Maine Balsam Libraries, the Next Big Thing?






It all started with OPAC envy, OPAC being Online Public Access Catalog. I was hosting a Tri-County Librarians meeting several years ago (Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset), when someone asked how I liked running an open source library system.


“Want to see what it looks like?” I asked. The answer was a very emphatic affirmative.


At the time, I was the only library in Maine using an open source library cataloging/circulation program. For those unfamiliar with open source, it’s software created by programmers and released without any restrictions, so anyone with the necessary skills can improve or modify it. The most recognizable products are Open Office, Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird. The program I was using was Koha, developed by a library group in New Zealand and rapidly being adopted by libraries all over the world. It wasn’t perfect, but the beauty of an open source system is that it gets better much faster than commercial software because the source code is accessible to everyone.


That demonstration sparked a discussion about the cost and poor support of commercial library software. Most of those at the meeting were using Winnebago’s Spectrum, a product that was getting long in the tooth and wasn’t likely to be upgraded. Support was expensive and often required remaining on hold for extended periods of time.


Evergreen’s creating a worldwide buzz in the library community


A couple months later, Helen Fogler-director of the Thompson Free Library, Liz Breault-library director at the Abbot Memorial Library and I got together the day before grant applications to the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation were due. We decided to see if we could whip up something that morning which might get funded. Our goal was to create a rural library consortium using Koha for libraries in our three county area. Two hours later, the grant was complete. Several weeks later, we learned it had been funded. We offered membership to all libraries in the three counties and got nine responses. At that point, I contacted the people who had set up my library. They priced themselves out of consideration almost immediately. While I have a fair degree of skill in terms of library software, having worked for four years at the Maine State Library helping set up and support libraries that use III’s Millennium library software, I was in no way capable of tackling the establishment of a library consortium on my own.


Enter Chris Maas. A retired consultant from Washington DC who spent many years advising law offices on technology needs and options, Chris and his wife had found Dover-Foxcroft to their liking. Chris had also found the Thompson Free Library in Dover to his liking and signed on as project manager. Chris and I embarked on an odyssey to get something up and running. Koha quickly became a non-option, primarily because the companies involved in setting up and maintaining a server for a consortium were asking for far more than our grant would cover. (Note: While open source software IS free, setting it up, installing updates, maintaining/hosting a server all cost money as does migrating bibliographic and patron records.)


James Jackson Sanborn, executive director of Maine Infonet suggested we look at Evergreen, a newer and very powerful open source product developed by the staff at the State Library of Georgia. NELINET, a nonprofit entity providing a range of library related support services to New England libraries was making noises about being interested in getting into the setup and hosting aspect of open source. Chris and I spent two days in Massachusetts evaluating and negotiating with them. We signed a contract and things started moving. Not long afterward, the second annual meeting of libraries involved in Evergreen was held in Georgia. The consortium members agreed it would be worth sending me. It was interesting and eye opening and I was thrilled to discover one of my favorite professors from my days in the University of South Carolina Masters in Library Science program, Bob Molyneaux, now worked for Equinox, a company started by the original developers of Evergreen.


Sometimes, we wonder whether we’ve bittern off more than we can handle.


Unfortunately, our arrangement with NELINET, which by this time had been absorbed by a bigger nonprofit known as LYRASIS, headquartered in Atlanta, wasn’t working. Access time to the server and getting problems addressed in a timely manner were the biggest deal breakers.


We got really lucky. By this time the Maine Balsam Libraries Consortium had grown from the original nine members (Hartland Public Library, Newport Cultural Center and Library, Stewart Free Library, Thompson Free Library, Shaw Library, Simpson Library, Penquis Schools, Foxcroft Academy and Abbott Memorial Library.) to include Farmington Public Library, the Wilton Free Library and the Guilford School system. We were in dire need of a faster server and someone who could fix issues as they cropped up. Chris had been talking with one of the folks who was involved while we were working with NELINET/LYRASIS. Steve was willing to help out as long as he could fit our needs around his work schedule, in part because he was committed to seeing us be successful and wanted to learn as much as possible about the software. Simultaneously, we were able to work with the support staff at Maine Infonet who agreed to port the whole system from the balky server in Georgia to their server room on the campus in Orono. Speed, reliability and problem solving all took quantum leaps forward.

There are times when we think we're letting the cat out of the bag a bit too soon.

