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July 13, 2012 / playforth

My summer with Koha

Time for some more reflection on a big change at work; on 17th May we officially moved over to our new open source Koha LMS. We had originally hoped to launch in January, then February, then early May… as with so many of these things the date kept getting pushed back. I wasn’t involved in the migration at a technical or managerial level, so I won’t go into details about what went well and what didn’t with that process – instead I’ll talk about my personal experience of using the system, for cataloguing, for other staff functions, and from a user perspective.

Koha logo


Our previous LMS was a brilliantly customised, but temperamental and unsustainable, in-house system. We catalogued using non-MARC web forms (although the records created could be  exported as MARC via Z39.50). So the first thing we had to do was give ourselves a MARC refresher course – Koha comes with a full MARC21 default cataloguing framework, and you can add multiple simpler frameworks to meet your needs. Getting the frameworks right and learning to catalogue properly (!) was relatively simple, but loading our legacy bibliographic data into the new Koha/MARC format proved to be  a major problem. Again, I won’t go into the technical reasons, because I don’t fully understand them, but basically our records, though theoretically MARC-compatible, were pretty non-standard. We had an ‘editor’ field for example whose contents were dumped into the MARC 250$a ‘edition’ field, while data in our old ‘pages’ field didn’t make it into the 300 at all. As a perfectionist cataloguer I’m still stressing about the way these legacy records are displaying, but hopefully it will all be sorted soon…


This is much much easier with Koha – the intuitive interface was one of things I liked the very first time it was demonstrated to us. The only remaining fiddle I can think of is that you have to override a prompt to prevent someone borrowing if they have overdue items (we used to only stop borrowing after fines reached £10, or were unpaid for 28 days). One function that we might have liked which isn’t there is automatically bringing forward the due date on recalled books (though actually now we’ve had to change the practice I think it’s much simpler and possibly fairer NOT to do this). Another new thing I have to keep in mind is that we have the option to display messages on the circulation screen – including some that we might not want a borrower to read (such as ‘beware, never pays her fines’). Our screens have always been pretty visible so we need to be careful!

OPAC and account functions

Our old OPAC had lots of limitations and bugs in its search function, and users often felt they weren’t getting the correct results. In Koha, there’s a Google-style simple search plus a full advanced search, but it’s the way that results are displayed and managed that’s the biggest improvement. Users seem to like the option to save their results in a temporary ‘my items’ list for saving or printing, and we’ve also enabled comments on each bib record (moderated by staff!) I like being able to refine by topic (which also makes our controlled subject headings more transparent to users) and the sorting options are much better too. People can also make purchase suggestions through the OPAC, which will turn out to be quite popular I think. There are also a lot more things they can do once logged in to their account, such as changing notification preferences and updating their own address details etc.

What next?

I’d like to exploit the social potential of the Koha catalogue – we already use ShareThis buttons on all our pages but I don’t know how much people use them. Setting up a feed to our Twitter account is something I want to look into, and I’m also keen to see what users do with the commenting function… I also want to use the public list tool to create a more easily browsable guide to our DVD collection, which our users have asked for in the past.


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