How to choose a library system?

Elżbieta Szczęsny

With a sufficient dose of probability’ we can say that every professionally active library director at least once has had to face the necessity of choosing a library system to buy. In case it is a subsequent system, the situation seems a bit easier as the experience with the previous one may be a starting point of making the decision.

A purchase or change of a library management system is usually a long multi-stage process. However, no matter what the further steps will be, it is worth starting with describing preliminary criteria which are the most important from the point of view of readers, and which will influence the future success of software implementation and use. It is also good to verify promises of a software producer who declares meeting all needs of the library, especially if they offer IT solutions at very preferential conditions at the first purchase, as it is possible we will pay for it later on.


  • System functionality is an aspect which is usually checked first and most thoroughly. However, it is good to look at it in a wider perspective and check if all offered functionalities will be used in my library now or in the future.
    It is not only important if the system manages all the process and subprocesses defined for a given library, but also in what way it is done and how much flexibility it allows, e.g. in case of a work organization change of the institution in the future.
  • It may also turn out that there is a parametrization, but only in an elementary scope, and all the modifications are implemented not only with additional charge, but also with a long waiting time, while changes in a library may be sudden and the system should enable an immediate implementation;
  • Also, some widely advertised functionalities may turn tedious and expensive to use as they require knowledge and skills beyond the librarians’ knowledge;
  • Openness of a producer to possible future changes and modifications, not only functionalities, supports an institution management in a changeable surrounding and enables a full adjustment to its needs, both from the perspective of one library and a whole group of cooperating libraries;
  • Security, stability and resistance to failures allow a calm sleep not only of the institution managers but also employees. It is understandable that no one wants to be worried if their database created for years will survive an electricity, server failure or system platform change or even the system change in the future.
    Hence, it is important to verify if the system meets security requirements through the analysis of at least the following factors:

    • managing library and IT standards as well as legal regulations in the area, e.g. compliance with GDPR, TLS certificate management, descriptors as well as other information and search languages, management of international data formats such as MARC21 etc.,
    • certification held by a producer which guarantees information security in the produced IT solutions, e.g. Security Management System compliant with ISO 27001 standard,
    • results of audits of independent organizations in the area of performance and security, conducted based on accepted methodology, e.g. OWASP,
    • creating the system in technologies guaranteeing scalability, security, stability and flexibility of databases, e.g. relational databases.
      The more pluses from the list the system receives, the bigger probability of a calm sleep of its users;
  • Flexibility and scalability of a system – the environment is changing so it is good to change a system which follows a library and which does not become an obstacle in the library’s development. A library does not need to be a “hostage” of a software producer, and librarians should be able to independently and effectively manage the library system exploitation, its scalability and adaptation to the present situation of their library in response to the development and organizational changes in the institution. Hence, it is good to have a closer look not only at the technology, in which it is created, but also at the possibilities of the administrator’s module as far as functionality, flexibility and parametrization possibilities are concerned;
  • It is difficult to verify if system development follows the sector development, as in the first place it would need to be stated which novelties in the library system market vitally influence librarian’s work comfort, improvement of library management effectiveness, and most importantly, the development and quality of services offered by the library to its customers. More and more library users have clearly specified expectations and they are not satisfied with OPAC WWW, i.e. the catalog of the previous generation, and the access to library services of a library only in one location and at certain hours. They expect systems of “discovery and delivery” type, e-services, and the possibility to use the library 24/7. Knowing what can make our readers happy is a key thanks to which we can verify if provided IT solutions will enable the library to make appropriate decisions and correctly target the needs of its readers;
  • On what level system maintenance services are provided by the software producer and if they openly list a detailed specification and conditions of providing maintenance services. The less general the maintenance conditions are, the better. It is good to pay special attention to so called SLA (Service Level Agreement), which is a guaranteed level of services, in which, among others, are stated the following issues:
    • mode and service reaction time to the problems appearing in the system functioning, with specified times for notification and repair;
    • communication channels provided by the company, e.g. email addresses, servicing phone numbers, skype, tools such as BugTracker available 24/7 enabling noticing problems and suggesting new solutions all day long;
    • regulations concerning access to system update and its new versions;
    • availability of a complete system user’s documentation meeting the standards of the market and enabling independent system management of the library employees;
  • Price? Yes, but no “at all costs” 🙂 It is worth remembering that the low system purchase price is not a guarantee of a low cost of its exploitation in the future, as there may be an inverse correlation between them.It is also good to check if it is possible to choose between different business models, depending on our needs and financial possibilities, e.g. a license model, system shared in a computer cloud so called cloud computing or instalment plan. It is important to remember that each business model has certain consequences, which can be a problem in the future, e.g. if we choose a cloud computing, despite many advantages of the model, we have to be able to guarantee a monthly payments (access to the service) as the lack of money means immediate inability to use the system.


