Thursday, April 30, 2009

Springtime in Ohio

OCLC has had some interesting announcements over the last few weeks regarding the WorldCat platform. Their new partnership with Ebsco will really enrich WorldCat Local as an article discovery tool and bring it closer to being a kind of Google for libraries. It'll be interesting to see how much full text content they index vs. citation level indexing. This could be a huge step forward in the search fragmentation problem that federated searching has been trying to solve for a long time.

Andrew Pace commented recently in his blog on the spring weather in Ohio. Perhaps the warmer temperatures have those folks in Dublin thinking that they are in Northern California, looking out at the golden rolling hills around Silicon Valley rather than the verdant hills of central Ohio. His next post announces OCLC's plans to give away WorldCat Local for free (sort of)! Do these folks think they are running a Web 2.0 start-up company or what?

The bigger announcement was that OCLC is entering the ILS fray with a "web-scale" library management system. OCLC's description of the product makes the distinction between a SAAS model and what they are trying to achieve.
OCLC's vision is similar to Software as a Service (SaaS) but is distinguished by the cooperative "network effect" of all libraries using the same, shared hardware, services and data, rather than the alternative model of hosting hardware and software on behalf of individual libraries.
I think they are on the right track. The important idea here is that the OCLC community can aggregate library management data together and gain huge advantages. OCLC has holdings data and bibliographic data, which they have put to use effectively in searching. Circulation data, e resource usage data, license data, etc. could bring major improvements in workflow and business intelligence.

The point that people miss here is that this endeavor is not about competing against other library management systems. It's about making libraries relevant in the broader, Google- centered information ecosystem. There are big problems with the way libraries work currently when viewed from the perspective of the modern day web:
  • resource fragmentation-we have too many silos of data for searching; people want the kind of big indexes that Google provide
  • the finite collection-if people want to read any article or a book, they should be able to click to it and have it appear; there is an expectation of this on the web, in the blogosphere, etc.; waiting a day for an article that is already digitized somewhere to be scanned and sent over ILL is too long; libraries are still tied to this notion that they provide their patrons access to a finite physical and licensed collection
  • walled garden effect-often you have to be going through the library's web gateway to benefit from its resources
  • Web/library sector content divide-our systems are often only aware of information resources within the products we provide--there is a disconect with the broader web that tools like Google Scholar bridge
  • local value-what kind of local customization are libraries providing regarding information resources? I think often we fall short in providing enough added value to justify our existence as middlemen
If we don't solve some of these, we may lose our position as information provider/mediator to our communities.

Beyond making existing processes more efficient, the network level ILS should be an agent of change for the way that libraries purchase, license, and provide information. Its infrastructure and data should support more sophisticated arrangements with content providers (I think the aforementioned Ebsco arrangement demonstrates this).

In Karen Coyle's article on this initiative, she points out the connection between this project and some of the findings of the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control:
A report from the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control ( noted that libraries spend a great deal of time on repetitive tasks, such as cataloging best-sellers, while ignoring the most valuable aspects of their collections: the archives, the rare items, the unique collections. The report urged libraries to "transfer effort into higher value activity" and separately called for libraries to embrace the web as the primary technology infrastructure.
The web scale library management system should provide the tools for libraries to do this higher value work, including synthesizing and specializing resources for a local environment.

Furthermore, rather than competing with other library sector technology vendors, OCLC should build the infrastructure that allows those vendors to build services on top of the WorldCat platform in the same way that Flickr works with partner companies who add value to their services. I know this is a tricky process, but it probably starts with open APIs.

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