As our library discusses moving to WorldCat Local as our "primary" library catalog, the catalogers have been voicing their concerns about relying on the master records in the WorldCat database for our local catalog. They are very concerned that the corrections and augmentations that they apply to our local bibliographic records will no longer be visible. These often take the form of local subject headings, genre headings, corrections, etc. The logical move of course is to make those changes in the WorldCat database where they can have a global benefit.
The move to WorldCat as the live local database should force the issue of truly cooperative cataloging, and I think that's a good thing. It should give incentive to OCLC to be more inclusive about who can edit and enhance records and it should embolden catalogers to work in the global catalog, not just their local one.
In the networked environment we're doing more and more work in libraries that benefits a global community, rather than just our local community. Digital collections projects are a good example. When we digitize unique art, photos, manuscripts, or historical documents, our work provides value to the world. These collections are contributing to the de facto world digital library that is the Internet. Our print collections, especially the more unique pieces within them, are also making a more global contribution as ILL systems become better lubricated.
How do this work benefit the parent institutions that fund us? Should we only be doing projects with a global benefit if they provide a benefit to our institutions equal to their cost? In some ways this seems logical: we take action when there is a clear local benefit and view any global benefit as a positive side effect. Sort of akin to a "national interest" foreign policy doctrine.
I think about this as I spend time working on accessceramics.org. It's very satisfying to be developing a resource for a global audience rather than just our local one. We can see the visitors coming in from around the world on Google Analytics. But our library like most any academic library is structured and funded as an organization that provides a wide set of rather generic services to a very defined audience. We're not really optimized for developing a narrow, niche collection that we serve up to the world. The Internet has taken away many of the barriers for doing this, however, and we are starting to forge ahead with collections like these.
In some ways, the model for academic libraries doing niche collections is like humanities scholarship, where the revenue from teaching subsidizes research. The services a library provides to a primary audience of students and faculty are akin to the teaching and the niche collections with a global benefit are equivalent to the research. In the same way that an academic's research benefits their teaching (or does it?), does a library's curation of niche collections make the library better in the primary services that it provides to its patrons: reference, instruction, discovery to delivery, etc.?
The local benefit of a digital project can obviously hard to measure, but clearly some unique collections have particular relevance and value to a community. Historical documents that support a niche area of scholarship that is a strength of the institution, a photo collection about the surrounding community, etc. accessCeramics supports a strong tradition of ceramic arts instruction at our institution.
Many niche projects raise the profile of the parent institution broadly and have the potential to boost funds coming in from grants and donors. Libraries tend to take pride, rightfully, in the work they do that has global benefit and, indeed, most wish they had more staff resources to undertake such projects.