Archive for June, 2007

Chance favors the prepared mind

Thursday, June 28th, 2007 by Merrilee

I first heard this phrase, “chance favors the prepared mind,” a few weeks ago. I love the sentiment, and but was fearful that the fact that the phrase was unfamiliar was yet another mark of my general ignorance. I was relieved to find that it’s attributed to Louis Pasteur (I don’t feel his writings are part of the core humanities curriculum).

I have been thinking about what the future holds for libraries, archives, and museums. It’s a murky bucket of water we’re peering into right now, and the future is not at all clear. What is clear is that we need to acknowledge that change is certain. As much as possible we need to collectively prepare for that change. Our Information Context lays out the current situation we face — an altered operating environment mixed in with dramatic changes in consumer research behavior.

We’ve begun a series of projects and conversations that will lead us… To the future? Perhaps. Most importantly, our Work Agenda helps to move us forward, and will help prepare us for the changes that are around the corner. Does chance factor into this? Certainly. But if we’ve been preparing for the future, I think we’ll have a happier outcome.

As a sidenote, I found the ThinkExist quotation search interesting because it pairs the Pasteur quote with others that “people also liked.” Interesting.

Bio(and human)diversity

Thursday, June 28th, 2007 by Günter

It’s been too long. Since I’ve last posted on April 16th, I’ve been to Atlanta, Chicago, Augsburg (GER), Bolzano & Venice (IT), Washington DC, Amsterdam (NL), London (UK), and I’ll let you guess which was work and which was pleasure. If you think that’s bragging, you can ask my colleagues where all they’ve been – we’ve all kept busy schedules, spreading the word and pushing ahead with work on our new agenda (although not all of us got as lucky as to have vacation time as well!).

dscf2499.jpgYou’d think somebody who has traveled that much would have a story or two to tell, and I’ll now take a moment to do precisely that. On my last trip, I’ve spent two memorable days in Amsterdam with old friends from the intrepid Resources Available in Natural Sciences (RAVNS) working group, and with new friends from ETI Bioinformatics and Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG | yes, the acronym has absolutely nothing to do with their new name – fun, isn’t it?). Our task: to move ahead with finalizing the Natural Collection Descriptions specification (I’ve written about this here) for submission to TDWG and subsequent blessing as a standard this fall.

We spent a good bit of our time ensuring that our standard for collection-level description of natural history will fit into the emerging TDWG technical architecture, the framework for all standards ratified by this group. The framework creates an ad-hoc, bottom-up ontology which consists of all the object classes (concepts) defined by pre-existing TDWG standards. If a new standard has the need to express the same concept, for example a person’s name and contact information, it employs the ontology’s pre-existing definitions. In that way, TDWG aims to achieve a measure of interoperability across the wide array of existing, past and prospective standards in the natural history community.

As I think you can already appreciate, some of the discussions during our two day workshop became fairly complex. It’s a testament to the cohesion and open-minded spirit of this particular gathering that a couple of library directors, a systems librarian, a senior museum collection manager, and an archivist could have sustained and immensely productive conversations with the more technologically minded folks (ontologists, biodiversity informatics specialists and database administrators). On our last day, we live-edited an XML Schema version of the draft-standard, with the content folks providing feedback on what they need the specification to capture, while Markus Döring and Roger Hyam implemented the agreed-upon changes in real-time. I am still amazed that it worked!

Picture, left to right: Barbara Mathe (American Museum of Natural History, NYC), Doug Holland (Missouri Botanical Garden), Carol Butler (National Museum of Natural History, SI), Wouter Addink (ETI), Connie Rinaldo (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard), Ruud Altenburg (ETI), Roger Hyam (TDWG), Markus Döring (Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem), Neil Thomson (Natural History Museum London), (the empty chair was mine!).

Our meeting was supported by a generous grant from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation via GBIF.

Archivist as hero

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007 by Jim

It’s always nice when someone in the media gives a nod to our professions; even if they insist on some stereotyping. It’s even better when that media is the New York Times. Maureen Dowd concluded her Sunday June 24, 2007 column (A Vice President Without Borders, Bordering on Lunacy) by saying:

“I love that Cheney was able to bully Colin Powell, Pentagon generals and George Tenet when drumming up his fake case for war, but when he tried to push around the little guys, the National Archive data collectors — I’m visualizing dedicated “We the People” wonky types with glasses and pocket protectors — they pushed back.

Archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington.”

Note: I’m not providing the link as it will expire shortly for anyone who is not a subscriber.

And by the way, if you subscribe and haven’t tried the TimesReader, check it out. I’m a convert. I carry the whole week on my laptop. It’s a quite comfortable and productive experience they’ve created that includes nice searching and annotation capabilities. It saved me from staring at Wild Hogs or The Astronaut Farmer during my June flights.

