Sky me a River

By Tom Peters |

It’s not every day that a new bibliographic utility bursts onto the library tech scene. Even public services librarians like myself– who are generally averse to the finer details of cataloging and metadata matters–took notice of last week’s announcement that a new bibliographic utility called SkyRiver ( is forming. Like Halley’s Comet, SkyRiver will grow in brightness over the next few months, with the best viewing after it is completely launched in January 2010.  

The creators of SkyRiver appear to be Jerry Kline from Innovative Interfaces and Leslie Straus, formerly a VP for sales and marketing at Innovative, who has been hired to serve as SkyRiver’s president. A couple of days after the initial official announcement, SkyRiver reported that Michael Markwith has been hired to serve as a sales executive. In the past, Markwith has been affiliated with TDNet, Swets, Faxon, Blackwell North America, and others. Although SkyRiver will initially be sharing some space and support services  with Innovative Interfaces, it appears that the long-term strategy is to have SkyRiver exist as a completely independent corporate entity. 

Like Little Jack Horner, OCLC currently has just about the entire market share of the North American plum pie of cooperative cataloging. For the past few years it has been sitting alone in a corner with that pie, beaming and shouting, “My, what a good bib utility am I!”

To garner some sustenance and survive, SkyRiver will need to differentiate itself from OCLC and provide a better option for at least some libraries. SkyRiver is emphasizing three differentiators:

  • Higher Quality: Although SkyRiver is starting with a much smaller database of bibliographic records than OCLC currently claims–20 million compared to 144 million–the creators promise that it will offer higher quality both at the record and the aggregated database level. Although I’ve never worked closely and extensively with the OCLC Union Catalog (Is it still called that, or am I dating myself?), it has had some quality issues in the past. Even when I was in library school in the mid-80’s, using ye olde tyme 3,2,2,1 search statements, the issue of the need for quality control was evident. 
  • Lower Costs: SkyRiver promises to provide more bib for the buck when compared to OCLC.  Marshall Breeding’s article about SkyRiver in Library Journal mentions that some libraries may be able to save up to 40 percent for their bibliographic services. Exact pricing for SkyRiver records and services has not yet been released. 
  • Record Ownership and Use: Controversies and questions persist. Who owns the records contributed to a database of bibliographic records? What are the permissible uses of those records? The dillemas have plagued OCLC and its member libraries for decades. SkyRiver plans to cut through the Gordian knot by not claiming any ownership or rights regarding the records. 

The timing of this development fascinates me. Why now? After a long period during which OCLC was acquiring other bibliographic utilities (UTLAS, WLN, RLIN, PICA, and more), in 2009 we have already witnessed the launch of ( by LibLime and now SkyRiver. Those librarians who are experts on matters concerning cataloging and metadata can correct me, but it seems to me that as the amount of full text material that is searchable and available online continues to grow, the overall value of any and all databases of bibliographic records will decline.  If this is the basic reality of this market, it seems a little strange that new entries are rushing in at this time. Perhaps the overall value that the general public places on bibliographic utilities has little or nothing to do with it.  The prime value may be the value the bibliographic utility provides to libraries.

One unknown variable in all this is how easy it will be for libraries to switch bibliographic utilities. Collectively, we have so little practical experience and knowledge about these matters. SkyRiver has had several library development partners involved in, well, developing the service. Oddly, these development partners remain anonymous, although the SkyRiver ur-website does state that academic and public libraries and well as library consortia are involved.  Breeding states he doesn’t know who they are, and when I asked an Innovative Interfaces booth rep about SkyRiver’s development partners at the Illinois Library Association’s annual conference last week, she was clearly ready and willing to talk about SkyRiver but was not at liberty to divulge the library development partners.  Why the secrecy? Fear of OCLC breaking a few knees? Little Jack wouldn’t do that.

Collaboration and competition are the yin and yang of postmodern Western society. All bibliographic utilities are all about collaboration and sharing, right, OCLC? SkyRiver may provide some much-needed competition to the world of bibliographic utilities, which would bring that world back into harmonic balance and turn up the volume on the music of the spheres.