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 ( ) 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!

Non-Librarian Professionals Making A Difference

The first night of class I tell my academic librarianship students that the key to learning about academic libraries is getting out and going to academic libraries and talking to the people who work there. I learned how true that is last week when I visited two different academic libraries. On Wednesday I was treated to a guided tour of the library at Wright State University by Stephen Foster, University Librarian. The full-scale replica of the Kitty Hawk hanging in the library’s atrium is certainly unique, but that wasn’t the highlight of the tour. While there are lots of great folks working at the WSU library one of their stars isn’t a librarian at all. Vishwam Annam is a web developer for the library, and I was duly impressed by some of the innovative work for which he’s responsible.

The next night I visited the library at the University of Pennsylvania. I always take my students there for the grand tour. It gives them an opportunity to see some of the behind the scenes action, and get to know a few more library practitioners. I’ve been at Penn’s Van Pelt Library many times, but this was my first chance to see their new information commons which was smaller than I expected, but impressive none the less. I think what my students enjoyed most was our post-tour demonstration of and discussion about Penn Tags. This innovation would probably be impossible if not for the non-library professionals who do the web programming. We learned that the Penn Tagging that’s integrated into the catalog isn’t actually in the catalog, but is just a layer on top of it that’s the result of AJAX programming. Pretty amazing stuff. We also learned Penn’s Library is unveiling a new look home page next week that appears to be heavily influenced by a company whose name begins with a “G” – take a look.

You probably read Jim Neal’s article about “feral professionals” that points out that it’s increasingly becoming a necessity, not a luxury, to have non-librarian professionals within the academic library organization. Based on the experiences of the two libraries I visited last week I can clearly see the importance of having web programmers on staff. The real problem is that the vast majority of academic libraries won’t be able to afford it – or be willing to commit to the change. The large and mid-sized university libraries seem to have the staffing flexibilities to add a range on non-librarian professionals to their staff. Small universities and colleges will be hard pressed to do the same, but perhaps they can develop some strategies to share ideas and resources for utilizing the talents of our non-librarian colleagues.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to spend a few days each month just visiting different academic libraries. It’s always a learning experience.

One Way to Set Higher Expectations

Student: I just handed in a 20 page paper. My professor took a big scissor out of her drawer and cut it up. I have to do it over.
Librarian: She really took out a scissor?
Student: For real. She was like Freddy Krueger. I’ll never use Wikipedia again. Did you know there’s misinformation in there and anyone can contribute to it?
Librarian: I’ve heard that.
Student: I need to find some primary sources and scholarly books and articles.


Student: You’ve helped me so much. I wish I came here 2 weeks ago, my life would be a lot different right now.

Public Funding = Public Access

Another bill has been introduced in Congress to make publicly-funded research publicly available. The Washington post coverage portrays this as a rebuke to the lame response thus far to the NIH’s voluntary depository program. It also expands the domain of funded research beyond the biomedical sciences.

The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), goes considerably further than the NIH program. In addition to requiring public access within six months, not 12, it would apply to research funded by all 11 federal agencies that provide at least $100 million in outside funding per year — a category that includes the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Homeland Security as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Peter Suber mentions in his blog the bill’s three chief strengths: it makes open access a requirement, it has a six-month deadline, and does not rely on publisher consent. Needless to say the Association of American Publishers is not happy, but they’re not as quick to update their website as Peter Suber is so, as of this writing, you’ll have to take the Post’s word for it.

Look Out For the XC OPAC

In the debate about how to redesign the library OPAC for the Age of User Experience, there have been more than a few complaints about the inadequacies of the OPAC , suggestions for eliminating local OPACs altogether, and some initial efforts to make it more effective for library users.

Now there is an addition to the latter category of research into how to make a better OPAC. The folks at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, with an expanding reputation for library innovation, have obtained a grant to develop a new system referred to as the XC – the eXtensible Catalog. From the press release.

With a $283,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University will begin planning and requirements analysis activities for a new system known as eXtensible Catalog (XC). XC has the potential to allow future library users at any level of proficiency to get more out of academic library collections and to give academic libraries more control over how best to help people gather information. As envisioned, XC’s simple yet powerful interface will allow users to navigate through comprehensive search results sorted into useful categories that will give them the resources they seek more easily.

I’m in Dayton, Ohio today giving a talk to the folks from the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education (SOCHE) about the simplicity-complexity conundrum. One of the issues is how do we create simpler systems without compromising the ability of our resources to connect users with quality information – and to meet the needs of all members of the community, from the new freshman to the advanced scholar. I hope I’ll be able to mention the XC project because it sounds like a step in the right direction. I can’t wait to see what the OPAC looks like.