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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

OCLC - parting thoughts

As noted elsewhere, I just finished my last meeting as a representative of BCR to OCLC's Members Council. That three year term was a significant educational experience for me.

I did not run for re-election because I have to look after a public information effort about our need for increased funding. My first obligation is to ensure that my own institution has the resources it needs to fulfill its mission. Right now, it doesn't.

But I do have some observations about OCLC, I hope worth recording. I didn't think about OCLC very often before I went to Members Council, and I bet a lot of other members of the cooperative don't either. So take this as insight from someone who walked into the inner workings of Members Council with no preconceptions.

  • OCLC has an extraordinary CEO. Jay Jordan, who just happens to have lived in Castle Rock, CO before he was recruited by OCLC, has been a remarkable leader. He just celebrated his tenth year at the helm, and in that time, OCLC has clearly grown by leaps and bounds by every measure: more bibliographic records, more customers, more income, more use, more innovation. He has a sure grasp of the organizational mission, a strong competitive executive drive, a consistent identification and promotion of talented staff, and works well with his thoughtful and diligent board. I learned a lot by watching Jay. Leadership matters, and his leadership is a significant OCLC asset.
  • OCLC has gone -- quickly, although it might not feel like it to some -- from a North American-centric organization to a true global cooperative. There are two strains in the organization: those who wish to preserve and celebrate the history of the organization, and those thrilled by the enormous potential of a truly world-wide global catalog of intellectual works. I appreciate the past, but the future is beyond exciting.
  • The core product of OCLC is the remarkable WorldCat. I have never seen anything better as a discovery tool. Here's what I think: the future of librarianship will put WorldCat -- the compilation of the donated labor of catalogers -- at the center of a new ILS. The rest of that system -- circulation, acquisitions, serials, reporting, etc. -- should be the result of our donated programmer labor. I would gladly pay one of our staff to contribute to those modules, which might, in turn, be freely downloaded or altered by any library. The management of these Open Source projects, I submit, should be conducted through WebJunction.
  • Something else OCLC has done very, very well has been "thought leadership." Their studies have changed the way we think about librarianship. The important aspect of these studies is not just market research -- it's thinking about the data, making recommendation for the future. In addition, OCLC's sponsorship of various meetings brings library luminaries together to shine light in all kinds of unexpected corners. That earns my respect.

In short, OCLC impresses me. It still has something of an academic bias, I think. It still dances slowly. But as somebody once wrote, the amazing thing about a dancing bear is not how well it dances, but that it dances at all.

OCLC is changing, but everything changes, whether people want it to or not. The important thing is that it is changing for the better.

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