The executive director for networked library services at the world’s largest library consortium paints the big picture regarding OCLC’s web-platform initiative in an April 24, 2009, conversation with American Libraries Editor-in-Chief Leonard Kniffel.
American Libraries: Who is the target market for this new management service?
Andrew Pace: You’re talking about the web-scale management services, not the WorldCat Local piece of this?
Tell me the difference.
The target for WorldCat Local is somebody who wants a different front end, a different discovery interface for their ILS that doesn’t require that they do anything different about their ILS. I mean, there are some configuration things, but it’s not like it replaces the integrated library system. WorldCat Local Quick Start is about going from the discovery interface to the rest of what you do with the back-office activity.
So, for example, a lot of people looked at WorldCat Local as an OPAC and then said, well, can we have circ too? Can it circulate things too? That was the piece that I was working as a separate project from the end-user discovery part. So Local is a next-generation online catalog, if you will, and the target market for expanding Local to manage the back-office activity is libraries that want to benefit from a web-based, scalable solution, that want a cooperative model for their library management data. Typically these things are managed individually, library to library to library. So this idea was that by moving it up to the network, you would have the benefits of the cooperative model that’s well established in cataloging, and that libraries that look at the disparate systems that they’re running locally would see this as an opportunity to reduce the total cost of ownership of all the systems that they’re running.
One of the phrases you used in the press release was “web-scale.” Can you define that?
It’s similar to major web presences. Think of Amazon, Google, Facebook, which have to scale their services as use of their platform service grows. What they’re also doing is providing a large-scale gravitational hub for the types of data services they provide.
You also mentioned that the new web-scale management services will “include functions performed in most libraries by a locally installed integrated library system.” What functions are you referring to there?
Circulation, print and license acquisitions, and license management.
How will the total cost of managing library collections be lowered if this is successful?
I have this analogy that I’ve used in presentations about a lot of these systems. They are like home generators; libraries buy a home generator to power the back-office services that they do. Then, as the generator becomes incapable of having more things added to it, they buy more generators to do more things. So, these libraries are running all these disparate systems and disparate workflows; for example, you carve off a section of your serials and acquisitions department to do electronic serials and acquisitions.
The whole idea of WorldCat Local Quick Start is to combine these things and do a platform service built on top of WorldCat, which would then allow libraries not only to not have disparate systems and disparate workflows, but would also create capacity so that they can focus on less commoditized areas of library workflows.
Another phrase you use: “next generation.” How is this a next-generation cooperative library management system?
I think next generation is a little overused, that it’s being used to describe a lot of things in library space that are really catching up with the current generation. One of the things that OCLC is trying to do is apply the term to a truly next-generation version of something. An example is next-generation cataloging, if you look at some of the work that [OCLC Vice President] Karen Calhoun and her group has done on that.
For me it’s been, okay, what can I say are the benchmarks for making something that’s truly different from the current state that we have? One is that Quick Start is completely web- and browser-based without the need to do a bunch of downloading of applications and plug-ins, and it reduces the total cost of ownership. Through the efficiencies of a unified management platform for all types of materials, regardless of the method of acquisition for those materials, it has embedded in it a customizable workflow platform. Rather than customizing all the kind of twiddly bits that a lot of these systems do, just concentrate on recognizing that libraries have different workflows and we can actually build a platform for those workflows to be defined.
Quick Start has the network effect of sharing applications between libraries, which is what OCLC has been doing forever. It is built off of the concentrated data registries and repositories of WorldCat, which is, as you know, the biggest data repository that OCLC has. It’s also built on things like the WorldCat Registry, which has information about libraries, and it’s built on this concentration of data that comes from other library applications that OCLC uses. And then finally, it’s built on a service-oriented architecture, which is about interoperability with other things that happen in a local environment.
So Quick Start is being built in a way that’s cognizant of the fact that libraries and organizations have other business process systems. A library might have a system for managing financial data, like PeopleSoft, or a course management system or an identity management system. The service-oriented architecture makes it a little bit easier to recognize that organizations have other systems in place.
What do you mean by the phrase “platform as a service solution,” which is also in your press release?
We used to have this thing called ASP, which stands for Application Service Provider. That was what people used to call this. And then it became software as a service, and a lot of people in the industry applied the term “software as a service” to what is really application service providing. So they might have a big room where they put a bunch of servers, and they’ll run software for you, host it for you, but the disadvantage, the difference between that and platform as a service is that none of those things—software installed over and over and over again for multiple libraries, and despite their proximity—none of them can talk to each other. So ASP is purely just serving up the application on a library-by-library basis rather than leveraging a platform to do the same thing.
Another example: Think of Facebook. If everybody downloaded their own Facebook and then had to figure out some way to actually network with each other, it wouldn’t be very successful. If everybody had all these little applications and said, “Well how do I share this information with everybody else on this service?” it wouldn’t work. Quick Start is a platform instead of just an application service provider. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does, but librarians have been pretty resistant to a universal approach—instead feeling that their holdings are most accurate and up to date in their own ILSes. Is that going to be a barrier? Do you see any problem there with that?