We started growing again. College of the Atlantic’s Thorndike Library joined, as did the Health Science Library at Central Maine Medical Center. The consortium now had all four types of libraries in the mix. Our next member really increased our overall size. We added the seven libraries in the Bangor School System. Since then, we’ve added the Henry D. Moore Library in Steuben, the Jonesboro Elementary School, and coming soon will be the Jim Ditzler Library in New Sharon.
Like any new cooperative effort, we’ve experienced growing pains. Establishing cataloging protocols, determining a fair annual fee that still covers the bills, figuring out who to call when ya need Ghostbusters, cleaning up bibliographic records, recruiting new libraries and finding places for regular meetings that work for the majority of members in terms of time and distance head the list. We recently received another, larger grant from the King Foundation to allow more small libraries to join the consortium, something that’s both exciting and scary. Looking back to that morning when we wrote the first grant helps me realize just how amazing the journey has been and how fortunate we’ve been.

Who knows where open source will take us?

Meanwhile, while we’ve grown here in Maine, the number of libraries around the world that are now using Evergreen is mind boggling. Almost all Massachusetts libraries are on board, Georgia has a statewide system, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Michigan and Ohio all have Evergreen consortia of various sizes as does British Columbia. This link will take you to a recent drop-down list of libraries around the world using Evergreen /doku.php?id=evergreen_libraries


The 2014 Evergreen Conference will be held in Boston and I’m going. Now that there are libraries in five of the six New England states using Evergreen, networking and problem solving opportunities are about to get a whole lot better. If you want to see our OPAC, here’s the link.


My favorite Newfoundland picture

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8 Responses to Maine Balsam Libraries, the Next Big Thing?

  1. Gram says:

    Our local library started using Evergreen too. It seems to work the same as what we had before, but easier for the Librarians…Dee

  2. What an amazing journey, John. Even more amazing when I can remember copying the content of paper card catalog cards into a huge computer console at UM Farmington’s Mantor Library as the U Maine system was just starting to create an electronic version in the mid 1980 s. No wonder, by one definition, novels set before that are now considered “historical.”


  3. MCWriTers says:

    John, it’s so nice to see a “let’s work together” and “can do” attitude in this world instead of silos and squaring off. Good luck with this project.

    You now that most of us don’t understand why you need all this? What’s the advantage? What are the benefits? What’s wrong with the old card catalogue?

    It guess this isn’t your mother’s library, huh?


  4. Nancy Barney says:

    Hello, John.
    The Laura E. Richards Library in Georgetown is a small, seasonal, all-volunteer library. We would like to escape our card catalog. However, we have a very small budget and are looking for some system to use to bring our library into the 21st century. Would Evergreen do this or would it be too expensive? Thanks for any help you can give me.
    Nancy Barney, Director.

    • John Clark says:

      Hi Nancy, given that we have grant money and a sliding fee scale for annual membership costs, I think you might find us quite attractive If you want to chat about this give me a call at 938-4702.

  5. What an amazing amount of work and cooperation and so worth it. This project makes all sorts of library offerings available to many, many people. Kudos.

  6. “… most of us don’t understand why you need all this? What’s the advantage? What are the benefits? What’s wrong with the old card catalogue?”
    Answering this as the one of the school librarians in the project: The old card catalog was takes too much time to keep up (2 minutes downloading a MARC record vs 30 minutes typing up one card set) and subject headings are too limited for the many of the information searching needs. Plus, due to money and space, our school resources cannot cover all the topics needed. All of our grade 6-12 grade students have iPads, therefore they do learn how to use online card catalogs. Dewey Decimal is 5 minute lesson on using the number as the “address” of the book, not a 5 day lesson on learning the whole system. I spend my time teaching how to find reliable information, how to best present that information to others, and how to find reading material that you like. While we still require learning how to use our online card catalog and physical book resources, we spend more time teaching how to discover reliable information using the depth of the web. Key words get you more resources than subject headings do!

  7. Barbara Ross says:

    Oh boy, does this take me back to my not so distance past in the educational software industry. Because we were in higher ed, we did end up working with and supporting a lot of librarians at various institutions around the world. They were always on the front edge of technology.

    One thing that astonished me in the US was the wide variation in state university, college, and community college systems. Some had their acts so together it was amazing. I envied the students in those systems. Others were so hide-bound and incompetent it was breath-taking. (Though of course, as supplier of the software, it was always our fault).

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