In a major change of direction, OCLC (www.oclc.org), a leading vendor of services to and by libraries, has decided to shut down its hosting and reselling of commercially produced vendor databases, including ebooks. Instead, it will apply its energies and resources to ramping up its discovery service through its WorldCat Local and WorldCat.org operations and building its web-scale library management services, using a cloud computing approach to compete with integrated library service (ILS) providers. Taking advantage of the change, EBSCO Publishing (www.ebscohost.com) will take over many of the databases currently supplied through OCLC's FirstSearch service, begun in 1991. It has also acquired the NetLibrary division (www.netlibrary.com) of OCLC and its collection of some 200,000 ebooks. H.W. Wilson Co. (www.hwwilson.com) has already responded to the changed policy by working to move OCLC subscribers to WilsonWeb.
Jay Jordan, president and CEO of OCLC, explained the strategy change. "We are focusing our resources and investments on WorldCat services and on building a range of new Web-scale services for libraries. We are transitioning out of the role as reseller of vendor content. We will leverage cloud computing technologies to build cooperative services with our members and partners. There are many exciting new opportunities ahead." He also promised one cost-related benefit from the move to subscribers. "Proceeds from the sale of the NetLibrary Division will be re-invested in the cooperative, both in financing current operations to keep our shared costs down for members and in resourcing important new product development. I am pleased to say that OCLC will therefore be able to hold service prices flat on all OCLC services in the United States for a second consecutive year, through June 30, 2011."
Chip Nilges, OCLC vice president, business development, stated, "We will represent the content in WorldCat, WorldCat.org, and WorldCat Local as the platform for our entire collection, including shelf content, local digitized databases, and licensed databases. We will continue to have relationships with database producers like Gale, Wilson, and EBSCO. Second, we will continue to publish databases for libraries and other memory institutions, such as OAIster, ArchiveGrid, CAMIO, other former RLG databases, and WorldCat. We very much want to help libraries make these collections visible."
The new push should move WorldCat Local into position as a major competitor among the new discovery services, including Summon from ProQuest's Serials Solutions, Primo from ExLibris, and EBSCO Discovery Services. WorldCat Local today reaches more than 100 databases, 420 million article records, and numerous digital library collections, including Google Book Search and HathiTrust, along with 170 million items cataloged in WorldCat. Its index combines print, electronic, and digital collections of the OCLC membership. As Nilges explained, "WorldCat Local indexes metadata from database producers and libraries. We want to occupy a neutral position for the content suppliers our members use and develop an ecosystem position that will let us work with any and all content suppliers that libraries care about. We're already actively synchronizing with public domain ebooks, including the Google Books collection and HathiTrust. WorldCat Local is the enterprise version of discovery."
Nilges saw the move as fitting into the history of innovation at OCLC. "Think back to the beginning of FirstSearch. It was innovative in service to end-users, but then other concerns got into the business and all the content was well served through other providers. The need for start-up investment and work was no longer there. So we're moving on to a place where they are needed. It's the same with NetLibrary. It was a kind of rescue acquisition. For 10 years we provided assured access and now we will have a dark archive to continue that assurance, but we can't leverage the content in the way EBSCO and others might. The content would be better served by other suppliers."
The Last of FirstSearch?
So what will happen to the old FirstSearch platform? Oddly enough, the table in the detailed FAQ posted by EBSCO identifying the files moving from FirstSearch to EBSCO indicated only two titles not already held by EBSCO-Alternative Press Index and Alternative Press Index Archive. When we asked Nilges whether EBSCO was merely paying for FirstSearch to go away, he responded, "Market share consolidation in this arena has been pretty rapid over the last couple of years." However, it may take some time for FirstSearch to vanish as a platform completely. Nilges pointed to the complexities involved. He estimated some 30,000-35,000 libraries subscribed to FirstSearch, though the actual number of accounts was much lower due to consortial buying patterns. He estimated FirstSearch might be gone within 2 years. "Four products depend on it now, including the interface to interlibrary loan, WorldCat collection analysis, and other OCLC content. When FirstSearch goes away, all our discovery services will be on WorldCat.org and WorldCat Local."
While all of the documentation for the move specifies detailed protections and facilitations for library subscribers in making the transition, 14 of the FirstSearch databases from vendors will not join EBSCOhost, according to a table in the aforementioned FAQ. These files are ABI/Inform, Arts & Humanities Search, Books in Print and Books in Print with Reviews, Business & Industry, Business & Management Practices, CA (Chemical Abstracts) Student Edition, Contemporary Women's Issues, GEOBASE, PAIS Archive and PAIS International, Periodical Abstracts, SIRS Researcher, and Sociological Abstracts. All but five of the 14 come from Cengage/Gale or ProQuest, arch-rivals of EBSCO. Librarians may have to do some scrambling to keep these files flowing their way, although EBSCO's FAQ may not agree. ("EBSCO offers many databases that fulfill these content needs and cover these subject areas. In many cases EBSCO offers an alternative, often including full-text information.")
