How WorldCat solves some problems and creates others

Tim has a post on the Thingology blog about OCLCs new announcement that they are creating something they call WorldCat Local, further blurring the boundaries between book data and end users services using that data.

There are a lot of good things about this. And—lest my revised logo be misunderstood—there are no bad people here. On the contrary, OCLC is full of wonderful people—people who’ve dedicated their lives to some of the highest ideals we can aspire. But the institution is dependent on a model that, with all the possibilities for sharing available today, must work against these ideals.

Keeping their data hidden, restricted and off the “live” web has hurt libraries more than we can ever know. Fifteen years ago, libraries were where you found out about books. One would have expected that to continue on the web–that searching for a book would turn up libraries alongside bookstores, authors and publishers.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Libraries are all-but-invisible on the web. Search for the “Da Vinci Code” and you won’t get the Library of Congress–the greatest collection of books and book data ever assembled–not even if you click through a hundred pages. You do get WorldCat, but only if you go sixteen pages in!

Meanwhile WorldCat still tells me that I have to drive 21 miles — to a library I don’t even have borrowing privileges at (Dartmouth) — to get a copy of the Da Vinci Code when I know that I can get a copy less than half a mile down the street, and another copy eight miles away, and another copy if I go another two miles, and then another copy eight miles beyond that. I can get maybe eleven copies of the Da Vinco Code before I hit a WorldCat library.

There may be a future world where teeny libraries like the ones in my area and other rural areas become part of this great giant catalog that is supposedly so beneficial to library users everywhere, but for now they can’t afford it. And every press release that says that this sort of thing helps everyone is like another tiny paper cut added to the big chasm that is the digital divide out here. How is this problem getting solved? Who is trying to solve it?

9 thoughts on “How WorldCat solves some problems and creates others

  1. I’m not sure it solves the problem of the digital divide, but I can tell you that Idaho libraries were in that situation where they recognized that the tools OCLC (and WorldCat) provides can be useful and helpful in delivering service to their customers. Unfortunately, it was impossible for those libraries to afford membership with OCLC so they could access those tools.

    A few years ago the Idaho Commission for Libraries worked with OCLC to develop a statewide program (through OCLC’s Group Services program) whereby unlimited statewide access was negotiated. Because it is such a great benefit to the state’s residents, about half the costs are covered at the State level. The remaining costs are shared (propotionately by size of library) by libraries that want to take advantage of the huge discount. The smallest libraries pay just $300 a year for unlimited access to OCLC cataloging and ill. The entire state has access to a statewide catalog that is really a subset of WorldCat.

    The result now is that when a user searches WorldCat.or or Google (“Find a Book”) or use the link from our LiLI Program (, they actually get links to those those small, rural libraries in our state.

    It doesn’t solve the digital divide, but it has made it possible for a lot of our rural libraries to take advantage of the tools that, previously, seemed as if they were only accessible to large libraries with bigger budgets. Is it perfect? No. $300 is still too much for some libraries. Are we in a better place than before? Are we improving? Yes.

    That digital divide? One of our biggest challenges with it is not OCLC, it’s connectivity. How do you get high-speed Internet access to locations with outdated phone lines that go down when it snows?

  2. I should have added your “monoculture leads to famines” quote. I don’t think it was original, but I’d never heard it, so it’s yours as far as I am concerned.

  3. Thank you for mentioning this Jessamyn. The two consortia that I used to work with in South Texas could never afford OCLC membership (and they will likely never be able to afford it). As a result, patrons using “World”Cat are directed either to academic libraries or to public libraries that are a four hour drive away. I now work in Canada and there are very few Canadian public libraries that are members of OCLC – so the “World”Cat label really sticks in my craw.

    What would help to solve the digital divide problems that you so eloquently discuss are: 1) OCLC eliminating or drastically reducing membership fees, 2) OCLC stopping its attempts to hold members’ MARC data hostage, 3) OCLC opening access to its records and systems by outside vendors and open-source operations (though, to be fair, there is some of this going on as can be seen in there OAI project).

  4. I recognize that WorldCat is a good tool, but right now it’s a pain in my butt. I work in a university library and have been put in charge of adding all of our serials holding information to WorldCat… all 40,000 of them… one by one. I’m going a bit crazy here! I’ve done 10,000 so far and have been working on it for countless months. I just hope someone out there will use the information I am putting in!

  5. It is not just small public libraries that feel this. Here at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a world-class library of planetary geology, we can’t afford OCLC membership. Even though it would benefit scholars around the world. Patrons come from Egypt, South Africa, Australia, and so on to do research here.

    Much of what I catalog in not in OCLC, I know because I check Open WorldCat. Yet $1200.00 a year for membership is not in the budget. That is another journal we would have to cancel.

    Another place I feel this lack of access is that I can’t contribute to NACO unless I join OCLC. Yet here I am with the authors. They all stop in at least once a year.

    So my not being able to afford OCLC hurts not only my library but other libraries and researchers as well.

  6. Yes, it’s not a panacea. On the other hand, I’m intrigued by what OCLC might mean when it says it’s working with ILS vendors to make all this work.

    If this opens up proprietary systems to the outside world even a little this will be worth it.

  7. SaraD–the holdings information is truly useful! Don’t give up. But 40,000 is a terrifying amount–phew!

    This is a really interesting post and I have to agree with Thingology both that OCLC has lots of nice people working on great projects, and that their business model seems to rely too much on “owning” the data that libraries create about their own collections. I think it hampers libraries who are non-members AND those who are members.

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