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OCLC Pilots Traditional Libraries into Web Services
Posted On July 5, 2005
Over the next few months, a series of pilot projects will expand OCLC's Open WorldCat project into a full-featured, Web-integrated library service. In December 2004, OCLC ( opened WorldCat, its master union catalog of library holdings, to Google, Yahoo! Search, and other outlets. Initially, the material accessible to the Web search engines was books and monographs. With the new eSerials pilot project, OCLC will begin expanding content to electronic journal collections. The reference services pilot will link Web searchers to reference librarians—sometimes live ones—through an "Ask a Librarian" feature. The bookselling pilot connects Open WorldCat searchers directly with book purchasing options made by OCLC with Baker and Taylor. Member libraries will receive shares of the sales to their patrons. In August, OCLC begins charging member libraries for participating in Open WorldCat through FirstSearch subscriptions. It looks like the libraries, their patrons, and Web users everywhere should be getting their money's worth.

Phyllis B. Spies, vice president of OCLC Collection Services, explained the strategy. "As we move forward, we have to be thinking about the library in the user environment rather than the user in the library environment," she said. "No matter how rich the library collection or how good the catalog interface, they may go unseen simply because users spend most of their time elsewhere—on the Web." Chip Nilges, executive director of OCLC WorldCat Content and Global Access, sees all the pilots—and the experiments still on the drawing board—as meeting OCLC's corporate objective of "meeting the needs of members and users at the point of need."

According to Nilges, two of the projects—bookselling and virtual reference desk connections—stemmed in part from a study of comments filed by Open WorldCat users. Some 15 percent of the comments were actually reference questions, which OCLC transmitted to its virtual reference desk service, QuestionPoint, or to its corporate library. Seven percent were requests to buy books. Rather than treat such "Comments" as errors, like good librarians, OCLC interpreted them as unfulfilled needs.


The 4-month eSerials pilot project will test building use of licensed electronic journal collections. The project has 20 participating libraries ("a full complement") and four partners—TDNet, EBSCO, Serials Solutions, and Ex Libris. According to Nilges, the program involves three components: a knowledge base or union catalog of electronic titles supplied by the vendors and "kept up to date as aggregations change," monthly holding statements for incorporation into Open WorldCat, and registrations of Open URL resolvers from all of the participating libraries. The electronic journal collections and holdings information will go into the Open WorldCat program and out to Web users. The registration of resolvers enables authentication of end users for easy access. The pilot will also make these electronic collections more visible in OCLC's proprietary services, such as FirstSearch, WorldCat Resource Sharing, and WorldCat Collection Analysis.

The eSerials program bears a marked resemblance to Thomson Gale's new AccessMyLibrary initiative. Rumors circulate that Thomson Gale and OCLC executives may have talks under way.

Reference Service

In June 2002, OCLC and the Library of Congress formed a joint "ask-a" service for online reference librarians called QuestionPoint. (For details, see the NewsBreak, "QuestionPoint Marks New Era in Virtual Reference," The new reference pilot will connect Web searchers of Open WorldCat to the thousands of online reference services using QuestionPoint, as well as 150 other libraries running virtual reference desks on other platforms, but providing profiles of their virtual reference services to OCLC. Searchers who click through results listing from Open WorldCat using a "Find in a Library" link on Google, Yahoo! Search, or another Open WorldCat link will, as usual, enter a geographic identifier (e.g., postal code, state/province, country) to identify nearby libraries holding the items of interest. But now the list of libraries will display a question-mark icon next to libraries that offer online reference services. Clicking on the question-mark icon connects searchers to those services. Nilges said that most of the libraries offer e-mail service using Web forms where users can submit a reference question. However, some offer live chat service.

I asked Nilges whether OCLC had considered expanding beyond the geographic limitation. If Web searchers start to use Open WorldCat searches as a way to reach libraries with a collection and therefore a probable expertise in a subject, searchers might do better to contact libraries outside their areas. Some virtual reference desks do not limit clientele to direct constituents. Nilges agreed. He pointed out that the Library of Congress took questions from everywhere. Nilges thought that there should be different paths to reference desks than to books in collections, e.g., indexing, analysis of question/answer data gathered and shared in QuestionPoint, etc. "We need to go further. There's no doubt," said Nilges.

Unlike the eSerials pilot, the reference service pilot will last 6 months or more. If it succeeds, OCLC may expand the option to other online, library-based reference services.

Book Sales

OCLC has also opened an online bookselling option for titles identified through Open WorldCat. The announcement of the new service promised that OCLC would "pursue the best prices and discounts available for consumers," though it also indicated that the initial project would use only Baker and Taylor as a supplier. Baker and Taylor boasts that it maintains the largest combined in-stock book, video, and music inventory in the United States. It has relationships with more than 30,000 suppliers; the longest standing ones are with book publishers.

Book buyers can identify their library as part of the transaction from a list supplied by OCLC. The named libraries will then receive a portion of the proceeds from the book sales as credits on OCLC invoices for FirstSearch Open WorldCat charges. In time, OCLC plans to expand this feature to libraries outside the United States, to other content formats, and to additional vendors.

Steve Coffman, founder of 1stReads (see the NewsBreak, "New 1stReads System Enables Book Donations to Libraries,", commented: "It wasn't too much of a stretch for OCLC since a lot of the [integrated library systems] have similar arrangements with Barnes and Noble or others already. What surprises me about OCLC is that they went with one vendor. However, if Baker and Taylor is handling the customer service end of it (e.g., answering questions like "Where's my book?"), that might explain their reasoning." Nilges confirmed that Baker and Taylor was handling customer service. He also saluted the 1stReads program as being very exciting.

What's Next?

Let's see now. One giant catalog online. Electronic journal connections online. Reference desks online. Book sales with a pay-off to libraries online. What else can you do in a library or a bookstore that you can soon do online? Well, what about reading programs? Nilges says that in a few months Open WorldCat will launch an experiment to solicit "wiki"-style input and book reviews from users. OCLC plans to tie all this using Open WorldCat as a growing platform. "Our focus is to connect users we meet on the Web with services deployed locally." Look out, Amazon!

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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