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OCLC Innovation Lab Offers to Build Websites for Small Libraries
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Posted On February 27, 2012
After just more than a year of development and testing, OCLC’s Innovation Lab (http://experimental.worldcat.org), an OCLC Research division, has moved the Website for Small Libraries (WSSL) project from the experimental to the beta test stage. If the service succeeds, the next and final step would be an upgrade to the production stage. Defining small libraries as those with collections of 20,000 or less and only single-digit numbers of employees, the OCLC project is open to nonmembers as well as members. The project began as a response to serious concerns posed by OCLC’s Global Council as to the lack of web presence for small libraries.

The WSSL service will supply templates that provide basic collection information, authorize users, check material in and out, place holds on material, and provide library contact, location, service descriptions, and event information. You can see sample templates at http://beta.worldcat.org/lib/n/us.tn.loremville-public-library/. The service is also optimized for mobile devices accessing the web.

The Innovation Lab began work on the project in late 2010. The pilot project began in 2011 with testing by four small libraries and the state library of South Dakota. In designing WSSL, the Lab staff assumed that computer and internet expertise were minimal, making ease of use a paramount design goal. They maintain that simple editing of the predefined templates can have a library site up and available to patrons in “just a few minutes.”

Wizards designed for the site help import collection and user information from any format. According to Michael A. Teets, OCLC vice president, innovation, they have developed the wizards to handle any kind of data. “When we started asking for data, the first ten cases weren’t what the types of files the libraries said they were. We don’t even ask now. All they have to do is just submit a file and we have a set of processes we run to discover what kind of content is in the file. We take a different approach than the cataloger’s view. We take whatever they send and put it in a discoverable form. It’s not traditional, but we make it accessible fast.” Statistical algorithms and OCLC’s giant WorldCat database of library holdings are tapped to expedite imports.

The WSSL project does not limit small libraries to only what OCLC offers. According to Teets, “The template sets up the outer frame of the site and the tab structure, but libraries can embed any HTML content inside each tab. They can add, delete, or rename tabs. There are six widgets available for adding anywhere, e.g., search box or calendar.”

But what about the domain name problem? Small libraries with no web presence do not have registered domain names. Teets explained, “The service includes a domain name—ours. The patron will see worldcat.org/lib/country.state.city.libname. Out network config can link to a proxy for a site and hide the transition.” So, a proxy domain name might come from the city government’s site, a state library’s, a library consortia’s, etc.

According to Teets, the system is not meant to substitute for a full management system. “If a library already has an ILS, this will not replicate that kind of system. It’s not meant to. Our research suggested that as many as half of the libraries with one or two employees had, essentially, no web presence. This project hopes to positively impact those libraries and their users.”

Participation in WSSL costs $500 a year with a 90-day trial period. Teets points out that this cost is not the most expensive service OCLC offers, e.g., some CatExpresss members. State library organizations, consortia, and other library groups interested in group rates can negotiate with OCLC. Teets indicated that they are talking with several state libraries already and plan to expand their promotion of the service. Clearly, there may be some challenges involved in reaching a target market defined as being slightly “off the grid” by using standard internet/web tools.

The Innovation Lab, founded in April 2010, strives to originate new services and products, test new uses for existing services, in new markets, and devise new delivery services. Though only possessing a small four-person permanent staff, the Lab taps resources across the organization, e.g., WebJunction in the case of WSSL. Library-based developers work with Lab staff on specific projects. The Lab’s ongoing strategy focuses on three areas—analytics by expanding the role of library usage data on print and electronic resources; mobile technology by testing new gadgets and seeing how they can serve libraries and their patrons; and data innovations that investigate policies and methods for improving WorldCat and other OCLC data collections and enhance networking.

One of the mottoes of the Innovation Lab, according to Teets, is “if you’re going to fail, fail fast.” If an idea doesn’t work out, they don’t want to waste time and resources on it. For example, in mid-2010, they introduced #Ask4Stuff on Twitter to let that community of users tweet search queries for bibliographic citations and library holdings from WorldCat.org. Teets pointed out that it started with some considerable fanfare and got good usage, but the usage was tied hip and thigh to the fanfare. Put out a press release or get a blog posting and usage popped, but almost immediately after, usage dropped like a stone. So, they pulled the product. On the other hand, the WorldCat Mobile app has moved all the way to integration into OCLC offerings, i.e., the production stage.

This policy of quickly deciding on “a hit or a miss” would seem to make promotion critical. For the first experimental stage of an Innovation Lab project, most of the promotion duties fall on the Lab. At the beta test stage, such as WSSL, they tap other general OCLC resources such as press releases, newsletters, etc. But, the Lab still has the main focus. Teets indicated they were already developing YouTube videos to train librarians in WSSL and plan to create user community forums where WSSL users can discuss, share, and support each other. They already have a WebJunction discussion group going. As Teets put it, “The discussion tab is empty now, but eventually we will have a forum embedded in the service. We will have an OCLC avatar participating too. In fact, if we succeed in this environment, we might want to build community participation in every OCLC product. This environment may work as a demonstration site. A wide range of things may be discoverable in this environment.”

The promotional challenge can become particularly daunting when dealing with a hard to reach community such as small libraries. Teets added, “Fortunately, we have more time to reach them during this beta phase. We will be communicating about this project through state libraries, consortia, and other organizations and communities that serve small libraries. We are committed to making this service available in this form at least through the end of this calendar year, and we hope the project will gain momentum once its value is recognized. Beyond this beta phase, we are determined to provide support for small libraries. If this type of a service is not sufficient, we will move toward one that is.”

So, if readers have any friends or colleagues in the small library world, they might want to alert them to the new service. Libraries interested in signing up can do so at http://beta.worldcat.org/lib/.

One feature that might encourage small libraries to choose participation did not receive emphasis in the current promotional material. The templates include a check box to the free, public domain ebooks in Project Gutenberg. Librarians with a fewer than 20,000 item collection could tap into an invisible collection of more than 32,000 items. And, these items are often the ones that librarians feel they should own, but realistically know won’t leave the shelves. You know your patrons want best sellers, but you don’t want to have a library with 47 copies of each Harry Potter book but no Shakespeare and no Dickens. But, Gutenberg has all those classics and WSSL can link them up lickety-split.

If the WSSL project ever gets to the production stage, the ebook collection could jump to the seven figures, since OCLC has been cataloging public domain items in Google Books and HathiTrust. Small libraries could become very big libraries overnight, while still qualifying for the WSSL program. Something to think about.


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

Email Barbara Quint

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