Breeding on OCLC library automation strategy

By Patrick Hogan |

This post is extracted from an article written by Marshall Breeding in the May 2009 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter.

Marshall Breeding writes that OCLC's announcement of its new library automation services "stands as a large milestone in the evolution of library automation."  Here is an early view of his June Smart Libraries Newsletter article.

Stirring much discussion in the library automation industry, OCLC has announced that it will extend World Cat Local, first positioned primarily as a discovery tool, to provide a complete suite of services for the automation of libraries. Work is underway now to create services associated with WorldCat Local that perform circulation, resource fulfillment, acquisitions, and license management. Taken together, these services will obviate the need for a library to operate its own integrated library system. The basic concept of the WorldCat Local library system involves extending the bibliographic records in with item-specific data, such as barcodes, for each library participating in the service. The idea of using WorldCat for cataloging is well established, and WorldCat Local has been in testing as an end-user discovery environment to replace local online catalogs since April 2007. This current effort extends the WorldCat Local platform to take on the automation of internal library workflows. OCLC has gone through exercises in scaling to ensure that its technology will be able to keep up with the massive volume of transactions involved as large numbers of libraries subscribe to these services. For libraries to adopt this approach, they must have a high degree of confidence in its reliability and performance. Engineers at OCLC calculated that combined, the estimated total of 1.2 million libraries in the world sustain an average about 5,000 circulation transactions per second. Part of the design of the WorldCat Local based library system involves reengineering its technical infrastructure to support that level of use. In addition to circulation, the WorldCat Local library system will offer functionality for the automation of the procurement and management of library materials, including print and electronic formats. The services will include components for acquisitions and license management. The scope of the product extends beyond the ILS into the realm of electronic resource management systems. OCLC positions this model of library automation as more efficient than the traditional ILS, whether hosted by an individual library, consortium, or, as softare-as-a-service, by a vendor. Linking these operations with WorldCat Local will leverage a world-wide, cooperatively-built database rather than having each library or consortium maintain its own set of automation components. OCLC aims to shift library automaton away from individual library implementations to a shared platform. News of OCLC’s strategy for library automation came as part of its announcement regarding WorldCat Local "quick start," an offering of its discovery product at no additional cost for existing FirstSearch subscribers. This offer will give many thousands of libraries a taste of using WorldCat Local as a discovery tool without making a large financial investment. The "quick start" program has limitations. Only libraries using one of the currently supported ILS products will be able to take advantage of the components of WorldCat Local that integrate with the ILS, such as real-time display of circulation status. This version also does not involve synchronizing the library’s holdings on WorldCat with the representation of its collection from its ILS, a process called reclamation. Libraries that implement the full version of WorldCat Local carry out the reclamation process to ensure better accuracy and completeness for their users. Leading the project is Andrew Pace, who joined OCLC as Director, Network Library Services in January 2008. As of April 2008, OCLC was in the process of finalizing agreements with libraries that will serve as pilot sites for the WorldCat Local automation services. OCLC anticipates general availability of these services sometime in 2010. This product does not come out of thin air. OCLC has been increasingly involved in the library automation industry for a number of years. SLN has chronicled OCLC’s acquisitions of commercial companies and products related to library automation, including PICA, Sisis Informationssysteme, Fretwell-Downing, Openly Informatics, and EZproxy. Much of the research and development of OCLC’s new automation services taps into the talent and technologies of these acquired assets in addition to the involvement of OCLC personnel in its Dublin, Ohio headquarters and former RLG facilities. The announcement that OCLC plans to deliver a radically new approach for the automation of libraries stands as a large milestone in the evolution of library automation. While significant, it's one of many efforts to proved more effective or innovative tools to libraries. Up until now, much of the creative energies were applied to the development of next-generation library catalogs or discovery interfaces. SLN has covered the many major developments in this genre, including AquaBrowser, Endeca, Primo, Encore, Summon, LSC PAC, and VUfind. Now the battleground expands from front-end products to those that automate back-room library processes. OCLC will not stand alone in offering alternatives to the existing products. The OLE Project (described in SLN October 2008) and Ex Libris URM initiative provide examples of alternate approaches. We can also expect the existing ILS products to continue to evolve and prosper. OCLC's new services are still more than a year away from being available to libraries. It’s much too early to speculate on the number of libraries that might adopt this approach, but OCLC is well positioned to make a major impact on the industry. The next couple of years will provide an interesting competition among non-profit and commercial organizations, proprietary and open source software, as well as evolutionary and revolutionary models of library automation.