On Oct. 1, 2015, OCLC ceased publication of catalog cards for libraries in the U.S. and across the globe. Although this milestone went relatively unheralded, it represented the end of an era in library systems management and user access. Libraries took a major step forward when OCLC introduced the first online shared cataloging system in 1971, and this is just one contribution that will be celebrated when the organization marks 50 years of service to the library profession in 2017.
A Long and Distinguished History
“OCLC not only has the honor of being the first of its kind,” says longtime library leader Sheila Intner, but also “it is capturing the universe of knowledge and making it available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, who needs some part of it. It is realizing the dream of a universal union catalog and using technology to be more than that.”
Intner continues, “One evening during the early 1980s, when I was teaching at Columbia’s now-defunct School of Library Service, my husband, Mathew, and I hosted a dinner at the Princeton Club of New York at which Fred Kilgour was the guest of honor. It was clear from his conversation he believed completely that OCLC was America’s premier library network, this despite the presence then of RLIN [Research Libraries Information Network] and other networks claiming to have superior features. I think he would not have been surprised to find that in the 21st century, OCLC has become the premier network of the whole world. At that dinner, he spoke in visionary terms, yet he recognized practical limits. What he revealed as he spoke was that he knew solutions to then-current problems like dealing with multiple scripts and managing quality control were out there waiting to be found, and, that he and his network colleagues wouldn’t rest until they succeeded in finding them. That intense focus guided OCLC well at that time and I believe it still does.”
When Intner visited OCLC’s Dublin, Ohio, headquarters in the 1990s, she “was blown away by the size and scope of the technology it possessed, and the splendid campus on which it was situated. Here was an institution equal to the mammoth task it faced—building a computer-based bibliographic network to support libraries for the future.”
Intner says OCLC’s “dedication to research and development was clear, evident in its investment in studies that had the potential to result in expansion and improvement of the database and its products, and sponsorship of teaching workshops and other educational programs. I enjoyed participating in several of these, usually learning as much as I taught when I was part of the faculty. One year, a series of beginners’ workshops called Quick & Easy Cataloging in PACNET Territory led by Liz Bishoff took me away from the campus and put me in close touch with the ‘real world’ of cataloging—something full-time educators occasionally overlook. The experience prompted me to continue making efforts to retain that closeness so I could never forget [that] the purpose of cataloging is user service.”
‘A Delicate Balance’
Skip Prichard became the fifth president and CEO of OCLC in 2013 and found it to be a very different organization from what he had anticipated. “It wasn’t until I joined OCLC that I began to understand and appreciate how different an organization it is. OCLC is unique. Our governance structure, which includes 10 librarians currently serving on our Board of Trustees, member-library led global and regional councils, and our public purpose ensure that we operate in the best interest of libraries and their users. It is OCLC’s spirit of cooperation and collaboration that guides the organization and makes it different. As a nonprofit membership organization, the role of OCLC is to fulfill its public purpose for libraries while still maintaining a vibrant commercial enterprise. It’s a delicate balance to further the interests of the community and the need to maintain a sustainable organization.”
He continues, “We have to maintain a cooperative that is sustainable and forward-thinking. As a thought leader, OCLC’s research division is dedicated solely to the advancement of libraries. Through its research initiatives, OCLC works with partners around the world to help connect libraries to the future by generating knowledge, evidence, and models. We identify trends so that we can plan for the future. And we share our research findings freely with the worldwide library community to inspire breakthroughs in others. We are always improving our ability to serve the evolving needs of libraries. This year, OCLC completed the largest technology upgrade in our history. The year-long project involved hundreds of staff around the world to upgrade hardware, move vast amounts of data, and standardize processes to increase service responsiveness for libraries and their users for many years to come.”
Serving the Present While Looking to the Future
OCLC was committed to futuristic thinking from the start. The Ohio College Library Center was founded by Frederick Kilgour and a group of Ohio colleges and universities in 1967 and grew to encompass libraries across the U.S. OCLC now stands for Online Computer Library Center. The original goals of the collaborative organization were to make library resources more easily available to the public and to reduce costs for member libraries.
Consolidating library operations in the areas of cataloging and acquisitions was a clear priority from the start. OCLC incorporated the online union catalog and shared cataloging system in 1971, the Office of Research in 1975, and interlibrary loan programs in 1979. The first Canadian library joined the network in 1979, followed soon after by libraries in Europe.