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.
Roy Tennant works on projects related to improving the technological infrastructure of libraries, museums, and archives.