SkyRiver at Michigan State University Libraries: A Brief Overview

Joshua Barton and Lucas Mak, Michigan State University

SkyRiver is a new bibliographic utility that was unveiled in 2009 with the prospect of being a low cost alternative for cooperative cataloging. SkyRiver is affiliated with Innovative Interfaces Inc. and was founded by the head of Innovative Interfaces Incorporated, Jerry Kline. What follows is a brief description and assessment of SkyRiver based on its implementation and use as a bibliographic utility at Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries. SkyRiver was adopted in place of OCLC at MSU as a cost-saving solution and also due to administrative concern over lack of competition in the bibliographic utility market.


SkyRiver was rolled out at MSU in August 2009, and used alongside OCLC Connexion until November 2009. The software was still in development and there was no available documentation. MSU took an approach of open and communicative experimentation among staff. As problems, solutions and tips were discovered, they were distributed to all technical services staff via email or printed documentation rather than online because SkyRiver requested that documentation not be posted to the open web at the time while the software was still under development. Technical services managers were also in communication with staff at SkyRiver to address problems and bugs as they were discovered, and to suggest areas for further development and new functionality. As a result, the software has developed steadily and continues to become increasingly robust. Updates are automatically rolled out every two weeks. Though still lacking formal "help" documentation, the transition to SkyRiver will be much simpler for future customers due to the development partnership between SkyRiver and MSU.

Cataloging Copy

MSU's hit rate for obtaining copy for approval plan books is only down slightly in SkyRiver, with an estimated hit rate of 93-95 percent. When MSU used OCLC's WorldCat Cataloging Partners (WCP) service for approval plan books, the hit rate was 95-98 percent. Copy for approval plan books is obtained from SkyRiver via MSU's approval plan vendor, YBP, in a process similar to OCLC's WCP. The slight decrease in the hit rate for approval plan copy is not surprising given SkyRiver's smaller number of records in comparison to OCLC. SkyRiver has acquired records from many sources including the Library of Congress, CONSER, the British Library, and all SkyRiver customer libraries. It is a continually growing database. If SkyRiver lacks any particular type of record in comparison to OCLC, it is vendor records. Records that are in a foreign language of cataloging are also lacking. Neither omission has been a concern for MSU.

When copy for a particular piece is not found in SkyRiver, catalogers can use the "Report Unavailable Record" feature embedded in the SkyRiver interface. With minimal information from the cataloger, SkyRiver staff attempt to procure a record from other sources and make it available. MSU has made only light use of this feature, given the efficiency of original cataloging resources, but other libraries may find it more useful.

One workflow change that MSU implemented when SkyRiver lacks copy is the Z39.50 remote search functionality of our ILS, Innovative's Millenium. This allows us to search the catalogs of other libraries that have enabled their catalogs to accept Z30.50 queries. However, this process is primarily used by Acquisitions for ordering purposes rather than for cataloging. Acquisitions uses the Z39.50 copy to pin order records in Millenium, which requires a bibliographic record in order for an order record to be created.

Cataloging productivity

One closely watched trend during and immediately after the transition from OCLC to SkyRiver was original cataloging productivity. MSU's Cataloging and Metadata Services team is responsible for original cataloging. The team saw a spike in productivity in July 2009 when news of SkyRiver started to spread locally. This was because catalogers were attempting to clear out their save files in OCLC Connexion, which resulted in the resolution of many longstanding cataloging problems and the clearing of many individual backlogs. This high-productivity trend gradually tapered off and dropped to below MSU's monthly average in November 2009, when OCLC was dropped and SkyRiver was fully implemented. Though SkyRiver had been available for use and experimentation as early as August 2009, many catalogers continued to use OCLC Connexion until the November cutoff date to completely clear out old save files and backlogs and to finish projects that would not be supported by SkyRiver in its early, developmental iteration. The continued use of Connexion between August and November 2009 meant that when OCLC was completely dropped and SkyRiver was the only cataloging tool available, a lot of learning and familiarization with the software had happen. This could be a cause of the period of decreased productivity, but there were also other factors such as shifts in staffing and workflows that occurred concurrently. In any case, MSU's cataloging productivity finally returned to its monthly average in March 2010.

PCC Cataloging

A significant change for MSU in the new SkyRiver environment is the inability to contribute to PCC cataloging. MSU was (and still is, in name) a CONSER and NACO library, but the move from OCLC to SkyRiver prevented participation in these activities. SkyRiver has been denied any mechanism for contributing records to the CONSER database (which is embedded in OCLC), and has no mechanism for doing NACO authority work (though as of this writing, the Library of Congress and SkyRiver are in communication about a possible arrangement for NACO).

