OCLC makes a move

/ 23 April 2009

OCLC is laying down some big bets on the direction of library automation, and it appears to me that these bets may pay off. Library systems (those “integrated library systems” we buy from vendors like Ex Libris) have long been simultaneously too expensive for libraries and too complicated for the vendors to support. OCLC is now entering the market with a “cloud” service for libraries. Their bet is that libraries will accept a bit less uniqueness for a whole lot more interconntectedness:

“Visits to libraries, focus groups, and over a decade of engagement in the library automation world have convinced me that libraries require less complexity in their management systems,” said Andrew Pace, OCLC Executive Director for Networked Library Services. “To truly deliver network-level services—a platform-as-a-service solution—and not simply Internet-hosted solutions of current library services, new system architectures and workflows must be built that are engineered to support Web-scale transaction rates and Web-scale collaboration.”

I think this could work for OCLC. I think libraries are finding the old model unsustainable and are open to a new approach. But I think that it will be a true shame if OCLC does not build clear API’s to these “web scale” services so that libraries can extend them and reach into them from their own services. Putting services into the cloud can work, as long as the data you build there are accessible in all sorts of ways. Take the Flickr API as an example.

The troubling aspect of this is that OCLC has been much too ready to hold back other players on the data front, insisting that institutions cannot reuse and share the data they have created to further their interests and those of other collaborators around the world. Will they be just as closed on the services front? Will this new initiative help them open up on the data front? It is too early to tell, but well worth recalling some early warnings.

This new direction will take years to play out, but I wish OCLC well in the effort. It represents a significant shift in the library automation marketplace.


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