The RLG-OCLC Merger: Research Library Perspective

When our blog team heard about the RLG-OCLC merger news last week we thought it deserved some commentary at ACRLog. Seeking a colleague with more RLG expertise, I asked Beth Picknally Camden, Director of the Goldstein Information Processing Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library, to share her thoughts about the merger, organizationally,from the perspective of the research library, and personally, as a longtime RLG constituent. Here is Beth’s reflection on the merger:

When I first heard about the RLG-OCLC merger on Wednesday, my reaction was a feeling of surprise, but not surprise. RLG holds a special place in the hearts of research libraries that may not be well understood by non-members. My perspective is from one who has worked in institutions on both sides of the fence. Unlike OCLC (which claims to be a member organization, but whose large size make it more accurately a vendor) RLG’s small size has allowed it to truly work for its membership on the very issues which make research libraries unique. RLG encouraged innovative developments and supported special-purpose cataloging for its members.

RLG was the leader in including non-Roman languages in its catalog. Starting with Chinese, Japanese and Korean scripts in the early 1980s, and adding Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic scripts by the early 1990s, RLG was well ahead of OCLC for many years (and light-years ahead of local system vendors). Later, RLG provided Z39.50 access to not only its bibliographic database, but also its authority files. For many years (perhaps still), the RLIN authority file was the only source of Z39.50-accessible authority records—an incredibly useful tool for members and non-members. More recently, RLG’s RedLightGreen project (http://redlightgreen.com ) demonstrated the power and promise of FRBR as a user interface tool for library catalogs.

RLG’s support of archival and manuscript cataloging made it the preferred choice for institutions with this type of collection. Rather than limiting the record length, field length and number of total fields, RLIN allowed for the richness and complexity needed to fully describe unique archival and manuscript collections (while OCLC’s database rules forced unsatisfactory truncation of the same records).

The most distinct difference between OCLC’s WorldCat and the RLIN Union Catalog is the use of record-clusters. OCLC’s master record forces a one-size-fits-all approach to cataloging that works just fine for a good percentage of items, but falls short when the master record lacks call number or subject headings. For workflow reasons, many OCLC libraries choose not to enhance or enrich records, leaving each library to supply the missing data (the most costly part of cataloging). In contrast, RLIN record clusters show all member libraries’ records, allowing other libraries to quickly find one which includes the data which may be lacking from the initial record. Unlike OCLC, enriched records from RLG tape-loading libraries are also included in the cluster. So, record upgrades are not lost by choosing a more efficient workflow. (The downside of the record cluster can be the time spent picking and choosing the perfect record to meet your needs).

I began by saying that this announcement gave me a feeling of ‘surprise but not surprise’. This sense of not being surprised was echoed in many of the conversations that I had with other librarians last week. Colleagues commented that they had ‘predicted this’ or they had ‘just been discussing this possibility’. This comes from a growing sense of disenchantment with RLG, due to the frustrations of the RLIN21 upgrade. In my institution, and perhaps in others, staff have ‘voted with their fingers’ in using the utility which allows them to keep up with production levels.

In some ways, it’s the feeling you have when the mom-and-pop grocery or neighborhood pharmacy goes out of business due to competition with a new “big box” mega-store. You’ll miss the special services, and the sense of being known (or a part of the family), but you also know that you’ll spend less and have more variety. The RLG-OCLC merger gives me the same sense of loss, but as a business decision, it makes perfect sense.

Thank you Beth for your contribution to ACRLog!

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