SkyRiver Cataloging Client

SkyRiver works as a simplified cataloging client. Keyword is the only method available for searching bibliographic records. The interface works like Encore, Innovative's next-generation catalog, allowing catalogers to refine the initial returned results using facets like format, publication year, language, etc. All searches are post-coordinated with one exception: one can pre-coordinate searches to limit them to serial records.

There are issues in SkyRiver that are still matters of development. With regard to searching for records, the heavy reliance on keyword searching creates problems when searching for pieces with generic or very short titles like “Annual Report.” In contrast, authority searching is strictly match based. Though bibliographic records in SkyRiver have been keyword indexed for searching, it appears the embedded Library of Congress authority file has not. This is problematic when catalogers are not sure of the established form and valid cross-references of a heading.

Record validation is another area in need of improvement. Some invalid values in fixed fields, obsolete and invalid MARC fields and subfields, first and second indicators, and standard numbers are not flagged. The cataloging client does not prevent the export of records with these obsolete or invalid values. SkyRiver can verify headings in bibliographic records against LC name and subject authorities but the verification mechanism currently checks only the first subdivision in a subject string. In other words, the cataloging client will not flag any subsequent invalid subdivision(s) as long as the first subdivision is valid. Moreover, there is currently no “Control Headings” function in the SkyRiver cataloging client as there is in Connexion.

Cataloging materials in non-Roman scripts is cumbersome in SkyRiver. In OCLC, a transliterated title and its vernacular counterpart are in two parallel MARC 245 fields. A link between them is added when the record is validated. After export into the local ILS, the transliterated title remains in the 245 field and its vernacular counterpart is moved to a MARC 880 field. Linking between the two MARC fields is expressed through codes in their subfields 6. However, in SkyRiver, catalogers have to enter vernacular data into 880 fields and hand code each and every subfield 6 to create the linkage between 880 fields and their transliterated counterparts.

Database Harmonization

SkyRiver manages their database of records differently than OCLC. This has been an adjustment. In SkyRiver, catalogers do not control or initiate the replacement of existing records. Copy can be enhanced or changed from within the software before being exported to the local catalog. These changes are not immediately retained in SkyRiver, if they are retained at all. SkyRiver records are updated based on automated processes that detect changes to records in the local ILS. The algorithm that manages these processes is in ongoing development, so it is somewhat unpredictable which local record changes will trigger a change in SkyRiver. Essentially, this means that catalogers using SkyRiver do not concern themselves with the maintenance of a master record; this maintenance is managed automatically. This simplifies cataloging, but it entails a paradigm shift away from a database of records that, in many ways, is directly maintained by its users.

Furthermore, SkyRiver does not track local holdings. The database will indicate whether or not a title is held by a library, but there are no Local Holdings Records for serials or multipart items. SkyRiver does not need this information because it does not have a public interface to its database (e.g., as OCLC has WorldCat.org and First Search) and it also does not provide an interlibrary loan module.

Fiscal Impact an Interlibrary Loan Implications

The potential savings yielded by SkyRiver may vary from library to library, but MSU Libraries freed up approximately $80,000 in annual subscription costs by switching from OCLC to SkyRiver for cataloging activity. This savings would be further reduced if MSU was able to continue to upload holdings to OCLC WorldCat. MSU had expected to continue contributing records to OCLC in order to continue lending materials to other libraries within the OCLC membership. Unfortunately, OCLC's pricing for record uploads has been prohibitive since MSU does not have a cataloging subscription. OCLC's proposed fee would effectively wipe out all the savings realized by switching to SkyRiver. Record upload service at the proposed price has been rejected with the consequence that MSU's local holdings added or changed since October 2009 will not be reflected in WorldCat, and thus will not be discoverable by other libraries through OCLC's ILL services. MSU’s holdings are still available for lending if libraries discover them through our local catalog. These materials are also available for lending via MelCat, a regional lending service. MSU is exploring additional means of making them more widely discoverable. Despite the exclusion of post-October 2009 materials from OCLC, MSU remains a subscriber to OCLC ILL service and continues to borrow and lend through those services.


With open communication between staff and with SkyRiver, MSU has managed a period of significant change and found success with SkyRiver as an alternative for cooperative cataloging with hopes for continued improvement and development in features and functionality. The notable successes include a satisfactory hit rate for approval plan copy and maintenance of high cataloging productivity, both while being afforded significant savings.