OCLC’s WorldCat Local “Quick Start”

Last week, OCLC announced a “strategy to move library management services to Web scale.” With this move, OCLC is rebranding “WorldCat Local” to include functions typically associated with an integrated library system. From the press release:

OCLC plans to release Web-scale delivery and circulation, print and electronic acquisitions, and license management components to WorldCat Local, continuing the integration of library management services to create the Web-scale, cooperative library service. OCLC will begin piloting the Web-scale management service components this year.

There are many thing going on here. So, in order to get our bearings I think it is useful to break this down into two parts: the broader scope of web-scale integrated library system components and the narrower scope of the “quick start” trial version of the patron interface to WorldCat.org. But first we need to tackle the phrase “WorldCat Local.”

What is “WorldCat Local”?


Until now, many of us probably thought of WorldCat Local as a locally-scoped version of the WorldCat.org database. It is, in fact, interesting to go back to the 11 April 2007 press release announcing the pilot of WorldCat Local; it says “the service will provide libraries the ability to search the entire WorldCat database and present results beginning with items most accessible to the patron.” Further on in the same release, it says “WorldCat Local service interoperates with locally maintained services like circulation, resource sharing and resolution to full text to create a seamless experience for the end user.”

OCLC now seems to be rebranding “WorldCat Local” from a discovery layer service to a replacement of a local integrated library system (although OCLC seems to go through great pains not to use the phrase “integrated library system” to describe this new offering). This rebranding varies depending on the page you are viewing: the press release has the quote at the top of this post while the first link in that press release (to the Web-scale, cooperative library management service) seems to speak of WorldCat Local in its 2007 definition. Andrew Pace’s blog post is somewhere in the middle: “OCLC is extending the WorldCat Local platform to include circulation and delivery, print and electronic acquisitions, and license management components.” In a conversation on the Code4Lib IRC channel, Roy Tennant says “AFAIK (as far as I know) WorldCat Local, which formerly was completely bounded by the catalog part, now will have different components, one of which is the catalog.”

Since the branding seems to be in flux, in this post I’m going to refer to WorldCat Local Web-scale Management Service (WCL-WMS) and WorldCat Local Discovery Service (WCL-DS). Any resemblance to current or future OCLC product names is quite definitely a coincidence.

Web-Scale Integrated Library System


Starting with WCL-WMS. In places on the OCLC website, this effort also goes by the name of Web-scale management services. OCLC describes its broad efforts this way:
OCLC’s vision is similar to Software as a Service (SaaS)1 but is distinguished by the cooperative “network effect” of all libraries using the same, shared hardware, services and data, rather than the alternative model of hosting hardware and software on behalf of individual libraries. Libraries would subscribe to Web-scale management services that include modular management functionality. Moreover, libraries would benefit from the network-level integration of numerous services that are not currently part traditional integrated library systems, e.g., Knowledge Base Integration, WorldCat Collection Analysis, WorldCat Selection, WorldCat Local, etc..

Further down the Web-scale management services page there is a list of proposed services: Web-Scale Circulation and Delivery, Web-Scale Print and Electronic Acquisitions, Web-Scale License Management, Web-Scale Self-Configuration, Web-Scale Workflow, and Web-Scale Cooperative Intelligence. The list also has brief descriptions of each of these services.

Trial Version of Patron Interface


The second component is a feature-limited version of the (formerly branded?) WorldCat Local interface. According to OCLC, the “quick start” version is missing the ability to have a consortial scope of holdings (between locally-owned and the-world), branch-level scoping within a local library, and local information display (such as notes and local URLs). The “quick start” version also won’t have the forthcoming metasearch integration or the ability to place holds via NCIP. (Holds can be place by redirecting the user to the home ILS and using whatever functionality is in place locally.) WCL-DS will pull availability information from local systems for items in which the library’s OCLC symbol is recorded in the WorldCat database. Status information is pulled either by Z39.50 look-up (in the case of Ex Libris Aleph systems) or HTML-scraping the Web OPAC display (all other systems). By offering it for free, OCLC is giving libraries the option of trying out a large subset of the WCL-DS functionality.

Initial Thoughts


From an OCLC-as-business perspective, this is a shrewd move. They may have effectively frozen two markets in one press release: libraries looking at discovery layers and libraries looking for new automation systems. For the former, the ability for libraries that already subscribe to OCLC FirstSearch — an interface that in transition to WorldCat.org — to get a version of WCL-DS can be seen as a “gateway drug” that allows them to try out a thorough and robust challenger to Primo, Encore, Summon, and EBSCO Discovery Service, which is to say nothing about the open source contenders out there like Blacklight, VuFind, and the Extensible Catalog Project. In the case of the latter, there isn’t much movement in the ILS marketplace, but there is the 2-year-old Ex Libris URM and the soon-to-be-released report from the Open Library Environment project. (Will OCLC’s announcement of work in this area freeze out potential build partners for the OLE Project? The Web-scale document lists a feature of “A Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) for interoperability with local environments and 3rd party business process systems (e.g., financial management, HR systems, and course management)” — one of the hallmarks of the OLE project.)

It is this second effect that has caught my eye the most. When pushing the back-room library automation tasks of circulation, acquisitions and such from local systems to “the cloud”, we’re fundamentally talking about a system migration. We’ve got to unload all of the records from our current system, massage them however we need to, put put them in another system. The twist comes from the fact that the other system is not the library’s own. I have no doubt that OCLC can work with existing ILS vendors to migrate their information into OCLC. My questions and concerns come at the other end — what if you want to migrate from the cloud back to a local system?

This is where considerations of OCLC-as-a-cooperative take over. If OCLC were acting as a cooperative — acting on the best behalf of its members — there would be no question that the data could easily come back out. The announcement, backlash, and response to the proposed changes to the record use policy are, however, a dark cloud2 over any reading of OCLC’s intentions. In a world where I could trust the cooperative to provide single-item lookups and batch aggregated extracts of holdings and acquisition data from the SaaS, what OCLC is offering could be a good thing. If it came along with demonstrations of real cost reductions (not simply “reducing the rate of rise” of costs) it would be even better. But OCLC has turned into a behemoth much larger than the collective whole of the collaborative, and I’m not sure I can trust them (collectively) at this point farther than I can throw the headquarters building in Dublin, OH.

Other Interesting Tidbits


The initial article in Library Journal by Marshall Breeding says: “OCLC said it will work with the more than 1,000 libraries and partners that are currently using OCLC library management systems in Europe and Asia Pacific to help build the new service.” In this context, I think “New Service” refers to WCL-WMS, and given the description is probably in reference to the OCLC PICA division.

In a future post, I’ll start to summarize the reactions to the OCLC announcement.

Footnotes

  1. Software as a Service is a model for deploying software where a firm provides the hosting and support of a system for a client. For example, Google Docs is a SaaS deployment for office automation applications and Salesforce.com is a supplier of a customer relationship management system. As opposed to a model of software-purchase-plus-maintenance, SaaS involves a ongoing subscription fee. For more information, see the Wikipedia article on the topic. []
  2. Please pardon the cloud-computing pun. []