The Commercial Vendors React
One of the first commercial vendors to go online with FirstSearch, H.W. Wilson Co. also announced a transition plan, but it intends to move as many subscribers as possible to its own WilsonWeb service. Wilson plans to launch special promotions and facilitate the transition over the next 16 months. OCLC will continue to support subscriptions and even some recent renewals; for those subscribers, Wilson will offer free parallel subscriptions to WilsonWeb. Harold Regan, president and CEO of H.W. Wilson, pointed out that, although Wilson's databases are already available on EBSCOhost too, "Wilson has developed a robust WilsonWeb service, specifically tailored to the Wilson databases offering the most effective ways to search and deliver Wilson data. WilsonWeb provides full text translations, text to speech feature, a host of customizable interface options, daily data updates, and other benefits." A Wilson representative indicated that EBSCOhost was slower to update, more monthly than daily, and it doesn't have the same full text that Wilson licensed to FirstSearch.
The company plans to participate fully in the indexing and linking involved in the WorldCat.org and WorldCat Local discovery service. Regan stated, "We have a 20-year relationship with OCLC, a ‘partnership.' They approached us just after they developed their discovery tool asking us to participate. As they get out of one type of function or business, we want to be sure of connecting with their future. All the content licensed in the FirstSearch databases will be included in WorldCat."
Gale, a part of Cengage Learning (www.gale.cengage.com), recently announced its plans to expand its participation in WorldCat Local by adding indexing and linking to its full-text periodical databases-Academic OneFile and General OneFile. John Barnes, Gale executive vice president, strategic marketing and business development, described the process for them. "Using an API, they index our metadata and do their own indexing. The full text is still stored in our product." When asked about the lag times, Barnes said, "They can use the API as often as they want. We update our files 7 times a day. I don't know their frequency, but they could use it at nearly real time." Barnes was clear about Gale's motives. "We're trying to make sure users get to our materials whatever starting point they use. Serials Solutions' Summon is our biggest product connection now. It's our lead partner, the only one carrying all our products."
EBSCO Marches Into Ebooks
The NetLibrary acquisition will ultimately allow EBSCO customers to search their NetLibrary ebooks on EBSCOhost. EBSCO will begin work immediately to integrate NetLibrary ebooks into the EBSCOhost platform while also maintaining and making improvements to the NetLibrary platform. The purchase included e-audiobooks and the NetLibrary staff and operations located in Boulder, Colo. EBSCO plans to continue the subscriptions using the NetLibrary platform. Tim Collins, president of EBSCO Publishing, stated, "We plan to invest in the current platform with scheduled enhancements. We're working with the Boulder team to integrate it so users can search NetLibrary along with EBSCOhost databases and EBSCO Discovery Services. We plan to grow the business."
To protect library investments in NetLibrary ebooks, OCLC will place all NetLibrary ebooks purchased by libraries in a dark archive-the OCLC ebook archive-at least through March 2013.
EBSCO will provide OCLC MARC records for applicable ebooks to libraries free of charge and will ensure continued visibility of these important collections in WorldCat.org. EBSCO plans to maintain the popular ebook content purchase model and will explore ebook subscription options. Thousands of libraries also subscribe to Recorded Books eAudiobooks on the NetLibrary platform. This service will continue as EBSCO and Recorded Books will partner to provide access and new eAudiobook content on the NetLibrary platform.
Moving into ebooks marks an expansion of EBSCO's scope. "Our customers have been encouraging us to enter the eBook business as their users want to search eBooks on the same platform they are using to search leading full-text databases," said Collins. As to EBSCO's future plans for ebooks in general, Collins said, "We are already talking to publishers about new formats like epub and Onix for metadata. If publishers want material processed in those formats and it can benefit customers, I do see us going that way. At this point we're agreeing to explore it. As to e-readers, it's probably too early to be looking at different devices. One of the first things we're going to do is work with focus groups of librarians and ask what they want to see us do in general for interface features. We're trying to approach this methodically and avoid the temptation to make decisions quickly. It's early days yet, but we're committed to serving libraries."
EBSCO already has an active program for working with publishers to produce ebooks, e.g., SpringerLink through MetaPress. However, Collins pointed out that these services to publishers were from the EBSCO Information Services, a sister division, and "did not affect us at all."
EBSCO continues to expand its content and its market reach. However, OCLC's dominance in so much of the library market still apparently makes it wiser to cooperate than to compete-or, more accurately, to "coopetate." OCLC continues to feed some of its WorldCat content into EBSCO Discovery Services, and EBSCOhost continues to feed some of its content into WorldCat Local.
Collins explained, "We live in interesting times. OCLC is a key partner, but they also definitely compete in some areas. Coopetition is accurate. We supply them with the metadata for a selection of databases for WorldCat Local, but not everything. We haven't loaded all that OCLC has provided us. We take content from local library OPACs and let the libraries decide."
When you deal with librarians about matters that affect their budgets, you better get your ducks in a row. OCLC and EBSCO have FAQs that quack. The FAQs for customer and member support, ordering, billing, and content details appears at www.oclc.org/firstsearch/content/questions and http://support.epnet.com/knowledge_base/detail.php?id=4789.
Wilson also has FAQs in place. The first, at www.oclc.org/firstsearch/content/questions, basically restates the EBSCO/OCLC FAQ with some additional comments specific to Wilson files. The other, OCLC FirstSearch to WilsonWeb Transition FAQ (www.hwwilson.com/oclc), covers customer support, billing, content, and platform information for Wilson specifically.
For more information on OCLC's future plans, you can check out a new blog the company has set up, The OCLC Cooperative Blog: A world of information online with an initial set of observations from the visionary Chip Nilges: http://community.oclc.org/cooperative/2010/03/a-world-of-information-online.html.