How to check if the offered system and its producer meet our expectations?

We do not want you to distrust the seller, but while checking the above mentioned aspects of the library system choice it is good to have limited trust and check, check and check…
The more products we can reliably confirm, the bigger trust can we have for a potential tenderer, especially if we tend to be charmed by a low price, special price offers, discounts etc. 🙂

What activities should we devote more time and energy to?

  • Conduct reference visits at the customers using the system, preferably not just one. It is good to visit libraries we chose on our own from a list of the system users, and not only those which are the closest to us as far as their sector, size, specifications and location are concerned. It is worth checking upon a much smaller library, to be sure the company treats the same way the biggest and the smallest customers;
  • Conduct a reliability assessment of a producer by checking:
    • how long the company has been in the market,
    • lthe list of reference libraries, paying attention to the number, size and variety of customers,
    • opinion of the widely understood sector environment, including opinion-making institutions and those which we cooperate with as a library, e.g. NUKAT, National Library and others, as they usually have an opinion in the area thanks to the long-lasting cooperation with the company, or the lack of it,
    • complexity of projects conducted by the library system producer;
    • company’s resources, if and how many librarians and programmers it employs, what is the level of their qualifications and their experience, and if it is good enough to conduct our project;
    • financial condition and reliability of the company. We may check in appropriate Internet services if and how many employees of the company work there based on employment contracts; what is the level of incomes and its solvency;
  • Check thoroughly how the system and company manage legal acts vital of your institution,
    e.g. GDPR, WCAG2.0 and others, as if they are not managed fully, it can result in serious consequences, e.g. financial ones for the management of the institution. It is good to check if the company signs with its customers, for example, personal data processing agreements and what information security procedures are implemented in the company. Here, we cannot be rest assured by general statement that the system meets all legal requirements as checking them in detail is vital and negligence here may have serious consequences for us and the institution;
  • In what way, if any, are the provided implementation services connected with the system start-up and maintenance conducted at the customer’s?
    It may happen that as a result of employees shortages, the company does not offer a big enough trainings package, or does not offer it at all using the help of the employees of other libraries, who use the same system, which will definitely influence the level of implementation and the quality of maintenance support in the future.
    We also need to pay attention to an agreement concerning data migration from the present system to the new one. It is good to request an initial data evaluation preceding the conversion process. We will find out if the company uses a methodology in this area or just states that all data will be transferred to a new application without any losses.
    To avoid problems, some customers legitimately require a preparation of a document called pre-implementation analysis at the stage preceding the system implementation itself, in which there can be included, among others, a detailed range and schedule of the implementation, data migration principles and methodology, ways of approval of certain stages of implementation as well as all the agreements between the parties. The pre-implementation agreement should undergo approval procedures, and lack of approval gives the library management the possibility to withdraw early enough from a contracted with an ill-chosen provider;
  • implemented Quality Management Systems, e.g. ISO 9001:2008, Information Security Management ISO/IEC 27001:2017, the use of projects management methodology e.g. Prince 2.They do not have to be a condition of choosing a certain IT solution, however they show the provider in a good light, as the company which makes sure they provide the customers with appropriate standards of services and products guaranteed by international certificates, and which has appropriate resources (people, time and money) as well as determination to complete tough certification processes, will probably better guarantee a successful choice of a library system.