quirky worldcat and what it teaches us about openness & libraries

I can get frustrated reading It’s All Good when they e-roll their eyes at some of the backwards-seeming things that libraries do, or have to do, such as fines, ILL fees and card fees. I love reading all the smart stuff they talk about, and reading about the high tech world of R&D that goes along with the fancy things they produce and share. However, I think it’s very very different working in a huge non-profit-ish company (that does charge for services) than being in a small taxpayer-supported public institution that tries hard not to charge for things. We’re not just dots on a continuum where institutions like ours are striving to become institutions like theirs. Just like Amazon.com is not a bookstore, OCLC is not a library.

OCLC gives a lot back to the communities they serve, and also the communities they don’t serve. Now that Worldcat is really open to the public, albeit in beta, we don’t have to use Google haxies to check it. Worldcat is really the only thing close to a union catalog that we have in the US and it does some amazing things.

And yet, Worldcat’s greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. The fact that it seems comprehensive obscures the fact that it’s not. A search for Wuthering Heights in my area says I only have to go 21 miles to get it, to Dartmouth in the next state over. But I can’t check out books from Dartmouth. I can, however, check out books from any of the five smaller libraries that are closer to me than Dartmouth, and which probably all have Wuthering Heights on the shelf. If I went to Dartmouth, they’d either say I couldn’t get it, or try to charge me for a card, I’m not even certain. We can talk back and forth about what sort of user experience OCLC is trying to offer and people can sadly shake their heads at me when I say that we don’t have local library consortia in Vermont and so lack the purchasing clout that many other regions have. We do have NELINET which provides some great service, but again the “what does it cost” question remains murky. I’ve been meaning to ask someone at the Vermont Department of Libraries about this, but they’re a little busy with the email upgrade they did, putting everyone on an Exchange server that doesn’t work so well for those libraries on dial-up.

So, an example I was using last week, searching for a book in Washington DC will usually get you the Library of Congress as a top result. Clicking through to the record would, until recently, get you an error message and a “buy it from Amazon” button. Clicking on the “library information” link takes you to the library’s website in a Worldcat frame. They don’t even have a “remove this frame” link. Now it takes you to a page that explains “The Library of Congress serves as a source for materials not available through local, state, or regional libraries, via interlibrary loan. Consult your local library for details, or view the LC interlibrary loan policies.” So while it’s no longer broken, I’m not sure I’d consider this “fixed”.

Going down the top ten results lists gets me similar odd results

  • Ft Meyer Library – error page
  • Arlington County Dept of Library – waited for minutes while it was transferring data from www.assoc-amazon.com and then a “We’re Sorry Your Find in a Library search found no records. Please try again with new search terms or return to the referring site.” from Worldcat itself.
  • Prince George’s County Memorial Library System – no link to item, but a link to their QuestionPoint service, odd…
  • Alexandria Library – “Firefox can’t establish a connection to the server at geoweb.alexandria.lib.va.us:8000”
  • Montgomery County Dept of Public Library – link to login screen
  • Prince William Public Library – item record (hooray!)
  • Howard County Library – item record (hooray!)
  • Southern Maryland Regional Library – blank screen
  • Loudoun County Public Library – “this page cannot be displayed” error

So that’s, what a 20% success rate? And I still don’t know if I can even borrow the book. Every time I go back to the Find in a Library page, the Amazon ad is telling me I can buy the book for 60 cents. Though to be fair, when I click on the “buy from Amazon.com” I get to a page on Amazon where it tells me my shopping cart is entry. Hint to shoppers: click the book cover instead, it works.

So what do we walk away with here? That libraries are hard, and bookstores are easy? That big libraries are more worth a trip than little libraries? A larger concern of mine — consolidation of resources into big enclaves where ‘haves’ have access and ‘have nots’ are restricted geographically, technologically or simply culturally — comes into play here. When the computer tells you that you can’t get your book in town, how relevant does your library seem? When the higher-ups in your local systems don’t see the advantages of being part of larger systems, what’s the next step? What are the obligations of larger systems to be inclusive at some cost to them rather than just providing services with “attractive pricing”? Gary Price suggested “As a public service for the good of the entire library community, OCLC should offer a list of any libraries in the given area that are not available in Worldcat.org” which seems like a nice idea, but what is OCLCs responsibility towards “the public” as opposed to their responsibility towards their customers? How do we get to a place where something that is designed theoretically to benefit everyone, reallly does work for each and every one?

15 thoughts on “quirky worldcat and what it teaches us about openness & libraries

  1. I think Jessamyn’s experience shows that online services have a long way to go before they even begin to live up to the hype. There are still hoops to jump through to lay your hands on items, and if you’re a techie ‘have not’ or ‘know not’ those hoops are even harder to navigate without the help of a professional librarian who knows what they’re doing.


  2. Bravo, Jessamyn. Bravo! I use Worldcat alot (alot!!) and like it, but OCLC has to work on it alot more for it to be useful for all, especially those that think that it contains every library.

    Th irony here is that OCLC is really trying to crack the divide (and I applaud them for trying), but this beta attempt has suceeded in doing the opposite. Sad.

  3. As bad as the WorldCat locator is, it has actually improved. When I tried it last October, it told me the closest copy of It Ain’t Brain Surgery by Larry Dierker to Big Lake, Texas was a copy in Little Rock, Arkansas, about 670 miles away. I just tested again, and it shows a copy in Abilene, only a 134 miles away. More details in in my October archive.

