WorldCat Local — first questions

By reeset / On / In Digital Libraries

So OCLC and the UW finally pulled off the cover and unveiled WorldCat Local to the world. A number of folks will write about the things that this does very well. The faceting is nice and clean, as is the layout. Some of the ajaxy features (like holdings retrieval) is a little clunky and I’ve found a bit dodgy as I play with it on different browsers and operating systems, but for mainstream users, it will be fine. I like the integration with other OCLC services. This is one of the real value added benefits that OCLC can offer that most other systems likely cannot. Also, I’m assuming that as OCLC continues to develop this service, API access will become available for member institutions allowing institutions using WorldCat Local to embed their data into other systems.

However, looking at the beta, I also have a number of questions that I don’t have quick answers to either. Here they are in no particular order.

  1. Localization: OCLC’s catalog model utilizes a single master record. This means that local information, relating to access restrictions, local notes, Call Numbers — become marginalized. At this point, the beta doesn’t appear to have a call number search, which makes sense. This is local information that OCLC’s database wouldn’t have. But there is other data — local subjects not found in the OCLC master record, enhanced notes…all things that catalogers create in MARC records to surface items queried via keyword, subject or title — all missing from WorldCat Local at this point. Do we need this local information? Maybe not — this is a good experiment to see if that’s so.
  2. OCLC’ization of libraries: At present, libraries currently job out a lot of services to OCLC. Cataloging, ILL, Online Reference — adding the catalog/federated search would seemingly follow this trend. But at what point does the library stop being an individual entity and simply become an OCLC reseller. This isn’t a hit at OCLC, just a question.
  3. Related to that, I have questions regarding scale of operations. Since OCLC’s move to a unified platform for FirstSearch and its Connexion Cataloging environment, I would characterize operations to be…fragile. Rock solid services that seemed to never have down time seemingly experience problems on a pretty regular basis. In the grade scheme of things, not being able to catalog for a couple hours isn’t that big of a deal. However, once that is moved to the Catalog level — well, then it is. If one’s library catalog is down for an extended period, people notice. If down time becomes systemic — people will complain. Centralized indexes like Google work because of the large data centers that they have around the country to deal with issues relating to scale. FirstSearch/Connexion are member only services. Libraries traditionally throttle their access to their resources (either through purchasing a specific number of queries, ports or simply by how they present the resource) — so it doesn’t fill me with confidence that OCLC’s current services seem to have so many access problems. Again, in the large scheme of things, these services are almost always available — but it makes a big difference when we are talking about uptime for staff versus uptime for the public. Which brings me back to load. Were WorldCat Local to be used as the default catalog, suddenly, OCLC would need to handle a much larger number of queries. Rather than dealing with 1000 FirstSearch queries — OCLC would be required to handle hundreds of thousands of queries, done daily by multiple member institutions. At this point, I question their ability to work with the library community at that scale — but maybe OCLC has been creating data centers that we are not currently aware of.
  4. Widening the digital divide. One think OCLC’s WorldCat Local does is present itself as an index for all library collections. The “find near you” feature suggests that they know if the title is in “your” library. Well, no — they know if the title exists in your library if your library is an OCLC member and subscribes to FirstSearch. Essentially, this amounts to an OCLC tax (hey, just like Microsoft) for being in their index. For many institutions with funding woes, this tax could become too high and the cost will be a widening of the haves and have not’s as those that have can be a part of the OCLC index and those that have not are thrown to the wolves…I mean their ILS vendor.
  5. Cost — I’m curious to see how OCLC prices this service since it doesn’t replace an already existing service but will be an add-on. How you say…well, most ILS vendors don’t price their webpacs as separate line items. This is just part of the system. So you can’t stop paying for this part of the system and shift those cost savings to OCLC. About the only think that you can do is stop paying for system add-ons. Would this replace a federated search tool? Probably not. OCLC’s tool is searching brief records and abstracts for their article search. This is very different than the full text searches that you can get from most federated search tools. Plus, this search only encompasses things that currently exist in the OCLC universe. Until that universe expands, there will be too many items that it misses. The only think that I see it replacing are tools like III’s Encore…so maybe that’s enough — maybe not. I think OCLC will need to think very hard about how they charge for this service in part because libraries already spend such a large percentage of their budgets on OCLC services. I’m not certain, but I would guess that we pay OCLC more than any other vendor, including our ILS provider for services throughout the year. I’m wondering if adding WorldCat Local wouldn’t add to the current annual sticker shock associated with paying for these services.
  6. Library Brain Drain: I’ve talked with a few people about this. OCLC is collecting a lot of talented library project managers from the library community. While this gives me a lot of hope that many of the questions that I have will eventually have answers — it worries me for the library community. Top administrators are very important and there is a very shallow pool of library administrators that actually understand and can envision next generation digital library services. I worry what this poaching will mean for my profession.

