as the ongoing costs, both visible and hidden. If it takes two weeks to train someone and they have to travel over long distance to do so, it will be costly. Look for training that is offered on-site or remotely and is tailored to suit your staff requirements. Or maybe you’ll find a system that is intuitive and comes with a searchable help centre available 24/7 so you don’t even need to pay for training.

These days Software as a Service usually means that updates will be applied automatically for you overnight at no extra cost.

Look for support and maintenance that is not going to be costly in future years. Check that updates are included in the regular subscription. Make sure that they don’t cost extra and that they don’t need to be installed by an expensive consultant.


Invite the vendors of the shortlisted products to give a presentation to a panel of decision makers including IT. Make sure there is a clear agenda for the meeting and allow about half a day for each product so that you can assess how each vendor meets your criteria. The agenda may include:

  • Background information about the vendor, including support record
  • Technical discussion (early in the agenda, so they can leave if necessary)
  • Product demonstration from a user’s perspective
  • Product demonstration from an administrator’s perspective
  • Q & A session
  • Clarify costs

Ask for a trial

If a vendor doesn’t let you try the software before buying, ask yourself why aren’t they confident to let you try before you buy?

Would you buy a car without taking it for a drive? Surprisingly, many people buy an library system without trying it first. You are making a decision that is going to affect how all your staff work and how your users perceive your service. Do not trust your decision on presentation alone. Ask for a free trial of one or two systems in your shortlist so you can check usability, flexibility and that bulk operations can be carried out swiftly and efficiently. This does call for more time, because you need to allow staff to try most areas and report back to you, but it can avoid making a costly mistake.

Check the contract before you sign

Finally check the contract before you sign. Make sure you understand the terms and conditions, including the minimum period, how the renewal works and what notice you have to give to end the contract. It’s amazing how many people sign up to three year contracts with a year’s notice because they didn’t check the small print. Get legal advice if necessary.

Good luck!