Tuesday, March 25, 2008

bibliographic utility computing

As OCLC re-invents itself from a staid bibliographic utility to a company that can provide "next generation" library services, it's funny how that old fashioned term "utility" takes on a new meaning.

I was at the Orbis Cascade Alliance Council meeting last week as the group was discussing the possiblity of a partnership with OCLC for a group catalog on the WorldCat.org platform. As I reflected on the consortium's potential move from an isolated, server based union catalog, to one that lives in the cloud I thought about how this decision parallels those that many organizations will be making in the next few years as they make what Nick Carr has dubbed, The Big Switch to utility style computing. OCLC likes to call this "moving to the network level," but I think it's also just as much a move to "cloud" or utility style computing.

I'd heard most of what the OCLC sales force had to say at the meeting before. But one thing that struck me was how they explained the point of worldcat.org. OCLC believes that libraries need a "presence" on the web like EBay, Amazon, or Google. And that presence needs to be two-way, meaning users interact with the site and their interaction improves it.

If WorldCat is able to become a real "presence", maybe more database vendors will be open to representing their content in it and it will become a federated search killer. Maybe libraries can have more control over the digital content they give their users vs. just sending them off to an external, commercial website.

Where does local customization and control play in this potential juggernaut? Hopefully OCLC will keep opening up their APIs, and let libraries still have the ability to customize their own records in various ways.

1 comment:

Lorcan Dempsey said...

I like 'utility' a lot as a word and would use it more except that some folks do think of it as old fashioned. As you suggest, this is changing.

'the big switch' is a general trend, and it is as relevant for libraries as for other sectors. OCLC will provide some services in the cloud; others will provide more.

It is interesting to think about what happened with journal and A&I resources, where libraries have already been through a (partial) 'switch' to an externalized model of provision, for good or ill.

'network level', 'cloud', 'utility', 'web scale': I suppose they each have different connotations for different folks. I think that there are some interesting organizational questions which affect some of these choices: for example at what level do certain things happen. Locally, at the Summit level, in the cloud. It will all be mixed up, of course, and this introduces interesting sourcing choices for libraries.

Central to OCLC is the creation of network effects through scale. Scale is important in a network environment and we want to find good ways of delivering the benefits of scale to our members in the ways that you suggest and in other ways. To do this, we need to do more than just supply services in the cloud, we need to be able to characterise libraries and their collections/services as part of a network which can then be delivered to library users.

An example. You mention emerging book sites in another post (Open Library, etc). It is great seeing these emerge. From an OCLC point of view we will maintain worldcat.org as an interesting destination. We also want to be able to provide the switch that allows, say, Google Book Search, to link its users to their appropriate library. We want to give libraries a network level presence in all of those services.