Judith and JCDL

Monday, June 25th, 2007 by Jim

My colleague, Judith Bush, the principal technical driver behind the RLG RedLightGreen project has been attending the Joint Conference of Digital Libraries. I think it’s refreshing for her to engage with the issues and interests that surface there given that she has had to spend most of this past year on data center operation issues as part of the migration of RLG services to the OCLC environment. She’s been sending in reports to the OCLC engineering and development groups and also posting some very interesting impressions on her own blog. There’s a lot of good stuff there about modeling search performance, user studies, data visualizations, and digital library products like Greenstone and Archon. If you follow these areas it’s worth reviewing Judith’s comments.

Book Hacks

Monday, June 25th, 2007 by Jim

My colleague here in Mountain View, Bruce Washburn, brought this thread on lifehacker to my attention. They list ways for “getting the most from your bound literature.” Among the thirteen book hacks for the library crowd are some that ‘integrate your local library with your computer’, ways to find cheap or free books and some suggestions for those with an academic bent. There’s also a real hack – how to hollow out a book.

These evidence a need and an interest in managing personal collections and a variety of desires that our local library catalogs don’t usually satisfy e.g. citation formatting and management.

The comment string has as much interest as the featured hacks. They evidence a willingness to invest a lot of time before actually trying to use the library as well as a certain familiarity with LibraryThing and similar sites. doesn’t show up until deep in the commentary. Not surprising since there isn’t yet a way to harness WorldCat’s power in these ways.

No more (scheduled) meetings for me

Friday, June 22nd, 2007 by Merrilee

I’ve recently subscribed to I’d love to do this, but I think this is the kind of thing you can only really consider if you are Marc Andreessen.

I’m about to dive into almost a week of very scheduled activities here in Washington, DC (where I’m attending ALA). Maybe when I return I’ll start turning down meeting invitations and making my lists of “three most important things” each day (another productivity suggestion from Marc).

Not Your Mother’s OCLC

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007 by Roy

OCLC entry.Last week I spent three days getting oriented at OCLC Headquarters, in Dublin, Ohio. This was not my first visit, but it was my first as an OCLC employee. One of the biggest changes I noticed since my last visit several years ago was the Silicon Valley-style growth of the area. Large office complexes for Verizon, Qwest, and others have sprung up in area that was formerly dominated by the multi-story OCLC Kilgour building.

This is all to the good, as it has fostered the kind of development that follows business: hotels, restaurants, and housing stock. I was struck, when visiting the rather large plot of land OCLC occupies, about how valuable this real estate has become.

Part of the OCLC campus.Meanwhile, given the move to take the cooperative global in a big way as well as acquisitions and mergers, more staff are distributed around the globe and fewer are housed in Dublin. These facts have not escaped OCLC management, as various parts of the campus are now, or will be, rented out to others. This brings additional resources into our coffers so we can keep the books balanced without resorting to less desirable tactics.

The three days of orientation were a whirlwind of information, from projects that have been ongoing for years to things that are so new I can’t share them yet. But my overall impression is one of awe, based on these trends I see:

  • The push to go global is well underway and is totally the right thing to do.
  • Work to recast the mission, objectives, governance, branding, and strategies is well underway and is totally the right thing to do.
  • Efforts to become more efficient through enterprise-level service integration and the rationalization of product and service offerings is well underway and totally the right thing to do.
  • We have already begun to see (e.g.,, WorldCat Local, etc.), and will soon see many more, specific results of the above trends that will enable our members to be more effective than ever before. This is well underway and totally the right thing to do.

Just one of the amazing tidbits I will share relates to the technical underpinnings of and WorldCat Local, and I think serves as an object lesson in just how much OCLC has changed. runs on a multi-processor system (32 machine nodes, 4 identical processors per node) using commodity hardware and running completely in RAM. This is of course the technique perfected by Google in order to maximize performance while minimizing cost. The search engine itself was written in-house over the last three years (dubbed FIND) and when records are displayed they are pulled from an Oracle database.

The technical architecture of the system is a clear departure from the kind of monolithic big iron systems still in favor with most large business operations. OCLC is acting more like a Silicon Valley startup than the kind of hidebound, ossified organization it has the credentials to be.

This is but one amazing tidbit I discovered on this trip. There are others, some of which will be revealed soon (this year) and over time.

I realize that OCLC has for so long been a major part of our professional landscape that everyone has already formed an opinion about it. But I urge you to take a fresh look at where your cooperative is going. I think you’ll agree it’s definitely not your mother’s OCLC.

Annual meeting 2007, thoughts and links

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007 by Merrilee

The RLG Programs Annual meeting happened a few weeks ago, and before I get caught up in ALA activities, I’ll share some thoughts and links with you.

The meeting was well attended, and preliminary follow up survey results show that people liked what we had to offer. On the first day, we met in plenary sessions. Highlights included:

Keynote speakers Dylan Tweney (with his perspective on what the next 3-5 years have to bring) and Tim Burke (suggesting where the academy overall needs to go). For Dylan’s talk, I regret that we only have part of the Q and A for his talk available on MP3 (we do have his PowerPoint, which has excellent speaker notes). Tim spoke without visual aids, so we only have the MP3 file. Both speakers received great feedback in our survey, so I recommend these talks to you.

