OCLC announced its web-scale library management services in a press release on April 23, 2009 (www.oclc.org/us/en/news/releases/200927.htm), together with the release of a new WorldCat Local "quick start" service (www.oclc.org/us/en/worldcatlocal/quickstart/default.htm). Under the direction of Andrew Pace, OCLC executive director for networked library services, OCLC has been designing an entirely new web-based services architecture for library management functions (www.oclc.org/productworks/webscale.htm). Pace says that OCLC has done estimates of transaction load for a worldwide library management system and is confident that it has the ability to meet the need with its technology. The planned services will cover the full functionalities of the current offerings of integrated library systems (ILS) and are expected to cause considerable disruption in this market.
Without legacy systems to maintain, OCLC is able to design from the ground up, for example, creating a single acquisitions system that manages both traditional purchases as well as license control. The blend of services on a single large-scale system will permit OCLC to provide new functionality, such as recommender services based on circulation statistics and user activity. The foundation for the product is a workflow platform that will allow customization and integration of the web-based product into existing library management activities and systems.
WorldCat Local "quick start" makes use of the self-configuration tools that will be extended to other web-scale services as they are developed. Allowing libraries to configure their own WorldCat Local catalogs accomplishes a number of things for OCLC: It relieves pressure from the staff members that are working on WorldCat Local, and it provides user experience with the self-configuration tools.
Not all libraries will be able to make use of the quick-start offering; it is limited to FirstSearch subscribers and to libraries using an ILS for which OCLC has already developed the necessary interoperability (see the FAQ at www.oclc.org/us/en/worldcatlocal/quickstart/faqs/default.htm). It also cannot be used to implement some of the more complex aspects of WorldCat Local, such as interaction with more than one ILS. OCLC will provide its "reclamation" service, loading records that are not in OCLC in order to create a link on OCLC number, at no charge to libraries using quick start.
Pace expects to test circulation functionality this summer, followed by acquisitions and workflow management. The Orbis Cascade Alliance (www.orbiscascade.org), a group of academic libraries in Oregon and Washington state, is collaborating with OCLC on the development and testing of the circulation functionality, following on their participation in the creation of a cross-platform resource-sharing system called WorldCat Navigator.
From a technology standpoint, the move from local systems for library management functions to a web-based environment is not only logical but perhaps overdue. However, while moving the same management functions from a local system to a remote machine may result in some reduction in total cost of ownership, the real "bang for the buck" is in taking the opportunity to redesign library functions for greater efficiency.
Efforts such as the eXtensible Catalog and the Open Library Environment (OLE) project (http://oleproject.org) are proof that some members of the library community are seeking a new design for library systems. John F. Helmer, executive director of the Orbis Cascade Alliance, says that in addition to its work with OCLC, Orbis is involved in numerous projects and collaborations in its exploration of the future of the library management environment, including the OLE.
Tim Spalding of LibraryThing (http://librarything.com) sees OCLC as a competitor yet welcomes the push that this OCLC project could provide, saying: "I hope that OCLC's bold move changes some minds, and opens things up to cloud-based innovation." Given its dominance in the library environment, OCLC's entrance into this new technology is likely to have an effect on the entire library systems market. Carl Grant, president of Ex Libris North America (www.exlibrisgroup.com), sees OCLC's announced plan as "verification that many of the basic concepts that Ex Libris and OLE have employed are steps in the right direction."
For this sea change to take place, however, libraries and their staffs must be willing to change some long-standing habits and practices. A report from the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control (www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future/news/lcwg-ontherecord-jan08-final.pdf) 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. Pace feels that the analysis of workflow that the OCLC web-scale management services will require will cause libraries to look critically at how they do their work and encourage them to leave legacy workflows behind.
As currently positioned, OCLC provides the primary services that benefit from network effects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_effect): shared cataloging, union catalog, and interlibrary loan. Other library management functions, such as local user interface, acquisitions, circulation, and inventory control, are handled on an in-library system. The lines between functions are blurring, however, and many are questioning the siloed approach and legacy practices that keep libraries from taking advantage of newer technology and greater data sharing.
While many in the library field have stated that the move toward web-scale computing is a positive one (www.librarywebchic.net/wordpress/2009/04/27/on-recent-oclc-announcements; http://blogs.talis.com/panlibus/archives/2009/04/oclc-take-aim-at-the-library-automation-market-from-the-cloud.php), few are in a position to approach this on the scale that OCLC can. The creation of OCLC's web-scale services takes advantage of OCLC's position as the largest bibliographic database in the world and its monopoly, at least in North America, in cataloging services. As many have already noted since the announcement, the new service offerings are in direct competition with current for-profit library vendor ILSs and next-generation systems in development. This direct competition brings up the question of OCLC's nonprofit status, as well as the statements in its November 2008 policy on record use that have been interpreted as an attempt to prevent the creation of competing systems (www.ala.org/ala/alonline/currentnews/newsarchive/2008/december2008/worldcatobjections.cfm). A healthy, competitive vendor environment is good for libraries, as is the inclusion in the library community of those libraries that are either unable or unwilling to become members of OCLC.
[For additional reactions to the news, see "Tough Questions Emerge on OCLC's Competitive Advantage and Data Policies,"