Library Column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

October 8, 2016

Keeping Up With Koha

by Lisette Scheer

In early August I attended the Koha US 2016 Conference in Monterey, California. Among the 50 or so attendees were all stripes of library staff and nearly a quarter of the Bywater Solutions support team (ByWater Solutions is the Koha support vendor for the Valnet library consortium). Most exciting of all, our furthest visitors were from a Koha support company in Australia! We had people who had been with Koha for a long time, people who had just switched to Koha from another system, and a few people who were just starting the process of switching. Everyone showed up to learn and connect.

A little bit of background: Koha is an open source Integrated Library System, basically a giant database that stores information about all of our library materials, including books, CD audiobooks, magazines, DVDs, and music CDs. In other words, Koha is an online catalog used by many libraries, including the Valnet consortium to which we belong. Because it is open source software, rather than proprietary, library staff can do quite a bit of manipulation to improve the software and make it do things that are helpful to our work. And because it’s open source, it’s cheaper to manage. Our support vendor is also available to help troubleshoot problems and make improvements.

               The word “Koha” is a Maori term that means “a gift given with obligation”:

  • To pass along the gift of Koha by mentoring new Koha users
  • To contribute to Koha’s development by reporting bugs, and testing and writing patches for bugs

The first two days of the conference were mostly presentations on different aspects and uses for Koha. We learned about the community, automation options (such as self-check machines), report writing, and more. The last two days of the conference were a “hackfest,” the most exciting part of the conference. A hackfest is more practical learning. We all pulled out our laptops and got to try out what we were learning about. This part of the conference was invaluable for me, especially as I had only been working on the more complicated aspects of Koha for a few weeks. I was able to ask questions about some real world problems we had and get them fixed right there. The two most useful sections of the hackfest for me were “Tweaking Koha” and “SQL for Reports.”

In “Tweaking Koha” attendees sat down with a couple of very experienced Koha users. They walked us through how to get to different preference settings, how to change these settings, and where to find some good resources. Then they asked if anyone had any specific questions or problems. We had a button that had been added using some code. The last time Koha updated, it stop functioning as expected. After a little digging, we learned that the table the button was associated with had an additional column added during the last update. Once we knew that was the problem we tweaked the code to compensate and now it works like a charm.

The “SQL” hackfest functioned very similarly. We sat down with an experienced report writer and he showed us some resources. Then we broke into groups and wrote a complicated report. Since we had experienced users helping out, we were able to go through the steps of writing a very complicated report that needed information on the circulation of magazines that were only used in the library during a particular time period. This means the report had to connect different tables and look only for the information we were asking for. Now when I get asked to write a report, it usually only takes me a few minutes because I know how to do so much within the report system as well as where to look if I need help.

In addition to all the notes I took and practical experience I gained, I was able to network with a number of veteran Koha users. I have people I can e-mail, call, or find in the Koha chatroom to get answers to my Koha-related questions. This conference came at a great time for me since I was only a few weeks into my position troubleshooting, writing reports in, and fixing Koha. I learned enough that I was able to hit the ground running when I got back, instead of slogging through guides and documentation to find the information I needed.

Lisette Scheer works at the Moscow circulation desk and is also the system administrator for the Latah County Library.