Our Shared Print panel also received a lot of kudos. Many thanks to Susan Currie, Associate Director of University Libraries, Binghamton University, for joining Constance Malpas and Brian Lavoie as part of this forward-looking panel discussion.

Finally, Jim Michalko and Lorcan Dempsey unpacked our work agenda. I think this pair of presentations is useful in outlining why we are focused where we are, and what we plan to do in the next 12-18 months.

On the second day, we had a half-day session where staff from Program Partner institutions could come and talk to RLG Programs and OCLC Research staff. We didn’t know how many people would show up, and expected a modest turn out of around 20 people. We were amazed when more than 60 people turned up, and had to scramble to accommodate them all. If you were one of those people, thank you for being so patient. Next year, I think we’ll expand  this part of our program and devote more resources to it. We’ve recieved several nice suggestions for how we can improve this area.


RLG Annual meeting page, with links to MP3 files and PowerPoint presentations. Relive the moment, or experience it for the first time!

Information Context and RLG Programs Work Agenda (both PDFs): the why, the what and the how.

Many of us from Programs and  Research will be attending ALA, and we look forward to seeing you there!

Hanging Together

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007 by Roy

As I end my third week at OCLC (to be specific, the RLG Programs arm of OCLC Programs and Research), I think it’s a fine time to take stock. Frankly, I’ve spent most of my time getting on my feet. Between getting to know my colleagues, understanding the lay of the land and where we need to go over the coming year, and navigating a technical infrastructure that must be experienced to be believed, I feel like I’ve had my hands full.

I’m not kidding when I say I think it would be easier to hack the network of the FBI than it would be to hack OCLC’s network. I mean, do you see spooks carrying around RSA SecurID key fobs that produce a new six-digit number every 60 seconds, that combined with your five-digit personal PIN must be entered each time you login? And if you’re on a Mac, like I am, you may even have to do it twice just to check your email? I’m just saying…

But that’s the full and complete sum of the downside. The upside is incredible. From the outside I had a pretty good clue that OCLC top management really got it. I mean, that they really understood the environment in which libraries now find themselves and what it would take to bring us all into the 21st century not only alive and well, but thriving. I don’t want to gloat, but man was I right. I haven’t been around long enough to know what I can share and what I can’t, so you’ll have to trust me on this. I would say that by the end of this calendar year you’ll know just how right I am.

Getting a little closer to home, my RLG Programs colleagues were busy putting together an incredible work agenda for the coming days while I was, well, trying to get my pencil tray to fit into my desk drawer. Anyway, when I first saw what they had come up with I realized that they “got it” too. I had landed in the right place. What they had set out to achieve was so good that, embarrassingly, I was bereft of any ideas to sweeten the pot. I’ll likely think of something as I dig in over the coming months, but it was encouraging to see that we were so aligned with what needed to happen that I didn’t even feel the need to add anything of any substance.

Since I had been at the University of California for over twenty years (first at UC Berkeley, then the California Digital Library), I had felt it necessary to explain why I jumped to OCLC. This prompted “Family Man Librarian” Steve Oberg to comment, first directly in response to my post, then in his own blog in a post titled “OCLC: The Microsoft of the Library World?”. In this piece, some of the things he mentions may be legitimate criticisms of the way that OCLC has worked in the past. But the comparison to Microsoft is one that I think bears further examination.

Steve characterizes OCLC as holding a monopoly, and therefore believes the comparison to Microsoft to be apt. OCLC does indeed hold information about the holdings of most North American libraries and many beyond. In comparison, Microsoft owns the PC operating system and office automation software markets. Comparing even these two aspects is a bit like comparing a gnat to F-14 fighter jet. But let’s look at that a bit closer.

To me, the difference between a cooperative and a monopoly is who is empowered. When Microsoft owns the operating system environment of the vast majority of computer users, you can bet it is Microsoft that is empowered. In contrast, OCLC is about empowering its members. It’s about making libraries more effective, more powerful in their communities, and more able to change along with their changing environments.

And at least in the arm of OCLC I recently joined (RLG Programs) we take our relationships with our constituency very seriously. Every library that joins RLG is truly a partner. We work directly with our partner organizations to help them become more effective by leveraging the power of the cooperative. This is also what OCLC is all about, and why the marriage of RLG and OCLC was both brilliant and just in time.

In an age when Google, Microsoft, and others are rapidly digitizing the entire contents of major research libraries and where our users frequently turn to the Internet to get what they formerly came to us to get, we need to work together now more than ever. We desperately need the collective power that we can wield only when we pull together. We need to collectively make sense of this new world and our place in it. In a time when we see libraries closing for lack of support is when need to pull together more than ever.

Again, I am reminded about just how much my new colleagues “get it”. Long before I joined them they elected to title this blog after Benjamin Franklin’s admonishment to the unruly confederation of colonies that would soon launch a new nation. Similar to that time, libraries stand at a difficult crossroads. We can either elect to strike out on our own, or come together as never before to collectively create our future.

My bet, and now all my professional efforts, are with the cooperative, now becoming world-wide. What this means to me as an OCLC employee is that from here on out I will measure my success by yours. Welcome to OCLC.