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As OCLC Nears 50, It Focuses on the Future
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Posted On November 22, 2016
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By 1990, OCLC had begun to shed its standalone local library systems business to focus on cataloging, resource sharing, and the creation of a new reference service: FirstSearch, released in 1991. At a 1999 board of trustees meeting, OCLC’s vision was stated as, “[B]e the leading global library cooperative, helping libraries serve people by providing economical access to knowledge through innovation and collaboration.” WorldCat, which launched in 1967, was re-envisioned as a global networked information resource of all types of materials woven throughout the web, while still helping information professionals and their libraries better manage both their collections and services.

WorldCat LogoToday, OCLC describes WorldCat as including not only books and print journals, but also “DVDs, historic photos, video games, musical scores, newspapers, webpages and many other standard items. It also includes unique items, such as 2,700-year-old jewelry, 18th-century soup bowls, and Soviet civilian medals.” WorldCat has nearly 400 million bibliographic records and more than 2 billion holdings records in nearly 500 languages. A new record is created every second, and the database is used to initiate interlibrary loans every 2 seconds. The international acceptance of WorldCat is reflected in the fact that 62% of the database is in languages other than English.

“Collaboration is central to helping libraries achieve their goals and meet critical challenges,” says Mary M. Case, university librarian and dean of libraries at the University of Illinois–Chicago. “Fred Kilgour recognized this 50 years ago with the founding of the Ohio College Library Center, OCLC. While I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Kilgour, I suspect he would be both amazed and pleased with the broad reach of OCLC programs today. A global enterprise, OCLC has grown from providing bibliographic and holdings records to enabling shared cataloging and interlibrary lending, to a provider of digital content platforms, knowledgebases, and a cloud-based library management system. The over 380 million bibliographic records now available via WorldCat and the 500 libraries using WorldShare Management Services would likely have been inconceivable to Kilgour.”

Seeking Pathways for Libraries for the 21st Century

To celebrate OCLC’s 30th birthday in 1997, then president and CEO K. Wayne Smith edited a volume on the organization, OCLC 1967-1997: Thirty Years of Furthering Access to the World’s Information, which states:

OCLC will continue to be a nonprofit, membership, library organization. It will continue to focus on pursuing its public purposes of furthering access to the world’s information and reducing information costs. It will continue to be characterized by maintaining financial independence and active membership participation in governance. … While understanding and taking full advantage of the value of technological change OCLC will also continue to emphasize the enduring, old-fashioned, non-technical values-cooperation, collaboration, resource sharing, democratizing access to information. Finally, OCLC will continue to emphasize quality, service, and doing a few things exceptionally well (p. 263).

Case says, “Over time, OCLC has also developed a strong research group conducting studies to help libraries understand better our users’ needs and their perceptions of the services we offer. They help us think about and shape the future, exploring issues such as preservation, data management, and the role of the library in the complex networked information environment. As a community organization, OCLC has also stepped up to become the home for other library community projects, such as RLG, EZproxy, and ILLiad, supporting products and systems on which library users have come to depend. Library members of OCLC appreciate continued and expanding efforts to engage members in product and policy development.”

OCLC’s clear contributions in recent years include its Research division and the company’s reports, which have provided individual assessments and global forecasts that have initiated dialogues about the issues and problems of the day. Lorcan Dempsey, Constance Malpas, and Cathy De Rosa, among others, have never feared stating provocative ideas or challenging the norm. As De Rosa noted in a 2014 report on the educational value of libraries, “[A]s is often the case in times of change, many of the primary purveyors of the traditional services that are being reshaped, or more likely unseated, don’t see the shift coming. Perhaps we are too close for proper viewing or too comforted by local customers and high customer service ratings; we don’t feel the tip or sense shifts in the landscape. We misread the cues.” It would be difficult to misread her meaning or deny the urgency of her forecast.

What Would Kilgour Think?

“We don’t have to guess what Fred Kilgour thought about how OCLC has progressed,” Prichard says. “Fred visited OCLC in 2002 to offer encouragement to hundreds of staff members in attendance. He told staff that he was proud of their work to move OCLC forward. He said he was optimistic about OCLC’s future, and he expressed great faith that we were heading in the right direction. Since that visit, we have moved our services to the cloud, we’ve continued to grow WorldCat, expand our services internationally, and we’ve completed the largest technology upgrade in OCLC history to position for the future. These are advances that I’m quite sure would have exceeded his expectations.”

Case provides a fitting summary: “As OCLC looks to its next 50 years, we trust that it will balance its need for sustainability (a significant objective) with the values of the community to which it belongs. Libraries are even more driven to operate cost-effectively, but it is unlikely that there will be only one solution. We trust that OCLC and all of the organizations we have created will collaborate as fully as possible to create a cost-effective global information network. Congratulations to OCLC for 50 significant years!”

OCLC Membership


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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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