The only barrier is reconciling local holdings information with OCLC, which is possible. This was not a new structure for OCLC. The local holdings data was there to manage resource sharing. There was no compelling reason until now—until WorldCat Local, really—to reconcile and make these things completely up to date. So the only barrier is doing it.
What is released in the free version? And if it’s “search,” how does that differ from the already-free WorldCat search API?
It’s important to point out that when we talk about the “no additional charge” portion of WorldCat Local, we’re kind of diverting now from the web-scale management services, the circulation acquisitions piece. So, there’s been no pricing set for adding on that functionality. There’s nothing from the press release about the Quick Start version of Local.
What’s different from just using WorldCat.org is that you get a branded URL for the library. It’s in the search box and user interface. The local library resources are displayed first in the search results. You get interoperability for that item level of details. You get interoperability with a single ILS. You have interoperability with OCLC resource sharing, either through WorldCat resource sharing or ILLiad. You have some smart integration with the library’s existing delivery services (that’s part of that customizability), access to the social networking tools that are available through WorldCat.org, and then you have article-level records from databases with links to full text where it’s available.
Now you’ve mentioned pricing. What about pricing? How and when?
I think it’ll be determined as we continue to build. The product’s not completely built yet. We’re 15 months in but we’ve got some work to do yet, and some of it will be determined by the initial test and pilot sites to see how things fit together and how much effort is involved, etc.
Who’s responsible for the development of WorldCat Local and how long has it been under development?
Well, WorldCat Local is part of a different product portfolio than what I’m doing as far as end user services, which is headed by Matt Goldner. We actually sit right next to each other so this is the front-end/back-end distinction. I’m doing the web-scale management services, and he’s doing the web-scale discovery services.
The idea, the need, where did it come from for what you’re doing?
It’s part of the general mission of OCLC: How can we reduce the rise in cost to member libraries? The library landscape was seeing a continual rise of add-on services and additional management systems to deal with disparate materials. So generally, the idea came from there—this notion of scaling services. In many ways, OCLC was web-scaled before there was a web.
How do we scale cataloging? How do we scale resource sharing for hundreds and thousands of libraries? It was built as a logical extension of that, and then with the work with WorldCat Local. It seemed like a very natural extension to say, well, here’s the scalable and quick-startable version for a front-end user interface; how do we build on top of that to make things better, more efficient for the back office as well? Part of it for me was that we had lots of notions about taking things apart so that we could make them better. My notion was that a cooperative network was the best way to put these things back together again.
Give me the time frame for testing, naming pilot libraries, an advisory committee, and so forth.
Before ALA [Annual Conference in Chicago] is my goal. The testing will begin on the initial components in June, and then naming those folks who are doing the testing will happen before ALA. I’m not sure I’ll be ready to name an advisory committee before ALA because there might be some mechanisms at ALA to help with that, but my goal is to start getting a list of folks together that would make up that advisory committee. No slight to all the work that goes into marketing and things like that, but this hasn’t been 15 months of trying to determine the message. (Laughing.) There’s been quite a bit of work in writing software codes and putting the program together in the last 15 months as well. My hectic pace continues! (Laughing.)
Should ILS vendors be worried that OCLC is going to try to put them out of business?
I don’t think they should be worried. One of the things . . . when we talk about scalability and the technical effort that went into making this web scale—there are thousands of transactions per second in the whole world of libraries. There are 1.2 million libraries in the world. OCLC’s offering is distinguished from the current market in the ways that I mentioned earlier, but this represents a choice. It’s about creating more choice for libraries going forward. And so I don’t think there are any illusions that this is going to put long-standing businesses out of business. It’s just going to represent a choice that libraries have.
So, you’ve been a reporter for American Libraries [2004–2008]. Put on your reporter’s hat and tell me what you would ask if you were me right now.
I guess my question would be “Can you really do it? Can this actually be done?” And my answer would be yes, that this follows this notion of web scale, and how you can build those things out, and how you can lower costs for how libraries manage things as scale increases.
But presuming that the big question is “Can you really do it?” that certainly implies that there are barriers you have to overcome in order to do it. What would those be?
The biggest barrier to success was how would you get some sort of critical mass? How would you do this for enough libraries so that all libraries could benefit? That’s the reason OCLC is uniquely positioned, because of the cooperative nature of what it does. It’s a logical next phase—no, not next phase, a logical sea change!
One of the things I did when I first got here was read the collected writings of [OCLC founder] Fred Kilgour. It was actually an accident; I was sitting in somebody else’s empty office where the only thing in it was [a book of] the collected writings, literally sitting on the shelf, and I pulled it down. People kept talking about Kilgour’s tenets of this and Kilgour had this vision. . . . You know, this was part of his original vision: How do we make not just the cataloging easier and better, but the resource sharing and patron-to-library relationships and putting materials in the hands of users? So that’s been the biggest change: The platform has changed, the web-scale nature of things has changed. Now it’s technologically possible to do some of the things that were originally envisioned.