Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad OCLC? Not Me.

At ALA Midwinter, I was sitting down with my library’s rep from OCLC and I asked a naive question: “Are you guys public…or planning on going public?”

Some librarians may be surprised by my question since non-profit OCLC is only one of the most important players in the library vendor world. That is, few librarians would not know the OCLC story. Actually, this has alot to do with my fairly non-librarian experience at Adobe Systems which hired me out of library school…and the fact that I had never worked in a library before committing to risking it all on a library profession.

Of course, once the rep began discussing OCLC’s history, it all came back to me from that foggy nether region that was my library school experience, where a blizzard of unfamiliar acronyms, standards and issues was dumped into my brain.

But there was a reason for my question: these guys don’t act like a non-profit…more like a hungry start up.

  • Exhibit A: They are aggressively working on being the Google of library search with WorldCat Local.
  • Exhibit B: They are now building a very intriguing, extensible backend library system, Web Scale Management.
  • Exhibit C: They are looking to channel all that dynamic energy that swirls within the world’s pool of librarian developers by building a community around a library “Apps Store.”
  • Exhibit D: All the above is in the cloud, integrated and scalable…just like the business model of any other technology startup set to disrupt the world as we know it.

In a sense, what I was walking away with after a few days of discussions, presos and visits to the OCLC booth was the sense that the Google analogy was actually quite fitting. The fact that this kind of energy and determination was present at a non-profit made it all the more appealing.

Now, many librarians worry about OCLC, arguing that their trajectory is following not Google’s path but Microsoft’s.

Here’s why I’m not afraid…in fact, here’s why I embrace a Big, Bad OCLC:

Firstly, Microsoft did set technology back via their sub-standard products and near-monopoly for almost 15 years, but that company is now losing market share rapidly for both of those reasons. In fact, they’ve already been dethroned by Apple as the world’s largest tech company, and probably soon by Google too. OCLC, on the other hand, is being too innovative (for now) to be a slothful titan like Microsoft.

Second, libraries are already suffering under other monopolists: the publishers and their database brethren, which have created extremely unser-unfriendly information silos in the areas of eBooks, journals, etc. A Big, Bad OCLC will have the leverage over these folks to push them to opening up their indexes so that the long, sad saga of multiple, siloed databases will finally come to an end. When there is a Big, Bad OCLC, you either add your index to WorldCat, or you suffer a lonely obscurity that is very unprofitable.

Finally, there is a movement to extend OCLC’s benefits across the library world. This idea of making OCLC a platform designed for others to build on top of is just the kind of environment libraries need to compete with the likes of Google and other information providers. It will keep us fresh as Firefox, up to date like Twitter, connected like Facebook…and more importantly, perhaps even more relevant than Google.

Yeah, I can’t wait for the Big, Bad OCLC.

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