How Is OCLC Helping the World’s Libraries?

 Written: November 19, 2021

My friend, the late Ed Barry, was President of Oxford University Press, USA for 19 years. Before that he was President of The Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc. Both firms were in New York. I got to know Ed at Knovel Corporation where he and I were members of the board. Ed and I rode the Metro-North Railroad from Connecticut to New York at least every other month from 2002 to 2012, when Knovel was acquired by Elsevier, a provider of scientific, technical, and medical information.

One day during a train ride, Ed suggested I would be a good candidate to join the board of OCLC where he was on the board. I said, “What is OCLC?” He explained it was an organization in Dublin, OH which has a lot of sophisticated IT systems which support libraries. Some months later, I flew into The Ohio State University Airport, a small private airfield just a few miles from OCLC. After spending a few hours with the CEO and Board Chair, I was enthused about the possibility of joining the board and I was invited to do so. I served on the Board of Trustees for 12 years.

OCLC began in 1967, as the Ohio College Library Center, through a collaboration of university presidents, vice presidents, and library directors who wanted to create a cooperative, computerized network for libraries in the state of Ohio. The group hired Frederick G. Kilgour, a former Yale University medical school librarian, to design a shared cataloging system. Kilgour’s vision was to merge the latest information storage and retrieval system of the time, the computer, with the oldest, the library.

OCLC’s early work centered on the development of a union catalog combining the collections of its participating members and a cooperative cataloging environment. The plan was to merge the catalogs of Ohio libraries electronically through a computer network and database to streamline operations, control costs, and increase efficiency in library management. Kilgour wanted to bring libraries together to cooperatively keep track of the world’s information. The system went into operation in August 1971, running on a Scientific Data Systems (SDS) Sigma 5 mainframe computer connected to terminals in libraries via dedicated telecommunications links. This service was the first online cataloging system in the world.

OCLC expanded beyond Ohio throughout America and around the world. In 2017, the name was changed to OCLC, Inc. OCLC is funded mainly by the fees libraries pay, approximately $200 million annually, for the many different services it offers. The flagship offering is WorldShare Management Services (WMS). WMS is a complete cloud-based library management platform which supports the strategic priorities of libraries. The system saves libraries time and money with efficient management of physical and electronic resources in one integrated solution.

One of my favorites of the many offerings from OCLC is WorldCat. WorldCat.org  allows anyone to search the combined catalogs of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide, making WorldCat the single biggest place to find library materials on the Web. As of February 2021, WorldCat contained over 512 million bibliographic records in 483 languages, representing over 3 billion physical and digital library assets, and the WorldCat persons dataset included over 100 million people.

My 12 years of service finished this past weekend. It was a great experience. I met many brilliant people and learned a lot from them. As sad as it is to leave a great board, I totally favor term limits. If only we had them for Congress.