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OCLC Gets Sociable: New Social Networking Initiatives
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Posted On June 25, 2007
Avoiding the term Library 2.0, OCLC (www.oclc.org) has nonetheless begun adding social networking features to its WorldCat.org site and redesigning WebJunction, its existing outreach and training service to librarians, for greater interactivity. The company announced the introduction of list-building features into WorldCat that allow users to build their own lists and to choose whether to share them with the public. Overall, changes are still in the early stages with strategic policymaking still underway. Currently, OCLC executives are looking at initial results from an international survey studying the various attitudes of the public and librarians toward social networking policies and practices. The full report is scheduled for publication sometime in 3Q.

The open Web access to OCLC's files—www.worldcat.org—now has features that allow individual users to build and share lists of books, videos, articles, or any other material documented by the giant union catalog. To make a list, a user can click on a WorldCat record to add it to a list or check off items in check boxes that appear in a set of WorldCat results and use the "Save To" button. Individuals can build as many lists as they want and then choose whether to make each list public or keep it private. Public lists are open for other WorldCat users to search and browse, similar to the advisory lists generated on Amazon.com. Private lists can only be viewed by the author. To change a list's status, use the "Settings" link. Once a user has created a public list, he or she can send a "Share" link to provide an email invitation to view the list.

Even for public lists, only the author of a list can add or subtract items. List authors can also re-sort a list by title, author, publication date, or date added to the list; annotate items; and export lists in comma-delimited (CSV) format. OCLC will shortly add a feature that allows users to export lists into standard bibliographic software, e.g., EndNote or RefWorks, software packages that can revise citations to suit different format standards. Currently, the Export links appear near the Cite this Item link.

To create a list, however, a user must register with WorldCat.org. There is no charge, but you must supply an email address. WorldCat also has an online profile feature for registered users, which recently expanded its features to allow users to provide details on their interests and occupation, links to their lists, and links to a personal Web page, RSS feed, or instant messaging address they may have on other services. None of this profiling is mandatory, and users can still keep all or selective information private.

I asked George Needham, vice president of member services, whether the traditional version of WorldCat to which OCLC's libraries subscribe also offered the new list-making features. It does not. Needham chuckled somewhat ruefully, admitting the irony of the pay version of a database having fewer enhancements than a free version. However, he said that OCLC is treating the WorldCat.org site as a place to beta test new features. "We are test driving it in the dot-org version before we add it to our subscriber service, like we are doing with the citations. It gives us a chance to iron out the kinks."

The WorldCat.org service already had features where users could assign a rating or write a review of material (Reviews tab), as well as where users could add factual notes or a book's table of contents (Details tab). Though only the reviewer can change their review, the Details option does allow other users to add new information, Wikipedia-like. Needham admitted that use of these features was "not hugely popular. One of the reasons is that we still don't have the critical mass needed to make it as popular as it can be."

Needham saluted services like LibraryThing that have succeeded in building strong user-generated content flow among book lovers. He also pointed to the success of the quickie bibliographies on Amazon.com but added that the WorldCat.org lists could reach many more books than Amazon, e.g., books long out of print but still held in all kinds of libraries. He expected the list-making feature would attract individuals who wanted to get the credit for good lists. "Having a person associated with a list is part of the attraction to both the list reader and the list generator."

Needham hoped that people would find their way from Open WorldCat's partners to WorldCat.org. OCLC has a dozen partners offering Find in a Library links to WorldCat, including Google, Windows Live Academic, Amazon.com, etc. He indicated that OCLC is already reaching out to those partners: "We are still negotiating with lots of folks on how best to serve up our content. It's early to tell yet, but it would seem a natural for AbeBooks, for example."

Plans are underway to add several more social networking features to WorldCat.org over the next few months. Rather than putting on a "full-court blitz on announcing this feature [list making]," according to Needham, they decided to aim the news at librarians. "As we build features, we will build usage. We need librarians to be talking about this to their patrons."

One area for future development might be WorldCat library groups. Currently, most of the shared catalogs are built by librarians operating from a common geographic location, similar to a consortium union catalog. However, some of the groups focus more on subject areas, e.g., the Military Education and Research Library Network (MERLN). The goal is for libraries to make more efficient use of the content assets they own. However, Needham indicated that the group process was "pretty simple" and might be a feasible technology for merging lists.

‘WebJunction 2.0'

In 2002, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded OCLC a 3-year grant to establish a portal service for training, continuing technological education, and building online resources for the public library community. The new service, entitled WebJunction (http://webjunction.org), launched in 2003 and has continued to receive funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as OCLC itself, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, state library agencies, library service organizations, and other members of the library community. However, with the rise of Web 2.0 and its shadow, Library 2.0, WebJunction needs substantial upgrading. Once again, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped up and provided a 4-year grant of $12.6 million for the upgrade.

The grant will enable OCLC to replace and add new software. Though it has hosted more than 300,000 unique visitors, the WebJunction registered community only measures 29,000. The site enhancements planned will respond to user feedback and studies.

When asked whether he considered WebJunction a social network, Needham responded: "That's our goal, but we're not there yet. That's a big part of the new grant, to do exactly that, to change the experience and make it more interactive, a truly social experience. In a year or 15 months from now, we expect to launch new platforms. To do that requires three things. First, we have to redo the learning management and help make e-learning easier to use and control the courses. Second we have to change the content management. Since we started that 3 years ago, things have changed 180 degrees. The new grant will let us put in up-to-date software. We're still in negotiation now, but we have a couple of good contenders. Third, we need to make WebJunction self-sufficient. We won't spin it off, but now OCLC is supporting it internally and we need to break even, even if it's not a profit center. Right now, we're referring people to distance learning that can offer M.L.S. degrees, but in the future, we'll be able to provide a platform for library education."

WebJunction is clearly Needham's baby, and he has grand plans for it. "We want to be a place for people to come from all different levels—from students to paraprofessionals to longtime professionals. We're trying to build a learning area that's a one-stop for finding what's available for library workers with rich links to existing library education. So far our focus has been on public libraries, but as we move out, it will expand to all types, including school and academic libraries. We see a growing market in librarians not working in libraries."

What's Next?

At the OCLC Members Council meeting in the first week of June, Cathy De Rosa, vice president for the Americas and global vice president for OCLC marketing, provided an initial report on a multicountry study of issues tied to social networking developments. Harris Interactive has conducted surveys of patrons and librarians in Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. The report, entitled "Privacy, Trust, and Sharing in Our Networked World," will be released to members and the public sometime in the next few months. It will cover an overview of social networking and social media Web sites; evaluate behaviors, values, and expectations of participants; review related privacy and trust issues; and look at how social networking may impact the library's role in the public sphere.

Overall, Needham connects the new social networking developments with OCLC's traditional reliance on the value of networking. "There are more and more opportunities for both users and librarians to share and update and tag all kinds of things, even in other social networking sites. We're still representing libraries using the leverage of the cooperative, but we're almost hobbled by the unlimited opportunities. We're not going into this as though we know how to do everything. We're just getting things started, then watching public reaction to see what to do and go from there. This is a lot different from the way we've done in the past. This is not your grandfather's OCLC." Or your grandmother's, apparently.


Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.


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