  4. Even though the County of Los Angeles Public Library is a member of OCLC, their results do not come up in World Cat and I can’t figure out why. It took me a while to even find where to search for member libraries.

  5. I’m bothered that a library has to subscribe to WorldCat (not just be a member of OCLC) for its holdings to be represented in worldcat.org. The argument “we have to pay the bills” only goes so far. Do we really want a cool tool that lies? We should at least say in HUGE letters “check with your local public library” and some explanation why – to cover those that don’t catalog paperbacks or can’t afford WorldCat. Or who have great ILL services so you don’t have to travel 45 miles and then find out you don’t have borrowing privileges, but if you go home and make a request. . .

    By the way, in a consortial catalog it may say its X miles to headquarters when the local library that has the book is three blocks away. How encouraging is that?

    I was sooooo excited about this, and still think it has potential, but not being up front about what’s excluded really troubles me. It’s bad information. Is that what we’re about?

  6. Jessamyn: Thank you very much for posting this. I am consistently troubled by “World”Cat and the assumption that everything worth finding is findable through it. I agree with the last commenter that it is more about “bad information” than anything else for many people at the moment.

    At my previous place of work at a US public library, our consortium had its records on OCLC. Unfortunately, the information couldn’t be updated because we simply didn’t have the money. So… our information (and that of 17 other libraries) was there but was essentially wrong. It has been this way for 10 years now.

    My current place of work at a fairly major Canadian public library does not participate in OCLC – and I doubt we will be any time in the near future for a variety of reasons. I’ve been told that very few Canadian public libraries participate in OCLC and I don’t see many other non-U.S. public libraries in the mix either. To me, the “World”Cat name is about as accurate as the “World” Series of baseball – at least where public libraries are concerned.

    By the way, I really enjoy your blog. I particularly appreciate your insistence on raising the concerns of the smaller and/or poorer libraries.


  7. I’ve made the same point as Barbara to OCLC and gotten no response.

    I work in a special library. I have: 1) contributed original records to WorldCat, 2) participated in ILL as a borrower and as a lender, and 3) paid a lot of money to OCLC over the years.

    Yet, because we haven’t paid [large number here] for FirstSearch (a lot of money for my budget), our holdings don’t show up. Records I’ve added to the database, those show up, but with no holdings if my library is the only owner.

    I’ll bet a lot of other special and small public libraries are in the same boat.

  8. I was all excited when I blogged about this on ACRLog, though curious how libraries would introduce it to students who would graduate and not have access to the subscription version. The comments that follow end with an explanation from Alane at OCLC, who I contacted for clarification.

    Basically, it’s pay-as-you go. It’s self-supporting and stand-alone and we’d rather be innacurate than risk losing revenue. I’m sure there’s some fear the subscription version will lose “customers” (i.e. the members of this collaborative will not want to pay for both versions) though honestly … why should we? Why should we even maintain two if we can put a good one and a complete (at least complete for member library holdings) on the web? Maintaining a free-but-bad and a hard-to-get premium version makes no sense to me, even from a capitalist position. Especially when there’s no clear indication up front that this is so.

    I still love the concept and have for years argued we must find a way to say “we can afford to put this on the web where anyone can find it, whether or not they go through a member library’s site” not “it has to pay for itself.”

    Members don’t charge to search their individual catalogs through the web, even though producing them costs money. Isn’t this database ours? Aren’t we already paying a lot??

    And you make a very good point, Geekchic, we OCLC members aren’t the world. It is an offensive and misleading name.

  9. Hello, all. I’m here as a blogger and not as an official voice of OCLC.
    These are good points to be raised and I can tell you that a lot of OCLC staffers on the project have raised the same concerns–especially about the branch library visibility. Many libraries catalog (and therefore attach holdings in WorldCat) at the system-level, rather than the branch. So understandably, the end-user gets confused when a known title doesn’t show up for his/her zip code.
    People on the WorldCat.org project are working like mad to improve the functionality before it moves out of “beta” stage.
    Keep the comments and suggestions for improvements coming, through the feedback button on the right in the blue bar: http://worldcat.org/
    Last thing: batchloading is free (no-charge) with many WorldCat-powered OCLC services now. I know for sure it is for WorldCat Collection Analysis. Just offering it out there as another way to improve the end-users’ experience of your library when they use WorldCat.org as a finding tool.
    I’ll make sure WorldCat people see this string…

  10. In all fairness to us at Loudoun County Public Library, I tested worldcat the day it came live and found that OCLC had used the wrong index to query our Horizon online catalog; in all fairness to OCLC, they fixed it right away. Today I did the same search described in this post and it was successful for Loudoun….

  11. Bravo, Jessamyn! Yes, libraries (and OCLC) need to wake up to the fact that if people have money, they’ll go to Amazon or bn.com before they try to navigate the likes of WorldCat. As a librarian that uses OCLC to update records in our catalog, I think the service Worldcat provides to libraries is AMAZING. But to Joe Consumer, they need some work.

    I love this line: “So what do we walk away with here? That libraries are hard, and bookstores are easy? That big libraries are more worth a trip than little libraries?” I work in a large library, but I respect the heck out of the little libraries. Thanks for posting on this.

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