The True Cost of Free: Why Open Source Library Management Systems Aren't Actually Free

When it comes to the cost of open-source library management systems, such as Koha, people often think that it’s free. But that’s not always the case. The fact is that open-source library management software comes with a variety of costs associated with it. In this blog post, we’ll explore the hidden costs associated with open-source library management software to help you determine whether or not it’s truly free.

Hurdles of library management systems

Software and hardware costs

If you are planning to host open-source software on your premises, you need to factor in the upfront costs of purchasing server hardware and software licences to host the library management software. And there are ongoing costs associated with hosting the software such as the cost of electricity for running the server, the cost of internet connection and bandwidth, the cost of domain name registration, and the cost of software maintenance. Furthermore, if you don’t have an IT staff to manage the server, then you will need to hire outside personnel to do so.

Hosting costs

Alternatively, you could host the open-source software in the cloud, but again there are costs associated with hosting that you must factor in. Compare these costs to Software as a Service (SaaS) where hosting is all part of the SaaS subscription. If you are organising your own hosting in the cloud for open-source library management software, remember to check the security credentials of the host provider. 

Do you need support and maintenance?

One major drawback of open-source library management software is the absence of dedicated phone or email support. You can find commercial service providers to provide support, but there are no guarantees as to the fitness of your selected vendor in providing support and maintenance services. It would be up to you to assess whether service providers are fully active in the community, have experience working with the mainstream version, or have a good track record of working with clients. And of course, you have to pay them for their services either on an annual retainer, an hourly rate or per job.

No Warranties​

Unlike commercial software, open-source library software does not come with warranties because there is no single company developing the product. This lack of warranty may pose additional risks and liabilities for libraries that choose to adopt open-source library software. A community of developers continually change the software and add functions, but how are new developments tested? Librarians adopting an open-source library management system need to have a contingency plan in place to address potential issues that may arise due to software defects or other unforeseen problems.

Rapid Changes and Compatibility Concerns

Software in today’s world is continually evolving and security threats are continually emerging. Open Source Software depends on its community and various service providers to fix compatibility issues and address security vulnerabilities, but there is no single body responsible for co-ordinating these fixes and security patches. Likewise there is no automated roll-out of patches and updates. Industry figures show that 80% of users do not update OSS once they have downloaded it. Libraries must stay up-to-date with the latest releases to maintain compatibility and address security vulnerabilities, which can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Library professionals should consider the long-term implications of supporting open source software in-house versus relying on external support services.

Community Involvement and Development

Active participation in the open-source community can be both a strength and a challenge for libraries. While it offers the opportunity to contribute to the software’s development and influence its direction, it also demands time and effort from library staff. Balancing community involvement with daily library operations can be difficult, especially for smaller libraries with limited resources.

Comparison Table

So, by now, you are getting the picture that there are many costs which must be weighed up when looking at “free” open-source software. Check out our comparison table to compare costs associated with open-source library management software against commercial vendors offering library software on a Software as a Service model.

Open Source Library management software

Improvements and New Features

Open-source software often requires additional technical expertise to improve workflows and add new features. When the software needs code changes, libraries will need support from developers in-house or will need to hire an external consultant to carry out the development work. This can be expensive and challenging and the cost is borne by the library commissioning the work. Compare this to commercial software products which are continually maintained and improved by the owner as part of the Software as a Service (SaaS) at no extra cost.

Cost-Effective Alternatives to Open-Source Library Management Systems

We encourage librarians to explore cost-effective alternatives that address these issues without breaking the bank. One such alternative is Simple Little Library System (SLLS) or KnowAll Matrix, both offered by Bailey Solutions. These solutions provide the support, stability, and ease of use that libraries require while still being budget-friendly. By considering these alternatives, library professionals can avoid the potential pitfalls of open-source library management systems and make a more informed decision to best serve their institutions and users.