OCLC SETS NEW STRATEGY: EARTH'S LARGEST LIBRARY IN SIGHT?
by Barbara Quint
the largest library online cooperative, is setting a new strategy that
could move it and public and academic libraries across the country and
the world into an emerging, unified, virtual library service on the Web.
Much of the strategy parallels a controversial and widely circulated think
piece originally published in Searcher and promulgated by the author,
Steve Coffman, as the "Earth's Largest Library" (ELL). Basically, Coffman's
ELL concept proposed using an Amazon.com-like model for interlibrary loan.
code name for the project is Extended World Catalog, which builds on the
mammoth bibliographic WorldCat database it has constructed out of the holdings
of its member libraries, covering books, serials, monographs, videos, films,
etc. The OCLC executives I interviewed assured me that the new strategy
has received strong support both inside their governance committees — as
indicated by recent additional funding voted by the board — and from canvassing
directors of member libraries. According to Frank Hermes, vice president
of marketing and planning, OCLC has established a broad team of people
over the last 6 to 7 months. The program has a 3-year projected timeline
with first efforts expected by January 2001 and a beta launch in the summer.
OCLC's new strategy
applies some of the concepts from the Coffman articles ["Building Earth's
Largest Library: Driving into the Future," Searcher, March 1999,http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/mar99/coffman.htm;
and "The Response to 'Building Earth's Largest Library,'" Searcher,
July/August 1999, http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul99/coffman.htm].
For example, the new design plans for the Extended World Catalog include
both enriched recordsadding cover art, reviews, tables of contents, etc.,
and expanded outreach into merging catalog data from other sources. According
to Hermes, OCLC also plans to make the database "more robust, broader,
and deeper, and linked to outside databases. No longer will all data flow
from the computers in Dublin, Ohio. We're moving beyond bibliographic records,
adding tables of contents, cover art from book jackets, more of Steve's
'big, fat records,' through full links to digital objects, special collections,
and alternative formats."
that OCLC would link Extended World Catalog data globally — e.g., with
the PICA online cataloging service in the Netherlands, in which OCLC recently
acquired a majority interest. PICA helps libraries in the Netherlands,
France, and Germany create union catalogs. Under the new strategy, OCLC
plans to link data from PICA into the Extended World Catalog and vice versa.
This policy would expand both the number of bibliographic records and library
holdings. No matter how diverse the sources, however, the project managers
at OCLC intend to present patrons with a smooth, integrated presentation
The Extended World
Catalog forms just one part of OCLC's new "Four Corners" strategy, according
to Gary Houk, vice president of metadata and content-management services.
The basic four elements of the strategy are the following:
Metadata — Formerly
called cataloging, but now expanded beyond the traditional OCLC records
to new sources from a variety of partners and even some pre-publication
metadata, all designed to serve the end-user and the librarian.
Local librarians would
remain in control of the process, according to Houk and Hermes. They would
customize their own uses of Web-networked services with the right to turn
features off or on — e.g., the commitment to delivering items from specific
sources or sets of sources. Non-holding libraries will also be able to
contribute holdings to the Extended World Catalog.
— OCLC will help librarians manage their local collections, including archiving
and digitizing local collections.
with the next generation of reference services, such as the Portal Management
Service — Will help librarians create their own Web sites and portals,
as well as effective interfaces for patrons dealing with the Extended World
Fulfillment — Rapid
information-delivery services, including an integrated "Click to Borrow
or Buy" feature. When users find a citation, they can get the item. The
system will offer three layers of fulfillment options: the local library,
a specific list of libraries chosen by the local library (e.g., a consortium's
members), and/or a general custom list.
The new strategy
would also help OCLC expand its presence with other Web services. Houk
noted that OCLC was constantly being approached by firms looking to tap
into its data store. Often such firms have something to offer that OCLC's
customers could use, such as Preview Port with its collection of author
information. Houk foresees a button at Amazon.com's site that might read
"Go to the Library." Houk also foresaw a day when librarians could get
revenue back to their libraries from these services (e.g., in referral
fees paid by online booksellers).