Anyway, I guess that’s a long way to say that I’ll be interested in watching and seeing how this service continues to develop.


6 thoughts on “WorldCat Local — first questions

  1. “Well, no — they know if the title exists in your library if your library is an OCLC member and subscribes to FirstSearch.”

    An important additional caveat–AND your library has uploaded all their records to OCLC!

    If you ask, you will find that even most OCLC members who subscribe to FirstSearch have some classes of records in their local catalog which they do not upload holdings to OCLC for (or don’t upload the records at all, for some local records). I’m curious as to what, if any, such classes UW has currently post-pilot deploy.

    I share your concern about brain drain, and about, well OCLC-ization in general.

    Many of us have thought for a while that part of the solution has to be giving libraries _more_ flexible access to their catalog data to better integrate services. Worldcat Local doesn’t do this–it’s just another vendor’s product, albeit a _superior_ product to most of it’s competitors as far as public display goes. But I am hacking certain things into my OPAC displays and searches to better integrate my other services (such as link resolver). I can’t do that with Worldcat Local–I can take what _they_ have done to try to integrate better, period, the end. I don’t like this direction. Do they provide me with a reasonable XML interface into Worldcat, even just for my own records? Nope. Do they provide me much ability to customize the display much? Nope. Maybe they will. Do they provide me the ability to add things to the index, or to incorporate a federated search? Only what _they_ have added (they are trying to add article content to WorldCat–whether they will be succesful at getting permission from their competitors to add content that’s not OCLC-licensed to begin with, we will see).

    On the other hand, they are providing useful services that I couldn’t provide locally, due to my lack of resources. Maybe their only locally loading data for OCLC-licensed scholarly content, but that’s more than I’ve got.

    But I don’t like the either/or choice. Take what the vendor gives you and give up your ability to innovate locally, or to attempt to integrate with your local services in ways the vendor _doesn’t_ provide—but which we want the vendor to provide _hooks_ for. OCLC isn’t providing these hooks either. I don’t like how it smells.

  2. Thanks for pointing out that the “find near you? feature ignores the fact that not all libraries are OCLC members. As you say, some libraries are too poor to afford OCLC, but OCLC membership isn’t universal even among well-funded libraries (I’ve worked in two small, well-funded non-OCLC libraries). The the “find an OCLC library” feature on the OCLC web site lists 202 public libraries in Ohio, which is only 80% of the 251 public libraries in Ohio. 20% is a significant gap, and I suspect the gap is bigger in states with traditionally lower funding for public libraries.

  3. Intriguing questions that build on ones we share on the future of ILS/OCLC/access. Your point about the brain drain is well-taken as we do have a dearth of library administrators who truly understand the technology. Time for some of us to move out the way?

  4. Phil Shirley comments about limits to public library listings in OH. In SC there is currently not a single public library listed in Open WorldCat, whereas a lot of tiny libraries in neighboring states are listed. In this region it appears that public libraries are listed if the state library pays for a state-wide contract.

    If a single public library in a state licenses FirstSearch on its own, is this going to end up working for, or against, it in terms of the general public’s understanding of where materials are available?