Hey, OCLC! Got a Minute?
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
I know you’re busy, what with all the brewing brouhaha stemming from the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. Although to most of us, the term “bibliographic control” covers a lot more than book cataloging, the greatest reaction to the Working Group’s report seems to focus on recommendations hinting that the Library of Congress might have better things to do with its resources than serve as the primary cataloger for the libraries of the world. Now if LC does start to retreat from its past and current role as Catalog Central, that could leave you busier than ever. (Those interested in the future of online book cataloging may want to look into this new initiative. You might start by reading an Infotoday.com NewsBreak I wrote, posted on Dec. 10, 2007, “The Library of Congress and the Future of Bibliographic Control: Working Group Report,” http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=40394. For a detailed, seven-page, section-by-section reaction from Karen Calhoun, OCLC vice president of WorldCat and metadata services, go to http://staff.oclc.org/~levan/LC%20WG%20Report%20Comments%20OCLC%2020071214.pdf.) Of course, in this age of radical change and its accompanying controversy, not everyone is happy with either the possible LC retreat or an increased reliance on OCLC. The Open Knowledge Foundation [http://www.okfn.org] has lots to say about alternative strategies in this area. So, expect to become even more embroiled in bureaucratic and professional political battles.
And then there’s all the other activities you have on your plate, like working for sustainable digital preservation and access and expanding the role of WorldCat further into nonbook formats and new content, including user-generated input — not to mention pushing WorldCat out into new linked roles on new web sites. By the way, in that regard, I would like to repeat a suggestion made some time ago on how keen it would be if you could match WorldCat holdings with all the books in Google Book Search. Actually, it would be even keener if you could make a do-or-die effort to link all public domain books from whatever source. But if that’s too much to ask, how about just three — Google Book Search, Open Content Alliance, and Project Gutenberg? Overnight, the smallest branch library tapped into WorldCat would have a research-library-sized collection of books. Every individual netizen would gain a mammoth digital home library without having to add a single bookshelf. And the books would even come fully indexed down to the level of every word on every page. That’s probably a better deal than anything likely to come out of the Working Group report any time soon.
And while I’m in a greedy mood and you are busy issuing press releases proclaiming your leadership in the area of digital preservation, let me make another suggestion, one that not only might silence some of those inane complaints about the quality of Google’s digitization but at the same time glorify libraries. How about setting aside some of your preservation budget to help libraries working with Google Book Search to find the “bad pages,” the ones incorporating human fingers, and redoing them? Even if Google decided not to incorporate the corrections (and conversations with librarians working with Google incline me to believe Google might want the fixes), the libraries involved in the project could still put them up on their own sites. They might even merge them on a Google Book Search Fixit site. I love the image. When something’s wrong, librarians don’t bitch about it, they fix it! All you’d need to get started would be an OCR program that finds thumbs.
But now let’s get down to the real reason for this editorial, my unhidden agenda. In this tight market for libraries and librarians, in this critical time for the future of our institutions and our profession, libraries and librarians need OCLC to open up a new line of service — revenue-building. I can see it now — the job announcement for the first OCLC vice president of Library Revenue-Building. Two areas for the new department to explore spring to mind — sophisticated book and collectible sales and website advertising.
This issue of Searcher carries an article by Cecilia Hogan on how librarians should rethink their book sales programs, turning them from a bulk price ($1 a book) dump for weeded stock sold locally into a knowledgeable assessment of potential high-value items preceding a targeted sale or auction on the World Wide Web. And it’s not just books. The idea for the article first came from my watching episodes of PBS’ Antique Roadshow. In one, some guy brought in a funny-looking little jug that he had picked up at a library clearance sale for $5 or $10. Wait for it! The jug was worth several thousand dollars. In another episode, some guy hauled in a Navajo rug that a library had sold him for $25 to $35. Here we go again! It was worth $50,000–$60,000. Hey! Not only did the libraries lose out on all that money which they probably needed badly, but — as information professionals — we look so dumb, so downright incompetent when we don’t apply our skills to find out what things are worth before practically giving them away.
So you can help us by setting up evaluation links, providing webinars to educate staff in what to look for, working out deals with online auction houses, setting up consulting services with professional appraisers, etc., etc.?
The same goes for web advertising. For most library websites, ads provided by Google or Yahoo! or Microsoft or whichever would amount to found money. (And to those puritans who disdain tainting their pristine sites with something so vulgar as ads, I must ask, “How much time a week do your paraprofessionals spend blacking out the ads in all the magazines to which you subscribe?”) This is no time to dither or dally. Libraries need whatever money they can gather legally.
So you can help us here by creating guides to library web advertising that cover the details of dealing with alternative suppliers, including how to block any ads that might prove offensive, by holding seminars at national meetings, by working out sweetened deals with major web advertisers, by designing model templates for different kinds of web ads, by helping librarians promote their own web advertising programs in local communities for local merchants, etc., etc.
It’s a “What have you done for me lately?” world. So, OCLC, what will you do for libraries and librarians next? Something new? Something revolutionary? Something that will help us all do good and do well? We’re tingling in anticipation!