Clearly there are
lots of problems to be worked out. For one thing, fulfillment plans must
depend on access to circulation or shelflist inventory data. At present,
OCLC doesn't support circulation service, leaving that to a network of
OPAC (online public access catalog) vendors. When I asked Houk and Hermes
about this missing key element, they recognized the problem as one of the
issues that they would have to face. At present, they hope that a new ISO
protocol to standardize data from circulation control/shelflist services
will allow their computers to query other computers easily and quickly.
Payments could also come from other third parties, such as advertisers
or sponsors, as well as from patrons.
to Houk, "We intend to make libraries a major presence on the Web using
the Extended World Catalog. We want to make library holdings a daily part
of the Web experience for users."
but what about that 3-year timeline? As I pointed out to Hermes and Houk,
3 years is an eternity in the Web world. Hermes admitted that at this stage
the company is still validating and setting the framework for the vision.
OCLC has a multiplicity of governance units and a process of acquiring
consensus from talks with libraries. On the other hand, both executives
indicated that the commitment from the organization has gone way past the
"nice-idea" stage. They hope to have some of the initial work available
for view before the end of this year.
The problem, as
Hermes put it, is that "we are a dot-org institution trying to work at
will set up four library consortia for testing the new Extended World Catalog
and Portal Management Service.
I asked Steve Coffman,
now employed by LSSI, the country's largest library outsourcing agency,
whether the ideas in Extended World Catalog looked like what he had in
mind when he wrote the Earth's Largest Library articles. He responded,
"[It] looks a lot like it ... I wonder where they got the idea?" He indicated
that the beta test would probably involve a select number of key library
consortia and would result in the release of something impressive by early
next year. Overall, Coffman noted that the new program was "moving remarkably
fast for OCLC."
As for the problem
ahead, Coffman also pointed to the circulation records as the "missing
piece, essential for delivery times and the placement of single orders"
with the right library. OCLC might face particular trouble, according to
Coffman, if local OPAC circulation system vendors don't want to buy into
the ISO standard data-sharing. However, he suggested that OCLC might want
to look into partnering with low-cost, Web-based circulation system providers
using the new Application Service Provider (ASP) model. In all the reactions
Coffman received to his article, good and bad, the one universal sentiment
was dissatisfaction among librarians with current OPAC vendor services.
In general, Coffman
stated, "OCLC likes to see itself as 'one of us' [librarians], but many
librarians don't see them that way. Some remember being left high and dry
when OCLC pulled out of earlier projects. Some think of OCLC as just another
vendor, only slower than most. But OCLC should prevail because it would
be almost impossible to replace that incredible asset of the World Catalog."
OCLC's basic WorldCat
database contains over 43 million records and grows at the rate of over
1 million records every 5 months. The initial Extended World Catalog will
also offer over 10 million articles from 13,900 journals available from
the ArticleFirst and ECO (Electronic Collections Online) full-text files
— a database that grows at over 750,000 records and 1,000 titles each year.
The enhanced file will also cover Internet/Web resources.
Jay Jordan, CEO
of OCLC (interviewed by Tom Hogan in the December
2000 issue of Information Today), certainly believes in the
concept, particularly as it serves to expand relationships with and for
OCLC today serves
36,000 libraries in 76 countries, and you can say that's a very impressive
number. I quite agree. But, I am trying to look forward. Why isn't that
a 136,000? Why not 1,036,000? And I don't limit our vision to just libraries.
We should be linking every knowledge object that resides in every knowledge
repository — obviously archives and museums, but also historical societies
and local collections and library collections, most importantly....
Choice to the knowledge
seeker, that's what we should be about. In our case via the library portal....
We'd love to have an intelligent conversation with Amazon. We'd love to
have an intelligent conversation with Barnes & Noble, and Borders,
and so on. We need to look for partners that are interested in cooperating.
Why would they? Access to 36,000 institutions around the world and that's
just the institution count. Do you want to tell me how many patrons are
actually using those institutions to research? The point is there is a
tremendous reach and there are a lot of other players out there. We think
there will be enough interest.... It's about intelligent partnering by
OCLC and providing greater choice or richer experience ultimately to the
All in all, it
looks like the big push toward a true Virtual Library service across the
Web has begun. Win, lose, or draw, this is the big one.